Itchy feet, itchy mind

I was just thinking about Puerto Rico earlier, much of which, almost 7 months on, is still without power. I have good friends there who have built a beautiful retreat center in the rainforest, you can visit there if you like, it is so conducive to going deep in meditation. I was sort of planning to go back last Christmas but Hurricane Maria had other ideas.casa-kadam

Carrying on from this article on refuge.

Anyway, I was thinking that if you’re in Puerto Rico right now, you probably really want a shower. And if you got in the shower, and got all clean and fresh and cooled down, it’d feel just great, wouldn’t it? So it’d be great if everyone in Puerto Rico could have a shower; if they could have everything they need right now.

Indeed, it would be wonderful if everyone could have whatever they need, whenever they need it, especially shelter, food, and medicines. These are necessities for human beings’ basic survival, and worth striving for.

But are they enough? No, not if we want real or lasting happiness and freedom. For we can also recognize that if the Puerto Rican was to stay in that shower for more than about an hour, he would start suffering again.

While we’re in the shower it can feel fantastic, can’t it?, especially if we haven’t showered for a while. So we assume that a shower is an actual source of happiness. But if it was an actual source of happiness, then the longer we stayed in the shower the happier we’d become. After 3 hours in the shower, we’d be so blissed out it’d be crazy. But as it is, even the person in PR just can’t wait to get out of that shower. It becomes like a torture, doesn’t it?

shower

If someone just came along and locked you in the sauna because you’re loving it so much, it would not be long before you were hammering at the door, “Have mercy, let me out!” I rest my case.

What are true causes of happiness?

The great Indian Buddhist master called Aryadeva says in Treatise of Four Hundred Verses:

Although it can be seen that the increase of happiness is destroyed by its cause, it can never be seen that the increase of suffering is destroyed by its cause.

This is only fair: If something is an actual cause of something, then it has to produce that effect every time. If someone hits us on the thumb with a hammer, we’re gonna say, “Ouch!” If they keep hitting us on the thumb with a hammer, that pain is only going to grow – it is not going to turn into happiness. This means that it is an actual cause of suffering.

However, when we increase the cause of any worldly happiness, instead of feeling better and better we instead start to feel pain (to experiment, try eating the whole can of Pringles or having sex for 24 hours straight).overreating

If we enjoy eating food, our pleasure may increase as we eat the first few mouthfuls, but if we continue to eat more and more, our pleasure will turn into pain. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

That’s what happens with food, isn’t it? The first few mouthfuls of that doughnut are always the best, aren’t they? And at some point we push away the box and say, “No! No more.” If we had to keep eating them, if we had to eat 10 doughnuts, our pleasure would decidedly morph into pain. We pull faces when we see people in those overeating competitions, it’s almost frightening. This means that eating doughnuts or hot dogs is not a real cause of happiness because if it was it could not cause suffering.

Which pleasures are overrated?

The point about worldly or external pleasures is that they are all changing sufferings, meaning that sooner or later they ALL turn into pain, every single one of them. Every single worldly pleasure, every “temporary refuge” if you like, turns into pain unless we stop in time. Try and think of one that doesn’t.

This is like Buddha’s challenge to us – find something outside the mind that is always going to make us happy, and that the more we have of it the happier we’re going to get. If you can think of that thing, you’re going to get very rich. No one has invented it yet. It can’t be invented because this is not where happiness or refuge come from. fleeting pleasure

I read a survey recently on “Which pleasures are overrated?” The replies included the usual suspects – partying, drugs, sports, food, drinking beer, etc. Respondents also mentioned kids, spouses, jobs, and traveling. And one or two wise folks replied, “any fleeting pleasures”. But the fact is that all external enjoyments are overrated.

My neighbor has been playing Candy Crush saga since we got on this flight. (So now I know who is playing that game!) Her nosy neighbor (me) sees that she has reached level 274! That’s got to be good, right?! She doesn’t seem that ecstatic though. No resting on laurels here. A glancing smile, perhaps, before she’s off again, chasing level 275.

