Lives and leaves

7.5 mins read.

We never really meditate alone. In Mahayana Buddhism, when we sit down to do prayers or meditations, it is customary to imagine countless living beings sitting all around us. Envisaging them in human form for auspiciousness, we recognize that they are in fact the beings of all 6 realms of samsara.

IMG_4787
I’m not a cartoon.

(By the way we’re not expected to visualize them all clearly, in case you were wondering. But just know they’re there, like I know there are people in London even though I can’t see them right now.)

We can have our mom on our left, our dad on our right, our current object(s) of attachment behind us, and our current object(s) of aversion in front of us. Our karmic circle are sitting closest to us, but we feel that there is nobody left out. Our karmic circle can even double up as representatives of everybody else.

The mere act of visualizing this ginormous assembly, however vaguely, starts to broaden our horizons.

We can then forget about ourself for a while and spread our mind over all these living beings, contemplating briefly how just as I want to be happy and free all the time, so do they. I am not more important than they are — we are all the same and equal. Moreover they are countless in number whereas I am just one single person, and so their happiness and suffering are more important than just mine. And they have all been so kind to me, including as my kind mother multiple times over. Thinking all or any of these thoughts, we feel close to them out of love and compassion.

If we spend a bit of time on this, a few minutes, say, our mind is moved even before we get to the refuge prayers or meditation.

Pinpricks in time and space

This Summer a friend explained what she did for this visualization of all living beings, which I find quickly moves my mind; so I have been playing with ever since.

We feel not that we are seated at ground level, as it were, in the very middle of a vast assembly circling out around from us, but are viewing everybody from above, including ourself. We are just one of many, a mere pinprick, no more special. This visualization is not ego-centered at all because we are no longer at the center of anything – and that is why I think it can be so helpful in overcoming self-cherishing.

If one pinprick is important, surely they all are?

deer in Paradise
Deer in Paradise

I have also been picturing how these pinprick beings, including me, are not static but constantly moving around – both within this life, and as they move from rebirth to rebirth in this endless prison of samsara. We never get to stay proximal to people for long. It helps to get a sense of our existential situation – that we are all perpetual travelers from life to life. Where in time and space am I — that one little pinprick – now? Where have I been? Where am I going? It’s the same for all living beings.

And so we need equanimity – to overcome our aversion, attachment, and indifference — because before too long all our relationships will change regardless, and we need that to be under our control.

Leaves in Fall

Which brings me to leaves. It is Fall, and I have been slushing through piles upon piles of leaves, doing this experiment by thinking I am just one of those leaves.

Generally when we are grounded in the perspective of the Me Leaf, center of the universe, all the other leaves are significant or not depending only on where they stand in relation to Me. As it says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

Our ordinary view is that we are the center of the universe and that other people and things derive their significance principally from the way in which they affect us. Our car, for example, is important simply because it is ours, and our friends are important because they make us happy. Strangers, on the other hand, do not seem so important.

IMG_4659“Look at me!” the Me Leaf goes. “I am so unique and interesting – such a lovely yellow color and interesting shape! Such an interesting journey to get here, let me tell you! I am important and ought to be the best off leaf in the forest. I must work toward that. Perhaps you’d like to work for me?”

The bigger our ego, the bigger our sense that the people who are nice to us are important, that strangers are not worth the time of day, and that our enemies are really threatening. “I don’t like those leaves because they look different to me, have different views, and they’re not praising me or scratching my back so they must be out to get me. But I like those leaves because they like my Facebook posts, agree with me all the time, and do what I want them to. And I am seriously bored by all those other leaves except insofar as I can figure out what they might have to offer me.” 

Perhaps we get ourselves into a position with a lot of power over people, but with these 3 poisons all that power does is make those 3 arbitrary categories bigger – more friends or fans, more enemies or people we fear, more people for whom we feel indifference or disdain.

IMG_4658Which is not only a poisonous but stupid attitude given that it only takes someone to march through our pile of leaves, kicking them around, such as the Lord of Death; at which point all bets are off as to who is around us anymore at all, let alone who are our friends, enemies, and strangers.

One day we could be in Paradise with a million dollar house and all the latest luxuries, and the next we could be enveloped in a terrifying fire, perhaps even find ourselves plunging into a hell realm. We cannot say, “That would never happen to me or the people I love!” On what basis can we say that? Those 48 people in Paradise, Northern California who have just lost their lives probably thought exactly the same thing until this week.

Even a tiny shift of perspective changes our positioning on everything and everyone around us. I saw three women painting in the Botanic Gardens the other day – they were mere feet apart in a peaceful place, but their paintings were very different. Had there been 100 painters, there would have been 100 different paintings. Tossed different perspectivesviolently on the turbulence of the four great rivers of birth, ageing, sickness, and death, what chance is there for our current perspective on everything and everyone to survive at all?

