Being kinder to ourselves and others

7.5 mins read.

I thought we’d start by looking at why we really need to do something sooner rather than later about this inner critic — or inner bully — which is always putting us down.

not way to relate to potential
Not the way to look at our potential.

Carrying straight on from Silencing the inner critic. 

As part of anger, it is a toxic inner poison, so no wonder it leads to so many problems. Anger is a distorted unrealistic mind, so how can it serve any useful purpose?

Destroying our confidence, self-dislike and over-critical self-judgment blocks our creativity and inspiration, and therewith can sabotage not just our careers but our spiritual practice.

It deadens our relationships – keeping us trapped in relationships where we might put up with the other person criticizing or abusing us, because we feel we “deserve” it.

A quick Google search shows that it leads to shame, sadness, self-doubt, fear, hopelessness, irritability, frustration, and learning and memory problems. We get depressed, suffer from lower energy, experience constant anxiety, and engage in self-destructive behaviors. For example, if we believe we are hopeless and cannot stick to a diet, we may just as well eat those six donuts – it’ll provide temporary relief at least!self-hatred like cancer

We become our own worst enemy, but it doesn’t stop there – it can make us criticize and complain about others as well, making enemies of them. This can be because, when we are feeling irritable, everything appears irritating. Then people don’t like us and we end up liking ourselves less too, in a negative spiral.

Constantly complaining about others or ourselves is bad for our mind and for our body (Google it!). Experiencing anger and frustration causes our body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, a weakened immune system, and the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Need I go on?!

Putting others down can also be an attempt to distract ourselves from our own perceived inadequacies, or an attempt to bolster our own self-esteem. If we liked and valued ourselves, would we really need to put others down to raise ourselves up? No self-respecting person actually feels the need to do that.

Toward a healthier society

Collectively, I would submit, a lack of self-respect and self-liking has led to a painful lack of respect and liking for others on a societal level. This incredible new documentary on PBS recently examines the century following America’s Civil War, and has affected me quite deeply. (If you live outside the United States, it is available for purchase on DVD here.)

Reconstruction

Among many other things, this 4-part series shows me how oppressing or dehumanizing other people to deal with our own feelings of inadequacy leads to frightening hypocrisy, self-deception, and societal problems; and how it is little wonder that so many African Americans experience not just less opportunity but also report to feelings of low self-esteem, given this nation’s long violent history of systemic racism. This documentary has given me a far clearer picture of the factors at play in many of the problems faced in America today.

In a section on overcoming self-cherishing in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

It is often so painful to admit that we have faults that we make all manner or excuse rather than alter our exalted view of ourselves. One of the most common ways of not facing up to our faults is to blame others.

America has a lot of amazing qualities and I love it, but I have been thinking how white-washing our history is not helping us to stop demonizing each other, let alone to love and respect one other; which we need to do if we are to have any hope of a fair and peaceful society. I was not brought up here so it may be less surprising that much of this documentary was news to me, but I watched it with an African American friend who told me that he learned very little of this history of slavery and its aftermath in school in Texas. Other American friends, black and white, old and even young, in the south and in the north, have also told me that the US educational system has been highly selective with its facts about the Civil War and Reconstruction, that they were fed a lot of propaganda. But until this history is widely explained and acknowledged, I can’t see how it can go away.

dirt under carpet

We need to acknowledge our delusions in order to overcome them, otherwise we are fooling ourselves, as it says in Eight Steps, …

… like pretending that there is no dirt in our house after sweeping it under the carpet.

I was struck in Berlin’s monuments of how owning the faults of the past has allowed people to learn what not to do moving forward, to claim back some self-respect as a society, to heal, and to move on. What’s to stop us doing something similar in America?

The past is like last night’s dream, it has gone. So I don’t see all this so much as sorting out a solid, real past so much as using the past as a mirror for recognizing the patterns of thinking and behaving that are still alive in us today, so we can deal with them in ourselves and in our society. If we look in the mirror and find there’s nothing to fix, that’s great; but I think there is value in looking. Or else, you know what they say about history repeating itself??!

In terms of making external improvements to our society, people come up with different ideas, political or otherwise, some more effective than others. If we use Buddha’s teachings, known as Dharma, to solve our inner problems – in this instance, solving the problem of self-hatred and low self-esteem – I reckon that this in turn will make our outer actions more successful and compassionate wherever we stand on politics. mirror to the past

Anyway, this is a deep subject to wade into, but, like I say, the documentary has been eye opening; so I just wanted to throw some of my thoughts out there to continue a conversation about how Buddha’s radical ideas can help society.

What’s the Buddhist solution to self-loathing, then?

It doesn’t work to push these self-critical thoughts away or suppress them any more than it works to squish a jack back into the box and expect him to stay down. We can’t just tell ourselves to shut up. So what can we do?

In a similar way to dealing with anger directed toward other people, we can follow this advice from How to Solve our Human Problems:

To solve the problem of anger, we first need to recognize the anger within our mind, acknowledge how it harms both ourself and others, and appreciate the benefits of being patient in the face of difficulties.

First off, of course, we need to become aware that those critical thoughts are there and that they are harming us and others, but without panicking. We are not our thoughts. We are like pure boundless sky. We can learn to patiently accept what is going on with our thoughts with a view to letting them go.

clouds in skyAs explained more in this article, we have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? It is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts.

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains about examining our thoughts as a precursor to meditation practice:

Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions. At the beginning our mind is very much orientated towards external phenomena and we are preoccupied with worldly affairs, but by bringing our attention inwards to examine the mind it is possible that these conceptual distractions will cease.

