The wisdom of acceptance

Denver airport.JPG

I wrote this on a plane back to Denver recently (via Calgary, never again …) It felt like a training day at Calgary airport or something because there were several personnel for each position and mainly they were chatting away to each other pleasantly and veerrrry slowly, despite the hundreds of people backed up in line. (I have always liked how laid-back Canadians are, until today.) And this was not just one line – I had 45 minutes to clear Canadian immigration and then customs and then US immigration and then bag drop and then security. My speedy passage was also obstructed by the exception to the laid back rule, the official who made me go back to the end of the line because he said I threw my customs form at him … debatable, but maybe true, I did run right past him 😉 But they always get away with it in the movies…

Anyway, an hour later, as a result of others’ kindness in letting me go ahead, I am here on the right plane, grateful that I was not mauled by a bear. (I watched Revenant on the plane; Leonardo di Caprio’s character was seriously mauled by a bear.) Nor did I have my wife or son murdered in front of me. Nor did anyone abandon me as a bloody pulp in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in mid-winter, at a time when they didn’t even have roads! Or cars! Or phones! Or satellite navigation! Or stores! Just Cowboys and Indians, all of whom were mountain goatsout to kill you or at least wasted no time worrying about your health and well-being. The buffalo and birds were better behaved than most humans in this movie, though the same can often be said of humans and animals today.

I was thinking too that the way those dudes traversed mile upon mile of wild mountains, rivers, and waterfalls — even with dislocated ankles and blood gushing from their throats, pretty much for no good reason whatsoever — makes my own hikes in the Rockies seem like a walk in the park. Literally. And no real refuge for them anywhere, just delusion upon delusion.

Yeah, the Canadians may have been having a slow day, I thought, but I am still a very lucky person with a precious human life (at least as long as my karma continues to project this airplane staying up in the air.)

All is here, it is already here

mountain.JPGPatient acceptance is a profound mind. It seems to be the other side of the coin from wisdom. With patience we accept the dream-like manifestations of our karma and take responsibility for our conceptual imputations or thoughts. With wisdom we understand that these appearances and thoughts have no existence from their own side and so they can be completely purified and changed. More on that subject here.

Resignation is buying into appearances, I think. So acceptance is not the same as resignation, or fatalism for that matter. I didn’t resign myself to missing my flight, hence my breakaway attempt through Customs, but I did practice a little acceptance. Which of course had its usual benefits, having a soothing and illuminating effect on the mind.

As mentioned before, we can be patient both with external circumstances and with the actual problems within our own minds, our unpleasant feelings – making space for these so that we can deal with them. When we notice mental pain, we don’t resign ourselves to these thoughts, but nor do we repress, suppress, combat, or reject them. The more stiffness, fatalism.jpgstuckness, and rejection we feel toward whatever is arising, the more we can be prompted to turn toward the natural vast open peaceful spaciousness of our mind, recognizing our Buddha nature, identifying with it. There is room for all of this, there is no need to panic.

In a way, acceptance is an existential decision. We decide to say to each thing that arrives not so much “All is well,” (which can be hard to pull off, especially at first), as, ‘Yes, all is here, it is already here.” If we feel disturbed, hindered, crushed, depressed, or melancholy, we are aware that this is how we are feeling; and it has already arisen and cannot be undone so we accept it. With acceptance we open up an infinite inner space because we have “given up the idea that things should be otherwise”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We have given up the idea of filtering, controlling, validating, and judging everything (including Canadians and, indeed, ourselves).

Tragedy

tragedyPatient acceptance enables us to take on the tragedy of samsara without turning our life into a tragedy by identifying with it. We make space. Then we can use what is arising to propel us forwards. Accepting what is makes us more peaceful and more wise, and therefore more able to change what needs to to be changed. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Every opportunity to develop anger is also an opportunity to develop patience. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems  

Remembering these teachings means we can in fact be enriched by our experiences, not impoverished. We can even get to the point where we feel as though we are choosing everything.

Lift off!airplane

Last but not least, if you want to make this whole process easier you can also do it in the context of the light, liberating mind of renunciation – it gives us lift off. We don’t have to buy into all these delusions any more if we don’t want to.

Over to you. Comments welcome!

 

Do you really want freedom?

Meditation should never be abstract, but grounded in our own experience.

friend or enemyThe self we normally see doesn’t exist. But it is hard to spot that self if we are clinging too tightly onto it, too closely identified with it. So here is a meditation that will hopefully help us to sit back and look at it, and to witness how samsara twists around it. This will naturally lead us to the light, happy mind of renunciation, wishing to be free from the creeping vine of self-grasping and all other delusions.

First we can do some breathing meditation to settle into the peaceful experience of our mind at our heart. We breathe out whatever’s on our mind in the form of thick smoke, and experience our in-breath as clear radiant light that has the nature of peace. We can ride these light rays into our heart chakra, where they join the inner light of our own peaceful good heart, our Buddha nature.

