Want better relationships?

love-v-attachmentBy distinguishing attachment from love, Buddha has saved a great many friendships and relationships over the centuries, no doubt, and prevented and healed countless broken hearts.

In brief, attachment is that “sticky desire” that seeks happiness outside of ourselves and wants YOU to make ME happy. Love is an open-hearted wish for you to be happy, no strings attached. A lot of ordinary relationships and friendships are a mixture of the two — we alternate, sometimes quickly, between love and attachment – so they may seem all mushed up to to someone who doesn’t know the difference. However, they have no common denominator, and they do not coexist. They are very different thoughts.

We do need them

And by the way, in Buddhism, learning to get along with people is not just more fun and fulfilling on a daily basis, but also the path to enlightenment. We need to increase our love and compassion and reduce our attachment and dislike – so every time someone gives us this opportunity, we see them as our spiritual practice, not in the way of it. No one can make us grow our love, we alone are responsible for applying that effort; but the people around us are the very kind objects of our love, without whom it is impossible, so we can appreciate them. In a beautiful section in How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we are skillful, friends can be like treasure chests, from whom we can obtain the precious wealth of love, compassion, patience, and so forth. For our friends to function in this way, however, our love for them must be free from attachment. ~ page 177

Uncontrolled desire

 Attachment is also called “uncontrolled desire” – and I like to think of this in two ways. (1) For as long as we have attachment, we are moreorless out of control, and (2) we cannot control the object of that sticky desire because they tend to have their own ideas and feelings about everything.

new-york-subway-1Talking of uncontrolled thoughts, I spent a lot of time on the New York subway recently – and at weekends the trains had a weird habit of not going where they said they were going and ending up in places I didn’t want to be. Our thoughts can be like that. We have to go along with them if we have no control over them, no space between us and them, or no notion that we are not our thoughts and don’t have to think them. And that means wherever they take us, even if that is on an express train to Brooklyn when you wanted to end up at 23rd street.

Or else our thoughts end up going nowhere – like being stuck at 50th street because there is an obstruction at 42nd street, at which point it seems easier to give up and go back to bed. Attachment, as with all delusions, renders us powerless and discouraged – our thoughts go round and round in boring circles, or they end up somewhere horrible and we have to find a way to come all the way back again to where we started, weeks, months, or even years later. If we check all our previous attachments, they can follow a similar loop regardless of the person we are attached to – the only difference is some details.

On the halted train at 50th street, I noticed that the savvy New Yorkers didn’t wait around for more than a couple of minutes – they started leaving the carriage at the first incoherent mumble on the tannoy of “obstruction ahead …”, clearly flexible enough to make alternate travel plans. Me, on the other hand … after fifteen minutes of vainly expecting things to get better on their own, I finally decided that enough was enough if I was to make it on time. I needed to be proactive, take control over my own destiny; so I too left the station and started to run. Then, around Times Square, realizing that running alone would not be quick enough, I jumped in a yellow cab. And I made it. Point being, once we are savvy at mastering our minds, we can get off the train more quickly, be far more flexible, not bother thinking those thoughts we don’t want to think, find alternative ones that work better at getting us where we want to be.23rd-street

We waste so much of our lives with attachment – if we “can’t wait” to see our lover at the weekend, for example, it’s excruciating to watch the clock tick-tock slowly from Monday to Friday, having to wait. For who likes waiting? We hate the powerlessness of queues or stopped trains. And while we wait, we are missing out on the present moment, the deep peace right here inside us and available 24/7.

You’re magnetic!

If we want our relationships to last, we have to ditch the attachment and work on increasing the love. As Geshe Kelsang says in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition:

If we have no enduring love, our relationships with others will be unstable, like a married couple whose initial strong love soon subsides. Our love should be constant like a river that has always been present and will always remain.

Ever been in a relationship like two magnets – first fiercely attracted to each other — slam, stuck — and then repelled far apart?! Maybe there was a time when just one of the magnets started to turn around, and the second magnet got all confused because they couldn’t understand what was going on and why the first magnet didn’t like them any more. Maybe Magnet #2 fires off one text after another to try and connect again (just as we are advised by every agony aunt not to do) – and sure enough all those texts freefall into the dismissive void.

But sooner or later both magnets get all turned around, strong attachment replaced with strong dislike, maybe settling over time into strong indifference. And maybe one day the first magnet says to the second, just because they happen to be in the same neighborhood, “Hey, do you want a coffee and a catch up?” and the second thinks, “Ermm, how on earth could we ever catch up with each other?! Over one cup of coffee?! We are way too far apart for that now.”

