Finding my heart

baby in arms

I am only a parent of cats and take my hat off to parents of small humans, who seem to have to work 24/7 for others. But I think even pet parents have some of the same experiences, and also some of the same concerns when it comes to balancing love and attachment and avoiding undue worry and stress when things go wrong…♥)  So, when Kadampa working dad recently had the good idea of starting a Facebook page for Buddhist parents, I joined the group too. And to let more parents know about this forum, I thought it was a good excuse to post this guest article by him. Scroll to the bottom of this article to read the Facebook About. 

Just before I was to get married I was at the New Kadampa Tradition Summer Festival in England.  I went up to what was then the Protector Gompa (a special meditation room dedicated to the Dharma Protector).  I felt like getting married was the right thing to do for my spiritual practice, but I still had doubts.  So I made as sincere of a request as I could that my path be revealed to me.  What happened next was the only time something like this has ever happened to me.  I was meditating, my eyes were closed, but in my mind a Buddha who I understood to be Tara approached me.  She was made of a silvery metalic liquid, but very much alive.  In her hands was a baby – in normal flesh and bones that I could see as clearly as I could see any person out of meditation.  She then handed me the baby and said, “This is where you will find your heart.”  And then everything vanished.  I can still vividly remember and see this within my mind.  All doubt was then dispelled and I knew what my path was to be.  Thirteen years later, I now have five kids!

Prior to my being a parent, I was very much a Vulcan – heart-felt emotion wasn’t really part of my personality, and I was very intellectual in my approach to the Dharma (I still am, unfortunately, but it is slowly changing…).  I really struggled with feeling any Dharma realizations like love and compassion in my heart, and as a result I tended to shy away from such meditations and instead to focus on emptiness and other philosophical or technical topics.  “Finding my heart” was (and still is), in many respects, my greatest spiritual challenge.

To my surprise, the love I have for my children is not some sappy, mushy sort of thing, but is rather very active.  It can best be described as “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.”  It is a feeling of a fortunate assuming of personal responsibility for their welfare – I am glad it is me who is responsible for them, because I wouldn’t trust that anybody else would look after them the way I would and I very much want them to be taken care of.  It is a love that ‘knows them’, in many ways better than they know themselves.  I know and understand how they work and think, so I am always sensitive to what is best for them.  It is a love that happily works for their benefit.  It is a love that would rather me have the hardest tasks or the worst things so that they can have the best.  It is a love that somehow can see past all of their faults and understand where those faults are coming from and develop compassion wishing to protect them.  It is a love that literally laughs out loud when I see their summer portraits and the unique goofiness in each of their expressions!

And here’s the thing:  all of this comes naturally.  I haven’t worked to develop this love, I just naturally feel it.  Venerable Geshe-la explains the reason for this is because we have special karmic connections with these particular beings from our previous lives where we now spontaneously feel a pure love towards them.  Of course there are times when our minds are full of delusions towards our kids, but compared to everyone else we feel the most natural love for our kids.  It is thanks to my kids that I ‘found’ my heart, I realized what it means to feel an active love for somebody.

How wonderful if we can extend the love we feel towards our children to all living beings, where we can view all living beings as our children.

Here is the Facebook forum: https://www.facebook.com/groups/288032664659782/members/ 

About: The purpose of this group is to provide a platform for Kadampa parents to share their experiences of how they use the Kadam Dhama to be better parents and to ask questions about how to apply the Dharma to common parenting challenges. Through this, we can all learn from each other’s trials and tribulations as we seek to unite the Kadam Dharma with modern parenting. Over time, this page will become like a repository of the accumulated wisdom of Kadampa parents, which will then hopefully prove helpful to future Kadampa parents for generations to come. The group is open to parents and non-parents alike, because in the end our job as Kadampa Bodhisattvas is to help others grow. Please add all of the Kadampa parents you know to this group. The group is also open to Kadampa teachers who wish to better understand and help their students who are parents. And yes, parents are free to post pictures of their little ones doing all of the silly things they do! Please note, the views expressed in this group are those of individual practitioners and do not represent those of the New Kadampa Tradition itself. This is an “unofficial” group of practitioners. For the official New Kadampa Tradition Facebook page, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/kadampa

Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant, part 2

putting others first

Another guest article from our Kadampa working dad. The rest can be found here.

In my last post on this topic, we talked about some key principles for fulfilling our purpose of a parent to become irrelevant by helping our kids make wise decisions on their own.  In this post, we’ll look some key wisdom minds we can help our kids cultivate so that they can do this.

So what are the principles for helping our children make ‘wise decisions’ on their own?  What we try do is demonstrate to our children how basic wisdom solves most daily problems.  The trick is to package this wisdom in frequently repeated key phrases that will stick with them for the rest of their life, much like:

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

I will do a future post on quite a few key phrases that I believe serve parents well.  For now, however, I will give ‘the big three’:

(1) “I don’t care what other people are doing, you should do the right thing.”

Kids naturally understand the laws of karma because they naturally understand basic fairness and the sandbox is the ultimate arena of “instant karma.”  You explain to your kids, “If you want to change the dynamic you have with this person, then you need to always do the right thing, regardless of what the other person does.”

How do you know what the ‘right’ thing is?  We ground all of our explanations in terms of “creating good causes”.  Whatever you do to others you create the cause for them to do to you.  Whatever others do to you, you created the causes for them to do it to you.  So basically, do to others what you would have them do to you, and don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you (this obviously resonates well in Judeo-Christian cultures too).

When your kids make mistakes, don’t lecture them, just ask questions like “Would you want others doing that to you?”  Because they naturally understand basic fairness and instant karma, they generally know the answers to these questions, and your asking them will help them make their own wise decisions about what to do.

(2) “Change your mind/attitude first.”

