Everything is relative

8 mins read.

This pandemic has been driving people crazy, and not least because we’re not able to move about much and let go of grasping at the place we’re in, so it feels real or absolute.

Continuing from this article, Perspective is everything. 

Back up that mountain …

It can be helpful to get in a car if you have access to one, drive to a trailhead, walk up a mountain, and look back at your now-tiny city. However, to change our perspective it is not necessary to physically GO up a hill; which is just as well if you’re still in lockdown or live in Florida. Nothing is really out there — everything is a dream-like projection of our mind. There is no real coming and going and we can travel up a mountain in our mind if we want to. 

No coming and going

Clouds (and rainbows) only appear in the sky due to a bunch of atmospheric causes and conditions coming together – clouds are not these causes and conditions, but take any one of them away and the clouds cannot form. Clouds therefore have no power to exist on their own, in and of themselves, self-contained, from their own side. They exist only in relation to other things, indeed AS relation to other things. Talking about the emptiness of the so-called “eight extremes”, which includes coming and going, Geshe Kelsang says:

The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend on factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent or independent existence and are mere imputations of the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe Kelsang has said that things “barely exist”. Although they appear and function, they are no more substantial than objects that appear and function in a dream. That includes mountains! And Denver! And my body! And me! 

So instead of having to go to places and return from places, we can realize that everything is simply popping up in our mind due to multiple causes and conditions – not the least of which is our karma or previous mental intentions.

Whenever we go anywhere we develop the thought, “I am going,” and grasp at an inherently existent act of going. In a similar way, when someone comes to visit us we think, “they are coming,” and we grasp at an inherently existent act of coming…. However, the coming and going of people is like the appearance and disappearance of a rainbow in the sky. When the causes and conditions for a rainbow to appear are assembled, a rainbow appears; and when the causes and conditions for the continued appearance of the rainbow disperse, the rainbow disappears; but the rainbow does not come anywhere, nor does it go anywhere.

We seem to be moving around all the time — walking our legs, waving our arms — everything is constantly coming and going. Or is it?! When we drive along in a car, are we really moving? Or are the rapidly changing scenes and other sensory experiences simply unfurling moment by moment as mere appearances of mind in dependence upon causes and conditions, including ripening karmic seeds?! Space and time are relative, as Albert Einstein would say. 

Why does this matter, you may be wondering? Because if things are relative or dependent-related, we can disappear them by changing our viewpoint or mental angle. If the observer moves, the rainbow moves or disappears. For example, if we view someone who is unkind to us as a kind teacher of something we need to learn, (s)he is no longer an enemy but a friend.

If things are absolute, that is, not dependent on other things, then they are fixed and therefore there is nothing we can do to change them. Also, there is a real or absolute me over here and a real or absolute world over there and never the twain shall meet. With self-grasping ignorance there is necessarily a gap between me and everything else, which turns out to be quite exhausting because we tend to relate to that world with delusions, such as the pull of attachment or the push of aversion. As Gen-la Dekyong said the other day:

Stop tinkering with this impure world. We don’t have time! There is nothing we can do externally to change it.

Where is the center of everything?

Related to this, another thing I find helpful to contemplate from a mountain rock is how each of the millions of people moving about in the city below feels themselves to be the center of it. Wherever they are, wherever they go, everything seems to be revolving around that fixed or moving point. And when I am in the city, it’s the same for me – everything is revolving around me. If I am driving down Sixth Avenue, for example, Denver seems to exist in a centrifugal ring around me; and that illusion persists even if I turn down another street.

Even if we are motivated to help others, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we naturally have the sense that the world revolves around us. That is how it appears and we assent to that appearance. However, how can a real world be revolving around me and around you and around everyone else at the same time?!

Each one of us Denverites is only one of, say, two million, if we count only the humans. (Though right now there’s a strong argument for also counting the six kittens who are running around my feet like crazy people). From a distance, it’s particularly absurd to say that any one of those two million+ living beings is central, that the city revolves around any one of them, including me. And when I am back in the city, I can remember that – I am just one of millions, no more central than anyone else. We are all equal. We all equally exist only in dependence upon each other, like cells in the body of life. We are indisputably nothing without others.