Even if our mind is only slightly more peaceful, we let ourselves rest there — recognizing that this peace is part of the indestructible quality of our mind, within which is the potentiality for limitless peace. No rush. No agenda. No “Ok, got my peaceful experience, check. Next!” We give ourself time and permission to enjoy this, to identify with it, thinking “This is me.” Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to just be happy. I don’t have a care in the world.

Connecting to our limitless potential is a crucial stepping stone – renunciation is the wish for permanent peace and freedom, but if we don’t believe this is possible how can we develop this wish?

Also, abiding in this peaceful experience we have a heart connection to the peaceful mind of all enlightened beings, their blessings.

beautiful heartWe can allow that Buddha’s peace to manifest as our Spiritual Guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni, if we wish, do the Liberating Prayer, and spend a little time receiving blessings in the form of lights and nectars or just feeling the mind to mind transmission. Again, we give ourselves permission to abide there, enjoying that, feeling our Spiritual Guide’s bliss of permanent liberation flowing into our own mind. With our mind empowered by our Spiritual Guide’s realizations, we can easily gain his experience of renunciation and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We can believe that we already have his experience.

We get an intuitive sense of what liberation is like so it is no longer an abstract idea but grounded in our own experience and we WANT it and know we can have it. We are sampling it – a bit like how in Trader Joe’s the other day a store assistant gave me a sample of delicious pineapple juice and I decided to buy the whole carton.  So the wish to attain liberation is already growing within us naturally, even before we get to our actual meditation!

In general, suffering has inner causes. These are the negative actions or karma that are created by our delusions, the root of which is self-grasping ignorance.

Now we can bring to mind the self that we normally see. That self appears all the time and in different aspects so we can start with a very manifest version, perhaps a painful one, when we felt hurt for example. We stay in the peaceful space of our heart and see how we believed this sense of I, poor hurt me. Grasping is believing.

delusional unicornThen we built our samsara around it. We wanted to serve and protect this I (self-cherishing) — we wanted to arrange the world to make this I feel better, for example by getting the other person to be nice to it again; and uncontrolled desire was born. And anything that got in the way made us upset, and anger was born. In dependence upon those three poisons and other delusions, we then engaged in actions or karma to protect this limited self and fulfill its wishes. All this entrenched us in contaminated life, subjecting us to yet another episode of its continuous unrelenting suffering.

We can witness this dynamic in action and ask, “Is this what I want?” Compared with the peace we are experiencing in our heart at the moment, that would be a definite “No” to self-grasping and “Yes” to liberation from it. We also need some forward thinking. The danger is that we have been building up these samsaric (not-so-)merry-go-rounds since beginningless time, and if we keep doing this we will continue to suffer. The best we can hope for while grasping at a limited self is temporary liberation from particular sufferings, and this is not good enough for this life or countless future lives.

Naturally, then, the wish to attain permanent liberation arises — not because a wise person is urging us to develop this wish or because we think in some vague abstruse way that we ought to, but because we are seeing the unviability of self-grasping for ourselves. Our own insight leads us to the certain knowledge that we need to destroy our self-grasping ignorance once and for all. We want to realize directly that the self we graspignorance is not bliss at and cherish does not exist so that we no longer have any inclination to grasp at and cherish the stupid thing. How wonderful to have this freedom! We hold this wish for as long as we can so as to become deeply familiar with it.

Then we can apply this to others to develop compassion, for everyone is traipsing around from life to life in a futile attempt to protect and serve a painful, limited self that doesn’t even exist. And just as no one else really knows what sense of me we are desperately clinging to and protecting most of the time, so we have no clue what private hells others are concocting for themselves on a daily basis.

 

The end of collection is dispersion …

Clarity

I’m not claiming to be any expert, but I love the meditation on the clarity of the mind. So I thought I’d do some articles and invite your comments.

Here is a quick meditation we can do for starters:

Meditation

We breathe out whatever is on our mind, and all scattered thoughts, gently opening up a space in our awareness.

We enjoy our in-breath as light, drawing it into our heart, allowing our own awareness naturally to be drawn into the heart along with it. Its aspect is light, its nature is peace. We can ride the rays of light into our heart, where they join with the inner light of our pure potential, our natural good heart.

We can focus on a peaceful, light experience at our heart, not a care in the world, allowing our mind to settle here without pushing or expectation. Whatever level of peace we are experiencing, we enjoy ourselves.

We can add to this experience of peace by becoming aware of the mind itself. We simply recognize that we are experiencing our own mind. Clarity. Something that is empty like space, that can never possess form, and that is the basis for perceiving objects.

