Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do todayWhen we feel overwhelmed with busyness it is usually because all our activities are bleeding into each other. With thoughts of impermanence, they don’t. We can focus on the here and now. We have walls up (as described in this last article). We can still plan — put the things we need to do in a Google calendar or excel spreadsheet or regular to-do list — but then we don’t need to think much about it again until we need to do it. Tomorrow is plenty of time to take care of tomorrow’s business. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

So in the interactions we have today, we bring as much love and kindness into them as we can. We try to keep our mind peaceful, free from anger. We put our energy into these things as they are inside the wall. And because we are not spending so much time outside the wall, we have a lot more energy to do that, we’re a lot more successful. Living in the moment is very much to do with cultivating the habit in our mind of staying here, in the present, not going off.

I’m not getting angry ever again!?!

As Gen Samten puts it, what is harder, not getting angry for a lifetime, or not getting angry for a day? “I could never do the former!” we might think. But can we avoid anger today? Yes, probably, with a bit of effort. So that is all we have to do. Within this wall I’m not going to get angry.

We realize we can do a lot of spiritual practices that may have daunted us previously. “I could never have universal compassion for all living beings!” But could we contemplate universal compassion just today?! Yes, we could give it a try. It might take a little effort and work and by the end of the day we might feel tired — but good tired, not todaybad tired, because we have used our energy wisely. Then we can rest, and wake up in the morning – a new day, a new wall. If we screwed up, we start again.

Etch a sketch. Every moment, let alone every day, is brand new. Geshe Kelsang said that when we close our eyes and then open them again, everything has changed. Blink, and it’s a new world.

Shorter periods of time

In this way we can build up a really helpful mental habit – if we are determined to build this wall, we’ll do it. And we’ll find that this habit begins to apply to shorter and shorter periods of time. For example, if we’re having breakfast with our family and have a hard day at work ahead, we can think: “I’m not going to worry about work, it is outside the wall around breakfast”, and instead concentrate on having a good time with our family, bringing kindness and love into that. When we get to work, that’s a new situation, and one I will be involved in then.

This will overcome basically all our worry. The habit of worry is the habit of thinking about things outside the wall. By remembering subtle impermanence and that we may die today, we build a wall around today.

I’m going to add here what Tim Larcombe just said in the comments as I think this could be a very practical reminder throughout our day:

We can be reminded of “the wall” when people say “Have a good day” to us. And we can wish for them to be worry-free when we say it to them 🙂

Necessity vs meaning

Our emphasis begins to shift from what is meaningless to what is meaningful. If we just focus on things like career, wealth, a good social life, relationships, a hot body, etc, when we get to a certain age we experience a crisis. If we make these the compelling narrative of our life, sooner or later, and certainly by the end of our life, we’ll find them to be hollow. Sometimes people despair, they don’t know what they’ve done with their lives. There is even a delusion all of its own about this, called self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development. ~ How to Understand the Mind p. 155

It’s a bit like trying to scoop the foam off an ocean, I think, and trying to make it last. And while we are preoccupied with doing that, we are ignoring the limitless potential of our mind for lasting happiness and freedom, and the vast and profound ocean of Dharma practices that will give us this.

time is running out 1Acquainting ourselves with the thought “I may die today” connects us with the real meaning of our life. It stops us focusing on things that are completely banal, unnecessary, even negative. If we spend the hours not already working surfing the internet or watching Netflix, for example, and it’s not so hard to do, does this bring any real happiness?

What about the things we do need eg, food, clothing, health insurance, etc? Buddha taught four necessities of life: food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These may be necessary, but if make them the meaning of our life, we will neglect cultivating our inner qualities.

Our outer wealth is our possessions, friends, etc, and our inner wealth is our compassion, patience, and so on. Outer wealth may be a necessity of life, but it doesn’t enrich our life. It is our inner wealth that enriches our life. Without love, for example,  no matter how many possessions we have, we feel poor. But with a mind full of love, regardless of whether we have many or few possessions, we feel like the richest person in the world.

Magic pill

magic pillIf you have any problem at all, see what happens if you apply those four words: “I may die today”. If you are worried about something, try saying this to yourself for a couple of minutes – see how you are brought back into the present and recalibrate, focusing on what is meaningful again. If you’re getting angry, repeat these words, and think, “This may be the last time I ever speak to this person! I want it to be a good conversation.” When we are angry with someone, we are assuming on some level that they’re going to be there tomorrow. (Which is why we are angry!)

This thought is like a magic pill — we can use it many times each day whenever we’re unhappy, and find that we naturally come back to this peaceful feeling, centered in the present moment, on what is meaningful.

This magic pill is also very helpful for meditating. If our mind is distracted, we can think, “I may die today, I may die in this meditation”, and see what happens! We build boundaries around that meditation, keeping our thoughts inside the meditation, not outside. This mental habit can greatly improve our concentration.