The world is wounded

plastic in oceanThe great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says our mind is like an itchy wound. Worldly enjoyments only ever work when we need to scratch the itch. Doughnuts, for example, only work if we are hungry. They don’t work at all if we have just had a six-course Indian curry or have a cold and can’t taste anything. If we’re lonely, company feels fantastic, sometimes, and so on.

If we have a big itch, we want to scratch it — it feels great, scratching itches. But we all know what happens if we keep doing it — itches turn back into pain. Buddha is saying that these kinds of temporary refuges or changing sufferings are like scratching an itch – there is some temporary relief, and then it turns back to pain.

Sometimes more pain than we started with, in fact. The things that we turn to for solutions to our problems are also, ironically — or samsarically — the sources of our problems. Our problems come from our food, they come from our doctors, they come from the police, they come from our medicines, they come from our relationships, they come from our living quarters, etc. All the things we turn to for protection or refuge are just as capable of giving us problems.

Our whole planet is being polluted and the oceans turned into plastic by all of us trying to derive refuge from this, that, and the other, jostling to get as comfortable as we can while treading on other people’s needs and future in the process.

Therefore, although we are turning to these kinds of temporary refuges to get rid of our problems, to get comfortable, to get happy, at best they are only palliative, scratching an itch. And if we keep going, they give rise to further pains. And this is because we’re in samsara, whose very nature is suffering. scratching itch

In Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang also gives the very helpful example of sitting and standing:

If we sit in the same position for a long time, and then stand up, it will seem that standing is a cause of happiness, but …

… if we remain standing for a few hours, we’re desperate to sit down again. Then lie down. And then prop ourselves up. And then move around. The amount we have to move these bodies around in the average day just to keep them comfortable!! — sitting up and lying down and moving around over and over again, all day long, just one mini-relief after another, or mini happiness hits. Meaning that neither sitting nor standing are real causes of happiness because both of them are causes of changing suffering. And the same goes for all our worldly pleasures.

Thought experiment

Here is a thought experiment to help us see this. It might even save you loads of time and money!!!

Close your eyes and imagine you have already got everything you have ever wanted or worked for – enough money, career, relationship, house, vacation, well behaved kids, fast car, no body fat, equitable society. Whatever it is – you can imagine having all the material things and/or worldly pleasures you have ever wanted or worked for. Right now. Already. You did it! Congratulations!

(Impossible of course to get all our ducks in a row, let alone keep them there; but imagine it anyway.)

You have got everything you want! Are you happy? Finally … are you happy?!

donkey and carrotHmmm. Maybe for a few minutes. Until we want something else as well. Or until someone annoys us and our mind starts hurting again.

Has that preempted years, maybe lifetimes, of throwing time and money after dreams that can never come true?! I’m half-kidding. But half not.

Point is, we can still go to work, build a career, etc., of course, and we need to gather necessary conditions; but we need be under no illusion that these are actual or lasting sources of refuge or happiness. The pressure is off. The false expectations are dropped. We can relax. Maybe spend some of that money and time on making other people happy instead – just a side thought. Right now the global divide between rich and poor is getting so crazy and it is helping no one.

In our countless lives since beginningless time we have actually had everything. There is no tee-shirt large enough to list all the places, enjoyments, and bodies (our own and others) we have had. Nonetheless we have lost them all. Indeed we have forgotten them all. We have forgotten everybody and everything.

So what are we supposed to do?

teeshirtDoes this mean lasting refuge or happiness is impossible? Of course not. But Buddha’s point in explaining this second type of suffering, changing suffering, is that we need to stop selling ourselves short, just muddling through life trying to make it bearable; and instead discover actual comfort, satisfaction, joy, happiness, and deep bliss by seeking refuge in a different source. This will help us not just now but in all our future lives as well. With non-attachment to worldly pleasures, we will also discover a lot more energy and patience for helping others.

We are not starting from scratch, either, of course. We already have a taste of the potentially limitless joy inside us whenever we experience any contentment, love, faith, wisdom, and so on. When we have these states of mind going on inside, we can also enjoy everything going on outside, not least because we’re in a great mood. So it’s a question of what we want to emphasize.