Our mind is like an inner empty space that has no shape, no color, no size, no physical properties. But that clarity has the power to perceive, to cognize, to remember, to imagine, and even to create reality. It is awareness. And if we get a sense of that clarity, then we gently abide with it, feel absorbed into it.

If we become aware of other thoughts or sounds, rather than rejecting them we simply ask, “What is it that is aware?” We are using the distraction or sound to bring us back to the clarity because the awareness of it is also clarity. And then again we gently abide there, moment by moment.

We allow all our thoughts in this way to dissolve back into the clarity, like waves settling into a still, clear ocean. And we stay there as long as we want, knowing we can always return here.

We always go for what we want

human life cycle 2This meditation, part of Mahamudra, has been practiced for centuries by Buddhists as the method to pacify all distractions, to gain single-pointed concentration and mindfulness, to understand the conventional and ultimate nature of the mind, and to become enlightened. It has so many benefits. If we think about some of these benefits, we may go for it, because we always go for what we want.

And we’ll also be more likely to put effort into this meditation if we compare these benefits with the samsaric alternative. I was reading that famous quote from the Vinaya Sutras recently, where Buddha talks simply and to the point about the sufferings of the cycle of impure life:

The end of collection is dispersion.
The end of rising is falling.
The end of meeting is parting.
The end of birth is death. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune page 285

How does thinking about this change the way we relate to our own life? For the first, for example, we can see that we popped out naked and gradually acquired stuff, maybe a lot – clothes, possessions, friends, a bank account, a mortgage, a garage full of clutter. But the end of collection is dispersion, so instead of thinking “These are mine forever” it is more realistic to think “I’m going to lose these.” Then we’ll naturally be less inclined to seek refuge in them, and more inclined to seek refuge in the happiness that comes from absorbing within to meditate on our own naturally peaceful mind.

death awareness 2At the end of their lives, people often understand pretty well that the end of rising is falling. Maybe we don’t start with much of a reputation, unless we are Prince Harry; but as life goes on it can be that we become better known, and our renown and position increases. Then we retire and shuffle around in our slippers. No one is that interested any more in what we have to say. The other day a friend wrote to me about the funeral of another friend’s father, a colorful bigwig in Fleet Street back in the day, but who, after a slow, painful decline, still ended up in a box:

B was a very big character and obviously widely loved. For me, as always with a death, there is that emotional incomprehension that someone can be there (in a box) and yet no longer there.

There are countless examples of positions gained and lost – the person coming to mind just now is the new Republican Presidential front runner; but the fact is we are all bound for a fall however high we have risen. And that is not to mention all our future who da manlives, where we will continue to cycle around and around on a karmic wheel — migrators, Buddha called us, if not refugees. This is unless we can use our lives to train our minds, in which case the older we become, the better off we become; and at the end of our life and in future lives we have a wealth of happiness to help ourselves and others.

As for “the end of meeting is parting”, what effect does contemplating this have on our social life?! Buddha says “parting”, not “partying”!! It is more like, “Hi honey, great to meet you, did you know we were going to part?” How many of our friends do we really feel we are going to lose? Forever?! We say things like “I’m always going to be there for you,” but the fact is we’re not. For most of us, although intellectually we may know it, we feel that this friendship will last forever. It always seems like such a surprise or disappointment when a good friendship ends for whatever reason. But contemplating the truth of this, because I’m afraid it is true, we will naturally stop seeking security where it cannot be found and start to seek it in the clarity of our own root mind, from which all of this stuff comes anyway (more later). And if we do really want to be there for people, and not to lose them, we need to become enlightened as soon as possible.meeting and parting

As for the last line, “The end of birth is death”, not much more to say. Except that if you die today, where will you be tomorrow?

The appearances of this life, as it says in Heruka Tantra, are as fleeting as a flash of lightning. Perhaps we have a few hundred months left to get through the elusive doorway to liberation and enlightenment if we’re lucky. But if we do apply the effort to make that journey, what will it be like? Our mind will be the inner light of wisdom permanently free from mistaken appearances, utterly blissful, able to bless each and every living being every day, pervading all phenomena, and pervaded by universal love and compassion.

Or we could opt for the usual old birth, sickness, ageing, and death instead.

Next installment here. Your comments are welcome!

Dealing with suffering

BAMHappy Vajrayogini Day 🙂 This transcendent Buddha of Wisdom is all about helping us destroy our suffering at its root, in the course of one short lifetime.

We don’t like suffering, at least I don’t. Strange how much time we spend, then, dwelling on our own suffering each day.

Geshe Kelsang has said it is meaningless to think about our own suffering unless we want to develop renunciation, the wish for permanent freedom from all suffering and its causes. Dwelling on our own problems out of the context of renunciation can just lead to more self-cherishing. We tend to bat away one problem at a time, which is a bit exhausting and overwhelming. This is one reason why we need genuine renunciation, a compassion for ourselves that wants to be free from the whole ocean of samara, not just one wave at a time.

