Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2019 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

(I wrote this article two years ago — and 2017 and 2018 have proved to be even weirder years in many ways! Retreat is very needed in our world if we have the chance to do some, holding the space for others.)

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 (and 2019, ed) would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally.

Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan 2019

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland. And, now, in 2019, we have the incredible International Retreat Center (IRC) Grand Canyon just opening up, and the opportunity to do anything up to six weeks of Heruka retreat with Kadam Morten.

These IRCs and KMCs all offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2019. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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Dealing with our demons

Light in cellarOf the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)

Monsters in the cellar

It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.

We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)monster in the cellar

Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.

Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.

Moving beyond

We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.

Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.

For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.

One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not shadow 1.JPGthere. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.

More coming later! Meanwhile, please share your comments below on how you deal with the monsters in your cellar.

The force awakens

plane 1
This sunset went on for FOUR hours!

I am writing this in Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport, Dec 31, watching the mass and mess of humanity – including families bustling home after Xmas and, exhaustingly, a youth going to New York just for New Year’s Eve. (As my flight is an hour and a half late, my New Year is now going to commence in the higher sky …)

Family life provides umpteen opportunities to practice patience and kindness, especially when it involves the care of small children or elderly or unwell adults. Notwithstanding that the love in families can be a wonderful thing, and I have just had a very enjoyable time with my parents and other fab family members, my observation has been that family life is challenging at all ages and in all countries.

One drawback of family life can be that we are bound to the same people whether we get on with them or not, that we can get stuck into grooves of thinking and behaving that are not necessarily helpful, and that this can cause underlying frustration even at the best of times. Looking around this airport, a small slice of life, a small slice of time, I can see hundreds of little annoyances and minor desperations. A mother right next to me saying wearily over the sound of her wailing child: “We’ll get him to suck his dummy during take-off if we need to; he won’t eat anything now.” An argument between a couple in Costa. And one full-blown tantrum at the security gate.

I said goodbye to my 81-year old dad at East Finchley tube station this morning, and a woman standing nearby saw that he was a bit mournful as he lumbered back to his car (my dad likes me.) In a South African accent, she asked how old he was, and then pointed out her husband, who is 83, and volunteered, “All our friends are getting older and iller and dying.” Of course, I couldn’t then pass up on this opportunity to chat as I have been thinking a lot of late of the challenges of worldly life; so we ended up traveling together to Warren Street tube where she and her husband got off.

plane 2
Sunset was followed by daylight!

She told me she had read a book called Letting Go, recently, and was experiencing a bit of an “awakening” as she found independence from her husband (only 74, she has decided to go on lots of mini-trips on her own without him if he can’t come with her, for example to Vienna.) She is no longer interested in being taken for granted, used as a hotel, and blamed for everything by her three 50+ kids – I agreed that they may respect her more if she starts to live her own life and respect herself, that she has already done quite enough for them, including giving them their bodies (“and much much more”, she added darkly).

Also, everyone, even those for whom we feel most responsible, has their own path and karma, and so we can only do so much. Her morbidly obese daughter, who was rushed to ER recently, has always blamed her mother for everything, and her mother has always worried herself sick about her; but this daughter is now in the care of professionals and her brother, an ex-Israeli soldier, who is insisting she finally take responsibility for her own life — leaving her mother to declare on the London tube, “I feel free for the first time in years!”

It was a brief encounter, but a meaningful one. She wanted my blog URL, and thought I might write about her; and she may even be reading this now.

Shantideva says that people attached to a worldly life experience many problems with little reward:

They are like a horse forced to pull a cart,
Who can grab only an occasional mouthful of grass to eat.

In the old days of Buddhism, it was more traditional to give up on worldly life altogether and take yourself off to a monastery or a mountain cave. (Tempting!!!) But this is the modern world and, thanks to the patience and skill of my teacher Geshe Kelsang, this is modern Buddhism – so we are finding ways to install mountain caves into our living rooms next to the flat screen TV, Fisher Price truck, or zimmer frame, or maybe in a quiet spot in our bedrooms. Everyone can learn to meditate and follow a spiritual path both on and off the meditation seat; this is no longer the province just of monks and Yogis, and it’d all be over if it was.

plane in sky who takes these photosBeing practical can be helpful and, dealing with an illness, my folks and me did a lot of practical things over the last couple of weeks, adjusting day by day to the “new normal”. But in some ways this confirmed that we cannot solve our actual or inner problems outside the mind.