There are several important points here.  First, the most liberating thing you can do for your children is help them understand that they have a ‘choice’ about their attitude towards or view on things.  They can choose their reactions to any event.  Most kids (and adults for that matter), frankly, are not that much different from animals in that they just respond impulsively to whatever happens to them.  Driving home again and again the fact that they always have a choice over how to view and respond to any situation that arises in their life is incredibly liberating.

Second, it is their attitude/mind that determines their experience, not the external circumstance.  “I’m bored!”  No, “Nothing is boring, it only becomes boring if you relate to it with a boring mind.  Everything is fun if you relate to it with a fun mind.”  “Nothing is annoying, rather we allow things to annoy us.”

Third, we need to help them create the reflex in life where their “first response” to any situation is to change their mind/attitude, then they focus on how to change the external circumstance.  We can do this by helping them identify what they have control over versus what they do not.  We have complete control over our own mind and attitude, we have little to no control over external events or what others do.  So first we should work on what we have the most control over.  This is just common sense.

(3) “Put others first”.

Here it is useful to recall what Shantideva said, namely that self-cherishing is the root of all suffering and cherishing others is the root of all happiness.  We need to help our children ‘see’ the truth of this in their daily lives, not lecture them about it.  Every single problem that arises in our children’s life can be traced back to self-cherishing.  Every single good thing that arises in our children’s life can be traced back to putting others first.  If we ourselves have the wisdom to be able to see how and why this is true, then we just share our perspective and view on the situation when our children come to us.  If we see it, then when they talk to us, they will come to see it too.  When they see this, they will naturally do the right thing.

What I am about to say is sneaky, and I know it – but it works!  I have found it most useful to take the following strategy:  usually our kids come to us with problems of what other people are doing to them and how they do not like it.  When they describe to us the problem, we can help our child see how the other person is behaving in the bad way because they think their happiness is more important than others, they are being selfish.  Our kid will then say, “yeah, that’s right.”  Then we turn it on them by saying, “so don’t be like them” or “well, if you do X, then you are being just like them” or “if you do X, then how are you being any different?”

Once you have done this a few times, they will learn the principle of selfishness is the root of all problems and putting others first is the root of all happiness, and then afterwards when they come to you with what others are doing you can simply say “I don’t care what others are doing, you need to do the right thing”, but now they understand the right thing to be to abandon their own selfishness and to put others first.

Conclusion

Needless to say, our ability to instill within our kids these principles is entirely dependent upon our living our own lives by them J  If there is one thing kids can spot a mile away, it is hypocrisy.  But if we learn to live our own lives by these principles, there is a very good chance that, almost through familial osmosis alone, our kids will come to adopt these principles themselves, and then they will become fully capable individuals of making wise decisions on their own.

Then your job as a parent will be complete – you will have made yourself irrelevant!

Your turn: Are you trying out these methods with your kids? Please leave comments in the box below.

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Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant

child making a decision

Another guest article from our Kadampa working dad. The rest can be found here.

I believe our job as a parent is to become irrelevant!

What does every parent want for their children?  We want our children to become fully capable individuals that make wise decisions on their own.  A wise decision is one that leads to true happiness.  Everything we do as a parent should lead to this final result, and we should use this final result as a guide to know how to respond to every parenting challenge and as a litmus test to see whether what we have done as a parent is mistaken and needs to be corrected for.

When our children are born, they are incapable of anything and make all the wrong decisions (put your finger in an electrical socket, anyone?).  In the end, we want them to be capable of everything and to be able to make all the right decisions on their own.  So in the beginning, they need us for everything, but in the end we want them to need us for nothing – in short, we want to become irrelevant (or more precisely, no longer needed). 

So how does this work in practice?  There are no fixed rules, rather general principles we can follow as a parent.  When it comes to helping our children become fully capable, I try to use the following principles:

1 For things they are not yet capable of doing: don’t expect them to be able to do it.  I would say 90% of the problems we have as parents in the early years of our children’s life come from being upset when our children don’t live up to our expectations.  We expect them to already be able to do things, and then when they don’t, we become upset at them.  When we get upset at them for not doing something, we create serious obstacles to their ability to joyfully learn the new skill themselves.  They will reject what we have to say because for them it comes as a punishment and a control, not a helping hand.  For the things they are not yet capable of doing on their own, just do it for them with an excited attitude of “one day you will be able to do this all by yourself.”  Think potty training!  This attitude makes them want to do things on their own in the future.

2. For things they can learn to do:  help them learn how to do it on their own.  This takes tremendous patience.  Usually as parents we are very rushed.  We feel we don’t have time to indulge our kid in spilling the milk bottle 20 times so they can learn from their mistakes, rather we figure it is just quicker and easier to do it ourselves.  But why are we so rushed?  We are rushed because we have to do everything ourselves.  Why do we have to do everything?  Because our kids don’t know how to do anything yet!  So while it is true in the short-run that it takes more time to help our kids do things on their own than for us to just do it for them; in the long run, we are actually saving ourselves time by taking the time now to teach them how to do things on their own.  It is crucial at this stage to instill in them the excitement of “me do it”, where they want to do it on their own – how liberating for them to become capable of doing things for themselves.  If you get this attitude correct at this stage, you avoid the pitfalls of the next stage.

3 For things they are already capable of doing:  don’t do it for them.  It is very easy for the ‘compassionate parent’ to fall into the extreme of becoming their child’s slave.  While this may seem compassionate, there is no wisdom to such an approach.  Yes, we are supposed to serve others and all the rest, but we must do so with wisdom.  We are not helping our children by teaching them laziness and manipulation/exploitation of others.  So if something comes up that they are capable of doing on their own that they want you to do for them, just say “sorry, you are capable of doing that yourself.”  They will say you are being mean, but you will know you are being a wise parent.

