By 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.
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.
Samsara 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 minds — 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.
My Uber driver, Mohammed, aged mid-fifties at a guess, has been working Uber (in Manhattan) for only ten days, but already he is over it. Not that he has any choice as he has had no job for the past two years, but he is considering his options all the same. Minimum pay, long hours, he grumbled, though he was pretty cheerful considering. “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but I still need some.” He rubbed his hand over his belly and said, “You can feed this hell but it’ll never be enough. We carry our hell around with us.” “Yeah, and our heaven,” I agreed. “True, but people pay no attention to that, they are too busy feeding their hell.”
We looked out of the window at the crowds hurrying along 7th Avenue. “Look at everyone running around, all feeding their own hells,” he said. “Money, power, whatever, it is never enough.” “It’s like a black hole,” I offered, “insatiable. But our heaven is like the sun, always radiating outward.” He liked that. “Where are you from?” I asked, and he said Mars. He pointed out that it was discriminatory to assume everyone from Mars was green with antennae as opposed to just like me, especially as I have never met a Martian before. And of course Martians can be called Mohammed.
But right now, Martian, Muslim, Buddhist, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, male, female, everyone, we all have the choice to feed our heaven or to feed our hell.
Continuing from this article. This second type of self-confidence is the thought:
I can conquer all my delusions; they will never conquer me.
And if we internalize this, identify with this warrior mentality, then the more things go wrong the stronger that motivation becomes – as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Moment or movement?
I was in NYC during the inauguration and aftermath, when large marches took place in Washington, Manhattan, and all over the world. And the day after the Women’s March, a CNN headline questioned:
“Moment or movement?”
Which got me thinking not just about whether these political activities were going to sustain themselves past the next few weeks to resolve the world into some lasting change, but more importantly whether our meditations were.
Have you ever had any nice moments in meditation? Positive insights and/or feelings of joy or peace or empowerment? Connection? Glimpses of the possible?
Are these moments quickly forgotten and just occasionally revisited, or are they part of progress, a forward movement in your mind?
Probably your answer will depend on how consistent you are – there is no substitute for consistency. In all my decades in this Buddhist meditation tradition, I have observed, the people who seem to get the promised, deep results from meditation are — funnily enough — the ones who do it.
Consistency relies on effort or enthusiasm and, as Shantideva points out, effort includes self-confidence. At this time I think our self-confidence has to grow, a lot. Wisdom and empathy rise up! Destroy the delusions of selfishness, greed, intolerance, and ignorance.
Someone told me, “I was so positive after that march! Everyone was so positive! But, just two days later, and this relentless news is depressing me so much. I feel powerless again.”
Are you addicted to the news? Do you approach it with a feeling of indignation, quite sure that you are going to find something maddening … and sure enough … Are you turning to the news to scratch an itch, or for some perverse stimulation? And the more you watch, the more anxious or disheartened you become, the more de-motivated and helpless you feel? It drives you crazy, yet still you can’t keep away from it?!
Too much news doesn’t energize us but makes us passive because we can’t control the world and so the daily or even hourly repetition of news about things we can’t do a whole lot about grinds us down. We can end up frustrated, pessimistic, and desensitized, not to mention hopelessly distracted — perhaps seeking comfort and reassurance by talking only to people who agree with us while tempted to shout everything and everyone else down.
There is a balance between staying informed and being a news junkie. My suggestion? If we are feeling helpless, we need to get control back. And that means control of our mind. So we could spend at least as much time applying the solution (meditation) as we spend skimming over the problem (checking our news feeds).
As a friend put it, the news fuels his compassion but right now his gas tank is overflowing. We know there is a problem to solve. We know we have to do something creative. But nothing exists in a vacuum. We don’t need endless bitty demoralizing factoids – we need context, we need perspective, we need the big picture.
This would be the picture of samsara. Samsara sucks and always has sucked. And if we have delusions and contaminated karma we are as much part of samsara as anyone else — responsible for what appears to us, for what is happening. We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
We need a life less ordinary.
Delusions are our enemies
We need to say this to ourselves over and over again ~ “Delusions are the real enemies of all living beings”!!
We could be the most powerful and wealthy person on the planet and still feel insecure and slighted, still feel tense and miserable, still feel dissatisfied. Greed and narcissism are insatiable black holes. Dislike, pride, and intolerance will find enemies, detractors, and inferiors wherever they turn. This is just as true for us as for anyone else.
