This too shall pass

Our guest author is a single parent and a professional based in London, UK.

this too shall pass

When my husband and I first met we had a lot in common — mutual friends, common interests, same sense of humour, we laughed all the time at the silliest of things — but I clearly remember the moment when we really connected, like I had never connected with anyone before. It was when we both admitted that we had often in our lives seriously contemplated suicide.

If any of our mutual friends had been present at that conversation they would undoubtedly have been deeply shocked, as externally neither he nor I showed any signs of having such thoughts. It was at this point that our relationship moved on to a much more committed level, as though we had shared our darkest secret and still been accepted by the other. Not long afterwards we were married, and soon there was a baby on the way.

You see we were not without hope, we still thought we could ‘get it right’; but at times we just couldn’t work out what the purpose was in life and why we couldn’t make life turn out the way we wanted. I think we both had a sense that we were somehow ‘owed’ happiness but someone ‘up there’ didn’t seem to have got that memo; instead our lives had been complicated and painful, very painful.

When we married, the UK was in the middle of the economic crisis of the late 80s. As mortgage rates soared, my husband’s business disintegrated and finally collapsed, and we faced a mountain of debts as well as the understanding we would have to move out of our lovely home. One night, having gone to bed before my husband after what I thought had been a positive discussion of plans for our future, I was woken by a continuous ringing on our doorbell.

The two policemen informed me that my husband had been killed by a train — a train that he was kneeling in front of as it came around the corner. Our daughter was seventeen months old.

crunkled manThis story is shocking I know, but not unusual. All those statistics about suicide are about people like you and me. All those deaths devastate the lives of the people left behind, people like you and me.

I thought I had known pain before, but it was nothing like this — so powerful that my mind would turn to stone to protect me, or I would find myself gasping for breath, feeling that the pain would, in fact, kill me.

Everything changes

The recovery was very long, many years, with good times when everyone thought I was ‘over it’, followed by deep, dark troughs of grief and confusion. But significant things happened along the way. The first came two weeks after his death when I took my daughter to the park on a beautiful, sunny, spring morning. She laughed, the sun shone, the crocus bulbs bloomed, and I realised he would never see any of these things again: no changes in the seasons, no child growing into the beautiful young woman she is now, no opportunity for the sadness and confusion to heal and happiness to arise again.

In that moment I realised that ‘everything changes’ and that, no matter how terrible things may seem, they will change. ‘This too shall pass.’ In that moment I decided that no matter how bad things seemed I would stay for my daughter, that I no longer had the choice my husband had taken, that she needed me and I would live my life for her. crocuses in snow

People would say to me, ‘It must be so much harder for you with a child to look after,’ and I would think, ‘She is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.’ This is how compassion and love work. By thinking of her and wanting her to be happy, by wanting to protect her, I was no longer paralysed by my grief. My love for her took me away from my pain.

Wherever you go, there you are

I am sorry if the next few paragraphs are a bit ‘out there’ for some of you. I am in general a very practical Dharma practitioner, not ‘airy fairy’. I believe Buddha’s teachings are scientific; if you create the causes the effects will happen, and Buddha teaches us how to create the best possible effects. However, the following ‘out there’ things did happen, and I am telling you about them in the hope it will help others.

A couple of years after my husband died I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching job in the Bahamas (I know!). Such idyllic conditions for myself and my daughter, good friends, great job, beautiful beaches with white sand and sapphire seas, and an incredible social life with millionaires and rock stars. And yet one day I found myself sitting on a beach feeling the familiar crushing sense of despair. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Apart from the joy of my daughter, I could not find a happiness that wasn’t superficial and short lived; everything led me back to pain.

BahamasI was sitting on the silky, white sand, looking at the jewel-like sea, knowing I couldn’t die but not knowing how I could find the energy, or wish, to go on. Then, as clearly as if the person was standing right over me, I heard:

‘I will always take care of you.’

I quickly turned but there was no one there. I even stood up to look all around — no one. I just knew in my heart that what they said was true, that I would be alright; and I went home and booked us on a flight back to England.

A reunion

Over the coming years I found myself moving quite a lot and not finding what I was looking for – difference being that I now had a sense that there was something to look for. I wanted to find the source of the voice. I ended up in Brighton, and in the local paper I saw a photo of the teacher at the newly opened Bodhisattva Centre. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but immediately had an overwhelming sense that I knew this teacher very well, that I loved him dearly. It was like finding a long-lost brother. I had to go to the class. The feeling of knowing him never left me but, out of shyness, I never spoke to him. It seems like he was one of the lamps to the path.