Here concludes what I have to say on changing suffering, as part of a series on refuge. More on the third type of suffering, pervasive suffering, in a future article.

Related articles

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

Happiness depends on the mind 

Happiness is here right now

Choose love

Loving-kindness is arguably the most important example we can show in our troubled world.

This was one of the many take-aways from the recent International Kadampa Spring Festival in the UK, where we received empowerment and teachings on Buddha Maitreya, the Buddha of loving-kindness, from Gen-la Jampa.

Another take-away: People need to know how to become happy through love.

Genla Jampa

Not much else seems to be making us happy these days. Not politics as usual, anyway. The silver lining of this, though, may be that more people are starting to explore other more spiritual ways to solve problems. At least that’s been my observation.

And through becoming familiar with the three aspects of love – affectionate, cherishing, and wishing love — we can really help others and solve our own problems. It’s a win win. And it works instantly.

How hard is it to love others? I would submit that it is not as hard as we may think. I think that for many people, including maybe you, love is the easiest positive mind to generate. And yet it has these huge, compelling benefits! So here goes, I will share some of these to encourage us all to get going …

We’ll always be happy

choose love 2The first type of love, affectionate love, is a warm heart and feeling close to others, rather like a mother feels toward her child, minus the attachment.* If we can learn to develop a warm, loving heart toward all beings all the time, we’ll finally fulfill our deepest life-long wish (indeed beginningless lives-long wish) to be happy all the time. This is what we really need. I know I must have learned a bunch of useful things at school, even if I can’t remember what they were. But however much I learned at school, I didn’t learn this.

In Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on developing love from 2009, which Gen-la Jampa referred to extensively, he said:

Probably we think: If I have money I will be happy all the time. If I have a good friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend, I will be happy all the time. If I have a good reputation or a higher position, I will be happy all the time. This is wrong.

More on why “This is wrong” (ie, worldly enjoyments don’t make us happy all the time) is explained all over this blog, including here.

We will solve our problems

Love, as Buddha said, is the great Protector. As Geshe Kelsang said:

If everybody sincerely practices affectionate love, all problems between each other will be solved and never arise again. This is guaranteed; I will give my signature.

We need love in our hearts. Others need love in their hearts. This is the real solution. So, as Gen-la Jampa pointed out, people need to see our loving-kindness and that it works.

choose love 1We can understand this from the classic Buddhist explanation on inner and outer problems. For example, technology can solve some outer problems, but it doesn’t solve all of them; and in fact world peace is in more jeopardy than ever before with the easy ability to produce home-made bombs and so on, not to mention the WMD. And even when we get all the way to iPhone 500, we will still be suffering from the real problems of attachment, anger, jealousy, ignorance, and so on.

Talking of iPhones, possibly à propos nothing – I love mine. I sometimes feel quite pleased with myself when I pick it up and do cool things with it. But 2 nights ago I misplaced it. And I had no way of texting anyone to find out where it might have gotten to. I felt like I’d lost a limb. All these years of being the proud owner of an iPhone have clearly not diminished my attachment, for starters.

Technology and other external stuff can be useful but they are not the actual solutions to our real problems. Our real problems are our experience of unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind and arise with our delusions. We can learn to solve these problems with loving kindness, to go for refuge to love. Love changes the flavor of our mind as sugar changes the flavor of tea, and the sour delusions cannot thrive in this sweet new environment.
Manjushri CentreYou can read a lot more about how love solves all our problems in New Eight Steps to Happiness. Buddha would always explain the benefits of various spiritual practices before teaching them because he knows how our minds work — how we like advertising to get us going 😉 Then we develop the wish to taste love.

And tasting love is then the best advertisement; I defy you not to want more!

We will attain enlightenment

Geshe Kelsang says:

Ultimately our practice of affectionate love leads us to the state of supreme happiness of enlightenment, which gives us the ability to directly benefit each and every living every day.

