Everyone wants to be seen: observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist

A guest article.

(Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.)

Being seen by others

I discovered my fascination with the elderly during coffee hours after Sunday services in the small town where I grew up. I also learned it was unusual for almost anyone, let alone a five-year-old, to be interested in them. Despite regular encouragement to go upstairs to play with the other children, I managed to finagle my way through the rooms of the parish house and into the company of the elderly parishioners, particularly the women.1960s-grandmother-in-chair-hugging-vintage-images (2)

They’d call me close and, peering out behind coke bottle glasses, ask me things. I don’t remember the detail of those early conversations, but they left me with a lasting impression. I thought,These people are so interested in others.” I felt special in their presence. Cherished. Safe. I felt seen.

Thus began a lifelong habit of seeking out the oldest person in the room. While the mantra of the mid-’60’s was, Don’t trust anyone over 30,” mine was “Don’t trust anyone under 50.” My most trusted companion was my paternal grandmother, a kind woman who lived in an old country house at the other end of town. She was one of my greatest teachers, teaching me one of the most important things I have learned in my sixty years on this planet – the power of unconditional love.

Learning to see others

The truth is that I viewed every elderly person as my teacher. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes that the function of a person isTo perform actions and experience their results.” As an older friend once remarked, “You live long enough, you know stuff.” I reasoned that the older a person was, the more they knew, even if it was what not to do. They were time capsules of valuable karmic lessons, and from an early age I began looking to them for answers.

At some point I realized I was organizing what I was learning into my own mental filing cabinet. Some of it was social in nature — “European Immigration to the US in the Early 20th Century,” some of it technical — “Behavioral Patterns Exhibited by Those with Memory Loss,” and some of it just plain fun — “How to Sew, Crochet or Knit your own Wardrobe.”

I couldn’t help but note the physical changes that occur with age, as well. The thickening glasses. The hearing loss. The swelling in the ankles. The fading memory. The bandages on arms and heads. The skin. (Once I commented on a woman’s badly bruised skin. “Skin?!” she scoffed. “This isn’t skin. It’s tissue paper!”). The smells of ointments, tinctures, and sweet perfume. One by one I learned their stories. I listened. I studied. I watched. I saw.

This man’s search for meaning

Gerontology, the study of aging, emerged as a bonafide college degree in the late ‘70’s and I was one of the first to sign up. There I learned about the “Life Review,” an explanation as to why older people seem to like to reminisce. According to this theory they talk about their lives as a way of making sense of them. They are wrapping things up, getting ready to go.

Davis Funeral Home Edited

Learning that my elderly friends had an almost biological need to talk about their lives prompted me to deepen my line of inquiry. My motive was not entirely altruistic; I was desperate to find answers to some of life’s bigger questions.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was being raised in a funeral home a few houses down from my church, but underpinning my early life was a nagging thought that everything was existentially pointless.

A story from Joyful Path of Good Fortune sums up my feelings at that time. A man is painstakingly carving a round stone into a square one with a feather. When a passerby asks why on earth he is doing this, he responds,

I am doing this so that I can leave the stone behind.

The story is referencing pointless efforts made in the accumulation of wealth, but to me everything was a variation of the same theme — be it a career, raising a family, or collecting tchotchkes. We will all die in the end, so why bother? I was sure one of my aged friends could provide me with the answer.

Over the decades I moved a lot, which put me in touch with thousands of elderly people in Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, California, and immigrants from around the world. When the moment seemed right, I’d ask my friends, the oldest of whom was 104, “What’s the point of all of this?” or “Why are we here?” Everyone seemed happy to offer an opinion, but I never did get a satisfying answer. What I did get, instead, was another list: “The Top Ten Meanings of Life.”

I don’t know if meaninglessness is the chicken and depression is the egg or the other way ‘round, but they are a killer combination. I knew this from my many years of working with people who were stripped mercilessly of the things that meant the world to them — their spouses, homes, cars, careers, reputations, health, wealth, families, and oldest friends. Some were left with nothing to fill the void, critically ill and deeply depressed, begging to die. But I knew of this deadly combination not just from witnessing it, but from experiencing it from the inside out. From a young age I began to experience a deep and inexplicable sadness.

As a young man I stumbled across a quote from the French philosopher Voltaire that struck me as so profound I committed it to memory. He said, “We throw ourselves in prison and stand as our own guard.” I knew on some level I played a role in my own torment, but at the same time I felt powerless to stop. And, as much as the quote impacted me, there was still no answer as to how to get out of this vicious cycle. Or if it was even possible.

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Before becoming a Buddhist I believed a certain amount of suffering was natural, part of the human condition.” While I never dreamed it was feasible to completely end suffering, as taught by Buddha, I did believe it could be mitigated. So I did with my depression what I did with everything else. I took it to my elderly friends. Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I’d ask. Or, “Given all that humans must endure, only to die in the end, how can a person ever be happy?” When the moment seemed right, I’d be candid. “I’m depressed,” I’d say. “Do you have an idea of how I can shake it?”

Finding the path

After an exhaustive, nearly half-century search, it was at my first class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles that I began to find answers. The monk taught that my search for freedom from suffering was common. Aware of it or not, every sentient being, even babies and insects, carries the same basic wish to be free. It drives everything we do. And yes, Virginia, there is a way out.

The prison, I learned, is called samsara, a hellish and unending nightmare that is the experience of a self-centered and deluded mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it,

Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind.

