How to lighten up

8 mins read + a video

meditator

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

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

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

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

What is renunciation, again?!

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

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

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

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

Overpowered by attachment to a body?! Try this.

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

What exactly is it that I am so attached to?

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

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

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

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

Our body is useful but unreliable

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

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

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

“A melaWHAT?” I silently screamed.

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

“Ermm, now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not all folks …

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

 

As Geshe Kelsang says:

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

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

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

elephant stuck in mud

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

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

The very bearable lightness of being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second half of this twofold meditation on renunciation coming up soon. Meanwhile, please leave your comments below.

 

Our bodies barely exist

“It’s a good day to have a good day”, said the sign on the side of the carpet van I just saw in Charlotte, NC. I couldn’t agree more. But it’s not always easy because our delusions keep interfering with us, destroying our inner peace and happiness. As ignorance underpins all good day to have a good day.jpegour delusions, the best way to have a good day today — and every day — is to break free from ignorance and stop going round and round in circles. How? By realizing the true nature of things. So, with the wish for you all to have a really lovely day, I’m going to continue these articles on the emptiness, or true nature, of our body. And please bear with the new terms if you are not yet used to them, it’s worth it.

That experience of not finding our body, as explained in this last article, is the experience of emptiness. We are experiencing the non-existence of the body we normally perceive, the non-existence of the inherently existent or objectively existing body. We are not looking at nothingness, but at the mere absence of inherent existence of the body. This is a deeply meaningful absence and the most profound object of knowledge.

So, what is my body?

Our body does not exist in the way that it appears, which is findable and real and outside the mind. This does not mean that our body does not exist at all, but that it “barely exists”, as Geshe Kelsang has said – it exists as mere appearance or projection of mind. We normally don’t think of our body as mere appearance — we believe it is really there, just as we believe that objects in a dream are really there (until we wake up). And that wrong belief or wrong conception is ignorance.

And we don’t just do this with our body – we are doing it with everything. It is absurd. And it is causing all our suffering.

We think there is a reality out there, existing from its own side, appearing at us, solid. And so we grasp with ignorance – when things appear attractive we have to have them, for example, and when they appear unattractive we want rid of them. In dependence upon these three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and anger, and their subsidiary delusions, we create karma that causes us to keep circling in dream-like samsara. We are failing to recognize that we are creating our whole reality with our thoughts.

“Look, everyone!”

It’s like believing there’s something real out there when watching a movie, as if there really are people there, as if something really is happening, as if there is something coming from the side of the screen. Whereas in reality everything little-boy-at-moviecomes from the mind — is dependent upon conceptual imputation or label or projection. 

A small boy standing in the gangway at a movie was looking at the screen and then back at the projector and then back at the screen again, with a growing expression of surprise on his face. Then, pointing at the screen, he yelled happily, and loud enough for all of us to hear, “Look, mommy! The movie isn’t coming from out there!” Then, practically jumping up and down with glee, he pointed at the projector: “It’s coming from over here!!!” We all laughed. He may have ruined the magical illusion of the movie for some, but to me he seemed like a little Buddha emanation granting the relief of realizing that things do not exist from the side of the object but are projected by our mind.

A lot of Western scientists believe that consciousness is a by-product of matter, even if they haven’t quite figured out how. But it is in fact the complete opposite – our body and the entire physical world are created by our mind, like a dream.

Pile of stones

pile-of-stones

Although it is beyond wonderful that Buddha explained all this, we don’t have to take his word for it. We can see the truth for ourselves, using our own wisdom.

In Step One, identifying the negated object, we get to the point when we think, “If this body is not real, what is real?! This is the body I’ve cherished my entire life. Whenever it feels uncomfortable or sick or fat or rejected by someone, I feel sad. Are you telling me I have been wasting all this energy, all these moods!, on a mere figment, a mental elaboration?

In the remaining three steps we try to find something that matches exactly this vividly appearing real body. But when we look for our body, we find nothing that corresponds to the vividly appearing body that we normally perceive. We look everywhere that it could possibly be, so, if we don’t find it, we have to conclude that it doesn’t exist. It is like mistaking a pile of stones at dusk for a man, as Shantideva says:

Therefore, there is no body, but out of ignorance
The thought of “body” arises through perceiving hands and so forth;
Just like developing the thought of a man
Through perceiving a pile of stones. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Within the parts of the body we think there is a real body — but if we go looking for it we cannot find it anywhere. It is an hallucination, like being startled upon seeing a man out there in a pile of stones, only to relax by realizing we made him up.