If we check carefully, we will see that what we want as a parent for our children is exactly what a qualified Spiritual Guide wants for their disciples, the only difference is the scope of ‘capable’ and the extent of ‘wise decisions’ involved.  The Spiritual Guide wants us to become as capable as all the Buddhas and to develop an omniscient, compassionate wisdom.  As a parent, we would generally be happy with our children being able to get on in the world and to make good decisions in this life.  While much smaller in scope, it is a start and a prerequisite for the capacity and wisdom the Buddhas want for our children.  So we can view our job as a parent as preparing the ground to hand our children over to higher paths (if they so choose).

In the next part of this series, we will look at three key wisdom minds we should try help our children cultivate so that they can make “wise decisions” on their own!

Are you a parent? Have you tried these methods? Please share your ideas and experience in the comments box below.

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Buddhist advice for worrywarts

choose your thoughts Seuss

We probably all worry unduly sometimes, which makes us all worrywarts according to the dictionary. Here are some more practical solutions for this unpleasant state of mind.

Stop paying inappropriate attention

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.  ~Mark Twain

You’re not inherently a nervous Nellie, no one is. As mentioned earlier, all habits are made to be broken. Delusions, including their inappropriate attention, are not intrinsic parts of mind, they are just thoughts that arise and have no ability to exist if we don’t think them. And they are certainly not us.

A lot of you may have come across this quote somewhere ‘cos it’s a good one:

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

If we are not careful, our thoughts think us rather than the other way round. Shirley Austin on Facebook says: “The first fault of delusion identified by Shantideva is “delusion give us no choice”. This is so true. Once we start to follow a delusion we become hooked and it is hard to let go of it. It is so juicy!” We need constructively to replace inappropriate attention with appropriate attention as soon as we notice we are beginning to dwell on our problems. Take away the oxygen of inappropriate attention, and worry (a type of delusion) will quickly expire. Adam Head agreed we need to be creative: “Move forward, make something new, make something happen! This creative/constructive energy doesn’t really tolerate worry and hand-wringing, where the mind can repeatedly chundle on and on about stuff without realising how futile it is.”

It is very helpful to understand how inappropriate attention is running the show. Look and see what you’re focusing on — I bet you are accentuating the negative and editing out the positive. Start doing the opposite, see what happens. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. It is so true.

Feeling responsible for others without the guilt

Feeling solely responsible for another’s welfare makes us worry if we’re not careful, and as mentioned above can wrap us up in guilt, which is an even heavier mantle to remove. Superior intention is the noble, compassionate mind that feels entirely responsible for every living being throughout space and time, but the person who possesses it has no worry at all in their minds. So where are we going wrong?!

One reason I decided to write these articles is because of late I have felt more immediately or physically responsible for the life, health and safety of dependents than usual. Perhaps because I am out of practice at that, I find details strangely worrying when normally I never worry about much at all. This is proving useful because I thought I had the whole not worrying thing under control, but clearly I have more work to do! I enjoy the challenge of looking at what is going on in the mind when I worry and getting to the bottom of it once and for all. (This sort of reminds me of when I first got interested in Buddhism – after a few months I was quite sure I had equanimity down as I thought I liked everyone equally, “Hey, this is really EASY guys!!” Then a boyfriend materialized and I realized my attachment had just been on the back burner for a year.)

I’m finding this whole process of being responsible for various animals, starting with Ralph and Nelson, good training for being a Bodhisattva and even a Buddha. I can view each one of them as an example of all the animals and other living beings in the world who need help, and train in taking on the personal responsibility while freeing the mind from worry or guilt. I meditate on superior intention regularly, and now is my chance to apply it, without turning into an over-protective mommy while I’m at it! This situation is helping me see the difference between compassion and worry, and how compassion itself is not a sad mind, although worrying and guilt are horrible.

Parents of human children (especially in these challenging times), I take my hat off to you – you surely have worry and guilt licked to stay sane for even a day?!

Here is one random example of a run-away train of thought traveling from worry to guilt and back again. “What can I worry about today?! Oh, I know, Nelson’s bad cheek, it is more swollen than ever. Oh, so now that reminds me that I can worry (again) about how I’ve already brought his vet’s appointment forward by four days, but maybe he won’t be alright for another two whole days? It is Saturday morning and they are not open til Monday. Oh, that reminds me, I have to CATCH him! I’m dreading it, he will hate being in lock-down all night. Or maybe I won’t be able to catch him?! But I need to because of his cheek. And what is actually wrong with his cheek? It looks scary. Cancer? A mysterious abscess that might go to his brain?!” Then comes the guilt: “Oh I’m not doing enough for him! I’m so useless at this!” Then more variations on a theme — fraught scenarios complete with everything that could go wrong. etc

Just one illustration today amongst gazillions in the minds of living beings: trains of undesirable thoughts that we have inadvertently boarded, which are taking us from Worry Station right through to Panic Stations! We have to get off!!

Stop worrying right into the future

We allow our thoughts to run riot and way into the future. Chewing over the various possibilities of something that hasn’t even happened is the cause of much of our anxiety and stress.

You know, tomorrow really does take care of itself. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

He has a point. We worry far more if we worry ahead. John Newton (not sure who he is, but I like this quote) says:

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

What were you worrying about a year ago today?! Can you even begin to remember?! Will you have the worry you have today a year hence? I find these thoughts useful too.

We can make a plan, for sure, for example to get the cat to the vet; but then, in the inimitable words of my brother, something can be time-consuming without being mind-consuming. Make a plan, be prepared to see it change, and meantime stop thinking about that plan and just live. The best is if we can keep our thoughts focused on today or even this hour or even just now, having the very best experience and creating the very best intention in every moment. Then the future tends to take care of itself!

