The stopping practice

5.5 mins read

At the very beginning of How to Transform Your Life, on page 3 to be precise, and maybe just in case people don’t read any further, the author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso evokes the heart of the Buddhist mind-training teachings – which is basically to get over ourselves and be concerned about others instead.

ca420505775bfccb6d3e2e494a912a09In this “stopping practice”,* we stop thinking about our own happiness all the time. Why? Because it’s getting in the way of our happiness.

The author asks:

Since this world evolved, human beings have spent almost all their time and energy improving external conditions in their search for happiness and a solution to their problems. What has been the result?

We can pause to answer that question, perhaps coming up with something along these lines:

Instead of their wishes being fulfilled, human suffering and problems have continued to increase while the experience of happiness and peace is decreasing.

If we agree with this at all, what does it show us? = That our methods are clearly not working. Which means we need to change them up.

Built into the mind-set of ordinary people is grasping at a real Me who is important. The effect of this is that our wishes are very important. And this leads to attachment, or uncontrolled desire, wishing to fulfill our wishes all day and all night. This is not a good set up because our wishes cannot all be fulfilled, and certainly cannot stay fulfilled, and so we end up stressed, disappointed, angry, depressed, and so on.

Self-cherishing makes everything about me. Maybe someone brings up a topic not related to us, such as their vacation in Mexico where we have never been, and we still manage to somehow make it about us, “I was on vacation once!” And because we make everything about us we do not have the happiness we long for.

We must understand this through our own experience. If we check carefully how we are experiencing problems and unhappiness, we can understand that they are all created by our uncontrolled desire, wishing ourself to be happy all the time.

selfishnessJust to be clear, there’s nothing wrong at all with being happy or even the basic wish to be happy — quite the opposite. Buddhas are really really happy, for example. But wishing me to be happy all the time, putting me first, is what is getting in the way of fulfilling this basic wish.

We are misunderstanding where happiness comes from, thinking that it is about me and about manipulating stuff out there. When it is not.

Self-cherishing sets us up for disappointment. Try checking its psychology out in reverse next time you feel annoyed or disappointed. “I’m annoyed. Why? Because I was attached to something happening or not happening and it didn’t. Why was I attached to that? Because my wishes are so important. Why? Because I am.”

Most of our energy is going into ourselves because we are so super-duper important – how is MY life, MY diet, MY weather, accommodation, job, relationship, etc etc. This Me Me Me mind would be fine if it worked, but it doesn’t make us happy, it doesn’t solve our problems, and it doesn’t lead us to enlightenment. We have been trying and testing it for many years — since beginningless time, if Buddha is to be believed — and it hasn’t worked yet.

So we have to flip this around. Flip a switch! Just stop it!!! And wish for others to be happy all the time instead!!!

By stopping this wish and instead wishing for others to be happy all the time, we will not have any problems or unhappiness at all.

The irony is that when we stop wishing for ourselves to be happy all the time and instead wish for others to be happy all the time, we become the happiest person alive.

If we check all the times we are unhappy we shall see that we have excessive self-concern. Psychologically, samsara is the experience of the Me minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing — we are trapped in the Me of it all, an ego prison.

thA fish doesn’t notice it is wet and we usually don’t notice that we are soaked in ego-grasping. But this stopping practice helps us with our mindfulness and alertness throughout the day. It is strong, quick, and effective medicine. We can ask ourselves “Who are you thinking about? Stop it!!!”

We can then think about anybody at all and wish for them to be happy all the time, providing they are somebody other than us.

We can also bear in mind that I am only one single person and the reality is that there are billions or trillions of other living beings, human and otherwise, so of course my happiness is not as important as theirs. If I take this reality on board, I’ll be a lot happier. This is a massive spiritual shift. And it works where nothing else has worked.

If we sincerely practice every day stopping wishing for ourself to be happy all the time and instead wishing for others to be happy all the time, then we will understand from our own experience that through this practice, which prevents attachment to the fulfillment of our own wishes, we will have no experience of problems or unhappiness at all.

self-cherishingI love the simplicity of this practice and the clear injunction to just get on with it. We can try it for a day or half a day or 100 times and see if it works — just Stop It! And wish for others to be happy all the time instead. We can do this experiment on everyone we meet and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we can go back to self-cherishing the very next day. What is there to lose?

The same actions can have a very different meaning through this practice, even giving our whole life a far larger sense of fulfillment, while simultaneously creating the causes or karma for a whole different and better world to appear in the future.

