Love without pain

broken heart
You can still fly.

Have you ever had a broken heart?

If you could look around at everyone else reading this, you would likely discover that not one of them is replying No to this question. In fact, chances are they have each had no less than five broken hearts, depending on their age and whether my previous random market research (asking people) is anything to go by.

Our hearts are prone to breaking because we have attachment. Attachment doesn’t work. Love always works though, thankfully.

(This article is quite long, almost 10 minutes, as I figured people need all the antidotes to attachment they can get on Valentine’s Day 😆.)

A lovers’ tiff

hipsters breaking upThe other day I was quietly meditating in the park in the setting sun, when I found myself silent witness to a little play enacted in the space between me and the beautiful mountain backdrop.

It was a lovers’ tiff. He walks away with his skateboard, saying, “I don’t know what you effing want from me!”

Not too much it turns out. “I just want a conversation with someone who is not 30 feet away!”

He returns. The discussion continues. “For real?!?” she says, as he walks off again

(To be fair, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop — they had plonked themselves down not 20 feet away …)

“All you effing care about is yourself! You show me no affection! You never give me a call!”

“What am I doing right now?”, he replies.

(I start to wonder if I am watching past scenes of my own life …)

There is a dog with them. I am thinking, admittedly quite randomly, that if that dog starts choking, their spat will quickly be over — for they will both be more concerned with someone else. Cherishing others always restores our perspective.

Ah, is this a happy ending anyway? He seems to be hugging her. I am wishing them and everyone else to be free from attachment and aversion. The dog, another silent witness to these antics, is trying to nuzzle her too. They will last another day. Except that now she is crying.

Troubles like this will be even more numerous today because expectations (aka “premeditated resentments”) are even higher than usual. Apparently both suicides and homicides increase on Valentine’s Day.

What is happiness?

happiness within 2We have been turning to attachment for our happiness since beginningless time. It is a bad old habit and, because it is associated with changing suffering, ie, fleeting pleasant feelings or, as Geshe Kelsang puts it “artificial happiness”, it is usually a harder habit to break than, say, anger, because anger is associated with unpleasant feelings, which we already know we don’t like.

To be convinced that attachment doesn’t work, we need our own deepening experience that happiness is a state of our mind, and that it doesn’t inhere in anything outside our mind. The more peaceful and positive our mind, and the less deluded it is, the happier we become. This is explained all over the place, including in this article.

Attachment searches outside where happiness cannot be found. But peace connects us to our inner source of limitless happiness.

We don’t need attachment to be happy. Not at all. And all it does is block us from seeking the actual sources of happiness and freedom.

Where to put a sofa in a burning house?

sofa in a burning house

We also need the bigger context for understanding what’s wrong with attachment. Namely, the wisdom of renunciation, understanding that there can be no pure happiness to be found in an impure life — a life characterized by the impure minds of self-grasping, attachment, and other delusions. Without the larger picture of renunciation, which wishes for complete freedom, we will continually fall for samsara’s pleasures … “Yeah, I know samsara sucks overall, but this next relationship/vacation/drink/surf etc is going to be an exception to the rule, I just know it! … ”

Thinking of samsara as a pleasure garden, as opposed to a prison, it is very hard to stop trying to make attachments work. How can we stop getting caught up in that addictive cycle of dopamine hits for one object of attachment after another if we think that’s all there is on offer?

Kadam Morten once asked, “Where should we put a sofa in a burning house?” It is a brilliant illustration of trying to make samsara work. We cannot get our existential security from partners, friends, and family. It is not possible to make a real world work because a real world doesn’t exist (more on that below).

sofa in a burning house 2If we understand that happiness is an inside job, and that samsara will never work, we are ready for the essential practice of transforming our enjoyments into the quick path to enlightenment, as explained a bit here. In short, we mix the pleasure or bliss with the true nature of reality, and in this way destroy our attachment and all other delusions.

To transform enjoyments, we also need compassion – we can’t do it out of selfishness. I love the new verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra on page 104. But I’ll talk more about that another day.

Virtual reality

To overcome attachment, we need to know what it is doing, ie, sucking us into a “real” world. Here is the definition of attachment:

A deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 113

“Contaminated” means by ignorance, so the object appears real, existing from its own side; and because it appears attractive due to some karma ripening, we feel it causes happiness from its own side too. So it is no wonder we wish for it, get absorbed into it, like oil into cloth. (For a story line of how attachment develops, you could check out this article.)

virtual reality same game for a while
In the same game for a while.

