Taking things less personally

9 mins read.

Today finds me contemplating snow again. I am dog/cat/fish sitting in the mountains this week and, despite the 67-degree heat yesterday, woke this morning to a thick blanket of snow. Good thing I brought my snow shoes along with my tee-shirt.

Who are we?

Like snowflakes, every living being is unique. We are each a summation of a very very long history of previous karma, so however similar we may seem physically or even mentally, we are also unique.

Like snowflakes, too, we are all alike in that each of us has the same wish for happiness and freedom, sometimes via the satisfaction of immediate needs, sometimes via the existential question, “What does all this mean?! This has to mean something!”

I stood in line for my Moderna vaccination yesterday – the Denver Health nurses were, as always, kind and welcoming, but everyone seemed a little nervous about their own shot, wanting it to be over, even though we were each just one of millions in line worldwide. Will this give me flu? Will this help me or might it harm me? When is this awful pandemic even going to end? Will my life ever be normal again?

But when we got smiling and chatting a bit in the waiting room, we started to relax because we realized we’re all in this together. Switching our attention off “What about me?” and onto others —  even a little bit — lightens the mind. For my part, I was waving my vaccinated arm around and trying to convince a couple of other people to do the same. This is because I feel I have known my whole life that this is how to stop your arm getting stiff. I think my Mom probably told me this and I still believe it. My new friends did not seem quite so sure, but I still recommend it to you, dear reader 🙂

Like snowflakes, too, our body quickly perishes and we are 100 percent dependent on the other snowflakes – no one can make it on their own for even a second. How many people, for example, were involved in getting that potentially life-saving shot into my arm? (Thank you). Let alone have been responsible for all the other minutes of my life? 

Ego identities

But perhaps unlike snowflakes, each of us has infinite depth – countless lives and boundless potential.

The snow is thick now, despite it being almost April. After a very boisterous snow romp with the big dogs, the puppy is mercifully napping, aka letting me (and the cats) get on with things without being jumped on. Looking at the unique yet still indistinguishable snowflakes around me, I think about what it means to have a sense of self. It seems to me that we generally have a very small, limited, and personal view of self, confined to just one fleeting ego identity, just one life. It’s as if we think we are just one of these snowflakes, believing that this is all there is.

For one thing, if we don’t understand the continuum of mind, we don’t realize that who we really are is a traveler bound for future lives.

For another, with self-grasping and self-cherishing we think that the self or me we normally see is the only real and important me. Inhabiting this self is like inhabiting just one snowflake, in which case the feeling of self-importance is clearly an illusion of grandeur.

Enlightened beings have let go of this fake self by directly seeing that it cannot be found and doesn’t exist. Upon that basis they have been able to complete the exchange of self with others, imputing their sense of me on all the beings in the universe. Their sense of self is now vast – instead of identifying themselves as just one snowflake, they think “me” about all of them. As a result they have effortless love and compassion for everyone.

The self that we normally see is relatively small, poky, limited, and fragile. However, we are misidentifying ourselves because this self we are relating to doesn’t actually exist – I am not my body, not my mind, and not other than my body and mind.

 If we correctly identify our self as mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, as Geshe Kelsang explains in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, we are free to impute ourself on anything, to identify our self as anything or anyone. If we decide to broaden our sense of self to include all the snowflakes, to identify “Me” with all of them, and “My happiness” with all of their happiness, then what happens? What does that feel like?!

When we realize emptiness or selflessness, we take the inherently existent self out, at which point nothing is personal, everything is infinite. Person, being, self, and I are synonyms according to Buddhism, which means that Buddhas are people too. But they have a radically different sense of self than do samsaric beings. Not only is a Buddha a person imputed on all living beings, but they are also a person imputed upon the Truth Body of bliss and emptiness, which pervades all phenomena. Therefore, although an enlightened being is a being or a person or a self, this sense of self is NOTHING like the sense of self possessed by me or anyone else with self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Levels of mind

Watching water dripping from the snow on the roof, as the sun melts it away, I am thinking that this liquid in turn will soon evaporate back into the water vapor from which it came. This reminds me of the revolving levels of our consciousness, from our crunchy static snow-like gross minds to the dripping liquid-like subtle mind that has more movement (as in a dream), to the vaporous very subtle mind that can disperse everywhere.