We need to know how to develop and sustain inner peace as everything slides away from us, basically out of our control. No one ever gets out of here alive, and leaving these bodies, whether quickly or slowly, is usually pretty challenging for ourselves and everyone else concerned.

The pilot (for I am writing this paragraph later, now on the plane, while experiencing an on-rolling sunset!) just described this as a “long-haul flight”; which made me think that we really do have to haul these meaty bodies about all over the place for years, sometimes under our own steam, sometimes with the help of a Boeing 747. Until they fall over and we can’t get them up again.

I have to quote this from Bill Bryson’s latest book that I just brought in WHSmiths at the airport:

The worst part about ageing is the realization that all your future is downhill. Bad as I am today, I am pretty much tip-top compared with what I am going to be next week or the week after. I recently realized with dismay that I am even too old now for early onset dementia. Any dementia I get will be right on time.

However, taking charge of our own minds (while we still can) does require some determination — going inwards to solve our human problems isn’t automatic in our busy, distracted society. Right now, for example, in the airport, I am surrounded by sensory stimulation – music straining to be heard above the noise, ads everywhere, shops galore, and pretty much everyone — except those in a hurry to queue for their planes or vainly trying to stop their children barging into strangers — on their smartphones. I am tuning this all out now to write this.

happiness is my responsibility
It’s not a bad idea (UK English for “it’s a good idea”) to take time off from the constant hectic blare to go inward every day, even if it is only 10 to 20 minutes, or even if it is only the few minutes in the gaps between activities, if we can tear ourselves away from our gadgets.

It is also a good idea, if and when we can, to treat ourselves to some retreat. And I am very grateful that I and thousands of others in this tradition have the opportunity to do just this in January. This is because I find that meditation is what makes sense of everything or anything, including all this ridiculous ageing, sickness, and death stuff. I mean, really, it is so bad it’s almost funny. Bill Bryson says, in what is supposed to be a funny book:

There are other scenarios that involve catheters, beds with side railings, plastic tubing with my blood in it, care homes, being lifted on and off toilets, and having to guess what season it is outside – and those are all still near the best-case end of the spectrum.

Laugh a minute, that. And no one escapes it. Unless … and this is the whole point of the spiritual path … unless we use everything that happens to us to help us increase our compassion (to give us the energy, the motivation, the bliss) and our wisdom realizing that this is all just dream-like appearance reflected by our own thoughts (to get us through the door to liberation). Or, as I like to say:

Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.

Star WarsWe need to escape from the sufferings of samsara once and for all. From the title of this article, you might have been expecting more about the new Star Wars movie; but I’m afraid I didn’t like it quite enough to write more. However, there was one rather excellent line in it I thought (and don’t worry, this is not a spoiler):

Escape first, hug later.

So, back to some discussion of how to do Mahamudra meditation, really awaken the force within (rather than — sorry, spoiler alert — have a lame stick fight in the forest), and get the hell out of here. Only now I have run out of space, and you have other things you need to do; so we’ll have to wait till next time.

Reflections in a clear lake

flying crowMahasiddha Saraha was a Mahamudra master who gave some very helpful analogies to help us settle the mind, explained in Clear Light of Bliss. One is about a crow and a boat. In the olden days, before GPS, sailors would take a crow with them and periodically let it go to see if they were near land. If they were, the crow would not return; if they were not, it would fly around a bit and then have to return to the boat.

(I am continuing from this article on Mahamudra.)

Where do you want to land?

We can be the same with our various distractions – we do not give them anywhere to land. We don’t let them land, we just watch them. They’ve arisen from the mind and are the nature of mind so — although they’ll give us reasons as to why we SHOULD think them, fascinating or useful as they are — if we just wait they will rejoin the meditation object, the mind itself. And we don’t need to worry that we have lost anything, a useful train of thought for example, for we have lost nothing. In fact, we have gained a great deal.