My friend K went to ER on Wednesday morning – waited 7 hours to be seen, all the time experiencing attacks of agony from kidney stones. She said the main thing she learned was that temporary cessations from particular sufferings, as Geshe Kelsang puts it, were indeed not good enough. In between the bouts of vomiting she’d experience temporary relief, and for the first few hours she though each time, “Phew, that’s it.” She said she even forgot quickly about the pain, thought she was free. But by 11 at night, experience had shown her that this short respite was just the precursor to another pain attack, and that she needed permanent freedom.

Keeping suffering in context

prison and freedomInterestingly, we can be overwhelmingly sad about any given daily mental or physical suffering, but when we manage to view that in the bigger existential context of the four noble truths and develop renunciation our mind becomes lighter and happier, already on the side of liberation, on the side of the solution.

Imagine you’d been born in a prison but had no idea, and you spent your life complaining about the prison food, the bars on the window that ruined your view, the rough and annoying people around you, the cold showers …. You tried to fix these problems as they arose, with greater or lesser success, but generally the whole experience was frustrating. Then someone comes along and says, “Your actual problem is that you are in prison. Until you get out, you are going to experience prison problems, whatever you do.” Buddha was like that when he pointed out the truth of suffering, the first of the four noble truths, likening samsara to a prison. It was not to depress us that he explained how we suffer from mental and physical pain every single frigging day of our lives, but to energize us to break out of the prison of suffering, whose walls and prison guards are our own delusions and negative actions.

hunger gamesWe’ve been enslaved by a master race of delusions since beginningless time. Katniss may be cool, but never mind the Hunger Games (a nod to the 4 nieces who told me to read/watch it) – that’s small fry. It’s time for us all to really rebel, shooting the flaming arrow of wisdom into our ignorance by realizing the ultimate nature of things, the mere absence of all the things we normally see.

Life is short

As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Understand the Mind p 275:

“Normally we believe that solving the suffering and problems of our present life is most important, and we dedicate our whole life for this purpose.”

But the problems of this life are very short-lived – if we die tomorrow, those problems end tomorrow.

I was talking with a friend over Xmas who was saying he wanted to win the lottery. I replied, “Don’t we all, but all the same it won’t solve our problems for very long.” He disagreed, regaling me with the varying levels of debt he and his family are in, and how much more wonderful life will be when those debts are paid off, how they’ll be free. Yes, perhaps, (I might have said if I’d thought of it at the time) — but not if you pay your debts off on Tuesday and then die on Wednesday.

Springboard to freedom
flicking off a rock
Quick, learn to fly!

Far more serious are the problems we are carrying deep inside us in the form of delusions and negative karma, as these undercurrents will flow into our countless future lives, constantly churning up new sufferings. If we use this short, very precious human life just to bat away at our immediate problems, I was thinking it’s a bit like using a million dollars to pay for a bag of salt & vinegar crisps at the airport because we feel peckish and happen to like Walkers. Precious human lives packed full with opportunity don’t come out of nowhere – we may not remember, but we must have spent a huge amount of time and effort in previous lives creating all the causes for this one, our potential springboard to freedom. Do we want to squander all that trying to solve the problems of just this life when we can use it in advance to solve the problems of all our future destinations?

Same for others

I think we can use a similar line of reasoning for developing compassion. Let’s say someone we love has been diagnosed with a horrible perhaps incurable illness. We can’t bear it, and we want them to be free from it; but we are not a doctor and, even if we were, we cannot cure them. So we are unhappy, the suffering seems overwhelming, seems to be just there, just sitting there. If however we transform that simple wish for them to be free from this particular illness into actual compassion for not just this sickness but all their sicknesses forever, already our mind is lifting.

Vajrayogini
What would Vajrayogini do?!

Because it is true, isn’t it, that if we want our mother, say, to be free from her neck pain today, we would also like her still to be free from it next week, and the week after, and the week after that … and, if we stop to think further, we want her to be free from ANY physical illness and mental suffering now and forever too. And if we understand that for her to be free from suffering forever she needs to be free of the causes of suffering, and we develop that wish for her, our mind becomes the very peaceful, solution-oriented, pure, even blissful mind of genuine compassion. Try it and see, and report back in the comments if you would. (Doesn’t mean of course that we don’t also try to alleviate her immediate neck pain eg, with Tiger Balm patches.) 

Spread that out to all our kind mothers and our mind gradually becomes vast and powerful, developing first into universal compassion and then the compassion of a Buddha, like Vajrayogini, that actually has the power to protect living beings from suffering.

 

 

 

What’s YOUR problem?! :-)

Beware of Whinging PomsA recent survey discovered that people in the UK “feel fully fit and well only 61 days of the year”. Some Australian commentators apparently reacted to this report as typical of the “whinging Poms”, but the fact is that other studies show that this level of health worry is just about normal throughout the Western world (including the land of giant deadly insects and combative kangaroos).