The radiance of the sun

Anyway, one thing I do know is that love is very different. Love is like the sun, endlessly radiating, warming both people and any other people around as well. Even in the midst of the attraction/repellence there can be moments of love and respect, a genuine wish for the other person to be happy. And regardless of what has gone before, or when, we can always build upon those.

Affectionate love is when we are delighted to see others and they appear pleasant to us. How is that different to attachment, you might ask. They appear pleasant not because of what they can do for us, such as assuage our loneliness, make us look cool, accompany us to the movies, or scratch our back. They appear pleasant just in their own right. We have a “tender regard” or “warm heart” as Geshe-la says in Joyful Path, regardless of what they look like or what they are doing for us.

dogI was thinking earlier today that it is a bit like looking at your old dog lying in front of the fireplace with her ears twitching – you don’t want anything from her, you just love her with all your heart, and on that basis you can easily cherish her as important and wish for her happiness (the other two types of love). You want her to be warm and comfortable and happy as can be, and have nothing bad ever happen to her.

Sure, you don’t want to date your dog – but the point is that, whether in a romantic relationship or not, we all need the good heart of love if we really want to be happy. It is never too late to start changing the balance of love and attachment in our current and past romantic relationships, and it is always worth remembering that the love part is guaranteed to help us:

Even if our love is mixed with attachment, it can still be beneficial. ~ Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition

How to tell the difference between them?

One way to tell whether attachment or love is functioning is to observe the energy of our thoughts to see if they are going outwards (in order to drag our object of desire back toward us) or staying centered inside, not having to go anywhere as the object of love is already there.

If our thoughts are going outward, trying to grasp happiness out there somewhere, that is attachment at work; and this always leads to a disconnect, a feeling of frustrated separation. This is because oscar-wildethere is a strong sense of dualism, a sense of the real me over here and real other or you over there, as described more here. Whereas love feels non-dual, like its object is already inside the heart, which has room for everything and everyone – it is a feeling of connection, fulfillment, joy, completion, intimacy, oneness. All the things that attachment craves but doesn’t get.

Another way to tell the difference, if we check, is that attachment just doesn’t feel very good. It can feel excited, but never peaceful – in its 3 phases of scheming, indulging, and recovering, there is always something a bit missing, out of our hands, even in the midst of the most rewarding indulgence. It is always ready to flip over into disappointment and dislike. Whereas:

When our mind has the nature of love we naturally feel happy and peaceful. With such a state of mind it is impossible to become disturbed or depressed or to develop anger of jealousy. ~ Joyful Path

As Geshe Kelsang also says:

Sometimes we may observe a married couple who are materially very poor, yet somehow their lives seem to be happy. They have a deep understanding between them. When we consider the basis of their fulfilling relationship, we find that their happiness is based on the foundation of love. Even if a married couple have all the material comforts they desire, without the foundation of love for each other they will have dissatisfaction, poor communication, and much mental suffering. If they have no practice of love at all, many complications will develop.

When I look back and analyze my relationships, the happiest times have been the moments I really loved the other person and wanted them happy – I was happy to see them happy, with not much Me involvement. This has made me realize that I can feel that good all the time — as happy with everyone I meet, even as happinessblissful. Which figures, given that happiness, bliss, connection, union, and even transcendence are states of our own mind, they don’t come from outside the mind. With love, we are already in the other’s place, there is no gap separating us to bridge, we are like one.

I find that because of Buddha’s skill in explaining the difference between attachment and love I have been able to keep and even grow the love for my various exes. This means that although we have “moved on” and our lives are different now, and on the surface of things we may not have much to talk about, there is still nothing I would not do if they needed anything — they need only ask. (Except for one of them*)

In fact, when I stop to think about it, I really want them quickly to become Bodhisattvas and attain enlightenment. And that goes for their families too.

So, given that we have dated everyone in our beginningless lives, just as everyone has been our mother, why not spread the affection around?!

Happy Valentine’s Day 😉 😘

(*only kidding 😄 )

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Freedom March

hamster-on-wheelMy Uber driver, Mohammed, aged mid-fifties at a guess, has been working Uber (in Manhattan) for only ten days, but already he is over it. Not that he has any choice as he has had no job for the past two years, but he is considering his options all the same. Minimum pay, long hours, he grumbled, though he was pretty cheerful considering. “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but I still need some.” He rubbed his hand over his belly and said, “You can feed this hell but it’ll never be enough. We carry our hell around with us.” “Yeah, and our heaven,” I agreed. “True, but people pay no attention to that, they are too busy feeding their hell.”