I don’t know who he is either, but Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I agree:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

But just to get a bit philosophical on you for a moment: actually, there are no past things and future things, only pasts of things and futures of things. That sense we have of linear time stretching behind and ahead like train tracks is an illusion. All (functioning) things are necessarily present. This means that “our past” and “our future” are entirely dependent on our present state of mind, rather as a rubber band being twisted in one spot alters the entire rubber band. Past, present and future are only imputed by mind and have no existence from their own side. We cannot point to where the past ends and the present begins. So we can take it moment by moment and go with the flow. I hope to write more on this, a favorite subject, in another article. See Ocean of Nectar for the explanation of the emptiness of time.

This is the fourth article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first three are Don’t worry, be happy, How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing and DON’T PANIC. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here, when you have a spare half hour or so to read them.)

It’s your turn. What methods have you used to overcome worry (especially about the future) and guilt? Please use the comments box below. And please share this article if you like it.

Don’t worry, be happy

piano
Sarah, the piano, and the Italian vacation

We can get in the habit of worrying about small things incessantly if we are not careful. Of course, our worries never feel small because they fill our mind. There is no objective scale.

I was in England this summer visiting my family. We spent a delightful weekend in a family reunion in St. Albans, quite a well-to-do town just north of London, where my brother, sister-in-law and their children live, work, and play.

As my sister-in-law and I dropped off my niece and nephew at their elementary school one morning, I noticed a mother hovering near us, looking ever so slightly tense. The moment we were done, she approached my sister-in-law, her friend, and, after feigning some interest at meeting me, started to spill the beans. She was really anxious and worried. Why, we asked? Because she had to buy a piano, was the first reason. The second? Because she had to plan a two-week holiday in Italy to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday.

Ermm, these were problems?!?!

For the piano, it took a little while for C to reassure her that it’d all be ok and that she wouldn’t necessarily end up with an out-of-tune piano as she feared. As for the villa in Tuscany, half-way through reassuring her about this we ran out of time, which was not a bad thing.

Sarah is clearly a bit of a nervous Nellie. C said it is hard to imagine how she could ever not worry about something.

These middle-class worries reflected a skewed perspective – the headlines the very same day told of the new famine in the Horn of Africa. But she is not alone. We all get things out of proportion. Many of us worry at least some of the time about things that would clearly be considered luxuries by the rest of the planet. My own current worry concerns a cat, for example.

Are you ever a nervous Nellie or Nigel?

Over coffee my sister-in-law, brother and I discussed how to stop worrying, as C admits that she herself worries too much. For example, she was annoyed at having to waste an inordinate amount of time over the weekend on school politics. My niece, a gifted singer, was sharing the role of Alice in the school musical Alice in Wonderland. The mother of the other Alice wanted both Alices to wear a particular dress, but my niece hated the dress, and so who was going to back down? C said she worried about her daughter and how to resolve this situation all weekend, even in the midst of all the family jollity.

To digress slightly: worry can seem more justified when it is a mother bear defending her cub. It also becomes entwined with its best friend guilt, perhaps an even stickier delusion to shift. I had my first intimation of this not long ago — again being solely responsible for a wayward cat was the trigger — when I found myself guiltily thinking I wasn’t doing enough: “I am a terrible mother!” This was quite a new sensation for me, as it happens. I’ve never understood it before when perfectly saintly mothers say such things.

On this occasion, as always, C was very sensitive and diplomatic and actually did manage to sort it all out to everyone’s satisfaction, but she didn’t enjoy any of it, and she did still begrudge the whole event.

My brother is not a worrier. In a flash of inspiration, but in his typically laconic way, he suggested:

“A problem like this could have been time-consuming without being mind-consuming.”

He followed that by explaining she may have to deal with it, as life is like that, but that she didn’t have to take it personally, make it her problem, or worry about it at the same time. For effect he turned on his Billy Bass fish who sings the ‘Don’t worry be happy’ song.

(I noticed that he also has a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster above his desk. There is a saying in Buddhism ‘Train in every activity by words’, and Billy Bass and a 1939 Ministry of Information poster seem to do the trick for him.)

They both inspired me to write some articles on the subject of worry as it seems to be a bit of an epidemic. The whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, but with the help of my Facebook friends I’ll look at a few methods that might work straightaway. Anyone can have a go at applying these, regardless of background. After all, worry is universal and knows no boundaries of culture or geography – it arises from inappropriate attention and seems related to all or any of the three root delusions (attachment incl. expectations; aversion; ignorance). Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.

(The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here.)

Have you ever fallen for a perfect stranger?!

Winston 1

With just a few twists and turns we can and do bump into perfect strangers who become part of our hearts and lives for a lifetime. In fact, apart from our immediate family, which of our closest friends did not start off as a stranger?!

Sparky and Joe

The happy tail of Winston

A marvelous encounter took place in heat-drenched Manhattan yesterday. I was meeting my friend J (her of Ralph’s story) to do some shopping for a laptop. Right next to Best Buy was Pet Smart and so I said entirely jokingly: “Let’s go in there and I’ll buy a small dog.” J agreed that she needed to go in there anyway to buy some cat treats so we visited with the adoptive cats for a while and then made to leave.

At the doorway, a cute dog stopped us in our tracks, and we bent to pet him. Then we noticed his owner sitting on the window ledge with tears in his eyes. Joe told us in a delightful but sad Irish brogue that he was being forced to bring Sparky back as he was severely allergic to him and that he and his girlfriend Julia were gutted, absolutely gutted. This half-Peke half-ShihTzu ”Shinese” was the best dog in the world and this was obvious even though they’d only had him for a week. Joe had been trying everything to work a way around the allergies, but “I feel like I’ve swallowed a furball and if I cuddle him I just can’t breathe.” The tears in his eyes came from the allergy and the fact that he was finding it agony to hand him back in. The shelter woman hadn’t arrived yet, he was waiting.