Delusions can be very powerful – the self-cherishing of just one person, for example, can help demean a nation and create dangerous disharmony and distrust — this has happened many times the world over. Dharma is meant to be used as a mirror, though, not a magnifying glass. If we resent shows of narcissism and power-hunger, for example, we can separate the delusions out from the person and use this appearance to increase our own humility and contentment. We are then becoming part of the solution, not remaining part of the problem.
And virtuous minds can be even more powerful than delusions. Just look at the legacies of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King. Just look at what great holy beings have pulled off in all traditions. Just look at what Geshe Kelsang is pulling off as we speak – I have seen with my own eyes over the past 35 years how he has helped and is still helping hundreds of thousands of people every day. We need the confidence that as soon as we control our delusions and master ourselves we will straightaway be helping both ourselves and the people around us and indeed our whole world, both directly and indirectly. What an incredible, hopeful example we could be!
We need to change if we are to be lastingly happy. We can’t stay with self-grasping, self-cherishing, and negative actions and expect a good life. Living with delusions life after life has always been horrible, and as soon as we get rid of one problem there is always another waiting to take its place.
There is no point in judging others – it just leads to anger and pride upon pride, “I am so much better than him/her!” We can instead spend at least some of our discrimination focused not on the faults of others but judging our own faults, which will result in a peaceful mind intent on real liberation.
So my feeling is that we can campaign, canvass, sign all the petitions that drop into our inbox, attend demonstrations, call our representatives, stand up for fairness and tolerance – and all that can be well and good, probably we need this, to exercise our freedom of speech and uphold our democratic values as we each see fit. There are outer problems and inner problems, after all, which need fixing in different ways.
But the only march that will lead to actual freedom is the march against our delusions.
Over to you: comments are invited from Martians, Muslims, Buddhists, Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, male, female, everyone.
There seems to be a fair bit of hubris around lately, like it’s catching or something, and some of it is quite dangerous. Deluded pride is more about bending the world to our own will, thinking we are already great and/or know it all. It never works out in the long term — as they say, pride always comes before a fall. And pride is not inspiring.
With wisdom, on the other hand, we see that WE need to change if we are to find lasting happiness and help others do the same. We need the confidence to change, and this needs to be based on something valid, ie, our spiritual potential and actual good qualities, not dumb stuff or selfish stuff or negative stuff.
Actual self-confidence — or non-deluded pride — is a humble mind, the very opposite of hubris. It is able to accept challenges without freaking out, learn from others, grow from mistakes, and keep us moving and improving. It is also catching because when we meet a truly humble, selfless person we are humbled by their humble nature. Their influence can be huge and their inspiration ring down the ages.
Even one strong delusion can be a powerful force for negativity in our world – delusions are weird and scary, and they can spread fast. But a strong, virtuous, sane mind like self-confident humility or compassion is just as powerful and contagious, maybe more so, and can oppose the delusions directly. So being the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi put it, is an effective response to our own and others’ delusions; and, unlike trying to master other people, mastering our own mind is guaranteed to bring about good results now and later.
We are thinking, “I don’t want to stay the same – I want to become unstuck by freeing my mind from the chains of my delusions.” In ordinary psychology, perhaps, we hardly dare imagine that we can change that much – getting rid of all our faults and limitations, as opposed to just some of them. But in Buddhist psychology, as explained a bit here, it is possible to develop a vision that understands we can.
It is impossible to destroy our spiritual potential because this is based on reality, but it is perfectly possible to destroy our delusions because these are based on wrong conceptions that can be righted:
A person under the influence of delusions is not in his right mind, because he is creating terrible suffering for himself and no one in his right mind would create suffering for himself. All delusions are based on a mistaken way of seeing things. When we see things as they really are, our delusions naturally disappear and virtuous minds naturally manifest. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Try thinking this: “I’m going to destroy, vanquish, and utterly eliminate from my mind every last trace of delusion.” Just try it out. Try the feel of it in your heart-mind. I am going to destroy my delusions. This is how Shantideva says it in his epic Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
I will conquer all obstacles,
And none shall conquer me.
That is a big sense of self, right?! But it’s not the big, real, important self as in deluded pride (the self that doesn’t exist).
Thus I, who will become a Conqueror,
Will practice with self-confidence.
A real Conqueror is a Buddha, someone who has awakened from the sleep of mistaken conceptions and appearances, destroying all their delusions permanently.
We need this self-confidence so that when things go wrong, (as they do tend to do), we need never become panic-stricken or downcast.
