Life is like a flash of lightning

flash of lightning 1
Two ways of thinking about the same thing

Geshe Kelsang has said that “arising, abiding, and ceasing are justwalking in rainbows three different ways of thinking about the same event.” Even arising and ceasing (or cessation) are two different ways of thinking about the same thing. When we realize this, we begin to let go of grasping; and it is really a question of allowing ourselves to float into that space. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

How can arising and ceasing happen simultaneously? Well one question in return is how could they not? If something is the nature of change, how could it remain the same, even for an instant?

What is the option if arising really precedes cessation? Is there is a little bit in the middle where it has arisen but not ceased? In which case that moment has a degree of permanence there, and so there is going to be grasping at it. And where do you draw the line? A fraction or two fractions? It is only when you say completely there is NO remaining that it starts to make sense.

walking through doorwayI heard once that Native Americans call all objects “events” (though now I can’t find it on Google.) This I find helpful. Everything is fluid.

If arising and cessation are the same event that is distinguished differently just by thought, another helpful example I find is this. If someone is going through a doorway, are they entering or exiting? It depends on perspective, on mind. I think this is similar to arising and ceasing.

The only continuation is what we impute as continuation. For example, a rainbow arises and ceases newly moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions, and stringing its moments together is done entirely by our mind. It’s a bit like watching a movie of many stills.

By the way, why do things change?! Our mind changes, and different appearances arise due to karma, like waves arising from an ocean. We also impute all changes with our mind. For example, perhaps we fell in love with someone who was totally fantastic and then later, bewilderingly, they changed into someone who was a total (add your own description here). Where did the person we fell for go?! We feel deceived. But where did they go?! What actually changed? Did they change, did we change? A bit of both? I’ll leave you to answer that one for now.

The doorway to realizing emptinessflash of lightning 1

If we can wrap our minds around subtle impermanence, this will take us very close to Buddha’s teachings on the true nature of reality, emptiness. Understanding subtle impermanence is said to be the doorway to emptiness, and emptiness is said to be the doorway to liberation. Geshe Potowa said:

My main meditation on the middle way is meditation on subtle impermanence.

This indicated that, for him, meditating on subtle impermanence intuitively led him into emptiness.

What do the realizations of subtle impermanence and emptiness have in common? They both help us to stop grasping. Subtle impermanence weakens our tendency to grasp, and the wisdom realizing emptiness removes it completely.

Moment by moment things are gone. But they weren’t really there to begin with.

Everything is like a flash of lightning, and even that flash of lightning doesn’t exist from its own side.

real life permanent dreamsI also think that even if we have a good understanding of emptiness, contemplating subtle impermanence has very practical benefit. Perhaps we already “get” the dream-like nature of reality. But perhaps there is still some part of us that is grasping at our dreams as lasting and as abiding – sort of like permanent dreams!

This is one of the greatest gifts that subtle impermanence can give us – at the beginning it improves all aspects of our life by helping us naturally drop our attachment and aversion etc.; and eventually it leads us to the realization of emptiness.

Hope you enjoy this series of articles on subtle impermanence.

What is there to grasp at?

letting go 3

letting go 3If something doesn’t remain for even a moment — if it is gone as soon as it arises — then what is there to hold onto??! (Carrying on from this article.) For example, we meet someone we like – but if they’re gone the moment we meet them, what is there to get attached to? If we go out for a meal with some friends, and each moment is gone as soon as it arises, what is there to grasp at? If someone unfriends you on Facebook, who is there to get upset with? They’re already gone. A new car or iPad — gone as soon as we’ve got it — what is there to get attached to? We can enjoy people and things moment by moment, but as nothing remains for the tiniest moment there is nothing to get stuck to with attachment. And however unfairly people behave, we can avoid the futility of holding hurt in our heart.

We don’t have to cover everyone and everything with the superglue of permanent grasping so that they cannot change and/or so that we cannot see them differently.

Key insight of Buddha

friend or enemyThis is the heart of Buddha’s key insight into why there is suffering in the world. Suffering doesn’t come because we are bad, it is not inflicted on us by some creator, it doesn’t come randomly out of nowhere – it all comes because we grasp. We grasp at something being there when in reality it isn’t. Grasping at my friend/enemy being there is grasping at an illusion, a rainbow. He cannot be found. And this simple act of grasping is the cause of all our suffering because if we like the thing we are grasping, we develop craving because we think there is something there. If we don’t like it, we develop anger or the wish to destroy it.

What do babies do?

Gen Samten shared a tale of his school days learning about the instincts of new-born babies — sucking and grasping. It apparently has no control even over its eyes. It also has a third instinct, which is yelling! Yelling, sucking, and grasping. The baby grasps: if it likes it, it sucks; and if it doesn’t, it yells. This seems to indicate the existence of past lives — the moment we pop out we carry on from where we left off. Then we grow up. And what is the definition of growing up? Learning to pretend to be a rational, thinking human being while still grasping, sucking, and yelling?! And we wonder why we suffer!baby yelling

Subtle impermanence cuts through all that because it teaches us there is nothing to grasp at. As soon as something has arisen, it has gone. We can ask ourselves, if we are attached to a person: “This person went the moment they arose. What am I getting attached to?”