We looked out of the window at the crowds hurrying along 7th Avenue. “Look at everyone running around, all feeding their own hells,” he said. “Money, power, whatever, it is never enough.” new-york-walkers“It’s like a black hole,” I offered, “insatiable. But our heaven is like the sun, always radiating outward.” He liked that. “Where are you from?” I asked, and he said Mars. He pointed out that it was discriminatory to assume everyone from Mars was green with antennae as opposed to just like me, especially as I have never met a Martian before. And of course Martians can be called Mohammed.

But right now, Martian, Muslim, Buddhist, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, male, female, everyone, we all have the choice to feed our heaven or to feed our hell.

Continuing from this article. This second type of self-confidence is the thought:

I can conquer all my delusions; they will never conquer me.

And if we internalize this, identify with this warrior mentality, then the more things go wrong the stronger that motivation becomes – as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Moment or movement?

I was in NYC during the inauguration and aftermath, when large marches took place in Washington, Manhattan, and all over the world. And the day after the Women’s March, a CNN headline questioned:

“Moment or movement?”

Which got me thinking not just about whether these political activities were going to sustain themselves past the next few weeks to resolve the world into some lasting change, but more importantly whether our meditations were.

Have you ever had any nice moments in meditation? Positive insights and/or feelings of joy or peace or empowerment? Connection? Glimpses of the possible?

Are these moments quickly forgotten and just occasionally revisited, or are they part of progress, a forward movement in your mind?

protest
“Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys enemies.” ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Probably your answer will depend on how consistent you are – there is no substitute for consistency. In all my decades in this Buddhist meditation tradition, I have observed, the people who seem to get the promised, deep results from meditation are — funnily enough — the ones who do it.

Consistency relies on effort or enthusiasm and, as Shantideva points out, effort includes self-confidence. At this time I think our self-confidence has to grow, a lot. Wisdom and empathy rise up! Destroy the delusions of selfishness, greed, intolerance, and ignorance.

News junkies

Someone told me, “I was so positive after that march! Everyone was so positive! But, just two days later, and this relentless news is depressing me so much. I feel powerless again.”

Are you addicted to the news? Do you approach it with a feeling of indignation, quite sure that you are going to find something maddening … and sure enough … Are you turning to the news to scratch an itch, or for some perverse stimulation? And the more you watch, the more anxious or disheartened you become, the more de-motivated and helpless you feel? It drives you crazy, yet still you can’t keep away from it?!

Too much news doesn’t energize us but makes us passive because we can’t control the world and so the daily or even hourly repetition of news about things we can’t do a whole lot about grinds us down. We can end up frustrated, pessimistic, and desensitized, not to mention hopelessly distracted — perhaps seeking comfort and reassurance by talking only to people who agree with us while tempted to shout everything and everyone else down.

There is a balance between staying informed and being a news junkie. My suggestion? If we are feeling helpless, we need to get control back. And that means control of our mind. So we could spend at least as my-desire-to-be-informedmuch time applying the solution (meditation) as we spend skimming over the problem (checking our news feeds).

As a friend put it, the news fuels his compassion but right now his gas tank is overflowing. We know there is a problem to solve. We know we have to do something creative. But nothing exists in a vacuum. We don’t need endless bitty demoralizing factoids – we need context, we need perspective, we need the big picture.

This would be the picture of samsara. Samsara sucks and always has sucked. And if we have delusions and contaminated karma we are as much part of samsara as anyone else — responsible for what appears to us, for what is happening. We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

We need a life less ordinary.

Delusions are our enemies

We need to say this to ourselves over and over again ~ “Delusions are the real enemies of all living beings”!!

We could be the most powerful and wealthy person on the planet and still feel insecure and slighted, still feel tense and miserable, still feel dissatisfied. Greed and narcissism are insatiable black holes. Dislike, pride, and intolerance will find enemies, detractors, and inferiors wherever they turn. This is just as true for us as for anyone else.how-to-transform-your-life

Delusions can be very powerful – the self-cherishing of just one person, for example, can help demean a nation and create dangerous disharmony and distrust — this has happened many times the world over. Dharma is meant to be used as a mirror, though, not a magnifying glass. If we resent shows of narcissism and power-hunger, for example, we can separate the delusions out from the person and use this appearance to increase our own humility and contentment. We are then becoming part of the solution, not remaining part of the problem.

