So, happiness depends on the mind, not on external conditions. That’s what we say in Buddhism. All the time!
(Carrying on from this article on developing self-confidence.)
In January, while in NYC, I decided in the spirit of market research for this article to see if I could find happiness in and around Central Park; and then jotted down my findings.
I started in Starbucks, of course. Only second in the queue, I was quickly weighing up the important decision of whether to ask for a flat white with 170 calories or a cappuccino with 140, and whether I was really going to spend over $5 on a coffee in the first place (I was), when I noticed that the woman in the line ahead was ordering 13 drinks. So I gave up. No coffee for me today in Starbucks itself, so I had to search for happiness elsewhere, like in Baldacci’s across the street.
And if I thought Baldacci’s was pricey, it was nothing compared with $3 per minute for a ride in a grimy Pedi cab in the Park, a ride I didn’t take. How demoralizing a job to be a Pedi cab driver, all lined up going nowhere on this wintery day, wealthy women in Lulu yoga pants declining the drivers firmly, almost crossly, “No, we came here to get some exercise!” How many people are stuck in grinding or demoralizing jobs all day long all over the world, if they are in jobs at all? However, although most of the drivers looked dejected, one or two looked like they were having some fun – different minds, different experiences.
I walked past the young pregnant homeless woman, still nursing a cold. I gave her a smoothie. I’ve taken to connecting with her between the apartment and the subway. Some days she looks very sad, today she smiled warmly. She moves me – why is she there? How can I really help her?
How many New Yorks are there? As many as there are New Yorkers? Do the ducks on the lake know they are in Manhattan? Probably not. So do they live in Manhattan, or do they live in Duckhattan?! The quality of the New York life — happy, unhappy, or neutral – depends not on an objective New York but on what is going on in the minds and experiences of the various living beings, which includes the results of their previous actions, or karma.
I, for one, had a lovely time because I was determined to do so, and because there are umpteen opportunities in this city — and indeed wherever there are lots of people — to increase our peaceful minds of love, patience, compassion, and the wisdom realizing impermanence and that everything depends upon the mind. I was also blissed out by a great acrobatic show, though I noticed some onlookers still looked a little distracted and forlorn, and one child was crying.
Taking refuge in peaceful minds
This is of course just one hour in one day in one month in one insignificant person’s lifetime, but I relay it here as an example of how every minute of everyone’s experience, including my own, depends upon the mind. This is why we need to get started in taking refuge in the peace of our own good hearts and kind actions, learning familiarity with positive minds as antidotes to negative ones while we still have the relative freedom to do this, while we are not yet suffocated by suffering.
To embrace this fact — that happiness depends on the mind far more than on external conditions — and to live by it, as opposed to just saying it with our mouth, we need the self-confidence that believes that it is true and that happiness is possible. If we change, if we conquer our delusions.
As explained in this article, we both want to change and yet distrust change, so we self-sabotage. Have you ever binge-watched Netflix or otherwise put off your meditation practice for days, weeks, months, or even years?! I think we hold ourselves back because we have not thought enough about how it is possible for us to change, we don’t really believe it, maybe we don’t even want to believe it as it has too many repercussions on our way of life; and so we give into lazy habits instead.
If we really want to be happy, peaceful minds work. Overcoming delusions works. We need the confidence that knows this — as well as the fact that we can conquer our delusions — so that we can break any vicious cycle of discouragement leading to inaction leading to no results leading to more discouragement. We need consistency in applying peaceful minds every day; and by taking this self-confidence to heart, we can become more steadfastly motivated. Then we get results, which in turn encourages us to keep going, in a virtuous cycle.
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?
I asked a bunch of people the other day what their New Year’s resolutions were, and most of them told me they hadn’t bothered making any because they never stuck to them. And it is true that New Year’s resolutions often don’t work because our minds are kind of too much all over the place, scattered.
If we find we can’t stick to our obviously worthwhile resolutions each new year, or any other time for that matter, it could well be because our habits and real desires go way deeper than our new plans, so they keep winning. Luckily meditation helps, perhaps more than anything.
We need to change from deep within, not just on a superficial level of consciousness – our thoughts are too changeable on the surface of our minds, like waves or froth on an ocean, so even if we manage to change them they don’t stay changed. I find it is always pretty much vital, therefore, to start the process of self-transformation by diving below the waves of chatter and thoughts directed largely outward, to access a deeper level of awareness.
Even the simplest breathing meditation, designed to overcome conceptual distractions, brings us inward and helps us to connect to our Buddha nature, which is in fact unfathomably deep, and we can sense that.
We don’t feel things in our head – we feel them in our heart. We don’t really change in our head — we change in our heart.
So we start by dropping into our heart, and experiencing already some peace and space opening up. The slightest experience of peace shows lasting deep peace and change is possible, so we identify with that, thinking, “This is me.”
An even more powerful method for accessing deeper awareness is meditating on the clarity of the mind.
And above all we can mix with the blessings of all enlightened beings — their all-pervasive omniscient, compassionate minds — because then for sure we go deeper and deeper and deeper. And our mind is purified and inspired.
On this basis we can reinvent ourselves — dissolve all our stale habitual thoughts away and start again! Reboot. Especially if we can bring even a little understanding of emptiness into the equation.
I plan to share more on how to do everything I’ve just said because it’s useful – but later. For all this to work, to really change, we need to get in the habit of relating to this potential — our spiritual depth — and identifying with it. And this brings us back to the development of self-confidence, carrying on from this article.
Pride with respect to our potential
The first type of self-confidence, also known as non-deluded pride, is called “pride with respect to our potential”. This state of mind is:
… based on a recognition of our spiritual potential and leads us to think, “I can and will attain Buddhahood. ~ How to Understand the Mind
With this we identify with our Buddha nature, our potential for lasting happiness, total freedom, universal love, omniscient wisdom, etc. In short, our potential for enlightenment. We trust our Buddha nature, not our superficial desires and aversions, however seductive or on our side these may pretend to be.
In How to Transform Your Life, which you can now download for FREE! here, the author Geshe Kelsang says:
In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom. Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure essential nature of every living being… Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.
“Everyone” includes ourselves. We are all future Buddhas. In our society, we have phrases like, “You gotta have vision of yourself”; but our vision tends to be who we are now, just a little bit better, right? In Buddhism, we develop a really big vision. We say “Identify with your Buddha nature ~ you can become an enlightened being.”