Normally we are very good at giving our thoughts somewhere to land … indeed a sofa to sit on, a house to live in, a bed, a family, a history, a town … Distraction is like poison. If we get sufficiently stuck in one thought it can derail our entire life, it has that power. Any depression or fury that we’ve had started with one thought.

reflection in lakeSo in the meditation on the nature of the mind we learn to let go, and we learn that it is safe to let go, because the thoughts arose from and subsided into our own mind, nowhere else. And once they’re gone they’re gone but we are not missing much, if anything.

Delirium

Bear in mind, after all, that we are hallucinating like crazy most of the time! Whenever we are suffering from the delusions of anger, attachment, and even just our underlying ignorance, the engaged objects of our mind don’t exist, as explained in detail in How to Understand the Mind. I spent time in a ward for people with so-called “confusion” not long ago. Some of the patients were clearly hallucinating like crazy due to infections, “delirious” as the doctors put it, and, you know something, I couldn’t help thinking that they were not really that much more “delusional” than anyone else, it was just that no one was sharing these particular narratives with them. No more than people share our dreams. Not that it was pleasant for anyone concerned, but no hallucinations are pleasant, not really, and they just go on and on and on, which is why Buddhists have had enough and want samsara to end.

Let it be

When we are meditating and we get distracted, eg, by the sound of someone moving around, then instead of going immediately out to this distraction we can remember Saraha’s crow analogy and let it be. We can stay focused on the clarity and know that the distraction will rejoin it. One corner of our mind is observing that a thought is arising, but we also know that it will rejoin the mind. This is the same for any awareness or thought we have – they are all equally mind, or clarity, so however compelling, or however far they threaten to take us away from the meditation, in fact they can’t if we don’t let them.

So we are not conceptually pushing the thoughts away, rejecting them – there is no aversion, we are just letting them rejoin the object and dissolve away, quite naturally. We are relaxed – concentrated for sure, yet in a state of acceptance rather than resistance. And both our concentration and our wisdom are improving all the time.

Being alive

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says that our very subtle mind “holds our life”. It seems to me that when we are tuned into the clarity of our mind, this is really feeling alive. I also think we can do this to a certain extent anytime, not just in deep meditation – be aware of the awareness rather than fixated on its objects. We tend to stay more in the heart too when we do this, which feels more peaceful and spacious.

We do not need to go OUT to objects any more than a lake needs to go out to its reflections – they are mere aspects/appearances. This really helps us stay in the present moment for how can a reflection in a lake be in the past or in the future?

Have you ever noticed what happens when you are starting to feel a bit disturbed or deluded – how your mind wants to go OUT? It starts to feel unsettled. We can feel our energy winds going outwards, if we observe carefully – trying like the crow to find somewhere to land. When we allow ourselves to absorb inward by remembering that there is nothing actually out there to go to, we experience contentment, and eventually non-dual bliss.

We can get a taste of how it is possible to enjoy endlessly, without craving, with the blissful Heroes and Heroines (the Tantric Buddhas) of Heruka’s mandala; and learn to bring everyone else in. As we pray in the Heruka tsog offering:

Please bless me so that I may experience delight with the messengers of the vajra mind family.

Quick meditation on the mind

Here are a few quick pointers to the Mahamudra meditation again.

With a decision to apply ourselves, we can breathe out our obstacles and open up the space in our mind to inhale radiant light, the nature of our Mahamudra master’s fully realized consciousness. We can draw peaceful blessings deep into our root mind at our heart with each inhalation. Through enjoying this process, we allow our own awareness to be drawn in too, until we feel centered within this light, peaceful, experience at our heart. 

While relaxing here, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, thoughts?” So that instead of focusing on these we use them to help us become aware of awareness itself, which is like an inner empty space that has the power to perceive. Then we abide within the experience of the mind itself, recognizing it as the root mind at our heart, moment by moment.

The moment we notice that our mind is distracted outward and wants somewhere to land, we can remember the crow analogy. We can ask, “What is it that is aware?”, and stay inwardly focused on the clarity of the mind.