Are you having a small or a big day?

One question I like to ask myself each day is “What do I most want today?” And is it about me or about everyone else? If it is about me, for example attachment to someone showing an interest in me, that makes for a small day.

This is the case even if we have all the power or admirers in the world. Not only because we are just one person, but because for others, preoccupied with themselves, it is never about us but about them. From their point of view, our significance derives principally from the way in which we affect them. So, putting ourselves first, we all wander around in a world of one, effectively. No one shares our perspective – we are on our own, like one leaf on the forest floor.

But we can choose to share others’ perspective, ie, they are important, and see life from their point of view, and now we have a big life – it is as if we are now one with ALL the leaves. I was once traveling to an event with a very chatty driver, who shared with the entire busload that he and his wife got along very happily: “This is because we both share the same viewpoint – she thinks she is very important, and so do I!”

treesBy decreasing the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and indifference, we open our hearts to limitless love and connection. We can realize the equality and interdependence of self and others, understanding that we are others and others are us, and in this way feel a bond to each and every one of these leaves vast as space. And with the wisdom realizing that everyone is unfindable and mere name – that they are the same nature as our mind and we theirs — we are never separated from any of them again.

Once we attain enlightenment we abide in the blissful recognition of interdependence, totality, and union. We are no longer cut off and isolated by our self-grasping delusions and mistaken perceptions that cause everyone to appear “out there”, really outside our mind and therefore separate from us.

Both in meditation and whilst wandering around kicking leaves, I have been finding this visualization and contemplation great for expanding my horizons in these various ways. And with Winter on its way, you’ll be glad to hear it also works for snowflakes.

I seem to do most of the talking around here! Would love to hear from you in the comments below 😃

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Giving ourselves permission to be happy

… doing what?

Sometimes our lives are so busy helping others that we get out of the habit of letting go and taking any time to recharge our batteries, and end up thinking it is too selfish to take “me-time” in any case. This ends up ironically, being the selfish choice if we’re not careful because it undermines our ability to help ourselves and others. And there is no excuse for it, such as the martyrish, “It doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not, so long as I’m helping others.” Because it does matter.

Do you love yourself?

We need to have the wish to be happy. Over the decades I was on study programs there was an almost annual debate over Shantideva’s words that all happiness comes from wishing others to be happy and all suffering comes from wishing oneself to be happy, ergo we shouldn’t love ourselves because love is the wish for someone to be happy.

Is this how we feel about ourselves?!

I’ve heard some people also object to the term “self-love” because they see it as a term favored by “new agers” and equate it with self-indulgence, putting ourselves first; and would prefer us to use words like “self-respect” or “self-confidence” instead. As someone put it on Facebook: “Self-love flirts rather dangerously with self-cherishing and is associated with self-indulgence.”

All this, ironically, can feed nicely into self-cherishing’s tendency to beat ourselves up on those occasions we find ourselves feeling good, thinking it must be some kind of mistake to be this happy. Self-cherishing doesn’t really give us permission to be happy, if you check. It doesn’t let us savor the moments of peace, as described in this article, because its existence is threatened by them. It rapidly comes up with pretexts as to why we should start feeling neurotic, deficient and graspy again. It’d prefer us to feel guilt rather than an uncomplicated, unquestioning joy. Self-cherishing is far more at home in an agitated mental territory.

The word “self-love” isn’t found in Tibetan Buddhism or explicitly in the New Kadampa Tradition books, and I’m personally not too bothered whether we use it or not. But at the same time I think it’s important not to assume that because we don’t talk about “self-love” all that much, this means we shouldn’t love ourselves, or that loving ourself (or even self-love) has to mean the same as self-cherishing. (“Cherishing”, of course, is a type of love, the love considering someone to be special or important; so that is another reason for the occasional confusion as to whether or not we should love ourselves.)

I think it makes no sense psychologically or rationally to say we shouldn’t love ourselves. Insofar as living beings always do want to be happy, and even Buddhas possess this wish, this cannot be what Shantideva is referring to. In that quote, he is referring to self-cherishing. This ignorant mind destroys our happiness because it is under the erroneous impression that our happiness is more important than others’, and it forces us to seek happiness in all the wrong ways that lead to suffering.

Renunciation and compassion

If we cannot wish ourselves happiness, and allow ourselves to taste it, then what are we wishing for ourselves? It seems we cannot develop renunciation even with that attitude, and without renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom and lasting happiness) our compassion for others is like a toothless tiger, as Je Tsongkhapa put it. (I wonder if he was the first person to use that expression ;-)) It is not rooted in anything. We need the wish for true happiness for ourselves in order to generate that wish for others. As Eileen Quinn put it: “We need to renounce false happiness and wish to escape to true happiness.” And: “If we don’t have a taste of real happiness/don’t know what it actually is, how can we wish for it for ourselves or anybody?”