And virtuous minds can be even more powerful than delusions. Just look at the legacies of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King. Just look at what great holy beings have pulled off in all traditions. Just look at what Geshe Kelsang is pulling off as we speak – I have seen with my own eyes over the past 35 years how he has helped and is still helping hundreds of thousands of people every day. We need the confidence that as soon as we control our delusions and master ourselves we will straightaway be helping both ourselves and the Geshe-la.JPGpeople around us and indeed our whole world, both directly and indirectly. What an incredible, hopeful example we could be!

We need to change if we are to be lastingly happy. We can’t stay with self-grasping, self-cherishing, and negative actions and expect a good life. Living with delusions life after life has always been horrible, and as soon as we get rid of one problem there is always another waiting to take its place.

There is no point in judging others – it just leads to anger and pride upon pride, “I am so much better than him/her!” We can instead spend at least some of our discrimination focused not on the faults of others but judging our own faults, which will result in a peaceful mind intent on real liberation.

So my feeling is that we can campaign, canvass, sign all the petitions that drop into our inbox, attend demonstrations, call our representatives, stand up for fairness and tolerance – and all that can be well and good, probably we need this, to exercise our freedom of speech and uphold our democratic values as we each see fit. There are outer problems and inner problems, after all, which need fixing in different ways.

But the only march that will lead to actual freedom is the march against our delusions.

Over to you: comments are invited from Martians, Muslims, Buddhists, Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, male, female, everyone.

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Good night, sweet Prince

U turn on the telly and every other story
Is tellin’ U somebody died ~ Sign o the Times

PrinceI wonder if celebrities everywhere are getting nervous?! But of course it was forever thus. None of us gets out of here alive, famous or otherwise. As a friend put it, rather well I thought: “We all have a shelf life. When our expiration date is up, that’s it. … We are all at the big funeral everyday.”

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.

I liked Prince but wasn’t intending to write anything about his death – that is, until I saw this arresting Facebook post by the same person who wrote this last article:

What I Learned from Prince’s Death

* Death can come suddenly at any time – no one is immune.

* Fame means nothing at the time of death.

* Everybody loves you when you’re dead, but it’s too late then.

* It’s only when you’re dead that you would realise from everyone’s reactions what your life meant to them, but you’ll never see it.

Prince 1* Obviously, you don’t exist in a post-you world; everything and everyone has to go on without you, and they do, no matter how indispensable you think you are.

* When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.

* Whether you have lots of talent and are famous, or not, death treats everyone the same: extinction of ‘you’.

* Death shows there is no real meaning in this ordinary human life: everything you were ends instantly, unexpectedly and finally.

* Your wealth means nothing as it becomes someone else’s – even your clothes aren’t yours.

* Life is an unfinished story because it ends for you but not for everyone you know.

This got me thinking. And wanting to add something to these points in particular: “Everybody loves you when you’re dead but it’s too late then” and “When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.”

How is it that we keep affecting people after we’re dead? And I mean not just emotionally, but karmically? Prince is dead, yes, but he has not inherently ceased and still has a connection with the beings of this world, whose love and well wishes are having some effect on his mental continuum – that’s how transference of consciousness and other prayers for the deceased work too. His music will still give pleasure – so, providing he had the intention to give people happiness, he will still create some merit, or good karma, from it.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain.

According to Van Jones, his friend and a CNN commentator, Prince was a humanitarian but wasn’t allowed to talk about his numerous good deeds as he was a Jehovah’s witness. So news of these is just emerging now.

It’s not all over

Prince 3The dream that was Prince’s life is ended, for sure, but it is not inherently over, any more than yesterday or even the moment before this one has inherently ceased. Our life is a cause leading to an effect, not to non-existence. Of course there is no more access to his body or gross personality or the identity “Prince”, but Prince was only ever mere imputation anyway. We are still all connected to that living being, just as we are always interdependent with all living beings. We cannot separate ourselves out from others and they in turn are affected by everything we do. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And this truth spans life and death. We are each waves made up entirely of one another and all arising from the ocean of clear light, the very subtle mind. (More on this later.)

