The courage to love

hate is easy“I’m ok, I suppose”, said the woman sitting opposite on the train into her phone a second ago, “but just reading about Manchester, it’s really sad. I can’t take much more of this.”

Sometimes we are a little reluctant to keep our eyes open to the suffering of others — we can only do so much of it before we switch channels. You know that thing when some horrible disaster appears on the news and you think, “Oh, no, no, no! Wait a minute, let’s check my Instagram feed, that’s going to be more entertaining at this point.”

At Denver airport en route to London last night, the news of the bombing of young concert goers in Manchester Arena was just breaking. I saw it in the newsagents buying my water, where a pundit (or knucklehead, depending on your perspective) on Fox News was also mysteriously commentating: “It is lucky that we have Mr Trump as our President!” I paused to take heed, then like everyone else I shook my head and thought, “What is the world coming to?” And sooner or later we switch off, don’t we? (Or self-medicate. The young and seemingly underage guy next to me on the plane drank gin and tonics chased by wine, and then passed out. I don’t know his reasons, but I’m sure he was not the only one drinking himself into a stupor last night.)

ManchesterBut there is nothing to fear and everything to gain from extending our love and compassion even and maybe especially in the face of danger — wishing other beings to be happy and free from suffering more and more until no one is left out. We may have no alternative if we wish to be safe. As a friend just posted on Facebook:

So tragic and frightening. So unnecessary and senseless. What can be done – feels so hopeless. Yet a quiet voice calls from the heart, “Now is the time to love – fully, deeply, and fearlessly.” May all beings abide in peace, free from suffering and fear.

At heart all of us have a good nature, as Buddha explained, all of us are in fact pure and very kind; but through trepidation we can hold ourselves back from feeling it: “If I think about everybody’s suffering, I am just going to be overwhelmed and discouraged and depressed, and I already have enough suffering of my own, thank you very much, so I just need to focus on that, and maybe my family, and if I have any time or space in my mind left over then perhaps I can focus on a few other people.” The young woman selling me my Sim card at Heathrow just now said that everyone in England is in a state of melancholy today, and that her father in Northern Ireland wants her to come home right precious human lifeaway, London is too dangerous, working in an airport is too dangerous. But she and I agreed that it is not true that we have to batten down the hatches. We have to live.

And what does it mean to really be alive, I thought? We all have the potential to love everybody, wishing every single being to be happy all the time, and to wish for all living beings, including animals, to be free from all their suffering and its causes. This needn’t overwhelm us, and indeed compassion and love are the “great protector”, Buddha said, protecting us from the discouragement and fear. These minds are incredibly beautiful, even blissful, states of mind that will help us as well as everybody else, eventually leading us to enlightenment, the main meaning of this precious human life.

So what’s holding us back?

love quoteOnce we have heard that we have this potential, what is holding us back? Why might we develop reluctance or fear or apathy about going there? According to Buddhism, it is due to two ego minds. One of those is just basic ignorance, confusion, holding onto a real, solid, absolute sense of self or me. Our world revolves to a large extent, maybe entirely, around Me, Me.

And which me? This me sitting here. The real me, which would be me. Not your me. I don’t even see your me.

And, weirdly enough, you don’t see me when you look at me. You see you or her. Which has got to make us wonder — if no one else at all ever sees this me that is the known center of the universe, where on earth is it?

We are all called me, but when we look around we just see other. We all have our own sense of me, and we feel that this me is the real one. Do we not? If I was to say “Hey, all you reading this, stand up the real me! ” — we would all have to stand up. Because that’s how we see it. Do any of you here reading this think you are not really me? We all naturally think we are really me, do we not? The other me’s are a little bit pretending because I can’t even see them — to me they appear as other and I buy into that appearance wholesale.

“But what’s wrong with that?!”, we may be thinking, “What’s wrong with thinking I am me?” The problem is not with thinking we are me but thinking we are the real me, which means that everyone else is necessarily not me. For example, if left is absolutely left, then right must be right, right?!, not left. And that is generally at the moment how we dichotomize self and others, without even having to try. We don’t see a room full of Me’s, we see a whole room full of Others. We see a whole room full of Them, You’s, He’s, She’s, and, on a good day, maybe We’s.