The meaning of our lives is to be found in securing a permanent release from our jail cell and in helping everyone out of theirs. We do this not only to improve this life, but to secure our futures after we die. But how? As Geshe-la explains:

Although samsara resembles a prison, there is one door through which we can escape. That door is emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. By realizing emptiness we can escape from samsara.

In the early days of my Buddhism, realizing this magic bullet of emptiness seemed a ways off; and, meanwhile, what’s a suffering sentient being to do?! I took refuge in the more easily accessible method practices as outlined in How to Transform Your Life, such as renunciation, compassion, and patience. Geshe-la writes that these minds help us to inch towards the prison door. Eventually

…by diligently practicing a pure spiritual path, and thereby eliminating our self-grasping and other delusions, we can bring our samsara to an end.

jail Blog

In Buddhism, delusions are described as those states of mind that create suffering and virtuous minds as those that result in happiness. Self-cherishing is a principal delusion, and compassion — our wish for others to be free from suffering — is a principal virtue. Something about this idea clicked for me. I even had a folder. There it was in the far recesses of my mind, dusty and overlooked, but chock-full of rich and valuable evidence to validate the truth of Buddha’s teachings.

I didn’t have the wisdom to know its value at the time but, once I learned what it contained, I reorganized my findings into two separate files and moved them to the forefront of my mind. Borrowing language from my new hero, the Buddhist Master Shantideva, I titled one, “Self-Cherishing — All the Suffering in this Worldand the other “Love and Compassion — All the Happiness in this World.”

In part 2 of this article I will expand on my observations of how seeing others and being seen by them inches us toward the door to our own liberation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments.

(Postscript: There are many word choices to describe people of a certain age.” I’ve used them all in my career so as not to offend, but my personal preference is elderly.” To my mind the popular euphemism senior is a regression, sending us back to high school and in the process devaluing the trials, tribulations, and triumphs all of us experience if we are lucky enough to live that long. I know some people consider elderly an ugly word, but historically it was an honorific. As for me, at the ripe old age of sixty, considered young elderly by some classifications,” I’m not quite ready to let it go.)

How to stop being so down on ourselves

I was thinking the other day that perhaps it is no wonder self-hatred is a thing — if we have the inner poison of anger and spend 24/7 with ourselves, we are bound to get angry with ourselves sooner or later! self-hate 1

Someone I know, who btw is fabulous and has literally nothing wrong with them, wrote this to me:

Wow, self hatred, it is what it all comes down to! I make some headway, blessings get in here and there, but that is always what I slap back too. Of course, this blocks everything! I always feel like there is just this huge block to my creativity, imagination, like a numbness that I am increasingly aware of. It’s this, it’s self hatred. When I perceive anything as going wrong, or I say something I wish I hadn’t, or I perceive someone in a way that is not in the best light, I catch myself saying to myself, “I hate myself.” It’s fast, it’s constant. Keep these articles coming.

So, carrying on from Toward an empowered sense of self, I am keeping these articles coming.

To effectively get rid of self-dislike and indeed all delusions, we need to see how our sense of self changes entirely in dependence upon our thoughts. For this purpose it is very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, view (or sense) of self, intentions, actions, and results/life.

A talented guest writer just wrote about this dependent relationship in this incredibly  helpful article, The meditation game changer. Please read it if you get a chance! I will now attempt to apply the same principles specifically to overcoming being so hard on ourselves.

Stack of pebbles in shallow water with blue sky background

  1. Experience

Our sense of self is shifting constantly, depending on what parts of the body or mind we are identifying our self with, or, to use a technical phrase, imputing our self on.

A person’s so called “basis of imputation” is in general their body and mind or, usually (at any given moment) parts of their body and mind. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

We normally refer to our body and mind as “my body” and “my mind,” in the same way as we refer to our other possessions. This indicates that they are different from our I. The body and mind are the basis upon which we establish our I, not the I itself. ~ How to Transform Your Life (download the free ebook)

We have a body and we have a mind, but we are not a body and we are not a mind. However, even though they are not the same, we make the mistake of identifying our self as our body and mind, conflating the imputed object (the self) with its basis of imputation (the body and mind). For example, if my stomach hurts I may believe, “I am stick-figure-and-clouds-vector-14506555in pain”; and when unhappy experiences occur I may believe “I am unhappy.” This as opposed to “My stomach aches” or “Unhappy cloud-like feelings are arising in my sky-like mind.” 

Maybe this’d be fine and dandy if it didn’t lead to all our physical and mental suffering, over and over again, in lifetime after lifetime. As it is, imputing ourselves on painful experiences is not fine at all. It is the main thing standing in the way between us and inner peace and freedom.

For example, applying this to our sense of a never-good-enough-self, this self or Me is imputed on the basis of self-critical thoughts, which usually have two things in common: they’re very painful, and they’re founded on a feeling or experience that we’re not good enough. They may sound like: “I’ll never amount to anything,” “I’m so lazy,” “I always ruin relationships,” “I should have achieved a lot more by this stage in my life!”, “Look at me compared to so and so, no wonder I keep being passed over!”, “I’m a lousy cook/mom/dad/friend/worker/person.” Etc.

Also the disconnect between the self-imposed pressure to be impossibly perfect (from a worldly point of view) but feeling crummy inside can start at any age. As someone said to me the other day: self-critism 2

In these times, even when I observe my children and their friends (they are about 18 years old), there is so much self-hatred, doubts, and a very strong pressure to make everything PERFECT, to look perfect … sometimes it is overwhelming to observe that tendency. Maybe it’s because of all these Internet platforms, where everything looks perfect… I don’t know.

