Doing meditation retreat

diving

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2017 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this recent Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland.  These offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2017. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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Ever had self-loathing?

selfloathing 1

Delusions are inner diseases. When our mind is uncomfortable or ill at ease, we can accept that we are experiencing mental dis-ease, some level of uneasiness, without thinking, “I am a disease.”

(By the way, Dad, the definition of delusion is “A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the selfloathing 5mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”)

Contaminated identity

Abuse victims often report to feeling guilty or unworthy, even dirty; and this is because they have internalized the faults of their attackers. I read a terrifying book last summer, Escape from Camp 14, about someone who quite recently escaped from a North Korean prison camp, where he had been imprisoned since birth due to the “crimes” of his relatives, and where humans are still right now, as we speak, being treated even worse than animals, if that is possible. Amongst many other rules Shin In Geun had to memorize and live by from a very young age, if he didn’t want to be shot, here is one example:

Anyone who harbors ill will toward or fails to demonstrate total compliance with a guard’s instructions will be shot immediately.

(I find this book quite useful whenever I feel like complaining about anyone … )

Shin “saw himself through the eyes of the guards in the camp,” even after he had escaped to America by a series of miracles, pretty much the only person who ever has managed it, and with every right to feel pleased with himself. Concentration camp survivors the world over apparently move through life with what Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman calls a “contaminated identity.”

They suffer not only from a classic post-traumatic syndrome but also from profound alterations in their relations with God, with other people, and with themselves. Most survivors are preoccupied with shame, self-loathing, and a sense of failure.

 selfloathing 1We may not have found ourselves in such extreme circumstances as Shin, in this life at least, but it seems most of us are still not immune to identifying with a contaminated identity and at least occasional self-loathing. For example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because we are internalizing that the person we love doesn’t love us back, making it our fault. I was struck by these Alanis Morissette lyrics recently in a song about being dumped:

I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful
So unloved for someone so fine
I can feel so boring for someone so interesting
So ignorant for someone of sound mind  ~ So UnSexy

Who is the real enemy?

selfloathing 4Dharma helps us get past the bad habit of feeling no good. When recurrent delusions attack us, rather than feeling bad about ourselves, guaranteeing more anxiety and heaviness, we can remember that these are our enemies, not us. As Geshe Kelsang says, why blame a victim for the faults of their attacker? We are full of potential to love deeply and unconditionally, which is an endless source of feeling good about ourselves; and we in turn are deeply loved by holy beings and sustained by the kindness of others. We can drop our burdens, we don’t need the sack cloth and ashes.

It is odd, don’t you think, that whenever we feel the slightest bit unpeaceful we automatically try to pin it on something outside us – “I am feeling this way because this and that has happened.” A friend of mine is dealing with jealousy of an ex-lover who had almost instantaneously started dating someone else. Yes, as he pointed out, her parading her new love interest in front of him may have been a condition for his jealousy and self-doubt to arise, but this is not the main cause or reason – beginningless familiarity with jealousy is the main reason. And if it wasn’t this, therefore, it would be that. Until we get rid of the delusion, the outer problems will just keep arising in some form or another. There will always be the potential to feel this way, ie, jealous or inadequate, about something.

It’s gonna happen anyway

Same for anger, irritation, discouragement, insecurity, attachment, you name it. So we can say, as we do, “Oh if only this hadn’t happened and so and so hadn’t run off with so and so”, but it wouldn’t actually have made the blindest bit of difference if they hadn’t, at least not in the overall scheme of things, because if we have the delusion (and the karma) it’s gonna happen anyway, one way or another, sooner or later.

selfloathing 3We can instead allow our unpleasant feelings to remind us not that we hate our boss, or our ex and her creepy new boyfriend, but that we hate our delusions and would like never to feel this way again about anyone ever. Considering the faults of jealousy, in other words, rather than the faults of the external situation.

Then we will be motivated to purify and overcome our delusions and feel happy all the time, so even if our lover runs off with our best friend, both jeering at us as they do so (or whatever our worst nightmare might be), we won’t care a whit, they could get married and have ten children for all we care, and we will genuinely wish them well on their way. Free at last.

It’s probably a good idea to practice this now, in this precious human life, before we find ourselves in the extreme, overwhelming circumstances of a North Korean labor camp.