Dualism

Generally, our strong grasping at self, which is called self-grasping ignorance in Buddhism, immediately throws us into a “them and us” situation. Or a “them and me” or a “me and you” or a “self and other”. It immediately throws us into a dualism – there is me over here and everybody else over there. self-cherishing me better than you

And because we feel that this me is the real me, what happens next? The other ego mind is the self-cherishing that believes that this me is the most important me in the universe. We naturally put it first because we naturally believe that real self is more important than real other. This means that we play along with the assumption that “My happiness and suffering matter far more than yours, than anyone’s.”

Which is pretty wild, if you think about it. For on which planet is it actually true that I am more important than all of you?

I may not fess up to this at a polite dinner party, “Hey guys, did you know I am more important than all of you?” But if we are honest about what we are thinking, are we not generally thinking, ” I am more important than them, my happiness matters more, my feelings matter more, my interests matter more, I am generally more interesting, etc.” ?

self-cherishing 2Or, on the flip side of that, “I am the worst, most boring person on the planet.” Either way, as long as it is about us, we love thinking about ourselves. Actually we hate it, but we love/hate thinking about ourselves. Point is, we can’t help thinking about ourselves at the moment because we keep gravitating towards this me. Why? Because of the habit of ignorance. Our thoughts have been circling around this sense of me, from a Buddhist point of view, since beginningless time. And this is a major, major problem. This is our own biggest problem, and the biggest problem facing humankind. Luckily, it is a problem that can be solved.

As it says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Since throughout my beginningless lives until now, the root of all my suffering has been my self-cherishing mind,
I must expel it from my heart, cast it afar, and cherish only other living beings.

Danger Level: Critical

It is of course easier to keep perspective when the tragedy hasn’t yet reached your own doorstep …  I don’t really know how I would feel if I had a little girl wearing kitten ears who had just been killed or maimed, whether in Manchester or in Syria — I don’t know if my grief would overwhelm my love, I would hope not but who knows. I was also Manchester 2wondering whom I would want to blame and hate — the deranged suicide bomber? the people who brainwashed him? the whole terrorist network? the enabling governments? those who voted for them? Where do you start and where do you end the blame game? Is everyone who has delusions at fault?

It still makes the most sense to blame the enemy of the delusions themselves. The danger level in the UK has been raised to critical, indicating more attacks on their way — but the real danger is the one still lurking in our own mental continuum. I also think this Facebook comment makes an important point:

If this kind of atrocity leads to hate and fear growing in your mind then their mission is accomplished, they win. Do not put everyone in the same group based on the actions of an individual, this is the very epitome of prejudice. Treat every person as an individual, judge them on their own actions. There is far more that unites us than divides us.

Right this moment, seemingly at leisure in the heat-drenched Norfolk countryside, I do have a choice to make when looking in the mirror of these tragic appearances – to give in to danger or to work to overcome it at its core. If I let the self-grasping Them and Us mentality stick around in my mental continuum, there is no guarantee of my safety:

In the cycle of impure life, samsara,
There is no real protection from suffering.
Wherever I am born, either as a lower or higher being,
I will have to experience only suffering. ~ Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra

sowing seeds of loveThis was an extreme deranged manifestation of “me vs them” displayed by the suicide bomber, who in all likelihood is going straight to a hell realm hallucinated by his own self-appeasing hatred and negative actions. However, none of us is safe in samsara from committing negativity while we remain with delusion and an endless history of negative karma in our minds. So, do we give in to these bad habits or keep trying to fly in the face of fear? Loving and praying for each other more, not less, starting perhaps with those in today’s firing line and working together wisely, creatively, and consistently to create purer minds and purer worlds?

Comments are welcome — what do you think about all this?

Related articles

Delusions are our real enemies  

Using a Lamrim meditation to make sense of the senseless 

The age-old foes of our people 

A Buddhist meditation for coping 

What can we do about tragedies?

 

 

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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Happiness is here right now

 

 

 

 

 

 

What can we really know about anyone?

We always think we know stuff about people — cheesman-park-2yeah he’s really annoying, yeah she’s boring, yeah he’s great, etc. Occasionally we find ourselves hopelessly confused, for example when a friend becomes an enemy or a stranger and we are not sure how that happened, “What happened?!” — but generally at any given moment we accept the appearances of friends, enemies, and strangers for what they are. Or, rather, what they seem to be.

Contemplating equanimity is fantastic for shaking us out of our grasping at both permanence and inherent existence.

And … it clears the space for a heartfelt understanding that, just like us, everyone else wants to be happy and free from pain.

For what else do we really know about them?!

Let me explain a bit more.