You know that feeling – if our confidence is weak, then just some little thing crops up, like an annoying email, and we trip up and collapse. It’s like we’re setting out to practice patience and suddenly people are being doubly disagreeable. “Ohh, I can’t do it!” In truth, the opposite is the case. “I, who am going to become a Buddha, will destroy all my delusions.”
Shantideva illustrates how we can put ourselves into that space with the example of a warrior – saying that if a warrior in battle gets a flesh wound and sees their own blood, they are roused to greater acts of courage. Whereas if someone bloodies me with a sword … well, I don’t know what I’d do, but if my brief days of playing school sports are anything to go by, I’d probably slink off the battle field as soon as as I could without being noticed.
The Bodhisattva is like a warrior – they start experiencing obstacles, and they are like, “Great! Bring it on!” More reason to wield the sword of wisdom against the delusions, more reason to be self-confident.
And in truth, why shouldn’t we be self-confident? We know where the obstacles are coming from = just our own mind. The intriguing thing about the obstacles, the delusions, is that that’s all they are – they’re just delusions. Meaning not only are they just thoughts, without arms or legs as Shantideva says (let alone swords), but they also don’t have truth on their side. They’re actually grounded in ignorance. They are founded on a misperception of reality. Whereas we can become a Buddha, that’s the truth. We can overcome our delusions, that’s the truth. Wisdom, love, compassion, generosity, patience, self-confidence and all the other virtuous minds are based on seeing reality correctly.
The real battle lines are drawn
It’s not a fight between good versus evil where we are on the sidelines, on tenterhooks, “Who’s going to win the ultimate battle, the dark side, the light side?!” It’s not like that — especially if we are talking about living beings versus living beings because we are all mixed bags of delusions and virtues changing all the time, and from one life to the next, so who could ever possibly win a battle like that?!
The real battle lines are wisdom versus ignorance, and finally, in that war, ignorance doesn’t stand a chance. This is because it is ignorant! It is stupid. It is also stubborn and fairly persuasive while we remain under its influence, but as soon as we start to view it from the perspective of wisdom it doesn’t stand a chance.
More on this second type of self-confidence in the next article — we are out of time as I know a lot of readers have things to do like march the streets today. That’s cool, I like that people are standing up for what they believe in. Maybe it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, that our outward action is nurtured and given its meaning by our inner motivations. So even in these, for many people, difficult and scary times, and in the heat of battle, I am trying to remember that my real rebellion is against the delusions or wrong conceptions – never other living beings — and starting with my own.
Feedback from you: How do you stay confident enough to prioritize conquering your delusions, even when things are going badly wrong and the tendency to feel upset and lash out might be strong?
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 mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”)
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.
We 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?
Dharma 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.
We 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 🙂
Do you ever feel that you have lost or are in the process of losing lots of things and people over the course of this life alone? And that, as you get older, this may just be more and more the story of your life?
From one perspective, yes, the end of collection is dispersion (including, it seems, all the working bits of our body) and the end of meeting is parting. But that is from the point of view of the dualistic mind, the mind of “in here” and “out there”, the mind of self-grasping. Inside our mind there is nothing to lose and nothing to gain, which means that outside our mind there is nothing really to lose or gain either. We may think that we have lost things and people, but we have lost nothing, other than perhaps our illusions. Whether awake, asleep, in this life, in the bardo, everything unfolds as mere karmic appearance to mind, created by our minds, not outside us. The story of our life will be very different if we rewrite it with deep wisdom and unconditional love ~ for then we will not be separated from anyone.
Even death, the biggest loss, is mere aspect of mind, mere imputation; and for people who realize this and are able to access and control their very subtle mind:
For such practitioners, death is just mere name.
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Heruka. ~ Root Tantra of Heruka
I stopped long ago
We have everything we need inside us. We need to believe this, for it is true. All the peace and bliss we have ever wanted, all the connection, all the most exquisitely beautiful appearances, have always been part of our nature and potential; we just need to realize this.
And, if we do, we can finally stop running round and round in circles, life after life, following our delusions that have been convincing us that we have to get happiness and get rid of suffering outside the mind, and freaking out when our attempts prove futile. “I stopped long ago”, Buddha said calmly to the mass murderer Angulimala. This “madly hostile man” was in hot pursuit of Buddha, yelling at him to STOP, but failing to catch him even though he was running and Buddha was walking. “It is you who need to stop”, Buddha said. You can watch this scene in the Life of Buddha movie here.