(BTW, bit of terminology — when manifest in sleep, death, and deep meditation, the very subtle mind is known as the “clear light” mind.)

Everything is changing all the time, moment by moment — but sometimes things seem more solid and permanent. When we identify with our gross waking body and mind, believing that’s basically who we are, we are like a relatively static snowflake. When we dream, and things flit and move around more, we are like dripping or flowing water. When we stop grasping at our gross and subtle mind and body even temporarily during the death process, our vaporous very subtle mind travels to a whole new life. (If we stop this grasping once and for all through meditating on bliss and emptiness, our clear light mind can be everywhere all at once, a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom.)

Then just as water vapor coalesces back into liquid and then snow, so our very subtle mind coalesces into the subtle and gross minds of a new rebirth and we start to grasp again. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang says:

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

Are we unique or the same?

Life after life our consciousness is cycling like this, yet in each life we keep believing that we are just that one snowflake and hence exaggerate its importance.

On this surface level our lives are often not that different – for example, we all have the same types of positive and negative minds, such as love and anxiety, varying just in degree or in their objects. My Air BnB hosts in Frisco (where I first started this article) were a sweet couple called Jim and Cyndi, who love Ireland (hence “The Snug” complete with fairyland) and are devoted to each other and their family. We all want security and relationships and adventures, and we all love our dog (Finnogan, who chewed my shoe) and think he’s the best dog ever. Which he is, of course, as are all other dogs.

We hold ourselves and our family and our life experiences to be unique, which on one level they are, yet are we not also all caught up in the monotonous repetitive patterns of samsaric living that involve some happiness, of course, but also the cliché of the seven sufferings? I overheardJim on the phone to his doctor, “I have pain in my lower abdomen”. Later he looked distracted and Cyndi looked drawn, trying to be polite but clearly worried. The Snug was a shrine to their love for their grandchildren and their Irish adventures, but how long can that particular identity last? They will soon be staring into the abyss; yet how can we find meaning there if we don’t understand what we are looking at? If all our lives we have invested only in the fleeting, unstable, and, according to Buddha, mistaken appearances of our gross waking minds?

I like to think about the infinite clear light mind that underlies everything – all minds and their objects arise from this root mind. Every being has it, which means that every snowflake-life and identity is just a temporary manifestation, and every being is in fact infinitely deep and infinitely connected.

Our very subtle mind is not even human.

At the level of clear light, how can you tell us apart? Tell me from you? You can only ever talk about “me and you” from a specific relative standpoint(the standpoint of snowflakes). Our true nature is empty like space, and we can only tell us apart via convention or point of view; just as we can only tell the space in empty bottles apart via the bottles.

What happens when we die

Talking about the abyss, people sometimes take up extreme sports or even criminal activity just to feel alive and transcend their fear and unease of the unknown. Even though they may face down death in these ways, it doesn’t in fact stop the terror when the time actually does come to die because the understanding is still not there.

However, Buddha explained what happens to our consciousness when we die; this doesn’t have to stay unknown, this is verifiable inner science. Many accounts from people with near-death experiences (NDEs) bear this out, as do stories of reincarnation, and many people’s direct experiences in meditation. Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a little bit so far, but it looks like it’s going to give people food for thought.

Watching that show I was thinking, yes, it helps to have faith, this gives us some refuge in light of the unknown. But I think it helps more to have faith combined with a considerably greater understanding of consciousness. Death, rebirth, and liberation are not ineffable. What happens during them is verifiable from centuries of personal exploration and experience. If you want to know what happens to us subjectively during the death process, for example, you need reach no further than a copy of Clear Light of Bliss.

I wish everyone who feels existential dread or even just ordinary curiosity would investigate Buddha’s teachings because he was an extraordinarily deep thinker who went out of his way to address all of this. And what he discovered has been practiced with the same results for millennia.

Over to you. Would love to hear your comments.

 

Change our thoughts, liberate our self

lotus botannical gardensIn this article I was talking about changing our thoughts to get past the grasping at an uncomfortable, limited self. We can also do some Tantric thinking at this point to effectively and quickly (once we’re used to it) re-generate or re-label ourselves and solve our problem.

Who needs validation?

I found myself in the odd situation not that long ago of having my hitherto closest friend stop calling me. It got me to thinking on more than one occasion that I’d like them to call me and show their appreciation, if indeed they have any left, which of course they may not.

