According to some surveys, as well as a casual glance at the internet, the world is the angriest it’s ever been. We do seem to be living in a time of rapidly escalating tension, polarization, and discord; but at the same time people are still good at heart, and no one presumably is enjoying this? Recognizing we may have an anger problem is the first step to doing something about it, starting with ourselves. And the advice Buddha gave transcends all politics.
Carrying straight on from this article on the three objects, three poisons, and three virtuous roots.
Transforming objects of hatred into objects of non-hatred
Whenever we encounter undesirable situations or people, instead of getting angry or annoyed we can intensify our patience or compassion. This is called non-hatred. (By the way, hatred is quite a strong word, but it includes all variations of aversion from mild irritation to genocidal rage.)
Most of us probably have several opportunities to try this out most days! This may seem especially the case in a polarized world but, even if we were surrounded by perfect saints, provided we still had the habits of anger in our minds we would still be bumping into objects of anger. People will seem difficult and annoying wherever we go if we have a mind to be annoyed; that’s pretty much guaranteed.
Of course, not giving into our tendency to blame others is easier said than done; but what’s the alternative? If we keep becoming irritated and upset by even the smallest things, we spoil our lives. Buddha’s method works very well for staying calm, if we want it enough. It can help our world enormously.
A friend of mine texted me 20 minutes ago to say that her jeep had been broken into and thieves took her keys, credit cards, health insurance, and social security card (not to mention her lucky green sweater).
And this was supposed to be my b’day outing 🤦🏻♀️
However, after a bit of time to think this through, she just texted again to say how this is karma and giving her the chance to practice patience, purification, and giving, and “that makes me happy actually 🙅🏻”; plus she also feels grateful to her bank for acting swiftly to cancel her cards. She has to sort out the boring practicalities of course, but she is laughing again: “🤣”
I was soooo grumpy before and now I feel better. 🙏🏼🙏🏼
When people don’t cooperate …
It’s not just when people don’t cooperate with our own wishes — non-hatred can also come in handy when the people we care about are not cooperating with our wishes to help them (or is that just me?!) Instead of getting annoyed or discouraged, we can use their recalcitrance to increase our humility and supreme good heart, motivating us to attain enlightenment even more quickly for their sake.
The three nons
These “three nons” — as I shall henceforth refer to non-attachment, non-hatred, and non-ignorance — are a huge practice. They are the direct antidote to our three principal delusions, the “three poisons”; and, as all delusions stem from these three, they are indirectly an antidote to all that ails us.
And this practice is very important because it means that no day, however impossible, need ever be wasted – in fact the more bombarded we are with distractions and/or upsetting people and even health problems, the more opportunity we have to solve our actual inner problems. Every day brings us a sense of achievement.
Transforming objects of ignorance into objects of non-ignorance
Here with the third: whenever we encounter objects of ignorance, instead of assenting to the appearance of things as fixed, real, and outside our mind, we let these seemingly solid objects remind us that in fact everything is dreamlike or like a reflection in a lake, not outside our mind. This is called non-ignorance. How great it would be if we and everyone else could live in the deep mental peace that comes from wisdom!
Applying non-ignorance to our own fixed self-image
Just a quick example of how we can practice non-ignorance when it comes to self-loathing (because I was talking about that a lot recently.) We can learn to see every manifestation of an unlikeable self as an incentive to practice both patient acceptance with ourself as described in these articles AND to practice wisdom.
Whenever that painful limited fixed ME rears its ugly head, we can think, “Great! Now I’ve got you where I can see you. And that means I can see that you are a fake self, not me at all, and I am going to let you go.”
The other day someone accused me of not liking her. Considering I do like her very much, and 95% of the time she knows this, this said far more about her own self-image than about me. Moreover, as expected, as soon as her bad mood lifted we were friends again.
In those instances, even if at that moment we feel so sure of something, it is still worth checking: What version of my self am I relating to right now? (Ans: An unlikeable one.) And does it even exist? (Ans: No.) We can dissolve that limited self away and identify with our potential. Only then can we say we are clear about what is going on.
Where are the reflections in a lake?
If things are empty and cannot be found when we search for them with wisdom (as described here for example), how do they exist? As mere appearance to mind, as the nature of mind, like things in a dream or reflections in a lake. As it says in the Mahamudra teachings:
All appearances are the nature of mind.
A lake doesn’t have to go out to its objects; and in truth there are no objects for our mind to go out to either. I was thinking about this just two days ago, while sitting on this bench next to this rather nice lake.
Just to go back to the definition of mind for a moment. Our mind is clarity, which means that it is something that is empty like space, can never possess form, and is the basis for perceiving objects. Our mind or awareness is like a medium that is clearer than the clearest thing ever, clear enough to know objects, to hold them. And an object is just that which is “known by mind”.
Do look at this lake for a moment … can you separate out the clouds from the lake? The clouds appear, and they have shape and color and so on; but they are just the nature of the lake. In the same way, objects appear with form and so on, but they are just the nature of formless awareness, clarity.
Two approaches to understanding reality
There are two ways to approach this understanding of the actual relationship between our awareness and its objects and to gain deep personal experience of it. One way is through meditating on our own mind, as explained so clearly for example in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang said in his Mahamudra teachings in 2000:
Using the root mind as our object of meditation — always trying to perceive the general image of our mind – means that we realize the subject mind very well, and understand the relationship between mind and its objects. The huge mistaken understanding that objects are there and the subject mind is here – that between them there is a large gap – will cease, and we will gain the correct understanding of how things really exist. If we clearly understand the real nature and function of mind, then we also understand how things really exist.
The second way is through searching with wisdom for objects outside the mind. This is a bit like looking for reflections outside of the lake — they cannot be found. Which brings us back to a deeper understanding that they must be the nature of the mind, mere appearances of mind.
I think that some people find their way into reality primarily through meditating on their mind, and some find their way into it primarily through meditating on emptiness – at least at first. However, we end up at the same place and using both methods – which are two sides of the same coin and constantly deepening one another.
International Fall Festival
This week, people from all around the world will be converging on the brand new temple for world peace near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Many are on their way as we speak — safe travels if you are one of them! One reason Kadampa Buddhist Festivals are really inspiring, I find, is because they are a living demonstration of what happens when thousands of people are practicing Buddha’s teachings both in and out of the meditation sessions. It’s hard to describe, actually, so I won’t. But perhaps I’ll see some of you there. (Update Oct 2020: it was sooooo incredibly good, and also feels like a bygone era. But we’ll be back.)
One more article on this subject of the three nons here: Detoxing our daily life. Meantime, over to you for your feedback, please, on how you like to practice them.
A guest article. After great conversations with this long-term meditator and friend, I requested him to write an article on this subject. He kindly obliged. Hope you like it as much as I do.
8.5 mins read.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe we’ve tried to change our view of ourselves, relating to our potential to change, our Buddha nature no less! We’ve been inspired by the Buddhist books and teachings, even meditated on them, yet we still feel stuck in a view of ourselves as someone who is fundamentally not changing and who lacks any real spiritual potential.
Something has been on my mind for some time now, which is why it is that we can sometimes be practicing meditation and Dharma for years but still feel we are not that much further along from when we started. And more importantly, is there a simple change we can make with the power to accelerate the process of deep and lasting spiritual transformation that we want? The answer is, thankfully, a resounding yes!
What’s going on
Perhaps without truly changing our view of ourselves, we are still trying to cultivate new intentions to live a more spiritual life. We have the intention to meditate daily and deeply, to be more consistently accepting, loving, and compassionate. Yet we never seem to quite get around to it, or at least never fully. Intention becomes “I intend”, ie, later, tomorrow!
With no genuine change in our intention, perhaps we are still trying to encourage or indeed force ourselves to change our actions. Maybe on the surface we try to act more like what we think a good Dharma practitioner or even a Bodhisattva should act like. Yet we find ourselves feeling stuck in habits of repression, distraction, worldly concerns, and many of the deluded and self-centered patterns of behavior we have always had, and increasingly desperately want to be free of.
In this way, our way of life can come to feel not that different to when we started out on our spiritual journey, with one notable exception: we now have the added burden of growing discouragement, feeling like a failing spiritual practitioner!
Why we can feel like we’re not really changing
A simple understanding to explore – helping us shed light on this problem and illuminate the solution – is that our present experience of life is what Buddha called a dependent-related phenomenon.
My teacher Geshe Kelsang says:
The definition of dependent related is existing (or established) in dependence upon its parts.
Meaning that, if it exists, it exists in dependence upon something else.
Now, consider this simple dependent-related sequence. From our experience comes our view, from our view comes our intention, from our intention come our actions, and from our actions comes our life. In this moment in time, our life exists in dependence upon these causes and conditions, not independent of them.
Our experience of life then reinforces our view, intention, actions, and life, in what is either a limiting and downward spiral or liberating and upward spiral of dependent-related change and transformation. This applies to all areas of our life, spiritual or otherwise.
Are you a swimmer?