This is why love is the answer, as it is the natural response to reality; and why what Prince did does mean something, not nothing, though he most likely won’t remember. (As for the fame part, I agree that fame is meaningless after we die, which makes it meaningless now too, unless we are using it for good.)

Creativity

We need to make our lives count with our mental actions, for sure, because they are the most creative actions – with our thoughts we create our world. But we also make our lives count with physical and verbal actions, leaving something intentionally helpful and uplifting behind us too if we can, such as a temple or other tangible improvement in others’ lives. Geshe Kelsang says, for example, when talking about helping at Kadampa centers, “We are working for future generations.”

Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.

How we use our creativity as modern Buddhists is still new territory over here in the West – in Tibet, there was no art outside of painting Buddhas, no music outside of spiritual chanting, and so on; the culture was entirely different. But over here, to “remain natural while changing our aspiration” may mean that between us we need to hijack today’s culture to our own and others’ spiritual ends as much as we can. That’s why I am hijacking some of Prince’s lyrics and quotes for this article 🙂

The Forgetting Time.jpgMy take on it so far — and I am totally open to ideas in the comments — is this. The ultimate spiritual goal of human life is attaining enlightenment for the sake of all living beings because that is the way to fulfill all our own and others’ purposes. That is our main job, our main creativity. And making Buddha’s teachings accessible to as many people as possible by helping meditation centers and so on also seems important because if we don’t do it, who will, plus it is powerful karma. Within that, with an increasingly good motivation and skill, we can embrace and enjoy our creativity however it manifests — eg, film-making, painting, music, song-writing — and channel it into helping others. A lot of people are doing this already, it is I think inevitable; and I also think it will make Buddhist meditation relevant to more and more people — bring it into the global mainstream as an idea whose time has come. For example, this readable new novel, The Forgetting Time, is bringing the idea of past and future lives to a huge audience that possibly would never have considered it otherwise.

New world needs spirituality that will last. 

Good night and thank you

Wishing Prince a swift rebirth in the Pure Land surrounded by the celestial music of offering gods and goddesses. Or, to hijack the Bard:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

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

Carrying straight on from this articlejack in the box

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

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

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

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

Phew, what a relief!

No need for internal conflict

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

DON’T PANIC!

Geshe Kelsang says:

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

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

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

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

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

Lamrim has solutions

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

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

Next installment here.

I could not stay another day

I can’t believe it’s happening.

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

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

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

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

Kadampa Buddha 1
Awakened One

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

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

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

madame tussauds
Look the same, could not be more different.

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

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

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

madame tussauds 2
Appearances are deceptive.

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

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

I’m Free

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

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

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

fly the friendly skies

Welcome to the friendly skies! …

fly the friendly skies… our pilot just welcomed us. And this reminded me of Geshe Kelang’s first flight to America in July 1990. As they set off from Heathrow, he said to the 2 students traveling with him, one of them my closest friend at the time:

We are flying to Vajrayogini’s’s Pure Land…

… and then he absorbed into meditation for the next 6 hours, only arising when prompted to eat lunch, of which he partook of a mere forkful. (As both these students were sitting either side of him, that kind of scuppered any chance of conversation… But it was still apparently a darned good flight.)

And I always think of these words when I fly. Besides, we need to go to the very friendly higher sky of Vajrayogini and Heruka’s Pure Land – Keajra – even when stationary, and we can leave through our crown chakra.

Why? Because samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. I can hear the video game violence emanating from the ear buds of the youth next to me – so how loud is it blaring into HIS ears?! Not that he cares of course, he is never going to get middle aged and old and die. That only happens to other people, like the woman next to him (me). A friend in his 50s recently developed tinnitus. Of course he didn’t see that coming despite years of headphone abuse. And who amongst us hasn’t blissed out to loud music – but even music is deceptive, my friend was telling me. All sense pleasures are. All appearances mislead us while we remain overpowered by them, not realizing they are empty, not realizing they are not really there.

As Geshe Kelsang explains in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, the Buddhist master Vasubandhu used various examples to show how attachment to sense pleasures creates suffering. Moths are ensnared by attachment to visual forms when they fly into the flame; deer to sounds when they are enticed by the hunter’s flute; flies to smells when they land on food and are swatted; fish to food when they are impaled on the hook; and elephants to tactile sensations when they sink helplessly into mud. Meanwhile, humans are ensnared by attachment to all five!

But everything we encounter can also teach us everything about Dharma if we let it. As Milarepa said:IMG_6603

I have no need of books because all the objects around me are my books. From these I learn about death and impermanence, the disadvantages of samsara, and the emptiness of all phenomena. Great Treasury of Merit p. 212.