  1. Sense of self

Identifying ourselves with this painful limited experience/feeling/thought (of not being good enough) leads to a painful limited sense of self. So we need to stop doing it.

First we can check to see what we are holding onto or believing to be our “self”? What is Me? Who is Me? We have this so-called self-grasping ignorance where we hold our me, I, or self to be a fixed limited entity, independent of anything. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in How to Transform Your Life: “The object we grasp at most strongly is our self or I.” We have this sense of me or I somehow lurking IN our body or mind, findable in its basis of imputation. As Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

This I appears to be completely solid and real, existing from its own side without depending upon the body or the mind.

This self is appearing solid and real, plus it is the only real me and the center of my known universe, so of course I have to serve and protect it.

But am I as solid and real as I appear? That’s the trillion-dollar question. The answer is priceless, in fact, because it will set us free after aeons of mental bondage.

grand canyon

Our sense of self changes all the time. Here’s an example. I was walking down the Grand Canyon last year on a narrow path with a ridiculously steep drop on one side. One moment I was all relaxed, chatting with friends – that was happy-Me, it felt real enough. The next moment a tourist brushed past me with his large rucksack and I found myself about to lose my footing … my sense of me suddenly changed, and that about-to-fall-to-my-death-Me also felt pretty darned real. Then I regained my footing and my sense of me changed into relieved-Me. Also real.

What does that say about our Me? In each of those 3 cases, that is who I thought I was. But if the Me that appeared so solid, fixed, and real actually existed as it appeared, ie, solid, fixed, and real, how could it change? Where did it go? If it existed from its own side, independent of body and mind, how could it vanish from one minute to the next?

But my sense of self did vanish and change — in dependence upon what? My thoughts. The self I thought I saw existing from its own side, independent of thought, was just the product of thought – relaxed thoughts, terrified thoughts, then relieved thoughts. This shows that the fixed or real me was never there to begin with. The self we normally see is a mental image – if we look for a real self that corresponds to the image, or is behind the image, it cannot be found anywhere.

(Meanwhile, everyone else also sees a completely different person when they look at us. My companions on the cliff edge could not see any of those 3 Me’s, which also indicates that those Me’s did not exist outside my view of them.) who are we

So if the self or ego cannot be found anywhere, who are we? Who we are depends on who we think we are which is, as mentioned, changing all the time. Because our thoughts change, who we are changes. Far from being independent or inherently existent, it is the opposite – our self is 100% dependent. Take away the thoughts and it disappears.

Which means we are not fixed. Which is really very good news. We can validly think, “There is nothing solid or intrinsic about me at all. I can and do change in dependence on my thoughts.”

Take away our deluded thoughts, such as our self-loathing, and our deluded suffering self will disappear.

  1. Intentions

Have you noticed how who we think we are determines what we want? If we wake up with negative thoughts about ourself, thinking we’re a waste of space, what do we want to do all day? Nothing edifying! But if we think we are kind, or grateful, or a Bodhisattva, we intend and act accordingly.

Therefore, for as long as we grasp onto a intrinsically limited painful unworthy self, our intentions or wishes will follow suit.

Because we always want to be happy and free from suffering, we feel that the way to do that is by serving and protecting this limited self. So we won’t, for example, attempt things in case we fail, or we crack the whip on ourself for fear that, if we don’t, the disapproval and rejection that seems imminent will become our reality.

  1. Actions

We always try to do what we want. Everything we do depends on what we want or intend. Therefore, these intentions or wishes to serve or protect this limited self in turn lead to actions such as self-sabotage or criticizing others, which may sometimes lead to brief relief, but no release. we do what we want

Even when we do something well, we won’t jump for joy but merely breathe a sigh of relief: we’ve escaped from being criticized or censored. But that relief lasts only until the next expectation presents itself. It’s the perfect setup for anxiety and depression. We are engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle, in which the stress is unremitting.

People with a strong inner critic tend to have one thing in common: however great their success, they don’t feel it’s genuine. The inner critic won’t let them see their past achievements as ‘real’ for fear that, if they do, they’ll slack off and end up failing. So they may push themselves more, with diminishing returns, driven more by fear of failure or judgment than by inspiration.

We really don’t need to be hard on ourselves — our delusions are already doing a fabulous job at that. It’s one reason we still feel so stuck in samsara, even though we have everything we need right now to get out.

  1. Results/Life

 self-hateThese actions in turn create our life. We are reinforced in our lack of self-esteem, believing that self to be limited, in pain, and in need. It is a vicious cycle and, if we’re not careful, our whole life can go by like that.

Not to mention that each of our mental actions or intentions leaves a karmic potential in our root mind for similar experiences and tendencies in the future, leading to a longer-term and even more vicious cycle.

 Summary

 To summarize, this is all stemming from a painful experience that, because we identify with it, leads to a limited painful sense of self. This self doesn’t actually exist, there is just a mental image of it; but, believing that it does exist, we wish to serve and protect it, and then we act upon those wishes or intentions. Because we act upon them, we get the same results, the same underwhelming life, which in turn brings us more painful experiences and reinforces our limited sense of self.

We need to step out from under the dark shadow of these ignorant, self-destructive thoughts and actions. How? By shining the light of wisdom, wherein these dark shadows will have no choice but to disappear. More in this next installment, Giving up self-hatred once and for all.