It’s very interesting and revealing to turn our attention from outward to inward. Try it and see. It doesn’t take long to notice that, after all, we are not our thoughts. There is space there, space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. How is it possible to let them go? Because they are just fleeting thoughts and they are not me. I can let them all go, for example using a breathing meditation or dissolving them back into the clarity of the mind from which they arose.

This is just the first step — there is more here about how, with this as a first step, we can develop a more empowered sense of self.

Over to you … there are 4 more articles in the pipeline already written, including this one; but I can incorporate your feedback if you leave it for me in the comments below.

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Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to be happy

9.5 mins read.

elephant in water.jpegSetting some time aside for a relaxing meditation session every day, even 10 or 15 minutes, is likely the quickest and most effective way to start mastering our minds (aka choosing our thoughts).

Carrying on from this article, Getting started with mindfulness.

And we can think of it more as a mini-vacation than yet another onerous commitment. Effort in meditation is likened to an elephant plunging into a lotus pool to find relief from the heat of the midday sun. In other words, meditation doesn’t have to be another item on an already over-subscribed to-do list — it is more like the space between items. If we take this time, we’ll find our to-do list a lot more manageable because feeling busy is a feeling, a state of mind.

I think pretty much most people can find 10 to 15 minutes in the day for concerted spiritual practice? It is true that we have a lot of stuff on, but I still don’t think we are always too busy to meditate so much as too distracted or attached to doing other things.

Not being here now

Without a skillful meditation practice, our mind will keep on being blown all over the place by our thoughts and whatever else is going on, like a balloon powerlessly buffeted by the wind. We are in danger of remaining totally caught up in fleeting external circumstances to the neglect of enjoying the deep and stable peace we have waiting inside.

Nowadays it seems as though there is even more pointless thinking going on. We can spend our entire day distracting ourselves if we’re not careful (talking to myself here). And this brings me to the main reason I am writing this article today, which is, once we have established some peace in our heart, how can we take advantage of the gaps in our day to keep that going 24/7?

Mini-meditations throughout the day

First off, how do we know there are numerous little gaps in our day? How do we know, all told, that, however busy our lives might feel, we have more time than we realize to relax and feel peaceful if that is what we really want?!

Because those gaps are all those times we get on our phones!

Smartphone-AddictionThe average American looks at their Smartphone for 3.5 hours a day! We might possibly be enlightened by now if we’d been using that 3.5 hours for mini-meditations instead.

And today in Madison Wisconsin, on what might have once been a nice lazy Sunday afternoon, I saw someone in a café with one of those new split-screens – Sudoko on the left, email on the right, and big headphones on her head. And of course the phone plonked right between her and the computer, apparently a perfect sign that she is a Millennial as opposed to a Gen X’er or Baby Boomer (who position their phones slightly off to the side.) In that scenario, there is literally not a spare moment to stare aimlessly into space like I feel we used to do in the old days, much less check in on her mind. I surreptitiously watched her for a while, and it was full-on diversion. It looked exhausting. I wanted to unplug her. No wonder this report found that people don’t even like to be left alone with their own thoughts for more than 6-15 minutes.

A Kadampa teacher emailed me this the other day:

“On a recent meditation retreat, I asked assembled students to share their favorite “evasive maneuvers” from the present moment, the ways we all hide out from having to be here with the direct simplicity of right now. People said all kinds of funny and not so funny things. In a discussion group later in the weekend, one student wondered why nobody had brought up Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Another student joked ‘Our teacher asked us what our individual evasive maneuvers were, not our shared ones. Everyone’s addicted to Facebook.’”

split screen
“more productive” or more distracted?!

I am not a Luddite, by the way. I actually relish the opportunities afforded by modern technology. It is not the technology that’s the problem but our strong attachment or addiction to it. Buddha predicted these degenerate times wherein our uncontrolled diversion-seeking would become stronger and stronger – and aptly called this “the desire realm”.

Why to turn inwards instead of phonewards

We apparently tend to check our phones 80-150 times a day. In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in four people reported checking their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” I read that Apple and Google themselves are now coming up with Apps to stop people from being so addicted to their phones … Apps that switch off after a certain length of time, for example, because we are now seemingly incapable of switching them off ourselves.

This attachment has consequences.

addiction to smartphoneStudies are showing a direct correlation between this addiction and addiction to alcohol, drugs, overeating, and so forth – that it lights up the same areas in the brain. It is leading people to insomnia, the light from the screens ruining our much-needed rest. There is a spike in anxiety, depression, and so forth. Among teenagers, it is causing a spike in suicide.

Let alone our children, and let alone the lost art of looking other human beings in the eyes, we are apparently not even paying attention to our cats and dogs anymore! Our furry friends are suffering neglect and boredom borne by our addiction.

None of this is conducive to deep peace or frankly any peace — instead this addiction is making people feel more inadequate and insecure, making us feel worse about ourselves. Our creativity is diminishing because the silence in which we used to pop with great ideas has been taken over by scrolling and tapping.

In the age of attachment we are worryingly inclined to look for happiness outside of ourselves. This could be our last day – so do we want to spend it scrolling on our phone or do we want to spend it in peace and meaning?

kittenThere’s another downside too. In the old days, when there were a few minutes here and there in the day, we might use them to run errands, and end up with more time to do the things we love. Now the chores pile up till we have to spend a whole day catching up, leaving less free time. People also don’t feel they have the time to volunteer their help so much these days, or to spend time in real-life community; even though these activities are proven to make us feel happier and more connected.

As explained more in this article, Are you busy?, I don’t think people are necessarily much busier than they used to be – we are just distracted all the time, so our minds feel busier, we don’t feel we ever have enough time, we get totally overwhelmed. We don’t have a time deficit so much as a mindfulness and concentration deficit.