Perhaps this makes us nervous, particularly if we really like someone, “I don’t like this!” As soon as we realize that we ourselves, for example, are gone the moment we arise, just gone, we want there to be something we can hold onto and say “me”; but there isn’t. Gone. Gone again. Gone again. As soon as I try to hold onto something it is not there anymore.

Pure states of mind instead of grasping

But when we can let go, we open up to experiencing pure states of mind such as love and compassion. Grasping always gets in the way of these. For example, if we grasp at someone, how can we love them? For if they are pleasant we develop attachment, if unpleasant, anger. The only way for our love to be pure is to love them without grasping at them as being there to love.

“But how can I love someone who’s not there?” we may protest.

One answer I think is that positive minds are always in the present moment. With love, we want that person to be happy now, wherever they are. With compassion we want them to be free from suffering. With patience we accept whole-heartedly whatever is arising in the present moment. With wisdom we go with the flow of life and deathfleeting appearances to mind. Delusions on the other hand always seem to be ranging over the past and future. This tells me something else about why it is a good idea to learn to live in the moment, and that it goes both ways — we are also able to live more in the moment when we cultivate these positive minds.

Also, in Ocean of Nectar page 28 Geshe-la explains compassion observing phenomena, which observes living beings who are realized as impermanent and wishes to protect them from suffering:

Because living beings are impermanent they are transient like the moon reflected in rippling water.

This is a deeper compassion because we realize that one profound reason why living beings suffer is because they are transient, imputing themselves on a fleeting (and entropic) body and mind, but, not realizing this, they experience permanent grasping.

Also, most people enjoy rainbows. And we can’t find them – that is one of the loveliest things about them.

I would like to hear your examples in the comments section as to how understanding subtle impermanence has enabled you to let go of grasping and other delusions and been a catalyst for positive minds such as love.

Surfing analogy

Has anyone here ever gone surfing? Our ability to surf doesn’t depend upon grasping but upon letting go. We have to go with that wave — and if we grasp and want to find security by freezing time, it won’t work. We know everything is changing, not remaining even for a moment; so the only way to surf that is to move with it. And that is part of the joy of surfing.

Life is like a wave, it doesn’t stay put even for a moment. So surf it. The daily situations in our life are different waves — am I surfing this wave or trying to freeze it to find security?

Old photosbasis of imputation changes naturally

Thanks to the kindness of some friends, my stuff recently arrived in a truck from Florida, including statues, clothes, and photos. When I look at these, especially the photos, although I recognize them, they now look subtly (and not so subtly) different — they are brand new old photos. Life events and relationships between now and when I last saw these photos a few years ago have totally changed, and so has their meaning, their existence.

Final installment is here!

Nothing sticks around

letting go 4

We can understand subtle impermanence in two ways. (And I am once again unabashedly going to borrow Gen Samten’s explanations on the subject.)

  1. No carry over 

letting go 4The first we have looked at already, vis there is no carry over — no element of the past carries over, the present is completely new. Just to remind you: The building we walk past on the way to work each day is a completely different building each day – not the same building that has just changed a little bit. The building is a continuum of moments, causally related, each of which is different from the previous one. The second moment of the building is different to the first – or another way of putting it is that the building in the second moment is completely different to the building in the first moment.

Likewise, the friendship we have with someone today is not the one we had yesterday – it is not the same friendship that has changed a little, but a completely different friendship. When we go to work every day we don’t go to work in the same job we had yesterday – it is a new job every day.

This is even the case for the person we are today. You today are as different from yesterday’s you as I am different from you! There is that degree of difference. Yesterday’s you had to go out of existence for today’s you to arise.

So everything and everyone is completely different every moment – there is not even the slightest carry over from one moment to the next. Now is brand new.

  1. Nothing sticks around for even a moment

letting go 6Secondly, there is no such thing as abiding. Abiding exists at the level of gross impermanence, but not at the level of subtle impermanence. For example, the building is built, it remains, it is destroyed. We can identify three sequential stages – production, remaining (or abiding), and destruction (or cessation).

What about when we move from this gross level to a subtle level? Subtle impermanence is momentary change. Is it that the first moment arises, then there is a little bit of remaining, then there is destruction? No. There is no remaining. There is no abiding. According to Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence, production and cessation happen simultaneously. A moment doesn’t remain even for a moment. Think about that!

Sometimes we can define subtle impermanence as “momentary disintegration”. This is a good way of thinking about it for it means that every moment is a moment of disintegration. This body is one moment of disintegration after another.

Another way to define it is “simultaneous production and cessation” – in each moment of our body, for example, production and cessation occur at the same time. This means that as soon as it is there, it is gone!

Just a point about function. Things undergo gross impermanence when they stop performing their function. For example, an iPhone is arguably still an iPhone when we crack the screen (depending on how fussy we are); but if we drop it down the toilet and don’t scoop it out fast enough it can no longer perform its function, so we smashed iphonesay it has undergone gross impermanence and gone altogether. What is the function of each moment of subtle impermanence, you might ask? The function of one moment of the iPhone is to give rise to the next moment, which is also functioning to let you send texts, browse this article, etc. The point with subtle impermanence is not that each moment doesn’t perform a function, but that we cannot hold onto anything that is performing that function — for example an iPhone can take photos but there is nothing there to grasp onto. So you cannot get attached to your iPhone! And you won’t be upset when you drop it.

Wild, huh. Our permanent grasping mind can hardly compute, but it is well worth contemplating as it opens new doorways in the mind.