Sooooo, so far today … It started with a teaching on my early morning coffee – Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Don’t know what to suggest for those of you who don’t drink coffee.)

The snack cart just came down the aisle, and my attention was captured by Buddha Bowl Foods™ (Trademark! Since when did a snack company get the trademark on Buddha’s begging bowl?) – organic popcorn with pink Himalayan salt. What will they think of next? But although it is seasoned by elements from faraway holy lands, this popcorn is still not worth the $4.99 price tag. Though it makes me shudder a bit to see Buddha smiling out from a disposable snack wrapper, I also think it is lucky that Buddha is not fussy – maybe someone will create an indestructible potential for enlightenment as they chow down on their salty morsels.

distractionEveryone is either snoozing or plugged in. Some are multitasking their entertainment — managing to be on their personal devices AND watching the latest movie on the seat-back in front of them. In this worth-reading NYT article about death, Arthur C. Brooks reports a scary illustration of the disconnect between what we want and what we do due to the power of distractions:

The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.

So far I have resisted the itch to swipe my credit card and watch The Martian … but temptation is always all around. I need to think this could be my last flight, and what would I do if I ever did have to follow the second of these helpful instructions (pictured)? (Has anyone ever actually survived by using their cushion for a flotation flotation devicedevice?! Ok, I admit, I got distracted and googled it. Apparently, yes, they have, in 1970.) But, should the cushion fail, given that I am unprepared for my activities just over the next week in NYC, where does that leave my next life?

In the security line

So much effort goes into becoming a functioning adult – it needs years. There are students behind me in the security line, all young, hip, fresh-faced, and about to have their moment ruling the world. “Boulder has changed so much! Like, totally,” one says, as if she has been there well over her 17 years. “I major in education,” she carries on saying to her new friends. “So are you gonna become a teacher?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That will take years of money and resources. A small earnest boy with oversized spectacles and a watchful mother — will he be a teacher one day? How much money and kindness will make that possible? Then it starts unravelling as you see from the deeply lined woman hobbling by with a stick, maybe she was an educator once.

functioning adultIt is so easy to grasp at permanence, at things staying the same. Sometimes I fast forward in these snaky queues — where will we all be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?

My young co-queuer from Boulder has also wasted no time telling her new friends that she is traveling to see her boyfriend, who inconveniently lives in New York. “Man! That sucks!” “I know. But it’s okay.” (Clearly right now it is way more than okay for she cannot help grinning, albeit in a cool, I can take it or leave it girls, kind of way). It may last for decades, like Alan Rickman and Rima Horton, but the odds are against it, and she may have the first of several broken hearts, perhaps even on this trip. How many have you had?! I have had my fair share. While we remain with attachment, broken hearts are an unavoidable side effect at any age. There is a joke in California – before you get serious with someone, ask yourself:

Is this who I want my kids to spend the weekends with?

Back on the plane, but on this same subject, I am now actually across the aisle from a hot couple meeting and flirting for the first time. We do quite rightly like the bliss of connection — and they are, after all, the only people around here immersed in the present moment as opposed to asleep or on their gadgets — so I think it’d be wonderful if that bliss could last forever. However, fast forward 5 years and they’ll be watching box sets on the couch with the dog like the rest of us. We need to know where our bliss actually comes from.
honey on a razor's edgeGeshe Kelsang once told me that it is not possible to get between someone and their object of attachment. (But was I applying these wise words to myself?! Umm, no. No more than I got his teaching on eating mindfully when during a tea party I offered him a huge slice of chocolate cake and he said, “This is poison for me,” — so I ate it instead, and he laughed. Geshe-la has been infinitely patient with me. With all of us, really.) Try telling someone as they start licking the honey off the razor’s edge, “That’s going to hurt you know!” And will they listen? Will they heck.

Talking of Alan Rickman, he seemed to be well loved by all who knew him for his loyalty, kindness, and willingness to go the extra mile. And his kindness will guide him to happiness now too, none of it is wasted, it’s a win win — happy in this life, creating the causes for happiness now in his next life, as well as being prayed for and wished well on his way by the many people he helped.

