Turn on, tune in, drop out

Turn on the faith, tune in to the blessings, and drop out of samsara (i.e. life characterized by delusions). This is the final article on the subject of blessings — the rest you can find here.

Love is all you need

Blessings are inseparable from love as they are the nature of the clear light mind of bliss and in Tantra this bliss is the same as love and compassion. It is not too hard to understand that, for what happier mind is there than unconditional love?

Indeed, love and compassion are just the other side of the coin from the wisdom realizing lack of inherent, or independent, existence. Cherishing others arises naturally from the wisdom understanding the interdependence of all phenomena, our utter interconnectedness. Holy beings cannot help but love us unconditionally, it is their nature; and I believe the utter joy that my grandfather felt came from the love.

blessed squirrel?!

The more frequently we tune into enlightened beings’ love, the quicker we can develop. Interestingly, studies show that when human beings feel they are receiving love, and even when animals feel they are receiving love, their full potential to learn is activated. I’m not the only one to have noticed that if you give an animal a lot of love, you get  far more out of her; she is more engaged and intelligent. So if we are feeling the love of the Buddhas and other holy beings and bathing in it, our full potential for love (and wisdom) will also be sparked.

“I am not worthy!”

We have to understand and believe that the holy beings love us. (This includes any holy being — the Buddhas, Jesus, God, or whomever you have faith in). It doesn’t really work if we are projecting judgmental, critical, hard-hearted characteristics onto holy beings, due to our own lack of self-worth or useless feelings of unloveability, unworthiness or guilt. This is facing North. My teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

For example, even if the sun is shining in the sky, if our door is facing North the sun will not come in. This is not the sun’s fault; this is the house’s fault! Similarly, even if Buddhas are ready to bestow blessings, the liberating path, if we are facing the opposite direction, this is our fault, not Buddha’s fault. We need to face them and make a relationship or connection through developing faith and devotion and making requests. Between us we will then receive protection from them.

When we feel holy beings’ love flowing into us, it is not hard to then pass that on to our family, friends and other living beings, for we feel, rightly, that there is infinite love to go around. It pours out of us. Geshe Kelsang wrote a beautiful praise to Buddha Shakyamuni called Liberating Prayer, which includes these words:

Please nourish me with your goodness,
That I in turn may nourish all beings
With an unceasing banquet of delight.

Blessings, like atmosphere, are everywhere

Most people would agree that the atmosphere in a war zone is less conducive to peace than the atmosphere in a temple or cathedral. Many things are invisible and even undetectable by physical means, but nonetheless exist: sorrow, pain, hope, for instance; or an atmosphere of tension or distrust in a room. We feel blessings in our heart as a sort of glow, like feeling the sun on our skin – a source of energy that we might never fully understand until we’re enlightened, but that is still there.

Gravity is there and we are all entirely affected by it, although apart from theoretical physicists not many of us actually understand it. Blessings exist too, an invisible force that cannot be seen or tasted but is still capable of drawing us into its orbit. In fact, blessings are enlightened mind and we are already in their orbit, we just haven’t necessarily tuned in with faith yet.

Turn on the radio receiver of faith
Turn on the faith, tune into the blessings, drop out of samsara

In this article, I likened faith to a radio receiver — radio waves are always playing around us but whether or not we hear the music depends on whether or not we turn on the radio. Same thing for blessings.

Actually, faith is not that mysterious either. If we understand the three types of faith – believing, admiring and wishing – we can see that faith is not a bolt from the blue or blind, but something we can cultivate like any other positive state of mind. (But, if you do go ahead and cultivate it, make sure you can handle all the blissings that are going to come your way!)

Your turn

Since this article, I have written eight more on blessings (one is actually by a guest writer); they can all be found here. Now I’m sure everyone, including me, would love to hear more from other people! Please leave your comments in the box below.

Please share these articles with anyone who might want more blessings in their life.

What are blessings?

Everyone is blessed

Anyone can receive blessings any time. We just have to believe in, or tune into, or even actually mix with, the fount of blessings, however we may construe it, and blessings will always come streaming into us like sunshine into a darkened room.

Some of my Facebook friends posted beautiful comments in response to the question: “What exactly are blessings?” Here are some of them.