As a simple example, if someone asks us ‘Are you a swimmer?’, our instinctive answer will very much depend on our experience. If we have previously tried to swim a few times or more, and it didn’t go well, naturally our view of our self (if not challenged) will be that we’re not a swimmer. Due to self-grasping ignorance we deeply identify with this belief as if it’s who we really are, inherently. In dependence upon this view, our intention and actions will naturally be to avoid swimming at all costs.
Without changing our experience, this downward spiral of limitation will continually reinforce itself, each time deepening our limiting self-identification and way of life, the life of a non-swimmer.
If we want to become a swimmer and try to change only our view, intentions, or actions without changing our experience, ultimately we will fail. This is simply because our attempts at change will be continually undermined by our default and deeply entrenched limiting self-identification: “At the end of the day, and no matter what I or anyone else says, I am just not a swimmer! Inherently!” Everything else will naturally flow from this.
To transform this situation, and our lives, the solution is as simple as it is profound. All we need to do at the beginning is make a simple change in this dependent related sequence – which is to change our experience. We learn how to swim properly, then relax, and gradually gain consistent experience of swimming. All other positive changes will naturally flow from, and in dependence upon, this change.
In dependence upon this new experience, our view of ourselves will naturally change – we will start to identify ourselves as someone who is a swimmer.
In dependence upon this new view, our intention and actions will gradually and naturally change – we will find ourselves wanting to swim and doing it regularly and joyfully. As a result, our experience will get better and better.
In dependence upon this new and growing experience, view, intention, and actions, our life over time will become the life of a confident swimmer. A new liberating and upward spiral of positive change and transformation is established and continually reinforced on every new iteration. In this way, we elevate and accelerate this process of change.
How to elevate and accelerate our spiritual path
How can we apply this understanding to elevating and accelerating our spiritual path? The key is this: if we feel we are not really progressing spiritually, it is NOT because we are incapable. If we check, more likely than not we are trying to change our view, intention, actions, and way of life without giving ourselves the time and space to immerse ourselves in that first and critical step, experience!
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
Conversely, if we do make some time every day to meditate, we will find it increasingly easy to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will flourish.
Start with peace
The essence of what is being explored here is how we can approach ALL aspects of our Dharma training for it to flow more naturally and effortlessly. Whether it’s building deep and stable refuge in our hearts, or gaining authentic experience of all the stages of the spiritual path of Lamrim, Lojong, or Mahamudra, we can use this approach to elevate and accelerate these trainings.
However, for the purposes of this article, let’s start with the simplest meditation and experience of peace. At the beginning of our daily meditation session – no matter how brief or extensive – we are encouraged to use a preparatory practice such as breathing meditation, absorption of cessation, or clarity of mind to help us gradually center in a calm, clear, and peaceful mind.
The key is, once we calm the mind and experience a noticeable degree of inner peace – even if it’s only a little bit — we give ourselves permission to take as much time and space as we need to abide with, and absorb more deeply into, that experience of a peaceful mind.
If you are anything like I was in the early years of my training in meditation, this preparatory stage felt more like an item on my to-do list before I got on with the rest of my sadhana.
I felt there was a lot I had to get through – before leaving for work – to fulfill my daily sadhana commitment, not realizing for some time that meditation can never be about ‘doing,’ rather it’s about ‘being’. Being absorbed in, and dynamically engaged with, an experience in our heart at every step from the moment we sit down to meditate and beyond!
Through giving ourselves the time and permission to abide and absorb a little in this way, we establish the experience of a relatively open, expansive, and peaceful mind. We then turn our attention to that experience and, crucially, identify with it as our innate and indestructible potential for great peace and happiness, our own Buddha nature.
This experience of peace alone does not transform our lives. However (1) the experience of inner peace that is associated with (2) the heartfelt wisdom insight that this is the peace of my own Buddha nature, my pure potential for the supreme and lasting peace and happiness of enlightenment, is the very basis for all deep and lasting spiritual transformation.
Allowing ourselves to abide in that experience every day before, during, and after our meditation session is a key component to success in Dharma training. As a result of our increasing familiarity with this experience and correct self-identification with our Buddha nature, our view of ourselves will gradually and quite naturally change.
If we are feeling a little, or a lot, stuck in our spiritual life, it simply indicates that we currently lack this basic familiarity. As a result, we try to practice on the basis of our present default experience and view, which happens to be an ordinary limited self who isn’t changing, indeed can’t change.
This growing familiarity with our own Buddha nature is one we can all gain, and it will open the door to a whole new perspective on how we approach our Dharma practice. Instead of feeling like we are practicing in abstract, going through the motions in the hopes of some future “Aha!” moment, we will come to view our practice as a here and now dynamic and experientially-based engagement with our own path or journey.
In dependence upon this new view of our extraordinary potential, our intention will move from ‘I intend, tomorrow’ to the intention that is moving our mind continually and spontaneously to the full actualization of this pure potential; and over time not just for ourselves but for others as well.
In dependence upon this deepening intention, our actions will be increasingly in alignment – they will become the actions of someone who is joyfully dedicated to accomplishing this goal, coming from the confidence that I have the potential and that this is what I and others need.
Ultimately, this liberating and upward spiral of positive change will transform into the view, intention, actions, and life of a Bodhisattva – what is known as the Bodhisattva’s way of life – until one day we definitely realize our highest potential of enlightenment.
Over to you – comments and questions are welcome for this guest author.
If we are honest with ourself, we will recognize that at the moment our mind is filled with defilements such as anger, attachment, and ignorance. These mental diseases will not go away just by our pretending they do not exist. The only way we can ever get rid of them is by honestly acknowledging their existence and then making the effort to eliminate them. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Identify our faults without identifying with them
However, there is a world of difference between identifying our faults and identifying WITH them. Sure we need to improve, but we can’t improve at the same time as feeling bad about ourselves, or guilty, because this is creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.
Try picking up a glass of water. How heavy is it? Not very? Okay, hold it for 5 minutes. How heavy is it now? Hmmm.
In the same way as water becomes heavy if we don’t let it go, similarly our bad feelings become heavy and guilty if we don’t know how to let them go. It is possible to admit to our mistakes without feeling guilty. Guilt holds on. It keeps us stuck. It comes from a fundamental lack of self-acceptance.
We need to let go of our delusions not because they are inherently bad or because they make us inherently bad, but simply because they make us and others unhappy. As Geshe Kelsang says:
Just as mud can always be removed to reveal pure, clear water, so delusions can be removed to reveal the natural purity and clarity of our mind.
Geshe Kelsang talks all the time about our innate purity, our Buddha nature, and our need to identify with it; but sometimes people don’t pick up on this, which is partly why I’m writing these articles. The other day someone in Germany pointed out, accurately I think:
Western people are different. Like you described it in the article, we learned always to put the blame on ourselves. Perhaps because of that Christian tradition (or what the church made of it), you’re guilty, small, and so on. I don’t really know. When we follow the Buddhist spiritual path we learn so much about delusions, uncontrolled minds, negative karma, and so on; and we are always told to purify our bad baaad karma, to tame our monkey mind. This is all clearly necessary. But I often ask myself, how can we love others honestly if we don’t take the first step to accept ourselves? We need more teachings on self-compassion.
Without skill, spiritual practitioners can indeed beat themselves up with guilt and feeling small while “pretending” to be good Buddhists or Christians or whatever – and this disconnect eventually leads to hypocrisy, or burnout, or abandonment of their spiritual practice. People can even use their Tantric practice as pure escapism from an unworthy sense of self, completely missing the point. It is no accident that one of our commitments as trainee Bodhisattvas is to “avoid pretension and deceit;” and I would argue that this is highly useful when it comes to talking to ourselves.
Buddha has covered this lack of self-worth from every angle. For example, I think renunciation is deep love and compassion for ourselves; we want true and lasting happiness and freedom for ourselves. However, here we are talking about our pure potential-filled self — not the painful, fixed, limited self held by self-grasping and self-cherishing, which in any case can never be made happy because it doesn’t exist.
And Geshe Kelsang is very clear about never identifying with our delusions, but always with our pure nature so that we can feel happy with ourselves while overcoming our faults. For example, as it says in How to Transform Your Life:
While acknowledging that we have delusions, we should not identify with them, thinking, “I am a selfish, worthless person” or “I am an angry person.” Instead we should identify with our pure potential and develop the wisdom and courage to overcome our delusions.
How could it be put more clearly? Moreover we come to experience extraordinary self-confidence and happiness with ourselves as a Bodhisattva and blissful Tantric Deity, if we learn how to do it right. In Tantra, we totally identify ourselves with the result of our spiritual practice — reality itself, the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind — and work to overcome our faults in that light, never while identified with a small intrinsically ordinary self that doesn’t even exist.
Becoming someone we like
From letting go of our painful thoughts in breathing meditation, as mentioned in this article, we can then go onto see that there is nothing fixed or immutable about us — through changing our thoughts, choosing better, wiser ones, we can become whom we want to be. Buddha and his followers have been saying this forever, and research abounds these days on the impact of positive vs negative thinking on ourselves and others, and the fact that we have the potential to transform ourselves by changing our habits of mind.