With this first non-deluded pride, we aren’t just saying I CAN become a Buddha, we are saying “I WILL become a Buddha.” I am going to become someone with perfect love, perfect compassion, perfect wisdom, total patience. A mind pervaded by joy. I’m going to do that. That’s proper vision, isn’t it? And if we identify with that, well, that’s a big sense of self. But this self, unlike our ordinary, painful, limited sense of self, is imputed on the truth. I have the potential and I am going to become a Buddha. It’s true.
Some people might think, “Hey, that’s a bit arrogant or far-fetched.” But you know what? It’s possible. It’s actually possible for us to become a Buddha.
Whereas it’s not possible for us to develop lasting happiness or meaning through our looks. Or through our ability to sing. Or through our ability to make money. Or through any of the other things we tend to develop pride in. We might or might not get a temporary happiness hit, but sooner or later these things all just disappear.
In other words, it is MORE possible to achieve enlightenment than to achieve lasting happiness through external things.
We are by nature unlimited, and once we have purified our mind we will have purified our world.
So why put our efforts into trying to achieve happiness through external things that will never amount to anything, instead of into something that we know is possible, and infinitely more desirable, which is to achieve enlightenment? The first non-deluded pride helps us overcome this discrepancy because we identify with our potential and with our wish for enlightenment.
Try it out
In meditation, in our heart, we can just try it out. Just allow that self-confidence to resonate deep inside, just that insight and determination, “I have the potential for enlightenment, that’s who I really am, and I am going to realize that potential and become a Buddha.”
Actual enlightenment is a mind, and anyone can develop that mind of pure love, pure wisdom, and pure compassion, from which we manifest in whatever form benefits living beings.
Enlightenment is a state of total freedom, for which we all have the potential. So why not go for it? Why not develop a big vision? And say deep inside, “I’m going to do that!” Unless you have a better idea. But what could be a better idea?
It may seem a fairly outrageous thought if you are new to Buddhism, it may even seem slightly terrifying; but it is actually a very relaxing thought. Why? Because we’re no longer identifying with our limitations. It is identifying with our limitations that’s the main reason for our laziness of discouragement — looking at ourselves and thinking, “I’m such a twerp. I’m such a deluded being — I’m so angry, and I’m so jealous, and I’m so attached to my stuff, and I’m incapable of moving on, and that’s me.” And then we’re walking around trying to improve an inherently existent twerp, which is really tough. We’re thinking, “I’m useless, I’m so inadequate, I’m a stupid person, but at least I’ve made some New Year’s resolutions here, at least I’m trying” – but we can’t move away from that if we think it’s the truth, if we feel intrinsically useless.
Luckily, it’s not the truth. We’re just creating it with our mind. An intrinsic twerp is just an idea. And it’s a useless idea at that, it’s a wrong idea. We’re not useless. We are by nature empty, which means we are by nature free. If we think we’re a limited being, we’re a limited being. But if we think we have an unlimited potential and we identify with that, that’s what we have.
If you think you’re someone who is going to become a Buddha, that’s exactly who you are. So go for it.
Ok, enough for today. Maybe you’d like to try this out for a few days and report back in the comments below?! And here is the next article on the subject.
Let’s say a gardener wants to grow some plants, so he pays attention to the seeds, watering and fertilizing them, and sure enough little seedlings start to spring up. But then he gets discouraged, thinking, “Stupid little seedlings! You are so weedy, nothing like the big beautiful flowers I want.” And then he stamps on them.
Geshe Kelsang says we should not be like this with the seedlings of our spiritual realizations. Let’s say that since you started meditating and contemplating these subjects, you have a little bit more peace than you used to. Now is the time to love that little seedling — to nourish it, protect it, appreciate it, grow it. Now is not the time to stamp on it out of discouragement or impatience.
We can identify with our potential every day, never getting discouraged, giving ourselves permission to abide with it, identify with it, be happy with it. We come more and more to associate ourselves with those feelings of transcendence and inner freedom, however nascent.
Give ourselves time
To do this, by the way, we need to find at least some time each day to meditate on peace and clarity or we will clearly find it hard to become familiar with it.
We also can let the blessings in, they automatically give us some space and perspective. We can pray whenever we like to whomever we perceive to be a holy omniscient being who is looking after us, we can feel our peace connected to their peace, we can take refuge in that.Our inner peace is never different from enlightenment, for our peace is far more realistic than our delusions, and what is enlightenment other than reality? Recognizing this, we can naturally receive even more blessings.
Then if we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed during the day, we can give ourselves a few minutes in the rest room to reconnect to this increasingly familiar clarity and serenity. There are plenty of natural pauses in the day if we know how to use them – if instead of pathologically filling them up with texting, FOMO, etc, we go in confidently toward the heart instead. For our heart is our true home and resting place, where gradually we will come to see that we already have everything we need.
Then whenever anger or self-disparagement arises, we acknowledge it, but we know there is such a lot more to me because I‘ve seen it, and I remember it. (This is mindfulness.) I know it’s there. I am on a forward progression. I know where I’m headed. These feelings are not going to stop me in my journey even if, for now, they insist on coming along for the ride.
We need this patience with ourselves, for over-expecting is a recipe for disappointment. How long or short it takes to fully realize our potential doesn’t matter, we just keep going, it just gets better.
Within an appreciation of who we are, we accept what comes our way, knowing that life is full of challenges, big and small, and it’s the same for everyone; we are not going to be the exception.
At the beginning of Great Treasury of Merit, before we get going even on breathing meditation (let alone all the beautiful Sutra and Tantra states of mind), we are advised to look at what is going on in our mind:
One of Je Tsongkhapa’s questions was “What is the most important thing to do at the beginning of a meditation session?” The Panchen Lama replied that we should begin by examining our mind. Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions. ~ page 46.
We are not papering over what is in the mind or immediately expelling it by, for example, breathing it out with the dark smoke of breathing meditation (useful as that can go on to be); but just turning inward to watch it. And this alone can reduce the distractions of delusion, especially if we do it in the ways explained in these articles.