Over to you … have you suffered from self-doubt or self-criticism? Do you recognize this process? Your feedback is very welcome.

Related articles

Saying bye bye to the painful limited self

Feel free to change your mind

Change our thoughts, change our world

 

 

 

The meditation game changer

A guest article. After great conversations with this long-term meditator and friend, I requested him to write an article on this subject. He kindly obliged. Hope you like it as much as I do.

8.5 mins read.

Road Warning Sign SeriesDoes any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe we’ve tried to change our view of ourselves, relating to our potential to change, our Buddha nature no less! We’ve been inspired by the Buddhist books and teachings, even meditated on them, yet we still feel stuck in a view of ourselves as someone who is fundamentally not changing and who lacks any real spiritual potential.

Something has been on my mind for some time now, which is why it is that we can sometimes be practicing meditation and Dharma for years but still feel we are not that much further along from when we started. And more importantly, is there a simple change we can make with the power to accelerate the process of deep and lasting spiritual transformation that we want? The answer is, thankfully, a resounding yes!

What’s going on

Perhaps without truly changing our view of ourselves, we are still trying to cultivate new intentions to live a more spiritual life. We have the intention to meditate daily and deeply, to be more consistently accepting, loving, and compassionate. Yet we never seem to quite get around to it, or at least never fully. Intention becomes “I intend”, ie, later, tomorrow!

With no genuine change in our intention, perhaps we are still trying to encourage or indeed force ourselves to change our actions. Maybe on the surface we try to act more like what we think a good Dharma practitioner or even a Bodhisattva should act like. Yet discouragement 1we find ourselves feeling stuck in habits of repression, distraction, worldly concerns, and many of the deluded and self-centered patterns of behavior we have always had, and increasingly desperately want to be free of.

In this way, our way of life can come to feel not that different to when we started out on our spiritual journey, with one notable exception: we now have the added burden of growing discouragement, feeling like a failing spiritual practitioner!

Why we can feel like we’re not really changing

A simple understanding to explore – helping us shed light on this problem and illuminate the solution – is that our present experience of life is what Buddha called a dependent-related phenomenon.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

The definition of dependent related is existing (or established) in dependence upon its parts.

Meaning that, if it exists, it exists in dependence upon something else.

Now, consider this simple dependent-related sequence. From our experience comes our view, from our view comes our intention, from our intention come our actions, and from our actions comes our life. In this moment in time, our life exists in dependence upon these causes and conditions, not independent of them.

Our experience of life then reinforces our view, intention, actions, and life, in what is either a limiting and downward spiral or liberating and upward spiral of dependent-related change and transformation. This applies to all areas of our life, spiritual or otherwise.

Are you a swimmer?

As a simple example, if someone asks us ‘Are you a swimmer?’, our instinctive answer will very much depend on our experience. If we have previously tried to swim a few times or more, and it didn’t go well, naturally our view of our self (if not challenged) will be that we’re not a swimmer. Due to self-grasping ignorance we deeply identify with this belief as if it’s who we really are, inherently. In dependence upon this view, our intention and actions will naturally be to avoid swimming at all costs.

Without changing our experience, this downward spiral of limitation will continually reinforce itself, each time deepening our limiting self-identification and way of life, the life of a non-swimmer.

If we want to become a swimmer and try to change only our view, intentions, or actions without changing our experience, ultimately we will fail. This is simply because our attempts at change will be continually undermined by our default and deeply entrenched limiting self-identification: “At the end of the day, and no matter what I or anyone else says, I am just not a swimmer! Inherently!” Everything else will naturally flow from this.

The game-changer

happy-girl-swimmingTo transform this situation, and our lives, the solution is as simple as it is profound. All we need to do at the beginning is make a simple change in this dependent related sequence – which is to change our experience. We learn how to swim properly, then relax, and gradually gain consistent experience of swimming. All other positive changes will naturally flow from, and in dependence upon, this change.

In dependence upon this new experience, our view of ourselves will naturally change – we will start to identify ourselves as someone who is a swimmer.

In dependence upon this new view, our intention and actions will gradually and naturally change – we will find ourselves wanting to swim and doing it regularly and joyfully. As a result, our experience will get better and better.

In dependence upon this new and growing experience, view, intention, and actions, our life over time will become the life of a confident swimmer. A new liberating and upward spiral of positive change and transformation is established and continually reinforced on every new iteration. In this way, we elevate and accelerate this process of change.

How to elevate and accelerate our spiritual path

How can we apply this understanding to elevating and accelerating our spiritual path? The key is this: if we feel we are not really progressing spiritually, it is NOT because we are incapable. If we check, more likely than not we are trying to change our view, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso teaching 3intention, actions, and way of life without giving ourselves the time and space to immerse ourselves in that first and critical step, experience!

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness 

Conversely, if we do make some time every day to meditate, we will find it increasingly easy to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will flourish.

Start with peace

The essence of what is being explored here is how we can approach ALL aspects of our Dharma training for it to flow more naturally and effortlessly. Whether it’s building deep and stable refuge in our hearts, or gaining authentic experience of all the stages of the spiritual path of Lamrim, Lojong, or Mahamudra, we can use this approach to elevate and accelerate these trainings.