Maybe if I just look a little deeper?! …

But maybe, we think, if I just looked a little deeper I would find something out there. For example, maybe we think that the parts of the body are real, so there is some sense after all in imputing a body onto them and holding onto it. There is something out there on which to pin my body. My arms and legs, for example, must be real, or my hands. Of course stones are not a suitable basis for thinking “body”, but the parts of my body surely are!!!?

emptiness-quote(By the way, we need to bring our contemplation on the non-existence of the real body to a conclusion and meditate on that emptiness before we delve further into looking for its parts. These are different contemplations — emptiness of the body, emptiness of the hand, etc.)

To be continued in the next exciting article, when we’re going to look for the very building blocks of the universe … !

Once again, if you are enjoying this subject, please download this free ebook, How to Transform Your Life, and take your time reading the chapter on Ultimate Truth, where it is explained clearly and perfectly.

Related articles

Appearance and reality

The Non-Thingyness of Things

There is no depth other than emptiness

Time to rebel!

There seems to be a fair bit of hubris around lately, like it’s catching or something, and some of it is quite dangerous. Deluded pride is more about bending the world to our own will, thinking we are already great and/or know it all. It never works out in the long term — as they say, pride always comes before a fall. And pride is not inspiring.manjushri

With wisdom, on the other hand, we see that WE need to change if we are to find lasting happiness and help others do the same. We need the confidence to change, and this needs to be based on something valid, ie, our spiritual potential and actual good qualities, not dumb stuff or selfish stuff or negative stuff.

Actual self-confidence — or non-deluded pride — is a humble mind, the very opposite of hubris. It is able to accept challenges without freaking out, learn from others, grow from mistakes, and keep us moving and improving. It is also catching because when we meet a truly humble, selfless person we are humbled by their guru-and-lineage-gurus-black-and-whitehumble nature. Their influence can be huge and their inspiration ring down the ages.

Even one strong delusion can be a powerful force for negativity in our world – delusions are weird and scary, and they can spread fast. But a strong, virtuous, sane mind like self-confident humility or compassion is just as powerful and contagious, maybe more so, and can oppose the delusions directly. So being the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi put it, is an effective response to our own and others’ delusions; and, unlike trying to master other people, mastering our own mind is guaranteed to bring about good results now and later.

Carrying on from this article.

Pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions

The second area in which we can increase our self-confidence is called “the pride in thinking we can destroy our delusions.” This is the thought:

I can conquer all my delusions; they will never conquer me. ~ How to Understand the Mind

We are thinking, “I don’t want to stay the same – I want to become unstuck by freeing my mind from the chains of my delusions.” In ordinary psychology, perhaps, we hardly dare imagine that we can change that much – getting rid of all our faults and limitations, as opposed to just some of them. But in Buddhist psychology, as explained a bit here, it is possible to develop a vision that understands we can.

It is impossible to destroy our spiritual potential because this is based on reality, but it is perfectly possible to destroy our delusions because these are based on wrong conceptions that can be righted:

A person under the influence of delusions is not in his right mind, because he is creating terrible suffering for himself and no one in his right mind would create suffering for himself. All delusions are based on a mistaken way of seeing things. When we see things as they really are, our delusions naturally disappear and virtuous minds naturally manifest. ~ How to Transform Your Life 

Bodhisattva warriors

warriorsTry thinking this: “I’m going to destroy, vanquish, and utterly eliminate from my mind every last trace of delusion.” Just try it out. Try the feel of it in your heart-mind. I am going to destroy my delusions. This is how Shantideva says it in his epic Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

 I will conquer all obstacles,
And none shall conquer me.

That is a big sense of self, right?! But it’s not the big, real, important self as in deluded pride (the self that doesn’t exist).

Thus I, who will become a Conqueror,
Will practice with self-confidence.

A real Conqueror is a Buddha, someone who has awakened from the sleep of mistaken conceptions and appearances, destroying all their delusions permanently.

We need this self-confidence so that when things go wrong, (as they do tend to do), we need never become panic-stricken or downcast.