For example, I can eat that grilled veggie sandwich (which I’m about to order in Whittier café) with a boring small-minded motivation, just wolfing it down out of attachment because I want to be happy all the time. Or I can be smart and eat it with the wish to nourish my life so that I can better use it to help others be happy all the time, starting with the friend who is joining me later. Same number of calories maybe, but everything else is different. We can transform all our daily stuff into the path to lasting happiness and mental freedom just by changing our heart.

ignoranceThere are hundreds of reasons given in this and other books that show why this stopping practice is so effective, but sometimes it’s good to stop analyzing and just get on with something to see if it works. “I am going to try something different.” And the proof will be in the pudding, as they say.

Comments welcome below.

(*Thank you to Gen Rigpa for coining this phrase! If any of you are in LA, be sure to check out his teachings — they’re clear, interesting, and excellent.)

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Equalizing self and others

 Equalizing self and others is cherishing others as much as we cherish ourselves.

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal. ~ The New Meditation Handbook 

roquetailladeWhen we can stand in others’ shoes, we have a big world to walk around in – a world that is so much more interesting than being holed up in the fortress of self-absorption. With self-cherishing we have no choice but to ward off loneliness by pulling others obsessively across a narrow drawbridge, or to defend ourselves by slamming closed the gates.

Snowflakes

We are like a snowflake. Sure, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but it is also pretty hard to tell them apart. In the ways that count most, they are practically indistinguishable – they are made of ice and air, they are bound to perish sooner or later, and on their own will perish even faster for they cannot survive on their own. In the same way, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, and our own problems and suffering are just that much more interesting than everybody else’s; but when it comes right down to it we are far more similar to others than different. We are made of flesh and blood, we are bound to perish sooner or later, and we cannot survive on snowflake-1our own for even a minute.

Imagine one little snowflake putting up its hand and declaring, “Hey, look at me! I’m special! I look like intricate lace!” And another goes, “No, look at me, I look like a flower!” And a third chips in, “That’s nothing, I look like a pointy star!” In a white blanket of snowflakes, they are all equally important or unimportant. No objective judge is going to say that one snowflake is superior to another, or more unique, or more deserving of happiness.

In meditation I sometimes imagine an alien coming down to earth and seeing millions of people all with their hands up, “Hey, look at me! I’m special.” As far as the alien is concerned, we are all the same. Let alone the aliens, as far as everyone else is concerned we alone are not the real deal. It is only our own self-cherishing that thinks otherwise.

Everybody without exception wants to be happy – I mean look at this world, how many are we, six, seven billion?, anyway, lots, and that’s just the humans, there’s all the animals too. There are so many — countless — living beings, and if we look into the heart of every single one of them, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, without exception they are all yearning for happiness. But basically, more or less without exception, they are NOT experiencing enough happiness! There is a lot of pain right now in this world, isn’t there? And I think it’s very clear that our ordinary methods of striving for happiness aren’t working particularly well – and if we can’t see that, then it could be because we’re not looking.

What is love?!

I think we are all definitely interested in love, and we have this idea that if I am to be happy, if I am to have fun and meaning, I need love. But generally speaking in the West we also have this idea that in order to have love you have to fall into it. Which involves a lot of dating in the hope that somewhere along the line we will fall into it, and then have it, and then as a consequence be happy. But there are problems with that perspective, as you may have guessed.snowflake 2.jpeg

One being that we don’t really understand what love is – “Oh, I’m feeling something, is it love?! I don’t know! What’s going on?! Love’s a mystery! Man, why does it have to hurt like this?” A backdrop to our scheming, indulging, and recovering, we play endless songs about “love”, trying to figure it out yet again as our heart is yanked up and down like a yo yo. So from a Buddhist perspective there is a basic confusion between love and attachment. Attachment is a delusion yanking our heart and causing pain, but love is a peaceful, positive, warm mind that opens our heart to greater and greater happiness and bliss. One of the kindest things Buddha did for us is point out the many differences between them.

Scratch my back

The affectionate love that comes from equalizing is not conditioned by what the other person looks like, what they say, snowflake-4what they do, because it is other-centered. At the moment, because so much of our love is mixed with desirous attachment, it’s very conditional – meaning that for as long as you look attractive to me I am going to like you but, Oops! you’re no longer attractive, so therefore I am not going to like you. Or for as long as you keep saying things that make me happy I’m going to like you, but now you’ve gone all weird and are saying things that aren’t making me happy any more, so I don’t like you. See what I mean? I’m scratching your back and you’re scratching mine = the best we can hope for. Doesn’t leave much room for maneuver. Very quickly dissatisfaction can set in ~ “I don’t want my back scratched this way, I want it scratched that way.”

