This too shall pass

Our guest author is a single parent and a professional based in London, UK.

this too shall pass

When my husband and I first met we had a lot in common — mutual friends, common interests, same sense of humour, we laughed all the time at the silliest of things — but I clearly remember the moment when we really connected, like I had never connected with anyone before. It was when we both admitted that we had often in our lives seriously contemplated suicide.

If any of our mutual friends had been present at that conversation they would undoubtedly have been deeply shocked, as externally neither he nor I showed any signs of having such thoughts. It was at this point that our relationship moved on to a much more committed level, as though we had shared our darkest secret and still been accepted by the other. Not long afterwards we were married, and soon there was a baby on the way.

You see we were not without hope, we still thought we could ‘get it right’; but at times we just couldn’t work out what the purpose was in life and why we couldn’t make life turn out the way we wanted. I think we both had a sense that we were somehow ‘owed’ happiness but someone ‘up there’ didn’t seem to have got that memo; instead our lives had been complicated and painful, very painful.

When we married, the UK was in the middle of the economic crisis of the late 80s. As mortgage rates soared, my husband’s business disintegrated and finally collapsed, and we faced a mountain of debts as well as the understanding we would have to move out of our lovely home. One night, having gone to bed before my husband after what I thought had been a positive discussion of plans for our future, I was woken by a continuous ringing on our doorbell.

The two policemen informed me that my husband had been killed by a train — a train that he was kneeling in front of as it came around the corner. Our daughter was seventeen months old.

crunkled manThis story is shocking I know, but not unusual. All those statistics about suicide are about people like you and me. All those deaths devastate the lives of the people left behind, people like you and me.

I thought I had known pain before, but it was nothing like this — so powerful that my mind would turn to stone to protect me, or I would find myself gasping for breath, feeling that the pain would, in fact, kill me.

Everything changes

The recovery was very long, many years, with good times when everyone thought I was ‘over it’, followed by deep, dark troughs of grief and confusion. But significant things happened along the way. The first came two weeks after his death when I took my daughter to the park on a beautiful, sunny, spring morning. She laughed, the sun shone, the crocus bulbs bloomed, and I realised he would never see any of these things again: no changes in the seasons, no child growing into the beautiful young woman she is now, no opportunity for the sadness and confusion to heal and happiness to arise again.

In that moment I realised that ‘everything changes’ and that, no matter how terrible things may seem, they will change. ‘This too shall pass.’ In that moment I decided that no matter how bad things seemed I would stay for my daughter, that I no longer had the choice my husband had taken, that she needed me and I would live my life for her. crocuses in snow

People would say to me, ‘It must be so much harder for you with a child to look after,’ and I would think, ‘She is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.’ This is how compassion and love work. By thinking of her and wanting her to be happy, by wanting to protect her, I was no longer paralysed by my grief. My love for her took me away from my pain.

Wherever you go, there you are

I am sorry if the next few paragraphs are a bit ‘out there’ for some of you. I am in general a very practical Dharma practitioner, not ‘airy fairy’. I believe Buddha’s teachings are scientific; if you create the causes the effects will happen, and Buddha teaches us how to create the best possible effects. However, the following ‘out there’ things did happen, and I am telling you about them in the hope it will help others.

A couple of years after my husband died I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching job in the Bahamas (I know!). Such idyllic conditions for myself and my daughter, good friends, great job, beautiful beaches with white sand and sapphire seas, and an incredible social life with millionaires and rock stars. And yet one day I found myself sitting on a beach feeling the familiar crushing sense of despair. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Apart from the joy of my daughter, I could not find a happiness that wasn’t superficial and short lived; everything led me back to pain.

BahamasI was sitting on the silky, white sand, looking at the jewel-like sea, knowing I couldn’t die but not knowing how I could find the energy, or wish, to go on. Then, as clearly as if the person was standing right over me, I heard:

‘I will always take care of you.’

I quickly turned but there was no one there. I even stood up to look all around — no one. I just knew in my heart that what they said was true, that I would be alright; and I went home and booked us on a flight back to England.