And these are not the seriously ill or dying people who are in hospital, say, but people who are out and about. Based on this survey, people claim to be suffering 304 days a year from colds, backaches, bitten tongues, cricked necks, headaches, heartburn, old sporting injuries, ear infections – you name it, and we’ve got it.

Our bodies are pain machines. Sometimes I see people on the jogging trail outside my window in Liverpool run past with an incredible spring in their step, smoothly and effortlessly, and I like it; but this level of fitness and health seems to be the exception. Sometimes the body cooperates, sometimes you just feel you have to lug it around with you — you know that thought when running, I’m sure it is not just me, “Please, can I stop now?!” Most of us have aches, pains, and a lack of energy a lot of the time. Have you ever met anyone who can say that they always feel comfortable in their bodies? I sometimes marvel at how well the body functions at all, given that it is made of meat, bones, skin, fat, and a bunch of weird organs squashed really tightly together. (I used to think there was loads of space inside me, between, eg, my kidneys and my heart, but that was before I went to the Body Worlds exhibition about 15 years ago – quite the wake-up call.) discover the mysteries

I work at editing and project-managing medical magazines, which daily reveals to me bizarre symptoms it is apparently possible for humans to get, some of them exceedingly awful. I try not to look at my Dorland’s medical dictionary too much – a fat tome full of all the things that can go dreadfully wrong, many in body parts I’ve never heard of! This week I was editing a dermatology article on a rare autoimmune blistering disease affecting the subepidermis called bullous pemphigoid, and musing how I had never met anyone with this, which is perhaps just as well as it sounds really nasty. But then today I just happened to visit a poorly bed-ridden friend of my parents who has been itching like crazy for months… her husband said no one has ever heard of what she’s got, so I said “try me”, and guess what. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer unexpectedness of having things go horribly wrong in layers of skin you never even knew you had (and your painful condition possessing a daft, no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it name like bullous pemphigoid) strikes me as a tad, oh I don’t know, unreasonable …?

Buddha pointed out that greater or lesser suffering is normal in a contaminated body (that arises from ignorance and delusions, and the karma created by these). The 4 “great rivers” of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death, and we’re constantly being tossed around in their cruel waters. And this is not even taking into account the mental pain and agitation we feel every day as a result of our uncontrolled, oversensitive minds!

The point of looking at this physical and mental suffering head on is to decide we don’t want any of it anymore and to ask the question, “What can we do about it?”

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

The seventh Dalai Lama, who lived in 18th century Tibet, said:

Whoever I behold, of high position or low, ordained or lay, male or female, they differ only in appearance, dress, behavior and status. In essence they are all equal. They all experience problems in their lives.

Buddha identified 7 categories of suffering for every human in what he called “samsara“: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to encounter what we do not like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

Our problems are neither unusual nor special, but part of a monotonous pattern.

If I were to ask you: “Have you had any problems today?”, I’m almost prepared to bet that you’ll say yes. If you don’t mind, could you recall today’s problem for a moment…

Does this problem fall into any of the 7 categories described by Buddha – does it have anything to do with sickness, say? Or ageing? Or failing to satisfy your desires? Or losing something you liked?

Or is your problem in a category all of its own? Such as “bullous pemphigoid” perhaps? Nope, even bullous pemphigoid is part of sickness. complaint

Again, I’m prepared to bet that any problem you care to name can be placed in one or more of these 7 categories.

Normally we labor intensively to solve one problem at a time – thinking “If only I didn’t have this splitting headache, I’d be so happy! Look at all those lucky people without headaches, they must be sooo happy!” (Are they?) Or “There is no way I can relax with all these money problems — I have to have more money so I can finally stop worrying!” (Would you?)

It’s not that we don’t try to fix our problems and experience temporary reliefs. However, there is wisdom in recognizing that just trying to solve one external problem at a time is an endless process because as soon as one problem is solved another arises to take its place, like waves in an ocean. Even on a relatively good day we may get rid of our headache, only to find that someone at work says something annoying; then we deal with that problem, only to find ourselves stuck in traffic on the way home; and then we get home eventually, only to find that the Internet is down and we can’t go surfing. We may earn some more money for our family, which is a relief for a while, until the next big problem such as a major teenage rebellion comes along to occupy our thoughts. We may take a medication that fixes our itchiness for a while, but then our liver starts to play up from the toxicity. There is literally no end to problems in samsara. There is also no end to worries while we have a mind to worry. This is not even factoring in the really BIG wave-like sufferings of life, such as bereavement, terrorist attacks, and collapsing buildings, which can literally knock us flat.