The sooner we can set our sights on enlightenment, the sooner we’ll get there. Maybe when we first hear about the goal of enlightenment we think “Hey steady on, what you talking about?! That sounds way too difficult, a super human attainment way beyond my capacity! Seeking enlightenment is setting myself up for spectacular failure — can’t I settle for something more manageable instead?!”

Enlightenment is reality

But it is vital to understand that attaining enlightenment is neither outside ourselves nor beyond our reach, not like climbing Mount Everest or winning a gold medal. Enlightenment is just reality. It is the inner light of wisdom that is completely free from all mistaken perceptions, pervaded by the bliss of universal love and compassion. We all 
temple
have the potential for this in our hearts already. We don’t need to go somewhere else – we just need to step away from the false perception of what reality is (vis a vis an objective world outside our mind) and into reality itself. This is entirely doable and we have to do it because what’s the alternative?

Taste love

So we need love. By thinking about these benefits we develop the wish to taste it, and as Geshe Kelsang says:

We make the determination to develop and maintain a warm heart feeling close to all living beings without exception. We do this again and again; we do this job…. There is no greater virtuous action than love.

What a nice job! Deeply thinking in this way for even one moment brings HUGE results. Mental actions, or intentions, such as this are more powerful than physical or verbal actions because their meaning depends entirely upon the intentions with which we do them. We don’t even need to do anything verbal or physical (though of course we can and naturally will) – we just need to move our mind. From such a good heart, good results will always arise. As Geshe Kelsang says:

In Precious Garland Nagarjuna listed eight benefits of love: The first is that meditating on love for just one moment is a greater virtuous action than giving food to all those who are hungry in the world three times a day…. When we simply give food to those who are hungry we are not giving real happiness, because the happiness that comes from eating food is not real happiness; it is just a reduction of their hunger problem, it is just changing suffering. But when we meditate on wishing love, we sincerely wish to give real happiness, the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment, to all living beings without exception.

Of course we can do both — feed others with the intention, “May everyone have the permanent bliss of enlightenment.”

You can find the other eight benefits in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

*Love free from attachment

In these teachings on love in 2009, Geshe Kelsang introduced a quick note of caution about attachment:

We need to love each other continually but we don’t need attachment. Attachment causes problems.

And he went on to say that sometimes we start with pure love, but then it morphs into the selfish intention of attachment.
choose love 3

You know how that goes — when we first meet someone we might have some pure love, be really grateful to them and wish them to be happy; but as time goes on attachment creeps in with its expectations (or “premeditated resentments” as I’ve heard them called), and then the arguments start, and then it’s no longer nearly so much fun. We can keep the honeymoon period going longer by ditching the attachment and growing the love.

With attachment, our love wishing someone else to be happy is conditional, the other person has to behave. With this conditionality, this need, we are to a greater or lesser extent trapped and bound in all directions, confused and helpless, without agency, a puppet on a string dangled by what others do, think, or say.

Whereas with unconditional love we have the thought “I wish you freedom and happiness!” and this gives us freedom as well.

If we know the difference between the way love and attachment feel, we can choose love. We can get to the point where we genuinely feel, “Even if you walk out that door, I am okay as long as you’re happy, because that is what I actually want.” Our love and therefore our happiness stay the same.

Also, I have noticed that when I bring out my love for an object of attachment, letting the attachment go, it is not hard to then spread that love to everyone else – it is a way of opening the floodgates.

So we choose love because love is what will make us and everybody else happy.

(Next up: a special method for developing love, as taught in the Spring Festival.)

Over to you, do you agree? Do you have any examples?

Related articles

Kadampa Festivals 

Can worldly enjoyments make us happy?

The difference between outer and inner problems

Love and affection according to Buddhism

 

Changing our future by changing our mind

ignorance apathyBy the way, samsara has always sucked. Buddha predicted, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and other Buddhist teachers have been saying for years, that we would be, and are, living in increasingly degenerate times. Maybe we have been sort of lucky in this human life so far, and samsara has moreorless spared us its worst ravages; or maybe we have not.

(Carrying on from this article.)

However, I am noticing recently that the deceptive nature of samsara has become more obvious to many people, and our complacency is thus being a little challenged. Our usual expectation of progress and our usual ways of fixing things are not working so well. And that this is good (only) in so far as it is motivating some more people to find solutions from a different source, changing the future by changing the mind.