A reunion

Over the coming years I found myself moving quite a lot and not finding what I was looking for – difference being that I now had a sense that there was something to look for. I wanted to find the source of the voice. I ended up in Brighton, and in the local paper I saw a photo of the teacher at the newly opened Bodhisattva Centre. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but immediately had an overwhelming sense that I knew this teacher very well, that I loved him dearly. It was like finding a long-lost brother. I had to go to the class. The feeling of knowing him never left me but, out of shyness, I never spoke to him. It seems like he was one of the lamps to the path.

Bodhisattva Centre
Bodhisattva Centre, Brighton

I loved the statues in the Centre, the prayers, but I particularly loved the practical nature of the teachings. To be told that samsara was the nature of suffering but that a spiritual path could take us out of it was such a relief for me. After attending classes for a few years, I was persuaded to attend the Festival in Portugal for Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s last teachings. The best two weeks of my life, I spent most of it crying with joy. I was home.

A protector

While I was there I noticed a young mum with a little girl in the video link tent who seemed to be without help, so I offered to look after the child the next day so that she could go into the temple itself. The girl slept as I held her and, looking down at her, she seemed just the same as my daughter in the weeks after my husband’s death. The same warmth against my skin, the same weight in my arms, the same peaceful sleeping expression and soft curling hair — it was beautiful and painful at the same time.

Later I paused under an ancient tree in the park next to the temple, and the moment I sat and my hand touched the root of the tree, the last years of my life played across my mind like a film. The death, my daughter, the recovery, the beach, the voice, Bodhisattva Centre … all the way through to me sitting under the tree, next to the temple where Venerable Geshe-la was teaching. Then I knew, as clear as day, that Venerable Geshe-la was the source of that voice. He had been guiding me all the way along, gently and imperceptibly leading me to this moment, to this temple, back to him.

i will always be with youSomeone told me not long ago that when their girlfriend met Geshe-la for the first time, he took her hand and told her, ‘I have been taking care of you since you were a little girl.’

‘Yes,’ I thought when I heard that, ‘he was.’ He was looking after her, and me, and indeed all the people who end up meeting him through his centres, books, disciples, and so on. So that even when we thought we were alone and isolated in our suffering, he was blessing us and drawing us closer.

The way out

Now, through meeting him, I understand that in samsara no one is owed happiness and the only happiness we experience is temporary. That instead of seeking death what I was really seeking was renunciation, the desire to get out of samsara channelled in the right direction.

I pray often that people who are having suicidal thoughts and fantasies should come to know renunciation. They are correct that this contaminated life is the nature of suffering, that their own and other people’s suffering is sometimes too painful to bear. travel path to liberationIt’s just that the solution they think they have found is no solution. The escape from the suffering is not death – it is seeking permanent mental freedom for ourselves and others through liberation and enlightenment.

If you are suffering today, please remember that no matter how bad it appears to be now, everything changes. ‘This too shall pass.’ Remember that you are always being taken care of by spiritual guides such as Venerable Geshe-la — he is praying for us and our families. Remember that you will always find the solution if you go for refuge to the Three Jewels.

A request

I would be grateful if after reading this you would turn your thoughts and prayers to those affected by suicide.

I pray that my husband and all those who take their own life find the everlasting peace of enlightenment. May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from misery.

(Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month).

Comments welcome.

Related articles

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out — more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

Do you really want freedom? 

 

Love without pain

broken heart
You can still fly.

Have you ever had a broken heart?

If you could look around at everyone else reading this, you would likely discover that not one of them is replying No to this question. In fact, chances are they have each had no less than five broken hearts, depending on their age and whether my previous random market research (asking people) is anything to go by.

Our hearts are prone to breaking because we have attachment. Attachment doesn’t work. Love always works though, thankfully.

(This article is quite long, almost 10 minutes, as I figured people need all the antidotes to attachment they can get on Valentine’s Day 😆.)

A lovers’ tiff

hipsters breaking upThe other day I was quietly meditating in the park in the setting sun, when I found myself silent witness to a little play enacted in the space between me and the beautiful mountain backdrop.

It was a lovers’ tiff. He walks away with his skateboard, saying, “I don’t know what you effing want from me!”

Not too much it turns out. “I just want a conversation with someone who is not 30 feet away!”

He returns. The discussion continues. “For real?!?” she says, as he walks off again

(To be fair, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop — they had plonked themselves down not 20 feet away …)

“All you effing care about is yourself! You show me no affection! You never give me a call!”