Bodhisattva Centre
Bodhisattva Centre, Brighton

I loved the statues in the Centre, the prayers, but I particularly loved the practical nature of the teachings. To be told that samsara was the nature of suffering but that a spiritual path could take us out of it was such a relief for me. After attending classes for a few years, I was persuaded to attend the Festival in Portugal for Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s last teachings. The best two weeks of my life, I spent most of it crying with joy. I was home.

A protector

While I was there I noticed a young mum with a little girl in the video link tent who seemed to be without help, so I offered to look after the child the next day so that she could go into the temple itself. The girl slept as I held her and, looking down at her, she seemed just the same as my daughter in the weeks after my husband’s death. The same warmth against my skin, the same weight in my arms, the same peaceful sleeping expression and soft curling hair — it was beautiful and painful at the same time.

Later I paused under an ancient tree in the park next to the temple, and the moment I sat and my hand touched the root of the tree, the last years of my life played across my mind like a film. The death, my daughter, the recovery, the beach, the voice, Bodhisattva Centre … all the way through to me sitting under the tree, next to the temple where Venerable Geshe-la was teaching. Then I knew, as clear as day, that Venerable Geshe-la was the source of that voice. He had been guiding me all the way along, gently and imperceptibly leading me to this moment, to this temple, back to him.

i will always be with youSomeone told me not long ago that when their girlfriend met Geshe-la for the first time, he took her hand and told her, ‘I have been taking care of you since you were a little girl.’

‘Yes,’ I thought when I heard that, ‘he was.’ He was looking after her, and me, and indeed all the people who end up meeting him through his centres, books, disciples, and so on. So that even when we thought we were alone and isolated in our suffering, he was blessing us and drawing us closer.

The way out

Now, through meeting him, I understand that in samsara no one is owed happiness and the only happiness we experience is temporary. That instead of seeking death what I was really seeking was renunciation, the desire to get out of samsara channelled in the right direction.

I pray often that people who are having suicidal thoughts and fantasies should come to know renunciation. They are correct that this contaminated life is the nature of suffering, that their own and other people’s suffering is sometimes too painful to bear. travel path to liberationIt’s just that the solution they think they have found is no solution. The escape from the suffering is not death – it is seeking permanent mental freedom for ourselves and others through liberation and enlightenment.

If you are suffering today, please remember that no matter how bad it appears to be now, everything changes. ‘This too shall pass.’ Remember that you are always being taken care of by spiritual guides such as Venerable Geshe-la — he is praying for us and our families. Remember that you will always find the solution if you go for refuge to the Three Jewels.

A request

I would be grateful if after reading this you would turn your thoughts and prayers to those affected by suicide.

I pray that my husband and all those who take their own life find the everlasting peace of enlightenment. May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from misery.

(Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month).

Comments welcome.

Related articles

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out — more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

Do you really want freedom? 

 

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

As I walked around the park today in a breezy high-skied sunset, so glad to be alive, even more alive than usual, the thoughts going around in my mind were, “Denis, you are missing all this.”Sunset in Cheesman Park

In the past year, two people close to me have committed suicide – one a friend and one a family member. It is not unlikely that two people you know of have as well. Suicide has increased 28% in the past twenty years. As William Falk, editor of The Week, says in this thoughtful article:

Every year, about 45,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. — twice as many as are killed in homicides. Each of these deaths has its own circumstances, but as Kirsten Powers says this week in USA Today, the steadily rising toll of despair tells us “something is wrong with our culture.” Family and community bonds are disintegrating; loneliness is rampant.  

Denis’s suicide brought up a lot of things for a lot of people, including me, so I wanted to share some of the thoughts, just as I wrote them down at the time.

Along with this last widely read article by a Buddhist nun, perhaps these might answer some questions about what Buddhists think about suicide. And hopefully it might help some people who are ever considering it (please don’t, please reach out instead), as well as those who are left behind (everyone else). I will share my thoughts about Denis in dark blue, and intersperse these with other remarks.

Today was a bitter-sweet day. The phone call telling me about the suicide of a friend coincided with witnessing the tenderness of a small girl saying hello for the first time to Delphi, my blind foster cat who is now going to be hers.Ellora and Delphi

Denis, you are now missing all this love. You love animals — your own dog Jake, and those at the shelter where you sometimes volunteered. You love humans — you were a social worker for so long, and gave wise counsel to many Veterans because you understood them.

You are now missing this entire precious human life. You loved Dharma — you have been meditating and studying and volunteering happily for years, despite the recent trouble you reported in controlling your thoughts. What possessed you to throw all this away?

Is suicide a good idea?

The press are being advised not to release details of the recent celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain for fear it will encourage copy-cat suicides. But is this the easy way out?

I don’t believe it is.