Equanimitycheesman-park-1

As described more here, we see how those categories of friends, enemies, and strangers into which we are constantly placing people are not remotely fixed – they are changing all the time due to impermanence, and also because whether someone is a friend, enemy, or stranger says far more about our own projections than what is actually going on. Indeed, nothing is really going on. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Meaningful to Behold:   

It is extremely short-sighted and ultimately very mistaken to think that anyone is permanently or inherently our friend, enemy, or stranger. ~ page 24

So, given the facts of both impermanence and emptiness:

If these three positions are so temporary and variable – then who is the proper object of our attachment or hatred?

Not just in this lifetime — we have been around since beginningless time projecting stuff on people, everybody. Let me tell you a quick story.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged had immortality thrust upon him.

“Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards.”

Anyway, Wowbagger decided during one long dark teatime of the soul, around 2.55 on a Sunday, to insult everyone in the universe — in alphabetical order.

On his spaceship, Wowbagger:

“gazed at the fantastic jewelry of the night, the billions of tiny diamond worlds that dusted the infinite darkness with light. Every one, every single one, was on his itinerary. Most of them he would be going to millions of times over.”

Point being, over infinitely prolonged beginningless time, we have been doing this too! We have insulted everyone in the universe. We have slept with them. We have both slept with and insulted them. We have done everything with everybody.

On this particular trip he was on his way to insult a small slug by calling it a “brainless prat”.

That’s one thing, impermanence. And there is also emptiness to consider.

Infinite versions

If things are not fixed, and cannot be found outside the mind, you could argue that there are infinite versions of every situation and person. Even seemingly factual labels, such as “This is my husband or my boss or my President” have nothing real behind them. I saw a picture of the US President with his daughters the other day and I thought how he is a gazillion things – everyone is calling him something different. Stand up the one and true Barack Obama. Impossible.

cheesman-parkOr sitting in nearby Cheesman Park writing this – for me, a pleasant leafy place with wafting breezes; for that dog with the Frisbee, a playground; for the person who just approached me to canvass for the democratic party, an opportunity to get out the vote; for the more than 5,000 or so unclaimed bodies still buried under the ground, I’m not quite sure what. That is just two blunt illustrations amongst countless subtle variations. (Pics of said park liberally scattered through this article.)

We all have our own labels or versions of the people in our lives, and what we may sometimes forget is that so does everyone else. We might get possessive of our version, thinking it’s the only real person or the only version that counts, “This is MY husband, that’s who he is” — but try telling that to his mom, his best friend, his cat? Not to mention all those who knew previous versions and will know future versions.

So, we project our own stuff on everybody we meet – creating friends, enemies, and strangers over and over again. And this destroys our peace, causes us a lot of trouble, and blocks us from really helping people. We yearn for our objects of attachment to come here and make us happy while wanting our objects of anger to shut up and go away. But carlin-american-dreamprojected people can’t do anything from their own side to help us further our wishes for happiness and freedom, any more than can an actor on a screen.

So, what can we do?

If people are not permanently nor inherently friends, enemies, and strangers, what ARE they? What DO we know about them, really?

Only that they want to be happy all the time and free from suffering. Just like us.

Yup. That we can know.

One of the most amazing things I find about this way of thinking is the amount of space and freedom it opens up to abide with the minds that help me, instead of wasting time and cheesman-park-3peace being sidetracked by the three poisons. As Geshe-la says in Joyful Path

Equanimity reduces our attachment and hostility, but it does not reduce our liking and our love for others.

Quite the opposite. With equanimity understanding impermanence and projection, we now have the space to consider how others feel about things, rather than how we do, stepping into their shoes and walking through doorways to interesting new worlds based on appreciation, respect, affection, rejoicing, compassion, and empathy. Instead of staying confined to the claustrophobic spaceship of “me, me me”, our mental horizons are broadened on the way to the all-pervasive compassion and omniscient wisdom of a Buddha.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

 

 

 

Changing our world and ourselves through compassion

Geshe-la with baby deerThe Western scientific world, or at least some of it, is catching on to the benefits of compassion. According to this article:

Practicing compassion with intention has a positive physiological effect on the body. It can lower blood pressure, boost your immune response and increase your calmness… Other studies show it can be protective against disease and increase lifespan.

And this next one has got to be a clincher, right?!

Brain imaging reveals that exercising compassion stimulates the same pleasure centres associated with the drive for food, water and sex.