Fancy winter retreat here at Madhyamaka Centre? It’s near (old) York, in England.

You may or may not have much time to practice this meditation over the holiday period, but I hope these Mahamudra articles so far have given some of you a little appetite for retreat in January 2019 (also Heruka and Vajrayogini month). Meditation retreats will be taking place at residential and non-residential Kadampa centers all over the world, for example in upstate New York. It’s always been my favorite part of the year.

Man’s best friend

Frodo Buddha dog

You may have got the impression that I am a cat person, but that is because you never saw me with Frodo, and he was a mini-Schnauzer. Actually, he was a Buddha emanating as a human in a mini-Schnauzer body, but whatever… the point is, he was not a cat.

Frodo appeared exactly when I needed him. In 2009, I had lost my job, my house, my income, my community, and was staying at the mercy of Frodo’s mom S in the Hamptons (why not! What better place to hang out when you’re penniless?!) for a few months, doing retreat. I was at first a little discombobulated, wondering how to make my life meaningful with only my own mind for company, adapting to a new reality. And along came Frodo, giving me his unadulterated, unconditional adoration. It was some strong karma ripening as he wanted to follow me around everywhere, and I happily let him. His mom was very good about it; she said it was not his fault as I had bewitched him.Frodo on walk

Frodo was always happy to go for walks with me. He was always happy to sit next to me, beside me, on top of me, as I read my Buddhist books in between sessions. He was a little too happy to sit right next to me staring at me whenever I ate — really he did love his (anyone’s) food! And, marvelously enough, he was always happy to join me for any number of 2-hour meditation sessions, his paws reaching under the door if I shut it, scrabbling to be let in. He would sit very quietly on the bed behind me for about an hour and three quarters (and sometimes I could feel him staring at me) … then I would hear a small whimpery noise, and I’d tell him to shoosh. He would shoosh for about ten minutes, and then that little attempt at communication again, this time a little louder and more determined. If I looked behind me at that point, his face would generally be right next to my left shoulder. That is if he wasn’t upside down on the bed entirely blissing out, which is how he spent most of the sessions. We enjoyed our Heruka retreat very much, Frodo and I.

Buddhism and dogsI wrote a few things down about Frodo at the time, so here are a few random snippet memories of getting to know a dog, and a sometimes challenging but beautiful retreat.

A meeting

“Frodo jumped unexpectedly onto my lap today, and stayed there for hours, mainly staring at me. He is very sentient. S was not looking for a dog, but when she popped into the pet store to visit her favorite puppy, he was gone. With a shock, she realized he was her dog, but it was too late, he had been crated away for euthanization (at 5 months deemed too old to be cute.) Luckily, she managed to get him back in the nick of time. I am doing no justice to this story, let her tell it to you.”

Cure for boredom and loneliness

“I’ve never felt bored before, really. However, I felt a little bored and out of sorts after lunch, so I took Frodo for a walk and cheered right up. I was out of sorts about the lack of job or clear future, no community, tinged with loneliness, thinking, “What am I doing?” I examined that I, the one that needs distraction and the suffering of change, and dissolved it away. Everyone has it – the sufferings of boredom and loneliness and the sufferings of change are horrible. There is even a TV series called “Bored to Death” — I saw the billboard when I was in New York. I developed compassion from exchanging myself with those who experience boredom, and it was “real” as it was based on my own experience of suffering. I developed real concern for the suffering of Frodo, and everyone else.Buddhism and boredom

At this stage I dissolved my Spiritual Guide into my heart. If he feels this much love and compassion, he must be desperate to dissolve our suffering away, so I went with that and spent time feeling the bliss. There is no need for the grasped-at-I, including the I that is more concerned about its own boredom than the suffering of those born as animals, in a tsunami, etc. I did a meditation fusing exchanging self with others and emptiness, deciding to become an emanation of Guru Buddha and forget all about my limited sense of self, a self that doesn’t even exist. Then I can spread my sense of self over everyone, starting with Frodo, and dissolve them into my mind of bliss and emptiness. I generate others as Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, which means that I am never separate from anyone (and therefore never lonely.) This, I find, is the perfect cure for feeling lonely and isolated.”