Many people believe that when the body disintegrates at death, the continuum of the mind ceases and the mind becomes non-existent, like a candle flame that goes out when all the wax has burned. ~ How to Transform Your Life

suicide is no optionIt is true, many people do profess not to believe in life after death (though, funnily enough, some of these same people ask me to pray when their loved ones die.)

There are even some people who contemplate committing suicide in the hope that if they die their problems and sufferings will end. However, these ideas are completely wrong.

Our body and mind are separate entities, so, although the body disintegrates at death, the continuum of the mind remains unbroken. We can discover for ourselves that mind is a non-physical continuum through learning to meditate on our own mind. There are some articles about that here. We are travelers bound for future lives, so suicide is not a viable option for ending our suffering.

Instead of ceasing, the mind simply leaves the present body and goes to the next life. For ordinary beings, therefore, instead of releasing us from suffering, death only brings new sufferings.

travellersThis is the cycle of suffering called samsara, from which we can and must break free — but not by killing ourselves. 

Not understanding this, many people destroy their precious human life by committing suicide. 

The moment the gun goes off, our consciousness of this life may quickly depart our body; but our consciousness in general does not stop. Our biggest problems are not over — arguably they have just begun. We are quickly thrown into the bardo, or intermediate state, where we will experience many frightening hallucinations. And then we will take uncontrolled rebirth somewhere else — who knows where or with whom or in what body.

There is no escape

And here is a comment left by someone on the last article that indicates the unacceptable risk of a failed suicide attempt as well:

I work in a large trauma hospital and increasingly I’m dealing with suicide on a weekly basis, sometimes twice weekly. Much of my work revolves around supporting families, especially in the initial stages as their loved one comes into the hospital. I’m finding the ‘profile’ no longer fits: my patients are as young as 8 and as old as 86. Children who have hanged themselves, and elderly people, using the gun they bought in their 20s for ‘protection’ as their means of ‘escape.’

hallucinations

But there is no escape; furthermore, when someone attempts to take their life in this way they significantly underestimate the ‘in-between’ of modern medicine. I’m not speaking of the bardo, though it’s likely that sort of experience: but rather the murky grey zone that physicians have to be mindful of, lest their compassion accidentally places themselves in a position that could be argued as ‘assisted suicide.’

Attempting suicide is very risky. Please don’t do it. It’s a far worse idea than you know. Plus, we need you.

A precious human life

To me it seems that you are now in danger of missing everything, everything good. Which seems unbearably sad given how much good was in you and how much good was around you.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

precious human life and suicideAt this time we have found a boat-like human body that can transport us to the island of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood. If, instead of taking advantage of this body, we were to waste it on the meaningless activities of this life, that would be most tragic. It will not be easy to find another opportunity like this in the future. ~ Clear Light of Bliss

 

No magical overnight miracle

Someone who became a Buddhist nun a few years ago wrote to me in response to the last article on suicide

I experienced suicidal ideations from a very young age. My first suicide attempt was at 14, and, although I never tried another serious attempt, the wish to die remained with me through my life, until very recently really. I thought nothing I did mattered, that life was pointless and needless suffering; and at times I didn’t even have a reason, things could be going well and I still wanted to just wake up when it was “all better” (whatever that was).

The meditations on the preciousness of human life and karma kept me alive, I knew I had something rare and, being Buddhist, I believed that even if I did end this life, another one with just as much, if not more, suffering was just around the corner. There was no magical overnight miracle.

One day I just realised that the deep wish to die had passed, that I’d abandoned that habit of mind over time. I simply kept on meditating on Lamrim, tried to practice the instruction, and kept a mind of faith. Now I value this amazing life and in my heart I truly believe everything matters!

Everything changes. We need to hold on until it does.

It can happen so fast. Research reported in The Sacramento Bee on people who survive suicide attempts “indicates that in 70% of cases, less than an hour passes between the idea of killing oneself and the attempt. In 25%, it’s less than five minutes. Most survivors said they deeply regret their attempts, and 90% were alive more than 25 years later. More of these impulsive acts would be survived if guns—the most effective means of self-execution — weren’t so freely available.”

Only six days ago you were out of the woods, we thought, smiling and making plans to meet people. You were beginning to see past your difficulties with hope and faith. Even on Friday, you seemed happy in the morning according to your brother. Maybe you were a bit happy, relieved you had made this decision, or maybe you were acting, who knows.

A few short weeks earlier you had decided — you had even promised me — that you would not kill yourself; this is after all why you had previously committed yourself to the hospital when you had the urge. Why? Because you said you knew it would not help you, that it could land you in a horrible rebirth, that it would destroy the 21-year-old daughter you worship.

suicide caused by delusionsBut then on Friday you went ahead and did it anyway. Your brother agreed to drive you back to your own place as you were feeling so much better — but that was the day you went out to buy a gun. Even though you spent half an hour once telling me how much you hated guns.