In other words, it’s all about ME! I’m judging my reality and discriminating between people based on ME. That guy is a great guy, he makes me happy. That guy bores me silly, he’s a boring guy. It’s like we become a universal arbiter of reality: “You want to have the real load on reality, you come to me cos I say it straight – this is a good person and this is a bad person (or, ermm, at least this person was a good person until they became a bad person …) etc.” It is all based on ME. “What have you done for me lately?” This self-focus and self-concern and self-obsession is self-cherishing. It’s a pain. Thankfully it is totally undermined by equalizing self and others.

Everyone needs Dharma

equalizingIn an oral transmission on his latest book that he gave in London last summer to a representative group of Kadampas, Ven Geshe Kelsang reiterated what he has said many times, that our actual problems are our own unpleasant feelings, such as discouragement, depression, unhappiness, and other unpeaceful states of mind. Our mind becomes crazy with so many internal problems, and even if we live in a very quiet place with nothing interfering with us, still due to self-grasping or self-cherishing inside we are tightly holding. Which means there is no peace, we are experiencing discomfort day and night. To solve this, he says, everyone needs Dharma — religious or not, Buddhist or not — because Dharma is the way to solve our unpleasant feelings.

That is why Dharma means, literally, “protection”, ie, protection from suffering. And this Dharma of equalizing self and others, which anyone can try out, I believe always has the power to solve unpeaceful feelings, my actual problems. At least it seems to work whenever I bother to do it 😍

Over to you ~ do you have familiarity with this meditation? Do you have, or have you overcome, any difficulties in doing it?

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Change our thoughts, liberate our self

lotus botannical gardensIn this article I was talking about changing our thoughts to get past the grasping at an uncomfortable, limited self. We can also do some Tantric thinking at this point to effectively and quickly (once we’re used to it) re-generate or re-label ourselves and solve our problem.

Who needs validation?

I found myself in the odd situation not that long ago of having my hitherto closest friend stop calling me. It got me to thinking on more than one occasion that I’d like them to call me and show their appreciation, if indeed they have any left, which of course they may not.

And when I got to thinking like this, I viewed it as a challenge to look at that limited self that needs validation. And because it was an exaggerated sense of self, it was ironically easier to spot and therefore dissolve away into emptiness.

Do I want them to call my body? Do I want them to call my mind? No, I want them to call ME! And that me appears independent of my body and mind, as if it can exist all on its own. So where is it? Where is that me that needs someone to call it? Is it my body? No. That me is nowhere to be found anywhere in my meaty body, my meaty body cannot converse for a start. Is it my mind? No. I am not a mind, I have a mind. Is it then the collection of body and mind? No. That’s just a collection of things that are not-me – a whole bunch of not-me’s plonked together does not magically make a me.

So this neglected me, or self, cannot be found; it doesn’t exist. My sense of it is just an invisible (to everyone else) idea I have of me, and not even one I can see most of the time. And it only functions when I do hold onto it – when I let it go through wisdom, I’m immediately free from the problem of being unloved.

Vajrayogini in phenomena source
Buddha Vajrayogini

From there I can come up with a new rather more interesting idea of me – generate myself as a Buddha and ask the question: Does Buddha Shakyamuni need this person to call him? No. Does Je Tsongkhapa wonder why they never call? No, never. Does Manjushri care a whit? No, not even slightly. Does Vajrapani? You kidding?! And what about Vajrayogini? She doesn’t give a monkeys.

It works every time. So-called “pure view” and “divine pride” solve all our problems quickly. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says in Tantric Grounds and Paths p. 14:

If instead of clinging to an ordinary identity we were to overcome ordinary conceptions by developing the divine pride of being Heruka or Vajrayogini, we would not develop fear, anxiety, or any other negative state of mind. How can anyone harm Heruka? How can Vajrayogini run out of money?

If I don’t need any more from others, this frees me up to try and give them what they might need, if they ever want it. And instead of wasting my energy trying to fulfill the needs of my limited self, which necessarily leads me to neglecting countless other living beings (some of whom might actually like my attention), and is rather like trying to fill a black hole, I can replace that attachment with compassion and have a rich life, like a sun radiating endlessly.

Which brings us back to the Mahamudra meditation, which greatly helps us to dissolve away our thoughts in the first place so we can recreate our world. There is nothing behind our thoughts.

Tripsy the Dog

When we get used to this meditation we’ll see that where our mind was full, we’ll begin to sense the space in our mind – which really helps us solve our problems. Usually we get a thought in our head and we cannot let it go. Totally wound up and bound up and controlled by that situation that we have created for ourselves, and the more we think about it the crazier we get, like a dog grappling with a bone.

dog with boneYou ever tried to get a dog away from a bone once it is really into it?! I had a Doberman-mix called Tripsy when I was 8, he was our guard dog in Guyana, theoretically; but the problem was that he had no discrimination between intruders and friendlies, and would instead bite everyone. Everyone, that is, apart from me, as he liked me a lot. Except, and here’s my point, except when I tried to take his bone away from him. I always had to snatch my hand back just in time, it was a strangely exhilarating game I invented (no TV back then.)

