What’s YOUR problem?! :-)

Beware of Whinging PomsA recent survey discovered that people in the UK “feel fully fit and well only 61 days of the year”. Some Australian commentators apparently reacted to this report as typical of the “whinging Poms”, but the fact is that other studies show that this level of health worry is just about normal throughout the Western world (including the land of giant deadly insects and combative kangaroos).

And these are not the seriously ill or dying people who are in hospital, say, but people who are out and about. Based on this survey, people claim to be suffering 304 days a year from colds, backaches, bitten tongues, cricked necks, headaches, heartburn, old sporting injuries, ear infections – you name it, and we’ve got it.

Our bodies are pain machines. Sometimes I see people on the jogging trail outside my window in Liverpool run past with an incredible spring in their step, smoothly and effortlessly, and I like it; but this level of fitness and health seems to be the exception. Sometimes the body cooperates, sometimes you just feel you have to lug it around with you — you know that thought when running, I’m sure it is not just me, “Please, can I stop now?!” Most of us have aches, pains, and a lack of energy a lot of the time. Have you ever met anyone who can say that they always feel comfortable in their bodies? I sometimes marvel at how well the body functions at all, given that it is made of meat, bones, skin, fat, and a bunch of weird organs squashed really tightly together. (I used to think there was loads of space inside me, between, eg, my kidneys and my heart, but that was before I went to the Body Worlds exhibition about 15 years ago – quite the wake-up call.) discover the mysteries

I work at editing and project-managing medical magazines, which daily reveals to me bizarre symptoms it is apparently possible for humans to get, some of them exceedingly awful. I try not to look at my Dorland’s medical dictionary too much – a fat tome full of all the things that can go dreadfully wrong, many in body parts I’ve never heard of! This week I was editing a dermatology article on a rare autoimmune blistering disease affecting the subepidermis called bullous pemphigoid, and musing how I had never met anyone with this, which is perhaps just as well as it sounds really nasty. But then today I just happened to visit a poorly bed-ridden friend of my parents who has been itching like crazy for months… her husband said no one has ever heard of what she’s got, so I said “try me”, and guess what. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer unexpectedness of having things go horribly wrong in layers of skin you never even knew you had (and your painful condition possessing a daft, no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it name like bullous pemphigoid) strikes me as a tad, oh I don’t know, unreasonable …?

Buddha pointed out that greater or lesser suffering is normal in a contaminated body (that arises from ignorance and delusions, and the karma created by these). The 4 “great rivers” of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death, and we’re constantly being tossed around in their cruel waters. And this is not even taking into account the mental pain and agitation we feel every day as a result of our uncontrolled, oversensitive minds!

The point of looking at this physical and mental suffering head on is to decide we don’t want any of it anymore and to ask the question, “What can we do about it?”

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

The seventh Dalai Lama, who lived in 18th century Tibet, said:

Whoever I behold, of high position or low, ordained or lay, male or female, they differ only in appearance, dress, behavior and status. In essence they are all equal. They all experience problems in their lives.

Buddha identified 7 categories of suffering for every human in what he called “samsara“: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to encounter what we do not like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

Our problems are neither unusual nor special, but part of a monotonous pattern.

If I were to ask you: “Have you had any problems today?”, I’m almost prepared to bet that you’ll say yes. If you don’t mind, could you recall today’s problem for a moment…

Does this problem fall into any of the 7 categories described by Buddha – does it have anything to do with sickness, say? Or ageing? Or failing to satisfy your desires? Or losing something you liked?

Or is your problem in a category all of its own? Such as “bullous pemphigoid” perhaps? Nope, even bullous pemphigoid is part of sickness. complaint

Again, I’m prepared to bet that any problem you care to name can be placed in one or more of these 7 categories.

Normally we labor intensively to solve one problem at a time – thinking “If only I didn’t have this splitting headache, I’d be so happy! Look at all those lucky people without headaches, they must be sooo happy!” (Are they?) Or “There is no way I can relax with all these money problems — I have to have more money so I can finally stop worrying!” (Would you?)