What is samsara?

Samsara is not a place. Sometimes, when things go wrong, for example when someone’s credit card is stolen, I think we say to each other, “Samsara is horrible!”, with a sense that there is a real horrible samsara out there. And it is true that samsara is horrible, but it is not true that it is out there. As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

Samsara does not exist outside ourself. Therefore, we cannot become liberated merely by abandoning our possessions, changing our lifestyle, or becoming a nun or a monk.

create your futureSamsara is a creation of our own delusions. Get rid of these once and for all by realizing that everything is the nature of mind … and there is no samsara, only the Pure Land. Right here, right now.

The end of the world as we know it, therefore, is not the end of the world.

And this approach of changing our future by changing our mind will work because nothing at all is fixed. There is no inherently existent future; everything exists in a state of potential.

The enemy of complacency

Nagarjuna prayed not to be born as a politician. Many, if not most, realized beings feel similarly. But even if we did have enlightened beings as our politicians, we would still suffer from poverty, abuse, and hardship while we remained with their causes in our complacencyminds — delusions including selfishness, and the negative actions or karma these have made us perform. We cart these around from life to life, and only when we take the responsibility for overthrowing them will we be finally free and happy.

Even in the most comfortable surroundings imaginable, Buddha still had the wisdom to see that samsara was deceptive, rotten to the core, built on decay, ageing, death, sadness — which is why he went off to find the solution and bring it back to everyone. He discovered that waiting for samsara to improve is a fools’ game. The only way to live in freedom is to control and purify our mind.

Your comments, as always, are welcome.

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For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice WIFI.jpgcontentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.

A first-world problem

As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.

I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.

A very meaningful absence

driving-homeNew terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …

Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.

For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).

But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.

Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A mountains-1passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.

This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.

Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.

It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.

Centered in the solution

After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”

mountains-3What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heartand perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.

At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.

My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung wuxi-finger-hold-1after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.

Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉

That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform HUM.jpgeach and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)

Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.

Back to my predicament …

Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.

Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And mountains-2including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.

Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …

Moral of the tale

Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:

(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.

(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.

(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.

(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)

More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

Related articles:

Emptiness of the mind 

The kindness of others 

The non-thingyness of things 

 

Caring for others and helping ourselves

at what distanceAt what distance do we stop caring?

I think this cartoon applies not just to animals in abattoirs, but to all manner of suffering in our world.  At the moment it seems that a lot of us, a lot of the time, try to keep suffering at a distance so we don’t have to think about it. Perhaps we feel forced to deal with it otherwise. How else to explain why we turn a blind eye to the billions of animals being butchered daily behind iron doors, but most of us would label as a sociopath someone who beat an animal to death on the street in front of us? Why we tolerate the gun violence when it is happening in some other country, some other state, some other town, but freak out when it gets closer to home?

Continuing on from this article.

I think due to our Buddha nature,  our innate goodness, we do have a sense of responsibility that kicks in when suffering gets close enough. Maybe it is for that reason that we prefer to physically or emotionally shut it away. However, suffering is around us all the time, and it requires a lot of exhausting mental calisthenics to ignore that. All we need to do to see suffering is “open your eyes” as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says; but we have to want to open our eyes.

Look around. Every person you see has some suffering, something they’d like solved, do they not? It is everywhere but we don’t look around as we don’t feel we can deal with it. But although our self-protective self-cherishing doesn’t want to be bothered with it, “I have to protect myself from suffering!” – in reality we are not protecting ourselves from suffering, we are carrying on suffering by ignoring others’ suffering. It is not self-protective but self-defeating. By ignoring suffering and staying absorbed in our own problems, we never solve our own problems. We’ve tried that, we know. It doesn’t work.