We can, for example, ask ourselves what advice we’d give to a good friend if they were suffering from the same low self-esteem, and then start to take that advice ourselves. We can even observe ourselves through the eyes of enlightened beings and Bodhisattvas who know the truth, that we are not our delusions, that we are basically great and full of potential – as it says in How to Transform Your Life:
It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish.
A healthy sense of self
What we really need to do is to reidentify who we think we are, which is called in Buddhism “changing our basis of imputation.” We can change our sense of who we are from someone who is inadequate to someone we really like and respect. Then we can enjoy our own company all day long, encourage ourselves to do great things, and like and respect other people more.
We need to develop a healthy sense of self, an empowered sense of self, based on something genuine.
To do this, it’s really very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. That next installment is here, How to stop being so down on ourselves.
Meanwhile, over to you! Please keep the feedback coming, it’s been helpful.
6.5 mins read Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that. For starters, how much do you like yourself?! Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt … Continue reading “Silencing the Inner Critic”
6.5 mins read
Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that.
For starters, how much do you like yourself?!
Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt and self-loathing. She was trying to figure out how he came to feel that way given that she is always trying to encourage him; but we agreed that these days self-doubt is prevalent and can be picked up anywhere, including by kids.
This young mother went onto say that she herself suffers from low self-esteem so he may be picking it up from her.
Do you ever feel overly self-critical? Do we all feel like that sometimes? Most of us are not immune to identifying with a painful, limited sense of self and experiencing a resultant self-loathing.
Where does it come from?
I am going to come up with a few theories here, numbered a-d. Please feel free to add to these in the comments.
a. External conditions
Being overly self-critical can come from other people criticizing us a lot and us internalizing that feeling of unworthiness. It could have started in childhood with an influential adult in our life saying stuff like, “Shame on you! There’s something wrong with you! You’ll never amount to anything.” And, not knowing better, we then started to repeat those insults in the first person.
It could arise from cultural or societal put downs, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia, where again we internalize these harsh voices and repeat these narratives to ourselves.
Self-criticism can also come from life events we find hard to deal with — for example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because the person we love doesn’t love us back and, internalizing this, we conclude it must be our fault.
Whatever conditions encouraged it, self-criticism is negative self-talk that gets stronger with repetition.
In 2005, the National Science Foundation published research on the number of thoughts we have, concluding that the average human being has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. And, get this, they also concluded that about 80% of those thoughts are negative and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before!
The person who pointed me to this statistic asked me whether training the mind in meditation meant that we switched out those 60,000 negative or uncontrolled thoughts with 60,000 positive thoughts. Pondering this, I would say that we don’t have that many thoughts once we start training in concentration and finding our happiness in peaceful, positive states of mind. For example, we can learn to stay focused on love all day. What do you think?
This as opposed to the young multitasker with the split-screen, thoughts flitting all over the place – “what number shall I put in this Sudoku box? Which email shall I reply to now? Do I even like this music? Who’s that texting me? Why did he say that to me? Will I ever get a job I like? I’m hungry” – amounting to surely tons of thoughts in even the short time I was covertly observing her. The number of thoughts we have, I would wager, is going up every year as our mind becomes more and more outward orientated, constantly seeking happiness in a multiple of things outside ourselves.
Buddha called an uncontrolled mind a “monkey mind” precisely because it’s jumping all over the place from one object to the next (as well as grabbing stuff or chucking it around). Our mind can only focus on one object at a time – so in multi-tasking the mind is simply moving rapidly from one object to the next and back again. Distractions and over-stimulations like these are literally the opposite of concentration, a single-pointedness in which we focus on one object at a time, eventually for as long as we like.
Add to all this the discovery that 9 out of 10 thoughts are reportedly out of our control and you can see why we have a problem on our hands. Is it any wonder that our uncontrolled, repetitive, negative, over-thinking monkey mind is causing us to feel bad, mad, or sad all day, and in life after life? Including all those repetitive self-bullying thoughts!
c. Anger directed inwards
Self-dislike or self-hatred is actually part of anger, anger directed inwards, which exaggerates our faults and edits out our good qualities. We are talking to ourselves about ourselves in ways and at a rate that we’d quite possibly never put up with from someone else. If someone was following us around all day telling us we were hopeless, we could at least lock ourselves in the bathroom for a few minutes respite. Not so much when we are doing it to ourselves.
Anger is a deluded mind that focuses on an animate or inanimate object, feels it to be unattractive, exaggerates its bad qualities, and wishes to harm it.
Then he explains how this works in terms of being directed toward someone else, giving the example of a partner; but I think it also works just as well with anger directed toward ourselves, so I’m going to use his words but switch out partner for ourself.
For example, when we are angry with ourself, at that moment we appear to us as unattractive or unpleasant. We then exaggerate our bad qualities by focusing only on those aspects that irritate us and ignoring all our good qualities and kindness, until we have built up a mental image of an intrinsically faulty person.
That self we are relating to is a mental image. That’s it. There is nothing actually there. There is nothing behind that image. It is a reflection of our thoughts. The sooner we realize we keep projecting mental images of a painful, limited self and believing they are solid, the sooner we will be free not just from self-anger but from all delusions and suffering.
We then wish to harm ourselves in some way, probably by criticizing or disparaging ourselves.
Naturally, if we have set our self up as the problem, the only way to get rid of our problem now is to somehow belittle or get rid of this dislikeable self. But how is that supposed to work?!
Self-dislike arises from inappropriate attention, which means that it is not relating to something or someone who actually exists, but to an hallucination, a projection. Anger edits out everything good about ourselves, leaving all redeemable qualities on the cutting room floor, because it can only sustain itself by focusing on faults. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:
Because it is based on an exaggeration, anger is an unrealistic mind – the intrinsically faulty person it focuses on does not in fact exist.
This is why we cannot solve the problem created by anger with anger itself. Anger only sees faults, so as soon as a solution or redeeming quality appears, “Oh, I’m not so bad! I’m quite nice really!”, anger starts to fade away.
We can see from this that at root, self-criticism, like all anger and other delusions, grows from ego-grasping — projecting and then believing in a distorted sense of self, believing it is inherently existent or real. In this case the distortion is a sense of an intrinsically unworthy or dislikeable self, whom we consequently dislike and put down. Luckily, thanks to Buddha’s deep and eminently practical psychological and spiritual insights, this is something we can remedy.
Update: A quick request to those of you who are leaving great comments on this article on Facebook — please leave your feedback here as well so I can address it or use it in the next 4 articles 😃 (Yep, 4, already in the pipeline.)
How we think about ourselves will bring that out of us.
Even if you have only meditated once in your entire life, would you do me a favor and try this thought out for size, for it is already in some ways true:
I am a meditator.
What do meditators do?! Yes, exactly, they meditate. Whether it goes well or not on any particular day, they do it anyway because that is who they are.
If instead we are thinking, “I am not a meditator, just vaguely attempting to do it ‘cos I can see that it could help, though it is unnatural to me and I’m basically useless at it,” what will happen? We’ll stay useless at it. There will be no energy behind it, zero enthusiasm.
Also, if we think of ourselves as a meditator, life becomes a fascinating journey — meditators use what comes up in their day to feed their meditations and insights instead of letting it drag them down.
Who we are depends a lot on who we think we are and can be. We need to stop identifying with a meaty body and sad, heavy, deluded mind, setting ourselves up for endless suffering and failure.
Truth is, every living being has such deep indestructible potential, and Buddhism has the methods to dig out from the mud of the delusions this gold nugget of endless compassion, wisdom, and happiness. The sooner we think of ourselves in the light of our potential, the sooner these methods will work for us.
Have you ever been to a party where you’re doing your darndest to enjoy yourself — drinking, eating, chatting, dancing, wandering around looking for people – but you’re actually feeling really bored?!
We’re supposed to be having fun so we don’t want to admit this. But after a while we think, “Okay, that’s enough … I’m outta here.”
We walk out the door to instant relief and fresh air.
This is like giving up on trying to make samsara work. We feel free because we no longer have to buy into something that’s not working. We don’t have to pretend any more. We have made the decision to leave this idiotic party. This constantly seeking happiness outside ourselves is not working. I want to be happy and free, but this samsara is not working — I am not getting happier and freer as the days and months go by. Year after year it’s the same. I can do better. I am going to do better.
In the context of renunciation, we identify with being someone on their way out already, feeling really happy. We are beings bound for freedom. We identify with this: “I am a being bound for freedom.” What do beings bound for freedom do?!
Life is short, Buddha said, like a water bubble. I was wandering alongside Bear Creek last week, watching the water flow and the bubbles rise and subside. Each one of those bubbles is like one of my countless lives in the continuous river of samsara – fragile, fleeting, but in which I have invested everything as if that’s all there is, completely missing the existential context.
We need to take a step back to see our “real situation” as Geshe Kelsang puts it, or get an overview of where we’re actually at. We have had countless bubble-like lives already, and there are countless more waiting to rise up from the clear light continuum of our root mind once this one pops.