We asked him where Sparky came from – he and his family were in a house fire and wasn’t allowed in their shelter, and then his family were not able to have him back as they lost everything. He is just one year old. He was in a cage for weeks.

I looked at J. She looked back at me. It was obvious what she was thinking. “What is there to lose?” I rather naughtily encouraged her half under my breath. “Perhaps he could just spend the weekend with you and F and then, if F or the cats object, you can bring him back on Monday? Delay his re-entry into the cold lonely cage?”

Thing about J is that she is a pushover when it comes to animals… but there was just something about Sparky.

The 29-year-old DJ sized up the situation and seized his chance: “Hey girls, how about we take Sparky for a walk to the dog park? It’s not too far. You can see how good he is with the other dogs.” (Said Sparky is apparently spectacularly well behaved and friendly with every life form on earth, if Joe with the blarney stone is to be believed, and of course, smitten by Sparky, we believed him.)

We walked miles through the sweltering heat, Sparky tugging on the end of J’s green leash, his panty pink tongue hanging out. He is a human-magnet. And it is true that he managed to make friends with all the dogs in the park within a matter of minutes. Then Joe sloshed him with water to cool him down, and we started walking back.

“Why not cut out the middleman”, I proffered. “Just lend Sparky to J and you could both meet up again next week at Pet Smart if it doesn’t work out?”

And so we came to be carrying Sparky home in a shopping bag via Bleeker Street subway to the World Trade Center and the Park line back to New Jersey to an unsuspecting fiancé who never knew what hit him until it was too late and he’d fallen for him at first sight 🙂

And there he is to this day. Well, it is only a day later, but it looks like he has stolen the hearts of his new family and will not be going back into a cage anytime soon. Even the cats liked him instantly, and when it comes to Fluffer that is really saying something. And the landlords say he can stay, even though they don’t allow dogs. He is now called Winston because of his Churchillian jaw. Sir Winston, to be precise.

So in one chance meeting, this perfect stranger entered the hearts and lives of a family who weren’t looking for a dog but will love him for his whole life. Joe, all smiles, says he thinks he ran into angels this sweltering summer’s day in Soho. But it was the other way round.

Meet your daughter (again)

Another friend sent me an ultrasound of his daughter in her mother’s womb yesterday. She is lying in the position in which Buddha entered paranirvana, and he is chuffed: “It’s quite something when you see your daughter facing straight at you on the big flat screen TV, lying on her right side, with her head on her hand (not sucking her thumb)! I can’t say that’s her orientation relative to anything in the outside world, as she floats in her ambionic fluid, but it was very clear on the screen and I rejoice in my projection!”

He has not officially met her yet but already he adores her: “As I said to my wife when they confirmed her gender, ‘I guess I’ll be saying yes to just about anything from now on!’” When did that love happen?! Why did it happen?! In beginningless lifetimes, we have all been each other’s father and each other’s daughter. That recognition – for example when the facts are staring us in the face on a flat screen TV — is enough to bring out our innate love, our Buddha nature. However, we don’t have to wait countless lifetimes to be everyone’s father and daughter again; we can recognize that relationship right now if we want to greatly speed up our love for everyone.

Actually, although it is true that our best friends started off as strangers, if we go back even further we’ll see that they also started off as our kind mothers. Take any slice of time and our bodies and relationships will appear different; but the fact is that once someone is our mother, they are always our mother. Look at a photo of your mom before you were born — is she your mother or not?! Yes, we say “That’s a picture of my mom before I was born.” And let’s say she dies and a trusted person with clairvoyance introduces you to her in another form, won’t you still recognize her as your mother and wish for her happiness and safety?

Sure, we can argue that we’ve all been each others’ enemies too, but not only is thinking in that way unproductive, we were also only each others’ enemies when we had ignorantly forgotten our mutual dependence, close relationship and lovability, and were under the influence of anger’s inappropriate attention.

We are generally superficial in our perceptions and as a result love does not flow. I reckon the three poisons actually depend on superficiality, on taking appearances at face value, on confusing appearance for reality. Someone appears disagreeable and we believe that they are, inherently so, even though stacks of evidence points to the contrary.

We can love anyone so we might as well love everyone

Our relationships with others are never stuck or fixed; we can accelerate our universal love by understanding this. We don’t need to wait for “chance” meetings like that of Winston, we don’t need to wait for someone to become pregnant, we don’t need to wait for things to change physically. We can imagine these changes happening, as we do in the meditation on equanimity, and our relationships will change dramatically. We can bring everyone up to the level of our mother, our best friend, or even our child. Genuine love entails noticing and accepting that everything and everyone changes all the time while it itself endures. Love does not take appearances at face value. Love does not judge the book by its cover. If love depends on everything and everyone staying the same, it is actually not love at all but attachment.

Sir Winston of New York

Useful tip: If you find it hard seeing everyone as your kind mother, as in the Buddhist Lamrim meditation, or you have as yet unresolved grievances with your mother, you can try seeing people as your pet dog instead to begin with! Do whatever works. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso calls meditation “beneficial believing”. It is endlessly creative — not just repeating things to ourselves, but tuning into our own experience and building on that. Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness (page 148):

Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourselves, other people and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.

To conclude, we’re all going to become Bodhisattvas and enlightened beings at some point because we have the potential to and the methods exist – sooner or later these two conditions will come together and we’ll travel the spiritual path. Therefore, I always think I may as well get started now! I’ll save myself and others a lot of unnecessary heartache if I do …

Your comments are most welcome, and please share this article if you like it.

5 tips from a Buddhist dad on making time for a daily practice

family sleeping

This guest article from our Kadampa Buddhist dad, who has five young kids and a very busy job, is a continuation of Advice from a Buddhist dad on making practice a priority.

Making time for our daily practice

In the last posting we saw that establishing a consistent daily practice consists of two things: (1) making our daily practice a priority; and (2) making the time to do our daily practice.