We can check for ourselves — as soon as we have a gap or pause in the day, waiting for a meeting or traffic lights or the kettle to boil, or even strolling down the road, what do we do? Something on our to-do list? Stop to smell the roses? Not usually. Instead we get on our smart phone and start scrolling downwards or sideways, searching for happiness. “Well, that’s underwhelming. But maybe it’s on the next screen! Or the next? Or the next?”

Have any of us actually found happiness and freedom yet in our phone?!

Have any of us found joy, love, connection, or meaning?

Surely we need to pause in the pursuit of happiness to just BE happy!

An idea that can help

We are up against weapons of mass distraction, but we can beat this.

WeaponsOfMassDistractions.jpgNext time there is a pause in the day — ie, you’re about to reach for the phone — reach inside yourself instead. See if you are feeling peaceful and, if you are not, do a bit of breathing meditation or reacquainting yourself with your meditation focus for that day. “What is going on in my mind? I will now improve it.” Feel present. Feel the love. Feel the freedom of peace.

Then go back about your busy day, but still using mindfulness, alertness, and concentration as explained in this last article. 

Buddha said:

From concentration comes peace.

This means both immediately, as our mind is virtuous and peaceful, and in the long-term, as we are familiarizing ourselves with positive objects and so creating causes for peace. The result of concentration is peace. It always is. Even if our mini-meditation is not perfect, we are still creating the karmic causes of peace in our mind every time we go in and not out.

With these mini-meditations we can gradually master our thoughts and remain peaceful and happy regardless of what is going on in our day. We can remember that our mind is like an infinite clear sky and we don’t need to be all mixed up in the thunderclouds or fog but instead abide in the peaceful clarity that always lies beyond. This is our refuge or safe haven. We can relax into that space for a minute or two, and in this way it will gradually become the background of our being so that we are not so quick to get upset and agitated.

Happy_HeartBy the way, please don’t be perfectionist whenever you meditate – expectations are pre-meditated resentments. The entire sky doesn’t have to clear before we can relax into a more peaceful space, even a slight parting of the clouds will do. Some days will of course go better than others – we can just recognize that whatever peace we do experience is the tip of the iceburg, or a gap in the clouds, indicating our vast capacity for boundless space and happiness.

Changing our sense of self

Based on this new peaceful experience, however slight or relative, we can identify our sense of self differently, such as by genuinely thinking: “I am an inner being, peaceful, not caught up in all the external appearances that whizz by.”

We can also think, validly, “I am a meditator.” And what do meditators do?!

This inner peace and self-identification will make it easier for us to stay patient and calm. We won’t have so much itchy attachment to the things outside us. We will have room for love and wisdom. We will feel far more alive.

Case study

A young woman, who said I should call her “Case Study Kaitlin,” told me the other day that she grew up with all technology all the time, but then went cold turkey a month ago. As a result, she said “I have never felt more alive, peaceful, or concentrated.” And this is what prompted her to seek out meditation classes. 

54421012_1286016704910489_8453803795372048384_nIf we use our day like this, taking advantage of the gaps to maintain a continuum of mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, I think we will find that we all get results. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we train in meditation systematically eventually we can eradicate all the delusions that are the causes of our sufferings. Day and night and life after life we will experience only peace and happiness.

Meditation enables us to become comfortable with silence, too; though that might have to be the subject of another article. Meantime, Google “benefits of silence” if you want to find out how important it is.

Coffee/tea & meditation first thing in the morning = can’t be beat

And to conclude this article, here is a practical nugget for you …  Some months ago I bought myself a cheap alarm clock and, come bedtime, put my phone in another room. I was woken in the morning by a screech instead of a dulcet ringtone, but I was good with that because, with no phone to reach for, I found I had no addiction tingle in my hand. It came easier then to just get on with my day and my meditation without an urge to check wake up happy“vital” messages first. So I have been doing this by and large ever since; it feels good to have reclaimed that first-thing-in-the-morning space and time. Plus it’s a lot easier to set compass for the rest of the day.

Over to you. Comments on how you sustain inner peace in this technological age are very welcome.

Related articles

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Getting started with mindfulness

5 mins read.

Without mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts (aka delusions) will keep running the show forever. In other words, we won’t be able to stop our suffering.

crazy elephantCarrying straight on from this article, Improving our focus 

In Essence of the Middle Way it is said that we need to bind our elephant-like mind to the stake of our virtuous object with the strong rope of mindfulness and use the hook of alertness to subdue it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

A “virtuous object” or an “object of meditation” can be a state of mind, such as love, or an object that is not a mind, such as impermanence or a mantra. (It is not an object of sense awareness such as a tree or a candle). You can read more about objects of meditation in Joyful Path. 

Breathing meditation, such as the simple one explained here, is a good place to start training in mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC). The objects of other meditations, such as love or impermanence, require contemplation to find and to hold; but we are always breathing, so even if we lose our object of meditation, the breath, we can get back to it immediately.

Mindfulness functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten, and to bring back to mind an object that has been forgotten. ~ How to Understand the Mind

For example, if our object of meditation is the breath, (1) mindfulness lets us resist the temptation to follow our other thoughts so that we stay with the breath; and, (2) when our attention does drift and can be found wandering to pizza, mindfulness brings it back to the breath.IMG_5353-EFFECTS

I think this is an important point: it doesn’t matter how often our mind wanders — even if that is a hundred times — provided that we notice and bring it back to the next breath, for this is still strengthening our mindfulness. In other words, however busy or distracted your mind feels, you are still meditating and improving.

As mentioned in the last article. the ability to notice that our mind has wandered and has forgotten or is about to forget its object is called “alertness”. Alertness is said to be like a spy or lookout that reports back to the generals of mindfulness and concentration.

If we don’t notice and bring it back, that’s just business as usual, namely our regular uncontrolled thinking! But consciously bringing our attention back to our breath, breath after breath, and focusing clearly on it is training in MAC. And we’ll soon see how much more calm, clear, and peaceful our mind becomes.