“What am I doing right now?”, he replies.

(I start to wonder if I am watching past scenes of my own life …)

There is a dog with them. I am thinking, admittedly quite randomly, that if that dog starts choking, their spat will quickly be over — for they will both be more concerned with someone else. Cherishing others always restores our perspective.

Ah, is this a happy ending anyway? He seems to be hugging her. I am wishing them and everyone else to be free from attachment and aversion. The dog, another silent witness to these antics, is trying to nuzzle her too. They will last another day. Except that now she is crying.

Troubles like this will be even more numerous today because expectations (aka “premeditated resentments”) are even higher than usual. Apparently both suicides and homicides increase on Valentine’s Day.

What is happiness?

happiness within 2We have been turning to attachment for our happiness since beginningless time. It is a bad old habit and, because it is associated with changing suffering, ie, fleeting pleasant feelings or, as Geshe Kelsang puts it “artificial happiness”, it is usually a harder habit to break than, say, anger, because anger is associated with unpleasant feelings, which we already know we don’t like.

To be convinced that attachment doesn’t work, we need our own deepening experience that happiness is a state of our mind, and that it doesn’t inhere in anything outside our mind. The more peaceful and positive our mind, and the less deluded it is, the happier we become. This is explained all over the place, including in this article.

Attachment searches outside where happiness cannot be found. But peace connects us to our inner source of limitless happiness.

We don’t need attachment to be happy. Not at all. And all it does is block us from seeking the actual sources of happiness and freedom.

Where to put a sofa in a burning house?

sofa in a burning house

We also need the bigger context for understanding what’s wrong with attachment. Namely, the wisdom of renunciation, understanding that there can be no pure happiness to be found in an impure life — a life characterized by the impure minds of self-grasping, attachment, and other delusions. Without the larger picture of renunciation, which wishes for complete freedom, we will continually fall for samsara’s pleasures … “Yeah, I know samsara sucks overall, but this next relationship/vacation/drink/surf etc is going to be an exception to the rule, I just know it! … ”

Thinking of samsara as a pleasure garden, as opposed to a prison, it is very hard to stop trying to make attachments work. How can we stop getting caught up in that addictive cycle of dopamine hits for one object of attachment after another if we think that’s all there is on offer?

Kadam Morten once asked, “Where should we put a sofa in a burning house?” It is a brilliant illustration of trying to make samsara work. We cannot get our existential security from partners, friends, and family. It is not possible to make a real world work because a real world doesn’t exist (more on that below).

sofa in a burning house 2If we understand that happiness is an inside job, and that samsara will never work, we are ready for the essential practice of transforming our enjoyments into the quick path to enlightenment, as explained a bit here. In short, we mix the pleasure or bliss with the true nature of reality, and in this way destroy our attachment and all other delusions.

To transform enjoyments, we also need compassion – we can’t do it out of selfishness. I love the new verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra on page 104. But I’ll talk more about that another day.

Virtual reality

To overcome attachment, we need to know what it is doing, ie, sucking us into a “real” world. Here is the definition of attachment:

A deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 113

“Contaminated” means by ignorance, so the object appears real, existing from its own side; and because it appears attractive due to some karma ripening, we feel it causes happiness from its own side too. So it is no wonder we wish for it, get absorbed into it, like oil into cloth. (For a story line of how attachment develops, you could check out this article.)

virtual reality same game for a while
In the same game for a while.

We project people in a certain ideal or at least desirable (for us) way, and then want or even expect them to live up to that. We hold out that they’ll change in the direction we want them to, but this is not realistic.

Have you ever watched someone wandering around in those virtual reality glasses? To people who are not in the same game as them, they seem to be floundering around foolishly. This is analogous to having the mental projection of a GF or BF who is no longer in the same game as us, but we haven’t quite realized or accepted that. Vainly trying to get ovirtual realityur own projection to cooperate, to love us again, neither the ex nor anyone else really knows why we keep at it: “Get over it already! Take those glasses off!”

Can’t fix the fixed

If we get all confused when relationships don’t work out, it’s because we are relating to and/or trying to fix something inherently existent.

To our self-grasping minds, including attachment, things appear to be inherently existent, or independent – existing in and of themselves, findable — and we grasp at them as such. But inherently existent objects can never change, however much we want them to. If something changes, it means it is dependent on causes, not INdependent.