You know that feeling – if our confidence is weak, then just some little thing crops up, like an annoying email, and we trip up and collapse. It’s like we’re setting out to practice patience and suddenly people are being doubly disagreeable. “Ohh, I can’t do it!” In truth, the opposite is the case. “I, who am going to become a Buddha, will destroy all my delusions.”

Shantideva illustrates how we can put ourselves into that space with the example of a warrior – saying that if a warrior in battle gets a flesh wound and sees their own blood, they are roused to greater acts of courage. Whereas if someone bloodies me with a sword … well, I don’t know what I’d do, but if my brief days of playing school sports are anything to go by, I’d probably slink off the battle field as soon as as I could without being noticed.manjushri-wisdom-sword

The Bodhisattva is like a warrior – they start experiencing obstacles, and they are like, “Great! Bring it on!” More reason to wield the sword of wisdom against the delusions, more reason to be self-confident. 

And in truth, why shouldn’t we be self-confident? We know where the obstacles are coming from = just our own mind. The intriguing thing about the obstacles, the delusions, is that that’s all they are – they’re just delusions. Meaning not only are they just thoughts, without arms or legs as Shantideva says (let alone swords), but they also don’t have truth on their side. They’re actually grounded in ignorance. They are founded on a misperception of reality. Whereas we can become a Buddha, that’s the truth. We can overcome our delusions, that’s the truth. Wisdom, love, compassion, generosity, patience, self-confidence and all the other virtuous minds are based on seeing reality correctly.

The real battle lines are drawn 

It’s not a fight between good versus evil where we are on the sidelines, on tenterhooks, “Who’s going to win the ultimate battle, the dark side, the light side?!” It’s not like that — especially if we are talking about living beings versus living beings because we are all mixed bags of delusions and virtues changing all the time, and from one life to the next, so who could ever possibly win a battle like that?!

The real battle lines are wisdom versus ignorance, and finally, in that war, ignorance doesn’t stand a chance. This is because it is ignorant! It is stupid. It is also stubborn and fairly persuasive while we remain under its influence, but as soon as we start to view it from the perspective of wisdom it doesn’t stand a chance.

curved-knife
By holding in her right hand a curved knife, Buddha Vajrayogini — the wisdom of all Buddhas  — shows her power to cut the continuum of the delusions and obstacles of her followers and of all living beings.

More on this second type of self-confidence in the next article — we are out of time as I know a lot of readers have things to do like march the streets today. That’s cool, I like that people are standing up for what they believe in. Maybe it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, that our outward action is nurtured and given its meaning by our inner motivations. So even in these, for many people, difficult and scary times, and in the heat of battle, I am trying to remember that my real rebellion is against the delusions or wrong conceptions – never other living beings — and starting with my own.

Feedback from you: How do you stay confident enough to prioritize conquering your delusions, even when things are going badly wrong and the tendency to feel upset and lash out might be strong?

Next type of self-confidence can be found here.

Related articles

Think globally, act locally

What are delusions?

Overcoming discouragement

 

Love & affection according to Buddhism

If we too want to wake everyone up from their hallucinations, as explained here, we have to like them first, just as S has affectionate love for Murphy. This is the first step, and it is why the equalizing-3straightforward meditation on equalizing self with others is so helpful and why I’m going to write a bit more about it.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the bestest of us all?

I remember being quite excited when I read this in the American constitution shortly after I arrived here in 1999:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal …

We are all equal. In what way? Clearly not financially or politically or materially, and perhaps it will always be impossible for us all to be the same externally. But on a deeper and more basic level altogether, the mind level, the heart level, we are all exactly the same in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering. That’s true, isn’t it? I want to be happy and I want to avoid suffering, but so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you! Everybody does.

We are all sitting around having lots of ideas –schemes and memories and reflections, & likes and dislikes and opinions — but basically if you distill us all down to 2 essential wishes, they are, I want to be happy and I don’t want to suffer. That’s why we think all of our other thoughts, they back them up, they come from us trying to make ourselves happy and solve our problems.

And yet we manage to think, “I’m so special!” If I’m special, everybody’s special. And if you’re not special, well I’m not special either. Because at heart we’re the same.cherishing-others-is-not-so-difficult

This is quite a miracle meditation – it is based on the methods for equalizing and exchanging self with others taught by the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri via Shantideva, and it is like Manjushri’s sword cutting right through appearances and differences to the heart of the matter.

