Dealing with our demons

Light in cellarOf the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)

Monsters in the cellar

It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.

We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)monster in the cellar

Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.

Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.

Moving beyond

We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.

Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.

For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.

One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not shadow 1.JPGthere. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.

The next installment is here, Saying bye bye to the painful, limited self. Meanwhile, please share your comments below on how you deal with the monsters in your cellar.

Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do todayWhen we feel overwhelmed with busyness it is usually because all our activities are bleeding into each other. With thoughts of impermanence, they don’t. We can focus on the here and now. We have walls up (as described in this last article). We can still plan — put the things we need to do in a Google calendar or excel spreadsheet or regular to-do list — but then we don’t need to think much about it again until we need to do it. Tomorrow is plenty of time to take care of tomorrow’s business. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

So in the interactions we have today, we bring as much love and kindness into them as we can. We try to keep our mind peaceful, free from anger. We put our energy into these things as they are inside the wall. And because we are not spending so much time outside the wall, we have a lot more energy to do that, we’re a lot more successful. Living in the moment is very much to do with cultivating the habit in our mind of staying here, in the present, not going off.

I’m not getting angry ever again!?!

As Gen Samten puts it, what is harder, not getting angry for a lifetime, or not getting angry for a day? “I could never do the former!” we might think. But can we avoid anger today? Yes, probably, with a bit of effort. So that is all we have to do. Within this wall I’m not going to get angry.

We realize we can do a lot of spiritual practices that may have daunted us previously. “I could never have universal compassion for all living beings!” But could we contemplate universal compassion just today?! Yes, we could give it a try. It might take a little effort and work and by the end of the day we might feel tired — but good tired, not todaybad tired, because we have used our energy wisely. Then we can rest, and wake up in the morning – a new day, a new wall. If we screwed up, we start again.

Etch a sketch. Every moment, let alone every day, is brand new. Geshe Kelsang said that when we close our eyes and then open them again, everything has changed. Blink, and it’s a new world.

Shorter periods of time

In this way we can build up a really helpful mental habit – if we are determined to build this wall, we’ll do it. And we’ll find that this habit begins to apply to shorter and shorter periods of time. For example, if we’re having breakfast with our family and have a hard day at work ahead, we can think: “I’m not going to worry about work, it is outside the wall around breakfast”, and instead concentrate on having a good time with our family, bringing kindness and love into that. When we get to work, that’s a new situation, and one I will be involved in then.

This will overcome basically all our worry. The habit of worry is the habit of thinking about things outside the wall. By remembering subtle impermanence and that we may die today, we build a wall around today.

I’m going to add here what Tim Larcombe just said in the comments as I think this could be a very practical reminder throughout our day:

We can be reminded of “the wall” when people say “Have a good day” to us. And we can wish for them to be worry-free when we say it to them 🙂

Necessity vs meaning

Our emphasis begins to shift from what is meaningless to what is meaningful. If we just focus on things like career, wealth, a good social life, relationships, a hot body, etc, when we get to a certain age we experience a crisis. If we make these the compelling narrative of our life, sooner or later, and certainly by the end of our life, we’ll find them to be hollow. Sometimes people despair, they don’t know what they’ve done with their lives. There is even a delusion all of its own about this, called self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development. ~ How to Understand the Mind p. 155

It’s a bit like trying to scoop the foam off an ocean, I think, and trying to make it last. And while we are preoccupied with doing that, we are ignoring the limitless potential of our mind for lasting happiness and freedom, and the vast and profound ocean of Dharma practices that will give us this.

time is running out 1Acquainting ourselves with the thought “I may die today” connects us with the real meaning of our life. It stops us focusing on things that are completely banal, unnecessary, even negative. If we spend the hours not already working surfing the internet or watching Netflix, for example, and it’s not so hard to do, does this bring any real happiness?

What about the things we do need eg, food, clothing, health insurance, etc? Buddha taught four necessities of life: food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These may be necessary, but if make them the meaning of our life, we will neglect cultivating our inner qualities.

Our outer wealth is our possessions, friends, etc, and our inner wealth is our compassion, patience, and so on. Outer wealth may be a necessity of life, but it doesn’t enrich our life. It is our inner wealth that enriches our life. Without love, for example,  no matter how many possessions we have, we feel poor. But with a mind full of love, regardless of whether we have many or few possessions, we feel like the richest person in the world.

Magic pill

magic pillIf you have any problem at all, see what happens if you apply those four words: “I may die today”. If you are worried about something, try saying this to yourself for a couple of minutes – see how you are brought back into the present and recalibrate, focusing on what is meaningful again. If you’re getting angry, repeat these words, and think, “This may be the last time I ever speak to this person! I want it to be a good conversation.” When we are angry with someone, we are assuming on some level that they’re going to be there tomorrow. (Which is why we are angry!)

This thought is like a magic pill — we can use it many times each day whenever we’re unhappy, and find that we naturally come back to this peaceful feeling, centered in the present moment, on what is meaningful.

This magic pill is also very helpful for meditating. If our mind is distracted, we can think, “I may die today, I may die in this meditation”, and see what happens! We build boundaries around that meditation, keeping our thoughts inside the meditation, not outside. This mental habit can greatly improve our concentration.

Meditation

And here is a bit of meditation to bring this together.

We’ll think there is a wall around today and I’m not going to worry about anything outside that wall.

woman meditating under treeWe sit comfortably, and allow our mind to become centered through breathing meditation. We can drop from our head into our heart and feel the peace and potential of our Buddha nature.

We can contemplate the truth, “I may die today, I may die today.” As we do this, we can allow two things to happen. The first is that a boundary begins to form around today – we’ll begin to feel that since I may die today I don’t need to think about tomorrow, and I am not going to let my thoughts wonder outside of this boundary. And we can just enjoy the feeling of peace and happiness that comes from that.

And secondly we will begin to develop a strong determination to focus on what is meaningful, on what makes us truly human. To bring as much kindness, love, patience, and wisdom into all the situations that we encounter today.

Then we remember this for the rest of the day!

(Thank you again to Gen Samten for all his valuable input into this subject. Next installment is here …)