This was almost literally a “this mountain that mountain” enactment – I drove down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other. Looking back at my previous self and everything to do with that self, I got it into perspective. 

There is only one way to free ourselves and that is to get over ourselves. In truth there is no real or most important me to cherish because that self we normally see doesn’t exist. The more often we dissolve it away by looking for and not finding it, the better. This is emptiness or selflessness. As someone said on Facebook today:  

No self, nothing to cherish. This is so obvious so why doesn’t it permeate my entire being, providing constant peace? More time on the cushion for me till a stable realisation is attained.

Taking this perspective back down the mountain

We need a sense of proportion because it makes it a lot easier to help without becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Because of course there is horrible suffering in Denver – people are freezing sometimes even to death on the streets, a pandemic is raging, businesses are shuttered, and pretty much every single person you talk to has problems of one sort or another. Including me. But with a large viewpoint we don’t get so overpowered. Seeing the big picture, we can develop the big minds – universal love and the compassion that wants everyone to be free not just from today’s problems but from all their problems forever.

Sooner or later we have to get back down off that mountain! (Unless you are on retreat in a snowy cave. Tempting.) With those big minds, we can return to the middle of the city and help in practical ways. The bigger our mind, the smaller our problems, and the more capacity we have to serve others.

If we find we’re getting overwhelmed, it’s worth pointing out that our mind doesn’t have to get off the mountain. We don’t even have to physically go up a mountain in the first place! That’s what meditation is for, gaining perspective, seeing the relativity of all things. And everyone can learn to do this – regardless of where we happen to be living at the moment, or whether or not we have a car. There is truthfully far more space inside all of us than outside. We can close our eyes, do a bit of breathing meditation to get into our heart, contemplate the space in and around everything, and then get back to work. 

Whether or not we understand selflessness and dependent relationship perfectly yet, one immediate thing we can do is appreciate the people around us for giving us the opportunity to practice improving ourselves and helping others, in both obvious and less obvious ways. Given that nothing (including all living beings) exists in any absolute fixed way but is entirely relative and the nature of our mind, we can set ourselves up in relationship with others however we decide; and perhaps the best way to relate to them is in the aspect of kindness. From seeming almost inanimate at times, everyone springs to life when we think about their kindness to us; and Buddhism gives us so many different practical ways to do that. 

A mountain in the city

Last but not least, our Buddhist meditation centers in Denver and elsewhere will hopefully be opening up again before too long to provide a physical get-away for this kind of teaching and reflection. For example, a friend who now lives in Colorado was talking about KMC London in Kensington the other day: “That place itself is an oasis and, if we did something similar here, people would get the top of the mountain feel in the city.”

Thank you for reading! Would love to see your feedback and comments below.

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Caring for others and helping ourselves

What exactly is compassion? 

A quick fix meditation on emptiness

 

What to do when we feel alone

6 mins read

lonelinessLoneliness doesn’t just crop up in romances – it crops up in every relationship or thwarted relationship where there is self-grasping and attachment.

Carrying on from this article.

How did you get interested in Buddhism and/or meditation (at least enough to be reading this blog?) I like asking people this question, for they often have very interesting stories to tell. And I find that people often find their way to Buddhism in the wake of a loss or tragedy, recognizing that it answers some profound questions about suffering.

Existential loss/grief

In Buddha’s time, there was a young woman called Kisigotami who lost her baby and was devastated by grief. Buddha helped by showing her the universality of this suffering. GampopaYou can read the story in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, or a shortened version here.

There is also the inspiring story (told in Universal Compassion) of the Tibetan man Gampopa, who tragically lost his wife but found his way into Dharma, becoming a highly realized lay Master.

We lose every single one of our loved ones to death sooner or later – if we don’t die first. Is there a remedy for this unbearable grief? Perhaps, yes, if we realize we can do something about mental pain by changing our way of thinking and by realizing that we are not ever actually alone.