Fresh eyes

life is too shortLet’s apply this to a practical challenge. Suppose we’re a manager working with people. This involves trying to understand their strengths etc., something that is built up over time. So if we’re seeing someone with new eyes, can we not take their history into account? Do we have to start each day, each moment, with a clean slate?

You’re welcome to address this in the comments section. My answer would be yes and no. A habit or tendency someone shows today is related as an effect to a habit or tendency they had in the past, but it is not the same habit or tendency. So if they show a similar tendency to a strength or a weakness today, we can take it into account; but by remembering subtle impermanence we can also understand that nothing is fixed. We can see new potential in them by not seeing them through the eyes of yesterday. I think subtle impermanence helps us to respond better because it opens our mind to infinite possibilities about this person. There is a lot more to them. Things are less fixed, more changeable. Every time we look at someone, we can see them with fresh eyes.

Ninth (and penultimate) installment is here.

Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do today

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 …)

No time like the present

boundary
First, a little anecdote

stop and smell the rosesI wrote this about a dog and me a few years ago. “I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.”

Why the emotional resistance?

Knowing about subtle impermanence (carrying on from this articlecan in fact make life fun, full, and vibrant. To begin with, however, thinking about all this constant changing can make us feel a bit insecure, like there is nothing to hold on to. “I want something to hold on to!” We may feel a little threatened, even though it is such a beautiful truth, which makes it hard to open our heart to this teaching. How can we overcome this emotional resistance?

See the beauty

Gen Samten says that the secret, he feels, is to approach these teachings from point of view of seeing their beauty. If we see them as threatening, we’ll have resistance, but if we see them as beautiful we’ll naturally open up to them. It’s a bit like loving poetry or a work of art. My mother has an always open poetry book on her kitchen counter, and can quote reams of the stuff by heart. She finds the poems beautiful and so reads them in a certain way — enjoys contemplating the nuances and drinking them in (and all while cooking the supper …)

dew drops 1It’s the same with subtle impermanence (and indeed any teaching). If we can see it as beautiful, we will want to explore it and drink it in and see its subtle implications in our life. This all comes down to seeing the beauty in it. That’s our job. Not to force ourselves to meditate on it as an onerous task, but to let ourselves discover the beauty (even while we are busy doing other things).

This, basically, is faith, particularly what is called “admiring faith”. Society may be a bit confused in general about faith, and even see it as contrary to wisdom (it’s not, they are mutually compatible). But in reality faith is one of most basic human emotions and is intrinsic to inner transformation. Buddhism teaches believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Here, we come to believe in the truth of the teaching, that everything changes moment by moment, and this is believing faith. Then we appreciate it, finding beauty in its special qualities, and this increases our admiring faith. As a result we wish to practice this truth in our lives, and this is wishing faith.

Another little anecdote

Not unusually for this blog, I am writing this article on a plane – this one from Denver to London via Charlotte. Just now I was waiting outside the restroom and trying to make the most of each moment by looking at the rows of heads in front of me, thinking: “What is their life like?” And then the verse on equalizing self and others/developing affectionate love from Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

In that no one ever wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.

That way I was having that pleasant feeling that I was no more important than anyone else on the plane, including the person taking a rather long time in the restroom. Ten minutes later he came out, a young man with a huge beam on his face, carrying the book “The Power of Now”. So make of that what you will.

We’re all gonna die!

Buddha taught that there are two levels of impermanence – gross and subtle. For example, with respect to a house, its subtle impermanence is the moment by moment changes that happen continually for the duration of its existence; and its gross impermanence is when it falls down, finishes. We can see this everywhere – a tree grows and changes constantly, which is subtle impermanence; and then it dies, gross impermanence.

To live our lives in the moment, in the light of subtle impermanence, we have to learn to live it in the light of gross impermanence, which means living our life with an understanding of the truth that we are going to die.

death awarenessThis thought, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most liberating and beautiful understandings we can cultivate.

Consider these two possibilities in relation to yourself: “I will die today” and “I won’t die today”. Seems to cover all options!

Now if we ask ourselves which of these applies to me …? We can’t say. All we can say is “I may die today. I may not, but I may.” Both those statements are true.

However, if we go around assuming “I won’t die today”, our life doesn’t do anything special. If somebody gives us something valuable and we treat it as worthless, we will waste it, of course. Our life is so valuable, but if we treat it as something mundane or never-ending we will waste it. However, if we think “I may die today”, we extract the meaning and the preciousness of our life. We will treat it as valuable, and we will stop taking it for granted.

It’s a wonderful life

One great benefit from understanding that we may die today is that we stop worrying about tomorrow. Instead we wake in the morning and think, “I want to live today in a way that is very meaningful, show kindness to others, make today special, without worrying about tomorrow.” It’s like our only mission is to make today a wonderful day.

drop of waterSometimes we think that making our life meaningful means making some mega changes. But on a day to day level, and on a mind level, perhaps, our life doesn’t change. We don’t change.

So what is a meaningful life, a wonderful life? Is it not made up of meaningful years, months, weeks, and days?

On the one hand, we can stop dwelling on the past because it has gone — every day is a new day. And on the other hand we can stop worrying about the future – I may die today. All that is real for us is today. And then we just focus our energy on today. Then, day by day, naturally our whole life will be meaningful.

