What to do when feeling despair

getting out of bed 2

The world’s a mess! But please don’t despair …

This is the second half of this article.

Got blessings?

There is so much suffering in the world right now – wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just wave a magic wand and have it all go away? Well, in a way, we can. For that is what blessings do.

I find it doesn’t hurt to tune into blessings whenever I need shadows chased away. Blessings always cheer me up. One quick way to feel them is by recognizing I am not outside enlightened beings’ minds and they are not outside mine.

Whatever faith we are – Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, etc. – we can all pray and receive powerful blessings for ourselves and others. This is because holy beings transcend our labels and help everyone who asks – that’s their job. If we are a living being, we have a divine spark in our heart (in Buddhism, we call it our Buddha nature) that will be ignited if we allow ourselves to believe in blessings.

Our prayers for others act as a bridge between them and the holy beings we are praying to. In the midst of the deepest depression, glimmers of light can appear in people’s minds through the force of our prayers invoking blessings. Some hope reappears to quell the hopelessness — a little window through which they can peek through the murk of their delusions to a brighter day. This is step #1 in their feeling better.

prayer mudraIt is always worth remembering that holy beings are infinitely larger than samsara – they can flick away our samsaric nightmare with one finger if we let them. They appear in forms to show just this – the Wisdom Buddha cuts it down at its root with his wisdom sword, for example, and Buddha Vajrayogini swipes it away with her curved knife.

We can also send blessings from our own good heart – such as in taking and giving, which can be supercharged in our Tantric practice when we have generated ourself as a Buddha (see next section). There is always something we can be doing to help those around us and in our world.

Remember who we really are …

We are usually so wrapped up in an ordinary, limited sense of ourself, replete with all its suffering and lamentation – but that self does not exist and we can learn to drop it, more and more quickly.

Who we are depends on who we think we are at any given time, as explained here. When I stop identifying with the limited, painful self that doesn’t even exist — just drop it and generate a more realistic and less deluded vision of myself, eg, as a Bodhisattva warrior or a Dakini — I find I can accept the past, present, and future perfectly happily.

So, if I am in a bad mood, I dissolve all those mistaken dream-like appearances into ultimate truth emptiness and arise in a new dream as a Bodhisattva Heroine, whereby everything and indeed every time — present, past, and future – looks very different. Plus, whenever we self-generate as a Bodhisattva or a Buddha, we automatically receive blessings.

be someone

And, by the way, we need to think “I AM a holy being”, not “I am an ordinary being pretending to be a holy being.” We are neither inherently pure nor impure. We are neither inherently ordinary nor extraordinary. Who we are is not absolute but relative for it depends upon many factors, including our thoughts.*

Self-generation as a Buddha is not a device. It is reality. It is far more realistic than grasping with ignorance at an inherently existent ordinary person and not letting go.

It takes practice and mindfulness, but there does come a time when it is harder to hold onto a deluded sense of self than a cool, happy, heroic one, because our thought habits have changed.

… and who others are

And others are not inherently impure either, so we can generate them as blissful pure appearances of our blissful pure mind. With that, we are halfway there — they will catch up to that pure view themselves one day.

We are making all this up anyway — the attractive friend I see, for example, is totally different to the “meh” stranger you see. Who is right? It depends. So we may as well make this relativity work for us by choosing the thoughts that will liberate us all.

In Sutra it is the same principle — we change people by changing our thoughts. We transform people into objects of love with our mind of love, for instance, thus making them lovable as opposed to annoying appearances to our aversion. And this helps to bring out their good qualities as a result.

(*To get profound for a sec: it is not just any old thoughts that we identify ourselves with in Tantra – we are identifying ourselves with omniscient wisdom and bliss, which in fact source and pervade all reality. We can think of our very subtle mind as like an ocean from which “all subject minds and object things arise simultaneously, like waves” as ocean wavesVenerable Geshe Kelsang put it in 2000. That root mind will, when purified, become the omniscient wisdom and bliss of a Buddha; so in Tantra we bring the result into the path by identifying ourselves with that in the present moment. Also, if we take care of the ocean by purifying it, the waves of our thoughts and appearances will take care of themselves.)

Radical acceptance

Bodhisattvas can accept whatever comes up for the sake of helping others — everything that appears to them helps their renunciation, or compassion, or patience, etc.

Dakinis or Heroines also accept all appearances as part of a totality, not discriminating between pleasant and unpleasant appearances because they are all equal in emptiness. They are all equally part of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s blissful mandala, which includes the celestial mansion and the terrifying charnel grounds.

(Just to get a bit profound again for a moment … apart from bliss and emptiness, everything is mistaken appearance, hallucination. So take it with a pinch of salt!)

Bit of purification

Purification practice also comes in very handy when we are in a really bad mood, to wipe away the most stubborn-seeming karmic appearances and ordinary conceptions. Out of space here — check out this article.

Summary

When I keep doing any of the things explained in these last two articles — letting any re-visiting sadness remind me to do it – then there is no problem.

As someone generally interested in the spiritual path, we can learn to keep our eye on the prize – which is enlightenment (however we currently understand it) and the permanent end of suffering. Then I think we will find creative ways to do whatever works to lift ourselves and others out of any temporary funk.