Why?

It is beyond heartbreaking when someone kills themselves, awful that they were in so much pain that they felt they had run out of options. But I think it’s important to remember that the suicide was not their fault but the fault of their delusions, and they are not their delusions. It’s important not to judge; if we have delusions too, we are all in this together.

Why did you do it? A new depression? Must have been. Feeling trapped, like those people in the World Trade Center who chose to jump to their deaths rather than face the certain fire. Difference being, there was no certain fire approaching you, and in your wiser moments you knew that “This too would pass”; but on Friday the future must have felt impossible just long enough for you to go through with trying to end it.

Feeling lonely? Yes, you often suffered from that. The loud newly-developed tinnitus and headaches that you hated? Probably, though you had been working on accepting those sufferings, mind over matter, and reported progress. Bad meds or insufficient meds? self-cherishing and suicideQuite possibly, I’m afraid to say, as you told me they’d taken you off some meds cold turkey and you were having trouble getting in to see a psychiatrist at the VA.

But bottom line is that the distorted self-cherishing thoughts demonizing your mind managed to convince you for just long enough that you’d be better off shooting your head off than staying in this beautiful, far safer place, with your Sangha, your family, and your Spiritual Guide — even though you loved us all.

When people kill themselves, it is usually because their wishes were not fulfilled, but this was unbearable to them only because their self-cherishing made them feel that their wishes were the most important thing in the world. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Self-cherishing is a demon. It is insanity. No one in their right minds would kill themselves. As someone just told me in response to hearing this news, “This makes no sense.” Self-cherishing has never made any sense and it is not about to start.

It is not just Buddhists who understand this. When people who have attempted suicide are brought into hospital, they are deemed “not of sound mind”. And for those of us left behind, it is best not to let that moment of insanity define them. As the Buddhist nun puts it so poignantly in this article about her brother: 

Their delusions at that moment were just stronger than the person they really were, and so the delusions won. There is nothing to be afraid of other than our delusions.

This temporary madness is not a reason to dismiss all the good times we shared with them.

faults of self-cherishing and suicideTo me your situation seems like being captured by a murderer who wants to blow your head off. If you are in your right mind, you’re going to try everything to get away from them. But what about when the murderer is your own self-cherishing?!!

Suicide shows how important it is NEVER to identify with our self-cherishing  (or identify other people with theirs), let alone consider it our friend or advisor. It is our worst enemy; it has no function other than to harm us.

You did leave a note asking for Powa — so some forward-thinking wisdom was operating — and some faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; but seemingly not enough. Your considerable wisdom, love, and faith would have been screaming at you, “Please, don’t do this!;” but where were you at the time?

Wake up call for the rest of us

We need to get rid of self-grasping and self-cherishing, not complacently let them live in our hearts. Someone was saying it’s like having the first stages of cancer and thinking, “Ah, it’s not really doing anything at the moment, so I’ll just let it stick around.” Just because our self-cherishing is not telling us to kill ourselves at the moment, or harm others for that matter, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have it in it to do this sooner or later, if we let it stay in our minds.

alternative to suicide

Sometimes even having Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our lives, or some other faith for that matter, is not enough, as Denis’s story demonstrates. To be protected we need to be relying deeply upon them whenever things get rough. We need to be actively letting go of our self-cherishing when it arises, whether that is in the form of loneliness, self-hatred, anxiety, disillusionment, fear, and so on.

Even if we do already like Dharma, we have to get it from our head into our heart to ensure deep refuge and some peace when the storm comes. ‘Cos storms do inevitably come, for all of us. Reliable refuge takes some practice and consistency.

We would never think that because we ate yesterday we do not need to eat today. To maintain a healthy body we need to eat every day, and, similarly, to maintain our knowledge of Dharma and gain realizations we need to read, contemplate, and meditate on Dharma over and over again. ~ Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully

I love and admire Denis, and the tributes coming in for him are testament to what a special, beautiful person he was. But my love for Denis means that I loathe Denis’s self-cherishing for what it has done to him.

Self-cherishing is so sneaky that it can even persuade us we are being noble and doing this for others, so that we are not a burden, for example. There can be a mixed motivation sometimes, there can be some genuine wish to spare others – but I don’t believe that this alone would cause most people to go through with such a painful, frightening, violent act. Especially as it doesn’t take much imagination to see, really, that the people we leave behind are going to be horribly burdened by this act.

suicide prevention lifelineWhen people feel anger at those who have selfishly left them, it is the selfishness itself that is the proper object of the wrath, not the poor person who is its victim. Self-cherishing is self-destructive — let’s be in no doubt about that.