As mentioned earlier, there are many ways to transform our painful feelings, but the first step is to learn patient acceptance with whatever is arising – accept it is there and let it be without freaking out. If we can do this — if we can tolerate the thoughts in our own mind and stop identifying with them — then we can relax and they relax too. We see that they are not as solid as we thought, that they are empty. But for as long as we are holding onto them tightly, and making them solid, how are we supposed to let them go?
We have to understand and accept what is going on with our thoughts because that iswhat is going on. Then, once we’ve relaxed, we can use what we have seen to discover where these thoughts are coming from, what they are holding onto (including some noxious sense of ourselves), how they upset our natural peace, and how we can change them to move in a new direction.
As soon as our thoughts change, everything changes. It is amazing sometimes, after months of battling, to see how a problem just isn’t there any more, simply because the delusion has gone. The problem felt so real, so insurmountable, but now it is no longer appearing. At those times, I think it’s important to pause to relish the liberation we feel, understanding that there is plenty more where this came from. This is both encouraging to our self-confidence (and we need that), and a way to increase our wisdom. We realize that there is nothing behind our empty thoughts, and even our thoughts are empty – free — depending as they do upon their objects.
Hope you’re enjoying these articles on mindfulness, there are a few more on their way. Meantime, I am also enjoying your comments here and on Facebook, thank you.
By the way, during that meditation I described on the meditation on the nature of the mind, the moment we notice we are distracted we can ask the same question, “What is it that is aware?” so that we return to the clarity of the mind, allowing the distracting concern to dissolve back into the clarity like a wave settling into a still ocean.
There are other legitimate things to do as well if we find ourselves too tempted to get involved with our thoughts — we can recall subtle impermanence, that these things are already gone, and in that way let them dissolve spontaneously away. Or we can recall the suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, that the end of collection is dispersion and so on, motivating us to deepen our meditation. These ways into the clarity of the mind were taught by Venerable Geshe Kelsang in his fantastic 2000 AD teachings combining Mahamudra and the four seals, and I’d love to get around to talking about them some day as they have helped me immeasurably. The main object of meditation is clarity, so once we have found that we stick with it; but we can use various contemplations to help us get there.
This article is part of a series of Mahamudra articles. Those of you who know about Lamrim, or the stages of the path to enlightenment, may wonder where meditating on the nature of the mind appears in the 21 meditations? It doesn’t explicitly, but it is our favored object of tranquil abiding (#19), and it does appear in many other places in the Kadampa books, such as How to Understand the Mind and Mahamudra Tantra, and in detail in two chapters of Clear Light of Bliss. It also features in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s new book,The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, in which the first of the five stages of the actual practice of Mahamudra is identifying our own mind and meditating on tranquil abiding.
Prayers and blessings
You may have noticed that in this tradition we like to practice in conjunction with prayers (whether we say them out loud or not). When some of you first encounter the prayers, you think, “How wonderful, I love them!” … but there are not many of you. A lot of people’s initial response is “What? I thought they didn’t have this in Buddhism! I came to relax and now you want me to sing?!” And then we reconcile ourselves to the idea: “Ah well, I’ll settle my mind with the breathing meditation, let my mind rest and ramble during the prayers, and then focus again when I am back on the meditation.” That, of course, is not the idea. As Geshe Kelsang has warned us many times, we don’t want to get into the bad habit of parroting the prayers. Instead we can start off really well by communing with enlightened beings.
The main purpose of prayers is to change our mind in a good direction and to receive blessings. With blessings we are essentially connecting our mind to an enlightened being’s mind and, in doing so, adding a lot of power and fluidity to our meditations. This exponentially facilitates and deepens our experience.
This meditation on the nature of the mind is part of the Mahamudra practice, which is the heart essence of our lineage, the Ganden Oral Lineage, and lies at the very heart of our Spiritual Guide’s experience. So this particular Mahamudra lineage that we are receiving comes directly from Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the new Kadampa tradition; and it is exceedingly blessed. As Venerable Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit, thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained deep experience through putting these methods into practice, attaining the illusory body, clear light, and full enlightenment.
It is very important for us to recognize and think about blessings, for otherwise, when we meditate, WE try to meditate. Meaning that while identifying ourselves in an ordinary limited way, we try to coerce our mind into having very profound experiences of the subtle dimensions of reality. Basically, we are TRYING in the wrong way. We are putting the onus on our SELF, and in particular our ordinary sense of self.
I think often when we sit down to meditate we immediately bring up an association with our self, the one that is not that good at meditating. We only think about this sense of self when it is time to meditate, when we feel we need to cajole it, “This time, you are going to do it!”, and then basically push to have an experience of the clarity of the mind. And of course what can happen is that we end up not having this experience, which in a rather subconscious gratifying way affirms what we knew all along, ie, that we are not very good at meditating. It reinforces our underlying sense of discouragement, a common type of laziness.
This is a great shame with this great gift of Mahamudra. Hence, blessings.
Buddha is not outside our mind
Everything we experience is not outside our mind, nothing is outside the mind. For example, is the sound of the bird inside or outside? You cannot separate it from your perception, you cannot draw a line between the perception and the sound; so it is inside. Your experience of your friend is your experience of your friend, inside, not out.
So when we bring to mind Buddha, he or she is not outside my mind. There is no need to buy into the dualistic appearance of a gap or separation – my isolated meditation over here and the Awakened Ones having a great time over there. When we pray, we are not petitioning external forces but awakening our own potential by recognizing it is not separate from the minds of all enlightened beings. And we are doing this for everyone.
Venerable Geshe Kelsang says every single peaceful mind and happiness arises through Buddha’s blessings. (There is a great explanation of that in this guest article.) According to Geshe-la:
Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Only human beings can attain this through practicing meditation. How fortunate we are! ~ The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, p. 3.
We can understand that whenever we develop a positive mind, in that moment, when we allow ourselves to be happy, we have disengaged from delusions to some extent. We have allowed our mind to come into alignment with a Buddha’s non-deluded reality, which is pervaded by peace, joy, love, etc; tapping into a profound enlightenment.
So we need to allow that to happen rather than the clutching “Yikes, grab my peace, it’s disappearing!” rodeo experience of meditating. Our meditation should not be a rodeo; it should feel instead like a settling. The word we use, in Clear Light of Bliss for example, is “Settling like a still ocean.” We use our own experience of peace to help settle into a vast transcendent experience of peace, joy, etc.