It’s not that we don’t try to fix our problems and experience temporary reliefs. However, there is wisdom in recognizing that just trying to solve one external problem at a time is an endless process because as soon as one problem is solved another arises to take its place, like waves in an ocean. Even on a relatively good day we may get rid of our headache, only to find that someone at work says something annoying; then we deal with that problem, only to find ourselves stuck in traffic on the way home; and then we get home eventually, only to find that the Internet is down and we can’t go surfing. We may earn some more money for our family, which is a relief for a while, until the next big problem such as a major teenage rebellion comes along to occupy our thoughts. We may take a medication that fixes our itchiness for a while, but then our liver starts to play up from the toxicity. There is literally no end to problems in samsara. There is also no end to worries while we have a mind to worry. This is not even factoring in the really BIG wave-like sufferings of life, such as bereavement, terrorist attacks, and collapsing buildings, which can literally knock us flat.

Renunciation

According to Buddhism, we have to wake up to problems every day in life after life – many of them far more hideous than those we face now. The wave-like sufferings of samsara’s ocean can never stop rolling in; samsara has to stop first.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Temporary liberation from a particular suffering is not good enough.”

Never a day goes by when we don’t want to be rid of our problems — big or small they fill our minds. As someone on Facebook posted the other day:

“I want more problems today!” said nobody ever.

We rarely if ever wake up and think, “Hey, bring it on! I want loads of things to worry about today!” If you think about it, this means that we actually want permanent freedom from problems.

giving ourselves permission to be happyFor this, it is not enough to tinker about with the various symptoms as they arise; we need to work to overcome the actual causes of all our problems, which lie within our mental continuum in the form of delusions and negative karma. Only then can we experience permanent liberation from every type of suffering, called in Buddhism “liberation” or “nirvana”.

Having studied and understood this, if we develop a wish for actual, permanent liberation from physical and mental suffering, we have “renunciation”. This is described in the scriptures as a “light and happy mind”. Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself. With less attachment and aversion — kept at bay by our renunciation — our daily moods are happier. With this uplifting wish front and foremost, everything we think or do will take us in the direction of liberation – we will be working our way out of samsara even as we take a headache pill, lie ill in bed, cart the kids to school, sip our latte, or strive to drum up business on the Internet.

Bodhichitta

We can also know that everyone equally experiences these problems. Ask a room of people, “Did anyone have a problem today?” and the chances are that pretty much everyone will say “Oh, yes!” Whatever problem we are having, we can guarantee that everyone else also has to experience it sooner or later. We are all in this together. And, as Jim Morrison of The Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.” This understanding can lead to compassion and then “bodhichitta” and, with this empathetic, empowering, meaningful wish front and foremost, everything we do will be taking us in the direction of enlightenment.

Wherever you go, there you are

Buddhism 101 explains how happiness and suffering are states of mind, and how external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. Even if we are in the most blissful surroundings and have everything we need — the one time we might reasonably expect to be deliriously happy — we’re still not if any agitation is arising in our mind for any reason.

Let’s say you’re having a particularly amazing experience. It’s your birthday party, your devoted friends have been planning it for months, and it is taking place on an exotic island. Every single one of your best friends since early childhood has been invited and can be there; it’s a miracle! The food is incredible and none of it has any calories. Wafting scented breezes, lapping waves, soft lighting, your favorite music, the perfect temperature…. It’s paradise, isn’t it? What’s the problem? There isn’t one!

paradise lost through angerBut then one of your childhood friends says something a bit off color, like “You’ve put on weight!” or “So you haven’t done much with your life, then…” And you immediately think, “That was cruel!” and maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but it’s a little dagger in your heart. It could be anything, and it doesn’t have to be much. All that has to happen is for you to get a bit upset, a little irritated, and the happiness starts to seep out of the whole event.

“I wish I hadn’t invited you!” you think to yourself. This is followed by a spontaneous recall of all the mean things they’ve ever said to you, and suddenly you can’t let it go. All the magic and fun of the party has been sucked out, it’s gone. Your experience has changed because now you’re in a bad mood. Now you’re having an ordinary, boring day, just as if you were chained back at your desk.

You can run, but you can’t hide

As they say, you can run but you can’t hide. We’ve taken our same old states of mind to this paradise, so our happiness can be destroyed in a moment, just as the tranquility of an ocean can be destroyed by a sudden storm. As my teacher puts it:

Even if we are in the most beautiful surroundings and have everything we need, the moment we get angry any happiness we may have disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6

I bet all of us can think of examples like this – we were having the time of our life and then it just collapsed.