So, no guarantees I won’t feel sad again in samsara, but that’s ok; it can be put to good use.

Over to you: Have you dealt successfully with any calamities lately? Are you finding ways to avoid falling into despair over the current world situation? Care to share?

 

Why pray?

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.

Pebbles-in-water501There 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.

Homs Syria
Aleppo, Syria, February 2016. We need enlightenment.

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.

Settling

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.finding happiness

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 pebble in wateraway 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.

“If you do not help us, we will be killed.” What can we do about large-scale sufferings?

Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article on Homs, Syria; but the question “What can we do?” seems just as relevant to what’s going on today — which at the time of writing (January 4 2016) includes the rise of ISIS, the flood of desperate refugees, the floods in the north of England, the crazy political discourse, and one mass shooting a day on average in the US. Amongst other things.

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This sign held by a child trying to reach the world was the first thing I saw about the slaughter taking place in Homs, Syria, a few days ago. Then a newspaper today had the headline: “Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents.”

“We are seriously dying here. It is really war,” Waleed Farah told the Guardian, speaking via satellite phone. He said: “It isn’t war between two armies. It’s between the army and civilians. You hear the rockets and explosions. You feel you are at the front. The situation for civilians is pitiful.”

What, if anything, are we supposed to do, as individuals in a country far away?

This question comes up again and again and again. Daily. With your help, I looked at this subject at the time of the Japanese earthquake. We decided there is never nothing we can do.

This time I wanted to examine how hard it is not to look away when we hear news like this. How tempting it is to turn away, or even close our heart, thinking “It is too awful, it is too far away, it is not part of my life, and what can I do anyway?”

But this suffering is part of my life. It is part of my suffering world. It is appearing in my world. I turn away at my peril.

I often come across links to footage I’d really rather not see, such as starving humans and skinned cats. Where does my squeamishness come from though – does it come from compassion or is there something else at play? After all, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas never shy away from following Buddha’s advice to know suffering (the first noble truth). How can we know something without looking at it? Can we? How am I going to go about removing myself and others from hellish situations if I can’t or won’t look at them? What do you think? (I’m not advocating we all start watching horror movies, perhaps there is a balance to be had here; but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.)

A lotus grows from mud

One thing I do know, I cannot conveniently box away all seemingly irrelevant or unworkable suffering without increasing my own dullness or carelessness.

Back to the case in point, what did I try and do to help today? Here is a quick summary of my meditation. This is not the only way to do it, of course, it is just the way I did it today (and I always like to begin and end with bliss and emptiness!) Meditation is very creative, and you can do whatever works best for you.

  • I invited all the holy beings into my heart and mixed my mind with theirs like water blending with water, experiencing bliss. I knew I wanted to start from a peaceful, blessed place, or I would have nothing to bring to others, and I definitely wouldn’t want to focus on their gruesome pain.
  • With my mind of bliss I dissolved me, them, and our whole world into its ultimate nature, emptiness. There is no inherently existent world, “out there”. There are not even any inherently existent suffering beings in Homs. (See this article for why this is not escapism but holds the solution.)
  • I meditated on how I’m deeply connected to all living beings in my world, including those in Homs – we are all waves rising from the same ocean, each wave containing elements of all the others, entirely dependent related.
  • In that context, from my heart, I invited the residents of Homs inside. I exchanged self with others.
  • Then I thought about what they are experiencing right now. Beheaded people lie in the street, there are no ambulances to take away the dead, and people are cowering in their houses waiting for bombs to drop on them. And “the problem is that no one can get out”, as one resident put it. I usually prefer to start with an individual, for example I imagined what it must have been like to be this mother before, during and after the militiamen broke in: “The shabbiha (Assad’s militiamen) broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five — the father, wife and their three children…” And where are they now?
  • I developed a wish for them to be safe and free.
  • I did some taking and giving and imagined that they were safe and free, now and always.
  • I prayed to all the holy beings to bring this about swiftly. It is impossible to overestimate the power of completely pure minds. We can act as a conduit for blessings to flow from holy to ordinary beings, transforming them. There are no inherently existent suffering beings – we would all be doomed if there were, and there really would be no point in thinking about their suffering.
  • I brought everyone in all six realms into my heart to stay with all the enlightened beings, in bliss and emptiness. I stayed here as long as possible.

That much I owe them at least. If I was in their position, I would want to know that the world was at least looking at me, that the world cared. If we are in a position to do anything practical, then we do it, just as it suggests in the Bodhisattva downfall:

Not going to the assistance of those in need.

We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians, or sign a petition. I just donated to Avaaz here. And mainly, unless we have a direct line to the Syrian government, we can develop compassion and we can pray, knowing that these actions do make a difference.

One more point: although it is tempting to become angry at those who are attacking them, we can remember that the deluded and karmic causes of suffering go much deeper — the wheel of sharp weapons swirls round and round, perpetrators and victims continuously changing places. Michael said it this way in this article about his murdered brother-in-law:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

Over to you: What are you doing about all these massive-scale tragedies? I look forward to your comments.