Suffering is not solid

animals belong in our heartsWe also need to overcome the ignorance that believes suffering is so real and so solid and so just there, so what are we supposed to do about it?! Gradually over time we understand more and more how the causes of suffering lie within our minds, and then it becomes more and more obvious how we can help solve our own and others’ problems. It is not that we have immediately to go out and save the whole world – we can’t do that – but compassion is a good and necessary step to getting closer to helping everyone. Eventually our compassion becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha, which is immensely active – protecting, blessing, and inspiring. It can genuinely help everyone experience peace of mind every day.

If we understand how blessings work, we can see how our state of mind in itself will become a source of refuge for others. And opportunities to help others will also arise more and more as our intention expands, as Nagarjuna explains, quoted here.

You may, for example, already be a very compassionate person, and although you are not always necessarily doing something, still the people around you are picking up on it. They feel better around you. We feel better around people who care for us, who want us to be free from suffering. Whether they are doing something about it or not in some ways doesn’t matter – we just want to be in the same room as them. Then, when the opportunity arises, they can help us practically too.

A Bodhisattva is someone who is developing their compassionate Buddha nature to perfection; an enlightened being is someone who has accomplished that. This is a big, universal, deep mind. We can all take the compassion we have now and slowly extend it until it becomes that, at which point we can protect people everywhere as our mind is everywhere. We can become like the sun, or the great earth supporting all living beings. Compassion is a very powerful force, as the article I quoted earlier says too:sunshine

The desire is that people see that kindness isn’t soft or syrupy but it’s actually a really powerful force and that if we actually started to prioritize it, not in a sentimental way but in the same way we might go to the gym to keep fit, it can really make a huge difference to people’s lives.

Eight Steps to Happiness explains a beautiful and extensive meditation on compassion, hopefully you have some time to check it out. In brief, we can bring others into the orbit of our compassion simply by thinking they matter, by loving them, by seeing how they suffer, and by wishing them to be free. We can start with the people for whom we already have an open heart, and then extend our love and compassion as widely as we wish. We can finish our meditation with the big thought:

May everyone be free from suffering and its causes. How wonderful this would be!

Imagine that! Everything starts in the imagination. The world is not fixed. Suffering is not fixed. Life without suffering is possible, and this is where it starts.

How meditation overcomes negative thoughts and emotions

A bit more on the subject of delusions and how to get rid of them.

Nothing is as it seems

If it is true that

“The things we normally perceive do not exist”

it means that nothing is really out there, and everything is free of being real and fixed. This means we can change everything by changing our mind. As Nagarjuna says:

“For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.”

If we fall into the trap of thinking that the causes of our problems are out there — independent of our perceiving consciousness, existing from their own side — it’ll make us focus all our time and energy into solving them out there; when all this time it has been the delusions inside our own mind that are actually wrecking our happiness.

the things we normally see do not exist
Things are not as chunky as they seem.

Meditation is designed to tackle these enemies within, having understood that we’re not doomed to suffer from their attacks forever, unless of course we do nothing about them. They’ll never go quietly away forever on their own – but if we learn what they are, how they function, and how they arise, we can identify and get rid of every last one of them.

Delusions are just thoughts; we don’t have to let them rule us forever. They are not an intrinsic part of our mind — they are like clouds in the vastness of our sky-like mind, which will not manifest without the appropriate atmospheric conditions. So, devastating as they can be when they do arise, they’re not here to stay, any more than Superstorm Sandy stuck around. If they were a permanent and intrinsic part of our mind, we might as well just curl up in a ball and give up. But we know that even without doing anything about them our delusions come and go. This explains why right now you probably don’t feel like yelling at anyone, but the conditions could come together and then you might, only to get over that and regret it later. Or why you are lovesick today but will probably feel pretty cheerful again later. delusions

This is why we can say “Time heals”. Of course, if we do do something about our delusions, time heals a darned lot faster.