We project people in a certain ideal or at least desirable (for us) way, and then want or even expect them to live up to that. We hold out that they’ll change in the direction we want them to, but this is not realistic.

Have you ever watched someone wandering around in those virtual reality glasses? To people who are not in the same game as them, they seem to be floundering around foolishly. This is analogous to having the mental projection of a GF or BF who is no longer in the same game as us, but we haven’t quite realized or accepted that. Vainly trying to get ovirtual realityur own projection to cooperate, to love us again, neither the ex nor anyone else really knows why we keep at it: “Get over it already! Take those glasses off!”

Can’t fix the fixed

If we get all confused when relationships don’t work out, it’s because we are relating to and/or trying to fix something inherently existent.

To our self-grasping minds, including attachment, things appear to be inherently existent, or independent – existing in and of themselves, findable — and we grasp at them as such. But inherently existent objects can never change, however much we want them to. If something changes, it means it is dependent on causes, not INdependent.

Fixing or changing someone at the same time as holding them to be inherently existent is therefore a contradiction. If we have attachment grasping at someone as inherently desirable but upsetting us, for example, then upsetting they will have to stay. That upset thought can never ever get rid of its inherently existent object. The only way to get rid of the upsetting person is to get rid of the upset thought itself. To move on, as they say, to other thoughts.

samsara

We can tell that things are not inherently existent sources of pleasure or suffering by thinking about how our perceptions and memories change entirely when the relationship ends. The scent that drove us crazy with desire now drives us crazy with heartache. The memory of the touch of skin that we so loved and fantasized about now torments us.

I had a conversation with someone recently who had just broken up with her boyfriend. She told me, “I thought he’d change, and we would go on proper dates and he’d cook for me as he had promised.” (Yep, more scenes from my own life.) “And that he wouldn’t just sit around and play video games and smoke weed. But he didn’t want to change. Five years later, I am out of here. I was also attached to the idea that I needed him for my spiritual practice. I feel real relief. Some sadness too, but it is motivating.”

Breakups can be so useful – they make us turn for refuge to an actual source of happiness. They also help us empathize with everyone else who is lugging around the heavy burden of attachment, engendering a genuine wish for them to find lasting happiness from within.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with relationships per se. Indeed, we are in relationship with everyone. We have different karmic connections and sometimes we find people attractive. Attachment is associated primarily with romantic relationships, maybe because we are in the habit of romanticizing or validating attachment in that context. However, attachment comes up in most of our relationships, eg, with friends and children and pets.

The problems are not outside our mind. The point is, as always, that we need Dharma whether we are in a relationship or not. Whether single or coupled up, we equally need to identify the attachments and aversions in our mind and transcend these. The grass won’t turn out to be greener anywhere else if we don’t have Dharma in our hearts.

Love is the answer

love v attachment(I read somewhere that women always expect men to change and men never expect women to change. Not sure if that is a Dharma sentiment, but does it have a ring of truth?!)

Reminds me of another anecdote – a conversation I had with two elder women around Christmas-time. One was asking me, “How can I have love for my husband?! He just sits around all day. He turns the TV on first thing in the morning, it is driving me mad. It was okay when we both went to work, but now he is really boring.” The other woman agreed, wryly observing that her similar situation was reminding her of the grumpy old man syndrome and a recent (rather cruel and no doubt out of context) headline: “Women are happier when their husbands have died.”

Kind of goes to show that even if we do manage to sustain a relatively long-lasting relationship, till death us do part, it is still not a guaranteed bed of roses.

Relationships per se are not a pain in the butt. After all, as mentioned, we are related to everyone one way or another. But attachment is.

snowflake sweaterI suggested (jokingly) that she bought her husband a Christmas sweater embroidered: “I am a snowflake”. (Maybe you had to be there …) But the idea was that it would remind her that she needs not to fixate on him/this situation, but instead spread her love wider to all living beings, who are each equally interconnected with us, fragile, impermanent, and precious. That perspective will reduce her attachment wanting her husband to be different AND her irritation that he is not.

For more on how love overcomes attachment, check out Choose love and Love, attachment, and desire according to Buddhism.