My father got fed up paying for people’s stitches (well, it happened once, but it was enough) and Tripsy got sent off to the countryside.

Our mind can be a bit like Tripsy the dog – it has gotten used to grabbing onto this situation or that problem in this way, shaking it all about, doesn’t really want to let it go, and may even snap at someone who tries to get us to see things differently. We have this idea, “This is my problem, I have to solve it, nothing will be right until this is sorted” – instead of dropping the bone and walking away.

This meditation is not about pushing a problematical thought out of our mind, but dropping it — just dropping it — and relaxing into the natural clarity and space of our own mind, letting everything dissolve. If we can do this, almost all our problems truthfully disappear. When we go about our daily life again, we find that our ways of letting go 8thinking about things have changed, we are grasping less, and so we are experiencing far less mental pain and anxiety. We always have things to take care of, sometimes very challenging things; but our approach will feel so different if we allow ourselves to let go sometimes and just experience the natural clarity and purity of our own mind.

Incredible peace comes from a settled mind. When we quieten our mind, our natural capacity for feeling good manifests naturally from within. We don’t need to be a dog with a bone week after week, life after life. Knowing that space can solve problems is a very useful insight for daily life.

More coming soon.

How to catch a problem before it catches you

This carries on directly from this last article.

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.

waves on samsaric ocean 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?
should i tell him
We’re looking in the wrong place!

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. match

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.

anger 4For 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.

How do I get rid of problems? Buddha’s advice

problemA million-dollar question. If we could answer this, we could get finally be free of the wretched things. In fact, this would be priceless information.

Buddha did answer this. The whole of Buddhism, or “Dharma”, is supposedly a method to solve all our daily problems, and not just temporarily but FOREVER! This might seem a bit far-fetched. Unless …  unless we realize what our problems actually are and where they are all coming from. At which point the Dharma method suddenly make a lot of sense. And if we gain some actual experience of how this works by trying it out in practice, it makes increasingly more sense. At least, that has been my experience over the past 33 years. I think Buddhism is supercharged common sense.

In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2004, my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

Buddha’s teachings are the actual method to solve human problems. To understand this, firstly we think, “What is the real nature of our problems?” Secondly we think, “What is the main cause of our problems?”

The nature of our problems
Medicine Buddha 1
Medicine Buddha helps us cure our inner problems

Have you already had a problem today perchance? What was it? A work problem, a relationship problem, a health problem, a family problem, a computer problem, an ageing problem, an existential problem?

Whichever it was, there were two things going on if we check. For example, if someone said something to us like, “You are not a priority in my life,” and we felt disappointed, there was the outer problem presenting as the thing they said and the inner (actual) problem of our unwished for sad response to that. These are not the same. If that person had said the same words and we hadn’t given a monkeys, we wouldn’t have had an actual problem. And in some cases, like if you happen to be a celebrity and that person a stalker (and I don’t know who reads this blog), those same words might even be a source of relief.

Our problems do not exist outside our mind. Their real nature is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind. Normally we conflate outer and inner problems. Yesterday during a phone call my friend cursed, “Oh darn, I have a problem,” when Avast antivirus disabled his Yahoo toolbar. To be fair he got over it right away – his own unpleasant feeling, his actual problem, passed quickly. Then he sorted out the outer problem by fiddling about with his computer. (Or maybe he didn’t, I didn’t check.)

No unpleasant feeling = no problem. As my teacher says:

 “The computer’s problem exists outside. Our problem exists inside.”baby Rousseau

We can solve external problems as and when necessary by external means, eg, taking the computer to a computer whizz who understands the causes of the problem and can therefore fix it. To fix our inner problems, however, we need to understand their causes, which are not the same at all.

The cause of our problems

Geshe Kelsang continues:

problems outside the mindNow, what is the main cause of our problems? The delusions. All our problems, our unpleasant feelings, come from the delusions of our attachment and ignorance. Therefore, these delusions are the main causes of our problems.

To show how this works, he goes onto explain the role that uncontrolled desire or attachment to our own wishes plays, and you can read about this in How to Solve our Human Problems pages 3-4.  (I recommend having that book on your bedside table and dipping into it every day or whenever you are having a problem —  it is a treasury of practical advice.) I have also written several articles on delusions here.

So I won’t go into more detail here — I just wanted to share the simple logic of figuring out (1) what is the nature of our problems ie, unpleasant feelings, and (2) what is the cause of our problems ie, delusions. Once we can see this, problems becomes so much more easy to handle.