We have already looked at why our daily practice should be our priority, now lets turn to the second question of  how do we actually ‘make the time’ to do our practice?  The following are some basic tips that have worked well for me.

1 Do your practice when everyone else is asleep 

Family life in particular places tremendous strains on our time.  In the end, the only way around this problem is to just do our practice when everybody else is asleep.  For me, I do it first thing in the morning because at the end of the day the only thing I can do is collapse.  How do you wake up earlier to do your practice?  Well, the easiest way of doing that is to go to bed earlier.  If that is not possible, then you will have to make trade-offs between hours of sleep and hours of practice.

For example, let’s say you have an 8 hour block of time for sleep.  Instead of sleeping all 8 hours, sleep for only 7 and do your practice for the other hour.  I have found that I am more rested after 7 hours of sleep and one hour of practice than I am after 8 hours of just sleep.  The reason for this is it is not enough to rest our body, we also need to rest our mind.  Only meditation enables us to really relax our mind.

2 Have the only thing you ask for of others be the time necessary to do your practice

In any relationship, there is give and take.  When your practice becomes your number one priority in the day, the only ‘take’ you will ask for of the others you live with is the time necessary to do your practice.  The only thing I ever ask of my wife is she gives me the time to do my practice.  If you waste your ‘relationship capital’ on other things, like seeing the movie you want to see or going to the restaurant you want to go to, then you won’t have any left over for your practice.  Just as we have finite money and must spend it on our top priorities, we also have finite things we can ask for in a relationship and we need to save it for our practice.

3 Understand that habits take time to form 

We need to make doing our daily practice a habit.  Habits are initially formed through applying consistent effort over a sustained period of time.  In my experience, it usually takes a good three months of forcing ourselves to do our daily practice before it becomes a habit.  But once it is a habit, it is very easy to maintain.  So if you can persevere through this initial three month period, you will establish a practice for life.  If you can’t, you will probably never establish a consistent daily practice no matter how many times you try get it started.  I think the reason for this is our practice has a cumulative effect where it is only after doing it for several weeks that we start to feel its effects.  We need to overcome our mental inertia, and unfortunately when we miss even one day it can be like having to start all over again.

4 Once you make it to cushion, choose to let go of everything else and allow your mind to focus on your practice

It is not enough to get our rear-end in the right place, we have to bring our mind there too.  We have worked so hard to create the space to actually meditate, so it would be a shame to then mentally not show up and actually do it.

One of the biggest obstacles to actually allowing ourselves to focus on our practice is attachment to immediate results from our practice.  We meditated for five minutes, how come we are not blissed out yet?  We measure the success of our practice against the feelings we generate as opposed to the causes we create.  A pure practitioner is happy simply to try.  It is by trying that we create causes, and it is by creating causes that results will come in the future.  As Ghandi said, full effort is full victory.  Full effort itself is our victory.

5 Finally, stop making excuses

We all think we are so busy and our lives are so hard that we don’t have time to practice.  But the reality is it is because we are busy and that our lives are hard that we must find the time to practice.  The reality is everybody is equally busy, just in different ways.  Everybody’s life is equally hard, just in different ways.

The good news is once we get started in our practice, it becomes self-perpetuating.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have goals we are working towards.  Perhaps our goal is to simply ‘do as little as possible’, but as we practice the Lamrim we start to develop higher spiritual goals (avoiding being reborn in the lower realms, escaping from all suffering forever for ourselves, becoming a fully enlightened Buddha so that we can lead all beings to permanent freedom).  Engaging in our practice functions to make these goals more and more central in our life.  As these goals become more central, the ‘need’ to engage in our practice will only grow because we will see how it is only our practice that will enable us to accomplish these higher spiritual goals.

So in short, it is very simple:  make a consistent daily practice a priority, then make the time to do it.

Advice from a Buddhist dad on making practice a priority

Biggest problem

This is the second guest article from our Kadampa Buddhist dad, who has five young kids and a very busy job. The first is Kadampa Parenting.

Making our daily practice a priority

In many ways, the biggest obstacle to our attainment of enlightenment is our inability to establish a consistent daily practice.  This is especially true when we have a busy family and work life.  But with a consistent daily practice, we will eventually attain enlightenment — it is just a matter of time.  Without a consistent practice, we will never attain enlightenment, no matter how long we wait.

Establishing a consistent daily practice really comes down to one simple question:

Are we organizing our practice around our life or are we organizing our life around our daily practice?  

Establishing a consistent daily practice is not rocket science, we simply need to “make it a priority and then make the time to do it.”  In the next two postings by me, I will explore these two points.  First, let’s look at why we should make our daily practice a priority. The bottom line is we do what is important to us.  We work on what we consider in our hearts to be our priority.  We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to act towards the fulfillment of our desires.  We cannot change this.  What we can change, however, is what we desire.  We need to make doing our daily practice the biggest desire in our heart.  If we do this, then maintaining a consistent daily practice will be easy.  So how do we make doing our practice a priority?  There are several things we can consider:

The most important thing we need to do is correctly diagnose what is our problem.  Without thinking too much, ask yourself the question:

What is my biggest problem?  

Instinctively, we come up with a long list of external things that are our problems, such as our work, our partner, our finances, etc.  Since we consider these external things to be our problem, we naturally work to change these external things as the method of solving our problems.  If we check, the nature of human life is problem solving.  All day, every day, our every action is aimed at solving our problems.

