Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

past-life-signsLast night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.

It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?

Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.

Loved and lost

And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.

Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.

23622102_10155844260527442_2370081359763870875_nNo difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.

Fleeting narratives

So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.

The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

 We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.

Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.

We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.

Swept along

201306-orig-past-life-949x534Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.

You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.

If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path  

The imperative to get enlightened

beyond-1157000_960_720How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …

This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.

Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.

Buddha_sunBuddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.

Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.

Start here

If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?

We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.

Leonard CohenI know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.

What is the first step? Trusting in our own inner peace. We can start with just one simple breath carrying us into our heart.

What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.

This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.

This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.

That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!

Related articles
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  3. Are we hallucinating all this? 
  4. We cannot find anything behind appearances 
  5. Everything we need is inside us 

 

 

Ever had self-loathing?

Delusions are inner diseases. When our mind is uncomfortable or ill at ease, we can accept that we are experiencing mental dis-ease, some level of uneasiness, without thinking, “I am a disease.”

(By the way, Dad, the definition of delusion is “A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the overcoming delusionsmind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”)

Contaminated identity

Abuse victims often report to feeling guilty or unworthy, even dirty; and this is because they have internalized the faults of their attackers. I read a terrifying book last summer, Escape from Camp 14, about someone who quite recently escaped from a North Korean prison camp, where he had been imprisoned since birth due to the “crimes” of his relatives, and where humans are still right now, as we speak, being treated even worse than animals, if that is possible. Amongst many other rules Shin In Geun had to memorize and live by from a very young age, if he didn’t want to be shot, here is one example:

Anyone who harbors ill will toward or fails to demonstrate total compliance with a guard’s instructions will be shot immediately.

(I find this book quite useful whenever I feel like complaining about anyone … )

Shin “saw himself through the eyes of the guards in the camp,” even after he had escaped to America by a series of miracles, pretty much the only person who ever has managed it, and with every right to feel pleased with himself. Concentration camp survivors the world over apparently move through life with what Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman calls a “contaminated identity.”

They suffer not only from a classic post-traumatic syndrome but also from profound alterations in their relations with God, with other people, and with themselves. Most survivors are preoccupied with shame, self-loathing, and a sense of failure.

 selfloathing 1We may not have found ourselves in such extreme circumstances as Shin, in this life at least, but it seems most of us are still not immune to identifying with a contaminated identity and at least occasional self-loathing. For example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because we are internalizing that the person we love doesn’t love us back, making it our fault. I was struck by these Alanis Morissette lyrics recently in a song about being dumped:

I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful
So unloved for someone so fine
I can feel so boring for someone so interesting
So ignorant for someone of sound mind  ~ So UnSexy

Who is the real enemy?

selfloathing 4Dharma helps us get past the bad habit of feeling no good. When recurrent delusions attack us, rather than feeling bad about ourselves, guaranteeing more anxiety and heaviness, we can remember that these are our enemies, not us. As Geshe Kelsang says, why blame a victim for the faults of their attacker? We are full of potential to love deeply and unconditionally, which is an endless source of feeling good about ourselves; and we in turn are deeply loved by holy beings and sustained by the kindness of others. We can drop our burdens, we don’t need the sack cloth and ashes.

It is odd, don’t you think, that whenever we feel the slightest bit unpeaceful we automatically try to pin it on something outside us – “I am feeling this way because this and that has happened.” A friend of mine is dealing with jealousy of an ex-lover who had almost instantaneously started dating someone else. Yes, as he pointed out, her parading her new love interest in front of him may have been a condition for his jealousy and self-doubt to arise, but this is not the main cause or reason – beginningless familiarity with jealousy is the main reason. And if it wasn’t this, therefore, it would be that. Until we get rid of the delusion, the outer problems will just keep arising in some form or another. There will always be the potential to feel this way, ie, jealous or inadequate, about something.

It’s gonna happen anyway

Same for anger, irritation, discouragement, insecurity, attachment, you name it. So we can say, as we do, “Oh if only this hadn’t happened and so and so hadn’t run off with so and so”, but it wouldn’t actually have made the blindest bit of difference if they hadn’t, at least not in the overall scheme of things, because if we have the delusion (and the karma) it’s gonna happen anyway, one way or another, sooner or later.

selfloathing 3We can instead allow our unpleasant feelings to remind us not that we hate our boss, or our ex and her creepy new boyfriend, but that we hate our delusions and would like never to feel this way again about anyone ever. Considering the faults of jealousy, in other words, rather than the faults of the external situation.

Then we will be motivated to purify and overcome our delusions and feel happy all the time, so even if our lover runs off with our best friend, both jeering at us as they do so (or whatever our worst nightmare might be), we won’t care a whit, they could get married and have ten children for all we care, and we will genuinely wish them well on their way. Free at last.

It’s probably a good idea to practice this now, in this precious human life, before we find ourselves in the extreme, overwhelming circumstances of a North Korean labor camp.

Ocean of samsara

If we don’t, if we instead keep blaming our problems on something or someone else, we will just stay trapped. I hope Gen Rabten doesn’t mind me quoting verbatim a bit of his awesome introduction to the Kadampa Summer Festival a couple of weeks ago:

Every moment in our life there’s something wrong and it’s common that we feel “I’ve just got to get through this – this week, this illness, this divorce, this deadline.” And the subtext of that is “I’ve just got to get through this and then it’ll be alright.” Which is why all our energy goes just into getting through that. But Buddha tells us samsara is like an ocean and suffering is like waves. So there’s a wave crashing down right now. We think we can hold our breath and come out the other side, “Great, I got through that!” And we open our eyes and what do we see? Another wave. And the waves of samsara never stop. And Buddha is on the shore with a loud hailer yelling, “Get out of the ocean!” Mostly we can’t hear him because the waves are crashing down so loud. Sometimes we do hear him, and we think, “Nah, I like it here. This is alright.”

It’s helpful to check, “What is happening in my mind?” and “What is going to happen?” Is that thought getting us out of the ocean, or keeping us in? We can look and know, “Am I getting out of the ocean or am I being sucked in? Because if I stay in the ocean, the waves don’t stop.”

Over to you. Comments welcome.

PS, thank you for letting me share some photos from the Summer Exhibition at the RA 🙂