And when I got to thinking like this, I viewed it as a challenge to look at that limited self that needs validation. And because it was an exaggerated sense of self, it was ironically easier to spot and therefore dissolve away into emptiness.

Do I want them to call my body? Do I want them to call my mind? No, I want them to call ME! And that me appears independent of my body and mind, as if it can exist all on its own. So where is it? Where is that me that needs someone to call it? Is it my body? No. That me is nowhere to be found anywhere in my meaty body, my meaty body cannot converse for a start. Is it my mind? No. I am not a mind, I have a mind. Is it then the collection of body and mind? No. That’s just a collection of things that are not-me – a whole bunch of not-me’s plonked together does not magically make a me.

So this neglected me, or self, cannot be found; it doesn’t exist. My sense of it is just an invisible (to everyone else) idea I have of me, and not even one I can see most of the time. And it only functions when I do hold onto it – when I let it go through wisdom, I’m immediately free from the problem of being unloved.

Vajrayogini in phenomena source
Buddha Vajrayogini

From there I can come up with a new rather more interesting idea of me – generate myself as a Buddha and ask the question: Does Buddha Shakyamuni need this person to call him? No. Does Je Tsongkhapa wonder why they never call? No, never. Does Manjushri care a whit? No, not even slightly. Does Vajrapani? You kidding?! And what about Vajrayogini? She doesn’t give a monkeys.

It works every time. So-called “pure view” and “divine pride” solve all our problems quickly. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says in Tantric Grounds and Paths p. 14:

If instead of clinging to an ordinary identity we were to overcome ordinary conceptions by developing the divine pride of being Heruka or Vajrayogini, we would not develop fear, anxiety, or any other negative state of mind. How can anyone harm Heruka? How can Vajrayogini run out of money?

If I don’t need any more from others, this frees me up to try and give them what they might need, if they ever want it. And instead of wasting my energy trying to fulfill the needs of my limited self, which necessarily leads me to neglecting countless other living beings (some of whom might actually like my attention), and is rather like trying to fill a black hole, I can replace that attachment with compassion and have a rich life, like a sun radiating endlessly.

Which brings us back to the Mahamudra meditation, which greatly helps us to dissolve away our thoughts in the first place so we can recreate our world. There is nothing behind our thoughts.

Tripsy the Dog

When we get used to this meditation we’ll see that where our mind was full, we’ll begin to sense the space in our mind – which really helps us solve our problems. Usually we get a thought in our head and we cannot let it go. Totally wound up and bound up and controlled by that situation that we have created for ourselves, and the more we think about it the crazier we get, like a dog grappling with a bone.

dog with boneYou ever tried to get a dog away from a bone once it is really into it?! I had a Doberman-mix called Tripsy when I was 8, he was our guard dog in Guyana, theoretically; but the problem was that he had no discrimination between intruders and friendlies, and would instead bite everyone. Everyone, that is, apart from me, as he liked me a lot. Except, and here’s my point, except when I tried to take his bone away from him. I always had to snatch my hand back just in time, it was a strangely exhilarating game I invented (no TV back then.)

My father got fed up paying for people’s stitches (well, it happened once, but it was enough) and Tripsy got sent off to the countryside.

Our mind can be a bit like Tripsy the dog – it has gotten used to grabbing onto this situation or that problem in this way, shaking it all about, doesn’t really want to let it go, and may even snap at someone who tries to get us to see things differently. We have this idea, “This is my problem, I have to solve it, nothing will be right until this is sorted” – instead of dropping the bone and walking away.

This meditation is not about pushing a problematical thought out of our mind, but dropping it — just dropping it — and relaxing into the natural clarity and space of our own mind, letting everything dissolve. If we can do this, almost all our problems truthfully disappear. When we go about our daily life again, we find that our ways of letting go 8thinking about things have changed, we are grasping less, and so we are experiencing far less mental pain and anxiety. We always have things to take care of, sometimes very challenging things; but our approach will feel so different if we allow ourselves to let go sometimes and just experience the natural clarity and purity of our own mind.

Incredible peace comes from a settled mind. When we quieten our mind, our natural capacity for feeling good manifests naturally from within. We don’t need to be a dog with a bone week after week, life after life. Knowing that space can solve problems is a very useful insight for daily life.

More coming soon.