Ocean of samsara

If we don’t, if we instead keep blaming our problems on something or someone else, we will just stay trapped. I hope Gen Rabten doesn’t mind me quoting verbatim a bit of his awesome introduction to the Kadampa Summer Festival a couple of weeks ago:

Every moment in our life there’s something wrong and it’s common that we feel “I’ve just got to get through this – this week, this illness, this divorce, this deadline.” And the subtext of that is “I’ve just got to get through this and then it’ll be alright.” Which is why all our energy goes just into getting through that. But Buddha tells us samsara is like an ocean and suffering is like waves. So there’s a wave crashing down right now. We think we can hold our breath and come out the other side, “Great, I got through that!” And we open our eyes and what do we see? Another wave. And the waves of samsara never stop. And Buddha is on the shore with a loud hailer yelling, “Get out of the ocean!” Mostly we can’t hear him because the waves are crashing down so loud. Sometimes we do hear him, and we think, “Nah, I like it here. This is alright.”

It’s helpful to check, “What is happening in my mind?” and “What is going to happen?” Is that thought getting us out of the ocean, or keeping us in? We can look and know, “Am I getting out of the ocean or am I being sucked in? Because if I stay in the ocean, the waves don’t stop.”

Over to you. Comments welcome.

PS, thank you for letting me share some photos from the Summer Exhibition at the RA 🙂

 

 

Keeping it simple

Keep it simple 1

A guest article by a Buddhist monk.Keep it simple 1

Keep it simple – but life’s NOT simple!

There’s an expression used in business based on the acronym KISS – ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’. This reveals a profound truth; that to succeed in anything we have to have a clear idea of what we want to achieve and how to do it. The more simply and clearly this can be expressed, the clearer we are about our goals and paths.

Geshe Kelsang is a master at this, continually revising his spiritual advice to make it simpler and clearer, yet more profound. In this way, spiritual advice becomes a living, breathing, evolving thing, which is quite beautiful. Someone who really understands something can make it very simple and accessible for others. Have you ever had to explain something complicated to a child? Those skills are very useful for us to understand our own spiritual practices. If you can explain it to yourself in such a way that a child would understand it, there’s a good chance that you will understand it clearly.

We need to make our life simple too. Don’t you find that life is complicated? It seems so! We’re often left confused and bewildered by the pace of change in our life and with our own responsibilities. Our mind feels busy and it’s hard to focus on anything. Life can just become a very busy series of soul-destroying routines until we are left wondering in the small hours of the morning, trying to get to sleep, ‘what is the purpose of my life?’ These routines seem to take over our life until there’s no space left; everything feels difficult and complicated, even spiritual practice, so therefore simplicity is the key to success.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing

It’s hard to be happy and stay that way but that’s the purpose of our spiritual life. If we are to succeed in our spiritual life, we’ve got to find a way to make our spiritual practice part of our daily life so it’s as natural and comfortable as breathing. We can do this by keeping things simple. We just need a few words that we can remember during our busy day to get Geshe Chekhawa.jpgour mind back on track again so that we can keep calm and happy. In this way we can refocus our life without losing its purpose in the busyness of our daily responsibilities. So here is one great piece of advice from Buddhist Master, Geshe Chekhawa from the 11th Century. He said:

Train in every activity by words.

Not much has changed since then; we really need something simple so that our mind can easily engage. How many distractions are there in an 11th Century Tibetan village compared to our busy modern information-overloaded world? We’re drowning in an ocean of information from email, the internet, texts, phones and people; but not much of it helps us to stay calm and happy. If Geshe Chekhawa’s advice was useful way back then when people enjoyed a simple, technology free life, how much more relevant is it now?

Buddha said that everything is mere name so we don’t have anything other than words to evoke the positive minds that will lead us to inner peace and happiness. But what words? Try to find something that resonates with you. I want to share some of my favourites with you from Geshe Kelsang’s books. We really need these because our mind and life are busy and so we need to RE-MIND ourself. It’s good when put like this! It means ‘to bring something meaningful back to mind’ – literally ‘re-mind’. This is the real practice of mindfulness.