Renunciation

According to Buddhism, we have to wake up to problems every day in life after life – many of them far more hideous than those we face now. The wave-like sufferings of samsara’s ocean can never stop rolling in; samsara has to stop first.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Temporary liberation from a particular suffering is not good enough.”

Never a day goes by when we don’t want to be rid of our problems — big or small they fill our minds. As someone on Facebook posted the other day:

“I want more problems today!” said nobody ever.

We rarely if ever wake up and think, “Hey, bring it on! I want loads of things to worry about today!” If you think about it, this means that we actually want permanent freedom from problems.

giving ourselves permission to be happyFor this, it is not enough to tinker about with the various symptoms as they arise; we need to work to overcome the actual causes of all our problems, which lie within our mental continuum in the form of delusions and negative karma. Only then can we experience permanent liberation from every type of suffering, called in Buddhism “liberation” or “nirvana”.

Having studied and understood this, if we develop a wish for actual, permanent liberation from physical and mental suffering, we have “renunciation”. This is described in the scriptures as a “light and happy mind”. Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself. With less attachment and aversion — kept at bay by our renunciation — our daily moods are happier. With this uplifting wish front and foremost, everything we think or do will take us in the direction of liberation – we will be working our way out of samsara even as we take a headache pill, lie ill in bed, cart the kids to school, sip our latte, or strive to drum up business on the Internet.

Bodhichitta

We can also know that everyone equally experiences these problems. Ask a room of people, “Did anyone have a problem today?” and the chances are that pretty much everyone will say “Oh, yes!” Whatever problem we are having, we can guarantee that everyone else also has to experience it sooner or later. We are all in this together. And, as Jim Morrison of The Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.” This understanding can lead to compassion and then “bodhichitta” and, with this empathetic, empowering, meaningful wish front and foremost, everything we do will be taking us in the direction of enlightenment.

Giving ourselves permission to be happy

… doing what?

Sometimes our lives are so busy helping others that we get out of the habit of letting go and taking any time to recharge our batteries, and end up thinking it is too selfish to take “me-time” in any case. This ends up ironically, being the selfish choice if we’re not careful because it undermines our ability to help ourselves and others. And there is no excuse for it, such as the martyrish, “It doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not, so long as I’m helping others.” Because it does matter.

Do you love yourself?

We need to have the wish to be happy. Over the decades I was on study programs there was an almost annual debate over Shantideva’s words that all happiness comes from wishing others to be happy and all suffering comes from wishing oneself to be happy, ergo we shouldn’t love ourselves because love is the wish for someone to be happy.

Is this how we feel about ourselves?!

I’ve heard some people also object to the term “self-love” because they see it as a term favored by “new agers” and equate it with self-indulgence, putting ourselves first; and would prefer us to use words like “self-respect” or “self-confidence” instead. As someone put it on Facebook: “Self-love flirts rather dangerously with self-cherishing and is associated with self-indulgence.”

All this, ironically, can feed nicely into self-cherishing’s tendency to beat ourselves up on those occasions we find ourselves feeling good, thinking it must be some kind of mistake to be this happy. Self-cherishing doesn’t really give us permission to be happy, if you check. It doesn’t let us savor the moments of peace, as described in this article, because its existence is threatened by them. It rapidly comes up with pretexts as to why we should start feeling neurotic, deficient and graspy again. It’d prefer us to feel guilt rather than an uncomplicated, unquestioning joy. Self-cherishing is far more at home in an agitated mental territory.

The word “self-love” isn’t found in Tibetan Buddhism or explicitly in the New Kadampa Tradition books, and I’m personally not too bothered whether we use it or not. But at the same time I think it’s important not to assume that because we don’t talk about “self-love” all that much, this means we shouldn’t love ourselves, or that loving ourself (or even self-love) has to mean the same as self-cherishing. (“Cherishing”, of course, is a type of love, the love considering someone to be special or important; so that is another reason for the occasional confusion as to whether or not we should love ourselves.)

I think it makes no sense psychologically or rationally to say we shouldn’t love ourselves. Insofar as living beings always do want to be happy, and even Buddhas possess this wish, this cannot be what Shantideva is referring to. In that quote, he is referring to self-cherishing. This ignorant mind destroys our happiness because it is under the erroneous impression that our happiness is more important than others’, and it forces us to seek happiness in all the wrong ways that lead to suffering.

Renunciation and compassion

If we cannot wish ourselves happiness, and allow ourselves to taste it, then what are we wishing for ourselves? It seems we cannot develop renunciation even with that attitude, and without renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom and lasting happiness) our compassion for others is like a toothless tiger, as Je Tsongkhapa put it. (I wonder if he was the first person to use that expression ;-)) It is not rooted in anything. We need the wish for true happiness for ourselves in order to generate that wish for others. As Eileen Quinn put it: “We need to renounce false happiness and wish to escape to true happiness.” And: “If we don’t have a taste of real happiness/don’t know what it actually is, how can we wish for it for ourselves or anybody?”