But here’s the rub:  we have misdiagnosed the problem.  Venerable Geshe Kelsang gives the example of our car breaking down.  In such a situation, there are two problems — the car’s problem and our problem.  We need a mechanic to solve the car’s problem, but our problem is our deluded mental reaction to the external event.  We suffer when our car breaks down because our mind relates to this event in a negative way.  If we examine it carefully, we will see that any external event only becomes a ‘problem’ because we don’t yet know how to relate to that event in a different, positive way.  If we can learn to relate to this event in a positive, virtuous way, our car breaking down won’t be a ‘problem’ for us, rather it will be a ‘blessing.’  Thanks to our car breaking down, we can now work on our mind and on overcoming our delusions.  Fantastic!  We will, of course, still need to go to the mechanic to fix the car’s problem, but our problem will have been solved.

The same is true with all external events.  We only have one problem:  our uncontrolled, deluded mind.  This is our inner problem.  The car breaking down is not our problem, it is the car’s problem.  Our only problem is our deluded mental reactions.  If we clearly see our deluded mind as the problem, then we will naturally see changing our mind as the solution to our problems.  Our daily practice is the very method by which we change our mind.  If we understand this, then doing our daily practice will be the very method by which we solve our problems, and we will naturally do it.  If we get this one right, the rest will be easy.
To get you started, one useful trick you can do is to connect your daily practice with whatever you consider to be your biggest problem.  Before you start your practice, ask yourself the question: What is my biggest problem? You will come up with something external.  Then think to yourself, “no, that is an outer problem, what is my problem?”  Then you will see how it is your deluded mental reaction to the external event.

Then, as you engage in your daily Lamrim practice, try to directly apply the wisdom of the Lamrim meditation for the day as the means of changing your mind with respect to that external problem.  For example, let’s say your Lamrim meditation for the day is the dangers of self-cherishing, try realize how your problem is you are considering yourself as more important than others and therefore the solution to the problem is to put others first.

Or if your Lamrim meditation is death, think to yourself :

Will I be worried about this on my deathbed?

If not, why should I worry about it now?”

At a very practical level, a useful thing we can do is to think about all of the things we do have time to do, and then consider how our practice is even more important than these things.  For example, we find time every day to wash our body with a shower, in a similar way we should find time every day to wash our mind with our practice.  If our body smells, it is a real problem.  But if our mind smells, it ruins everything.  Likewise, we find time every day to recharge our mobile phones, so in a similar way we should take the time to recharge the virtue within our minds.  We take the time to nourish our body with (hopefully) good food, so too we need to take the time to nourish our mind with virtue.  Just as we fill our lungs with oxygeon, so too we need to fill our mind with virtue.

Whenever we do these things (bathe, recharge our phones, eat, breathe, etc.), we can remind ourselves of how we need to do our practice.  If we make a habit of reminding ourselves in this way, it won’t be long before our desire to do our practice will be ever present within our minds.

If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with

eagle flies with the dove

Equanimity, feeling equal warm affection toward others, was my first favorite meditation and I still rely on it today to put me in a good mood whenever I need. If I am missing anyone in particular, this meditation is the best antidote. I may be using Stephen Still’s lyric in entirely the wrong context but it works for me:

“If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with!”

If I feel lonely, this meditation makes me feel connected again. If I am experiencing irritation, this meditation helps me see the person in a totally new light. If I find people uninteresting, if I look right past them, this meditation helps me see that they are lovable and worth paying attention to.

The strangling incident

After university, I did a year’s postgraduate certificate of education at another college in York, England, training as a secondary school teacher. I did this at the time mainly as I thought it’d be a soft option — I wanted an excuse to stay near Madhyamaka Centre and also delay an inevitable real grown-up job. However, it really was not a soft option. It was gruelling. It was like being a policeman, but without a gun. The class 4D was my most challenging. Another teacher accompanied me to my first lesson and, when I asked why, told me that it was to make sure they didn’t throw chairs around, as was their apparent habit with student teachers. Even getting them to stop talking was a major endeavor, let alone trying to teach them anything. One day I actually went over to one of the 15 year-old boys and, much to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I put my hands around his neck and started to strangle him…

Luckily I recovered my wits before he was dead, but this incident showed me how crucial it was that I developed equanimity as quickly as I could if I and my students were to survive the year. I needed an equal affection for everyone, not just the nice quiet girl at the back who never gave me a hard time, did her homework, and actually listened when I spoke.

Every morning before going to school I got up a half an hour earlier and did a meditation on equanimity. I used the one in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, and I would recommend it to anyone. You start by believing that in front of you are three groups of people or three individuals – on our  right, our current best friend, on our left our current object of annoyance, and in the middle someone in the checkout line, that is, anyone we’re not bothered with either way.

Pigeon-holes

At any moment in time, we are pigeon-holing people into these three categories. And they feel very real. Our best friend really is an inherently fabulous person, even if other people don’t get it; our enemy is inherently dreadful, even if their mother strangely seems to love them; and the stranger is just, well, inherently boring, even if they have kids and a dog who adore them.

Have you ever noticed that every friend you have today started off as a stranger, perhaps even as an enemy? And that is not even taking past lives into account. The fact that people are jumping from category to category every day, even every hour, and that even one person can jump into all three pigeon holes in the course of a day (e.g. our beloved/annoying/boring partner) usually escapes our attention. And as a result, at any given moment we are feeling attached, annoyed, or indifferent (a facet of ignorance). These myopic, self-seeking and unbalanced delusions are the cause of all our daily ups and downs, as well as all the racial, sexual, religious and cultural discrimination in the world today.

Life in Technicolor

But in the meditation on equanimity we bust everyone out of those rigid categories and develop an equal affection and warm feeling for all – like our affection for our best friend, the one we’re currently delighted to see. We bring everyone up to their level, we are not going for “bland” (and this point is clear if we understand that equanimity is the foundation for universal love and compassion.) As a result we start to have a fine time, really enjoying everyone we meet or think about, wherever we go.

Without equanimity the mass of other living beings appear annoying or, mainly, just plain dreary, and often as not in my way. It is like living in a black and white world, with just a few splashes of color for the people I happen to like at the moment. Meditation on equanimity transforms the entire world into brilliant beautiful technicolor.