However, for the purposes of this article, let’s start with the simplest meditation and experience of peace. At the beginning of our daily meditation session – no matter how brief or extensive – we are encouraged to use a preparatory practice such as breathing meditation, absorption of cessation, or clarity of mind to help us gradually center in a calm, clear, and peaceful mind.

The key is, once we calm the mind and experience a noticeable degree of inner peace – even if it’s only a little bit — we give ourselves permission to take as much time and space as we need to abide with, and absorb more deeply into, that experience of a peaceful mind.keep calm and change the game

If you are anything like I was in the early years of my training in meditation, this preparatory stage felt more like an item on my to-do list before I got on with the rest of my sadhana.

I felt there was a lot I had to get through – before leaving for work – to fulfill my daily sadhana commitment, not realizing for some time that meditation can never be about ‘doing,’ rather it’s about ‘being’. Being absorbed in, and dynamically engaged with, an experience in our heart at every step from the moment we sit down to meditate and beyond!

Through giving ourselves the time and permission to abide and absorb a little in this way, we establish the experience of a relatively open, expansive, and peaceful mind. We then turn our attention to that experience and, crucially, identify with it as our innate and indestructible potential for great peace and happiness, our own Buddha nature.

This experience of peace alone does not transform our lives. However (1) the experience of inner peace that is associated with (2) the heartfelt wisdom insight that this is the peace of my own Buddha nature, my pure potential for the supreme and lasting peace and happiness of enlightenment, is the very basis for all deep and lasting spiritual transformation. Dharmavajra

Allowing ourselves to abide in that experience every day before, during, and after our meditation session is a key component to success in Dharma training. As a result of our increasing familiarity with this experience and correct self-identification with our Buddha nature, our view of ourselves will gradually and quite naturally change.

If we are feeling a little, or a lot, stuck in our spiritual life, it simply indicates that we currently lack this basic familiarity. As a result, we try to practice on the basis of our present default experience and view, which happens to be an ordinary limited self who isn’t changing, indeed can’t change.

This growing familiarity with our own Buddha nature is one we can all gain, and it will open the door to a whole new perspective on how we approach our Dharma practice. Instead of feeling like we are practicing in abstract, going through the motions in the hopes of some future “Aha!” moment, we will come to view our practice as a here and now dynamic and experientially-based engagement with our own path or journey.

In dependence upon this new view of our extraordinary potential, our intention will move from ‘I intend, tomorrow’ to the intention that is moving our mind Pagmacontinually and spontaneously to the full actualization of this pure potential; and over time not just for ourselves but for others as well.

In dependence upon this deepening intention, our actions will be increasingly in alignment – they will become the actions of someone who is joyfully dedicated to accomplishing this goal, coming from the confidence that I have the potential and that this is what I and others need.

Ultimately, this liberating and upward spiral of positive change will transform into the view, intention, actions, and life of a Bodhisattva – what is known as the Bodhisattva’s way of life – until one day we definitely realize our highest potential of enlightenment.

Over to you – comments and questions are welcome for this guest author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fellow American

Sickened by political division and conflict, a filmmaker travels across the US in search of  a different story.
A love letter to a troubled nation, one face at a time. 

 

 

 

 

Twenty rules of life (2)

6.5 mins read.

Meditation practice is not just about sitting on a cushion and concentrating, but practicing to stay positive and peaceful throughout the whole day. I like to think of it as happiness training.

anger 3

Yesterday a meditator of one year, who has just finished working 60 days straight, 16 hours a day, on hurricane rebuilding, told me, “I only lost my temper once during that whole time. I used to lose my temper every single day. My coworkers all noticed and want to know what’s happened to me. I realized that although I haven’t had time for a daily meditation session these past couple of months, the advice on how to stay peaceful and patient is baked into my mind. And I’m really happy about that.”

If he can do it, so can you and me.

So, whatever we are up to today, here are 10 more ideas for staying positive and peaceful. Carrying straight on from this article.

11. Keep your options open

Keeping our mind open is keeping our options open, I think. There are many ways to go about this, but none better than remembering emptiness – everything depends upon thought (including thought!) and so nothing at all is fixed. We can learn to think or label whatever we want and create whatever dream-like reality we want.

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.

as the great sage Nagarjuna said.

12. Don’t be a slave to your surroundings

Hollywood Hills“Possessions and a luxurious home may seem important, but there are more important things to treasure in life.” Especially the happiness that comes from the inner peace of wisdom and love, which is good deal more certain than the happiness that comes from having some cool palm trees in our yard.

The real source of happiness is inner peace. If our mind is peaceful, we will be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions, but if it is disturbed or troubled in any way, we will never be happy, no matter how good our external conditions may be. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Talking of which, I was strolling in the Land of the One Percenters (aka the Hollywood Hills) a few days ago, wondering whether luxury made life easier for everyone up here. Of course it does in some ways, I was thinking, and I was glad for them because lord knows there are more than enough people suffering from abysmal poverty and homelessness in our world. I was also making a little prayer that some of their good karma might ripen on them in the form of spiritual realizations (like universal love and generosity to homeless charities, to name but two).

luxury living made easy

But then, even so, I came across this real estate sign, “Luxury living made easy.” Which seems to suggest that luxury living can be hard work. Someone in LA was also telling me that they have a beautiful garden, jacuzzi, and view, and yet still they sit there wondering why they cannot enjoy it more.