I wanted to make a tee-shirt with the slogan: “You’re nobody till you realize you’re nobody.” My friends laughed at the notion, but I don’t care, I like it. It reminds me of my teacher, Geshe Kelsang, who has no ego, which makes him a big Somebody when it comes to his ability to help people in this world.

Start with family and friends

Equalizing is one of the first meditations I did and it had such an impact that it became an instant favorite. Back in the day, about 100 years ago, when I started going to meditation classes in York, England, we were encouraged to remember just one person, put ourselves in their shoes, and then reflect how, at heart, we are the same – just as I long to be happy, so do they, and just as I long to be free from suffering, so do they. When that understanding arose in our mind, we were encouraged to hold it, and the feeling of affection that comes along with it.equalizing-2

I chose my grandmother, the lovely old mother of my dad, because I already liked her and it is good to make meditations easy to start with, to slip into some good feeling you already have and build on that. And, like I said, doing this easy-peasy, entirely reasonable contemplation had an impact. I felt close and warm toward her, a feeling that lasted for the remaining years of her life. In fact, I still feel it now when she comes to mind, wherever she may be. Hey Granny, I hope you are exceedingly well and happy.

If we have a sense of how one person is at heart just like us, then we can understand that this is equally true for everyone. All these people around me in the street or at work have the same heart as mine, so why focus on the differences when through recognizing our commonality a mind of love will naturally arise? Instead of being neurotically focused on what’s going on in our own irksome dream-like lives, we can ask ourselves, with genuine interest, “What is their life like? How do they feel? What do they want?” Moving away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others allows the heart to open and warm happiness to flow.

And we can gradually ask this question of all those too whom we find upsetting at the moment — it really helps us get over it and become centered, grounded, and peaceful.

Whose team are you on?

Did you watch the Broncos vs the Panthers in the Super Bowl this year? Which side did you root for? I think of all living beings as being on the same team, and our opponent is always the same: suffering and delusions. Competing with each other, not to mention deliberately getting in each others’ way, is as pointless as football players on the same team working against each other. The Broncos knew that. That’s why we won!!! 😉

equalizing-1Everyone is worthy of love. With this meditation we understand the heart of others. We understand what we have in common. We understand what unites us, and how much greater it is than what divides us.

In a way, the equanimity meditation is about how we see others. Now, with equalizing, we recognize how they see themselves. We develop empathy, put ourselves in their shoes, understand that “I” is the name of everyone. We are not uniquely “Me”. Which means we are not uniquely important. With familiarity we get used to thinking this way, and our life becomes big. And a lot more fun.

A mantra for the meditation break

If we get some familiarity with this in the meditation session — which can be just 10 minutes sitting on our sofa thinking this through with as little distraction as possible until our heart moves — then we can make the decision to carry this understanding into our daily life. It is helpful to have a quote or a mantra or a slogan to recall whenever we encounter anyone, and one recommended for this meditation is:

This person is important. Their happiness matters.may-i-constantly-cherish

This quote is a problem-solver par excellence as most of our problems come from thinking we are more important and significant than others. In the short term people will like us and we won’t develop problems from hatred, jealousy, and so on. In the longer term we will easily develop great compassion and bodhichitta.

Over to you. Have you had good results from this meditation?

Related articles:

Equalizing self and others 

Why am I so sad?

Want quicker results from your meditation?

Let’s just be kind

storm sky
Storm Jonas Sky

Geshe Kelsang was in a car being shown around New York City some years ago – people were trying to point out the sights, he wasn’t unduly excited. At one point he shook his head, and said:

So many people, so much suffering.

Suffering can be seen on many faces in this towering concrete jungle. The overly entitled have affluenza in their penthouses, for example, while down below over 20,000 kids are homeless, including the frozen girl outside the Path subway stop with her cardboard sign. (Unbearable, she is still only a teenager but has been there for years. What future?) But there was a change in pace and noise over the weekend with the landing of Storm Jonas, when many were given temporary shelter, no cars were allowed on the roads, the snow muted all other sounds, and the usually high-octane New Yorkers were obliged to take it down a notch or two and cozy up inside.