If we wake up to that truth we can use this life to become a Foe Destroyer (destroying ignorance and other delusions with wisdom), or a Bodhisattva, or at least in a position to carry on with our spiritual practice in our next life. This will only happen if we put our spiritual practice first in this life.
Dream-like nature of all things
Ever had a dream when you fell madly in love with someone, only to wake up and think, “Hmmm, what was that about?”
The point about falling for someone in our dreams is that (a) it can’t last! (b) we are making the whole thing up! They were never really there!
So what is the point of all that grasping and sadness? What’s it based on? Just illusions.
As Buddha says in King of Concentration Sutra:
In a dream, a girl meets a boy and sees that he is dying.
She is happy to meet him but unhappy to see him dying.
We should understand that all phenomena are like this.
I find contemplating the dream-like nature of things – both their fleetingness and their emptiness — incredibly helpful for letting go of individual objects of attachment. It also works to develop the wish to let go generally of all the pointless suffering and sadness that comes from grasping onto something that isn’t even there.
For is it not so painful to grasp at something that is already slipping through our fingers and that doesn’t even exist from its own side to begin with? But that is what we are doing with attachment. Such relief arises from letting go. In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end. It is about time we realized that and released our death grip on samsara so we can spring for liberation and enlightenment.
We relax into our heart, maybe do some clarity of mind or breathing meditation, and feel the peace and freedom of a settled mind — the natural peace of our own mind when it is relatively free from delusions. There is plenty more of that where it came from; it is our Buddha nature.
We enjoy it and identify with it, thinking, “This is me. I am a being bound for liberation.” I don’t want samsara. I want the pure land and liberation.
Part one: In the space of this concentration, we ask ourselves, “Am I a samsaric being at the moment?” Do I have a meaty body and a deluded mind, for example, and am I identifying with these, thinking this is who I actually am?
We can also take any problem we are having and go through the 7 sufferings to see if it belongs in that desperately monotonous samsaric pattern. If so, whatever problem we manage to get rid of, there will be another one waiting to take its place, guaranteed. And not just in this life but in countless future lives, just as it has been in our countless past lives — problems arising like waves from the ocean of our root mind, day after day and life after life.
Through a contemplation like this, we develop the wish to be free. This is renunciation. We can focus on it single-pointedly for a while, understanding that we CAN be free.
Part two: However, we cannot afford to keep following our attachment, or it will hold us back and down. We don’t want to be like a barnacle, or a bird with stones tied to its ankles, or attached to the prison porridge. Understanding the deceptive nature of worldly pleasures, and how our attachment causes most of our daily problems and prevents us from escaping even while we have the chance, we develop the wish to stop it.
We identify with being someone on their way out already, feeling really happy. We have made the decision to leave this very bad party, we don’t have to pretend it works any more. We become accustomed to this feeling in placement meditation until it sticks.
To conclude …
In this way we start experiencing the deep peace of renunciation. Now, too, we have a firm foundation for the happiness of bodhichitta, the joy of wisdom, and the bliss of Tantra. Our life will never be the same again.
Which direction we go in and where we end up depends upon our motivation. The meaning of our actions depends upon our motivation. With renunciation, even brushing our teeth can be a cause of liberation. Without it, no amount of virtuous deeds can get us out of samsara.
Renunciation is great. We no longer need to buy into samsara’s dreary, heavy, repetitive, ordinary identity with its endless chapters of suffering, but instead start to view ourselves as a hero or heroine bound for freedom. We can start really enjoying ourselves!
We are very motivated also to contemplate emptiness, the doorway out of here. Renunciation gives us the lift off we need. Without it we succumb easily to the laziness of discouragement and attachment to worldly pleasures because we have no sense of the alternative.
If you ever find that your mind is not moving in the direction you want it to, or seems to keep slipping backwards, check your attachment levels. Despondency, instability, boredom, frustration, and feeling stuck are all built into attachment to samsara.
Over to you: Thank you for your interest in these 3 articles on renunciation. Feel free to leave any questions or comments below.
I am hoping this article will help you if you need to find some peace and calm during this particularly anxious time of COVID-19.
You might have heard the expression “Xanax is the new Prozac”? This is because worry and anxiety have already reached epidemic proportions in our modern society. And if we are prone to worry, there certainly seems more and more cause for it as the days and months roll by.
You’ve probably seen the articles. They report that, for example, in 1980, 4% of Americans suffered a mental disorder associated with anxiety. Today half do. A third of Britons will experience anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, with an explosion of reported anxiety among teenagers and young adults.
And so on and so forth, all over the world. It’s bad. It’s sad.
But it is not inevitable. And (along with the medication in some cases) meditation and Buddhism can help; they are designed to help.
Plus, we need to try and solve our own sense of anxiety and hopelessness if we have any desire to help our world. As we have probably all noticed, it is not easy to help others when we are feeling unbalanced or unhappy ourselves.
How is it that some some people can cope with worry and stress and even thrive on it, whereas others get overwhelmed and even ill? Of course there are various factors at play, but there are also good methods for alleviating worry and stress that anyone can try.
I was interested to see that the dictionary.com definition for worry is:
To torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts; fret.
Note the word “oneself”. We are tormenting ourselves, no one is doing it to us. We are the ones thinking our thoughts. If we could control our thoughts, we could get rid of our worry. If we could change our thoughts, we could — we would — learn to be peaceful.
Break the vicious cycle
When we notice our anxious symptoms, responding to some perceived threat, we think that we can’t cope with the situation, and therefore we become more anxious. This is the start of the vicious cycle of anxiety, the cycle we have to break.
If we are prone to worry, this means that our thoughts are thinking us us rather than the other way around. We have inadvertently boarded trains of thoughts that are taking us from worry stations right through to panic stations. We have to find a way to get off.
We don’t have to think all our thoughts. We don’t have to give them power – the only power a thought actually has is the power we give it. If we learn to control our mind, we can think our thoughts rather than the other way around. We can transform our thoughts and we can transform ourselves.
Thoughts depend upon the thinker just as the thinker depends upon the thoughts – change one, the other changes automatically.
This is a simple but devastatingly profound insight from Buddha, which can change everything. And we can experience it for ourselves by learning simple meditation.
Meditation has proven benefits in stopping worry – including even the simplest breathing meditation that anyone can do, such as the 15-minute peace meditation I explained in the last article on worry. Basically, in this meditation, we are making our mind bigger so that our problems become smaller. And we are learning that we can control our own thoughts.
Our mind is naturally peaceful. Our problem is that we keep shaking our minds up, like shaking a clear glass of water up and down, or like speedboats churning through a still mountain lake. Whenever we give ourselves some time and allow our mind to settle and relax, we experience some of our own natural peace of mind. Our inner problems subside temporarily because we have taken our attention away from them. And, even if we experience only a little bit of peace, we can know that there is plenty more where that came from.
Another analogy for our mind — and its infinite depth and spiritual potential – is that of a vast clear sky. When the fog rolls in, the whole sky can feel foggy, as anyone in San Francisco will tell you. But we know this is temporary, not the nature of sky; and that it can and will change. It is only if we are not aware of our limitless sky-like depth that we identify instead with our fog-like delusions and problems, and feel foggy ourselves. Our head is stuck in these as if that’s all there is. We get caught up in our fleeting feelings, clutching onto them as if they comprise our entire mind.
The first thing to do is allow these foggy problematical thoughts and feelings to disappear by focusing on the breath and not following them. Instead of shaking our mind up, we allow our mind to settle down. In this, we can start to experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mind, which has the power to heal us.
This goes for any problem – relationship problems (is he texting me enough?!), work problems (will I get that thing done on time?), health problems (why isn’t this diet working?), children problems (how can I help them when they don’t want to be helped?), world problems (where do I start?!) — we can let go of the inappropriate attention. Just allow ourselves to forget about all this for a few minutes, relax, let the attachment and anxiety drop away. We’re not going to miss anything.
Hey, I can’t afford to do that!
Maybe we think that if we relax like this we are reneging on our responsibility – that we need to chew over every problem until we have solved it, especially when other people are involved. For example, if I am not worrying about my parents/children/pets/the world, I am letting them down. We feel guilty. We think, “Let me just try and sort this/them out first, and then I can get back to feeling peaceful — I can reward myself, go on retreat or something.”
But this is completely the wrong way around. The fact of the matter is that over-thinking is not the way to solve our own or others’ problems. Trying to sort everything out “out there” is not the way to solve problems. Space is the way to solve problems. The sanity of inner peace is the way to solve problems.
There’s a saying in Buddhism that worldly activities are like a man’s beard – though he may shave it off in the morning, it is growing back again by the evening. Even if we did manage to sort everything out “out there” on any given day (an entirely dubious proposition, at least in my experience), is it not true that there are more problems to sort out by the next day? We need to learn the art of relaxation and letting go as the way to (dis)solve our own and others’ problems.
Then — and this is very much part of it — we can approach the external problems from a far more helpful and realistic perspective.