We stop our delusions by transforming them, and we do this by first getting good at accepting that they are there as opposed to suppressing or repressing or combating them, and then trying to transform them. What does acceptance mean? I think part of it is that whenever we feel discouraged or useless or lonely, we can accept that, yes, we feel this way, that’s the way it is, but NOT accept that it is real or that it is me. We don’t accept that these thoughts are about anything particularly real — rather that they are just floating story lines with nothing behind them.
If we allow ourselves to relax and breathe a moment, as explained here, some space might open up around these seemingly solid feelings. They are just weather in the mind – we can let them pass and know that there is peace, that our mind is on our side, that there is in fact plenty of room in our basically okay peaceful sky-like mind for all of this. We make space. We can dilute our thoughts in a container of infinite size. We’re okay. We’ll survive. We might even expand.
Wisdom Buddha Dorje Shugden
Then it is not so hard to gain better perspective and transform whatever is coming up. And there is also powerful help on hand for doing this; we don’t have to do it all alone if we don’t want to. I just received a Wisdom Buddha Dorje Shugden empowerment and teachings at the International Spring Festival at Manjushri Center in the English Lake District. Dorje Shugden is a Dharma Protector, which means he specializes in helping us keep our minds off delusions and on Dharma. One way he does this is by helping us transform all appearances into the spiritual path, opening our wisdom eyes so that we know what to do with each delight or disaster as it arises, generating Dharma minds such as renunciation, compassion, or wisdom.
Dorje Shugden overcomes obstacles and helps us gather favorable conditions for Dharma practice, and after making lots of prayers to him over the past few days I now find myself writing this in the quiet seclusion of first class on the train from Preston to London Euston, which is weird as I never travel first class and have zero recollection of buying a first-class ticket. In fact I know I didn’t buy one, so this is technically a mistake. But, as it happens, the last two trains to London were cancelled and so standard class is totally jam-packed; yet here is little old me in an empty carriage watching the sunset — with free wifi, endless supplies of free coffee and Perrier, place settings, and a box labeled “Delicious Deli Snacks”. The best favorable conditions may not, admittedly, be such luxury, and perhaps I would have more to practice patience with, for example, if I was in steerage like everyone else. But although some might argue that this means I am not quite ready to transform standing in the aisle for 3 and a half hours, and most likely they are right, I am not complaining (much less feeling guilty, even though one or two people have suggested I should be ;-)) This is because it still feels unusual, as if Dorje Shugden orchestrated it; so I am prompted to transform and offer it. And post this article while I am at it.
More later. Meanwhile, over to you – have you had some success in accepting seemingly insurmountable painful emotions and delusions (rather than suppressing them) such that you were then able to do something practical to transform them?
Postscript: Someone has just asked me how they can rely on Dorje Shugden as they haven’t come across this Buddha before. Enlightened beings appear in different forms for different purposes, including as teachers, personal Deities, and Protectors. One simple way to get the numerous benefits of having this Buddha in your life is to consider Dorje Shugden to be the same nature as Wisdom Buddha Manjushri and Je Tsongkhapa — he is the manifestation of the omniscient wisdom of all enlightened beings appearing in this form to protect you. Then just make any requests to him to avert your obstacles and give you favorable conditions for gaining temporary and lasting freedom and happiness.
You can do this, if you like, by thinking he is with you and saying his mantra in your heart:
OM VAJRA WIKI WITRANA SOHA
And/or by using this concise but says-it-all prayer:
All the attainments I desire Arise from merely remembering you. O Wishfulfilling Jewel, Protector of the Dharma, Please accomplish all my wishes.
Of the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)
Monsters in the cellar
It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.
We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)
Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.
Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.
We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.
Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.
For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.
One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not there. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.
I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore. ~ Quicksand
As mentioned in the previous article, step one in transforming our mind — gaining power over our lives and destinies — is to start by focusing on the breath. One reason for this is that we are all breathing, whereas we’re not all necessarily experiencing universal love or an insight into the ultimate nature of reality. So the breath is the easiest object to find and serves the purpose of allowing us to gain some control over where we put our thoughts. This way, they can no longer suck us down like quicksand.