We can see from this that if we want true, lasting happiness we need to develop and maintain a special experience of inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6

We need to find a way to keep a happy mind regardless of what happens because s*** happens. Even today I’ll wager that a bunch of annoying things have already happened? And that some of the things that you wanted to happen didn’t happen?

Did you have a problem today?

A long time ago I was doing a Post Graduate Certificate in Education in York, UK. Soon after we arrived, we were all asked to sit in a large circle, and I was sitting to the right of the moderator. Starting from her left, she went round each person in turn, asking solicitously: “What problems are you having?”

Now, weirdly, when she started, I had no problems. I was feeling very happy. I had been meditating for a few years already, so I also knew that problems were not as fixed as they had once appeared. But as she worked her way around the group, and everyone came up with their dreadful and seemingly intractable problems, I did start to feel nervous. “What the heck am I going to say when she asks me?!” I now had a problem, albeit a small one. I cast around wildly in my memories for something that had gone wrong that week, and think I gamely came up with something in the nick of time.

solving problems with meditationI found it quite interesting that every single one of these cool young people, however together and sorted they looked on the outside, had a major problem. It is something I remember when I have problems in order to gain perspective — I am by no means alone. I have tried out the same market research quite often since then in a shortened form, and by all means try it yourself if you like. If you ask a group of friends, “Did you have a problem today?”, I bet 99% will say yes (and then look at each other in surprised recognition).

Things are always going to go wrong, one way or another, so if this throws us off balance we’re going to be unhappy — a lot. Therefore, we’ve got to find a way to be peaceful and positive no matter what’s going on.

Baby steps to nirvana

As Geshe Kelsang says:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

Nirvana (a Sanskrit word) means liberation, permanent inner peace, or true mental freedom. But nirvana is not some pie in the sky thing. The way all the so-called Foe Destroyers (who have destroyed the inner foes of their delusions) and enlightened beings have come to experience this forever inner peace is through developing moments of inner peace and learning to connect them.

Buddha happiness is withinFor example, every once in a while we feel a state of deep well-being, a feeling of peace or connection—life is good! This usually lasts between a few seconds and half an hour ~ it doesn’t last that long, does it? But at these points we really get a glimpse of what our life could be about. Why don’t we just stay here, seeing as we like it so much? It’s because some negative thought interrupts as we’re not in control of our mind.

Buddha’s point is that those moments we get of joy, peace, and contentment, even bliss, are a manifestation of our own Buddha nature, our boundless potential for lasting peace, universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, endless joy and flexibility, incredible goodness. Buddha called it Buddha nature because we all, without exception, have the potential not just for liberation but to be a Buddha, a fully awakened person who has all good qualities to perfection.

baby steps to enlightenment

So how do we get there? Baby steps. We gradually train our mind so we can find and hold the positive, peaceful feelings, like love for others, for longer and longer periods of time, always identifying with them and giving ourselves permission to stay there. We gradually clear our minds of all obstructive, destructive thoughts that interrupt, letting the clouds disperse from the sky. We can do all this because we have the potential and we have the methods. And as soon as we’ve attained the true and lasting mental freedom of liberation we’ll be happy throughout our life, and in any future life.

Happiness now, happiness later

In Buddhism, we talk about how our mind and our body are different natures. Our body is like a guest house for our mind. There is no use pretending that this body is anything other than a piece of meat with a rapidly approaching expiration date. But we are not our body; we are so much more than our body. Our mind has limitless potential.

At the point when the body dies, our mind does not die because it is a formless continuum of awareness that never stops. Our gross waking minds do stop — they dissolve into our subtle mind, and this dissolves into our very subtle mind that travels onto our next life. Buddha’s understanding of life after life comes from the direct experience that mind is formless. Happiness will always depend upon the positive qualities in the formless continuum of our mind and not on externals, and that is not going to change. Wherever you go, there you are. Therefore, if we want to be peaceful and happy in this life and in any future lives, we need to develop and maintain these qualities as a matter of priority.

Over to you: do you agree that to be happy we need to train our minds? Or can we find lasting happiness in other ways?