We have to decide what the purpose of our life is. For those who want a meaningful life, it is transforming the mind and thereby making progress in compassion and wisdom. To this end, I like this phrase:

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

complicated life.jpegThe main thing is remembering Dharma, so keeping this practice of remembering is the main thing. We need to remember to remember, otherwise we forget. What we want is to keep a happy mind all the time and to be progressing in our practice of compassion and wisdom and to do this, we need to keep it as the very core of our life by not forgetting. If we forget to transform our daily experience through Dharma thinking, we will lose many opportunities to make progress.

Our main problem is that we lose our purpose because we are constantly being hit by waves of ordinary appearances and so we develop ordinary minds in response. What we need is to make our appearances spiritual rather than the appearances making our mind ordinary and this depends upon having a method for making things spiritual, which depends upon remembering to do so. We need a simple method to remember to transform all our daily appearances into the spiritual path because this is one of the main characteristics of a person who practises Lamrim, and a Kadampa is someone who practises Lamrim, making everything spiritual and continually making progress.

First you, then meSimple reminders

As I said, it’s important to keep things simple otherwise we either won’t do it or won’t know how to do it. The main goals of a spiritual life are developing love and wisdom to keep our mind peaceful and happy, and our actions positive.  Our love and wisdom are like the two wings of a bird that enable us to fly to the jewelled island of enlightenment. We forget to flap those wings during our daily life, so our main focus is to remain focused. We need reminding because otherwise we are too busy and will easily forget. Don’t forget to remember!

Here are some love re-minders that I use:

All the happiness there is in the world arises from wishing others to be happy.

All the suffering there is in the world arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

For happiness, cherish others.

First you, then me.

This person is important and their happiness matters.

Also, some wisdom re-minders:

Everything is like a dream.

All the things that I normally see do not exist.

Everything is the nature of mind, mind is the nature of emptiness.

Everything is dependent, so nothing exists from its own side.

Everything is like an illusion.

 There are many other areas that we can explore too. Can you find phrases that move you to practise renunciation, patience, generosity, rejoicing, Tantric self-generation, and so one? Perhaps you can find one phrase to move your mind for each of the Lamrim meditations? There are many possibilities to explore.

Make it simple and practical – just do

Our path to enlightenment can be very simple – all we need to do is love others with the wish to become enlightened and see Life is like a dream.jpgeverything like a dream. Does that seem too complicated, like patting your belly and rubbing your head at the same time? It’s only two things! If it seems difficult, break it down – train in one, then train in the other. Keep remembering and remembering again and again using words that you enjoy, like spiritual poetry. Many people love poetry because it speaks to them and ignites imagery in their mind; spiritual poetry can do the same. Inspire yourself, find words that speak to your heart, or make up your own. Find something that quickly leads to the actual experience of cherishing others, compassion, patience, wisdom and other virtues.

Here, then, is my spiritual ‘to do’ list:

  1. Find something that works.
  2. Keep it clear and simple.
  3. Do it as often as I can remember!
Precious human life

How often you remember depends upon how important you feel it is to remember your spiritual practice, which depends upon appreciating the rarity and preciousness of this opportunity – yes, we’re back to precious human life meditation! Geshe Kelsang says that we need to meditate on  precious human life to develop four determinations:

I will practise Dharma.
I can practise Dharma.
I will practise Dharma in this very lifetime.
I will practise Dharma right now.

Details can be found in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. To practise Dharma ‘right now’ we need to remember because we want to, so it’s back to mindfulness training.

don't forget to rememberThe most important thing is to move our mind; find something that works. You’ll know when you find something that works because it’s easy to remember and easy to recall, and it moves your heart. Don’t be satisfied until you have found something that works, that feels natural.

We tend to get used to things, or complacent, so you might have to switch things around and try different phrases as you get used to the ones that you initially choose.

Beginner’s mind

Keep tasting the real meaning of those phrases: Geshe Kelsang says that if we think deeply about these things from our heart and without distractions, we will taste the words, our mind will move and we can keep it fresh. People talk about ‘the beginner’s mind’ and this is very important. We need to keep Dharma fresh and interesting no matter how long we’ve been practising; this is a skill in itself.

So do try this method and see how it works!

Thanks for reading – I hope this approach works for you. Please feel free to share your own favourite Dharma phrases that are meaningful to you in the comments below so that we can all learn and benefit, and if you can suggest something simpler, please do because, as I said earlier, simplicity is the key to success.