Meditation

And here is a bit of meditation to bring this together.

We’ll think there is a wall around today and I’m not going to worry about anything outside that wall.

woman meditating under treeWe sit comfortably, and allow our mind to become centered through breathing meditation. We can drop from our head into our heart and feel the peace and potential of our Buddha nature.

We can contemplate the truth, “I may die today, I may die today.” As we do this, we can allow two things to happen. The first is that a boundary begins to form around today – we’ll begin to feel that since I may die today I don’t need to think about tomorrow, and I am not going to let my thoughts wonder outside of this boundary. And we can just enjoy the feeling of peace and happiness that comes from that.

And secondly we will begin to develop a strong determination to focus on what is meaningful, on what makes us truly human. To bring as much kindness, love, patience, and wisdom into all the situations that we encounter today.

Then we remember this for the rest of the day!

(Thank you again to Gen Samten for all his valuable input into this subject. Next installment is here …)

Does time heal?

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

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

We can keep repeating that sentence to stop grasping:

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

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

Meditation

Here is a little meditation to help us do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No room for the past in the present

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

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

The truth will set us free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not abandoning anyone

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

Bubbles

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

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

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

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

Continued here.

Over to you. Comments and feedback very welcome 🙂

Subtle impermanence

(Carrying straight on from Living in the moment.) We can ask ourselves how many of the decisions etc we make are truly new and how many are just impermanence 3recreating the past? Let’s say someone was critical of us yesterday and we became defensive. Then we see them again today. They are a completely different person — today’s person, not yesterday’s —  but we see yesterday’s person and so interact with them edgily and uncomfortably again.

Relating to yesterday’s person and not today’s gives rise to problems as the assumptions we make about them, and the ways we then interact with them, are completely false. And we can end up perpetuating the negativity for days, weeks, or longer. A grudge is a perfect example of this. We sustain anger in the present about a person who has long gone. And it doesn’t help them, or us. Resentment is, as the saying goes, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Two ways to address the problem

There are 2 ways to address the problem of being stuck in the past illustrated in this example. The first is wisdom, cultivating insight into the nature of impermanence and change. The second is determination, combining this insight practically into our daily activities by deciding strongly to stop grasping at the past.

First, wisdom

this too shall passI’m going to spend this article and the next exploring the wisdom of subtle impermanence as explained by Buddha and my teacher Geshe Kelsang (in his books and oral Mahamudra teachings), and incorporating insights from a wise friend called Gen Samten, whom I find to be an expert on this subject.

In general, wisdom is defined as a virtuous intelligent mind that understands a meaningful object. It is not the same as just being smart. We don’t need to know everything to be free and happy — we need to know what is meaningful to be happy. Buddha illustrated this by picking up a handful of leaves in a forest, saying to his disciples that the numerous leaves in the forest represent all that can be known in the world, but the leaves in his hand represent all that needs to be known to attain liberation.

For example, when a king asked his Buddhist teacher for advice that would both lift his mind in adversity and prevent over-excitement and distraction when things were going well, his teacher taught him the simple phrase: “This too shall pass.”

Two different models of change

time lapse 2Do you agree that things change? I think pretty much everyone agrees that everything changes — we even say things like, “Things are changing all the time! Things are changing so fast!” That much is true, but our understanding of what change actually is is wrong.

There  are 2 different models of change, one coming from confusion and one coming from wisdom.

Suppose you walk past a house on way to work every day. That house undergoes changes, cracks appear, masonry falls down, and so on. Why does it change? The bigger changes are happening because moment by moment the building is changing. We can’t perceive that with our eyes, but moment by moment it is changing and we notice the more obvious results of this. We’d all agree with this and this is correct, BUT generally we feel that it is the same basic building that is changing from moment to moment. It has changed a bit but it’s the same house.

It’s the same with the relationship with our significant other. We can acknowledge that the relationship changes but we still feel it’s the same relationship – it’s the same as yesterday’s relationship but has changed slightly.

This thought is confusion because it isn’t true that it is the same building. It is not the same building. It is a completely different building. And the same is true for the relationship — no part of yesterday’s relationship carries over into today’s relationship.

What about us? We woke up, we had coffee, now some time later we’re here reading this, and we feel that I’m the same basic person who woke up this morning and had that coffee. I’ve changed a little bit, but I’m the same basic person.time lapse 3

But this is not true. We are a completely different person. The person drinking coffee and the person reading this now are completely different. Not even an atom of the person drinking coffee exists now. If they did exist, if the previous me had not ceased, where is it, and why are there not two me’s wandering around, one drinking coffee and one reading this?

We are a continuum of moments that are causally related but completely different. So, yes, the person who drank coffee this morning is the cause of the person who is sitting here now, but is completely different. The person sitting here is not that person who drank coffee — that person has completely finished, gone, not even an atom of them remains.