We need to want to be happy, really happy. We need to savor the happiness we already have within us, and practice it so that every day it increases. As mentioned in this article, Buddhism is “happiness-training”. If we don’t have this wish to be happy, why are we practicing meditation, and how can it work? It may sound obvious, but sometimes trainee Mahayana Buddhists tie themselves in knots thinking that this wish is now self-cherishing, and they need to get rid of it; in extreme cases they deny themselves happiness. But that wish can be love, and love is always a good thing, even when directed at ourselves. I think it is important to start every meditation with the wish to be actually happy for once. We need to give ourselves permission to be happy.

What we need to get rid of is the self-cherishing mind exaggerating our importance and seeking happiness in the wrong places. We don’t need to love the limited, neurotic self that is the object of self-cherishing, but we do need to love ourselves. We can understand self-love in those terms (so not necessarily in gooey or self-indulgent terms.) As Nicola Williams concisely puts it: “I think I love myself in ways that I shouldn’t and don’t love myself in ways that I should!”

With renunciation, we love ourselves properly for the first time, wishing actual happiness for ourselves through overcoming the delusions including self-cherishing. Self-cherishing wishes for the pretend happiness that Buddha called “changing suffering”, simply satisfying the desires of our ego-driven attachment as in scratching an itch instead of getting rid of it. Mark Thompson says: “I think self-love really means the mind of renunciation. If we understand our natural wish to be happy, and we understand that in samsara there is no true happiness and only suffering, we will develop the wish for liberation.”

universal love

And when we hear the Mahayana teachings, we come to understand that the best way to find daily and lasting happiness for ourselves is to love others even more than we love ourselves. No contradiction. We still love ourselves, we just love others even more. You could say that loving others is an advanced form of loving ourselves! It is a win win, as far as I can see.

Unhappy people cannot help others anyway. (If we try to, we often end up just spreading our own upset and anxiety.)  So for others’ sake we have to wish to be authentically happy and allow ourselves to be happy at every possible opportunity. That is love. Self-love even! So, though I don’t use that word often, I have no problem with it.

Facebook insights

Read on for insightful comments on the subject from Facebook friends:

Here is what Tim Larcombe said most clearly in response to the question “Do you love yourself?”:

Do I love myself? No, but I’m working on the first step – learning to like myself. Not liking yourself is the dirtiest trick of the self-cherishing mind. This mind says “you’re not good enough, you’re not worth much, you’re limited and stuck – but don’t worry, I’ll help you cover it up and get what you want anyway. Just trust me”. Then like a pusher with a junkie, we are held hostage by self-cherishing, thinking that we are not good enough and must obey its every word to survive with, and hide, our faults. Believing we have to trust self-cherishing leads to untold harm for ourself and everyone else.

Liking yourself on the other hand encourages you to identify with your pure nature and unlimited potential. It’s perfectly possible to fully accept yourself and recognise your faults without identifying with them. And if you know some Dharma then you can reduce and finally eliminate them – which is an act of self-love that benefits everyone. The degree to which you can accept and like yourself, is the degree to which you can accept and like others. I can’t see how it can be otherwise, no matter how good we become at covering up the fact that we don’t like ourselves.

Gradually self-liking can develop into self-love. Loving yourself is wanting yourself to be happy. As long as you don’t view your happiness as more important than others’ happiness (as self-cherishing tells you), there is nothing wrong with loving yourself. You CAN love yourself and cherish others at the same time. They are not contradictory. In fact, cherishing others IS self-love because all happiness comes from cherishing others….

… It’s also helpful to remember that our Spiritual Guide finds us worthy of his unconditional love. If we don’t love ourself, aren’t we saying that he’s mistaken? :-)”

I can’t put it any better than that! Thanks Tim.

Eileen Quinn makes some great points too:

“Strange how so many of us find it hard to accept happiness for ourselves.

And having a strong not liking oneself problem is ‘inverted ego’ anyway. Too much grasping/cherishing of self. That’s not a morally judgmental statement in any way because I know this from experience. I think some people are naturally blighted with this sort of thing and some people aren’t and don’t have to try so hard. (Black and white, there are probably shades of grey in between.) So in my better, more connected, moments, I try to turn to the Great Mother Prajnaparamita and use the emptiness mantra to attack this big black spider of self as that will solve all problems….

… ‘Self-love’ to me can even be a form of humility (our self is seen as the same as everyone else’s, no better, no worse, therefore no exaggeration of ego for want of a better way of putting it), far from being the same as self-cherishing.”

Over to you: Do you love yourself?! How many times a day do you give yourself permission to be totally, utterly happy?! Please go ahead and explain why you agree or disagree with all this in the comments, I love a good discussion.

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