Which is what we need, because most of our thoughts are not necessarily that calm or peaceful. Often, they are grumbling or boring or distracted or worried. We don’t want to think them, but we cannot help it.

If we are not in a state of deep peace all day long, or if we lack mental space and clarity, this is a sign that we need more MAC.

colorado mountains 1

It doesn’t take much to get started

It only takes 10-15 minutes a day training like this to make the difference.

You can be confident that it all gets easier and more effortless with practice – you’ll get better at it if you do it, for sure, not of course if you don’t. If you practice breathing meditation consistently — 10 or 15 minutes a day being plenty to start with — there will definitely come a time when you can plop your mind on your breath like plopping down a glass of water, and it’ll stay there till you decide to move it. Blessed relief.

With improved MAC, gradually you’ll be able to set your mind on any object you have learned about and keep it there, including loving-kindness, compassion, or emptiness, so that you are experiencing these peaceful, wise states of mind all the time! At this point, as Geshe Kelsang explains:

If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we will experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we will be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.

You’re not a lost cause

Just one more thing, in case you’re wondering …  you’re not a lost cause

lost causeSometimes when people start out meditating they complain that they’ll never be able to settle on their breath, that they’ll never be able to get their crazy minds to meditate, that basically they are a lost cause.

So in case you are one of them, I would like to point out two things:

  • However busy your mind, every time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving at meditation, as discussed above.
  • Long before you get really good at single-pointed concentration, and even when your mind is still going a hundred miles a minute, you can also practice mindfulness, alertness, and concentration in your daily life, and this is still the practice of meditation. In fact, as we spend most of our time out of formal meditation sessions, it is arguably the most important part of meditation practice.

Meditation, “gom” in Tibetan, translates as gaining familiarity with positive ways of thinking, and this can be happening throughout our day. So, as an example, if we don’t get mad when someone criticizes us, but see them as suffering and/or kind instead, we are training in meditation.

We are using alertness to be self-aware of what thoughts we’re having, catching inappropriate attention or negative thoughts early so they don’t spiral out of our control. We are using mindfulness to remember a positive state of mind such as patience or love and to forget the inappropriate attention we’re paying to that person’s faults. We are using concentration to focus on that patience or love.

55557087_10219170703363321_5996375554738094080_o

And, eh voila, this is how we take control of our own mind and behavior, and this is how we stay peaceful and happy. It is also the practice of moral discipline, which in turn greatly advances our concentration once we’re back on our meditation seat.

Next part of this topic is here – how to keep mini-meditations going throughout the busy day.

Meanwhile, over to you. I would love to hear your experiences of employing mindfulness, alertness, and concentration both on and off the cushion.

Related articles

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Improving our focus

6 mins read.

focus on the solutionWhen we first attempt breathing meditation:

Our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. ~ How to Transform Your Life

All we are asking our mind to do is focus on the in-breath and out-breath, how hard can that be?! But apparently we have an inane and endless talk show going on in our head. This is what we are dealing with when we close our eyes and try to focus on our breath — our uncontrolled mind has other ideas. A lot of other ideas. Some of them terrible ideas! Which is all the more reason why we need to bring it under control through improving our focus.

Mac n med

Concentration as explained in Buddhism is our ability to control our mind, to direct it at will, to focus on one meaningful object and eventually stay there for as long as we want. It allows us to think the thoughts we want to think as opposed to the thoughts that make us feel sad, bad, or mad.

Concentration makes our mind strong, clear, and relaxed, and we become more productive. It always makes us feel better, far more peaceful. It even makes us more physically comfortable. And, as mentioned in this article, we are not a moment too soon in getting better at it.

lotusConcentration goes along with mindfulness, which remembers our object by preventing forgetfulness or distractions. In How to Understand the Mind, where these mental factors or states of mind are all explained in detail, it says:

If we meditate with strong mindfulness our mind will remain on its object without distraction and we will naturally develop stable concentration.

Concentration also goes along with alertness, which is a type of wisdom or self-awareness that actually knows what our mind is up to, including wandering off to other things.

Meditation makes full use of all three – mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC for short 😉 ) – improving them steadily. If we are to have any hope of experiencing the lasting happiness and mental freedom we long for, we need to train in MAC both in meditation sessions and in all areas of our life.

And it doesn’t have to be hard work. Frankly, it is far harder work to spend all day every day having to keep pace with our uncontrolled thoughts.

Reclaim your mind

distractionsWe don’t need to go on courses to learn how to feel busy and have out of control thoughts. That comes pretty naturally already. What we do need to learn to do is control our mind so we can direct it at will, get it to do what we want it to do rather than the other way around.

We already try and control everything else – where we eat, what we wear, who we date, where we live, what we do for a job, who we root for in politics, and so on. Of course this doesn’t always work out – but, even those times we do manage to control other people or our external circumstances, it makes little difference to our peace of mind if we don’t have control over our thoughts.

It is frankly weird that we don’t have control over the thoughts in our own mind, if you think about it. It is torture to have to think stupid stuff all the time — yet it is also utterly “normal”. We accept it as normal. But it is the reason we are suffering. And it doesn’t have to be like this. With just a little effort, we can get a whole lot better at staying focused on peace and happiness.

(By the way, some people don’t really like the term “controlling the mind” as it sounds a bit too, well, controlling. So you can think of it as taking charge of our mind and/or having choice over what our mind does and/or mastering our mind. Being a real superhero.)

Bigger picture

duckNot to mention the bigger picture … where are all these uncontrolled, unchosen thoughts taking us? To more uncontrolled, unchosen life — more samsara. How could they be taking us anywhere else? With irritation and attachment, jealousy and confusion, and so on, and the confused intentions and actions that arise from these minds, we are busy creating the karmic causes to experience some form of future unease or pain in our body and mind.