I had my snow days over the water in Jersey City – we dug the car out but clearly weren’t going far on those roads, and the train was closed, so we stayed mainly on the sofa instead, along with millions of other East Coasters. Except I did go for some magical walks around the neighborhood with the dog – kids were making snowmen and tobogganing down their front stoops, everything felt far more peaceful than usual, graveyardthe cars were neatly buried, the blue sky and whiteness showed the colorful Journal Square houses off to good effect, even the cemetery looked good. It was like the olden days, like the 1950s or something, everyone convivial, the narrow or unpassable sidewalks forcing us to stand courteously aside for each other and smile. And everywhere, just everywhere, people were shoveling snow.

I had Winston with me, in his warm winter overcoat but his belly soaked. (Some people were dismayed by a photo I posted of him on Facebook because he was submerged to his nose, but what you might not know is that he is a Tibetan spaniel with snow in his DNA who chose to jump into the deepest mounds.) On shoveling snowMonday, as I was about to go inside, a friendly voice called me, “Hey! I didn’t recognize you!” I turned around. “Oh, it’s not you! But it is Winston! Where is Julian?” I told him that I was staying with Julian and France again, and that he and I had bumped into each other last year, which is true, his name is John. We got to chatting, he’s a very genial man, and he asked, “Have you come to live over here?” I said no, I still lived in Denver, to which he replied, “You should come and live with us! And meanwhile look at all this snow you brought! But it is a beautiful day.” We chatted a little longer and had some laughs. This was a good encounter and, though brief, left both of us feeling a warm connection. Life did not seem so rough in this neighborhood for a change.

John's home
Home?

Later as I was getting ready to go to Manhattan, the whole street for some reason filled up with emergency vehicles – a fire truck, 2 ambulances, a police car, all lights flashing. A queue of adventurous cars behind, no way they could pass on the snow-narrowed street. One ambulance left, one stayed. Emergency crew were coming and going with bits of equipment, and pushing snow fast to make a pathway for the stretcher. Clearly someone was in distress. “Perhaps it is the old Chinese man who lives next door?” said Julian. “I hope not, but maybe it is. Often people have heart attacks when shoveling snow.” I’d never heard that. I waited quite a while until someone was finally brought out on a stretcher, the ambulance crew still trying to pump his heart. To me, he looked dead, he had gone, only a body was left. And I said, “Julian, is that John?”

IMG_6645
Home?

We never know. Then we saw his distressed wife and 12-year-old daughter getting into the police car. I have heard since that he died in the house, that the first responders were never able to resuscitate him.

This has made me think, not for the first or for the last time, that life is way too short to waste in anger, frustration, disappointment, or intolerance. We have a few hundred months left at most. Life can end anytime so do we want to waste any of these valuable years, months, weeks, days, or even moments being angry or unkind? John was holding his shovel while we were talking. He was around my age, he looked perfectly fit and hJohn Caldwellealthy, he was having a beautiful day — but he still had a heart attack while shoveling snow. I was possibly the last person he talked to, an hour or so earlier, and if I had known then what I know now I would have asked him to go inside and sit on the sofa instead.

But that is not even all. On the Kadampa Buddhist Prayer Request FB page, someone has asked for prayers for her brother Thomas, aged 53 with a clean bill of health, who also died in New Jersey on Monday night while shoveling snow. He has left behind a “devastated” wife and teenage son. Please remember John, Thomas, and their families in your prayers.

IMG_6647Bodhisattvas, those intent on attaining full enlightenment to free every living being from their suffering and its causes forever, have a prayer, beautifully articulated by Shantideva:

Therefore, in whatever I do, may I never bring harm to others;
And when anyone encounters me, may it always be meaningful for them.

Walking down the street this evening with Winston, I saw the tree John planted for France and Julian outside their house, his black landscaping truck that has stood still for 3 days even though the road is now clear, and his blue home with all the curtains closed, perhaps his beloved poodle waiting by the door. And I thought how the remaining piles of once innocent snow, now grubbying and yellow, might be reminding his wife and daughter of their unfathomable loss, and how they might always find snow sinister after this.

John's truck
The snow is shoveled but this truck is going nowhere.

It makes me want to remember at all times that we are all on our way to dying and our next lives, so whoever we think we are and wherever we think we come from, we are all in this together. So let’s just be kind to each other on our way.

Seven benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitudeNow we are coming up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, and apparently the word “thanks” is connected to the word “grateful”, no surprises there, really. (“Grateful” is also loosely related to the word “grace”.) So this is the time of the year to feel grateful, which is nice, as study after study shows that gratitude is an enormous predictor of happiness, a kind of happiness superpower, and we all like being happy.