We need to want to be happy, really happy. We need to savor the happiness we already have within us, and practice it so that every day it increases. As mentioned in this article, Buddhism is “happiness-training”. If we don’t have this wish to be happy, why are we practicing meditation, and how can it work? It may sound obvious, but sometimes trainee Mahayana Buddhists tie themselves in knots thinking that this wish is now self-cherishing, and they need to get rid of it; in extreme cases they deny themselves happiness. But that wish can be love, and love is always a good thing, even when directed at ourselves. I think it is important to start every meditation with the wish to be actually happy for once. We need to give ourselves permission to be happy.

What we need to get rid of is the self-cherishing mind exaggerating our importance and seeking happiness in the wrong places. We don’t need to love the limited, neurotic self that is the object of self-cherishing, but we do need to love ourselves. We can understand self-love in those terms (so not necessarily in gooey or self-indulgent terms.) As Nicola Williams concisely puts it: “I think I love myself in ways that I shouldn’t and don’t love myself in ways that I should!”

With renunciation, we love ourselves properly for the first time, wishing actual happiness for ourselves through overcoming the delusions including self-cherishing. Self-cherishing wishes for the pretend happiness that Buddha called “changing suffering”, simply satisfying the desires of our ego-driven attachment as in scratching an itch instead of getting rid of it. Mark Thompson says: “I think self-love really means the mind of renunciation. If we understand our natural wish to be happy, and we understand that in samsara there is no true happiness and only suffering, we will develop the wish for liberation.”

universal love

And when we hear the Mahayana teachings, we come to understand that the best way to find daily and lasting happiness for ourselves is to love others even more than we love ourselves. No contradiction. We still love ourselves, we just love others even more. You could say that loving others is an advanced form of loving ourselves! It is a win win, as far as I can see.

Unhappy people cannot help others anyway. (If we try to, we often end up just spreading our own upset and anxiety.)  So for others’ sake we have to wish to be authentically happy and allow ourselves to be happy at every possible opportunity. That is love. Self-love even! So, though I don’t use that word often, I have no problem with it.

Facebook insights

Read on for insightful comments on the subject from Facebook friends:

Here is what Tim Larcombe said most clearly in response to the question “Do you love yourself?”:

Do I love myself? No, but I’m working on the first step – learning to like myself. Not liking yourself is the dirtiest trick of the self-cherishing mind. This mind says “you’re not good enough, you’re not worth much, you’re limited and stuck – but don’t worry, I’ll help you cover it up and get what you want anyway. Just trust me”. Then like a pusher with a junkie, we are held hostage by self-cherishing, thinking that we are not good enough and must obey its every word to survive with, and hide, our faults. Believing we have to trust self-cherishing leads to untold harm for ourself and everyone else.

Liking yourself on the other hand encourages you to identify with your pure nature and unlimited potential. It’s perfectly possible to fully accept yourself and recognise your faults without identifying with them. And if you know some Dharma then you can reduce and finally eliminate them – which is an act of self-love that benefits everyone. The degree to which you can accept and like yourself, is the degree to which you can accept and like others. I can’t see how it can be otherwise, no matter how good we become at covering up the fact that we don’t like ourselves.

Gradually self-liking can develop into self-love. Loving yourself is wanting yourself to be happy. As long as you don’t view your happiness as more important than others’ happiness (as self-cherishing tells you), there is nothing wrong with loving yourself. You CAN love yourself and cherish others at the same time. They are not contradictory. In fact, cherishing others IS self-love because all happiness comes from cherishing others….

… It’s also helpful to remember that our Spiritual Guide finds us worthy of his unconditional love. If we don’t love ourself, aren’t we saying that he’s mistaken? :-)”

I can’t put it any better than that! Thanks Tim.

Eileen Quinn makes some great points too:

“Strange how so many of us find it hard to accept happiness for ourselves.

And having a strong not liking oneself problem is ‘inverted ego’ anyway. Too much grasping/cherishing of self. That’s not a morally judgmental statement in any way because I know this from experience. I think some people are naturally blighted with this sort of thing and some people aren’t and don’t have to try so hard. (Black and white, there are probably shades of grey in between.) So in my better, more connected, moments, I try to turn to the Great Mother Prajnaparamita and use the emptiness mantra to attack this big black spider of self as that will solve all problems….

… ‘Self-love’ to me can even be a form of humility (our self is seen as the same as everyone else’s, no better, no worse, therefore no exaggeration of ego for want of a better way of putting it), far from being the same as self-cherishing.”

Over to you: Do you love yourself?! How many times a day do you give yourself permission to be totally, utterly happy?! Please go ahead and explain why you agree or disagree with all this in the comments, I love a good discussion.

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What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?!