In How to Understand the Mind, page 134, my teacher says:

In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates.

seeds sprouting
Five replacement sprouts

This is the real meaning of change. The person who begins the sentence is not the one who ends it – every single atom has gone by the end. The person who begins a thought is not the same as the one who finishes a thought. Moment to moment to moment we are changing and not even a tiny trace of one moment is carried over into the next. The next moment is completely new, the previous me has completely gone, the person who drank coffee has completely gone. 

Yesterday’s weather has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today. Heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me. 

So why hold onto the past, to something that has completely gone?

weatherUse bigger than smaller chunks of time

It can be helpful to begin relating to this truth with bigger chunks of time and then making them smaller. Where is the child we were? Completely gone. Where is the person we were ten years ago, five years ago, one week ago, one minute ago …? Completely gone. “But it is still basically me!” Only it is not. If it was, the five-year-old you would still be wandering around. But not one atom of that child remains. Not one atom of the you who started reading this sentence remains.

Today is your first day.

Continued here.

Living in the moment

Do you like the idea of living in the moment?

BodhisattvaHow can we do that — live in the moment, in the present, in the here and the now? Buddha had a lot to say on the subject, and in this age of distraction, depression, and worry there seems to be both great interest in and need for his advice. Personally, I have found Buddha’s teachings on impermanence really practical in solving a lot of otherwise seemingly intractable problems or unpleasant feelings; so I want to share some thoughts here.

How much energy do you put into the present?

First, a question to ask ourselves:

How much energy do I spend dwelling in the past or thinking about the future?

50%? 80%? 90%?!

Instead of being present and discovering the beauty and fullness of the moment, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling in the past (living in its shadow) or worrying about the future. Perhaps most of our energy? When we are on our commute, are we in our hearts focusing on the people around us in the here and now, developing love for example — or are we in our heads contemplating what a mess we made at work yesterday and/or worrying about all the things we have to get done this week? Even when we are out supposedly enjoying ourselves in a beautiful place, are we nostalgically missing the last time we came to this place with someone now gone and/or longing for a chance to show someone this place later?

We are constantly distracting ourselves from what is going on right under our noses! We don’t need the advertising industry to take us away from our enjoyment of life as it happens (“you’ll only be truly happy once you get this new car/perfume/iPad” ie, in the future) — we do it to ourselves all the time.

RoseanneI remember when I first came to America and was watching a Roseanne episode in a motel room. I had what seemed like about 4  minutes to get into it before the show broke for loud ads – that interruption was unwelcome enough (in England the ads were not quite as frequent or long-lasting), but then I noticed that the ads were for, guess what, the NEXT episode of Roseanne!! So, rather than just absorbing into the Roseanne in the here and now, I was distracted by the anticipation of the real enjoyment coming in tomorrow night’s no doubt more fulfilling episode.

To me, that postponement of joy to the endlessly receding horizons of future Roseanne episodes, even while I already had a show running right in front of me, illustrated the disconnection caused by our own distracted mind as we sleepwalk through the day wondering what is coming next.

Next question…

What would happen if all that 50%? 80%? 90% of energy was freed to focus on enjoying the present moment?! How alive could we become?

Living in the past or future is not really being alive because — bottom line  — there is no past or future to live in. When we learn to let go of the past and stop procrastinating into the future we connect to the depth and meaning of the present moment, the only moment there is.

Recreating the past in the present

Before we can live a life more centered in the present, we first have to learn to let go of the past. This doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened – it means letting go of the emotional baggage that we have accumulated in our many experiences. In a way our mind has been conditioned to think and act in a certain way, and we bring all of this into our life today. It is as if we allow our past to recreate itself in the present moment.back to the past

Let’s say for example that many years ago we had a relationship that came to a sad end (has anyone not been in this position?!) Maybe we still feel that pain today whenever that person appears to our mind, and — judging by how many sad songs, websites, and so on there are about broken hearts — maybe great pain. And the question comes, “Why, when that relationship ended so long ago and is past — it doesn’t exist anymore — do I still feel pain or anger or hurt or loss when I think of it?”

The reason is that we are recreating the past in the present. The problem isn’t what happened in the past but what is happening right now. Dragging the past into the present, reliving it as it were, is a bad habit we have, which will flavor our mind with sadness and condition other friendships. Holding on like this makes it very hard for us to do anything really new or fresh in our life, and it casts a shadow over our joy. baggage

Some years ago I remember asking an older friend about how long she thought it would take me to get over a break-up. She shrugged, “You never do completely.” As she had gotten divorced over 20 years previously, I was somewhat horrified to hear this; and it had the salutary effect of making me more determined than ever. This is because, as I said to her:

You never do completely?!!! Hmmmm. I intend to get over this completely. Otherwise grief will pile upon grief as life goes on, won’t it? Everyone will end up sadder at the end of their lives.

And this is when I got very interested in Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence as a powerful method to counteract these stale habits, replacing them with a day by day happiness to be alive.

Continued here