I knew it! Give me compassion over attachment any day. Especially universal compassion. Moreover, whether we have love or compassion for someone depends on us, not them. Compassion can therefore become a guaranteed source of pleasure — unlike food, water, or sex, which can and do also cause us pain.

If you are uncertain as to how compassion can be pleasurable, it might help to think about how and why love is a happy mind — as we get that already — and compare that to compassion, which is just the other side of the coin. So, with love, we do focus first on how others do not experience the happiness they long for — but the actual love is the wish for them to be happy, and this wish feels great. Similarly, with compassion we do focus first on others’ suffering to develop the wish for them to be freed from it, but the actual compassion is the wish for them to be free – and this wish feels good too. And solution-oriented.

suffering

As you have probably noticed, there is no shortage of people to develop compassion for. Buddha pointed out that there is no one with an uncontrolled mind who is not a suitable object of compassion. Why? Because uncontrolled minds = suffering. Every single person and animal is suffering. Most are suffering a great deal. And this is not just now, but pretty much all the time, life after life. Therefore, everyone can be the object of our compassionate wish, “May they be free.”

Hang on, universal compassion is a bit of a stretch, surely?!

Does universal compassion seem pie in the sky to you right now? Try this simple experiment for me – just close your eyes and develop the thought, “May everyone be free from suffering and its causes.” Don’t think too much, just do it for a couple of minutes.

PAUSE FOR TWO MINUTES

Did you manage it? Amazing if so, because that is a mind of universal compassion. If we had that all the time, imagine! Even a minute or two is encouraging for it shows we are capable of developing these vast beautiful minds, we are capable of thinking of others when we put our mind to it. Imagine always having this thought, and imagine it becoming deeper and vaster – you’d actually be a Buddha.

In fact, whenever you are developing compassion you can feel that it is inseparable from the compassion of all enlightened beings, and let their blessings pour into you while you are at it.

Being able to develop compassion like this, even if briefly, even if relatively superficially, shows that we have Buddha nature, the potential to be a fully in the heart of even the cruellest person...enlightened being, who has completely realized universal compassion. It is one of a Buddha’s two principal ingredients, the other being wisdom. And there is no living being who does not have this potential. Even Western science, in its own way, is figuring out that compassion is part of our very make-up:

Not only are we hard-wired to be kind, but it is essential for the survival of our species…. People are much happier and live a better life if they are able to maximise their genetic potential for being compassionate, and it has a significant contagion effect on others, motivating them to be more kind….

and

There is an emerging mental health movement relying less on pharmaceutical interventions and more on innate human traits such as empathy, altruism, kindness and resilience.

Also, having compassion not just for the symptoms but for where suffering is coming from, its causes – wanting everyone to be free from their delusions and contaminated karma — is an even more solution-oriented and pleasurable mind. Through training, this wish is perfectly possible and a very desirable state of mind to cultivate.

I like watching videos of people and animals being compassionate, it is one of my favorite uses of Facebook. I am not alone, millions of people do. I think it shows how pleasing compassion is to us.

More articles on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, please contribute your comments on this lovely subject.

Breaking the ties that bind

letting go 2Now that we have developed some wisdom on the subject of subtle impermanence, we need to use the second approach, which is making a determination.

We are in such a bad habit of grasping at the ties that bind, even when this is painful and we already know on one level that it is futile. So we need to be a bit determined now, to push our mind, to strong-arm it, telling it, “Stop! Stop grasping at the past!” One thing that you might like to do is to say, almost like a wrathful mantra:

I will stop grasping at the past because it no longer exists.

We don’t just say it gently, we say it strongly. And we can spell it out more: “I will stop grasping at past me, people, and situations because they no longer exist.”

  1. I will stop grasping at past me

For example, let’s suppose we were in a conversation earlier today — and we like to come across as intelligent but we said something stupid. Now the other people have all moved on in this conversation, but we’re back five minutes ago, “Why did I say that, what was I thinking?!”, writhing in embarrassment. At that time we need to say, “I will stop grasping at that me because it no longer exists.” Why are we tormenting ourselves? Let’s just enjoy the conversation. So impermanence allows us to move on moment by moment, not tormenting ourselves but living life newly.

  1. I will stop grasping at past people

Or maybe we meet someone, we like them, maybe it even gets serious; and then 18 months later we say, “You’ve changed!” It’s like an accusation – “You’re not the person I got together with, you’ve changed!” Well come on, duh. Of course they’ve changed, moment by moment. So have we. Why is that a problem for us? Because we want them to be that person we were interested in 18 months ago. So the problem is not impermanence 2that they’ve changed, but that we are grasping at how they were; and if we stopped grasping at how they were we might find we are quite happy with how they are now. So at that time we need to remember subtle impermanence and think, “I will stop grasping at this past person because they no longer exist.” Why hold onto something that isn’t there?! That person isn’t there!