Plus we need to feel happy if we are to avoid being a grumpy git and ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Have you noticed that we are far more likely to get annoyed if we are already not feeling happy inside? How when things feel good and we are connected to our own inner peace, happiness, and confidence, minor annoyances don’t worry us at all – but how on the other hand when we feel unsettled inside, not good in ourselves, not whole, split off from our own peace, the smallest thing can set us off? This might sound obvious, but that doesn’t seem to prevent us, the moment we do get annoyed, from casting around for something or someone else to blame, anything other than our own disgruntled state of mind.

Join the clubcontrol mind

Things are changing all the time, and I mean literally moment by moment – this is called impermanence – so is it any wonder that things don’t always change in the direction we want them to? We all have to keep re-adjusting to changing circumstances, we have no choice. However, if our mind is calm and we know we have everything we need inside, we hardly care. And one of the most powerful ways to get there is to train in gratitude. This means actually putting time aside to think about it.

Great-full

I sometimes think of “grateful” as “great-full”, ie, feeling full of all that is great. (Or something like that.) Dictionary.com says it means “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful” as well as “pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable or welcome; refreshing.”

Gratitude does please our mind. It helps us enjoy our lives immensely. It helps us feel happy, whole, enriched, and confident. Instead of focusing on the things that are wrong with our life, and of course we can all come up with a long list, we focus on the things that are right.

How does that square with the need to focus on our suffering in order to develop renunciation? (Just in case you are wondering.) This is samsara after all, so what on earth are we supposed to be happy about? Generally the only time it is worth focusing on our own suffering is just for that reason, in order to develop the wish to get rid of it all and its causes. But at the times we are feeling hopelessly unhappy, bereft, annoyed, sorry for ourselves – the chances are that we are not focusing on our suffering in this constructive way at all. At which point we can either shift our focus to renunciation, or shift our focus away from what’s wrong to what’s right, developing gratitude instead.

The grass is not always greenergrass greener

Too often we pine over the things we haven’t got whilst neglecting the things we have. Counting our blessings is a way to focus on what we’ve got going for us, the green grass right under our noses.

By the way, I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ve been thinking lately about how there is never any point in trying to replace people and things we have lost. Better to tune into what is now and we’ll feel whole again. Not, “Oh this is just a pale imitation of the living conditions/relationship/job etc I had!” It is not a pale imitation, it is just different. It is not supposed to replace anything, and if we don’t set it up as a replacement we might just find that we are enjoying it in its own right. Be happy in ourselves and we can enjoy everything that comes our way.

Some scientifically proven benefits of gratitude

As I said, there are a ton of articles out these days about the power of gratitude. This article for example gives 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, so I thought I’d give a quick unscientific comment on all of them.

Gratitude:

  1. Opens the door to more relationships. Hardly surprising really, who doesn’t like being around someone who appreciates them?!
  2. Improves physical health. All I’ll say here is that I was feeling very grateful this morning (hence this article) and my good mood made me go for a swim in a pool in the snow.
  3. Improves psychological health. Gratitude “effectively increases happiness and reduces depression” and “reduces a multitude of toxic emotions (read “delusions”), ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” That’s understandable, and cool.
  4. Enhances empathy and reduces aggression. For sure.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Yup, I love sleeping!
  6. Improves self-esteem. And “reduces social comparisons”. Yes, if we are grateful to others, we tend to want to repay them, and it becomes natural to rejoice in them instead of comparing ourselves and falling short.
  7. Increases mental strength. Gratitude “reduces stress” and “fosters resilience”. There is nothing more resilient than a peaceful, controlled mind, which we get with gratitude.

That was only 7. This article gives 31 benefits of gratitude 🙂 But I’ll spare you my comments.

pigletNow I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but I’ll mention it just in case. Gratitude also boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels. It is apparently even a form of emotional intelligence and “affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (which apparently is a good thing).

Feel free to Google “gratitude benefits” or whatever and you’ll have a stack of bedtime reading.

Before teaching how to generate a positive state of mind, Buddha Shakyamuni would always talk first about its benefits to encourage us to go for it. So hopefully you’ve decided that gratitude is what you want, in which case, in the next article I carry on with this and share some Buddhist techniques for feeling more grateful.

Meanwhile, I am always (well, almost always) grateful for your comments …