Fixing or changing someone at the same time as holding them to be inherently existent is therefore a contradiction. If we have attachment grasping at someone as inherently desirable but upsetting us, for example, then upsetting they will have to stay. That upset thought can never ever get rid of its inherently existent object. The only way to get rid of the upsetting person is to get rid of the upset thought itself. To move on, as they say, to other thoughts.

samsara

We can tell that things are not inherently existent sources of pleasure or suffering by thinking about how our perceptions and memories change entirely when the relationship ends. The scent that drove us crazy with desire now drives us crazy with heartache. The memory of the touch of skin that we so loved and fantasized about now torments us.

I had a conversation with someone recently who had just broken up with her boyfriend. She told me, “I thought he’d change, and we would go on proper dates and he’d cook for me as he had promised.” (Yep, more scenes from my own life.) “And that he wouldn’t just sit around and play video games and smoke weed. But he didn’t want to change. Five years later, I am out of here. I was also attached to the idea that I needed him for my spiritual practice. I feel real relief. Some sadness too, but it is motivating.”

Breakups can be so useful – they make us turn for refuge to an actual source of happiness. They also help us empathize with everyone else who is lugging around the heavy burden of attachment, engendering a genuine wish for them to find lasting happiness from within.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with relationships per se. Indeed, we are in relationship with everyone. We have different karmic connections and sometimes we find people attractive. Attachment is associated primarily with romantic relationships, maybe because we are in the habit of romanticizing or validating attachment in that context. However, attachment comes up in most of our relationships, eg, with friends and children and pets.

The problems are not outside our mind. The point is, as always, that we need Dharma whether we are in a relationship or not. Whether single or coupled up, we equally need to identify the attachments and aversions in our mind and transcend these. The grass won’t turn out to be greener anywhere else if we don’t have Dharma in our hearts.

Love is the answer

love v attachment(I read somewhere that women always expect men to change and men never expect women to change. Not sure if that is a Dharma sentiment, but does it have a ring of truth?!)

Reminds me of another anecdote – a conversation I had with two elder women around Christmas-time. One was asking me, “How can I have love for my husband?! He just sits around all day. He turns the TV on first thing in the morning, it is driving me mad. It was okay when we both went to work, but now he is really boring.” The other woman agreed, wryly observing that her similar situation was reminding her of the grumpy old man syndrome and a recent (rather cruel and no doubt out of context) headline: “Women are happier when their husbands have died.”

Kind of goes to show that even if we do manage to sustain a relatively long-lasting relationship, till death us do part, it is still not a guaranteed bed of roses.

Relationships per se are not a pain in the butt. After all, as mentioned, we are related to everyone one way or another. But attachment is.

snowflake sweaterI suggested (jokingly) that she bought her husband a Christmas sweater embroidered: “I am a snowflake”. (Maybe you had to be there …) But the idea was that it would remind her that she needs not to fixate on him/this situation, but instead spread her love wider to all living beings, who are each equally interconnected with us, fragile, impermanent, and precious. That perspective will reduce her attachment wanting her husband to be different AND her irritation that he is not.

For more on how love overcomes attachment, check out Choose love and Love, attachment, and desire according to Buddhism.

Contemplate the dream-like nature of your world

Rather than projecting stuff “out there” with our attachment and then falling victim to our own thoughts, it is immensely helpful to remember that everything is the nature of our mind, like a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

biocentrismAlthough the objects and the minds that perceive them arise simultaneously, we have mistaken appearances of the objects as existing external to our mind, and we grasp them as existing in this way. Since we grasp at the objects as existing externally, we develop desirous attachment for those that seem attractive.

In this recent biocentrism article, the modern scientist Dr. Lanza seems to be catching up to Buddha’s 2500-year-old view:

Most people believe that there’s an independent physical universe “out there” that has nothing to do with our awareness of it.  This seeming truth persisted without much dissent until the birth of quantum mechanics. Only then did a credible science voice appear, which resonated with those who claimed that the universe does not seem to exist without a perceiver of that universe.

Another thing about dreams is that they come to an end. As Buddha put it,

In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end.