This rule reminds me of this line I’ve been thinking about a lot recently from the benefits of meditation section in How to Transform Your Life, how we are, “too closely involved in the external situation”. This can lead to attachment to outcome and the corresponding anxiety when things aren’t working out exactly as we desire – we are up and down like a blimmin’ yo yo. We don’t want to be enslaved by external appearances, by fleeting surroundings, like a yo yo or a puppet on a string. If we want to be satisfied and fulfilled, we need to master our minds instead.

13. Learn not to be gluttonous

“We as a society obsess over food and the pleasures of fine dining, or even just a good takeaway.” But as Buddha pointed out, contradictory desireswe are full of contradictory desires, which is one reason why our attachment doesn’t work out for us — we want rich food and zero body fat, for example, or loads of alcohol and no grogginess.

For me, recalling that I’ve given my body away in the service of the Buddhas and all living beings helps me look after it better in terms of enjoying exercise and not being quite so attached to eating unhealthy stuff. Eat to live, not live to eat, as the old saying goes. (Work in progress. I just had a packet of chips.)

14. Abandon possessions in favor of minimalism

Or “don’t hold onto things you don’t need any more.” The practice of giving can be very liberating because it helps us let go of grasping so tightly at Me, My, and Mine.

There is probably no optimum number of possessions; everyone is different. So I think it is not the number of possessions we have but the way we are viewing them that is conducive to happiness and fulfillment. However, our possessions would seem to derive the most meaning from being given away, or being used directly or indirectly for others’ sake. Click on these links for more practical stuff on overcoming miserliness and becoming more open-hearted and generous.

15. Do not believe something just because you’re told to

echo chamber“Don’t just follow the crowd and listen to others’ opinions.” Good advice for us in our modern echo chambers. Buddhism is all about this as a matter of fact — we are encouraged to check everything out carefully in our own experience to see if it is true for us before taking it on board. Buddha said we should not blindly believe him just because he is Buddha, but to test the teachings for their authenticity as if we were testing gold before committing to buying it.

Faith and experience go hand in hand. If we try something and it works, for example cherishing others, we can then have the confidence and faith to try something else, for example giving up selfishness.

16. Respect the gods, but do not rely solely on their guidance

I take this to mean that we need to rely on all Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Our ultimate protection is Dharma Jewel, the Dharma wisdom we grow in our own minds as a result of listening to Buddhist teachings, contemplating, and meditating. We do most certainly need the inspiration and guidance of enlightened beings and fellow practitioners to steer us out of the ocean of samsara, and, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit, we also need the inner teacher of our own wisdom.

17. Have no fear of dying

The only way we can pull this one off is if we come happily to terms with our death now rather than waiting till our deathbed when it’ll be a bit too late. An awareness of impermanence and death, “I may die today,” enables us to live our precious life to the full, go with the flow, and prepare for a peaceful death and good future lives.

18. Do not use weaponry unless it is necessary

Heruka Toussaint-1Ermm, what to say … I do agree with the author that we shouldn’t attack people, and I would include in that butchering defenseless animals. And Buddha Heruka has a lot of weapons that he uses all the time to overcome the enemy of the delusions, but never living beings.

19. Do not put pressure on retiring with riches

“Again, it was suggested we should live in the moment and not chase happiness in the form of possessions.” I guess the salient word is “pressure” — we can still make plans for retirement without attachment. If we see the importance of preparing for the future, we can also encourage ourselves to plan for our countless future lives, seeing as these are far more definite than retirement in this life (especially these days! LOL), and far more lengthy.

20. Always protect your honor

“Live life as honorably as you know how to” with, for example, the aid of sense of shame and consideration for others, being a reliable, non-hypocritical, kind, and trustworthy person.

Conclusion

Although these are 20 quite random bits of Dharma advice, which pretty much boil down to practicing wisdom and compassion, I enjoyed thinking about them; so thank you for reading. As mentioned at the end of the last article, if you like lists of practical advice for inspiring daily living, you can find some time-tested Kadampa “rules” in the books Universal Compassion (the precepts and commitments of training the mind) and The Bodhisattva Vow.

Comments welcome below.

Spring Training

The guest poster is a novelist, mother, and practitioner.

The field is right there in front of me, shimmering in the bright light, filled with beings…. an expanse of color, except for our uniforms, which are gray.  Someone yells, “Come on, get a hit for Mama!” Parents sit on the sidelines, nursing cups of coffee. The dew sparkles in the grass like jewels.

My kids play a lot of baseball, so in the spring particularly my weekends are full of games.

Spring is also the time that things speed up at our Center. There’s always an empowerment on the calendar, which inevitably falls on the weekend of my kids’ baseball playoffs.  Since I started practicing Buddhism, or Dharma, in earnest almost five years ago, this has been a bit of a challenge for me.

Tug of war?

spring training 8As parents and Dharma practitioners, sometimes it can be tough to balance everything. We miss a lot of good stuff. Empowerments, Festivals, Celebrations, workshops, pujas, retreats. We are lucky to have many opportunities to practice, of course, and yet, for me, sometimes, I have felt my commitment to my family as something pulling me away from going deeper into the Dharma. It felt like a tug of war, my family on one side, my wish to strengthen my practice on the other.

The first year I was practicing Dharma seriously, when I realized I was going to have to miss the empowerment for a playoff game, as well as a coming retreat that just wouldn’t work with my kids’ schedule…. let’s just say I was not relying upon a happy mind.  “I want to do so many of these things, but I can’t. I can’t,” I said to my teacher, my eyes welling up with tears.