Today I overheard a woman in the park saying, “In my next life I want to be a duck.” Although she was watching an admittedly laid-back duck sunning himself on a rock, I thought, “No. Mm mm. No, you don’t. Don’t even joke about it.”

Our conceptual thoughts and sense consciousnesses cease at death, along with our sense of self or our current personality; but our deepest level of mental consciousness continues after this body screeches to a halt, our karma going with it. If I die today without having controlled my mind and my karma, where can I guarantee ending up tomorrow? What choices will I have?

Single-pointedness

Concentration is the ability to stay single-pointedly focused on an object, a skill that is key in the pursuit of happiness. For example, we may be surrounded by all the necessary conditions to become upset, such as grumpy co-workers or scary politics, but if our bench and reflectionmental spot light is trained on patient acceptance, we will not experience any unhappiness. And we will be able to respond more constructively to whatever is going on.

Concentration is the focus in our mind that enables us to get closer and closer to the object. With strong concentration our mind mixes with the object, as if there is no space between the object and us. It is like that beautiful TS Eliot quote:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

We’re actually already very good at concentrating on some things, namely objects of desire or aversion. When we’re attracted to someone, we call up all their features in ravishing detail with very little effort. When we’re angry with someone, we have single-pointed concentration on their faults. But this is not the concentration referred to by Buddha, which is necessarily positive or virtuous. To be happy, we want to be able to maintain these levels of concentration on wise and virtuous objects, which lead us in a positive direction. If we focus all our attention on, for example, the loving thought ‘May everyone be happy’, it’s like a laser beam trained onto a happy, powerful experience.

Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than a fully concentrated mind. The reason our mind lacks power is because it is fractured. It is all over the place. We talk to ourselves, apparently, at a rate of a thousand words a minute: IMG_5328-EFFECTS‘What’s going on, who’s that coming in, what am I doing later, how should I respond to that insult?’ We rarely focus on one object. Our mind is currently in a state of constant motion, flitting onto anything that catches its fancy, then flitting away again.

Buddha likened the uncontrolled mind to a monkey scampering up and down a tree grabbing and throwing stuff, or a crazy elephant wreaking havoc on a village. For a modern-day example, I think that being trapped in an out of control, unfocused mind is like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. Or without brakes. Or even while we are locked in the trunk!

Next installment is here: Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you! Comments welcome below.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

Breathe your way to inner peace 

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

8 mins read

IMG_5326The other day I heard about a study in which psychologists asked a bunch of regular people how many of their thoughts they had no control over, out of 10.

Their findings seemed quite startling, so in my own further market research I have of late been asking hundreds of people this same question.

I’ll ask you, if you don’t mind … out of 10, how many of your thoughts are in your control and how many are not? Or, put another way, how many of your thoughts do you actually want or choose to think and how many of your thoughts do you not want to think but can’t help thinking?

…….

I don’t know what your answer is, but I have, interestingly enough, been getting the same answer as the psychologists from almost everybody else. Which is …

9.

9 uncontrolled thoughts out of 10! Rarely has it been 8. Never has it been lower than 7. Sometimes people have said 10. Or 11!

Meditation is the antidote – it enables us to control our thoughts. So this has given me even more appreciation for the vital role of meditation in our day and age. For if this is true, and I have no reason to doubt what people are telling me, we can’t control our own mind 90% of the time. No wonder we feel bad a lot (90% of the time). No wonder we have only a 10% guarantee of happiness on any one day. And no wonder our world is such an uncontrollable mess – we are all pretty much insane.9-10-rating

Buddha analyzed that the main reason we are still suffering is because of our uncontrolled mind. We have a word for these uncontrolled thoughts – “delusions,” unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts that arise from inappropriate attention. Anxiety, anger, attachment, addiction, jealousy, self-obsession, pride, and so on rule the roost. They dominate and manipulate us all day, well at least 90% of the time. They are our worst enemies — our only enemies when it comes down to it. We have to gain control over these delusions or they will continue to control us, till kingdom come, every single day.

The devastating knock-on effects of uncontrolled thoughts

Yes, the world is getting crazier, if you ask me. Nationalism is on the rise in many countries. Hatred for “others” seems to be increasing exponentially, not just in the US, but in Central and South America, and all over Europe. These last 34 days leading up to a potentially no-deal Brexit feel to me like watching a slow-motion train wreck that we could stop but for some reason won’t. Meanwhile one fifth of the world’s children are living in a conflict zone, traumatized; and way too many children are starving. And don’t get me started on our behavior towards animals.

Where do these bad actions and their ensuing problems really stem from? Is it not from anger, hatred, intolerance, greed, selfishness, confusion, apathy? Are these not the real problems that we need to fix? Corrupt politics and so on are the conditions arising from these delusions, not the root cause. When we don’t control our thoughts, they control us.world peace

The great Indian master and founder of the Kadampa tradition, Venerable Atisha, said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Try as we might to cure the world’s problems and sort everyone else out, and as important as that work and goal undoubtedly is, we can only make a deep and lasting difference if we are sorting out our own thoughts at the same time.

Below the mess

We are not crazy at heart though. At heart, below all this mess, we are amazing. We all have an indestructible potential for perfect concentration, mental mastery, peace, love, wisdom, and endless bliss. And we need to learn to pay attention to this, learn to identify with it, so that we can realize it. Our uncontrolled thoughts are still just thoughts – we can learn to let them go and think instead the thoughts we want to think.

And what would those be, as a matter of interest? Probably happy ones, loving ones, helpful ones, creative ones, etc. Buddha has a lot of ideas for positive and wise thoughts we can develop, comprising the entire path to enlightenment.