We have a saying in Buddhism, “Suffering has good qualities.” It is not inherently bad. We can gain the deepest spiritual realizations and strength at the very times when things are the most broken down, eg, when we are bereaved or after a big break-up. Buddha was kind enough to show how even this agonizing heartache doesn’t have to be bad for us; and it’s worth acquiring some of this understanding before tragedy strikes again!

sufferingWe live and die alone – this is a characteristic of samsara because we’re all isolated by our delusions. But enlightenment is union, one iconic image being Buddha Heruka in embrace with Buddha Vajrayogini, the embodiment of the union of great bliss and emptiness. In samsara, we experience ourselves in a state of isolation. In a Pure Land, we experience ourselves in a state of communion. Why? Because samsara is created by delusion whereas the Pure Land is reality.

Shine the sun of wisdom and love

If you like, here is a short but sweet meditation based on some of the previous loneliness articles that you can do before moving onto the rest of this article …

We can start with a feeling of inner confidence and space by getting into our heart and identifying with our infinite-sky-like Buddha nature

Then we can revisit our determination to decrease our ignorance and attachment because these simply don’t work as a strategy for overcoming loneliness. We can bring examples in our own experience to mind, and remember that these are just unhelpful habitual thoughts – we don’t have to identify with these thoughts (we are not them), we don’t have to think them, we can in fact just let them go. These delusions take form as thick dark clouds, and we breathe them far out through our nostrils, letting them disappear forever.

clear light of blissWe can spend a few moments considering how we need to climb down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other.

Then we can feel the wisdom, non-attachment, and love of all holy beings around us in the form of clear light, the most beautiful light we can imagine, and breathe this in deeply through our nostrils. We can ride the light rays of wisdom and love into our heart, where they mix with the inner light of our Buddha nature.

We can focus on the radiance in our heart, like a sun shining inside. We can feel, “This is more like it! This is who I really am. I have everything and everyone I need.”

We can let its rays spread to the people around us, in our lives, taking away their loneliness and filling them with bliss. We can let this love spread as far as we like, even to pervade anyone who ever experiences loneliness, placing them in a deep feeling of communion and bliss.

Then we can make a plan to bring this love in our heart into our day, letting it be in the background of all our thoughts, and making an effort to give comfort to all the lonely people in our lives.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from

To overcome loneliness we all need to move away from our sense of being a real, solid, isolated self. When our mind is full of love, as in the meditation we just did (if you did it), we can see for ourselves that we are neither isolated nor more important than anyone else. This sense of self is only held by the thoughts of our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. Our version of our self is not ultimately true – if we look for it in our body or mind it disappears, like chasing a mirage.

all the lonely peopleBut because it feels limited, we set ourself up in neediness – we need someone to make us better, complete us, validate us, etc, and so we feel lonely because others cannot or will not fill that void. Whatever people say to comfort us, we still feel pathetic. We look for qualities in others that we feel we are missing, such as confidence, when it’d be far better to develop these qualities in ourselves. We cover up our weaknesses and try to hide behind others’ strengths.

We find it difficult to receive love because we are holding ourselves to be inherently unlovable, even though that version of ourself doesn’t actually exist.

Existence is relationship

When we are on “this mountain”, it feels absolutely this mountain, appears as such even to our eye awareness. But when we climb up “that mountain,” it also now appears to be this mountain from its own side and we believe that appearance. In which case, what happened?! Who switched around those real mountains?!

Self and other too are just objects of our thoughts or perceptions, incapable of existing on their own. They have no existence from their own side but totally depend one upon the other – what is this mountain without that mountain, or self without other?

other side exchanging self with othersOr in the similar case of left and right – what would be a world of lefts? Or one side of the coin without the other?

(By the way, when we use the word “dependent” we don’t mean it in a needy way – more like interdependent, dependent arising, dependent relationship.)

In universal love we never feel separated from anyone – we realize that we exist only in relationship, as relationship, with all living beings – part of a totality. In emptiness, too, there is no gap between ourselves and others because we are empty of existing from our own sides. Everyone is mere appearance of our mind, as we are of theirs – so how can we ever be separate from anyone? We cannot be.