  1. I will stop grasping at past situations

Also, how much time do we spend living in past situations, feeling nostalgia, melancholy for what we have lost? Perhaps we feel that all the good times are behind us, that the happiest time of our life was the summer of  ‘69. And at that time we need to say, “I will stop grasping at past situations because they no longer exist. Why am I grasping at something that is not there?!” We keep telling ourselves this till our mind changes. And our mind will change, very much for the better.

Analogy of a tug boat

To expand on stopping grasping at other people … Let’s say the other person has become less interested in you, but you hold forlornly onto the relationship as having life because you are relating to the past relationship still, not the present one. I don’t know if this analogy will help you but it has helped me before. Let’s say you are a boat on the ocean, joined by a rope to another boat. At first the rope is slack as you’re both being pulled along by similar karmic currents and winds, so a lot of the time you don’t even notice the rope is there. But after a while you find you have effectively become a tug boat pulling along a second old (moreorless reluctant) boat, and the rope is sliding through your hands. Perhaps, as they start drifting off, you get a few currents making it appear as if you are both still alongside; but they are slowly pulling away, the currents of karma and changing minds being what they are. You have rope burn, and one day you think, “I am just going to let go!” There is relief and lightness as you both sail off, wishing each other well on your way. We can once again enjoy the space around us, the blue sky, the sunshine, unfettered.

tugboatWe can love that person from then on in the moment, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. We are still grateful for the lessons they taught us. And we also have more energy and attention now for the other people and animals around us who need and want our love, because everyone needs and wants love.

Going with the flow of subtle impermanence is great because as soon as we let go of grasping no further thought is required. No rationalizations. No elaborations. We can make the most of the new moment without thinking too much because there is nothing there to think about, eg, “Should we stay friends? How are we supposed to do this? What if this happens? Maybe she does like me but just didn’t get my message? Surely something here is worth preserving? What do I do when we bump into each other again?” etc. The moment we truly let go, the endless speculation — all our conceptual bubble-like thoughts — dissolve away into the clarity of the mind; and we have lightness, freedom, and life.

Due to habits, we may find ourself still tugging from time to time, still experiencing some rope burn; but we will be able to let go more easily if we revisit our wisdom and our determination: “I will not grasp at this past person or relationship because they do not exist.”

And, you know what? We come to enjoy letting go every bit as much as we enjoyed clinging on, in fact a great deal more.

Ocean of love and wisdom

Leonard CohenNow this might be taking this tugboat analogy too far but, like I said, it works for me. The tugboats are being tossed around on the vast ocean of the root mind. Our mind and its appearances are changing all the time due to karmic potentials or seeds ripening, like waves and currents in an ever-changing ocean.

As Buddha said, all meetings end in parting. This is because appearances inevitably change but, you know something, the love can remain.

This is because love and wisdom are like the ocean itself.

Buddhas and Yogis have learned this and can therefore love everyone literally unconditionally, not affected by the superficial vagaries of changed circumstances or appearances. And so can we.

When we have a taste of pure love, wishing others to be totally happy, we can understand too that it is Dharma Jewel and no different to the ocean of love possessed by the Buddhas or by the Sangha, spiritual friends past and present. We can experience immutable refuge and happiness in the vast and profound ocean of love and wisdom, despite the ever-changing world.

Do we want to mourn something we can’t have, ie, happiness from something that has disappeared, or do we want to fully enjoy what we DO have, ie, the peace and bliss of our own mind? In his Mahamudra teachings, Venerable Geshe-la teaches us to dissolve all conceptual bubble-like thoughts grasping at permanence into the peace and clarity of our own mind. We really enjoy that profound peace. Then, day by day, moment by moment, we can also enjoy all the appearances that arise from that mind.

Thank you again to Gen Samten for his insights. Still more on this subject here! Hope you are finding it helpful because I am 🙂 Please leave comments below.

“I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

I like millions of others around the world am very sad that such a great being departed today. He is leaving a hole in too many hearts to count. President Obama said it the other day:

He is personal hero. But I don’t think I am unique in that regard. He is a hero for the world.