Who are you?
It’s also helpful to ask ourselves, “Who am I, really?” Once we are feeling more peaceful, we can spend a few minutes developing a really positive mind – for example by contemplating some brief instruction on love.
Then we can relate to ourselves as a loving compassionate person, or at least, “Hey, I’m not so bad!”, as opposed to that limited anxious person, “I am useless and doomed.” We can start to get a foot in the door, some agency in our own narrative.
We are who we tell ourselves we are, and in fact it is closer to reality to see ourselves as loving than as hopeless. The love goes far far deeper, and it is our own nature.
We can learn to go through our day with this relative peace, love, and confidence in our heart — try it out for size, let it grow through practice. At least know it is in there somewhere, that there is an alternative to this anxiety. Dive into the restroom when we forget there is peace at the heart, make it live up to its name.
Also, my advice, if you can: go to meditation classes and get guided in meditation. You’ll learn stuff that you can practice all week, plus you’ll get the support and encouragement of others in the same boat. During COVID-19, there are many classes being streamed by Centers all over the world! Click here to find your nearest Center and enquire.
Start the virtuous cycle
So, through breathing meditation we can develop a little space between us and our suffering — it is no longer consuming all our attention by drawing it into an exaggerated sense of a limited, suffering me. From that perspective, we have a better chance of using our own problems to empathize more deeply with others — and the more we do this the less anxious we will feel. We have started a a virtuous cycle to replace the vicious one.
More ideas for helping with worry coming up soon. Meantime, is this helping at all? Please share your experience and questions in the comments.
“I feel like I’m losing control of my life! I have to go! Let me go! I need to go to my house!”
And Jim gently replied:
“I’m so sorry. That is what it feels like when we are dying. But please don’t worry, you are here with us now. You are too confused to leave; it is not safe to let you go. We are going to take care of you.”
With that, he turned on the prayer playlist Aubree always wanted by her side – nowadays it was on pretty loud all night at her request to remind her of her Spiritual Guide when she fell unconscious, because her greatest fear was forgetting him when she died.
Jim and his wife Karin have been taking extraordinarily good care of Aubree for well over a year now, day and night – it used to be just weekends but towards the end they kindly took her into their house full-time because hospice was not a possibility. (The reason it was not a possibility is because her disturbed sister would not release the name of her oncologist and, despite calling every hospital in town, Jim was not able to locate him. It was maddening.)
Jim offered her the anti-seizure medicine she has been taking for two years, but she gagged and choked and said she couldn’t swallow any pills. “Don’t worry”, he said again, as he crushed her Ativan and put it in her food, which for the past year has amounted to approximately a tiny bit of mush per day. She had to eat something, and the meds were to help her with the seizures. But this time she was really freaking out. She was very confused, it seemed, and she snapped at them uncharacteristically, “Let me go! You have kidnapped me!!!”
A modern-day Upala
Aubree’s story is incredible. Here are some of the salient details she wrote herself when requesting prayers:
“I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago, am an epileptic, and will likely die very soon. My seizures have been so bad that I have been resuscitated 3 times recently, my breathing is very labored, I am usually unable to eat more than a tablespoon a day, and I have a lot of physical pain. I have had nightmares and fearful flashbacks most of my adult life, ever since a violent attack in College, but these lessened considerably when I met dharma 2 years ago. However, with my illness, it is hard for me to have a formal meditation practice and I struggle to keep a peaceful mind, but I am trying to keep you at my heart at all times. Please be with me when I die and guide me through death and rebirth.
I want everyone to be happy and not to suffer. I feel so lucky and know there are many other living beings with more suffering. I especially want my family to be happy, but they are having a difficult time letting go. Please pray for my mother who is struggling with losing me. She is unhappy and responding to the situation poorly and recently tried to kill me 3 times out of delusion, once by kicking me in the stomach while I was unconscious, once by pushing me down stairs, and once by stabbing me in my side. My sister also is struggling with me dying and needed to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My brothers are very sad and are unable to accept the situation and let me go. I want them all to be happy and to find peace. Please keep them all in your prayers.”
And it is not just her mother, sister, and brothers. A little while ago Aubree went missing for a week, at the end of which time she texted to say that her father had been keeping her locked up at his house and wouldn’t let her have her phone nor read any Dharma books. She said she was now terrified of him as well.
A few months ago her best childhood friend was on her way to visiting her when she went missing for 4 days. It was a scary 4 days, at the end of which time her friend’s body was tragically discovered by a state trooper in Texas – she had gone off her meds and committed suicide. So sad. She was supposed to be getting married next month.
Something dramatic happened pretty much every week – including too many brinks of death to count. Aubree was a modern-day Upala (see Joyful Path of Good Fortune). We all hoped that this was Aubree’s incredible purification too, and that she was swiftly earning her place in the Pure Land.
It was painful for all of us to watch Aubree dying like this, experiencing so many epileptic or PNES seizures lying clenched and shaking on the floor, so many night terrors, so much head-banging pain, some of which Jim successfully treated with acupuncture –needles stuck in an inch and a half, up to 50 at a time, because she said she couldn’t feel them. This treatment would take hours, and she would look like a pin cushion. When we first met her, she would have hellish-sounding night terrors every single night, reliving the trauma of her abduction and rape, and she’d wake up very frightened. It felt as if she was living in both the human world and an occasional hell at the same time – but at least these terrors largely subsided a few months after meeting Dharma.
And so many trips to the ER, where we watched them pump her full with Ativan or resuscitate her and then send her home with another big bill. Her grueling chemo treatments causing her to vomit and lose her hair, her arm in a sling for weeks after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the bruises from falling into walls, the mini-strokes and increasing confusion, the stab wounds inflicted by her alcoholic mother (now thankfully in jail). She could not walk without support, she needed constant attention. She could hardly talk by the end, barely a whisper, and she weighed 90 lbs; but still through all of this she smiled radiantly and inspired us all with her courage and good humor. She bought out a good deal of compassion in her spiritual community, and no one felt like complaining when she was around because, frankly, compared to her what did any of us have to complain about?! And she never complained – in her quavering voice she would call herself “the luckiest person in the world” and all she ever said she wanted was for us to pray for her poor, deluded, suffering family.
It was also amazing how many Festivals, teachings, and retreats she managed to get to, and how many NKT luminaries she managed to meet. Plus her story captured the heart, and she had hundreds of people praying for her.
It was not just us caring for her. Her brother in law, Tom, was a deaf mute and busy traveling, but for months he was able to arrange her visiting schedule all the way from Houston and the road. I texted and emailed back and forth with him several times, and Karin and Jim had hundreds of communications with him and Aubree’s sister. I also was in communication with her full time caregiver Matt, and a couple of other friends. They would keep us informed with messages like:
“Aubree has had severe seizures and breathing issues. She is confused and upset. Please pray.
Aubree’s sister here! Let’s plan on a visit Friday at 11. We will confirm with you. Aubree has been unwell and I am hoping we do not have any issues that cause us to be at hospital again. She is looking forward to seeing you.
Aubree thinks she is actively dying. Her experience of her body has changed significantly, she wasn’t able to get out bed at all today (was at our house), and has been having very long and difficult seizures and intense pain. She was with her brothers this last week and was admitted into the hospital (against her wishes) and was resuscitated (her brothers ignored her DNR because they were scared). That would have been it, but the CPR brought her back, however she doesn’t want CPR again, and says she is ready to die.
Aubree is with her friend Kayla, who thinks she is dying. Aubree has stopped breathing and is changing color.
By yesterday evening she didn’t even know who she was. I would call her name and she would look at me and say “Aubree?” while touching her chest then say “am I Aubree?”
Her pain increased alarmingly last night. She has had intense liver area pain. At midnight we woke up to her screaming (I didn’t think she had such a strong voice left) “HELP ME, HELP ME!” while crying and curled up in a ball. She is not on pain meds now because they interfered with her seizure meds.”
I was surprised and frankly a little relieved that Aubree never had a seizure on my watch, and, even though she did choke and go blue a couple of times, she rallied before I had to call an ambulance. And I am even more relieved that I never had to obey her end of life care document. This slightly spooky manifesto was drawn up recently by her medical power of attorney, Jim, after she pleaded for no more medical interventions; and it called for her visitors to just hold her, turn up the playlist, and let her die right there and then.
We wrote to tell Venerable Geshe-la she was dying, perhaps would die that very day, and could he give her a message. A couple of leisurely days later he wrote back and told her to read and contemplate Modern Buddhism.
That was a surprise. She was lying on her deathbed and couldn’t read at all! And Modern Buddhism is a long book!
Clearly she was not as close to death as we had thought. But her visitors duly took turns reading her Modern Buddhism for the next several weeks. Which she loved, though her health continued to decline.