It’s worth noting too that a still body of water reflects everything very accurately — the trees and the birds for example – we can trust those reflections. But when water is churned up, everything is distorted and reflections become deceptive. Similarly, when the mind is quiet and settled, relatively free from strong delusions and distractions, it is not only naturally peaceful but naturally still and clear, and as a result it reflects reality far more accurately. This is unlike our delusions, which arise from inappropriate attention and distort and exaggerate like a storm ruffling a lake. With anger, for example, we effectively don’t know what is going on. Our delusions are never reliable — on the contrary, their job is to deceive us. That’s one reason why I like this Kadampa motto:
Always rely upon a happy mind alone.
Meditation is therefore not an escape from reality — it puts us far more in touch with the truth of what is going on inside, and by extension outside, in our lives.
Plenty more where that came from
So as soon as our mind quietens down and we get a mini-vacation from our delusions and distractions, we feel some peace within. It is really important to recognize that this peace is the seed of lasting happiness and freedom, that there is plenty more where that came from; and to identify with the sense of potentially boundless serenity inside, like an open endless sky, more than with the passing clouds.
I was watching the sky yesterday, on a sunny-cloudy Denver day here in Cheesman Park, and the dramatic clouds were making the sky even more beautiful in a way because I was feeling the space of the sky, the clarity that IS the sky. It is all pervasive, it is not in any conflict with the clouds, clouds have room to be, they come and go. They come from the clear light like all other cloud-like thoughts — the only difference is that they arise in dependence upon unrealistic or inappropriate attention and so their suggestions are not to be trusted. Stop identifying with them and the pain associated with them also goes, and we are no longer stuck. And then we realize we can transform them — for example, the pain of grief or disappointment can remind us of everyone’s pain, and become the object of our vast blissful compassion, metamorphosized.
In any event, as mentioned in this article, our thoughts and their appearances cannot be separated out from the clarity of the mind; they are aspects of that clarity. Change the mind, change everything.
Just a mortal with potential of a superman
We need to spark our clear light, the extraordinarily deep Buddha nature that we all share. Every being on this planet has this really quite incredible spiritual potential, and the sooner we can relate to it and identify with it, the sooner it will manifest and get strong. It is all waiting to come out, we don’t need to add anything. But for as long as we skid about on the surface of our minds, caught up in our “flavor of the day” reasons why we are unhappy, we are neglecting who we really are and what we are capable of, and we’ll not give ourselves any choice but to stay stuck in bad habits of suffering.
The key to letting go of unhappy thoughts is to stop identifying with them. And how do we do that? By identifying instead with our natural peace and potential. We need the kind of confidence knowing that we’ve really got it going on inside and no one can take it away from us. It’s ours. It’s the NATURE of our mind. If our mind doesn’t feel peaceful, it’s because uncontrolled thoughts are destroying that peace. But let them settle and we get a sense of the peace that is possible, and we can be happy with that, contented.
There’s room in the sky
There is more than enough room in the sky for clouds — there is even room for rain, thunderstorms, snow, cyclones, hail the size of golf balls, every imaginable weather. No weather ever alters the fact that the sky is by nature clear, and that clarity can never be destroyed, only temporarily obscured. We tend to identify with our anger or worry or attachment as if it is everything, as if it is what is actually going on, as if it’s reality. “I’m angry and that person is horrific” or “I NEED her, she’s so cool, I’ll die without her!” – we are all wrapped up in it at the moment, but we can learn to recognize that the thoughts of anger or attachment are arising within spectacular boundless clarity. We can observe them and know they are not actually me. They are temporary fleeting clouds, but I am identified with clarity and peace. I don’t need to freak out here.
Instead of grasping at every fleeting thought as the be all and end all of everything, we get a taste for this boundless potential we have inside. This is me, this is my sky-like mind, and I want to be able to access this whenever I want.
If we get good at experiencing some peace and identifying with it, we start to have a lot of space in our minds and our lives; and then when unhappiness arises we are not so quick to think, “This is a total catastrophe, I need a bottle of sleeping pills.” We are not caught up in it, so we can let it go and/or transmute it.
What do we normally do?
I’m going to quote some bits from How to Solve our Human Problemsin the next few articles, but treat yourself by reading the whole book if you can because it is so very practical and helpful:
Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from.
Geshe Kelsang gives some examples, such as someone we have helped responding with ingratitude, but I can think of countless occasions when we want to escape our feelings. Gazillion things hurt us at the moment, we are quite sensitive, our mind rather like an open wound, our uncontrolled thoughts like quicksand ready to swallow us whole. So what do we do?
These things hurt, and our instinctive reaction is to to try immediately to escape the painful feelings in our mind by becoming defensive, blaming the other person, retaliating, or simply hardening our heart.