Eileen Quinn kicked it off with: “Good things that flow into your mind from the Buddhas…. I think of the sudden feelings of peace or happiness – out of the blue – as blessings.” Adam Head calls blessings “divine love/inspiration”. Debbie Howard describes them as: “Good healing energy zapping the negativity in our minds and filling them with positivity.” Victoria Kaya says: “It’s when you realise you’re not alone and you feel a peace that flows through you and emanates to others.”

MJ Weaver emailed me: “Francesca Fremantle wrote in her book Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “The Tibetan literally means ‘an engulfing wave or flood of splendor and power.’ I saw elsewhere that the Sanskrit word ‘adhisthana’ literally meant ‘uplift’. And they’ve been described as ‘waves of grace’, which certainly rings true for me.”

And there were more great comments that I’d like to share in future articles. Please add your own in the box below too!

Transformation through inspiration

Blessings, in Tibetan “jin gyi lob”, means “transformation through inspiration”. Our minds can mix with the minds of holy beings (however we construe them) and transform from sad to happy, dark to light, negative to positive, very smoothly. Not just my FB friends, but many people from all backgrounds around the world can attest to the power of blessings transforming their hearts and lives. If blessings don’t exist, then don’t you find it a coincidence how many millions of people over millennia have given such similar descriptions of what it is like to receive them?!

Once we’ve tasted blessings, it is obvious that they exist, even if we don’t immediately understand them or trust they are what they are. The trick is, how can we tune in more deliberately so that we can receive blessings whenever we want, on tap as it were? How can we deliberately throw open that window so the sunshine pours in?

Grandpa

Some years ago, when he was in his late nineties, I had a very interesting conversation with my mother’s father. A very bright doctor, scientist and religious skeptic his entire life, my extraordinary grandfather received an epiphany in his sixties, when everything dissolved away into “clear light” (his words) and he saw deeply how his mind was mixed with the mind of God (his words). He described this experience to me as “spontaneous great bliss”, which somewhat surprised me as that expression is used in Tantric Buddhism yet he had never come across Tantric Buddhism. He said that, much as he loved his family and had derived great joy from them, this blissful and connected experience transcended and surpassed everything he had ever known. He saw that everything, including his family, his career and his entire life, just arose like a reflection from the clear light of his mind mixed with God’s mind and had no existence separate from it. And that clear light was pervaded by love, a deep feeling for the interconnectedness of everything.

We then had a discussion about how everything is created by mind. Whether God’s mind or our own minds we left open to discussion, but in Buddhism there is a way to reconcile the two understandings. Buddhists don’t believe in a creator God as a person who is all-powerful and who creates us like a carpenter creates a table. But we do see how everything can be understood to manifest from the mind of omniscient wisdom and bliss that is not inherently different to our own very subtle clear light mind, even if our mind is at present obstructed by ignorance and mistaken appearance. (You can understand a lot more about this if you read Geshe Kelsang’s clear teachings in Mahamudra Tantra.)

My grandfather’s mystical experience was marvelous and life-changing, and he also had further experiences like it. But they were always random, he said. They would “descend” upon him when he was just in the garden tending his flowers, or playing the piano, or taking his long daily walk. Sometimes they came when he was in Guildford cathedral or his local church, more often when he was relaxed at home.

So I said to him: “You know, there is a method to tune into that experience of spacious loving bliss whenever you want.” Because there is. Blessings are blissings. If we know how to tune in, we can access this mystical experience by mixing our minds with the minds of all enlightened beings, who are always experiencing this clear light of bliss inseparable from the ultimate nature of all phenomena. Our mind, like a drop of water, can dissolve into their mind, which is like a boundless blissful ocean. The drop is then pervaded by the ocean.

Drop in an ocean. Ocean in a drop.

(I love this subject and have written loads more here! And please leave your comments in the box below.)

Buddha & the Brain

(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)

In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.

One of the articles began:

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.

And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”

Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.

Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.

Here we can consider some words from Geshe Kelsang’s book Transform Your Life – A Blissful Journey, published in August 2001. In the chapter What is the Mind? he writes:

Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.

I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”

When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.

Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?

I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.

I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))

In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.

There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.

Geshe Kelsang's hands in meditation

Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.

People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.

(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)

To gain experience of the nature and function of your own mind, you can try out this meditation: How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind.

Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.