The kidnapping accusation was a dilemma because last Friday Karin and Jim felt obliged to let Aubree go back to her empty house and wait for her brother-in-law to fly in and take her back to Houston. We did see her on Saturday, after Tom had dropped her off at her house to pick up some things, and she seemed a bit better, though still weak and confused. We then spent the weekend texting Tom back and forth, trying to meet up with him to figure out what was best to do, but we never managed to meet. Then her disturbed sister Jude flew into town and all hell broke loose. It seemed that Tom was the only sane member of the family left, and the only hope for Aubree, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t talk to him on the phone because of his deafness.
Some extracts of messages from Tom sent last Monday:
“Hi! Tom here. I need to reschedule the time. I can’t leave Aubree and Jude to meet you. Aubree is not doing well…. Do either of you sign? Jude is falling apart. … Things with Aubree are spiraling quickly… Jude is struggling. Feeling like I can’t leave them right now…. Family is being weird. I want to shoot for 4 but Aubree is really not doing well and Jude has fallen apart.”
Then something strange happened.
One of Aubree’s work colleagues happened to get in touch, and Jim sent her one of Tom’s health updates. This was what she replied:
“Tom has not emailed so thank you. It is very strange. I see her and talk to her occasionally at work and she is 100% Aubree. Lucid and clear and intelligent and focused. If I hadn’t seen her in the late afternoon/evening those couple days, I wouldn’t believe that report on how she is doing. It is really hard to believe. She is still working during the day and that is a bit strange but probably good for her. I am trying to arrange to meet her for lunch one day so I can check in with her. She absolutely will not acknowledge that anything is wrong while she is in work mode so I can’t talk to her or see how she is feeling or even offer her support. That is hard but I’m trying to respect her need for compartmentalizing.”
When, Jim asked, was she last at work?!!!?!!!@!
“On Monday” was the reply. She drove there, apparently. And on Friday evening she had two drinks at the bar, to which she had walked completely unaided as usual, and then she wolfed down a huge Mexican meal. (Yes, she must have been pretty hungry after a whole week of mush at Karin and Jim’s.)
The web of deception
With a sinking feeling, Jim started to contact other people whom Aubree had mentioned in passing. Her ex-roommate Lindsay, whom we’d never happened to overlap with at Aubree’s house, surprise, surprise, said: “I lived with Aubree for 2 years, and not once did I see her have a seizure.” Matt the caretaker doesn’t exist — Lindsay had never heard of him, his number was listed as 000-0000.
What about all those emails and texts, I asked Karin in confusion as all this was slowly coming to light — how could Aubree go to work while Tom was with her, he would have noticed?!
“That’s the point. I don’t think there is a Tom.”
That was one of the spookiest moments of my life.
The gig was up, but we still didn’t know the extent of it. We got online and managed to find real emails for Tom and Jude, as opposed to the ones created by Aubree, and even a phone number. Late as it was, Jim called them straightaway.
They were fast asleep in bed in Houston.
And they knew nothing about any of this.
They called the parents to go pick up Aubree and take her to their house, worried that she would try to kill herself now that it was all over. Turns out her mother is not a murderer nor her father an abuser. Her colluding brothers turn out to be rather innocent as well.
Since then we have all been putting together the pieces, or rather unravelling the web of deception. It has been by turns spooky, surreal, and desperately sad, but also at times absurdly, darkly humorous. Aubree is brilliantly intelligent; we always knew that, even with all her stroke activity. And this was the performance of a lifetime. Did she have spreadsheets; how did she keep all these lies together?! Aubree had every single person she met duped. Everyone, that is, except Geshe-la.
For sure, all of us probably wondered once or twice, “Could this really all be happening to her at this pace? Is she really that ill, how come she hasn’t died yet?” Someone gave her a pain-relieving massage, for example, and was surprised her tumors were not more noticeable. But we pushed these thoughts aside as uncharitable – she only weighs 90lbs for goodness sake, and those seizures are ghastly! And yes, she had some good days where she rallied remarkably to get to things and talk weakly to people – but that must have been all our prayers! Poor brave girl.
Meeting the family
At dinner we sat in a booth at Racines with her murdering mother (supposedly in jail), her psychotic sister (supposedly in a psych ward), and her abusive father. (The only person missing was her deaf-mute long-suffering brother-in-law, who was on a lecture tour.) And these were three of the sweetest people you could imagine. I’d hang out happily with any of them.
With a family like this, and with several loyal old friends, Aubree has no need to crave attention. Clearly her self-hatred is not rational. I suppose which of our delusions is?
We wondered how the seizures had been so convincing, and her dad explained the time he took her to Yale epilepsy clinic when she was 22 (the last time he saw her have a fit) and they stressed to her that she must never take Ativan as it brought on the seizures. She had been eating it like candy, at least with us, though clearly not at work.
We wondered how she managed to choke and turn blue from not being able to breathe. Her mom, a nurse (somewhat the opposite to a killer), said that Aubree must have been holding her breath.
Impressive willfulness, we all agreed.
But her dad said, “This is so confusing for me. I hate to say this but I think I’d prefer it if she had cancer. At least we could understand that.” And “She is my daughter but I cannot protect her; this is the hardest thing in my life.”
It was her own dad who suggested grimly that this would make a very good 10-part miniseries. I have included only the salient details in this already long article – there is enough material for it. And the weekly suspense has certainly kept a lot of people on the edges of their seats for two years.
Her sister said: “What you showed her, that love, that part was all true, pure. We are so grateful to you.”
We had a good evening – it was helpful for all of us. We even laughed quite a bit. They were so relieved with our reaction, said we were cool. I think Dharma is cool. Knowing about Buddha nature is cool.
And, hey, our prayers worked!!! Aubree is cancer-free! She is no longer dying! What a miracle. And her family have all magically recovered and become loving, reasonable people!!
Also, btw, remember that friend who committed suicide? Happily oblivious to the fact that she is dead, she is getting married next month, and Aubree has been invited to the wedding.
Our road of caring for Aubree has come to an end, and her family are taking it from here. She has confessed to lying. They have hopefully found a good place for her to receive help. I wish them all the best.
Echoes of “Misery”
See, go back to the first paragraph of this article and read it again, and perhaps you will understand why Aubree was panicking 😉 She was out in the middle of nowhere, far from her house. Two days of pretense was one thing, but this was a week already and she had to get to work, she was ravenous, she was being force-fed pills, and she couldn’t sleep at night because of her medicine-induced seizures and full-volume playlist.
Some lessons learned on this crazy train
Lesson #1 ~ What can we rely on?
At dinner, her sister commented that we must be angry, and we replied truthfully that we were not because we haven’t lost anything, not really, and we gained a great deal from Aubree. And inside there is definitely a dear, lovely person with potential, one that did shine through, despite her desperate need for attention, despite her mental illness.
Jim put it this way yesterday when he spoke to the Sangha:
“Although everything we knew about Aubree was wrong, the love and compassion she brought out of me was true. I had no idea I had these reserves of patience in me and could, for example, survive happily on so little sleep! And therefore I don’t regret it. For me, Aubree was an emanation of all the stages of the path from precious human life, death, and the fears of lower rebirth all the way through to love, compassion, and patience. And now I am learning the greatest lesson of all, the hallucinatory, deceptive nature of samsara. Dharma now is also what is healing any hurt I have.”
Both Jim and Karin have emerged as Bodhisattvas in my book. Their Sangha is impressed with them.
Buddhas emanate whatever we need, and Aubree did bring out the best in us so who knows who she is. Jim quoted the verse from the mind-training teachings:
Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me intentionally
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide.
We have lost nothing, even if Aubree has. She has taught us much. As one friend puts it, Aubree was “for us”.
So, other than the wisdom that sees right through it all, including the “polluted memories” as someone sadly put it, what can we rely upon in this crazy mixed up world of illusion? (I address that a bit in this article.) We can rely upon love and compassion. And honesty (see below). We can rely upon the Dharma Jewel of Lamrim.
As Aubree earnestly texted me herself a few months back:
“If negative actions occur in this life despite trying to go for refuge and show compassion, can a precious human life be maintained?”
Even if this is the weirdest route to finding a Spiritual Guide and Dharma that I have ever seen, I am praying that some of the Dharma Aubree professed and seemed to love really did go in, and that it will help her now.
How could you be so stupid? …
… someone at his work asked Jim. Were we duped? Yes, most heartily. Are we embarrassed? Yes, maybe a little. But that was an Oscar-winning performance. She had actual seizures for hours on end. She went blue in the face. She was skin and bone. She held her body differently for days on end, faltered on her legs, talked in a strained way, and so on. Fifteen years ago she pulled another stunt and managed to dupe a whole team of care-workers including a psychologist. And embarrassment doesn’t hurt us. But being mistaken is okay if our hearts are true and we come to realize our mistake. Now we can all work on our wisdom.
In Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang talks about someone driving in the wrong direction to London and suddenly realizing he has been wrong all along. Finding out about Aubree was one of those heart-stopping moments, WHAT??! Have we really been on this crazy train for two years?
But in fact we have been on a crazy train since beginningless time. As Geshe-la says, when this man realizes he has made a serious mistake, he turns back, and:
… hopefully follows the correct road to London. In a similar way, before realizing emptiness we are following incorrect paths… At present we believe that whatever appears to our mind is truly existent and then we follow the paths of cyclic existence.