I want you. I need you.

“Frodo came along at a good time. In a few self-pitying moments I would think that no one seemed to want me or need me any more, but Frodo told me with his eyes: ‘I want you to attain enlightenment for my sake. I need you to attain enlightenment for my sake.’ Frodo is my new BFF and how wonderful it is if he can be representative of all living beings, as my object of love. This is such an uncomplicated relationship! I can’t bear to see him hurt, even though it is usually momentary e.g. when I threw the yellow tennis ball for him and it landed on his back and he yelped. I have to get him and everyone else out of the lower realms and out of samsara.”

A dog’s life

“Frodo is powerless – all he can do is whine or bark, he cannot open a door himself, or get himself his favorite treats, and he’s always at ground level having to look up. He cannot read or otherwise really entertain himself. Who owns Frodo’s body? It’d be good to love all living beings as much as I love Frodo. He is an emanation dog for my retreat. He is whimpering ‘Please hurry up and get enlightened!’

“Frodo is not worried about human problems like losing a job. My teacher Geshe-la makes the point that animals are temporarily free from human problems, just as we humans are (only) temporarily free from animal problems. If you pay close attention to people’s lives, naturally empathy and compassion will arise as they are all experiencing problems every day.”

dog is man's best friend

Wake up!

“This morning, Frodo was whimpering in his sleep. I wanted to wake him up. It occurred to me that if you’re going to free someone from a nightmare, you can’t buy into that nightmare yourself. Buddhas see that we are suffering but they also see that it is dream-like suffering, so they try to wake us up.”

Best gift

“It is Frodo’s birthday today! I gave him all sorts of goodies, but my main gift to him, and indeed his back to me, was to exchange myself with him and all other animals all day long. On the beach where S and I took him for his birthday run, we saw a poor fish flapping on the sand, the fisherman oblivious.”

Upside down dog

“Tsog day was lovely with self-initiation and Offering to the Spiritual Guide and an upside-down dog on the bed behind me.”

Mala

“I was with Frodo earlier today when a white labrador bounded up to me on the beach, seemingly with no owner. She followed me for about a mile, until I came across a woman sitting on the beach with her dog, a black labrador. For some reason, she called out “Mala!” and both her black lab and my new white lab bounded up to her. We didn’t think too much of it, but when we looked at the white lab’s collar, her name, too, was “Mala.” And I’m doing a counting retreat.”

Stay here now

“I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.” (Postscript: I often think of this walk when I need a reminder to experience the vibrancy and fullness of the present moment, not dwelling futilely in the non-existent past or distracted by the non-existent future.)

If I ever wanted to tune into love, I could think of Frodo, it worked instantly every time. He was there during my Heruka retreat, and Heruka is the nature of love. At the time I used to reckon that if I loved everyone as much as I loved that dog, I would be enlightened by now. I think that may be true.bodhichitta or bears

Why am I telling you all this? Because Frodo died today.

Please pray for Frodo. May Buddha Tara, whom he loved, take him straight into her heart. Please pray for Dharma, my friend’s brave cat, who also died a few days ago after a long illness. Please pray for Bear, who died recently. Please pray for all our precious animals, who teach us so much, who open our hearts. May they all be happy. May they all be safe. May they all be free.

It all depends how we’re looking at it

dolphins and meditationSo I have recently moved from Florida (80 degrees, wall to wall sunshine, sea breezes, pelicans and dolphins) to Liverpool (frozen lake, not quite wall to wall sunshine, bracing wind, swans and Lambananas.)

Just now I was scooting down the stairs to the World Peace Café that is conveniently placed inside the large house I’m living in, meaning I don’t have to go outside, ever, if I don’t want to. At 3.48pm, it is already getting dark out there, and I was wondering whether to feel sorry for myself when I ran into J on the stairs.