My peace is already connected to Buddha’s peace, great! So we start not from disconnection but from connection, from refuge, and allow the prayers to deepen that experience naturally. Geshe Kelsang has likened prayers to an old man’s stick, a reminder to their meaning. So we let the words suggest the minds, as opposed to forcing the minds and getting tired and distracted. We enjoy what we’re saying, saying it from the heart, while abiding in that communion.
Then when it is time to meditate, we do so while continuing to bathe in that experience – we don’t LEAVE the blessings. It’s not like filling our car up with gas and then driving off, here I am all on my own again. We meditate WITH blessings, we can even let the Spiritual Guide do the meditation for us for he really wants to help and he is very good at this. Instead of combat with obstacles, nay-saying, and distractions, we can really relax. From the point of view of the Spiritual Guide, there are no obstacles, and we are already fantastic. We could do a lot worse than to get into the habit of seeing ourself through his eyes.
Look in the mirror
Do you want to know what else I do?! I look at a picture of my favorite enlightened being and think I am looking in the mirror. We don’t have to feel that we are unworthy or light years away from our Spiritual Guide or the Buddhas. That is ordinary appearance, and they don’t ever see us as ordinary or limited.
So feel free at any time during the meditation to reconnect with the Spiritual Guide and simply ask, “Please help me with clarity.” If we throw a pebble in the pond and wait, ripples will gradually arise. We ask for some guidance or inspiration, and then we wait.
Do leave a comment to add anything else that is helpful or ask questions.
One day in mid-February 2010, a friend, H, shot himself after his car was repossessed. He had also recently emerged from a messy divorce, but his financial woes pushed him over the edge that day. However, he also had many close friends who loved him and thought he was larger than life, who were shocked and devastated at his surprising self-harm.
It seems to me that H must have had an abysmally out of whack self-image if he hated himself enough to blow his own head off. The demon self-cherishing – exaggerated disappointment at my wishes not being fulfilled, seeing them as the most important thing in the world – contributed to that sad, needless tragedy. Certainly it was not love or wisdom. Self-grasping ignorance and attachment caused him to create and believe a mental fiction about who he was, ie, a failure, someone whose life was not worth living. Yet all his friends knew that he was a lovely sweet engaging man and had everything to live for — he could have been a Bodhisattva if that was the story he had told himself instead on that day in February. There was a lesson in this for all of us who knew him. We have to be wise about who we believe we are and what we need, or, one way or another, slowly or quickly, we will self-destruct.
Dealing with a broken heart
When painful feelings arise, it is wise not to resist them – what you resist persists – but see them as passing bad weather in the mind without repressing or indulging them. Further to this I have thought: (a) my thoughts don’t have to be that scary, they are bubbles arising from the root mind, they won’t kill me if I don’t buy into them and they disappear if I stop thinking them, and (b) those feelings and thoughts are empty — even within them is a non-conceptual wisdom and peace if I allow myself to experience it. A very wise Buddhist nun once gave me this advice to cure my broken heart:
When bad feelings come, and the whole body and mind ache, instead of resisting it, it is good to let the suffering arise in the mind, become one with it, and look at it so closely – it dissolves into emptiness and beyond this there is nothing. Where is it, what, why? It dissolves into emptiness. Don’t be afraid of the feeling of suffering. It is just imputation, just label. See that there is nothing there, only the mind of clear light, which is bliss and emptiness. Then feel love for everyone. Be Vajrayogini.
A friend told me that when she was once suffering from heavy and unrequited attachment, her perennially down to earth mother told her that it is like trying to quit smoking – the cravings come and the cravings also go. Which got me thinking about how to relate to ourselves in such a way that we are able to give up attachment – all forms of dependency and heavy sadness. How if H had related to himself differently, none of the above would have happened, and today we could all be having a laugh with him. I had had a lovely conversation with him the previous summer at Madhyamaka Center – he had Tantric empowerments, he was really loving his Vajrayogini retreat. So why didn’t he keep believing he was a blissful, wise, free enlightened being instead of the ordinary dead-end fiction of being a lonely, financially incompetent, rejected man? In truth, both are fictions, both are mere thought or labels, but so is everything; and there is a world of infinite possibilities in the clear light of our limitless Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment, the seed of the Dharmakaya.
When we try to give up smoking, we have to identify with being a non-smoker who occasionally has manageable cravings (which can even be a useful teacher) as opposed to a smoker who unnaturally has to give up something that is part of them and is ending up in a state of need and loss. No one will live like that for long, in need and loss – we would sooner cave in to the attachment. But in the invisible world of our boundlessly creative mind, especially moment by moment, if we think wisely we can see that we need nothing more, we have lost nothing, we have nothing to fear from the future.
Mental fictions and self-image
We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we need all the time. They are all mental fictions. There is no reality behind those hallucinatory empty thoughts. We can think anything we want in the invisible world, the world of the mind, of which this manifest physical world is simply like a mirror reflection. Mind is formless. Mind is invisible (also we can’t hear it, smell it etc.). Working at the level of our subtlest mind, dropping our awareness from our head into our root mind at our heart chakra, is far more effective too; and we can do that through belief to begin with. Close your eyes, drop into your heart, and think about who you are, where you are, what you are. This world of the mind – of experience, of feelings, even of physical sensations – is the only world there actually is. Can you point to any world or body or self outside of your experience of it? (And even the mind is empty of existing from its own side, dependent on its reflections or perceptions to exist.) Close our eyes, and we can think that we are jumping from planet to planet. Someone told me that when she closes her eyes she can think that she can walk — and she has always been in a wheelchair. Someone else told me that in her mind, and her experience, she thinks she is whole, even though a truck left her unable to stand up straight without feeling compression and pain.
We can think we are a smoker, dependent on cigarettes for our happiness. Or we can think we are a non-smoker. When the craving arises, it is just some habit we got into, and we are not a smoker, so it is natural to not seek the cigarette and just see that habit as a temporary cloud in the vast expanse of sky. One of my favorite Geshe Kelsang quotes is:
We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking. ~ Meaningful to Behold, p. 190
When we are attached to someone, we can and often do make up this mental fiction: “I am dependent on them for my happiness. I need them. I am weak without them. If they seem uninterested, I behave like a bumbling idiot around them to get their attention. I am in a state of loss when they are not in my life or when they reject me. I miss them, they are missing. The future is empty without them. Only they understand me, really. To give them up will leave me in a state of lacking, it will leave me incomplete, needing something I no longer have. Even if I know I have to give them up, or they have died, it is unnatural, as it is going to cause me to be shadow of my former self, and the life they breathed into me will be gone.” Etc etc.