Create a boundary

Boundaries can be useful for protecting our minds, and perhaps one of the most useful is a boundary around today. Gen Samten uses the example of food that is vacuum packed to keep it fresh — we can keep today new and fresh, not contaminated by worries of what might happen tomorrow. Through the power of our determination we can think:

I’m not going to worry about what might happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I may die today. All I will focus on is enjoying today in a meaningful manner.

It is like we need to build a wall around today and focus our mental energy within it. Otherwise, worry is a big problem for us and one we have little control over – our thoughts are running around in a non-existent future: “How will I be able to cope if that happens?” If we focus just on today, our mind will be peaceful. This is such a good habit to build.boundary

The wall goes behind us as well — I’m not going to dwell on the past. Maybe I screwed up terribly yesterday but that is outside the wall. I am not going to recreate that today. And then we are freed from the burden of all the mistakes we have made because they are outside the wall and we just focus on what is inside.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t learn from our mistakes or make plans for the future, but it does mean that we spend most of our energy on today. Reverse that original percentage — spend 10% of our energy thinking about the past and future and 90% concentrating on today! Building any wall takes time – we can’t just throw it up, it takes time to build up this mental habit. But it is very do-able.

Today is your first day. It may also be your last…

Next installment is here.

Does time heal?

Letting Go 1

Letting Go 1“Time heals” because over time we forget. But why wait to forget?! Waiting passively for things to happen to us is not much fun, we don’t much like waiting in line for example. Some people take months or years to get over a broken heart, and it is agony. They are waiting to forget. They are waiting to think differently about things. They are waiting for the penny to drop, “It is all gone, it is really over”, so they can move on. But it has gone already, it was gone the moment it started; and by bringing that wisdom into our hearts we can move on far, far more quickly. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

The past is no more substantial than last night’s dream. How many dreams have we had in this life, let alone in countless previous lives? (And I refer here to dreams when we are sleeping and dreams while we are awake.) In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end, as Geshe Kelsang says. We have forgotten the vast majority of them, and if we wait long enough we’ll forget whatever dreams we are holding onto now. But rather than just wait it out, why not cultivate an understanding of subtle impermanence and live by it? It will save us so much sorrow.

We can keep repeating that sentence to stop grasping:

I will stop grasping at past me, people, and situations because they do not exist.

Combining our wisdom with determination, our mind will begin to change and we will experience an enormous feeling of liberation and joy. We will let go of our emotional baggage. This is an amazing experience to have and it is possible for all of us, whatever our past. We don’t have to do anything unusual, we don’t have to change our external situation or our job or whatever; we just change the way we think, and remain natural while changing our aspiration, as the old Kadampa saying goes.

Meditation

Here is a little meditation to help us do this.

We sit comfortably with our back straight and relaxed, our eyes closed, and imagine that deep in our heart we feel quiet and peaceful.

And from that quiet and peaceful place we simply focus our attention single-pointedly on the sensation of our breath within the nostrils — the cool air as we inhale and the warm air as we exhale.

And as our mind begins to settle, we enjoy the feeling of clarity and peace that arises in our heart.

Now we can spend a bit of time reflecting upon subtle impermanence in general. We can think about the things in our own life and try to cultivate some insight and wisdom realizing that the past no longer exists. We can start big and then make the chunks of time smaller and smaller, eg, we can think “The person I was when I was a child no longer exists, and then the person I was a year ago no longer exists, and then the person I was a week ago no longer exists. The person who had coffee this morning no longer exists. The person who started this meditation no longer exists, is completely different from the person who is meditating now.” By taking examples like this in meditation we begin to cultivate some insight into this subject. We just reflect on it.

We can now move on in our meditation to bring to mind a situation where we are recreating the past in the present. It could be one that is related to people, either ourself or others. It could be one that is related to a particular situation or event that happened in the past. It could be one that is related to certain possessions we had in the past. And we say to ourself strongly:

I will stop grasping at past people, situations, and possessions because they no longer exist.

Thinking of this situation, we keep repeating this statement strongly, and imagine that we gradually begin to let go. We just enjoy the feeling of being a completely new person and meditate on this.

Then we arise from our meditation, keeping this special feeling in our heart.

No room for the past in the present

letting go 3In this way we can try to deepen our awareness of impermanence and the realization that the past, including the recent past, even just a few seconds ago, no longer exists; and then stop grasping at it because we can’t hold onto something that isn’t there. In this way we can stop recreating the past in the present moment. There is no room for both; one of them has to give.

We can lay down our heavy burdens. Stop feeling melancholy. I also find it helpful to ponder how we decide what to grasp at?! The past is endless! Which me, which person, which situation do we choose to have inappropriate attention about?! To grasp at the permanence of?! There is nothing and no one that we haven’t grasped at, and where has that got us since beginningless time?

The truth will set us free

In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (page 20) Shantideva expresses this beautifully:

And yet my friends will become nothing
And others will also become nothing.
Even I shall become nothing;
Likewise, everything will become nothing.

Just like an experience in a dream,
Everything I now enjoy
Will become a mere recollection,
For what has passed cannot be seen again.

Yeah, you could read this when you are in the throes of attachment and find it a bit depressing or scary – but what is being said is not that we don’t enjoy ourselves and each other moment by moment, but that we stop clinging to things that no longer exist. We need in fact to stop clinging even right now to things that do not exist in the way that they appear to exist, outside our mind, or we will inevitably experience the suffering of separation and loss.

time lapse 1Living in accordance with the reality of impermanence, on the other hand, can bring us nothing but joy and freedom. The truth sets us free.