Since beginningless time, we have been attached to everyone. I mean, literally, everyone. Countless dreams, all vanished. How do we decide which ones are worth holding onto?

We must learn to create our own pure dream, one that we have full control over. And this we can do, if we take advantage of Buddha’s Sutra and Tantra teachings.

Over to you – what has helped you the most to overcome strong attachments? Any stories to share?

Lots more Valentine’s Day reading 💝

Want better relationships?

How to mend a broken heart

Happiness is here right now

Love, attachment, and desire

Falling in love again

Love free from attachment 

The art of letting go

 

Buddhism and the pursuit of happiness

broken printerThe last article, based on the Spring Festival introduction, looked at how deceptive samsara’s enjoyments are. Of course its sufferings are no fun either. Now I have boarded my second plane, from San Francisco to Denver, to find it almost entirely empty. I asked the flight attendant why, and she told me that the machines printing boarding passes were not working and so the would-be passengers who do not have their passes on their mobile devices are not able to clear security! I asked if we were waiting for them, and she said we couldn’t. I asked if they’d have to pay for another flight themselves, and she said yes, they would. So that sucks for all the other people who are supposed to be on this airplane. Unless of course this plane crashes.

Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. Luckily, samsara is not real.

Gen-la Dekyong told us that she saw a bluebottle fly trying to seek sustenance from the bell-like flowers on the shrine — it tried and tried to find nectar, but its search was fruitless, for the flowers were fake. This is just like us trying to find happiness in this and in that. Buddha has said that there is no happiness inhering in any of the things we chase after.  Real happiness is a life that is not Man smelling flowercontrolled by uncontrolled desire.  A life of compassion and wisdom will bring that happiness now and in the future. Of course, she pointed out, we do engage in normal activities; but if we remember that none of these activities in themselves can bring us happiness, we won’t be disappointed when they fail. Buddha is suggesting that we stop giving our energy to things that cannot give us happiness and instead give our energy to things that can. We can make ourself happy all the time. We need the pure happiness that comes from a pure or positive mind. And when we gain this happiness, we will be able to give others real happiness too.

Time to choose

Thinking about this, it seems clear we have to make a decision. It is hard and discouraging to have one foot on samsara’s path and the other on the path to liberation. Those paths are going in opposite directions, so we end up doing the splits. If we know and are convinced where happiness comes from, we can stay on the liberating path, regardless of where our daily life activities take us from month to month.

But a word of caution – it’s good to lighten up when we think about these things, not get all heavy. Attachment and disappointment and other delusions weigh us down – the decision to stay on the liberating path on the other hand is a light mind, free from the extremes of excitement and despondency. Have you ever been at a long, tedious party where you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself, but you’re actually not? And then you decide to leave, and how great it feels to stop pretending that it is all such good fun, and you step out lightly and with relief into the fresh air? Renunciation is a bit like that. We don’t need to take ourselves or our delusions too seriously as we work to overcome them, we don’t need to give them more power over us than they normally have. They are just clouds in the vast limitless sky-like space of our mind.boring party

Is it possible to have some happiness from the inside but also at least a little bit from the outside? That question needs thinking about. For one thing, we do need good human conditions, and Geshe Kelsang has said we need to avoid the extreme attitude of abandoning these. These days, in particular, we need a normal life — we generally can’t just run off and hide in a cave, no one would understand or support that. We also need the so-called “happiness of humans and gods”, for it is far easier to be happy in the human realm than in the lower realms. So it may be easier to frame the question in terms of where we feel happiness really comes from.

It’s easy to try to really look for it in both our mind and outer enjoyments – “Ooh, I’m all meditated and Buddhisted out, I need to relax and watch a movie!” There’s nothing wrong with a movie per se, it can teach us the truth of Dharma, help us develop empathy for others’ stories, for example; but there is something misleading in thinking that our happiness comes from the side of the movie as opposed to from our own states of mind. External things such as movies and dancing can make us happy if our mind is peaceful or blissful, but not if it is not. The endless frustration in samsara – such as failing to satisfy our desires and the other samsaric sufferings listed by Buddha — are all coming from uncontrolled desire, thinking that the holy grail of happiness is out there somewhere.

Who do you belong to?