Mastering our own mind, we master our life and we master our future. With mindfulness and concentration, and indeed the whole path of training the mind in compassion and wisdom, we can learn how to master 2 thoughts out of 10, then 3, then 4 … all the way to 10/10. True mental freedom!

We have our work cut out

And I would submit that there is no time to waste. Distraction and intrusive thoughts are only getting worse. If you are reading this, you are probably older than 0 to 6 years old. But bear in mind that many of this age group are right now immersed in a screen somewhere, picking up the habits of distraction that will quite possibly torment them for a life time.Calvin and Hobbes

By the way, I just looked up “distraction” in the dictionary:

  1. something that serves as a diversion or entertainment
  2. an interruption; an obstacle to concentration
  3. mental turmoil or madness

Distractions can be all three at the same time, if you ask me, when driven by attachment. Our seemingly innocent diversions and entertainments can indeed be interruptions and obstacles to concentration; and our dependence on them is surely driving us to mental turmoil and madness.

Honestly, I can’t be bothered to wait for the results of the research on this intrusive technology on developing brains to come in – I will take the word of my dentist instead. She told me today that when her 4-year-old and 6-year-old nieces greet her, they run up, say “Hi Ally!”, and then immediately root about her person for her phone, “Can we do Snapchat!?!” If they are offered a toy to play with, they are uninterested, unless by playing with it they are then allowed more screen time. They won’t play board games. They are not all that interested in the great big outdoors even though they live in a veritable children’s wonderland (Colorado). They are already entirely addicted to the magic box. And in this they are just like all their friends. “Have you noticed fewer kids playing in the cul de sacs and so on?” Ally asked me. “Doesn’t it strike you as quieter outside these days?”

“All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box”

baby and technologyBy coincidence I also read The Week article about this later in the day, called “An iPad is not a parent”:

Children are living in a technologically augmented reality — not from adolescence or young adulthood, when they might be old enough to have some say in the matter, but from birth onward.

And:

All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box after your parents press two buttons — or, more likely, without any apparent human effort at all, thanks to an infinite algorithmically generated playlist: This is an experience as familiar to them as the sound of rain.

A quick Google search reveals that kids under the age of 8 use screens for 2-3 hours a day and counting. Preteens and teens (from ages 8 to 18) an average of 7.5 hours. Adults stare into the light an average of 8.5 hours a day.

You know. We got problems.

My dentist Ally, who is very likeable and sociable by the way, told me that people don’t know how to have conversations any more, that they aren’t looking each other in the eye. And that when teenagers sit in her dentist’s chair, they are still glued to their phones. She lets them because it is their comfort zone. But when she tries to get their attention, “I’m afraid we are going to have to take five teeth out, and if you don’t reduce your sugar intake you might lose more,” they keep thumbing their video games, mumble, “Umm, okay,” and studiously avoid all eye contact.

playing outsideAnother friend told me today that at the middle school where he teaches, they now have a no-phone rule all day, and the results have been outstanding: kids are playing actual games like cards and rough and tumble, concentrating in classes, and generally seeming more content and communicative. But he says once they get to high school it won’t be possible to control their online behavior in this way.

Dentist Ally also mentioned that she is so relieved to be of the generation that can still remember a time before it was normal to be glued to a screen, spending the days of her early childhood riding her bike and hanging out with flesh & blood friends. I would like to point out that Ally was the one bemoaning what is happening to the next generation — and she is only 31! Things are changing very fast.

(Note to Kadampa Centers: we really need kids’ meditation classes.)

How can we improve this percentage?

 It looks like we have a huge problem on our hands, but luckily there are many effective ways to cure it. And rest assured that controlling our unwanted thoughts is not the same as pushing them away forcefully, entering into battle with them, suppressing them. Not the same at all. It is more about learning to take them less seriously and letting them go, gradually replacing them with their opposite wanted thoughts.

The most obvious and popular way for newcomers to start this is to learn some simple breathing meditation – and within that there are variations we can try out, some of which can be found here. Or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our mind. Or we can meditate on absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought. Prayers help too, as does dissolving enlightened beings into our heart.

And whatever method you choose, please start in your heart space, not your head. We won’t get far along the road to peace if we stay in our head, there is little space to be found there. IMG_5325-1

Through any of these methods we will experience the relaxing clarity and concentration needed to work on uprooting our uncontrolled thoughts entirely, replacing them with wonderful thoughts, so as to reclaim our sanity, our happiness, our lives, and world peace.

There are 2 more articles on meditation and technology coming up: Improving our focus and Getting started with mindfulness. I mention it here as it will then oblige me to finish them in a timely fashion without getting distracted, lol.

Over to you – your insights are most welcome on this topic of how to get all our minds under control in over-stimulated times. Our collective future is at stake.

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Buddhism Lite

BodhisattvaI am pretty fond of a lot of people in Florida. And I noticed the sigh of relief as Hurricane Irma downsized to a Cat 3 and then a tropical storm, and Tampa Bay seemed sort of spared, for now.

How many sighs of relief remain to us, as we dodge another bullet, even as the dangers get closer, even as others around us are falling to the ground?

Catastrophes are what happen to other people. That’s what we all think, until they happen to us.

Do you ever wonder if we might be sleepwalking through a very perilous time in human history, where we are in genuine danger of our planet collapsing if we don’t blow ourselves up first?! That the adults have all left the room!? And that these things may just be creeping up on us – and one day we’ll wake up to find … ?!