When he was on his deathbed, aged 100, having been hit by a car on one of his long walks, my grandpa said to my brother:

In the light of eternity I can see clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.

Not abandoning anyone

Someone wrote to me the other day to say that since the death a year ago of her young son she did not feel she had permission to move on as that would be traitorous to his memory; so she was still suffering a great deal. However, it is not very helpful to hold to a painful memory of someone who no longer exists. Embracing change does not mean we forget or abandon the people we loved who are now gone. In a way, it’s the opposite. This is because in fact they are not really gone, they are just somewhere else; so we love them strongly wherever they are, whoever they are, in the present.

Bubbles

I was in Cheesman Park the other day, along with some fellow park-goers, enjoying a show of gigantic soap bubbles. When each big beautiful bubble burst, I didn’t hear anyone groan, “Awww! I was enjoying that! The bubble’s gone!” I didn’t hear anyone speculate, “I wonder what bubble she will create in ten minutes time?”, completely missing out on the bubble she was creating now. I also didn’t overhear anyone distractedly saying, “Do you remember that bubble she made a little while back, that was cool/ugly.” No, we were all just enjoying the bubbles in the present as they arose and almost immediately evaporated. Why? Because we know the nature of bubbles, and their beauty is not divorced from their impermanence. This can be the same for everything if we familiarize ourself with the momentary nature of all things.

When a bubble is burst, what is left? Is it the same basic bubble that transforms? No, the bubble has gone completely. Rousseau for Donna 4So we can spend our time dwelling on past bubbles we have blown, those lovely or traumatic soap bubbles I blew a couple of weeks ago; or worrying about the soap bubbles we might blow in the future — what if it is too small? what will my friends think of me? Or we can get with subtle impermanence and enjoy the bubble we are blowing now.

There’s a difference between me and a soap bubble, surely?!

However old we are, we are no more permanent than a soap bubble. We are just as fleeting. Some things seem to last longer than others — mountains and the sky for example — but they are still just as momentary, completely new. The 100,000 year-old rocks in the Science Museum may seem more permanent, but we are seeing them newly in each moment, and they are as fleeting/changing as anything else. It’s just that related to our life span they may seem to last longer. 100,000 year-old rocks can appear in dreams too, with a seemingly eternal past and rock solid future; but how long are dreams?

Continued here.

Over to you. Comments and feedback very welcome 🙂

Breaking the ties that bind

letting go 2

letting go 2Now that we have developed some wisdom on the subject of subtle impermanence, we need to use the second approach, which is making a determination.

We are in such a bad habit of grasping at the ties that bind, even when this is painful and we already know on one level that it is futile. So we need to be a bit determined now, to push our mind, to strong-arm it, telling it, “Stop! Stop grasping at the past!” One thing that you might like to do is to say, almost like a wrathful mantra:

I will stop grasping at the past because it no longer exists.

We don’t just say it gently, we say it strongly. And we can spell it out more: “I will stop grasping at past me, people, and situations because they no longer exist.”

  1. I will stop grasping at past me

For example, let’s suppose we were in a conversation earlier today — and we like to come across as intelligent but we said something stupid. Now the other people have all moved on in this conversation, but we’re back five minutes ago, “Why did I say that, what was I thinking?!”, writhing in embarrassment. At that time we need to say, “I will stop grasping at that me because it no longer exists.” Why are we tormenting ourselves? Let’s just enjoy the conversation. So impermanence allows us to move on moment by moment, not tormenting ourselves but living life newly.

  1. I will stop grasping at past people

Or maybe we meet someone, we like them, maybe it even gets serious; and then 18 months later we say, “You’ve changed!” It’s like an accusation – “You’re not the person I got together with, you’ve changed!” Well come on, duh. Of course they’ve changed, moment by moment. So have we. Why is that a problem for us? Because we want them to be that person we were interested in 18 months ago. So the problem is not impermanence 2that they’ve changed, but that we are grasping at how they were; and if we stopped grasping at how they were we might find we are quite happy with how they are now. So at that time we need to remember subtle impermanence and think, “I will stop grasping at this past person because they no longer exist.” Why hold onto something that isn’t there?! That person isn’t there!

  1. I will stop grasping at past situations

Also, how much time do we spend living in past situations, feeling nostalgia, melancholy for what we have lost? Perhaps we feel that all the good times are behind us, that the happiest time of our life was the summer of  ‘69. And at that time we need to say, “I will stop grasping at past situations because they no longer exist. Why am I grasping at something that is not there?!” We keep telling ourselves this till our mind changes. And our mind will change, very much for the better.

Analogy of a tug boat

To expand on stopping grasping at other people … Let’s say the other person has become less interested in you, but you hold forlornly onto the relationship as having life because you are relating to the past relationship still, not the present one. I don’t know if this analogy will help you but it has helped me before. Let’s say you are a boat on the ocean, joined by a rope to another boat. At first the rope is slack as you’re both being pulled along by similar karmic currents and winds, so a lot of the time you don’t even notice the rope is there. But after a while you find you have effectively become a tug boat pulling along a second old (moreorless reluctant) boat, and the rope is sliding through your hands. Perhaps, as they start drifting off, you get a few currents making it appear as if you are both still alongside; but they are slowly pulling away, the currents of karma and changing minds being what they are. You have rope burn, and one day you think, “I am just going to let go!” There is relief and lightness as you both sail off, wishing each other well on your way. We can once again enjoy the space around us, the blue sky, the sunshine, unfettered.

tugboatWe can love that person from then on in the moment, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. We are still grateful for the lessons they taught us. And we also have more energy and attention now for the other people and animals around us who need and want our love, because everyone needs and wants love.