Part Two will appear here in a few days, including thoughts on how we can help suicide victims with transference of consciousness (Powa) and how to cope when someone close to us kills themselves. Till then, I appreciate your comments, stories, and any other feedback that you think might be helpful to other readers. Thank you.

Related articles:

Coming to terms with a brother’s suicide

What is self-cherishing?

Rewriting the story of our lives

Understanding our continuum of consciousness

How to lighten up

8 mins read + a video

meditator

Non-attachment, or renunciation, is a really light and happy mind. Sure, we have to contemplate unpopular subjects like death and misery to arrive at it, but this is bringing us into touch with reality and we are always more peaceful when we are less deluded.

We have to want to develop renunciation and, given that it does involve contemplations that may initially seem scary, it may not be obvious to us why. Surely this is just going to be ruining our fun?!

But it’s the opposite. Buddha is not saying don’t enjoy yourself – he is suggesting that we can enjoy ourselves a great deal more. I hope in this article to help persuade at least some of you that renunciation is not only kind of essential, but also a very inspiring mind to have. You’re gonna love it.

There are two parts to developing renunciation, it seems to me. One is contemplating the sufferings of samsara, including those of our countless past and future lives, so that we understand our true predicament and want out. Then to seal the deal we contemplate that samsara’s pleasures are really not worth sticking around for (as explained already here), so what do you think is keeping us here?!

What is renunciation, again?!

escape-from-prisonLike Buddha and all the other teachers before him, Geshe Kelsang is always saying that renunciation is not wanting to get away from family or our job, etc. That is more likely to be aversion! Nor are we going for the sackcloth and ashes.

Renunciation is not a wish to abandon our family, friends, home, job and so forth, and become like a beggar; rather, it is a mind that functions to stop attachment to worldly pleasures and that seeks liberation from contaminated rebirth. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Within this quote seems to be the 2-part contemplation I mention above – (1) seeking liberation from contaminated rebirth (the endless cycle of sufferings that come from misidentifying ourselves with a meaty body and deluded mind) and (2) stopping attachment to worldly pleasures.

So, first we need to understand our existential situation — how, if we are a samsaric being, we have no choice but to experience sickness, ageing, death, birth again, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, and general dissatisfaction.

Overpowered by attachment to a body?! Try this.

eye ballsThere is even one meditation, not for the faint-hearted, where we imagine the 32 impure substances that constitute our own and/or someone else’s body are separated out into piles (or buckets if that makes less mess 😁) — one for the intestines, one for the skin, one for the pus, one for the fingernails. Etc. etc. Then we can ask ourselves the question, as Bodhisattva Shantideva does:

What exactly is it that I am so attached to?

The purpose of this strong meditation (or medication!) is not to develop aversion for meaty bodies, as you may think, because aversion is a delusion. It is to balance out the exaggerated attachment we have for them so that we develop non-attachment or renunciation. For example, if we can’t stop fantasizing about someone’s incredible eyes:

Us: I love your eyes!
Them: Here, have one.

If we don’t have inappropriate attention obsessing on how gorgeous and desirable our own or others’ bodies are, and in fact are aware that they are true sufferings, we don’t need a corrective; but if you’re suffering from unmitigated attachment why not give it a go!

It also helps our love and compassion to know that people are having to wander around in these, and that they are thinking, “This is me”, when it actually isn’t; and is it any wonder that we all get sick and decay? The video in this article is a humorous look at that.

Our body is useful but unreliable

We need a human body to make spiritual progress, to house our human mind; but in itself it is a true suffering. We can use any minor shocks we may experience to bring home how treacherous our body is, how eventually it will let us down despite the decades of lavish care, feeding, and cleaning.

I’ll go first … talking of eyes, I was at the optician yesterday, and she took a routine photograph.

“Hmmm,”, she said, pointing out a couple of marks on the back of my eye on the photo. “Looks like you have a freckle here. Or it could be a melanoma.”

“A melaWHAT?” I silently screamed.

“You can come in again later for another test, or I can just do it now?”

“Ermm, now.”

So I had the test. What happens, I asked her, if I have a melanoma? Radiation straight into my eyeball, apparently.

She sent me off to choose some frames for the next twenty minutes while we waited for my eyes to dilate. I spent a ton of money because, hey, I was going to be dead soon. Excellent marketing.

Then she examined me, and said the sweetest words I have heard in a long time, “This all looks fine! It is just a freckle.”

human-life-stagesBut I have been thinking about this since, because that unpleasant feeling of anxiety or fear is common to all of us and I have had a chance to empathize. Even today some dear friends heard horrible news from their doctor. It is only a matter of time before something does go seriously wrong with these lumps of meat. We are all in this together and need to help each other get out.