For decades, Mandela has been one of my greatest heroes – a shining example of how it really is possible to be a very good person, full of patience and love, and yet because of this, not in spite of it, able to effect enormous changes. He showed a different paradigm for dealing with conflict that resonated around the world.

I was trying to think today of anyone else in my lifetime who has been so universally well regarded and appreciated for their good qualities. I can’t think of anyone. My friend’s face dropped when I told her, and I knew it’d be the same if I told anyone else in the Denver coffee house where I heard the news. Around the world, I believe, the news, “Have you heard that Nelson Mandela has just died?”, is being met only with dismay.

President Zuma called him “the father of democracy” in South Africa. I believe he was a bona fide Bodhisattva in our midst, an obvious guiding light on the world stage, who managed to pull off the seeming impossible in South Africa and inspire people everywhere to behave just that little bit better.

I could talk about his good qualities all day. I hope and believe that others will be rejoicing in him today in the global media, in a thousand more qualified tributes–but I would like to join in. I sometimes think that the best way not to miss someone so important to you is to try and adopt his or her good qualities as your own. If everyone who loves him took on even a fraction of Madiba’s qualities, the world would transform overnight. For me, amongst many good qualities, it was Mandela’s genuine patient acceptance and strength that inspires me the most and that I would most like to possess myself.

A tribute from a South African friend

nelson mandela fear quoteI had quite a number of close South African relatives and friends. A good friend teaches Buddhism in Cape Town. My key ring is the South African flag in the shape of a miniature sandal that I bought in Langa. I visited a few years ago, finding Cape Town to be the most beautiful and yet most incongruous place – the stunning natural beauty sitting side by side with the appalling aids-abetted poverty of Langa and other townships. I shared a birthday with Nelson Mandela. I named a beloved cat for him. I have some connection with South Africa, but an old friend of mine has even closer karma with it as he was born and adopted there. I want him to do the honors, therefore, and include here something he said about Mandela in the context of patience some years back.

The patience of non-retaliation

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

I see difficult people and the suffering they cause as apparently unpleasant, yet actually useful, because without them I could not practice patience. I want to become more patient because it brings me great peace of mind and helps me make spiritual progress. Who will help me to increase my patience? The people causing my difficulties! Actually, they exist for my benefit. They behave appallingly because I require and want them to for my spiritual well-being. I owe them.

mandela in prisonThe people who inspire me most are those who transcend seemingly unforgiveable grievances and end up helping millions of people – heroes like Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and my own Teacher Geshe Kelsang (who had to flee from his homeland). I was born in South Africa about the time Mandela was sent to break rocks in Robben Island, and I was 27 by the time he was released. Those first 27 years of my life felt like a really long time, and I would often wonder how “Madiba” was doing?

If anyone had a right and provocation to be angry, it was he. Yet he famously left the prison with a huge heart of forgiveness and love that saved an entire nation from a bloodbath. How did he do it? He said it was by patiently understanding that he was working for a task greater than himself.

He also had a huge sense of personal responsibility, as can be seen in the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus that helped him through the long years of captivity:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

To practice non-retaliation involves compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and also its causes, delusions and negative karma. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. Negative karma refers specifically to the negative mental intentions that motivate each negative action we perform, and it is these intentions that sow the actual seeds for the experience of suffering. Think about how much negative karma angry minds and angry people create, thus sowing the seeds for intensely unpleasant experiences to manifest in their future. I don’t have to make it worse. young Nelson Mandela

Instead of thinking “This is an angry person,” we can think, “This is an unfortunate person who is being controlled by their enemy of anger.” By never seeing faults in people, Buddhas are able to maintain their love and compassion for them at all times. Anger is the enemy; the person is not. Compassion for them, not more anger, is the best response.

Perspective
Mandela quote about love
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

As a Buddhist, I too am trying to work for a task greater than myself – enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Suffering is all relative. As it says in Meaningful to Behold, we have experienced aeons of great suffering but it has not bought us any benefit. Now is different because we have a different perspective on what we are trying to get out of life:

We have the unique opportunity, by enduring comparatively insignificant suffering, to work for the benefit of others and thereby attain the supreme state of enlightenment.

We can therefore joyfully accept the hardships we face – which doesn’t mean gritting our teeth and putting up with it, but actually accepting fully and happily, without judgment or disapproval, whatever arises. We can do this if we are confident that we can learn to use absolutely any situation to train our minds in wisdom and compassion, thus bringing an end to suffering.

In Mandela’s broad smiles as he left the prison in friendship with his captors, I find that he discovered this truth.