It is past time we all got off this crazy train. As Geshe-la says:
We shall know that hitherto we have been completely misled and mistaken. We shall realize that what appeared to us, what we apprehended, and the attitudes we developed were all completely wrong. Then, hopefully, we will begin to follow the path to liberation, the path that really does lead to peace and happiness.
Lesson # 2 ~ Hold space
This drama has increased my will to get into my heart every day and let all the elaborations fall away. Ideally we can learn over time to abide in our very subtle mind mixed with the nature of ultimate truth — bliss and emptiness, Mahamudra. There’s a beautiful line about this in Vajrayogini Tantra:
Then the youth of my mind, exhausted by its elaborations,
Came to rest in the forest hut beyond expression.
Do we not live these days in an overstimulated world of so many false appearances bombarding us daily? Special effects, political echo chambers, virtual reality, video games, all those iSomethings, AI robots, Pokémon Go, self-seeking lies, idle gossip, FOMO, etc, etc, etc. These days, we apparently spend 10+ hours on our screens, much of that precious time sucked into a made-up world one way or another.
But we need peace. We can’t be happy without it. Excited, maybe… but happy? No. We need to hang out at least some of our time in that forest hut. At the very least we need to allow our otherwise endless distractions to subside through breathing meditation to access the natural peace, clarity, and stillness of our own minds. We need to identify with and enjoy our vast and profound true nature, our Buddha nature. For this to happen, at least a little meditation regularly is crucial.
And this is not just for ourselves. As one friend puts it, we need to “hold space” for everyone. Become a refuge, a Sangha Jewel.
Why instead use the few remaining months we have left to seek out more confusion and trickery? What’s the point?
Lesson # 3 ~ Be honest, always
It is not worth adding extra elaborations to samsara. Better to be scrupulously honest, not deliberately deceiving others by lying. We are all already in a web of deception, so please let’s not make it worse.
Our self-protective minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing already have a tendency to weave little lies just to sustain the illusion of a non-existent self, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we know we are doing it, sometimes we don’t. Aubree just took this fake identity to a whole new level.
Gotta stop stirring. Some slander is true to utter, and some is false (see Joyful Path). Either way, if our words turn people against each other they are to be avoided. We need to talk about others’ good qualities rather than their faults, see the best in them, bring out the best.
So much of our conversation is gossip and hyperbole! We don’t need to keep talking nonsense with no wish to help others (namely, idle chatter.) We are already wrapped in nonsense.
I find it interesting that these 3 of the 4 non-virtuous actions of speech explained by Buddha (see Joyful Path) — lying, slander, and idle gossip – all have something to do with deceiving or at best distracting each other. Harmony is key to happiness, and distrust kills it. Avoiding these negative verbal actions is especially important in our spiritual communities.
Thank you for getting this far. As Aubree once requested: “If you guys want to post photos some place, please do not tag me and if you use names, please be careful. As you know, my family is crazy and I can’t have things on my webpage.” For different reasons, to really protect the innocent, I have changed all names and withheld all photographic evidence. And, not for the first time, I request your prayers for poor Aubree and her confused and reeling family. But these are different prayers.
Superior intention is not weakened by the kryptonite of attachment or irritation. It is not sidetracked by the flimsy dreams of samsara, our own or others’. People need rescuing, big time, and there is no time to waste.
As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a vivid depiction of our existential status:
Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,
Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path
I sometimes think that once we start practicing these visionary Mahayana Buddhist teachings, we become aware of two competing versions of ourselves – the one where we have the brave big picture perspective and the other where we have a pathetic teeny weeny perspective, stymied by those habitual delusions. I might go so far as to say that it is as if we are spiritually schizophrenic – and that we have got to stop buying into the limited, often whiny version of ourselves and instead identify with the big version every day, feeling so lucky in our wish and growing ability to help others.
And we are never alone when we do this. We are in service to all enlightened beings when we decide to help all living beings, just as we are in service to a mother when we decide to help her children. And they in turn will inspire and protect us in all our endeavors. We can feel them all around us and in our hearts.
Tara is a fantastic example of this – remember what she said to Buddha Avalokiteshvara: “Don’t cry. I will help you.” As a friend, D, remarked on this article:
Identifying with limitations and small selves is so 2016! I always think about that Tara story — I get a deeper understanding each time I contemplate it. This time I was thinking how swiftly and quickly she arose when the focus is on others. Not that she doesn’t help when we are experiencing suffering, but her power mostly lies in helping us to help others.
Part of the Bodhisattva’s commitment is to help practically to make things better for everyone wherever possible. The first three perfections are giving, moral discipline, and patience, and these are to be practiced within daily life, at home, at work, everywhere. The motivation is always, however, bodhichitta — so the ever-present goal is to journey to enlightenment to be able to liberate everyone from samsara’s prison.
We can’t always do big external actions, but we can grow our love and compassion so that we perform even the smallest actions with a big heart. I personally have a lot of respect for Queen Elizabeth II (and relay a story here told about her by Geshe Kelsang). This Christmas, me and my family listened to her 3pm speech, and liked what she said:
But to be inspirational you don’t have to save lives or win medals. I often draw strength from meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things: volunteers, carers, community organizers and good neighbors; unsung heroes whose quiet dedication makes them special.
They are an inspiration to those who know them, and their lives frequently embody a truth expressed by Mother Teresa, from this year Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She once said: ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’.
Some Bodhisattvas are able to do radical, visionary, great things to help society change, to become more equitable – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, and numerous others less well known spring to mind — and this is very wonderful. But even if we do small things with great love, we are still actually doing big things — creating karmic causes for big things, and making huge strides towards enlightenment for everyone’s sake, as everything depends upon our motivation.
Who do you think you are?!
So in this third type of self-confidence we change our identity, thinking, “I will liberate everyone, I am a Bodhisattva, that’s my job.” If we change our identity, everything and everyone related to us feels different as well.
I was talking to a British friend about this the other day – she is breaking new ground in becoming a Buddhist pastor in a hitherto all-Christian context, and has had to overcome the self-doubt that thinks, “Who do you think you are to be doing such things?!,” which has only led her to fear and paralysis. To keep going each day, to surmount each hurdle, she told me she remembers this self-confidence and wakes up smiling with purpose, not trying to make a non-existent, small, limited self happy or successful. This is such a relief, she said, and a freedom, and has led to lots of interesting opportunities arising unforced.
These three types of self-confidence covered here have a great deal to do with being steadfast, which we need if we are to help others, especially over the long haul. Steadfastness is part of the Bodhisattva’s perfection of joyful effort, and I like to remember Buddha’s example for this – to be like a wide, calm, steady, flowing river that never stops on its journey to enlightenment, rather than an excitable, short-lived, somewhat panicky waterfall.
In the context of this big vision of ourselves and others, we can work out what we are capable of and then set out to do it. If I want to overcome my delusions, get from here to enlightenment, and free all living beings, then today — practically and spiritually — what am I going to do about this?
There is a fourth type of non-deluded pride or self-confidence, which is taught in Tantra — divine pride. I have talked about this a lot in these articles on Tantra, if you’re interested in checking them out.
Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome – especially anything you have personally found helpful for increasing your self-confidence and overcoming your self-doubts.
(Beautiful photos in this article courtesy of Happy Fox Photography.)
One day in mid-February 2010, a friend, H, shot himself after his car was repossessed. He had also recently emerged from a messy divorce, but his financial woes pushed him over the edge that day. However, he also had many close friends who loved him and thought he was larger than life, who were shocked and devastated at his surprising self-harm.
It seems to me that H must have had an abysmally out of whack self-image if he hated himself enough to blow his own head off. The demon self-cherishing – exaggerated disappointment at my wishes not being fulfilled, seeing them as the most important thing in the world – contributed to that sad, needless tragedy. Certainly it was not love or wisdom. Self-grasping ignorance and attachment caused him to create and believe a mental fiction about who he was, ie, a failure, someone whose life was not worth living. Yet all his friends knew that he was a lovely sweet engaging man and had everything to live for — he could have been a Bodhisattva if that was the story he had told himself instead on that day in February. There was a lesson in this for all of us who knew him. We have to be wise about who we believe we are and what we need, or, one way or another, slowly or quickly, we will self-destruct.
Dealing with a broken heart
When painful feelings arise, it is wise not to resist them – what you resist persists – but see them as passing bad weather in the mind without repressing or indulging them. Further to this I have thought: (a) my thoughts don’t have to be that scary, they are bubbles arising from the root mind, they won’t kill me if I don’t buy into them and they disappear if I stop thinking them, and (b) those feelings and thoughts are empty — even within them is a non-conceptual wisdom and peace if I allow myself to experience it. A very wise Buddhist nun once gave me this advice to cure my broken heart:
When bad feelings come, and the whole body and mind ache, instead of resisting it, it is good to let the suffering arise in the mind, become one with it, and look at it so closely – it dissolves into emptiness and beyond this there is nothing. Where is it, what, why? It dissolves into emptiness. Don’t be afraid of the feeling of suffering. It is just imputation, just label. See that there is nothing there, only the mind of clear light, which is bliss and emptiness. Then feel love for everyone. Be Vajrayogini.