“Our instinctive reaction” is I cannot handle this, I have to get rid of it, so we defend ourselves, our poor hurt sense of me. Have you noticed that we never let pain just float around in our mind, we always try and pin it down? There HAS to be a reason for the way I’m feeling and that reason is outside my mind somewhere. Even when there isn’t anything obviously wrong, we just woke up disgruntled for instance, we try and figure it out — “It has to be because of this, that, or the other!”
We have a well-worn habit of immediately casting around for something or someone else to blame. “I’m in a bad mood because of THIS situation”, and therefore I have to fix something out there. I was sitting here quite happily reading my book, you came into the room and made a face at me, I got upset, two plus two = five, it’s your fault. That’s the logic of the annoyed mind.
But could it simply be “I’m in a bad mood because I am in a bad mood”, and therefore need to let these thoughts go and practice love instead?
For example, on Tuesday we are upset with Jack, and on Wednesday it is Bob, and at the weekend it is Mary. Same old same old, just different packaging. The only reason there are upsetting people in our life is because of the unprocessed upset in our minds. If we try patience with Jack on Tuesday and get some result, then we can try it with Bob on Wednesday, and then with Mary at the weekend; and they can all become objects of love and patience. We become defensive, as Geshe-la says, blaming the object for our negative minds; but it is our irritated minds that are responsible for the irritating people. To someone whose mind is tamed, everyone is a friend.
Meanwhile, more coming up in the next article about accepting unhappiness without panicking.
We all need to be able to let go of our unhappiness. This, to put it mildly, is a Very Useful Skill – unless of course we don’t mind hanging onto misery for a few more years, a few more decades, a few more lifetimes…
Considering that we probably do mind that, quite a lot in fact, why would we hang on?
No one ever wants to suffer and everyone always wants to be happy. These are the two most basic wishes of all living beings. Do you ever wake up and want a truckload of suffering? … I didn’t think so. We always want to be happy and we hate suffering, that’s why we call it suffering. But still we relentlessly hold onto it. Why?
One reason is that we have to think thoughts without control – for example frustrated thoughts, lonely thoughts, worried thoughts, jealous thoughts, depressed thoughts. We don’t particularly want to think these unhappy thoughts but we can’t help it, and that’s why we are unhappy. When we are not thinking these thoughts, we are just fine.
The whole purpose of meditation is to understand our own mind, including which states of mind give rise to our chronic mental aches and pains. Buddhism teaches many meditations to dig deeper and see where unhappiness is coming from so that we can uncover and uproot those causes and cultivate our natural capacity for real happiness instead. We come to see how our so-called delusions have no basis in reality and we switch them out for their opposite, eg, switching out hatred for love. While we are loving someone, we are not hating them at the same time with the same mind – wishing them to be happy is opposite to wishing them to suffer, like turning on a dimmer switch extinguishing the darkness.
Before we get to this point of transforming our thoughts, we first need to learn to let go of our distractions and deeply relax and enjoy the natural peace and space of our own minds. Then within that – as the second step, if you like — we can accept whatever is going on in our minds so that we can work with it.
The most common way to quieten our mind is breathing meditation (or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our own mind). Some space opens up – we can remember Buddha’s example of our mind being like a boundless clear ocean. Generally we are so caught up with externals, such as our body, our job, our relationships, and other things that are not our thoughts – constantly discriminating “Oh I like the look of that”, “Ooh he’s ugly”, “Hmm that’s pretty cool”, “Yeah, that sucks”, while neglecting to discriminate what’s going on in our own mind, “Whoah, that’s a cool thought! Yikes, that thought is ugly!” But it is only by discriminating what is going on within our mind that we can plumb our real potential – focusing on externals is like being caught up in just the froth, the waves, the bubbles, neglecting this enormous wellspring of power and freedom within us, failing to recognize that it is our thoughts that make our world, not the other way around.
We try to master the world we dualistically perceive to be around us, outside us, trying to get other people to behave (how is that working out for you?!), while neglecting to master our own minds. We identify with our passing emotions, our fleeting likes and dislikes, making them solid and thinking that this is what life is about; and meantime we neglect the extraordinary opportunity we find ourselves in at the moment to end all suffering. So we are not diving into this incredible thing we have all the time within us, our Buddha nature — our clear light mind and its emptiness — and because of this we are accessing a mere fraction of our spiritual potential.