Contemplate the dream-like nature of your world

Rather than projecting stuff “out there” with our attachment and then falling victim to our own thoughts, it is immensely helpful to remember that everything is the nature of our mind, like a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

biocentrismAlthough the objects and the minds that perceive them arise simultaneously, we have mistaken appearances of the objects as existing external to our mind, and we grasp them as existing in this way. Since we grasp at the objects as existing externally, we develop desirous attachment for those that seem attractive.

In this recent biocentrism article, the modern scientist Dr. Lanza seems to be catching up to Buddha’s 2500-year-old view:

Most people believe that there’s an independent physical universe “out there” that has nothing to do with our awareness of it.  This seeming truth persisted without much dissent until the birth of quantum mechanics. Only then did a credible science voice appear, which resonated with those who claimed that the universe does not seem to exist without a perceiver of that universe.

Another thing about dreams is that they come to an end. As Buddha put it,

In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end.

Since beginningless time, we have been attached to everyone. I mean, literally, everyone. Countless dreams, all vanished. How do we decide which ones are worth holding onto?

We must learn to create our own pure dream, one that we have full control over. And this we can do, if we take advantage of Buddha’s Sutra and Tantra teachings.

Over to you – what has helped you the most to overcome strong attachments? Any stories to share?

Lots more Valentine’s Day reading 💝

Want better relationships?

How to mend a broken heart

Happiness is here right now

Love, attachment, and desire

Falling in love again

Love free from attachment 

The art of letting go

 

Addicted to social media?!

A term for Buddhist is “inner being” because, theoretically at least, we have decided to seek happiness from within rather than from without.

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resWe are making a shift from trying to solve problems in our body and mind outside our body and mind to solving the problems of our body, and especially our mind (because all our problems come from there), inside the mind. And that basic shift in emphasis, or change of direction, is what I would say makes someone a Buddhist, or inner being.

Changing direction

An inner being can have a job, take showers, bring up families, help society, and all the rest of it. But their interest is in developing their minds, increasing their capacity for freedom and happiness from within. Realizing their inner potential or Buddha nature, inner beings are interested in getting rid of all the delusions, limitations, and sufferings from their mind, and helping others do the same.

For this we need renunciation, understanding the faults and pitfalls of samsara. For without renunciation, despite any amount of intellectual understanding of Dharma, we have an overwhelming need to grab our happiness and solve our problems “out there.” This is even when part of us knows — full well really — that it is not working. “Let me just send one more text! Let me try once more to change their view of me! Let me just tell this person what I think of them, they need to know …”

The eight worldly concerns

8 worldly concernsWorldly beings have what are called the “eight worldly concerns“, where we are overly interested in garnering praise while avoiding criticism, trying to make people like and admire us rather than dismissing us, getting hold of material stuff while avoiding loss, seeking one pleasure after another while avoiding the slightest unhappiness. We’re all at it!

But an inner being knows that this is a bit like drinking saltwater to quench our thirst – the most we can ever get is a little short-lived relief. One of Gen Losang‘s sayings used to be (maybe still is): “Leave the object alone.” Point being, we don’t need to keep chewing on the objects of our desires or our problems, trying or wishing to make them change or cooperate. If we know how to change our thoughts through Dharma, these problems automatically disappear and our desires for happiness are automatically satiated, all without the object having to do anything from its own side.

It is such a relief to know this. It puts us back in control of our own moods, rather than being like a puppet on the strings of someone else’s behavior or random inpenetrable thoughts. An object of unrequited attachment can become an object of renunciation or compassion, for example. An object of jealousy can become an object of rejoicing or of wisdom. With Dharma, we get to choose. We can go through the day happy rather than sad. We are free. maxresdefault

Renunciation for mistaken appearances

Dharma, as you may have noticed, goes deep. Bottom line is that we need renunciation for self-grasping ignorance AND for all mistaken appearances, that is, things appearing to exist dualistically, outside our mind. As we request in this prayer in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

I request you … liberate me from dualistic appearance. ~ page 72.

This renunciation may take a while because we have the habitual tug of attachment to the things outside our mind that we like and aversion to the things outside our mind that we feel are in some way doing us wrong; and we are kind of attached to these delusions themselves, as well as the ignorance that underpins them. We are used to employing them to sort out our problems and get what we want. Plus we don’t necessarily want things to be mere appearances to our minds, as explained in this article.