He laughed (kindly, and with zero pity for my alleged predicament) and said something about modern Buddhism.

I knew modern Buddhism meant that we don’t need to go off to the Temple to practice; we can practice in our daily lives.  Which, at that moment, I took as, “if you’re unlucky enough to miss a retreat and an empowerment, just try (if you can) to make the best of it.”

That year, I paced the edges of the field, thinking about how everyone else at my Center was absorbing blessings and making spiritual progress while I was stuck there at the game.  Not only stuck: incredibly anxious. The game was close, and I ended up barely able to watch the plays, walking away a bit from the field, putting my hands over my eyes, so tense about the outcome that I couldn’t look. If they lose, I thought, my son will be so sad….if they don’t give him a good position, he’ll be so sad…if he messes up in the field, he’ll be (you get the picture)… I can’t even remember now if they won or lost.

Spiritual gifts?

Gradually, as time went on, I received more teachings in Lojong: transforming whatever is happening into the path. Everything is a spiritual gift, to this view, allowing us to practice when we miss our flight, or get stuck in traffic, or have a heartbreak of some kind…and everything where your kids are concerned is a possible heartbreak, even if it’s a tiny one. By accepting what occurs we have the flexibility to see it in meaningful ways.

spring training 6The game was hardly adversity, but could it be something to transform? Could I be like the peacock, eating the poison of painful baseball losses to strengthen my mind, my ability to roll with whatever happens and bring it into my spiritual path? Could I use it to begin to transform all the things my kids go through that I have no control over and worry about — not just games but school, grades, friends, health, well being?

I tried. I began to relax a bit. There’s a lot of downtime if you are a spectator at a baseball game, and I used this time to focus my mind, thinking “I accept,” every time there was a dropped ball, or a strike out, or my son wasn’t asked to play at all. The games became a little more enjoyable.

Another season, another playoff game, another empowerment — I wasn’t going to miss this one, but I would miss the commentary: This time, I was ready, or thought I was.

Go Buddha!

spring training 3The game began. My son’s team was losing a lot that year, and I felt the disappointment keenly. The pitcher on the other side was really good.

I was rooting hard for my son’s team.  I found myself rooting so hard I was asking for help. Who from? The Buddhas, of course. I recited the Tara mantra. Please, I thought. Help.

Then I thought, Help who? Help what? What am I doing?  What am I asking Tara to do?

Could the Buddhas possibly care that one side (my son’s side) would win the game over the other side? No. The Buddhas didn’t care which side won this game. I needed to look at things more deeply.

I took a few breaths and imagined my Spiritual Guide, Geshe Kelsang, standing right in the middle of the not-so-vast baseball field, about where the pitcher stood, smiling at me.

Two seconds later, from the row of seats next to ours where the other team’s parents’ sat, a chant began: “Go Buddha Go! Go Buddha Go!”

I must have heard wrong. I walked over to them. “What are you saying?”

“Buddha. It’s his nickname,” they said, pointing at the pitcher.

A few minutes later, one of our players started gasping; he had asthma, and the inhalers his parents had brought were empty. The parents panicked, debated bringing him to the hospital. I went over to “Buddha’s” parents — did that side happen to have an inhaler? Turns out they did. They offered it to us, so that our team member could breathe.

I decided to get a cup of lemonade to absorb what was happening. I chatted with the coach’s kid, who was selling me the lemonade. I gave her a dollar. “It’s going to a camp for kids with cancer,” she said. “My sister used to go there, before she died.”

I didn’t know that the coach’s daughter died.

I thought the coach just wanted to win the baseball games.

But I saw, standing on the sidelines, that that wasn’t it at all. The coach knew the baseball game wasn’t really important — he was there out of love.

That’s why all of us are here at the sidelines, I thought. We’re just there to love. That’s our JOB.  And when we have our hands over our eyes when a kid drops the ball, when we wince and frown when things don’t go our way, we aren’t doing our job. In fact, that’s our job as parents. That’s our job as aspiring Bodhisattvas. To love.

The field of modern Buddhism

spring training 7The insight moved through me and I looked at all the kids and the spectators with different eyes. It was as if every meditation on universal compassion I had done was coming to life right there. I loved everybody at that baseball field in that moment. This particular insight didn’t happen in the meditation room.  It didn’t happen on the cushion (though all those meditations were necessary, of course). It happened in the field …

… the field of modern Buddhism.

That spring, I was sitting at the sidelines of my older son’s game, when I saw a wonderful woman I knew with a son on the team; I’d seen her mostly at PTA meetings. She seemed unusually upset; she walked by me and sat down in a portable chair she’d brought, fighting back tears. I asked if she was okay.

“Just having a really hard time right now,” she said. We chatted for a few more moments, about hard times and baseball, watching the game. It was a beautiful day, clear, breezy. The boys were playing all right.

“I go to a meditation class, if you ever want to check it out,” I said after a while, lightly. “It’s really helped me.”

She turned. She looked me straight in the eye. “YES!”

We made a plan to go together the next week. She’s still going, over a year later — we are Sangha now.  She tells me often how her Dharma practice has given her great joy, how much it has transformed her life.

Now, when I go to the field, I’m ready.

Sometimes, on a really beautiful day, it feels as if the air is humming with blessings, and I can feel the joy of the kids playing the game in the breeze, and it’s easy to offer all of this enjoyment up to the Buddhas.