Omniscience ~ a little digression
And we have the potential not just for peace but for full enlightenment, for omniscience. Our mind is vaster than the universe, than all universes, including their time and space, which are all merely reflection of our mind that cannot be separated out from it. So by removing our ignorance and its imprints we can come to see fully and directly the interrelationship and totality of all phenomena; and how, because nothing exists from its own side, all minds and their appearances arise from the emptiness of the clear light.
When we realize the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of our own mind, we come to see also that it is not separate from the emptiness of the clear light mind of all enlightened beings and of all living beings; and that all phenomena, both their conventional and ultimate nature, including our individual and collective karma, are mere appearance to this clear light. We are not, nor ever have been, separated from any other being.
I have loved this William Blake quote since I was a teenager – it shone a light into my mind before I met Buddhism:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
Omniscience is not a gathering of facts and data outside our mind, as it were, or a knowledge describing all phenomena down to the finest detail, but the experience of an unobstructed mind that has understood the interdependence and non-duality of all phenomena, the union of conventional and ultimate truth.
At present we are hallucinating what is NOT there and we are overpowered by these appearances. We need first to stop being taken in by these appearances, which involves destroying our ignorance and other delusions (the obstructions to liberation). Then we need to remove the imprints of these delusions that cause everything to appear real (the obstructions to omniscience). At this point, we will see what exists. (I have a lot more to say on the subject of omniscience if you’re interested – like I said, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.)
Meanwhile, more in the next article about getting perspective on our hurt feelings.
When we think about appearance and reality, we think of them as two different truths. But the truth is that they are not.
Considering appearance and reality helps us understand where our ignorance, and therefore our problems, lie. This is because, generally speaking, when we think of something, for example a tree, we think that the tree is appearing and that there is something there that is the tree appearing. We don’t think of the tree as just being appearance. We think there is something there appearing. There is a tree that is appearing.
When we think of our body, we don’t think of something merely appearing, like in a dream say –we think there is something there that is my body appearing to me.
When we think about ourself, we grasp so strongly at ourself — we don’t think of “myself” as just an appearance of mind, we think there is something that is really me appearing. There is something behind the appearance.
For people who have not experienced emptiness, if something is not real, then we don’t trust it. We feel that something has to be there to trust it. If it was just a reflection of a tree, just an appearance in a lake, say, and there was nothing behind that appearance, we know we are being deceived because there is no real tree there. What we don’t realize is that we are being deceived all the time.
We distinguish between the appearance of a tree and a tree. We think that trees and planets and bodies and jobs are somehow real and solid and dependable — the ground of our being. And a mere reflection or appearance of a tree is utterly false and deceptive. And so, for ordinary beings who have not realized emptiness, there is a need to distinguish between things that are real and valid and things that are fake, apparent, deceptive, hallucinatory.
A famous actress recently had a lot of work done on her face and her appearance changed dramatically. Where did the actress’s “real” face go?! People are calling her fake, saying that it is not her face. But of course it is her face. Just not really her face. But nor was her previous face really her face.
We need to explore what is real and what is fake. And basically we come to see that everything is fake. Except for reality.
However, reality is not what we think it is. For an ordinary being, reality means inherent existence, it is things existing from their own side. You have a tree over there, the mind is over here — the tree exists from its own side and has the power to generate an awareness of itself. In fact, it doesn’t, but that’s what it feels like because our ignorance makes us think the tree is really there. So for us the reality of the tree is the tree being a tree from its own side. That is the truth. That is the ground of our being. Take that away and there’s nothing. We actually mistake inherent existence for reality, whereas reality is the lack of inherent existence. The truth is the opposite of what we think at the moment.
And this is why we suffer. In Buddha’s analysis, ignorance is grasping at reality, inherent existence, and truth as all being the same. Thinking that things are as real as they appear, when in fact nothing is as real as it appears. There are things we know we are not being fooled by, such as mirages, hallucinations, reflections – “I’m not fooled by that mirage! Or by that Botox! Or by that fake brand name!” But, unfortunately, we are being fooled by everything else. And because of that we suffer. If we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t need to examine the nature of reality because we would be fine. But the fact is that all our delusions and all our contaminated karma come from grasping at something that is not there. We are grasping at a reality behind the appearance of things, when there is none to be found.
Next article, The Non-Thingyness of Things, can be found here.