If we check, this is not a pleasant self-image and does not give rise to any genuine feelings of joy, only relief on the occasions that they call us and say, “Everything is alright, I love you, marry me, I’m not really dead”, etc. Until the relief passes, as by nature relief does. Relief is so-called changing suffering, only a temporary release of, or distraction from, underlying need and want and suffering, like scratching an itch according to Nagarjuna. Also, we hold on tightly to the supposed source of our wholeness, which is perceived as out there not within, and get rope burn as the rope must inevitably slide through our fingers due to impermanence. We condense the whole universe into one person so that it must crumble when they disappear.
Whereas we can make up any fiction we want anytime. And we can believe it, if it is helpful, while knowing that it is empty of inherent reality. Our self-image changes all the time anyway, and we can change it ourselves far more easily than we might have thought possible. In the invisible world, there are infinite possibilities (whether you want to look at this spiritually or quantumly or both). Everything begins in the mind, in the imagination. What will happen if instead of thinking I have lost everything I held dear, I think instead: “I have everything I need for my happiness right here and now. This moment is perfect. I am strong. I am able to experience love, compassion, renunciation, faith, wisdom, joy and bliss. I am a Bodhisattva. I am a Yogini in a charnel ground, fearful of nothing and no one, transforming everything, surrounded by the corpses of my own and others’ fake suffering self-images. I am a Buddha.”
We don’t need to think “I want to be Buddha some day” or “I will be Buddha in the future”. Wanting or hoping creates a gap between who we think we are now (some deluded being with big problems) and who we might be in some la la land future. And how will we bridge that gap? If we can’t bridge it today, why will we be able to tomorrow? Instead, we already ARE, and we relate to that and happily create all the causes for it in the here and now – meditations on love and compassion, the six perfections, bliss and emptiness, the central channel, and so on. Or, simply put, we can start with a thought like, “I am a loving person who has everything I need”, and let our belief in our good qualities get bigger and bigger over time, as our imagination and wisdom appreciating the nature of these good qualities improves.
If there are infinite possibilities and no constraint on thought, if I can be anything, why not be a Buddha? The previous holy beings have paved the way for this and shown the best possible self-image in their Tantric revelations. How could we possibly come up with something this deep, sophisticated, or blissful without their input?! Therefore, “I am a Buddha, such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara, or Heruka and Vajrayogini, manifesting all the infinite bounty and good qualities of the Dharmakaya in every moment and leading all living beings to that state.” Also: “I can accept any unpleasant feelings/emotions/sensations — they are just clouds drifting in the endless blissful expanse of my mind, useful for teaching me about renunciation and compassion and wisdom. Like pleasant feelings, they are also just manifestations of the empty sky of the basic Dharmakaya. I can welcome and embrace them, and in doing so they miraculously have no more power to hurt. They also dissolve away, as all thoughts do sooner or later, because nothing lasts even a moment.”
Well, who is there to contradict that? It is just as real or unreal as “I am useless without you.” Who says? Also, when we think of others looking at us pityingly, “Poor thing, she is useless without him”, (a) it is unlikely that they are in fact wasting much time thinking that – people tend to relate to us as far more of a whole individual than we do ourselves when we’re suffering heartache; and (b) when we change our view of ourselves, people will follow suit, sooner or later. With love and compassion, we don’t care or take seriously what people project on us in any case, we mainly want to help them – there is no need for their approval of us, we are more interested in their view of themselves.
Of course it is more “realistic” as in closer to reality to view ourselves as whole, as complete, as loving, as a Buddha, because our real nature is our Buddha nature. Our wisdom understanding that nothing is fixed is what enables us to change into whatever we want to change into, to transform; and that wisdom is the ground of our new experience. This is as opposed to our self-grasping ignorance, which is the ground of our attachment and aversion to real things and people, including our own depressing self-image. “It must be real because it appears to me that way!!! I’m not moving until the reflection in the mirror moves!”
Telling ourselves the same old stories and clichés about our own and others’ lives will never liberate us from suffering. We will simply live the clichés again and again and again — birth, ageing, sickness, death, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, dissatisfaction, birth, ageing, etc. Cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) just is one big cliché. The other day when I was complaining about getting older and uglier, looking I think for sympathy or reassurance, my friend effectively shut me up by saying this instead:
“The story of samsara has no answer.”
How long do we need?
There is a lot of talk these days about “manifesting”, eg, The Secret, a Course in Miracles, so called ‘new thought’. From a Buddhist point of view, manifesting a favorable reality depends not only upon our way of perceiving reality but also upon the karmic appearances created by our good and kind intentions. And, from a Buddhist point of view, if we can manifest reality, we may as well skip the ordinary samsaric manifestations of wealth, companionship, sex, a good reputation etc. “Be careful what you wish for!”, as the saying goes, partly because a large number of our desires are contradictory eg, pizza and a great figure, excitement and security, a long life and eternal youth, etc. Instead, we can go for the blissful enlightened reality that will always help both ourselves and others. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We can gradually come to identify with every pure, enlightened quality as explained in the Sutras and manifested in Technicolor in the Tantric Deities and mandalas, and progress will be swift – we can even gain enlightenment in one lifetime.
One lifetime?!?! You sure?! Well, given the infinite possibilities of the Dharmakaya, the extraordinary and fortunate reality that Buddha himself has appeared in our life and consciousness to introduce us to these, and the reality that all the methods exist and have always worked, why not?! Why would it take more than one lifetime if we really believe it? If we come to know that nothing is really out there, how long do we need to dismantle it? If we come to know that our thoughts are empty, invisible, with nothing really behind them, how long do we need to change them?
It can be hard to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves with discouragement and despondency, and to identify with our pure potential or Buddha nature; and this can be where enlightened beings come in very handy!
So you can try this if you like – maybe just do it and worry about how or if it works later.