It’s not just our body – our mind itches or hurts from the delusions as well.

Buddha explained other sufferings as well, such as uncertainty, no companionship, loss of status, and so on. Check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune. Whichever way we cut it, suffering pervades our samsara. That’s ok, providing we know it and are not futilely trying to make it work.

That’s not all folks …

These manifest sufferings are all bad enough in this life, but the truth is they have been going on for countless lives. We need to get our heads around that. Check out this teaching by Gen Losang to help you do just that:

 

As Geshe Kelsang says:

In every single life, I have experienced the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, being separated from those I love and being unable to fulfil my wishes. If I do not attain permanent liberation from suffering now, I will have to experience these sufferings again and again in countless future lives. ~ How to Transform Your Life

We sort of have non-attachment already for manifest pain, at least that of this life. We may already think, like this author does, that in our current world craziness it is “time to unplug and escape this nightmare that we are living in” – only for him this means just unplugging Facebook and Twitter and moving to the countryside with a dog.

Tempting to join him, maybe, but we don’t know the extent of it, the beginninglessness and endlessness of it, so we assume we can muddle through or ignore it. We have forgotten all our countless dissatisfactory and painful previous lives, however important they felt at the time. We will be dead within a few hundred months or sooner, when this life will be no more than a forgotten dream as well.

elephant stuck in mud

So, Buddha first shakes us out of this complacency with all the talk on the suffering of all our lives until we agree, “Yes, I want out. I really want out.” We need that power in the mind, or else samsara will exert a constant gravitational pull — we’ll never get out. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as a bird cannot fly if it has stones tied to its legs, so we cannot make progress on the spiritual path if we are tightly tied down by the chains of attachment. ~ How to Transform Your Life

The very bearable lightness of being

The fact is that with relatively minimal effort compared with all the effort we have been putting into samsara since beginningless time, we can attain liberation.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we do ourselves a big favor and lead a lighter life if we can remember our precious human life and death every day. It also really helps us to lighten up by remembering that the past has gone … and to put a boundary around today.  

I sometimes find it helps to think that my past is being rubbed out by the second with a giant eraser that is following me around. All appearances or hallucinations are being erased pretty much the moment they arise. All that continues day to day, and life to life, is our very subtle mind and karmic potentials (which are also, however, changing moment by moment).

jump for joyAnd, as mentioned, we don’t need to worry that renunciation will be a scary or a sad mind. Quite the opposite is true. The peace and contentment of non-attachment or renunciation is not just a “non” mind, but a positive mind that opposes the stickiness of our attachment (attachment is translated from the Tibetan “do chag”, which literally means “sticky desire”). Non-attachment is light and happy, and enjoys everything, and even desires good things; but without all that heavy grasping. Being peaceful and non-graspy feels so great. The expectation, insecurity, anxiety, selfishness, small-mindedness, self-doubt, and disappointment have gone.

Renunciation or non-attachment also sets us up for the happiness of love and compassion. If we are bogged down in the swamp of samsara ourselves, like an elephant stuck in mud, how are we going to pull others out? But when we start to see through the illusion of samsara, we develop a strong desire to help others do the same.

It also sets us up for the joy of wisdom as we are no longer attached to hallucinations, to inherently existent things, to things mistakenly perceived to be outside of our mind.

And it sets us up for the bliss of Tantra, including the ability to transform our enjoyments into open-ended bliss. We still have non-sticky desire and we still have passion, but these are now delivering the goods.

Also, it is far more scary not to move our mind in this direction, for then we are trapped forever. And forever is a very long time.

What do I do with this renunciation once I’ve got it?

June 8 meaning of lifeOne thing it is worth knowing is that every action we do with renunciation, however seemingly insignificant, even if it is just brushing our teeth, is an actual path out of samsara. On the other hand, without renunciation, even our most hard-working virtuous actions just lead us to the contaminated pleasures of samsara.

Then we can do lots of things such as practicing moral discipline, concentration, and especially wisdom. Plus, we have now a stable foundation for our compassion – in fact we’re aiming for the mind that is a combination of renunciation and compassion.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, we will feel peaceful and contented, and thus enjoy everything, whatever it is we are doing!

So, in developing renunciation we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Second half of this twofold meditation on renunciation here.

Comments welcome!

 

How’s samsara working out for you?

samsara7 mins read

One way we can understand the need for deeper refuge is by thinking about what ARE our problems, what are our sufferings, and whether our temporary sources of refuge are in fact good enough for us. If they are, fantastic. And if they’re not, then good to know, because we can then seek refuge in something more effective.