Going with the flow of subtle impermanence is great because as soon as we let go of grasping no further thought is required. No rationalizations. No elaborations. We can make the most of the new moment without thinking too much because there is nothing there to think about, eg, “Should we stay friends? How are we supposed to do this? What if this happens? Maybe she does like me but just didn’t get my message? Surely something here is worth preserving? What do I do when we bump into each other again?” etc. The moment we truly let go, the endless speculation — all our conceptual bubble-like thoughts — dissolve away into the clarity of the mind; and we have lightness, freedom, and life.

Due to habits, we may find ourself still tugging from time to time, still experiencing some rope burn; but we will be able to let go more easily if we revisit our wisdom and our determination: “I will not grasp at this past person or relationship because they do not exist.”

And, you know what? We come to enjoy letting go every bit as much as we enjoyed clinging on, in fact a great deal more.

Ocean of love and wisdom

Leonard CohenNow this might be taking this tugboat analogy too far but, like I said, it works for me. The tugboats are being tossed around on the vast ocean of the root mind. Our mind and its appearances are changing all the time due to karmic potentials or seeds ripening, like waves and currents in an ever-changing ocean.

As Buddha said, all meetings end in parting. This is because appearances inevitably change but, you know something, the love can remain.

This is because love and wisdom are like the ocean itself.

Buddhas and Yogis have learned this and can therefore love everyone literally unconditionally, not affected by the superficial vagaries of changed circumstances or appearances. And so can we.

When we have a taste of pure love, wishing others to be totally happy, we can understand too that it is Dharma Jewel and no different to the ocean of love possessed by the Buddhas or by the Sangha, spiritual friends past and present. We can experience immutable refuge and happiness in the vast and profound ocean of love and wisdom, despite the ever-changing world.

Do we want to mourn something we can’t have, ie, happiness from something that has disappeared, or do we want to fully enjoy what we DO have, ie, the peace and bliss of our own mind? In his Mahamudra teachings, Venerable Geshe-la teaches us to dissolve all conceptual bubble-like thoughts grasping at permanence into the peace and clarity of our own mind. We really enjoy that profound peace. Then, day by day, moment by moment, we can also enjoy all the appearances that arise from that mind.

Thank you again to Gen Samten for his insights. Still more on this subject here! Hope you are finding it helpful because I am 🙂 Please leave comments below.

Healing the past

impermanence 3

impermanence 3I think life is too weird if we don’t accept momentary impermanence and go day by day with the flow. We keep getting surprised, shocked: “I can’t believe that happened; it is so weird!” And life feels full of losses.

(Carrying straight on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

Mid-life crises

Why do we have midlife crises? Why not an early or late life crisis? Why at 42?! Perhaps because it begins to finally sink in that we are not the same person we were 20 years ago, we can’t do the same things, we are running out of years, we have a paunch, our dating pool has shrunk. This can induce panic, discontentment, obsession with youth (our own or others), driving a motorbike, and eventually acceptance – but why did it take us so long for the penny to drop? We are confused trying to reconcile an old self-image with what we see now, having been ignoring that we have been changing not only week by week but moment to moment, and changing completely at that.

midlife-crisisMidlife crises seem to occur when all the changes we’ve been through suddenly seem to hit us all at once and we can no longer hold so easily to our image of ourselves as youthful, virile, cool, etc.! So we go a bit crazy. But studies also show that if we find purpose in life, meaning, wisdom, apparently we are far less affected by mid-life crises.

Reducing the sufferings of ageing

We look in the mirror and we feel disappointed, “Oh no, the bags under my eyes are growing!” But if we weren’t holding onto what we looked like before, who cares?! If we were able to accept our momentary change, and let go of grasping at our previous body, it will be a lot quicker to accept and adapt to our body’s changes. And it’s the same for others, eg, ageing parents and partners, we can just let them be who they are now as opposed to freaking out at all the changes from what they were. As a hairdresser once told me, “We are all going in the same direction at the same speed.” And it’s ok! I had 2 good role models in my grandfather and Eileen, who never gave a monkeys about getting older (to the ages of 100 and 92 respectively) because they just loved every day as it arose. Dakini dancing

Permanent grasping

We need to drive home to ourselves that not even an atom remains of us, others, or the world from one moment to the next. As long as we feel there is some trace of yesterday’s person, for example, we are still grasping at permanence — holding onto the idea that the same basic substance has just changed or been modified a little bit. Grasping at that same basic substance is called “permanent grasping”.

Healing the past

That painful relationship we had in the past — the person we had it with doesn’t exist anymore. The person we were doesn’t exist anymore, not even an atom, not even a trace. The issues don’t exist anymore — they existed in the past, not now. So why are we recreating it all?

Heraclitus famously said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Apparently he also said, “You can’t step in the same river once.” He’s right! Think about it!