As quoted in this previous article, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that if we have some experience of emptiness:

Geshe Kelsang at Madhymaka Centre, early 1980s

“Everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.”

Countless meditators before us have had this experience and there seems to be no reason to think that Buddha or our kind teachers are just making this up. Once we’ve had teachings on emptiness, we do generally get the sense that it is the answer to all our problems, don’t we? Also, while compassion is arising strongly it is a major motivator for realizing emptiness, as I saw when looking after Ralph the kitten.

So my question is, “Why don’t we just go for it?”

A lot of you answered this question on the previous article, thank you.

Samsara or freedom?

I think the major reason we don’t go for it in earnest — a reason even underlying our other reasons and sabotaging our compassion — is because we are attached to inherently existent things. We don’t particularly like the idea of our house, for example, being burnt up in the fire of exalted wisdom. We’ve worked years for that house and we really quite like it! We need it! We want it to be real. Not to mention our partner, our children, our enjoyments, our vacation, our money… Have you ever lost your wallet? This is a very significant absence. We don’t like it. Why would we want to meditate on the absence of inherent existence of our wallet and everything else?!

“Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”

In the first Matrix movie, Cypher wants to return to the unreal world of false appearances because he is attached to it. Cutting up a juicy steak in a restaurant in the Matrix (of mistaken appearance) with Agent Smith (self-grasping ignorance), he ruminates that he knows the steak is merely the simulation telling his brain that it is delicious and juicy, but after nine years he has discovered that “ignorance is bliss.” He strikes a deal with the enemy Agent Smith because he wants to be rich and powerful, “an actor” maybe.

Years ago I saw a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk entered a dream-like world. He knew he was dreaming and he had control over his dream, but he didn’t like it. He spent the whole episode trying to get back to “real” life. He could not enjoy the creative freedom of being able to make up his own world, and the movie supported his view that it is better if things are solidly real.

And I’ve often wondered why brilliant Western scientists who have delved into quantum physics for a lifetime haven’t realized emptiness directly. (I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that most haven’t). They seem so close — they have almost entirely de-constructed an objective world. But they haven’t got to the point of acknowledging that, no matter how much money they spend on particle accelerators blowing tinier and tinier things up, they will never find the ultimate constituent of the universe. Why? Because there isn’t one. There is nothing out there, not even the smallest gluon, tachyon, or neutrino. Everything is projected by mind (even mind itself).

Granted, this is just my theory, but I think they’ll keep looking because they are attached to an inherently or objectively existent universe. They don’t want to dismantle it entirely because they’re attached to it being real. (Their assumption is also part of the Western creator view of a first beginning and a final end, but that’s another story.)

Buddha’s teachings are so clear on the subject – I think it could be easier and quicker to realize emptiness than spend a lifetime becoming an expert in quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes and so on! Yogis — who are experts in the field of the mind and of emptiness — are free and blissful all the time. Therefore, Buddha is not just positing a theory, for what he says has worked in practice for millenia to free the mind. Scientists, on the other hand, are as brainy as can be, but are also as neurotic as the rest of us.

We need renunciation, the mind of liberation

Buddha said that a pre-requisite for realizing emptiness directly is the non-attachment of renunciation. That is the only way we can enter a supramundane spiritual path – without at least renunciation we will remain trapped in samsara indefinitely. Some people wonder why we need renunciation – why, if we are intelligent, can’t we realize emptiness first and then develop aversion for samsara?! After all, the teachings on emptiness can seem more fun to begin with.

However, I think this is only because we’re not clear what it is we are actually renouncing. Yes, we are renouncing the places, enjoyments and bodies of samsara, but this is because we apprehend them as inherently existent. What we are actually renouncing is the ignorance in our minds.

We are renouncing, or wishing to give up, our self-grasping ignorance apprehending inherent existence because we know that it is the source of all our other delusions such as anger and attachment, and of all our suffering. If we are renouncing the mind of ignorance, we are also renouncing the object of that mind – inherently existent things. We want neither the conception nor the appearance of inherent existence any more, whatever these are associated with – nice things or nasty things. That is real renunciation, it seems to me.

And it is the minimum motivation we need for realizing emptiness. With it, we are delighted to spend time in emptiness, dissolving mistaken appearances away. Without it, we are at best half-hearted. And we just want to go lay on the real beach, followed by a real juicy steak, and a movie.

nobody can make us happy...

Unless we start developing some non-attachment for inherent existence, we’ll be lucky just to get glimpses of the possibilities of the spiritual path. Through blessings and/or good karmic imprints, we may have one or two good meditation sessions — letting go and abiding in a peace we’ve never experienced the like of before. But then due to our habitual attachment we will allow ourself to cling again to inherent existence, thinking of it as innocuous or even desirable.

Do you agree? (Especially the scientists among you who are reading this?!)