Sometimes I focus on the kids on the other team and try to cultivate love for them, see how much they want to be happy (and get hits) and don’t want to suffer (and strike out) just like everyone else. Or I think about how we have all been born and reborn so many times that these “other people’s kids” were my children, my parents, in previous lives.

Or I try to dissolve it all into emptiness. Do we care who wins the games that take place in our dreams? I try to find it — where is the field? Can you point to it? Where is the blue of the sky…. or I imagine that the field is a field of karma, the karma of everyone ripening right now on this field in strike outs or home runs, all of us having this collective karma of playing this game together….

Or I think about how, when I am hoping for my son to get a hit, I am really wanting his samsara to work out….We want our kids’ samsara to work out, don’t we? We want thespring training 9m always to get A’s and home runs and everything they want in life — but samsara never works out, as we know, and happiness does not lie in these things.  When I focus on this, I start wishing for him to learn to cultivate peace and resilience and kindness and a sense of freedom and many good qualities that have nothing to do with winning the game.

And then…when in spite of all this, I still feel some tension — when the whole game relies on something my kid is about to do, for instance, which happens a lot in baseball, and I feel painful anxiety arising in my mind (please, let him not strike out right now and lose the game!) — I try to look at that tension within a larger, more peaceful mind, to see that self-grasping ignorance…. this vivid sense of wanting success and fearing failure for “my” kid, for this “me” that I really believe exists at this moment.

And how useful it is to be able to see it wriggling there, to pinpoint it and see it operate so I can begin to let it go, so that someday I can be truly helpful to my children and also everybody else’s. How amazing it is to have this opportunity to train in going for refuge at a baseball game, so that I can be there when I really need to be.

I tried this yesterday at my son’s game, which by the way we lost in the very last moments, because my son did indeed strike out, and the thought occurred to me:  wanting to win this game is just like samsara itself.

It’s not important, after all, a baseball game — we will forget about it tomorrow, or the day after — so it’s essentially meaningless. And we know it’s insignificant, especially when we think of the intense suffering that so many living beings are experiencing. Yet we often feel tension anyway when something like this is happening, when we want to “win.”

The ball game of samsara

spring training 2And the worldly activities we engage in with so much energy– aren’t they the same thing? Won’t we forget them by the next life, if not sooner? We know they won’t cause lasting happiness — samsara’s a ball game that can never be won. And yet we get so anxious about it all…

Wouldn’t it be great to reach a place where we could be relaxed about everything that came our way, if we could see the baseball play happening within the play of bliss and emptiness? And if — by training our minds in this way — we could move closer to being able to help others, and thus make every game really count?

It’s my field of practice now, the baseball field. (And I’m not even sporty.)

It’s modern Buddhism in action: a gift from our kind founder that gives us everything we need, in real time, today, right now.

What’s the baseball field in your life?

Don’t quit your day job (to practice dharma)

A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software engineer teams.

kamparipa
“Transform your daily task into an internal meditation … the result is the immaculate dharmakaya.” ~Kamparipa, the Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in his daily life as a blacksmith

What do a Weaver, Musician, Cobbler, Blacksmith, Merchant and Potter all have in common? They are a few of the professions of ancient practitioners who attained full enlightenment through their day jobs. How did they do this? The common theme in the stories of these great yogis is that they used their daily appearances as fuel for their practice of meditation.

These ancient Mahasiddhas knew that everything is a mere appearance to the mind. By changing our mind and learning to see the appearances of our day job as a Dharma teaching, there is no need to change external appearances. Rather than our job being an obstacle to realizing Buddha’s teachings, it becomes our path of meditation. Then the focus of our job is not on escaping it so that we can really practice Dharma. Rather, the focus will be on transforming it in the most profound and meaningful way possible.

Our day job is not an obstacle to our practice
Manibhadra
“When I realized my mind is the nature of emptiness, all phenomena that appeared to my mind became emptiness itself.” ~Manibhadra, the female Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in her daily life raising her family

Thinking that we need to quit our job to practice Dharma puts the results of our practice into the distant (and often unlikely) future. Often the wish to leave our job to practice Dharma is an aspect of aversion. We believe that if we only could have the space and time to actually focus on our practice, then we could make a dent in our delusions. This way of thinking obstructs us from living in the moment. It also disengages us from transforming every experience into one that destroys our delusions.

The most common objection to this is that we need to do solitary retreat for years to make progress. Geshe Kelsang has explained that with consistent practice we can attain the fourth stage of tranquil abiding in our daily life. In Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang explains how to attain actual tranquil abiding and superior seeing using this level of concentration. This teaching unlocks the complete path to enlightenment without the need to quit our day job.

The complete path to enlightenment is available in daily life
Tantipa
“I weave the strands of my experience … and the finished fabric is the dharmakaya.” ~Tantipa, the Mahasiddha who met his teacher at the age of 89 and attained enlightenment in his daily life as a weaver

Geshe-la has explained again and again that we can easily attain the same results as the ancient practitioners of the past. He said that their stories are our proof that these practices work. We have access to the same techniques, presented in a modern context that are clear and easily understood. Due to many special qualities of Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, attaining the results of these practices is even easier now than it ever has been before!

So what other excuses do we have that stop us from fully embracing every appearance in our life as our spiritual path? What is stopping an Art Manager, Graphic Designer, Performer, Event Coordinator, or Software Engineer from becoming a modern-day Mahasiddha?

We need to fully believe that we can attain enlightenment in our day job and encourage ourself again and again until this becomes our reality.