Choosing to be grateful is choosing to be happy

gratitude 5
turkey

As mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.

And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.

For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015 

Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.

Precious human life

world hurtsIt starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …?  Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?

We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”

“That’s awesome!”

In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.

Waves on an ocean

We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.  gratitude 5

Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.

Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)

3 reasons to feel good

Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”

By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.

But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.

gratitude 4Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.

  • My potential. I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
  • Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
  • Something in our daily life. For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.

Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.

gratitude 7We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.

As the same NYT article says:

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

Is no news good news?

“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.

Opposite of taking things for granted

Also, as Louis CK says in this video:

Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.

I like his anecdote:

I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.

Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Mighty Quinn and Butters

Butters (behind) when he was still a butter ball.

Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*

Try counting them

Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!

Heartburn or heartwarm?!

Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?

This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.

*Update on ButtersButters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.

Looking back at this life

death

We will all be dead soon, waking up in our next life. This’ll happen within a few hundred months at most, or maybe even next year, or next month, or next week, or tomorrow, or even today. All that’s going with me is my mind, more or less purified and controlled, and the karmic potentials from the actions I have done.

Trish, a friend of mine aged around 55, once asked me with great interest: “What would you do if you had only two months left to live?” This wasn’t just a theoretical question — she had just been diagnosed with cancer and deathdied two months later. And if you think about it, this never is just a theoretical question, for we have no idea how long we have left in this life.

A very helpful practice, I find, for instantly getting perspective on what is valuable today is to think that I’m already in my next life looking back on this life, which is now my past life, and seeing whether I am satisfied with what I did in this life? Would I thank myself?! Would I have done anything differently? What is important?

(You know those interviews where people describe, for example, “52 things I wish I could tell my younger self”?! It’s a bit like that, only on a more cosmic scale.)

This makes me appreciate what a precious human life I have now, and how, as Buddha said, this world is not my permanent home, I am just a traveler passing through.

Life is suffering, of course, while we remain in samsara, and we have many challenges. Lots of horrible, sad things happen, including the loss of everything we like sooner or later, having to encounter things we don’t like on pretty much a daily basis, and so on. However, a characteristic of a precious human life, such as the one you have now, is that we are not so overwhelmed by our sufferings that we can do nothing about them.

What upsets us the most?
chickens scratching in dirt

Looking in the wrong place?!

I think it’s always worth remembering is that whenever we do not succumb to inappropriate attention, delusions cannot arise, and our mind remains peaceful and free. It remains peaceful and free because it is naturally peaceful and free. Our mind free from delusions is happy, content, and whole. We have everything we need. The ONLY thing that upsets our happiness and makes us experience mental pain is our delusions. The delusion of ignorance also make us believe that both solutions to this pain and ways to be happy are to be found outside the mind, so we waste our time scratching around; when in fact there is nothing there outside the mind.

However, the sooner we are convinced of the entirely creative power of our own minds, the sooner we will know that we can make ourselves happy; and that if we can gradually gain control over our thoughts and lives, the good times, no the best times, lie ahead, not behind, starting now. This is a proper relief. Looking back, I know I will appreciate the times I stopped myself following just my short-term preoccupations, and used my thoughts to fulfill my deepest wishes for happiness and freedom rather than subverting them. Instead of wasting valuable time thinking, for example, “Oh woe is me! I wish that person would talk to me! My life is going nowhere! My job is exhausting! My taxes are stressing me out!” I could be thinking “I’m so darned lucky, I have everything I need to make spiritual progress every single day and hour. I don’t care if that person talks to me or not, my happiness doesn’t actually depend on them but on love, and I can love them unconditionally whether they like it or not. My life is so going places because I’m training my mind. My job gives me a chance to help people, practice patience, remember other’s kindness, etc. Nothing will stress me out if I look at it the right way and I have that choice.”

Those are just examples, of course, off the top of my head – but whenever we notice ourselves experiencing any disgruntlement or mental pain whatsoever, it’s guaranteed that inappropriate attention is at work. We can learn to change our thoughts to take our minds and lives in another happier direction, on the path to liberation and enlightenment. Looking back, we’ll be very pleased that we did.

planet earth from spacePlus it’s a win-win because with the same positive thoughts we also enjoy ourselves now, in this life, as well as setting ourselves up for a great future – the same minds work for both.