A friend told me that when she was once suffering from heavy and unrequited attachment, her perennially down to earth mother told her that it is like trying to quit smoking – the cravings come and the cravings also go. Which got me thinking about how to relate to ourselves in such a way that we are able to give up attachment – all forms of dependency and heavy sadness. How if H had related to himself differently, none of the above would have happened, and today we could all be having a laugh with him. I had had a lovely conversation with him the previous summer at Madhyamaka Center – he had Tantric empowerments, he was really loving his Vajrayogini retreat. So why didn’t he keep believing he was a blissful, wise, free enlightened being instead of the ordinary dead-end fiction of being a lonely, financially incompetent, rejected man? In truth, both are fictions, both are mere thought or labels, but so is everything; and there is a world of infinite possibilities in the clear light of our limitless Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment, the seed of the Dharmakaya.
When we try to give up smoking, we have to identify with being a non-smoker who occasionally has manageable cravings (which can even be a useful teacher) as opposed to a smoker who unnaturally has to give up something that is part of them and is ending up in a state of need and loss. No one will live like that for long, in need and loss – we would sooner cave in to the attachment. But in the invisible world of our boundlessly creative mind, especially moment by moment, if we think wisely we can see that we need nothing more, we have lost nothing, we have nothing to fear from the future.
Mental fictions and self-image
We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we need all the time. They are all mental fictions. There is no reality behind those hallucinatory empty thoughts. We can think anything we want in the invisible world, the world of the mind, of which this manifest physical world is simply like a mirror reflection. Mind is formless. Mind is invisible (also we can’t hear it, smell it etc.). Working at the level of our subtlest mind, dropping our awareness from our head into our root mind at our heart chakra, is far more effective too; and we can do that through belief to begin with. Close your eyes, drop into your heart, and think about who you are, where you are, what you are. This world of the mind – of experience, of feelings, even of physical sensations – is the only world there actually is. Can you point to any world or body or self outside of your experience of it? (And even the mind is empty of existing from its own side, dependent on its reflections or perceptions to exist.) Close our eyes, and we can think that we are jumping from planet to planet. Someone told me that when she closes her eyes she can think that she can walk — and she has always been in a wheelchair. Someone else told me that in her mind, and her experience, she thinks she is whole, even though a truck left her unable to stand up straight without feeling compression and pain.
We can think we are a smoker, dependent on cigarettes for our happiness. Or we can think we are a non-smoker. When the craving arises, it is just some habit we got into, and we are not a smoker, so it is natural to not seek the cigarette and just see that habit as a temporary cloud in the vast expanse of sky. One of my favorite Geshe Kelsang quotes is:
We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking. ~ Meaningful to Behold, p. 190
When we are attached to someone, we can and often do make up this mental fiction: “I am dependent on them for my happiness. I need them. I am weak without them. If they seem uninterested, I behave like a bumbling idiot around them to get their attention. I am in a state of loss when they are not in my life or when they reject me. I miss them, they are missing. The future is empty without them. Only they understand me, really. To give them up will leave me in a state of lacking, it will leave me incomplete, needing something I no longer have. Even if I know I have to give them up, or they have died, it is unnatural, as it is going to cause me to be shadow of my former self, and the life they breathed into me will be gone.” Etc etc.
If we check, this is not a pleasant self-image and does not give rise to any genuine feelings of joy, only relief on the occasions that they call us and say, “Everything is alright, I love you, marry me, I’m not really dead”, etc. Until the relief passes, as by nature relief does. Relief is so-called changing suffering, only a temporary release of, or distraction from, underlying need and want and suffering, like scratching an itch according to Nagarjuna. Also, we hold on tightly to the supposed source of our wholeness, which is perceived as out there not within, and get rope burn as the rope must inevitably slide through our fingers due to impermanence. We condense the whole universe into one person so that it must crumble when they disappear.
Whereas we can make up any fiction we want anytime. And we can believe it, if it is helpful, while knowing that it is empty of inherent reality. Our self-image changes all the time anyway, and we can change it ourselves far more easily than we might have thought possible. In the invisible world, there are infinite possibilities (whether you want to look at this spiritually or quantumly or both). Everything begins in the mind, in the imagination. What will happen if instead of thinking I have lost everything I held dear, I think instead: “I have everything I need for my happiness right here and now. This moment is perfect. I am strong. I am able to experience love, compassion, renunciation, faith, wisdom, joy and bliss. I am a Bodhisattva. I am a Yogini in a charnel ground, fearful of nothing and no one, transforming everything, surrounded by the corpses of my own and others’ fake suffering self-images. I am a Buddha.”
We don’t need to think “I want to be Buddha some day” or “I will be Buddha in the future”. Wanting or hoping creates a gap between who we think we are now (some deluded being with big problems) and who we might be in some la la land future. And how will we bridge that gap? If we can’t bridge it today, why will we be able to tomorrow? Instead, we already ARE, and we relate to that and happily create all the causes for it in the here and now – meditations on love and compassion, the six perfections, bliss and emptiness, the central channel, and so on. Or, simply put, we can start with a thought like, “I am a loving person who has everything I need”, and let our belief in our good qualities get bigger and bigger over time, as our imagination and wisdom appreciating the nature of these good qualities improves.
If there are infinite possibilities and no constraint on thought, if I can be anything, why not be a Buddha? The previous holy beings have paved the way for this and shown the best possible self-image in their Tantric revelations. How could we possibly come up with something this deep, sophisticated, or blissful without their input?! Therefore, “I am a Buddha, such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara, or Heruka and Vajrayogini, manifesting all the infinite bounty and good qualities of the Dharmakaya in every moment and leading all living beings to that state.” Also: “I can accept any unpleasant feelings/emotions/sensations — they are just clouds drifting in the endless blissful expanse of my mind, useful for teaching me about renunciation and compassion and wisdom. Like pleasant feelings, they are also just manifestations of the empty sky of the basic Dharmakaya. I can welcome and embrace them, and in doing so they miraculously have no more power to hurt. They also dissolve away, as all thoughts do sooner or later, because nothing lasts even a moment.”
Well, who is there to contradict that? It is just as real or unreal as “I am useless without you.” Who says? Also, when we think of others looking at us pityingly, “Poor thing, she is useless without him”, (a) it is unlikely that they are in fact wasting much time thinking that – people tend to relate to us as far more of a whole individual than we do ourselves when we’re suffering heartache; and (b) when we change our view of ourselves, people will follow suit, sooner or later. With love and compassion, we don’t care or take seriously what people project on us in any case, we mainly want to help them – there is no need for their approval of us, we are more interested in their view of themselves.
Of course it is more “realistic” as in closer to reality to view ourselves as whole, as complete, as loving, as a Buddha, because our real nature is our Buddha nature. Our wisdom understanding that nothing is fixed is what enables us to change into whatever we want to change into, to transform; and that wisdom is the ground of our new experience. This is as opposed to our self-grasping ignorance, which is the ground of our attachment and aversion to real things and people, including our own depressing self-image. “It must be real because it appears to me that way!!! I’m not moving until the reflection in the mirror moves!”
Telling ourselves the same old stories and clichés about our own and others’ lives will never liberate us from suffering. We will simply live the clichés again and again and again — birth, ageing, sickness, death, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, dissatisfaction, birth, ageing, etc. Cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) just is one big cliché. The other day when I was complaining about getting older and uglier, looking I think for sympathy or reassurance, my friend effectively shut me up by saying this instead:
“The story of samsara has no answer.”
How long do we need?
There is a lot of talk these days about “manifesting”, eg, The Secret, a Course in Miracles, so called ‘new thought’. From a Buddhist point of view, manifesting a favorable reality depends not only upon our way of perceiving reality but also upon the karmic appearances created by our good and kind intentions. And, from a Buddhist point of view, if we can manifest reality, we may as well skip the ordinary samsaric manifestations of wealth, companionship, sex, a good reputation etc. “Be careful what you wish for!”, as the saying goes, partly because a large number of our desires are contradictory eg, pizza and a great figure, excitement and security, a long life and eternal youth, etc. Instead, we can go for the blissful enlightened reality that will always help both ourselves and others. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We can gradually come to identify with every pure, enlightened quality as explained in the Sutras and manifested in Technicolor in the Tantric Deities and mandalas, and progress will be swift – we can even gain enlightenment in one lifetime.
One lifetime?!?! You sure?! Well, given the infinite possibilities of the Dharmakaya, the extraordinary and fortunate reality that Buddha himself has appeared in our life and consciousness to introduce us to these, and the reality that all the methods exist and have always worked, why not?! Why would it take more than one lifetime if we really believe it? If we come to know that nothing is really out there, how long do we need to dismantle it? If we come to know that our thoughts are empty, invisible, with nothing really behind them, how long do we need to change them?