My lovely dad turned 80 on October 2nd, and we were discussing the meaning of (the rest of his) life. He told me he’d been perusing the obituaries to get a sense of how long he had to live and worked out (by some strange and somewhat optimistic algorithm known only to himself) that most people die at 82. And he has been thinking about what he can accomplish in this remaining time. He thinks making his family happy might be it. I’m quite happy to go along with that 😉 “And how about accomplishing inner peace?”, I suggested. He liked that, so this article is for you, dad. (Your comments are welcome in the comments section below if you can figure out how to get it to work. Just scroll way down the first page of this blog til you see “I’d love to hear from you”, write your comment in that box, and hit the button that says “Post comment”. Anyone else reading this is also welcome to do this!)
Because to accomplish inner peace, I think, we have to understand that our mind is naturally peaceful. That natural peace is constantly being disturbed, however–but by inner problems, not outer ones.
In this article I talk about how according to Buddha all our problems fit into a pattern of seven types of problem, and all of these can be recognized as stemming from our delusions. The very day after we spoke, my father emailed me about a problem he’d been having with a car and possibly a policeman … even that would seem to fit into the category of having to encounter what we do not like.
So without understanding the nature and causes of our problems (as described in the last article), and if we try instead of fixing our delusions just to fix one outer problem at a time, our problems will continue to arise like endless waves on an ocean. My dad said he was using the car thing as a way to practice inner peace — if he manages it, his actual problem will be over, even if he still has to do something external to make the policeman happy. And also he’ll be better set up to solve the next problem that comes his way. Inner peace, just as much as anxiety, is habit-forming.
When was your last problem-free day?
This time next year we will still be having a problem. It may well appear in a different shape and size to the one we have been having today, but it will still fill our mind, just like today’s problem. The chances are we will have no clue then what today’s problem was, it’ll be long forgotten. I don’t even remember what problem I was having this time last week. However, we’ll still be thinking: “All I need to do is solve this particular problem and I’ll be happy again!” This won’t work. We won’t be happy again, or at least not for more than a few minutes or hours. Something else will have come up. This is pretty much what has been happening for as long as we can remember – can you remember having even one completely problem-free day?
We have to heal our mind, our mental continuum. The causes of our problems have been lurking in our mind since beginningless time – now is the time to address these, not their symptoms.
Essential advice: catch them early
And it is a very good idea to come to understand how the delusions each operate in our own minds so that we can spot them early. Spotting the inappropriate attention as it is about to arise and dealing with it is like extinguishing a match before it becomes a forest fire.
For example, if we feel the murmurings of disappointed attachment arising, “Why is it not as good as it used to be?” and we run with that, rather than letting it go and turning our thoughts to compassion or some other actual source of happiness, it will quickly take over our mind and make us feel despondent and lethargic. It will be hard to apply the antidotes to attachment once it has taken over the mind. If we let our delusions or so-called “afflictions” take over our mind, we have no choice but to ride them out or pray for a massive blessing to zap them away. We quickly become stuck and confused and powerless.
On the other hand, when the first murmuring of unhappiness aka delusion does arise, I like to ask myself:
Who are you, thought!? And where do you come from? Where are you going?
I let it dissolve away into emptiness and/or the clarity of my root mind, like a snowflake dissolving onto a hot roof. Then I think about something else, such as faith, or love, or wisdom. I know that my real pleasure always comes from these positive, wise thoughts, and that the changing suffering of attachment is always a disaster — so enough already.
For anger, I think it is particularly essential to catch it early if we want to control it. It is the most self-justifying delusion – once it has arisen in the mind, it brooks no discussion. So, if for example we feel the rumblings of discontent or dislike, and are about to hone in on someone’s faults and get mighty annoyed, thus ruining a perfectly good day, we can go into the restroom and remember just 3 good things about that person to derail the runaway anger train.
We can learn a thousand wise, positive ways of thinking to which we gently turn our mind as soon as we notice that it is getting agitated. In this way, over time, we can stay in control, stay spacious, stay light, stay content, stay free.
It is a great pity to let delusions/problems take over our mind if we have a choice not to do that. And we do have a choice. We can understand how delusions arise in dependence upon causes and conditions that we can change, ie, from inappropriate, unhelpful thoughts that we don’t need to think if we just catch them early enough and learn not to indulge them. Then we can stay happy and problem-free instead.
In this way, we can remain with our natural inner peace and let it gradually increase — first for one hour, then one day, then two, then a week, then a month, then a year, then two years, then for the rest of this life, however long that may be, and then for all our future lives. May my dad and everyone else accomplish this permanent inner peace.