Shadow-Projection-Night-LightBut we come to see over time, by applying this Dharma wisdom to our own experiences, that any mental movement outwards toward a “real” world — a world outside our mind and indeed pretty much outside our control — is subtly painful, and sometimes of course incredibly painful.

Plus, it is grasping at these appearances has kept us trapped in samsara since beginningless time. We have been fighting so hard and so long on behalf of this insubstantial I against all others, with the endless mental push and the pull toward the appearances that seem to harm or help it; and this internal struggle has caused us nothing but bad karma and pain.

The pain we feel as we wander around does not inhere in the object, as it appears to, but in the way we are holding the object. Even allowing our thoughts and their objects to settle via simple breathing meditation helps this dualistic appearance dissolve so we find ourselves experiencing a natural inner peace. And if we take it further — to switch attachment out for love, say — the pain we were so convinced came from the object goes away and stays away. Both the mind and its object have changed simultaneously, co-dependently. This is because, as Geshe Kelsang explains in the Mahamudra teachings, objects are not outside the mind. Subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from the ocean of the root mind, like waves. 

The pitfalls of social media

Maybe because retreat season is coming up for Kadampa Centers everywhere, which means that a lot of people might be switching off their Smartphones for awhile, I was thinking today of Facebook and other social media as a classic example of fleeting insubstantial mistaken appearances that have sucked us all (me) in, engendering the eight worldly concerns.

And then this article appeared, with Facebook itself acknowledging that social media use can be bad for users’ mental health, a sign the company is feeling pressure from a growing chorus of critics raising alarms about the platform’s effect on society.

before-facebookSo many of us these days are hopelessly addicted to the push and pull of social media, feverishly logging in to see what we have missed and whether other people (especially those we currently have a thing for) liked our posts. We can get into Facebook surveillance, aka stalking too, which this study discovers is (not surprisingly) a major impediment to moving on with our lives.

Social media can seem so innocent, partly as everyone is doing it, and partly as it does have a good quality of conveniently connecting us to others when it is working well. Or, rather, when we are working well, such as when we’re not consumed with insecurity, attachment, FOMO, and when we genuinely want to bring some happiness to those we interact with.

Social media has its uses, for sure. Social media has allowed me to write this blog and reach people, for example, all over the world. Simple and easy communication even across the globe is also a result of good karma, as opposed to this environmental effect that comes from the action of divisive speech:

Since divisive speech makes smooth and harmonious relationships between people difficult and painful, we have to inhabit a hard and inhospitable environment where communications are difficult to establish. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune, p 250

Electronic communication also creates a more level playing field for all parties to get involved regardless of their gender, age, race, social standing, and education.

But attachment to it is painful and frustrating, just like any attachment, and it can b0bf5c9a73b9d34a1919e55e1d9e5091dominate our waking hours if we’re not careful. It’s hard to get much done if we are constantly scratching the itch — “I’ll just check my Facebook feed before I start this …” — and then we feel cheated and bad about our unproductive days.

Can I control my mind, switch off, go deep each day? Can I drop all thoughts? Our motivation may be to help others, but we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own, as Atisha put it. That entails the ability to concentrate. And concentration is about staying on one object, as stable as Mount Meru. Surfing the internet is about perpetual motion. Can we reconcile the two?

I have fallen prey to the lure of social media from time to time. I find that although I really appreciate the ease of communication we can have these days with people all over the world, I don’t like having a dependency. So I try to resist the urge to passively read everything, and limit the amount of time I spend online. I am currently watching my mind to see how often I have the urge to scratch that itch of wanting to check my feed/texts/gmail/etc, even when I am in the middle of a perfectly nice moment. It is challenging at first, but if we stop scratching itches, they go away. How long is that going to take?! I will let you know. You can let me know too, if you try something similar 😁

Going cold turkey can also be a very good idea and useful way to see where we’re at, especially during retreat season. Just sayin’.tweeting

As it says in this article:

The Social Network is an amazing phenomenon, an amazing opportunity to see the truth of interdependence, that none of our lives occur in an isolated vacuum. Social networking is also, possibly, the most widespread addiction on our planet right now, sucking billions of hours we’ll never get back again.