When we start to think deeply about subtle impermanence we experience a sense of liberation, freedom, being able to put down all of that emotional baggage and just experience deep peace and happiness. What a relief! baggage

I don’t have to go back in time to try and heal the past. How can we heal something that doesn’t exist? What happened in the past doesn’t exist.

We don’t need to heal the past, we just need to realize that it’s gone.

Forgiveness

And through understanding subtle impermanence deeply, if we had a conflict with someone yesterday we can look at them today with new eyes, knowing the person we had the conflict with doesn’t exist. When we begin to understand subtle impermanence we can put down the grudges and move into an area of forgiveness. Forgiveness is all about letting go of the past and moving on. We can ask ourselves how many people there are in our life that we’d like to do this with — let go of the past and just move on. Subtle impermanence gives us the freedom to do this.

Dealing with regrets

This wisdom also helps us let go of regrets and nostalgia. For example, maybe we think I’ve wasted so much time on this good for nothing relationship, project, etc., and we hold onto it, thinking, “I have to salvage something!” So we can’t let go. I have a good friend who put a lot of money into a business that just didn’t work out; people weren’t ready for it or something. But it was hard to walk away from it because of all the investment of time, hope, and money, so there was the temptation there to throw good money after bad, as they say.time is empty 2

Yet the best way to let go of the past without regrets is to embrace the present. Since beginningless time we have done lots of things with everyone, and these are all like dreams now passed. Let it all go — distant dreams are already forgotten, and the latest dreams are no more substantial, we just haven’t forgotten them yet. We don’t need to wait to forget them before we let them go; we can simply realize that there is nothing there to hold onto, that it’s like trying to hold onto last night’s dream. We don’t have to wait for time to heal, ie, until enough things happen that our memories are crowded out so we can forget and move on, however many long agonizing months or years that may take. We can heal a lot faster if we use our wisdom and determination.

If the past was good, we want it to come back, or to continue. But it is still past, ie, over, so we need to enjoy today too, not be nostalgic or melancholic.

In this next article, how to back up our wisdom with determination so that Buddha’s advice has a stronger impact on our mind.

Subtle impermanence

time lapse 3

(Carrying straight on from Living in the moment.) We can ask ourselves how many of the decisions etc we make are truly new and how many are just impermanence 3recreating the past? Let’s say someone was critical of us yesterday and we became defensive. Then we see them again today. They are a completely different person — today’s person, not yesterday’s —  but we see yesterday’s person and so interact with them edgily and uncomfortably again.

Relating to yesterday’s person and not today’s gives rise to problems as the assumptions we make about them, and the ways we then interact with them, are completely false. And we can end up perpetuating the negativity for days, weeks, or longer. A grudge is a perfect example of this. We sustain anger in the present about a person who has long gone. And it doesn’t help them, or us. Resentment is, as the saying goes, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Two ways to address the problem

There are 2 ways to address the problem of being stuck in the past illustrated in this example. The first is wisdom, cultivating insight into the nature of impermanence and change. The second is determination, combining this insight practically into our daily activities by deciding strongly to stop grasping at the past.

First, wisdom

this too shall passI’m going to spend this article and the next exploring the wisdom of subtle impermanence as explained by Buddha and my teacher Geshe Kelsang (in his books and oral Mahamudra teachings), and incorporating insights from a wise friend called Gen Samten, whom I find to be an expert on this subject.

In general, wisdom is defined as a virtuous intelligent mind that understands a meaningful object. It is not the same as just being smart. We don’t need to know everything to be free and happy — we need to know what is meaningful to be happy. Buddha illustrated this by picking up a handful of leaves in a forest, saying to his disciples that the numerous leaves in the forest represent all that can be known in the world, but the leaves in his hand represent all that needs to be known to attain liberation.

For example, when a king asked his Buddhist teacher for advice that would both lift his mind in adversity and prevent over-excitement and distraction when things were going well, his teacher taught him the simple phrase: “This too shall pass.”

Two different models of change

time lapse 2Do you agree that things change? I think pretty much everyone agrees that everything changes — we even say things like, “Things are changing all the time! Things are changing so fast!” That much is true, but our understanding of what change actually is is wrong.

There  are 2 different models of change, one coming from confusion and one coming from wisdom.

Suppose you walk past a house on way to work every day. That house undergoes changes, cracks appear, masonry falls down, and so on. Why does it change? The bigger changes are happening because moment by moment the building is changing. We can’t perceive that with our eyes, but moment by moment it is changing and we notice the more obvious results of this. We’d all agree with this and this is correct, BUT generally we feel that it is the same basic building that is changing from moment to moment. It has changed a bit but it’s the same house.

It’s the same with the relationship with our significant other. We can acknowledge that the relationship changes but we still feel it’s the same relationship – it’s the same as yesterday’s relationship but has changed slightly.

This thought is confusion because it isn’t true that it is the same building. It is not the same building. It is a completely different building. And the same is true for the relationship — no part of yesterday’s relationship carries over into today’s relationship.

What about us? We woke up, we had coffee, now some time later we’re here reading this, and we feel that I’m the same basic person who woke up this morning and had that coffee. I’ve changed a little bit, but I’m the same basic person.time lapse 3

But this is not true. We are a completely different person. The person drinking coffee and the person reading this now are completely different. Not even an atom of the person drinking coffee exists now. If they did exist, if the previous me had not ceased, where is it, and why are there not two me’s wandering around, one drinking coffee and one reading this?