Imagining ourselves as the person we’ll be in our next life and looking back at this one also helps us stop identifying so tightly with the self and hang-ups of this life – maybe a bit like someone in space looking back at Planet Earth. Space solves problems, grabbing on tightly does not.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Geshe-la meditating in his roomWhen I look back, what always strikes me the most is how lucky I am to have found my teacher, Geshe Kelsang. I feel like he’s been around me this entire life. His real nature is omniscient bliss and emptiness, and I consider him to be the kindest emanation of enlightened beings, who will take me wherever I want to go if I let him. I want to be sure that I never take this cosmic connection for granted, but to make it stronger in this life. I need for him to follow me into the next life and to stick around until I attain enlightenment. That is the one thing that is guaranteed to end my suffering and enable me to help others once and for all.

Looking back at this life from the next, I am quite amazed at this unprecedented opportunity to generate renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, and Mahamudra realizations. These have the power to solve my problems both now – instantly – and in the future, and to make me and others totally happy. I have not found a problem yet that cannot be solved by applying the so-called “five seeds” of renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, generation stage Tantra, and completion stage Tantra. And I have access to all of these, maybe for the first time in aeons, if ever; as well as the companionship of tens of thousands of people also practicing this Dharma, including some spectacular friends. My life need be no different to the lives of the past Yogis, Mahasiddhas, and scholars whom I so much admire, who took advantage of their teacher and the Buddhist teachings. This includes of course Geshe-la himself, whose devotion to his own teacher Trijang Rinpoche I find inspiring.

If I look back and see that I have wasted my chance to gain deep realizations — to partake of this banquet of delight while it was all laid out before me — what would I say to my past self?

Forget the sideshows

side showWhat kind of relationships do we really want to have had with others, once we are looking back at these? Surely not sticky relationships that are built on the inappropriate attention of attachment? For not only do these end in pain, but in retrospect they seem like a massive waste of time, sideshows distracting us from the main attraction of this life.

An arresting (for me) verse in Geshe Kelsang’s new book The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Like mistakenly  believing
A poisonous drink to be nectar,
Attachment with grasping at objects of desire
Is the cause of great danger.

I have been deeply attached to every single living being at one point or another over countless previous lives, I have suffered grievously on their behalf; and where exactly has that got me, or us? Also, because attachment undermines our interest in anyone other than our object of attachment, it thwarts our love and compassion too, it seems to me. It’s about time I gave up the attachment that has sabotaged all my previous lives, and cultivated bodhichitta in its place.

Kind people

speaking of kindnessI find it helpful to look at my connections of this life and see how I would have wanted these to go if I was looking back at them, especially perhaps for people who have been kind to me. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. Today, for example, thinking about my parents, I realized again that I could never have asked for better ones, I couldn’t have invented better ones. Half a century of unconditional love and support, and counting. Wonderful people, kind examples; and my life has been interesting and brilliant thanks to them. Even Geshe-la said, rubbing his heart, that they were “very spiritual”. Chances of having such good parents the next time around?! Very slim. Depends on creating a huge number of good causes. So, am I making the most of these ones? And am I doing as much for them as I can? Maybe I need to ask them – hey, anything more I can do for you, ma and pa?! (They are reading this, because they also support my blog 😉  They are probably also embarrassed because they are modest and British. But, hey, life is short, and why wait to say stuff like this in the obituaries.)

I’d be interested to hear the perspective you gain when you look back at yourself in this life?

Thanking our lucky stars, thanking everyone

thank you for kindness

thank you 2I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving, probably because it is Thanksgiving today – and I’m thinking that Buddhism teaches two very good reasons to give thanks, both of which have universal relevance.

The first is being thankful because we have such a precious human life right now. The second is being thankful to others, because without them this life would be impossible. Contemplating our good fortune makes us feel lucky to have it – and feeling lucky is feeling happy. Contemplating others’ kindness opens our heart to gratitude and appreciation, and feeling grateful is also feeling happy. Feeling happy in turn makes us value what we have and value others, and then we are far more likely to use what we have to pay others back.