We ask for help from enlightened beings, and then believe we’re receiving it. (Helping us is the main part of their job description.) Seeking help has worked for generation after generation of greatly realized Yogis and masters, as well as beginners, and so it is highly likely to work for us. The scriptures describe the most seemingly desperate lost causes (I’m betting far worse than you), who went on to attain high spiritual realizations by relying upon blessings – Lam Chung (the “stupidest man alive” at the time) and Angulimala (the “angriest man alive”, who made a necklace out of a thousand severed thumbs from his murder victims). Asking for help also helped Kisigotami (who was overwhelmed by grief when she lost her newborn child) and Gampopa (who lost his beloved wife), both of whom went on to become powerful, happy practitioners. And this is just the tip of the iceberg — countless people past and present have gained peace and mental freedom this way.
I like to meditate backwards – starting with where I intend to end up, ie, enlightened, and then sort of working my way back to the beginning. I start my day by tapping into an infinite source of power, confidence, freedom, bliss, and love. The following is an example of the kind of thing I do.
I start with a few minutes just sitting, feeling happy, and if necessary doing some relaxing and breathing meditation, ending up with a feeling of peace at my heart. In Great Treasury of Merit (see pages 46-47 for more detail), my teacher explains:
“At the very beginning we should make sure that our mind is calm, peaceful, and free from conceptual distractions.”
He explains that we begin a meditation by examining our mind to see if it is peaceful or not, and if it is not we can breathe out our impure minds (and energy winds) in the form of dark smoke and breathe in blessings in the form of pure light until:
“our mind is completely pacified of all conceptual distractions and has become pure, happy, and single-pointed.”
This is the mind to meditate with, not an agitated, uptight mind.
Interestingly enough, at the beginning of that section Geshe Kelsang says:
Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions.
Even just turning into the mind (without doing breathing meditation) helps us experience its essentially peaceful nature because we are not following the distractions. Turning to the sky instead of the clouds, as it were.
I like tuning into a peaceful mind in other ways, for example as explained in this article I wrote for a friend.
This peace, however slight or relative, is part of my Buddha nature–an indication of the limitless peace I am capable of, my enlightened potential. As such, I can already recognize it as part of Buddha’s own enlightened mind, the same nature, and in this way tap straight into blessings. I can identify with it by thinking, “This is me, and I’m only mistaken appearances away from being a Buddha.” Nothing exists from its own side, everything is like a dream, so I dissolve all unpleasant thoughts and their objects, including the sense of a limited self, including the past and the future, away into emptiness. Why not? I don’t have to hold onto this stuff, it is not even there.
Meditate with everyone around ~ living beings and Buddhas
Bodhisattvas and trainee Bodhisattvas never meditate alone. Even when they’re in a remote cave in the middle of nowhere developing the perfect single-pointed concentration of tranquil abiding, they imagine being surrounded by all living beings. Your family, friends, pet parrot, etc, can be sitting closest to you, but there is nobody left out. We can forget about ourselves for a while by feeling close to others out of love (start where you’re at) – this already dissipates the laziness and stuck feeling caused by over-preoccupation with ourselves.
Then I think that Buddha is in front of me. He is not over there somewhere, but arising from my own pure mind mixed with Buddha’s blessings, and surrounded by any number of enlightened beings. (Actually, Buddhas are everywhere, so we can visualize them wherever we want to. We can visualize whichever holy being we feel closest to already, including in other traditions.) I feel close to them out of faith wishing to be like them — with a mind like a universal sun radiating love through all beings and a piercing wisdom that penetrates all objects of knowledge, for example. I feel their blessings flowing into me and mixing with my mind – if you like, you can imagine the blessings in the form of blissful lights. (If you happened to attend the Kadampa Brazilian Festival in 2010, you might remember that beautiful visualization Geshe Kelsang taught on receiving the four empowerments from Je Tsongkhapa – it works for me.) Whatever works.
Meditate in a pure space
I like to think that because we’re all in the presence of enlightened beings, we’re naturally in their Pure Land – a vast, expansive, empty, exquisitely beautiful space full of everything we could ever wish for and totally free from even the name “suffering”. This is in keeping with the two verses in Kadampa Buddhist preparatory prayers, “May the whole ground become completely pure…” and “May all of space be filled with offerings …”
I haven’t even started my meditation yet! Yet already my mind is lighter, more optimistic, and more blessed. And it doesn’t have to take all that long, maybe a few minutes, depending on how much time I have or how much I’m enjoying myself already.
Now, in this “safe” space, where I already have a glimpse of exits and hope, I check where I’m currently stuck, in a tight corner seeing no way out, with deluded tendencies that are taking me nowhere. (See the meditation on aspiration here.) I am specific about areas in my life where I want to become unstuck, asking myself things like, “What is the point of carrying on like this? Where is it actually going to get me? Do I really want to still be like this in 5 years’, 10 years’ time? Do I want to die like this?! Go into my next life with this hanging over me?! Do I not actually want a final glorious freedom from this attachment, this aversion, this pain?”
And I think, “I am not limited or fixed – other possibilities exist.” So we can identify our own faults, being as specific and practical as possible, eg, feeling useless, angry, helplessly attached, prideful, or stuck, but not identify with them. They are not objective facts, just thoughts or labels. We don’t need to go with them — we don’t believe everything we think, as the saying goes.
Imagine, just imagine, that you are where you’d like to be right now – fearless, unstuck, enjoying everything and everyone, not full of the need of attachment but complete in yourself, kind, loving, blissful, free. If you know about Tantric practice, dissolve everything into bliss and emptiness and generate yourself anew as your personal Deity in your Pure Land, with everyone around you as pure. Suspend any disbelief, do some method acting – if Daniel Day Lewis can be Lincoln or your neighbor’s kid believe she is Wonder Woman, you can be a Buddha or Bodhisattva! And enjoy it. Unlike ever becoming Wonder Woman, generating ourselves as a Buddha actually has its basis in truth, for we are never separated from our potential to be a Bodhisattva and a Buddha. It is so-called “correct imagination”. It is reality.
Tantric thinking can be done by anyone. We possess great imaginations, and indeed our whole world lacks existence from its own side and arises from imagination; so we can harness this creativity now for the good, change our dream, while we still have the opportunity to control the direction of our life.
(If you are up for it and have received Tantric empowerments, read the ten benefits of relying upon Buddha Vajrayogini in Guide to Dakini Land to see what you are REALLY capable of and how quickly you can change.)