Mandela quote about freedom of othersAs a Buddhist, I too am striving for a superior intention that takes personal responsibility for freeing all my kind mothers from their suffering and its causes. I have therefore learned from Nelson Mandela and seen in his actions, with my own eyes, how patience is possible if I keep this big perspective. And it was because of this patience, not in spite of it, that he also got everything done, as he could work toward getting everything done all the time without being derailed by anger. Patience is not a passive, doormat state of mind that leaves us standing there doing nothing. It is an active, dynamic, and immensely creative state of mind that enables us to accomplish all our tasks.

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

Wherever you are now, I believe you will still be helping people. I am not worried about you, only the rest of us.

I don’t want to say goodbye. I have been dreading this day. Everyone is so sad. Zuma said “We need him with us.” I agree. But as we cannot have him with us, we can at least let his inspiring qualities live on.

The greatest tribute I believe we can pay Nelson Mandela is to become more like him.

The sooner, the better.

__________________

(Please feel welcome to leave your own tributes in the comments.)

Thank you for being there

I just finished an Annie Chun’s All Natural Asian Cuisine noodle bowl, bought not inexpensively at the local Whole Pay Packet, I mean Whole Foods (who went and put such a money-sucking store right next to my house?!) It was kind of untasty to tell the truth, seriously it looked nothing like the picture on the packet, but it only took three minutes to make, and has kept me fed for another couple of hours so I have the energy to write this. So far in all the days of my life I have been kept alive by mountains of food already, all provided to me by the kindness of others – at least, I sure didn’t have anything to do with my noodle bowl other than buying it with dollars given to me by others, warming up the water in a kettle provided by others, using water from goodness knows where coming out of a faucet whose plumbing I had zero to do with, and putting it in my mouth (provided by my parents) with a fork manufactured by others. And of course that is just scratching the surface of all the causes and conditions that went into my supposedly “instant” dinner and my ability to eat it.

kindness of others Buddhism

Just in the last ten minutes I have been entirely dependent on others, and I could take any ten minutes in my day and never get to the bottom of it. As Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness, we are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves.

Mountain reflections

Buddhism home is where the heart isI saw a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker recently in the Rockies (where I live now!) Where am I native to, I thought? I seem to be a bit of a nomad. But I think I may be indigenous to the land of others’ kindness. We are all indigenous here. We are born into it naked, with nothing, and then supported by it. It is quite a big world. Can feel at home anywhere if we remember.

I was marveling at the feats of human ingenuity – the roads, tunnels, and bridges carved goodness knows how through the mountains next to the rivers, rocks, and frozen waterfalls, past Glenwood hot springs and the place called No Name, a Starbucks (yee haa!) in every wild west town. I watched the wheels of vehicles rotating on the highway as a moment by moment testimony to other people, each inch of the meeting of tire and asphalt coming from their kindness – I didn’t pay for even an inch of the journey between Denver and Grand Junction.

Buddhism in ColoradoI glanced at the driver – on the surface it looks like a driver is in charge of turning the steering wheel, but in fact the wheel has to turn in dependence upon the curving road, which is entirely dependent on others – not even the coolest driver has any autonomy. Driving, like any of our activities, merely reflects off a vast narrative of causes and conditions, karmic and environmental, just carved into the scene as a whole – the driving in this instance not other than the mountains, and the mountains not other than the drive. So with no inherently existent driving in all that, no findable driving, where is the inherently existent driver? Our constrained and seemingly findable self, whatever we are doing, is just an hallucination of self-grasping and self-cherishing.

These kinds of contemplations on our complete dependence on others and on our environment, which we can do anywhere, help us feel closer to others — more in our heart, and less fixated on a heady, dualistic sense of me and them. (Funny how the more in the heart we are, the more we feel connected with the whole wide world.) They also increase our wisdom understanding emptiness, that nothing exists from its own side.

There was a gold rush out here once. Didn’t amount to much (though I believe they found some silver). But as Buddha pointed out, if we were a pauper living our whole life in a hovel, we’d be pretty delighted if someone showed us that we had a gold mine right beneath our feet. The gold of our Buddha nature has always been inside us, we simply haven’t known. And we can mine these seams of limitless wisdom and compassion through contemplations on the interdependence of ourselves and others.

(As you are probably guessing, I might have had too much time to think on that journey – ten hours in a car, caught in a blizzard, my thoughts meandering along with the winding roads … surely I am practically a native of the Western Land of the Snows myself now?!)