So, if we really want to embrace the full meaning of “Thanksgiving” and feel doubly happy and energized to pay it forward, it seems like a win-win meditation to put these 2 meditations together … therefore I thought I would quickly offer a few ideas, providing I can get this written before I fall into a sugar coma (I ate already.)

richerAs for the first, we have everything we need to make spiritual progress in this life. And even leaving the opportunity for attaining permanent freedom and enlightenment out of it,  from a mundane point of view we are also far luckier than most of the other humans in this world, not to mention all other living beings, such as the cat on my lap. In an earlier article I listed the results of some research showing what happens if the whole world is to be shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same. That list of what could be but isn’t shows us where we fit in the grand scheme of things, and it occurred to me that every one of these good fortunes comes entirely from others. As a kind of contemplation, therefore, I’m going to list each one and then explain (1) how lucky that makes me, and (2) how this luck is all thanks to others.

  • 80 would live in substandard housing. Yesterday I was standing outside in Denver waiting for someone to givehomeless me a ride home as it felt bitterly cold and I was carrying shopping. I waited next to a guy in his twenties whose face was blue with cold. He had a skinny Chihuahua with him, and they were walking quickly up and down the sidewalk to keep warm. “When are they going to get a chance to get warm?”, I thought, for they were both homeless. I on the other hand live in a well-built house, and it comes entirely from others’ kindness, as I have never built a house in my life and wouldn’t know where to begin.
  • 67 would be unable to read. How much I take for granted my ability to read and write. When I read writewas staying in a remote Brazilian rain forest some years ago in meditation retreat, none of the valley dwellers had a reading age past 12, and as a result their world was quite confined. Primary school teachers spent many hours or even years teaching me to read and write, skills I use hugely every day; and I can’t even remember their names.
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation. I just ate a huge dinner, every morsel of which came from others. I brought some peas, it is true; but, honestly, all I had to do is open the freezer door, provided by others, take out the frozen peas, grown, harvested, and packaged by others, put them in a saucepan manufactured by others, add boiling water from plumbing and a kettle provided by others, boil them on a stove made by others … anyway, you get the point. And I still took the credit when people thanked ME for the peas! (not that they did, but had they …)
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply. I may complain when the water doesn’t come out of the faucet, but we know how far many people have to walk each day just to carry back a bowl of water, the amount I probably use washing a few pieces of cutlery. And all the water I take for granted comes entirely from the kindness of others.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation. I certainly take my bathroom for granted. But why!!? And how water scarcitykind of others to provide me with sanitation so I don’t have to use a hole in the ground or wash once a year. 
  • 24 would not have any electricity. It’s been cold outside, as I said. But I am very cozy and warm inside. I can also stay cool in summer. The lights are on; I just have to flip a switch. Yes, it is worth thinking this one through – the moment by moment infrastructure of my life is a result of others.
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet. I am able to write and post this, for a start. And all I have to do is move my fingers over the keyboard – fingers provided for me by my parents and typing taught me by … again, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten their name.
  • 1 would have a college education. The fact that we have any education is a blessing, and it all comes from others.
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death. I will indeed be near death before too long, in that regard we are all the same; however, I have better chances of good health and a long life than most due to doctors, good nutrition, etc. – all again coming from the kindness of others.
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US. Hmmm. The richer we are, the MORE we depend on others.

Also, in the same article I spoke of how much religious freedom we have compared with most people in the world. And, again, this makes us both very lucky, and also very indebted to those who provide us with everything we need to make spiritual progress and bring an end to suffering.icing on cake

All told, we are outrageously lucky and it is worth thinking about this from time to time rather than focusing on what is wrong with our life – of course we all have problems, but our problems are a walk in the park compared with those of others (see above.) Better to count our blessings on a regular basis. We may not have all the icing, but we DO have the cake.

I hope you enjoy your cake and eat it this Thanksgiving, and indeed every day. We can thank our lucky stars for being so lucky, and thank pretty much every living being as they have all directly or indirectly had a hand in bringing us this good fortune. And now we can pay it forward — using these current great conditions to become a better person, hopefully even a Buddha, for others’ sake.

Being a modern-day Bodhisattva

six perfections

This is the 3rd of 4 articles on our precious human life.