Studies I have read indicate, amongst other signs of our collective addiction to screens: kids under the age of eight apparently use screens for 2 hours a day; preteens and teens for an average of 7.5 hours; and adults for an average of 8.5 hours a day. We tend to check our phones 150 times a day. 150 times!!! In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in 4 people check their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” Some of those services we use on our phones have become more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes, and make us feel worse about ourselves, even when we use them. Not to mention, when we use them at night, the light from our screens can ruin our sleep.Funny facebook addiction image pics

 

A poem

Here is a poem written by HT, a London musician and Kadampa Buddhist, that sums up some of this pain of attachment:

When you’re scrolling on your phone and you’re all alone
What are you looking for?
When you’re browsing online and you’re clicking one more time
What are you searching for?
There’s a hole in your heart from which you’re never apart
Which reminds you that you’re in need
There’s a crack in your smile that’s been buried for a while
In the place where no one else can see

When you’re opening the fridge choosing something rich
What are you looking for?
When you pour another drink before you’re over the brink
What are you searching for?
There’s a pull from a place that has never seen grace
And lures you into desolate land
There’s a voice in your head that keeps you up in bed
And mocks that nothing is going to plan

When you’re staying up late and your desire escalates
What are you waiting for?
When your body’s in a mess and you struggle to get dressed
What are you living for?
There’s a hole in your life full of struggle and strife
Which makes you question every step of the way
There’s a void in your mind which lingers behind
Every action and each word that you say

When you’re out in the street seeking someone to meet
What are you looking for?
When you’re trying to catch the eye of the people passing by
What are you searching for?
There’s a perpetual wish that can never be fixed
For an end to the bittersweet quest
There’s a dream of a world and a forever girl
Who can finally let you rest

But what you don’t see is that you have everything you need
Right now, in this moment, in your heart
If you recognise this truth then you will have no use
Of seeking that from which you must part
The river flows on, and yet it never was:
You can’t step in the same river twice
So surrender to the peace that will only increase
And that never comes to you at a price

What are you seeking, what are you wanting,
What are you searching for?
You have it all within you, waiting to be realised
So, come on in: you can close the door.

Another friend, CB, who is, incidentally, a highly successful public speaker and all-around lovely guy, posted this poem on Facebook (ironically!), with a photo and explanation:

25348470_10100273660399432_4598317039153268998_n

“How I feel late at night after just a few minutes on Facebook comparing myself to others. Judging my insides by other people’s outsides. “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” (the Desiderata)

My dear brother HT has articulated the absurdity and danger of social media beautifully in this poem. What happens when we forget how to be happy without the approval of others?”

As modern Buddhists, inner beings, we want to learn to transform everything into the spiritual path. We are living at a time when everything could distract us and addict us, or we could learn somehow to transform it to our advantage. My question is, given that this technology is not going away, how can we get on board while understanding it is a tool, not a refuge? The answer to this seems crucial if we are to find inner peace and liberation.

Over to you. Comments, insights, all help welcome 😄

A Bodhisattva’s way of life

Who around here couldn’t use some support? So I wanted to say a bit more about the different levels on which we can help others, following on from this article about the swamp of samsara.

Dharma in daily lifeThe way I see it is that we need to do stuff everyday, anyway, and — whatever it is we do — why not make it really count by doing it motivated by renunciation for the suffering yet unreal nature of samsara? (Our motivations determine the outcome of our actions, or karma.)

With renunciation like this, we won’t get heavy-hearted or anxious. Why? Because we have given up on our attachment to things working out in this swamp of samsara, and therefore each day we have nothing to lose. We just need to try, not worry. This swamp may have a shallow end, where people can stand, and a deep end, where people are drowning; but it is all basically swampish. Luckily, this swamp is also just mere imputation or label of mind, which means that when we transform our minds through wisdom, it will disappear, Poof!, like last night’s dream.

So, with renunciation on others’ behalf (aka compassion), we can help in whatever way we think of, on different levels. Nothing is too small or too trivial – any more than helping someone to tread an inch to the right, avoid the snapping teeth, or find a stepping stone is trivial if they are scared or drowning. It is not the final answer to this person’s problems, but it is still important to them and therefore to us. In the same way, we can give people the necessities of food, shelter, medicine, & protection, work toward a fairer and more humane society, and so on.

The six perfections

The Bodhisattva is the Mahayana Buddhist role model, and a better role model would be hard to find.

He or she trains in the so-called “six perfections” – giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration/meditation, and wisdom.

giving

These six practices are called “perfections” because they are motivated by the mind of enlightenment, aka bodhichitta, which is the wish to realize our potential for enlightenment so that we can lead all living beings without exception to that state of lasting happiness.