“How are you doing, J?” “Great, thanks.” “What about this getting dark at 3.30, then?” “Oh, I love it! I love the winter.” “You do?!” “Yes, I love it. I love the spring and the summer too.” “Hmmm. I daresay you love the Fall, erm Autumn, as well?” “Oh yes, I love it! I love all four seasons.” Just as I was pondering mentally how anyone could love winter with such enthusiasm, and perhaps he had nothing to compare it with, he added, “I lived in Fort Lauderdale and Miami for three years when I was younger, and it was lovely, but I really missed the seasons!” lambananas in liverpool and kadampa life

“Well”, I told him, “That really shows how everything depends on the mind! And now I’m going to love the four seasons too.” So, dear reader, if you catch me complaining, please remind me of this conversation. As a friend told me the other day, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. (It reminded us of Shantideva’s famous analogy about leather on the feet.)

In the last article on delusions, I talked about the object of delusion. While our delusions are still rampant, there is not an awful lot we can do about objects of delusion. Geshe Kelsang sums this up:

Even if we were to live in an isolated cave there would be some parts of the cave that would appear more attractive than other parts, and some kinds of weather that would seem more pleasant than others. We would soon find ourselves preferring this sort of birdsong to that sort of birdsong, and we would still have all the memories of other objects of delusion. ~ Understanding the Mind

It sounds like a pretty nice idea to me: “I’m going to get away from it all, get away from all these trying people and/or objects of temptation that surround me wherever I go. I’ll go to the countryside on retreat, or on top of a mountain in Brazil or Switzerland, or perhaps even a cave in the Himalayas. Hey, that’s awesome, that’s the answer!” meditating in a cave retreat season in NKT

Actually, it can be very helpful to go away sometimes from our usual environment and work on our minds, for example in meditation retreat. January is retreat month in the New Kadampa Tradition and it provides a refreshing and significant start to the year. However, by itself, getting away from it all is not going to solve the problem because, as they say, wherever we go, there we are. Our deluded mind comes along for the ride.

Cause of delusion # 3, inappropriate attention

As mentioned in this first article on the delusions, there are six causes of our delusions. These are like a chain that bind us to suffering and problems. To break a chain, especially one as strong as this, it makes sense to find its weakest link.

We just saw how the object is not the weakest link – it is hard to isolate ourselves from all objects of delusion because they are going to pop up wherever we take our deluded minds. We can run, but we cannot hide. Sooo, what to do?

Now we come to the weakest link in the chain that binds us to suffering, insofar as it is the easiest one for us to break at the moment. This is very lucky for us. We can work on all six causes of our problems to a certain extent, of course, but this is the one where we can really get in there and stop the course of the delusion.

I keep saying a delusion is an unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind, and this is true, but strictly speaking the actual definition of a delusion is “An unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind that arises from inappropriate attention.” Even if our mind meets an object of anger, say, we will only get angry if we let inappropriate attention develop. delusions distort

Inappropriate attention is that function of honing in on a jelly donut, for example, and exaggerating its power to make our day, or honing in on someone who annoys us and letting our peace be destroyed ostensibly by that person but actually by our inappropriate attention toward that person.

There are many levels of inappropriate attention, from very subtle to very gross. At the moment, whenever we see an object we naturally apprehend it as being inherently existent, as independent of the mind, nothing to do with us. This itself is an exaggeration and the most subtle form of inappropriate attention. It is also our ignorance of self-grasping.

attachment to jelly donutBecause we are grasping at things as if they were outside the mind, we then believe that their apparent desireability or distastefulness inhere in them, and have nothing to do with the way we are perceiving them. If something out there looks nice, we naturally want to pull it toward us, and attachment is born. If something out there looks nasty, we naturally want to push it away from us, and anger or aversion is born. Due to our initial exaggeration of the object’s ontological status as being inherently existent as opposed to a mere projection of our mind, like a dream object, we then engage in even more exaggeration: “That donut out there on the cake dish is really nice (ie, from its own side) – just look at that red jelly oozing out of it, and the sugar sprinklings, and think how well it will go with the Cappuchino from the World Peace Café downstairs?!” This is gross inappropriate attention, leading to attachment.

We can overcome subtle inappropriate attention with wisdom, and we can overcome gross inappropriate attention with mindfulness, alertness, and conscientiousness, applying the opponents to delusions as described here.

More on this subject later … over to you for now 🙂