Back in the security line …

You snake past the same people over and over in these lines. It reminds me of being on the same flight from Portugal as someone who loathed me. We both pretended we didn’t notice each other, and got away with it on the plane; but upon arrival found ourselves in one of those long looping queues — having to look at our phones, over to some friends, up at the roof, etc — each time we were about to pass. Five times we better angelsmanaged it — only to bump right into each other as we emerged from the restrooms. It makes me think that we cannot hide forever from our karma, we have to face it over and over again until it is exhausted; so we may as well learn to love everyone in the line. We will have to keep bumping into everyone forever, so why not learn to enjoy it. Reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Love this quote.

And, like I was saying, we need to get out of this long queue as fast as possible – like those people in the Clear Me line who have created enough merit to breeze through. Then we can fly the friendly sky of the Dharmakaya, and help everyone else do the same.

We seek transcendence. People do crazy extreme sports and jump out of airplanes to get the thrill of flying. I saw a poster trying to entice passers-by with, “Learn to stunt drive!” Why would I do that?!! I am just now noticing my neighbor with the noisy headphones watching a man walk on a wire high high above New York City. He is lying down! He is pointing at a magical sun behind a cloud! A white dove is flying toward him! This is all pretty cool, especially as I’m not distracted by the narrative. Still, I would want more than a wire between me and the ground 70 stories below. Like a direct realization of emptiness, for example.

Talking of sports, people ask why I don’t ski. I used to as a child living in Turkey and visiting good friends in Switzerland, but now I prefer to enjoy it in my mind — for some reason, maybe my precious human life and a distinct preference for a body in one uninterrupted piece — I have gone off the idea of standing at the top of a steep mountain with two insanely slippery sticks tied to my feet. Not judging, because I also kind of admire the spectacular fear-defying feats I watch from the comfort of the gondola cafe in Breckenridge or Aspen. And it makes me blissful to watch, except when people fall. TintinNurse an overpriced cappuccino long enough, and someone is bound to fall. Especially if they are sufficiently high, and/or under some illusion about their skill-set or permanence in this life. People get into all sorts of trouble in the mountains through underestimating their environment or overestimating themselves, according to an English friend in Breckenridge. He goes out whenever called to save people in an utterly heroic fashion, whether on skies, or wheels, or even by air, on a variety of cool snow vehicles. He does this in his plus fours, tweed cap, and a tweed jacket, and honestly looks just like Tintin — but the people who have gotten themselves into any number of of idiotic situations are always very happy to see him.

And my final observations for now: a full cup of coffee + rough air = bad combo. But the flight attendant did just call me “Miss” instead of the dreaded “Ma’am”, which I like, even if he is about 75 years old. And remind me again why I insist on always traveling

meanwhile in New York
I flew all the way to NY for this?

with a ripe banana that I have to clean out of my bag upon arrival?You may conclude from these rambling observations that I have way too much time on my hands, spend way too much time in airplanes, and should get a proper job like all the other functioning adults of this world. In my defence I will say that I write most of my stuff while traveling between places, and though I do, naturally, like the feeling of being on perpetual vacation while technically not, a feeling I believe I may have inherited from my parents, I also do have a few other things to do from time to time, I promise. So bye bye for now. Thank you for flying united.

Postscript: This ended up long, and I thought about putting it in 2 installments to make some of my readers happy (you know who you are, France and Philippe.) But then I realized they could just stop reading halfway and come back to the rest later. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.

 

Are you busy?

“How are you?” I just asked someone. And she answered with a pained expression, “Busy!!!” “What are you up to?” I continued, and she replied that she had loads on at work and was also trying to organize her wedding, which was stressing her out. “I am too attached to the perfect wedding,” she said.

So often these days people reply, “I’m so busy!”. “Busy” seems to be the new “fine”. How often do you hear yourself saying things like this about your life: “hectic,” “whirlwind,” “consumed,” “crazy,” “it’s hard to keep up with it all,” “on the run,” “way too fast”? because apparently those words and expressions are on the rise. People are saying we have an epidemic of busy-ness in modern society.

busy 2
Four-armed …. ?!

But is it the case that we have so much more to do than in previous generations, or do we simply FEEL crazy busy because we cannot focus on one thing at a time, everything bleeds into everything else, and we cannot control our busy thoughts? Concentration and mindfulness actually make us feel peaceful, as if we have all the time in the world. So I wonder if we are in a concentration and mindfulness deficit rather than a deficit of time. I spoke to that friend again an hour later, after she’d done a meditation class, and she was smiling and chilled, thoughts of weddings and work pressures no longer overwhelming her.