Buddhism and meditation in the Rockies

Is anyone not kind to us?

I think that is what Thanksgiving is about, remembering the kindness of others. I suppose it is customary to remember the kindness of our nearest and dearest as we gather around the laden dining table, but we can also remember the kindness of strangers, and why not even of enemies?

Attentive friends and family are obviously kind to us in ways we can recognize (at least, if we notice in the first place). When we meditate on our dependence on all living beings, we realize that strangers are very kind too, eg, Annie Chun and co, the road and railway company, etc.

What about people who annoy us or even set out deliberately to harm us? They are arguably the kindest of all as they allow us to practice patience and unconditional love, qualities we need for lasting happiness and freedom.

We watched the Life of Atisha in Cascais, Portugal, at the Kadampa Buddhist Fall Festival the other day – a truly insightful script and well executed production directed by the talented Olivier. There was a lot of good acting, but Atisha’s cook arguably stole the show. Atisha took this rude, obnoxious servant all the way with him to Tibet and, when the Tibetans asked him why, replied:

Without this man, there would be no one with whom I could practice patience. He is very kind to me. I need him!

Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

Atisha understood that the only way to fulfill his deepest wish to benefit all living beings was to achieve enlightenment, and that to do this he needed to perfect his patience. For Atisha, his bad-tempered assistant was more precious than material possessions, praise, or any other worldly attainment. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

We don’t need to have a servant to practice patience, there will probably be someone willing to fit the bill amongst our parents, partner, or children over Thanksgiving, or our boss and co-workers back at work next week. If anyone tries to start an argument over the holiday, you could try just playing about with offering them the victory and see what happens. I think it is often not the content of an argument that is the issue (especially when we’ve overeaten and feel grumpy)–it is the emotional luggage and inappropriate attention. Diffuse this and the content can often take care of itself.

Kind just because they’re therekindness of others in Buddhism

Shantideva says that others are kind just because they are other – because they are there, really! If they are there, we can cherish them, and if we cherish them we experience happiness both now and in the future.

As Mark Twain put it:

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

I borrowed a cat this morning, here in Denver, called Bella. She is a cuddly little grey fur ball, who sat on the fire escape crying to be let in my attic window, and then lay peacefully next to my leg as I meditated. In Buddhism, we never meditate alone – we don’t have to have an actual cat (or human) sitting next to us, but we always think we’re surrounded by countless living beings. It takes us out of ourselves, makes the meditation flow better.

kindness of others ShantidevaFor as long as there are people around you, or even just one person, we can be cherishing others and making our life meaningful and happy. Big heart translates into big action. One analogy Geshe Kelsang uses is that even if all we are doing is putting crumbs on a bird table, if we do it with great compassion our action is far more powerfully beneficial than giving a diamond ring to someone out of attachment.

This next bit is old news, and wide rivers have flown under the bridge since then; but it is when I became 100% convinced of the advantages of cherishing others in times of crisis, so I’ll share it. When I was fired from my very enjoyable long-term job several years ago, I relied upon those around me to bring me out of it – not by expecting them to do anything, but simply by serving as my immediate objects of cherishing to take me out of myself, to help me keep moving onward and upward. I would not just survive, in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I was determined to thrive. I remember the moment I received my firing letter. Immediately I had perspective as it was the same morning that my dear friend Trish died of cancer, died most beautifully I might add, with a smile on her face and with the faint euphoric words over the phone the night before: “L, this is all just appearance! Geshe-la is everywhere!” News travels fast, but not that fast, and before she found out another friend came to me in tears of guilt about losing a precious gift a friend had given her, and then another friend came to me in tears seeking advice on how to communicate better with her husband. Later they both said words to the effect: “So sorry to dump on you, I had no idea you’d just been fired!” but they didn’t know they were being the kind ones, allowing me think about others in my hour of need.

Kadampa Buddhism in ColoradoAnd I continued as I meant to go on, deciding that the only way not to go doolally would be to firmly and stably put myself in everyone else’s shoes. Self-cherishing is like trying to keep your balance on high pointy (just focused on one person, me) Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos; loving others is like wearing solid flat (focused on lots of people, others) Doc Martens. When you find yourself navigating uncertain terrain, lumpy, full of potholes, treacherous in places, believe me you’d far rather be wearing Doc Martens. It worked every time I did it (which was a lot due to desperation); and I know I’m more stable and confident now thanks to it.

Thanks, in fact, to others.