Look, I’m not a fear monger (well, maybe a little bit). Like a lot of us, I’m in the habit of switching channels and pretending none of it is happening, that me and you (especially me, lol) are perfectly safe. I’ve been trying to hold onto this complacency since beginningless time, after all, and old habits die hard. But for some reason I can’t this (life)time. I may want to keep seeing samsara as a pleasure garden, but in this life it is (for me) revealing its true colors. Which is great, in fact, because it means I am not condemned to stay here for ever and ever. And, if I play my cards right, nor are my friends.

IRC Grand Canyon 1One of my favorite quotes in Buddhism, which I stumbled upon 3 decades ago in Meaningful to Behold, seems more and more relevant with each passing year:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.

A new disaster baseline

I just read this:

Even if America joins a global effort to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, as we surely must, we have already locked in a new disaster baseline, and will have to spend a lot to repair and adapt. ~ The Week

And a friend of mine has been collating the shifts in the climate as part of his work as a Futurist checking trends:

  • The historic heatwave that just ravaged Eastern Europe.
  • Historic flooding and mudslides in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Niger.
  • A massive earthquake off the Mexican coast.
  • Record radiation from the sun due to unusual sun spots activity.
  • Bigger and more intense hurricanes striking the United States
  • Political instability in the US, Syria, Venezuela and 15 other places around the globe.
  • Historic fires in California, Oregon, British Columbia, Washington, Greenland and Tunisia.

And all of this over the past 60 days.

Buddha Shakyamuni and many Buddhist teachers who followed him predicted these difficult, turbulent, “degenerate times” in this human world. And Geshe Kelsang — who is certainly not an irrational fear-monger nor prophet of doom, but the most sane, realistic, and hopeful person I’ve ever met — has also been trying to wake us up for decades, IRC Grand Canyon 3saying things like:

Superficially it looks as if our world is improving, but if we look a little more deeply we shall see that there are now many problems that never existed before. Terrifying weapons have been invented, our environment is being poisoned, and new diseases are appearing. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And:

The result of an unbridled pursuit of happiness from external sources is that our planet is being destroyed and our lives are becoming more complicated and dissatisfying. It is time we sought happiness from a different source.

Time indeed. And that is not even taking into account the scary nature of other, lower realms in samsara and the distinct possibility that we could end up there after we breathe our final breath. Countless people are already trapped there.

So, what are we going to do?

I have so much I want to discuss on this subject these days that I have given myself writer’s block and haven’t written in weeks – I just don’t know where to start! But because I think the option of just getting all peaceful ourselves while doing nothing to help others is in fact no option at all, maybe I’ll start with that. (And now I can see I have written too much for one blog article, oops, but perhaps you can read it in installments, if you still have power after that hurricane.)

IRC Grand Canyon 2There have been a couple of articles recently questioning whether mindfulness has been co-opted and cheapened. Such as this one, which explores how “Pasteurized versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business”:

And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.

And:

Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action. If we truly become mindful of our existence, then our recurrent anxieties become not just a wave we watch pass through our minds, not something to be mastered in order to be a better servant, but a call to take action in order to be more fully alive.

And this article:

We’ve marketed an ancient Indian tradition as an antidote to stress, but traditional Buddhist meditation has two objectives: to become more compassionate, and gain insight into the true nature of reality. But meditating to gain compassion seems to have got lost in translation.

If people get interested in Buddhist teachings via “mindfulness” courses, I am all for it. I am actually grateful that contemplation and meditation are going mainstream in the Western world. And although very few people initially go to meditation classes to do any more than chill out and learn to relax, I am of course good with that, even if that is as far as they want to go.

But … I think it is important to let people know that there is infinitely more we can do with these teachings. People do often leave pleasantly surprised after sampling the low-hanging fruit, and more open to trying new things. Buddhism is not just a lifestyle choice to help us cope and escape, with no real bearing on ending suffering – the goal is all about ending suffering, wherever it is, and whoever it belongs to, because suffering hurts. And I would argue that our current times both reveal and request this engagement of us.

Meditation has in many cases become a type of therapy that shouts “Me, me, me” and entirely misses the point. Disengagement and self-absorption are not what are needed right now, not in this short window of opportunity we have to make a difference.

Stress reduction is necessary, as I have explained in this article, and it is essential to start by tuning into and identifying with the peaceful nature of our own minds; but becoming happier ourselves is only a means to a far, far greater end. Breathing meditation and so on help us still the mind, and from that place we have the space to apply the practical philosophy.

Bodhisattva factories

We do like doing this in the West, don’t we – stripping a philosophy out of its context for a simplistic quick fix. “Mindfulness with all the awkward Buddhist bits taken out” as a Guardian article recently put it. However, this cultural appropriation to a lowest common denominator, in the service of our “Me first” culture, implicitly underestimates modern humans’ capacity to rise above their egocentrism and transform themselves and their world entirely. The quick fix mentality means that people are potentially missing out so much, “starving themselves of the best bits” as someone who claims to have done that for years told me recently.meditating for world

But I don’t think Geshe Kelsang Gyatso could ever be accused of cheapening or watering down Buddhism in this way. In the last 40 years and counting, he’s been doing exactly the opposite, building up the Sangha, Centers, and study programs with 100% confidence that modern students can gain the same liberation and enlightenment as all the practitioners of old. His teachings are entirely in keeping with that of qualified, realized Buddhist teachers dating back in an unbroken lineage to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, with their emphasis on renunciation (wanting lasting mental freedom, not the self-satisfied incremental improvements of samsara), bodhichitta (engaged compassion, not complicity with the status quo), the wisdom realizing emptiness (the strongest medicine in the universe), and the two stages of Highest Yoga Tantra (taking us so far beyond our limitations and ordinariness). These teachings can bring about universal happiness and world peace; it is simply a matter of applying them.

(And need I add that no personal profit is made from any of the teachings and so they are a great deal less expensive than many mindfulness courses. Just sayin’.)