Tuning into the way things really are

This meditation is in fact very powerful and profound because it tunes right into emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality. My teacher Geshe Kelsang gives as an example of emptiness the fact that Sheila can appear to three different people in entirely different ways – as beautiful, as evil, as tedious — so stand up the real Sheila! Of course she cannot, because there is no real Sheila.

I won’t explain the whole meditation here, not enough space, and it is beautifully presented in Joyful Path. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Postscript

I will always be grateful to Class 4D for being my experimental equanimity lab that year – our relationships improved as bit by bit and one by one I made friends with them (while acting tough too so as not to be eaten alive.) So dramatic was the overall change that when the examiner came in months later to observe me teach, Class 4D all sat as quiet as mice and behaved like such model students that I thought I had gone to a parallel universe. Thanks to this kindness of theirs coupled with their fearsome reputation, I passed my teacher training course with distinction!

If Tarra and Bella can be friends, might there not be hope for the rest of us?!

Transforming a great sadness: a Buddhist nun’s tale

Jilly-Sutton-Pontoon-Girl-Sculpture-female-head-sculpture-jesmonite-wood-peaceful-1687888

Here is an article from a guest writer, Kelsang Chogma.

I will explain how Dharma transformed a very difficult situation for me. This may seem like an extreme situation, but hey, this is samsara and you have to work with whatever it throws at you.

A few years ago my brother was killed in Afghanistan, along with thirteen other soldiers. It was a horrendous death in which their bodies were apparently ‘fragmented’; which meant that they had to be repatriated to the UK before all their parts could be identified using DNA sampling. What this meant for my family, and the other thirteen families, was of course a lot of pain, but through it all I also learned an incredible amount about the truth of Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

The first thing I learned is that we need to have a knee-jerk, reflex action of going for refuge to the Three Jewels. It needs to be the most familiar reaction to any situation, so that it’s instantaneous, spontaneous. For in the first few minutes when I saw my mum almost hysterical with the pain from hearing the news of her son’s death, I forgot to go for refuge. Those few minutes taught me a lot. They taught me how it feels to experience samsara completely exposed without it’s deceptive veneer; how people without any refuge experience such unbearable pain that you feel like your heart has been ripped out and you’ll just die on the spot; and how the moment we go for refuge and pray for others with all our heart, that pain subsides and we become a source of refuge for the people we pray for.

The coffins of the authors brother and his thirteen friends

Within a few days each family got to spend time with all fourteen coffins in a make-shift chapel on an RAF base in Scotland. I remember they looked quite beautiful all lined up together in two neat rows of seven, with Union Jack flags draped perfectly in line with each other; and the smell of the wooden coffins filling the room. As I sat there in silence with the rest of my family, we just gazed at the coffins. At first all the coffins were equal to me as I had no idea which one contained my brother’s remains, for all I knew it might be all of them. Each coffin was just as important as all the rest, and in turn my feelings toward the men who’d died felt equal and my mind felt surprisingly peaceful. I started wondering which coffin my brother was in, and I focused on the one nearest to me, wondering if it contained his body. Immediately my mind became unpeaceful and I started getting really upset. What upset me most wasn’t that here might be my brother’s body but that suddenly that one coffin was the only one that mattered and the other thirteen coffins were irrelevant to me, like they didn’t even exist. It came as quite a shock and it just felt so wrong – these were my brother’s friends, his colleagues, who’d died in just the same way; and yet suddenly they didn’t matter. I will never forget that moment when I realised how immediate the painful effect of delusion is in our mind and how horrible it feels to disregard people who really do matter. I reminded myself that I didn’t know which coffin my brother was in and how all these guys were equally important – and my mind became peaceful again. I realised that what I was experiencing was the beautiful peace of equanimity.

Another thing that struck me as I sat there is that the parts of the body are definitely not the body, just as Geshe Kelsang explains in his books. If someone had come along right then and shown me all the fragmented parts of my brother’s body all put back in the right places, it could never have satisfied my wish to see my brother’s body as a whole, solid, unitary thing. I wished to simply see my brother’s body, not it’s parts assembled together. Nothing anyone could ever show me would match up with the image in my mind, but isn’t it the same now with all phenomena?

Another thing I learned was that even simple meditations done for just a few seconds can have an amazing immediate effect. At my brother’s funeral I was asked to read out fond memories of him that family members had written. I remember sitting in the chapel with his coffin in front of me and a picture of him on the wall above. He was given full military honours and many of his RAF colleagues and other officers were present; with the flag draped over his coffin and his RAF hat laid on top. As the service progressed I could feel myself getting more and more anxious as it came closer to the time for me to get up. I could feel my legs shaking and I didn’t know if I’d be able to even stand, let alone speak. I tried to imagine that my brother’s photo was a picture of Geshe-la, like the one I have above my shrine at home, gazing at me, smiling and encouraging me. I suddenly remembered a meditation Geshe-la had taught at the festival that year, from Mahamudra Tantra, the meditation on turning your mind to wood – absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts – so I did just that. I stopped listening to the service, I stopped feeling anything, thinking anything, held my mind still, and imagined I was an inanimate object, completely without thought. Just for a few moments it felt like slipping the gearbox out of gear, like things were going on around me but I wasn’t engaged at all. Then I started listening again and found that it had worked! I was ok, I had my Spiritual Guide with me and in a very distressing, adverse condition I had remembered some of his instructions and I’d put them into practise and felt their benefit. I knew that I’d be ok, and I was. I got through it with a picture of Geshe-la and one of Tara on the lecturn with me, and with my mala in my hand and my Guru at my heart.

We did a Powa, transference of consciousness, for my brother and I’m certain he went to the Pure Land – he sure has helped me get a little bit closer.

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