Making positive habits stick

Wisdom realizing that things don’t exist from their own side is the ultimate antidote to all delusions, and each delusion also has its own temporary opponent. Love, for example, is the opponent to hatred, giving is the opponent to miserliness, patience is the opponent to anger, non-attachment is the opponent to attachment, humility is the opponent to pride, rejoicing is the opponent to jealousy, and so on. Every deluded mind has an opposite, positive, peaceful mind, and to the extent that we become familiar with that, to that extent we are opposing our deluded mind. That’s what meditation is, familiarizing our mind with positivity, both on and off a meditation seat. We build up positive habits of mind to directly oppose our negative habits of mind, and over time we make these positive habits stick. We are reducing the overwhelming waves of painful thoughts in samsara’s ocean to small manageable ripples.

i want to change the worldSay for example you want to decrease your dislike, irritation, intolerance, etc — the whole cluster of delusions associated with the inner enemy of hatred. Well, first of all you could identify the mind of hatred, see what’s wrong with it, see how it’s causing you and people around you to act and suffer, and in this way develop the determination and will power to get rid of it. You can then meditate on its opponent, which is love — finding others likeable, holding them dear, wishing them to be happy.

As human beings, we are uniquely able to do this. Rousseau, the Russian Blue, has of late been coexisting peaceably with Monkey, the Bengal Tiger, much to we humans’ relief. These cats are both adolescent alpha males who were at each other’s throats so regularly that Monkey’s parents and I had to come up with a schedule of when they could each go out. (For those of you who say they should stay inside, you may be right, and I tried it, but it was like living with a caged panther, actually in the cage…) Anyway, of late our schedule was set aside as the two cats have been seen lying near each other on the same sidewalk, even looking at each other without growling, an uneasy but welcome truce settling on the neighborhood.

meditation overcomes negative thoughts and emotions
Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

Yet two days ago I was once again forced out of my house with my water gun (range 25 feet!) when I heard the awful noise of two cats fighting. The water gun was not even sufficient this time – I had to wade in there and pull them apart. Monkey had narrowly missed scratching Rousseau’s eyes out, those same eyes that I find so beautiful and want to preserve, because he hated Rousseau at that moment due to the cloud-like delusion obscuring his mind. Who knows what exactly provoked them on this occasion, but I’d be prepared to bet that their reaction was over the top with inappropriate attention, not worth losing one’s eyes over, let alone one’s life. Later that evening I read about the latest fighting in some part of the world – one day young men neighbors on the sidewalk, the next day tearing at each others’ throats, the next day (or year) regretting it.

If, unlike Rousseau and Monkey, we generate the mind of tolerance and love through contemplating and meditating on instructions we have heard, and then hold that love at our heart and familiarize ourselves with it, it’s like turning up a dimmer switch in our mind. As we increase the light of our love, automatically the darkness of our hatred diminishes because they are polar opposites – they cannot both arise in the mind at the same time.

how to get rid of delusionsSo creating the atmosphere of love inside the mind means that hatred cannot get a foothold. That bad habit starts to get weaker and weaker through lack of use, and that good habit of love becomes stronger and stronger through the power of our mindfulness and our concentration. As we gain familiarity with it, it becomes more natural and more powerful, and sticks with us for longer and longer periods of time. We find that in situations that would have aggravated us before, instead of an automatic, uncontrolled response of dislike, we respond with liking, and then love. This really does happen.

Check out this Onion article for a great example of inappropriate attention 🙂

On storms and politics

Wrote this during the last election cycle — still seems quite relevant.

Two things have happened this week that have reinforced my conclusion that although we have to do practical stuff to help others (eg, I took Zia the foster kitten to the vet foster kittenyesterday, which might have saved her life), lasting, far-reaching change has to come from within. Like I was saying in my last article.

An adventure in canvassing

Those of you in the US may have noticed that we are in election season. Now, I want to say before I go any further that generally I’m with Nagarjuna when he prayed never to reborn as a politician. However, I do think there is a choice in this election that might make a difference to large sections of the population. I voted yesterday for the person I think will muck things up less and I actually do hope he wins. I became an American citizen in July, and I’ve long thought that exercising my right to vote is a karmic way to make sure I keep my freedom to vote in the future (and gives me the excuse to complain when politicians annoy me.) But that’s me. I have friends who entirely disagree with my version of who should win this election, or who think that voting for any politician is an exercise in futility, and these are perfectly fine and kind people; which just goes to show how everything depends on our own mind.