One major cause of the laziness of discouragement is “There’s nobody who has made it, I can’t see any examples, so how am I supposed to make it?!” We project our own lack of progress onto others. When we lift our sights in the way described, we naturally become more confident that there are people with these results all around us – everything is a reflection of our minds. People are no more inherently limited or suffering than we are. Look for faults and we’ll find them. Look for loveability and potential and we’ll find that. This applies to us and everyone around us.
If I’m doing prayers and I’m on my own, I confess that I might do them once I’ve done all this – then they’re really very powerful and simply an expression of what is going on. Of course, they are normally used as preliminaries to meditation, and I can do that too.
To get out of the long-playing loop of negative, myopic thinking, I think we need this kind of alternate perspective.
More later. Meanwhile, your feedback on how you overcome discouragement is most welcome and helpful.
The last article looked at how the laziness of discouragement comes from ignorance. I think it can also have a strong relationship with anger directed inward.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve noticed that someone really doesn’t like you? (‘Course you have!) And you don’t really understand why they are so cross with you, but you suspect it’s because they don’t really get you. Yet their idea of you seems so fixed that there is no point in trying to change their opinion – in fact, everything you do seems to validate in their eyes what a b****y awful person you are. They don’t give you a chance. They have fixed you with the super glue of their dislike, you’re not going anywhere.
Well, that may be bad enough, but I think it is even worse when we are doing it to ourselves because then we really can’t get away! In the case of the other person who dislikes you, some projection is going on that has more to do with them than with you, but they believe it to be the truth. In the same way, when we put ourselves down with negative self-talk, “For real?! You can’t change! You’re basically an unloveable/irritating/pathetic loser”, we are projecting an image of ourselves that says way more about our delusions of ignorance and dislike than about who we actually are. But we believe it anyway and then we’re stuck.
To change, therefore, we have to drop those limited ideas of ourselves and identify entirely with our potential and pure nature instead. All our meditations need this as their starting point. See this article for how this can apply to the first 2 stages of the path meditations, for example. I’ll explain another way in which we might do this, once I’ve given you some more examples.
The only thing that seems to work when someone hates us with no apparent reason is to have patient acceptance. We can stop focusing on their faults in a problematic way and instead accept them warts and all, without judgment. We can focus on something good about them, and let this gradually melt away the negativity — changing the atmosphere to allow both of us to change. Freedom.
Likewise, a way to counteract being heavy on ourselves is also to change the atmosphere by making an effort to focus on our good qualities instead of exaggerating our faults, so we can accept and love ourselves. Even more freedom.
I started smoking at school, and was still doing it at university. I tried to give up several times, but it was too hard – as soon as someone offered me a cigarette I would take it because I thought of myself as a smoker. Smoking was my natural default — I was a smoker trying hard not to smoke. There was a disconnect there, a contradiction. It was painful! It was unnatural.
One day, however, perhaps due to some blessing, I literally just woke up thinking of myself as a non-smoker. “I’m a non-smoker! I realize this now. I’m a non-smoker who has picked up this bad habit of smoking. I’m going to pack it in.” In the student bar later that day, when a friend offered me a cigarette, I declined: “No, thanks, I’m not a smoker.” “Course you are,” they laughed, but I no longer believed them. I never smoked again.
If we identify and grasp onto ourselves as being deluded, deluded we’ll stay. “See, I’m deluded! I can’t help it. I want to give up but I can’t.” If we identify ourselves as pure, generous, full of potential, and so on, we can give up our delusions because we are no longer grasping at them as who we are. They are no longer our natural default. They are just habits, just thoughts. Let them go. Think different thoughts instead.
In the next article, how to quickly dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves with some out of the box thinking.
Then we can bring to mind the main areas in our mind where we feel a bit stuck, certain tendencies we may have that cause us problems — we wish to be free of them and yet we find ourselves stuck there. Perhaps there’s a tendency towards anxiety, depression, frustration, guilt, or unhappiness with ourselves or other specific people. Our life seems to lack meaning even though we know it could be so meaningful and one part of us suspects what we are capable of. Something in us is holding us back. To begin with we just have to identify this (though not with it.)
We also need to actively think about how wonderful it would be if we could unblock this area, if we could let go of it and move forward to actualize our potential. We can imagine doing this. We have to let this wish to change arise and then stay with it in our heart for as long as we can.
To bring about this transformation we need to train our mind. The problem lies in the mind, and the solution lies in changing the mind. So we need to aspire to this.
We need to do this not just for our own sake but for everyone’s sake. How many people in this world are caught in compulsive patterns of behavior that are just causing suffering, trapped in painful thoughts, painful habits, and painful addictions? Feeling trapped in their minds, thus feeling trapped in their situations? Our friends, colleagues, family — are they actualizing their extraordinary potential or remaining stuck? Even whole cultures, whole nations, trapped in cycles of behavior which accomplish precisely the opposite of what they wish for … ?
We can think: “I no longer wish to participate in this creation of unhappiness. Instead I am going to change my mind, train my mind, so that I can help others do the same. I need increasing mental freedom and enlightenment so that I can help everyone else.”
This great motivation is part of our aspiration or wishes, and without aspiration there is no way we are ever going to develop joyful effort – we do what we want to do, always, unless coerced. With a big motivation, we’ll have big effort.
Are you fixed or not?
One major reason we feel discouraged when it comes to thinking about changing our mind is because we perceive ourselves as being fixed, as being someone who can’t really change, or not that much anyway. Easier to switch on the TV or go to bed.
When we think of ourselves we actually have a mind of ignorance. This delusion currently accompanies all our perceptions, including our self-perception. This ignorance believes us to exist in the way in which we appear. And right now we appear to have a whole selection of negative qualities. We may appear to ourselves to be a depressed person. Or an anxious person. A fearful person. An angry person. A loser. A victim. An unloveable person. An ordinary person. And so on. That is how we appear to ourselves, and our mind of ignorance basically assents to that appearance. It believes it’s the truth. This is the truth – I am this! I am angry, I am faulty, I am anxious, I am incompetent, I am no good … We are holding ourselves in this fixed way and thinking it’s the truth.