Carrying on from this refuge article.

If you’re suffering at all, chances are you’re in samsara. Samsara is what Buddha called this state of existence where we have delusions and (usually) meaty bodies. Basically, in samsara we’re suffering, one way or another. Even when we’re happy, we’re not as happy as we could be.

Samsara doesn’t come from the places and people outside us, our job or our politics, our weather or our entertainments. It is the creation and mirror of the delusions in our mind, especially our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. This is why we can run but we can’t hide.

Although there’s good bits in our mind, and nice experiences that we have, overall we’re trapped in a state of uncertainty, in a state of no satisfaction, in a state of suffering. We’re subject to physical illnesses, we’re subject to mental pain — every day, if we check. Perhaps every hour.

forsaleI’ve had a rotten cold these past 10 days for example, along with half of New York; and it’s been making me feel sad for the people I pass with no homes to go to. I find it painful even to walk for ten minutes to the subway in these frigid temperatures, the cold searing my lungs – but I have a cozy bed and warm tea to welcome me at the end of my journey, as opposed to cardboard and indifference.

There’s rarely a day goes by when a body doesn’t hurt in some way. Yours is probably already a little uncomfortable in some way as you sit reading this — you’re thinking it’s time to get up and move around. (Not that I want to put that idea in your head … hold on.)

The problem with these bodies

You could be sitting right now on a lovely comfy sofa – we try to make our body as comfortable as we can, but it is challenging given that it is a bag of bones with lots of nerve endings. Reminds me … I was so pleased with a new massage chair gifted to me that I bought a similar contraption for my father with the hope that it’d ease his aching muscles. What it actually did though was crunch his old bones and make him hurt for weeks.

A good friend of mine texted this morning from England, a yogi monk known as Rainbow to his oldest friends — been practicing Dharma as long as I have, and really meditating a lot. Anyway, he texted me this morning just to say, “How are you? I’m doing well considering I’m imputed on a bag of bones.” bodyworld

And that’s about as good as it gets in terms of physical comfort. Some days we’re relatively comfortable. Given that at the moment we identify so strongly with this bag of bones as “my body”, and even as me, it’s amazing we have any good days, really, because, and I don’t know if you have noticed?, these bodies are not set up for comfort. Everything in our body can hurt. Everything, except for maybe our hair. And even that, if someone pulls it …

There’s pretty much nothing about our bodies that can’t hurt, doesn’t hurt sooner or later. Like teeth. How many teeth do we have? 36? 2? 12? Anyway, it amazes me that every single tooth in our mouth is fine when it’s working, we don’t even think about it; but when it isn’t working, whoa, that hurts, that can ruin our day. And there’s 31 more where that came from.

And there’s nothing about our body that’s not potentially going to turn against us, either. We can get cancer all over our body, can’t we? (Maybe not in our fingernails.) And eventually the whole thing just gives out.

Incorrectly identifying ourselves

Samsara is basically when we impute ourselves on, or identify ourselves with, a meaty body and a deluded mind, thinking: “This is me, this is who I am, I’m this person, I’m a limited person. This is me, looking all ugly because of this cold. I’m capable of good things sometimes, but other times I hate myself. I’m inadequate, I’m unhappy, I’m irritated, I’m obsessed, I’m anxious, I’m sad, I’m sore, I’m hurting. Etc. etc.

pure potential

Whenever we think like that about ourselves, we’re identifying ourselves with our meaty body and/or impure states of mind. But the fact is that these are NOT who we are. We are not really (or inherently) anything. We could instead identify with our extraordinary pure potential, and, if we go for refuge to Dharma, we can completely transcend mental and physical suffering with this human life that we currently possess, traveling the entire path to liberation and enlightenment.

As Geshe Kelsang brilliantly points out in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, since beginningless time our way of identifying our self has been mistaken:

What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I” “I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly.

De-programming

So, when we turn for refuge, that’s what we really want — protection from all the sufferings that come up within our samsara, understanding that samsara is just the experience of a deluded mind and a meaty body, wherever they may be. According to Buddhism we’ve had countless lives in these kinds of bodies. Often far worse bodies than the one we have now, and far more polluted or negative minds.

We’ve caught a bit of a break, according to Buddha, at the moment, in this precious human life. We have a little window to practice Dharma — our sufferings are not so crushing that there’s nothing we can do about them, but they’re enough to motivate us to do something about them. We can develop the ability to get to their root, to kind of deprogram or decommission our samsara, as it were.

robotDelusions remind me a little bit of preprograms that run in our minds. Maybe I’ve been thinking too much about artificial intelligence recently. It’s kind of like when robots run around all preprogrammed, our delusions are a bit like that. We’ve arrived with this horrible software from previous lives, and are being run around by it. So we need to reconfigure our software. In fact, we need to ditch it altogether, be free!