The only time I’ve ever been politically active was, aged 13 in Britain, when I saw a party political broadcast by Jeremy Thorpe of the Liberal Party and decided on the spot to join the Young Liberals. This basically meant wearing a nerdy badge and going to a few discos. I don’t believe I made the slightest jot of difference to anything, but I did meet some boys.

Still, the other day I was chilling on my sofa when the phone rang and someone asked me: “Are you voting for so and so?” “Yes.” “Would you like to volunteer to help the campaign?” vote for me

I have never hitherto had the slightest interest in volunteering to help the campaign, and I am not one of those people who tries everything once, but for some reason the word “Yes” came out of my mouth again. Before I could swallow it, I found myself committed to a time and place.

Last Sunday at 1pm, therefore, I found myself driving to a rather nice house on the water and meeting a bunch of rather nice people, who are passionate about this thing. I had read that the well-organized campaign knew everything about registered voters and tried to match canvassers up with their own type of demographic, so as I drove off alone in my car with my clipboard and all my leaflets I called my mum to tell her that with my English accent I’d soon be knocking on some posh doors in that neighborhood. Instead, I found my directions taking me east of the railway tracks.

Equipped with only my sticker, I knocked on 41 doors that afternoon – half the people were out (thankfully) and the other half were African American. Florida gets called the zebra state for good (bad) reason – the strip of land by the water is white, and the strip of land behind it is black, and don’t get me started on how weird that is. In any event, I had an interesting afternoon and a total of 15 conversations, being invited in a couple of times, and persuading perhaps a total of four whole people to go early to the voting booth, but more likely I was preaching to the choir and those four would have gone anyway.

That took four concerted hours!! And really, if I’m to be honest, it accomplished very little, if anything. (I did have fun though.) I am not criticizing Get Out the Vote, in fact it may be necessary and I admired the motivation of the organizers I met (who now of course want me to come back as apparently 15 conversations is some sort of first-time record, tho’ no doubt they say that to everyone.) But what struck me was how labor-intensive and in fact potentially frustrating it is to try and talk people into things they are not interested in. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It just shows me how slow change will be if that is all we do to change things.

Atisha says that we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own mind. And I think that if everyone put four concerted hours into developing compassion and wisdom each day, we’d very quickly tame our own minds, and could help and encourage others in quite exceptional ways.

I actually heard these words coming out of my mouth while out canvassing, “Let’s win this thing!” I was surprised at myself, until I realized that I wasn’t really talking about the election.

(Hey, I just had some scary trick or treaters come to my door and had to bribe them to go away with Reeses Peanut Butter Cups… it sort of reminded me of Sunday, only no one gave me any chocolate… Happy Halloween Everyone!)

Hurricane Sandy
crane in Manhattan in Hurricane Sandy
A picture of that crane just taken by a friend who lives nearby.

Sandy. An innocuous name for a killer storm. The inescapable violence of the out-of-control wind and rain in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Haiti and so on reminds me that all too often we have little to no control over the external world. NYC, a major world city with extraordinary modern infrastructure, was still powerless in many ways when the four elements became unbalanced. Many people had the karma in this storm to stay cosy and warm inside, power on, stocked up, just hearing the howling wind without being adversely affected by it on this occasion. Quite a lot of others, however, did not. I think of that policeman who took his family to safety in the attic and returned to the basement, only to drown. He did not expect that when he woke up in the morning. Nor did that woman expect to tread on a live wire and be electrocuted to death. We never know when it is our turn – we always think tragedy is something that happens to others, until it happens to us. Just one or two days, but so much damage. We need to gain more control over our lives, and quickly. Tara protecting

I pray that all those who died so unexpectedly in the storm go straight to Tara’s heart, and that their loved ones find peace. I pray that those 20 premature babies who had to be evacuated with tubes dangling all survive intact and healthy and that their parents aren’t too terrified. I pray the damage is not too devastating to people’s livelihoods and property, that those who lost their homes can recover as soon as possible, and that those without power quickly get it back. I pray anyone reading this, and your friends, family, and neighbors, are all okay, now and always.