In Breathing for Peace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

six perfections

Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

We could do something truly radical by using our life to become a friend of the world, a modern-day Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by universal compassion, wants to help everyone without exception find lasting freedom and happiness. Compassion fuels their entire spiritual progress. They understand that the most far-reaching and satisfying way to help others is to keep increasing their own good qualities of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom – the so-called six perfections – until they become an enlightened Buddha able to help everyone all the time. This motivation is called bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva is a rare being, a special person, an actual hero or heroine who gains victory over our real enemies of anger, greed, despair, discouragement and so on. Someone who wants to become enlightened for all living beings is uncommon, but just because it is rare doesn’t mean we can’t become one. There are people throughout the world working selflessly for others, in ways obvious or hidden. Sometimes we stumble across their stories and are inspired.  

Rick Chaboudy modernday Bodhisattva

Rick Chaboudy, modern-day Bodhisattva, savior of too many animals to count

If we decided we wanted to help others with surgical procedures, we would understand the need to train as a surgeon. We wouldn’t march around with a carving knife announcing, “Anyone care for some heart surgery? Or perhaps a little amputation?” Wanting to help everyone, a Bodhisattva knows they first need to improve their own motivation, skills and capacity. They have a way to make every single day meaningful and are a great role model for how to live in the world.

How can we live a meaningful life?

How does someone become a Bodhisattva? Simply through daily practice, one step at a time. You may be thinking, “Well this is a bit fanciful isn’t it?! I started reading this article just out of curiosity, and possibly to help me get through this stressful day without killing someone, and now you’re suggesting that I aspire to become a fully enlightened Buddha!” But it is far closer than we may think. We can tell that we already have the seed of bodhichitta because we already want to help others at least a bit more than we can right now, and we already want to improve ourselves at least a bit. Take both of these to their logical conclusion and we have bodhichitta – the wish to help everyone without exception by improving ourselves until there is no further room for improvement.

Modern Buddhism free book

We want our life to have some meaning, don’t we? Pleasure alone is not enough, it feels hollow, because it has no lasting value. True happiness and meaning go hand in hand. If we use our life to travel the spiritual path, we can be in the position of helping not just ourselves but infinite living beings. We can become real heroes.

Spreading a little happiness everyday

A friend of mine sent me this anecdote:

“Straight after university I spent a year working in television in London as a production runner for the Channel 4 comedy series The National Theatre of Brent. As a lot of my time was spent in gridlock, “driving” the company car on errands in London traffic, I had plenty of time to examine road rage. So frustrated by their lack of movement, drivers in front of me would honk their horns continuously, forcing their way into whatever gaps presented themselves. Yet an hour down the road, despite all their aggressive heart-attack—inducing attempts, I would see them again – a whole five cars further ahead!road rage

I decided to conduct an experiment. Whenever possible, I would allow a trapped car into the space ahead of me. When I did this, I was greeted by a smile and wave from the surprised driver, and that car would often play it forward, repeating the gesture of kindness to another car ahead of it. Traffic seemed to flow more easily as a result. My journeys did not take any longer, and they were a great deal more restful and entertaining. This is just a simple illustration. We have these kinds of opportunities to practice loving-kindness every day.”

By improving our love and compassion and the wish to improve ourselves for the sake of others, and by gradually engaging in the Bodhisattva’s way of life, our life approximates that of a Bodhisattva and we become more and more like one. With this good and big heart, even if we improve ourselves only a little bit each day by, for example, patiently resisting the temptation to get angry with someone, and even if we only slightly help one or two people each day, by, for example, helping a little old lady cross the street, every little bit counts a lot because right here and right now we are already making strides on a cosmic spiritual journey.

What is the Meaning of Life?

meaning of life 42
meaning of life 42

Ermm …

Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this

  • 80 would live in substandard housing;
  • 67 would be unable to read;
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
  • 24 would not have any electricity;
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet;
  • 1 would have a college education;
  • 1 would have HIV;
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.

Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.

So, what is the meaning of life?!

The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.

meditating BuddhaBuddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Enlightenment

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says:

When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.

I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:

The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.

Same actions, different outcomes

As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:

Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.

We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:

Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.

Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)

A star in the midday sky

Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.

rabbit in the moonIf we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.

**********************

(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)

Live life lightly, live it well

photo_11.jpg

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park

View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters

This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

Happy Thanksgiving, One and All!

Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me

prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

(I wrote this article last year but it still seems relevant this year!)

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