In other words, we want to wake ourselves up from the hallucinations of samsara, become an “Awakened One” aka “Buddha”, so that we can go about waking everyone else up too.

The Bodhisattva’s aim is therefore two-fold: (1) to help others as much as possible both practically and spiritually right now, and (2) to get daily closer to the inner light of omniscience, with its power to bless each and every being every day, so we can free them all for good.

The first three perfections, largely applicable to our daily actions, lend themselves to helping people navigate their way to safety, to the shallow end as it were; albeit still submerged for now in the swamp of samsara. All the while we can be motivated by the wish to get them onto the dry land of liberation, where they are forever safe from suffering.

Giving

giving is livingGiving (or, really, giving back) includes giving material things AND giving Dharma teachings or advice. We can help people at work — and with our work — in any way that seems suitable, sometimes with material help to improve individual or societal well being, and sometimes with non-judgmental skillful advice that people can use to transform their thoughts.

Buddha’s teachings are divided into wisdom teachings, which are basically his teachings on emptiness, and method teachings, which are basically everything else. We can start using both to help others.

Method teachings

For example, with Buddha’s advice on interdependence, we can show how we could all better navigate this swamp by mending our fractured society of small, selfish, isolated Me’s by joining up in caring, cooperative, connected teams of We instead.

Or we could explain how not to mistake other people for their delusions, but see them as victims of their confusion and anger etc., just as we are, and so stay loving and patient.

connectionWe could also encourage people to witness and take refuge in their own and others’ good hearts and pure, peaceful minds. Knowing that we all have immense spiritual depth and potential, we can help others identify with that rather than their false, limited, suffering sense of self.

We can demonstrate with our own example how changing direction to go inwards for peace is not a selfish escape, but paradoxically connecting us more more and more deeply with everyone else “out there”.

Wisdom teachings

It seems to me as though the method teachings are the way to get people to the shallow end of samsara’s vast swamp, where they at least have their heads above water. But the only way to lift them out of the swamp altogether is with Buddha’s wisdom teachings. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:

Because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure.

All the time we are practicing giving and the other perfections, we know in our heart that we are trying to get people to a place where they can realize it is all just the impure dream of an impure mind. This way, they can wake up and create a world of their own choosing out of the bliss and emptiness of their Buddhism in society 2own purified mind. And then they can pull everyone out onto dry land as well.

By the way, we don’t have to sit on a throne to give good advice. We don’t have to be a Dharma millionaire yet, either, as Geshe Kelsang once put it – we just need a few spare dollars in our pocket. Any Dharma we have, we can give, and we will never run out. We don’t have to use Dharma terminology, of course. We can use the language that works for whoever we are talking to. We can use the language of the heart.

We can also give fearlessness, time, attention, and love. Even — or sometimes especially — our practice of meditation is giving others fearlessness and love, holding the space for them. There is a beautiful video that seems to demonstrate this … check out the brief footage of our Kadampa nun in Mexico 😊

And I think we can do all this giving without judgment, as explained for example in this article about giving unconditionally to homeless people, though that might be a subject for another day.

We are really learning to give of ourselves, to let go of keeping ourselves to ourselves, staying small and poky. Giving is a big beautiful shining open-hearted practice that brings real joy to our own and others’ lives.

More on the other perfections and related practical advice in the next article …

Related articles

The gift that keeps on giving

First you, then me ~ the Bodhisattva’s attitude

To the rescue!

Just passin’ through

To the rescue!

While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:

In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.” 

wisdom

What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.

To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.

Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.

“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.

If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.

For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)

The swamp

Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.

alligator in swampImagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.

The need for renunciation

In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.

dystopia

Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.

If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.

The need for wisdom

We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.

Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.

With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”

Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.

Tread here!

swampWhat we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.

Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:

“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”

We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.

IMG_2080

We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.

Calm the waters

I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:

The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.

Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …IMG_2085

If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”

A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details. 

What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around. 

As always, your comments are welcome below.

Related articles

Renunciation 

Change your future by changing your mind

How to help on different levels

Developing confidence

 

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 (Ed: oops, spoke too soon 😦 ); 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. Not to mention that the “self” in self-cherishing refers to the self we normally see, the self that doesn’t exist, so it is pointless cherishing it.

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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