With a perfect realization of love and wisdom, completely in tune with the way things are, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are therefore entirely blissful and whole. They need no one but love everyone. We can be like this too.

More in the next and final article on overcoming loneliness – hopefully it’ll take less than the four years it took me to get around to this one!

Over to you … please comment in the box below and I’ll try to answer.

Related articles

Why do I have no friends?

Love without pain 

Other loneliness articles 

Why do I have no friends?

This article is part of a series on overcoming loneliness. Click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I miss you!missing things

When did you last miss someone?

Missing people is of course related to loneliness. When we say we “miss” people, it seems like quite a good descriptor, because we are “missing” also in the sense of not getting it, missing the mark, not realizing that they are still in our hearts, that they haven’t really gone anywhere.

Attachment is a cover up of isolation that increases our isolation. It looks for love but blocks us as the object is outside ourself, unreachable – we’re like that donkey chasing the carrot. Futility and frustration are endemic in attachment for we’re looking for relationship while grasping at an independent, ie, unrelatable, self and other. We are holding ourself and others to be poles apart (||) as opposed to poles dependent (/\). This means we cannot be together, however hard we try.

donkey-and-carrot

Uncontrolled desire, or attachment, takes us out of the here and the now. Have you noticed how, when you are attached, you are always wanting to be someplace different or with someone else, never content or satisfied in the present moment with the people around you?

And do you not find it ironic that the less dependent we are on externals, the less needy–for example through open-hearted equanimity and love–the more others seem to enjoy sticking around?! With grasping, sooner or later we lose everything.

Try this thought experiment

We can use Chandrakirti’s verse as an object of contemplation, and see how our self-grasping ignorance sets us up for attachment, asking ourselves:

“What or who is that I or me who is lonely? How am I holding myself and the object of my ignorance and attachment apart, like the two poles (||), unable to bring them together?”

 Then, when I try to bridge that gap, ‘I need you to make me happy’, what is that sense of me?”

We can see how we yearn to be close and yet our attachment pushes us further away from others. Frustration is guaranteed. The gulf between self and other grows greater the harder we try to bridge it with attachment.

Does attachment work? It’s what we’re turning to!

We need to bridge the gap through love and wisdom instead, effectively. So we can make the determination to overcome ignorance and attachment and increase our love and wisdom – this can be the object of our meditation.

This mountain, that mountain

The title of this article is “Why do I have no friends?” But the point is, you DO have friends, lots of them.

If we understand we are poles dependent (/\), we know that we are ALREADY in relationship. We don’t have to create relationships that are already there. We can however improve our relationships enormously by recognizing them.

There are various ways to understand that we are already dependent on others, and therefore in relationship with them. One is by contemplating “this mountain, that mountain.”mountain 3

The stronger our grasping at self, the stronger our isolation. We can seek more and more lovers, drugs, extreme experiences; but we remain in a state of lack. The happiest moments are when we forget ourselves and dissolve the gap between self and others through wisdom and love.

When we feel alone, we can feel like the only point of consciousness in the universe, the one and only actual “me” surrounded by an alien sea of countless actual “you’s” or “them’s” (or on a good day “we’s”). However, whoever is me is also you, and whoever is you is also me.

Living in Colorado at the moment, I get to hike the Rockies and witness the truth of what Buddha says … that if I am standing on a mountain the West and looking at one to the East, the mountain I am standing on is “This mountain” and the one over there really seems to be “That mountain.” No two ways about it – it really feels like it, as if it is inherently or intrinsically this mountain. However, if I walk down the mountain in the west and up the mountain in the east, what happens!?

This shows that this mountain and that mountain are relative, depending entirely on our perspective, not absolute truths that have a reality unto themselves independent of perception. If this mountain was real, existing from its own side, it would remain this mountain even when I moved.

This is the same for self and other – they are relative truths, not real or absolute truths, not independent of the mind but entirely dependent on our perceptions. If I walk down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other, other becomes self and, looking back at my previous self, it now feels like other.

This is just one of many insights Buddha gave us to help us understand the relativity and interdependence of all things — an understanding that blows up the bedrock of our ignorance and self-absorption, setting us free.