So then we try to practice meditation and Buddhism on top of that … ?! For example, we hear or read something that inspires us and it’s like a breath of fresh air, “Oooh that feels so good, I CAN change!” But then we walk back out on the street or into work, and we take a look at ourselves, and we are looking at somebody who can’t change. On the one hand we get it, “I can change!”, but on a deeper level there is an inner perception, “I’m fixed in this way, I can’t change.” We are actually grasping at ourselves as someone who can’t change.
So guess what happens if we don’t address that? We don’t change. We can’t change because we are holding ourselves as being fixed. That is our real meditation, what we are really familiarizing ourselves with – we might spend 5 minutes developing the aspiration to change as in the meditation above, and the remaining 23 hours and 55 minutes familiarizing ourselves with being a depressed loser, holding onto ourselves as being a FIXED person with nothing to offer. “You probably don’t even want this unloveable person loving you, right?”
If we are trying to change based on this strong self-grasping ignorance, this self-fixing mind, it is no wonder that we fail, and it is no wonder that we get discouraged. Then it can get even weirder because, in a strange sort of way, it becomes comforting to us that we can’t change. Simply because we think it’s the truth, I am a loser, I am a fixed person, an anxious person, etc – that’s who I am! It’s not a happy place but it feels like a secure place, it’s what we know, it’s where we feel comfortable. Then the idea of changing is unsettling because at least I know this. It’s like asking the person clinging onto the side of the burning building to jump into the net far below – they don’t want to, better the devil you know.
So self-sabotage kicks in. Consciously, we set out to change – subconsciously we undermine ourselves because we don’t want to change. In fact, we are setting out to prove we can’t change. Like the example of someone who is always late given in the previous article on discouragement, or, another common example, someone who is trying to lose weight but they just keep snacking … And there is a comfort in that moment as we open the fridge door, isn’t there?! It’s like ‘You see, I can’t do it … I can’t do it … so then I don’t have to!!!’
Even though it is going directly against the fulfillment of our wishes, there is a strange relief there because it is affirming our limited view of self. “I’m stuck. I don’t like it here… but that’s the way it is.”
So, first thing to do is identify this problem. Then we can overcome it. More later. Meanwhile, do contribute to this discussion on overcoming discouragement — do you have any examples in your own experience of relating to a fixed, limited self, and/or how you overcome this?
If someone were to ask you: “Do you want to be exactly the same person, in the same situation, in the same moods, in 5 years’ time or even 10 years’ time?”, chances are you’d think, “Heck, no!”, especially if you understand your potential for happiness and think about the number of irritants you currently have in your life.
So one part of us wants to change.
The other part of us hates the idea. “You’ve got to move.” “No, I don’t want to move.” Our partner starts changing, or our kids start changing, or our job changes, and it makes us nervous, it unsettles us. Not to mention our fear of death, our own and that of others close to us.
We want things to change and remain the same. So this ambivalence about change – wanting it and dreading it — can be a problem! Change makes us anxious, yet at the same time we know we need to change. Why? Because we’re not happy where we are, we are always wishing things were different at some level. We are rarely free from some level of dissatisfaction; even when we’re having a good time there is still some sense that we could make it even nicer or better, or else worrying, “Oh no, this is really good, but it’s about to be over!”
There is always a shifting going on, a wanting things to be different to get away from the basic dissatisfaction in our heart, but we can’t get no satisfaction. Mick Jagger got that one right. And we try, and we try. It doesn’t matter how much we shift around our external circumstances, the basic dissatisfaction in our heart remains, and that’s why we want change.
That’s why we want it, yet at the same time we dread it. Better the devil you know. Big changes tend to make us very insecure, even if they are not bad ones, because at least we feel we have a sort of handle on the current situation even if it sucks – “The new job, city, apartment looks better, but I don’t know… it’s a bit unsettling all this.”
Here’s an example of wanting to change and not wanting to change. I have a good friend who always arrives late at places – sometimes so late that he misses the entire event! He arrived halfway through his own birthday party recently. To hear him tell it, there’s nothing he can do about it. But, and he is not alone in this, if you are a perpetual late arriver it is not because you can’t tell the time — you know exactly when you need to leave to arrive on time. Usually something like this happens: “Ok, time to go… oh, hold on, let me just do this and that, put my laundry in the drier, nip into this shop on the way, get some gas … Oh, I’m late again!” That is an act of self-sabotage because you’re wishing to arrive on time to blow out your own candles with your invited guests, and yet arranging it in such a way that you are not going to be there on time. It may seem to just sort of happen, but if we check, we are making a choice, as a result of which we’re going to be late.
This is an example of how on the surface we want to change, but subconsciously in the realm of deeper habits we don’t want to. And so we’re at odds with ourselves, which is tiring and discouraging. If we check our habits in meditation, especially the ones we don’t like, we can see what it is we are doing to feed that habit. When we step back and look at it, it’s a choice we’re making. It might be a weighted choice coming with a lot of habit behind it, but still it’s a choice.
Spiritual practice is all about change
So it seems we have an ambivalence – on the one hand we want change and on the other hand we are afraid of change and cling on to the same old things with attachment. And spiritual practice is all about change. It’s all about training our mind, letting go of attachment, moving our mind somewhere new. It’s all about identifying the internal causes of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, inner conflicts – the delusions – and getting rid of them. It is all about changing our lifelong habits of relating to others and to ourselves in unconstructive ways by increasing our positive minds such as love and wisdom. Meditation practice is a systemic process of transforming the mind. It requires effort. And effort requires aspiration – we have to WANT it. We have to therefore WANT to change our mind, deep down, without the ambivalence.
The four mental powers that help effort
The sign that we’re applying actual effort (as opposed to being lazy) is that we are changing. We’re becoming more peaceful, positive, flexible, kind-hearted, strong, free. Not necessarily day-by-day – monitoring it on a daily basis just sets us up for more grasping or impatience – but month by month, year by year. How do we apply effort in such a way that it is going to bring about these results? It has everything to do with our (1) deepest wishes and motivations, (2) steadfast confidence, (3) joyfulness, and (4) ability to relax and recharge. Shantideva teaches these 4 powers extensively in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (and further commentary is in Meaningful to Behold.)
These four powers are the way to increase our effort. It might be worth noting that effort is a state of mind, or so-called “mental factor”, unto itself, and it is by nature “virtuous”, ie, creating the cause of happiness. Therefore, the more we are enjoying any spiritual or virtuous practice, the more good karma we are creating! It seems to be a win win.