IRC Grand Canyon

I have been very inspired this summer by the new International Kadampa Retreat Center, Grand Canyon. It has 75 rooms and plenty of room to grow. Like a portal located on the iconic Route 66, the golden roof of its Temple for World Peace (once it’s built) will be glimpsed by millions of tourists every year, giving them at least some food for thought, if not inviting them into the discovery of their wondrous potential as Bodhisattvas.

To echo this article, I think we urgently need to incorporate some Bodhisattva thinking into our world. In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East.Meaningful to Behold

Whether we are practicing Buddhism Lite or not probably depends most on our motivation, whether it is worldly or spiritual. It depends on how engaged we are in actively overcoming suffering, and I would argue that this depends on how powerful our compassion is.Lekma in Southampton

We need three types of compassion, and the deepest, called “compassion observing the unobservable”, is to help everyone realize that suffering is not real (see Ocean of Nectar, just about to be studied on the STTP). But Bodhisattvas need to, indeed WANT to, solve every problem that they see. They don’t just sit back and watch Netflix passively for hours a day, twiddling their thumbs while Rome burns, excusing themselves: “Look, I did meditate today, but there’s not much I can do about all that suffering anyway, not until I’m a Buddha.” They are passionate and creative about ending suffering, day and night, and will do whatever is in their power.

Geshe Kelsang has also said more recently:

How wonderful it would be for our world if many modern-day practitioners could emulate the training the mind practitioners of ancient times and become actual Bodhisattvas! ~ How to Transform Your Life

I think supporting all our Kadampa Meditation Centers and World Peace Temples worldwide is crucial. They are Bodhisattva factories and — right about now — we need Bodhisattvas.

Do you agree?!

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Want your meditation to flow?

What do you do when your meditation isn’t flowing as you wish?water flowing

Sometimes we feel disconnected. All these teachings and meditations sound good, great even; but they are out there separated from us.

First bit of advice: Never push for an experience, and never get caught up in a “should” mentality – “I should be feeling love! But I’m not! Therefore, I’m no good.” The aim is not to self-generate as a bad person.

So the first thing we have to do when the mind is not moving is to accept it. Rather than thinking “Oh no!”, we think “Oh yes! This is what I have to work with now, this is what is appearing.” Once we let go of the resistance, within that space of acceptance we just need to find our way back to our basic spiritual foundation. Rather than pushing forward, we can step back to find our way forward. You can try this if you like:

Disengage from the unhappy thoughts for a moment, enough time to allow yourself to relax a little. Follow your breath if it helps, or simply sit there in your heart. Then turn  your attention to something that is generally guaranteed to put a smile on your face, such as your niece, or some kindness you have received. It doesn’t have to be much, something simple, just enough to shift your attention. You stop focusing on the things that are agitating your mind, so the natural peace of your mind can reassert itself.

inner peace 3No pushing to peace

If we stop shaking our mind, our mind will stop shaking. We don’t press our mind into peace; we just stop agitating our mind and it becomes peaceful. We can build more peace from there. No point wrestling with unhappy thoughts like a dog with a bone in order to sort them out, “I gotta sort this out! It’s getting in the way of my meditation!” No need to apply any opponents to our delusions just yet. We just relax back to some peace, however slight, and the rest of our meditation can take place in the space of a basically peaceful mind. Identifying with the peace, we can then apply the opponents later.

How do I meditate to get some feeling?

Someone who has been meditating for a long time but not enjoying it as much as she might asked me the other day how to meditate to get some feeling. This is what I suggested.

We need to start where we are, with our own experience, not pushing for a result that is somewhere outside of us. Start by getting into your heart and simply imagining there is some peace there. Find an inroad into that peace by connecting to a thought of gratitude and love that comes relatively easily to you, that works for you — like the last time you saw your dog, or the appreciation you feel for a friend. Then understand that the peace is your own Buddha nature, it is you, it is Dharma, and it is also not different to the peace of your Spiritual Guide, Buddha. Basking in the feeling of faith increases the peace even more, and on that basis you can spread out the feeling of gratitude or the feeling of love to more people, bringing them into its orbit.

IMG_7957
Foster kitten works for me.

Only once you have relaxed in this way, feeling in your heart the confidence that arises from your own experience, start your actual meditation.

If you like, while abiding in that space of refuge, do some blessed prayers as a way to purify the mind, increase your good karma, and receive even more inspiration for the meditation you want to do. It can help focus the mind too if you briefly generate the object of meditation before the prayers, and then recite the prayers with the implicit request to deepen and stabilize that particular realization.

I think this is where we need to start if we are not to be overwhelmed by appearances/distractions or identified with delusions and pain. There is more meditation advice along these lines here.

Our mind is on our side

Always remember: Your mind is on your side. Happiness arises naturally by letting go and abiding. We don’t have to force happy thoughts back into our head or push our mind for an experience of peace; we just need to let go of the thoughts that are shaking our mind.Digital Camera Exif JPEG

Imagine getting out of a perfectly functioning Ferrari to push it along the highway. Crazy, right? But no crazier than trying to push your mind when it is already perfectly capable of moving itself.

So, in summary, we don’t identify with ourselves as being blocked, negative, not able to meditate. That’s wasted time. Our mind is on our side, and even the slightest peace indicates its nature and potential for lasting peace, indeed permanent bliss. So it indicates our unbelievable potential, our Buddha nature. We can always go back to basics and identify with our Buddha nature. If we connect to our potential, we can feel that we are fortunate, and our peace will increase. If we allow ourselves to just relax into the nature of our mind, sooner or later this peace expands, takes on a life of its own, is pervaded by blessings; and we will feel that we can meditate on anything.

More about our Buddha nature and acceptance in the next article. Meanwhile, your comments and shared experience of overcoming obstacles in meditation are very appreciated.