Choosing to be grateful is choosing to be happy

turkeyAs mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.

And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.

For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015 

Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.

Precious human life

world hurtsIt starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …?  Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?

We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”

“That’s awesome!”

In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.

Waves on an ocean

We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.  gratitude 5

Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.

Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)

3 reasons to feel good

Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”

By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.

But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.

gratitude 4Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.

  • My potential. I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
  • Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
  • Something in our daily life. For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.

Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.

gratitude 7We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.

As the same NYT article says:

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

Is no news good news?

“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.

Opposite of taking things for granted

Also, as Louis CK says in this video:

Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.

I like his anecdote:

I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.

Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Mighty Quinn and Butters
Butters (behind) when he was still a butter ball.

Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*

Try counting them

Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!

Heartburn or heartwarm?!

Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?

This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.

*Update on ButtersButters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.

What is the Meaning of Life?

meaning of life 42
Ermm …

Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this

  • 80 would live in substandard housing;
  • 67 would be unable to read;
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
  • 24 would not have any electricity;
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet;
  • 1 would have a college education;
  • 1 would have HIV;
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.

Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.

So, what is the meaning of life?!

The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.

meditating BuddhaBuddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Enlightenment

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says:

When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.

I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:

The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.

Same actions, different outcomes

As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:

Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.

We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:

Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.

Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)

A star in the midday sky

Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.

rabbit in the moonIf we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.

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(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)

Live life lightly, live it well

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park
View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters
This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!