Time for meditation 

Before we get started on the subject, let’s pause to relax, settle, and rest the mind by doing a short meditation to control our crazy mind and let go of the feelings of busyness.

We can first settle into a good posture with a straight back, etc, and focus on how we’re sitting, forget about everything else.

We feel we drop from our thinky head into the spaciousness of our root mind at our heart, where already some of our scattered thoughts dissolve away into space, like clouds into a vast, clear sky.

We can let go of all the tension in our body, like dropping heavy luggage, and let every muscle soften. Our body melts into light, we could pass our hand through it without obstruction, and it becomes as weightless as air. We can enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.

lotus 2Then we can think that everything outside our body melts into light in all directions and disappears. This light then gathers towards us, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until only our hollow body remains.

We can also think that everything up to this moment in time melts into light and disappears. It vanishes like last night’s dream. The past doesn’t exist anyway, it is being erased by the moment.

And everything after this moment also disappears – the future doesn’t exist either.

In this way we feel fully alive and alert in the present moment, the here and the now.

(As most of our feelings of busy-ness and being overwhelmed involve clinging to a past or worrying about a future, this simple contemplation alone can do wonders to help us relax and let go.)

And then we can, if we like, do some breathing meditation to let go of all remaining distractions and problems. We can think that these gather at the level of our heart in the form of thick heavy smoke, and then we let them go by breathing them out – they are just thoughts and we don’t need to keep thinking them. We feel our mind becoming lighter and purer with every out-breath.

We can think that our in-breath is the aspect of light, the most beautiful light you can imagine, and the nature of peace, and we ride this light deep into our heart, where it joins the inner light of our Buddha nature.

Finally, we can spend a few minutes identifying with this peace at our heart, enjoying it. We recognize it as the peaceful nature of our own mind and our potential for lasting peace and freedom. This is me! All that crazy busyness and worry is not.

As we arise from our meditation, we take this space into our busy daily lives so that it remains in the background of what we do. We can dip into it anytime, come into the present moment by simply sitting with and enjoying the peace of our own mind.

Busy is as busy does

(Actually I have no idea what that expression means …) Anyway, one definition of busy according to dictionary.com isbusy 3 “full of or characterized by activity”. So, there is nothing wrong with being busy per se (providing we are busy doing helpful things!) – but there is a problem if our busy-ness is consuming us and stressing us out, if we are feeling scattered, fragmented, or exhausted. However much we have to do, we want to be able to do it within a feeling of space and perspective.

Apparently people brag about being busy these days, as if it shows what a full life they are leading. Even dictionary.com says the antonym of busy is “indolent” or “unoccupied” and who wants to be that?! But being fully occupied doesn’t make us more glamorous. Being available 24/7 doesn’t make us the ideal worker. These are not marks of worth or social standing. We may think that having a huge amount of things to do makes us important or productive, but “There is more to life than its speed”, as Gandhi said, and if we are busy doing a lot of pointless things there is not much to feel proud about.

Laziness, according to Buddhism, can be slothful or indolent getting nowhere, but it can also be running around doing meaningless activities getting nowhere. Plus, over-busy 6extending ourselves doesn’t actually make us happy, just stressed out, so, given that happiness is what we really want, how successful is that? Our actual life can get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of our to-do lists, none of which will mean a thing when we are dying, or even, frankly, before that eg, when we retire, or next year. Our most precious non-renewable resource is time – we need to use it in the most meaningful way possible — and meaningful and busy are not synonyms.

The other day I had to do something new technologically at work and I wasn’t sure if I knew how to. In fact I knew I didn’t know how to. But I felt a little under pressure so I started thinking about it way ahead of the time I had my meeting scheduled with co-workers, and my thoughts ran away with themselves, “This is way too tricky! And I’m supposed to be able to sort this out but I can’t! My boss’ll think I’m incompetent. I’ll be fired! But I need the money!” Etc. So I felt under pressure, busy, not enough time, and then we had the meeting and it was all fine and we figured it out and even had a laugh while doing it. So what was all that inappropriate attention, or worry, for?!

I think we do this a lot in our society, wasting time worrying unnecessarily about ourselves and what we need to do, so we feel far busier than we actually are. We have all of tomorrow to do what needs to be done tomorrow – why worry about it today? We need a method to shut down the tape that runs in our minds about all that needs to be done that day, that week, that year.

More coming soon … it is already written, but I know you guys are way too busy to read it all in one sitting 😉