We are a continuum of moments that are causally related but completely different. So, yes, the person who drank coffee this morning is the cause of the person who is sitting here now, but is completely different. The person sitting here is not that person who drank coffee — that person has completely finished, gone, not even an atom of them remains.

In How to Understand the Mind, page 134, my teacher says:

In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates.

seeds sprouting

Five replacement sprouts

This is the real meaning of change. The person who begins the sentence is not the one who ends it – every single atom has gone by the end. The person who begins a thought is not the same as the one who finishes a thought. Moment to moment to moment we are changing and not even a tiny trace of one moment is carried over into the next. The next moment is completely new, the previous me has completely gone, the person who drank coffee has completely gone. 

Yesterday’s weather has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today. Heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me. 

So why hold onto the past, to something that has completely gone?

weatherUse bigger than smaller chunks of time

It can be helpful to begin relating to this truth with bigger chunks of time and then making them smaller. Where is the child we were? Completely gone. Where is the person we were ten years ago, five years ago, one week ago, one minute ago …? Completely gone. “But it is still basically me!” Only it is not. If it was, the five-year-old you would still be wandering around. But not one atom of that child remains. Not one atom of the you who started reading this sentence remains.

Today is your first day.

Continued here.

Living in the moment

Bodhisattva

Do you like the idea of living in the moment?

BodhisattvaHow can we do that — live in the moment, in the present, in the here and the now? Buddha had a lot to say on the subject, and in this age of distraction, depression, and worry there seems to be both great interest in and need for his advice. Personally, I have found Buddha’s teachings on impermanence really practical in solving a lot of otherwise seemingly intractable problems or unpleasant feelings; so I want to share some thoughts here.

How much energy do you put into the present?

First, a question to ask ourselves:

How much energy do I spend dwelling in the past or thinking about the future?

50%? 80%? 90%?!

Instead of being present and discovering the beauty and fullness of the moment, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling in the past (living in its shadow) or worrying about the future. Perhaps most of our energy? When we are on our commute, are we in our hearts focusing on the people around us in the here and now, developing love for example — or are we in our heads contemplating what a mess we made at work yesterday and/or worrying about all the things we have to get done this week? Even when we are out supposedly enjoying ourselves in a beautiful place, are we nostalgically missing the last time we came to this place with someone now gone and/or longing for a chance to show someone this place later?

We are constantly distracting ourselves from what is going on right under our noses! We don’t need the advertising industry to take us away from our enjoyment of life as it happens (“you’ll only be truly happy once you get this new car/perfume/iPad” ie, in the future) — we do it to ourselves all the time.

RoseanneI remember when I first came to America and was watching a Roseanne episode in a motel room. I had what seemed like about 4  minutes to get into it before the show broke for loud ads – that interruption was unwelcome enough (in England the ads were not quite as frequent or long-lasting), but then I noticed that the ads were for, guess what, the NEXT episode of Roseanne!! So, rather than just absorbing into the Roseanne in the here and now, I was distracted by the anticipation of the real enjoyment coming in tomorrow night’s no doubt more fulfilling episode.

To me, that postponement of joy to the endlessly receding horizons of future Roseanne episodes, even while I already had a show running right in front of me, illustrated the disconnection caused by our own distracted mind as we sleepwalk through the day wondering what is coming next.

Next question…

What would happen if all that 50%? 80%? 90% of energy was freed to focus on enjoying the present moment?! How alive could we become?

Living in the past or future is not really being alive because — bottom line  — there is no past or future to live in. When we learn to let go of the past and stop procrastinating into the future we connect to the depth and meaning of the present moment, the only moment there is.

Recreating the past in the present

Before we can live a life more centered in the present, we first have to learn to let go of the past. This doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened – it means letting go of the emotional baggage that we have accumulated in our many experiences. In a way our mind has been conditioned to think and act in a certain way, and we bring all of this into our life today. It is as if we allow our past to recreate itself in the present moment.back to the past

Let’s say for example that many years ago we had a relationship that came to a sad end (has anyone not been in this position?!) Maybe we still feel that pain today whenever that person appears to our mind, and — judging by how many sad songs, websites, and so on there are about broken hearts — maybe great pain. And the question comes, “Why, when that relationship ended so long ago and is past — it doesn’t exist anymore — do I still feel pain or anger or hurt or loss when I think of it?”

The reason is that we are recreating the past in the present. The problem isn’t what happened in the past but what is happening right now. Dragging the past into the present, reliving it as it were, is a bad habit we have, which will flavor our mind with sadness and condition other friendships. Holding on like this makes it very hard for us to do anything really new or fresh in our life, and it casts a shadow over our joy. baggage

Some years ago I remember asking an older friend about how long she thought it would take me to get over a break-up. She shrugged, “You never do completely.” As she had gotten divorced over 20 years previously, I was somewhat horrified to hear this; and it had the salutary effect of making me more determined than ever. This is because, as I said to her:

You never do completely?!!! Hmmmm. I intend to get over this completely. Otherwise grief will pile upon grief as life goes on, won’t it? Everyone will end up sadder at the end of their lives.

And this is when I got very interested in Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence as a powerful method to counteract these stale habits, replacing them with a day by day happiness to be alive.

Continued here 

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