We need to be free. Our delusions don’t let us be free. They constrict us in so many different ways, and they cause us suffering in life after life. So we need to deprogram our minds by getting rid of our delusions while we’ve got this opportunity to do so, while someone is actually saying to us, “Hey, you can do this, and this is how.” Someone who is not part of this program, and understands exactly how it is set up and how we can dismantle it.

A Buddha has appeared in our life, extraordinarily, and, as we go about our daily lives — running around trying to find happiness here, there, and everywhere — he’s kind of striding along next to us, saying, “Hey, slow down a minute, look within. You’re preprogrammed. Just ditch the entire software, stop trying to make this work, it can’t.”

(Is this analogy working for anyone other than me?!)

I have quoted this before as it is one of my favorite Shantideva sayings:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.

matrixI think that’s exactly what we do — we let our deluded habits dominate our behavior, we DO act as if we’re kind of sleepwalking, we’re not wide awake. We’re conditioned or pre-programmed to act in certain ways. Conditioned by what? By our delusions and karma. And with our delusions we create our messy society, and this in turn conditions us further. It is endless mirror reflections.

So we’re trapped in this kind of Matrix hallucination. And Buddha really wants to unplug us all. He wants us to log out of this preprogrammed endless horror show of samsara.

Life without suffering is possible. But not samsaric life.

More later. Meanwhile, what do you think about all this?

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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

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A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms

My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”

GlossarySo I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.

Meanwhile, the actual official Kadampa book glossary is accurate and useful.

And to find out more about all these terms, download this free Buddhist book, How to Transform Your Life.

What are delusions?

delusions

Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.

What is attachment?

Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.

my precious.jpgAttachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.

Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.

What is self-cherishing?

Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, andself-cherishing that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.

What is Dharma?

Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.

For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.

What is samsara?

samsaraSamsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.

Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.

But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.

What is karma?

karma“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

What is self-grasping?

Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.

emptinessWhat is inherent existence?

Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent. 

At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.

What is emptiness?

Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness 1emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.

The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.

Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.

What is Sangha?

Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.

wishfulfilling jewelWhat is a wishfulfillling jewel?

 A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.

Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:

“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”almost there

So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.

And check out the Kadampa glossary whenever in doubt.

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Samsara

Self-cherishing 

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Changing our future by changing our mind

ignorance apathyBy the way, samsara has always sucked. Buddha predicted, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and other Buddhist teachers have been saying for years, that we would be, and are, living in increasingly degenerate times. Maybe we have been sort of lucky in this human life so far, and samsara has moreorless spared us its worst ravages; or maybe we have not.

(Carrying on from this article.)

However, I am noticing recently that the deceptive nature of samsara has become more obvious to many people, and our complacency is thus being a little challenged. Our usual expectation of progress and our usual ways of fixing things are not working so well. And that this is good (only) in so far as it is motivating some more people to find solutions from a different source, changing the future by changing the mind.

What is samsara?

Samsara is not a place. Sometimes, when things go wrong, for example when someone’s credit card is stolen, I think we say to each other, “Samsara is horrible!”, with a sense that there is a real horrible samsara out there. And it is true that samsara is horrible, but it is not true that it is out there. As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

Samsara does not exist outside ourself. Therefore, we cannot become liberated merely by abandoning our possessions, changing our lifestyle, or becoming a nun or a monk.

create your futureSamsara is a creation of our own delusions. Get rid of these once and for all by realizing that everything is the nature of mind … and there is no samsara, only the Pure Land. Right here, right now.

The end of the world as we know it, therefore, is not the end of the world.

And this approach of changing our future by changing our mind will work because nothing at all is fixed. There is no inherently existent future; everything exists in a state of potential.

The enemy of complacency

Nagarjuna prayed not to be born as a politician. Many, if not most, realized beings feel similarly. But even if we did have enlightened beings as our politicians, we would still suffer from poverty, abuse, and hardship while we remained with their causes in our complacencyminds — delusions including selfishness, and the negative actions or karma these have made us perform. We cart these around from life to life, and only when we take the responsibility for overthrowing them will we be finally free and happy.

Even in the most comfortable surroundings imaginable, Buddha still had the wisdom to see that samsara was deceptive, rotten to the core, built on decay, ageing, death, sadness — which is why he went off to find the solution and bring it back to everyone. He discovered that waiting for samsara to improve is a fools’ game. The only way to live in freedom is to control and purify our mind.

Your comments, as always, are welcome.

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