As an example of trying to get happiness by following both a path motivated by delusions and a liberating path at the same time, I was thinking of the example of believing that our happiness comes from love AND from attachment. Lets say you’re an aspiring Bodhisattva, for example, who loves the idea of belonging to the world and making everyone happy, and who knows how great love always makes you feel. But at the same time you feel the need out of attachment or isolation arising from self-grasping to belong to just one person or a few people. This can cause a contradiction and a tension in the mind. This to-ing and fro-ing blocks us or slows us down — we digress, we get distracted, we take our eye off the ball, we don’t know where to put ourselves, we get discouraged in our ability to make ourselves and others happy.love breaks chains

Is it really possible to make both love and attachment work at the same time as real causes of our happiness? For one thing, is it possible to love unconditionally if we have fear in our heart? Yet uncontrolled desire makes us fearful, for example of losing. So it seems we have to choose – does happiness come from following the path of love OR the path of attachment? I think we need to make our life bigger, not reduce it to a poky life of attachment.

Not saying it is not a work in progress, we cannot abandon our delusions overnight obviously, that is not possible; but for one thing we don’t have to keep identifying with them, and for another we need to know from our own experience where happiness comes from if we are to make a firm decision to follow the blissful liberating path and generally stay on it.

A liberating path

Back to what Gen-la said, if we wanted to get to Paris from here, we would need to know the correct path. It’s the same for happiness, what are the correct spiritual paths or spiritual trainings leading to happiness? Examples would be renunciation, universal compassion, and the wisdom realizing the way things really are, or emptiness. The reason these paths lead to happiness is because we learn to control our delusions, controlling our own anger and attachment, controlling our self-grasping ignorance. Our delusions function to disturb our inner peace, so we have to give up on them if we are to experience real happiness. We don’t need to give up our usual daily activities, we just need to give up our delusions.this way or that way

Have you noticed how problems are everywhere all the time? They may surprise us every day, seeming to come out of nowhere, as anomalies, causing us to shake our heads “Oh dear, how did THIS happen?!”; but in fact they pervade our lives. Wherever we turn, whoever we talk to, delusions and karma are causing people problems.

For example, I talked to one of my brothers yesterday, it had been a few months. He told me almost by way of small talk that his company was in liquidation this week, his father-in-law had just suffered from a heart attack, and a vulnerable elderly person we both knew was being taken advantage of financially. He was making the best of it, and looking on the bright side (“No more overheads! Only a small heart attack! She doesn’t care that she is being fleeced!”), as we do, especially when we are trying to be stoical. (And people are remarkably brave, I find.) But it showed me, yet again, for the billionth time, that we don’t have to scratch deep beneath the surface of samsara’s sometimes seeming okayness to see that, no matter what we do, samsara doesn’t work very well for us at all. It never has. It never will.

Samsara is not by nature benign with the occasional unexpected setback thrown in. Our karma and delusions are ALWAYS out to get us!

I observe that a lot of people feel as if something is missing in their life, they know that happiness doesn’t really come from external activities; and this is especially the case as we get older and the things we were turning to work less and less, including our own health and energy and even the simple ability to stay awake and chat. But sometimes people don’t know where else to look. This is one reason, as Gen-la Dekyong said, why Geshe Kelsang has established centers all over the world so that people can learn about renunciation, universal compassion, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and the bliss and creative power of Tantra, or the “unmistaken Dharma of Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra.” Through the centers, teachings, books, festivals, all this knowledge can be ours. And if we apply this knowledge, our life itself can become the liberating path while we go about our normal daily activities.

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

In the Spring Festival I just attended at the Kadampa World Peace temple in the Lake District in England (laid back, relaxed, good Dharma, lovely Sangha, blessings all over), Gen-la Dekyong gave a talk on Friday night about the deceptive nature of samsara’s pleasures. In general, people think they will find happiness in eating, drinking, sexual activity, or watching television, or in a good job or nice relationship, or in lots of money, or even more money, or in a good reputation. If I have all this, we think, I will be happy, so we put all our energy into it. But we can see that even people who have managed to get a lot or even all of these things together are still not happy.

Pringles 2So, maybe, she said, you know what is coming next.  The happiness that arises from these worldly activities–eating drinking etc–isn’t real happiness, because it changes into suffering. Geshe Kelsang calls this artificial happiness or contaminated happiness or happiness mixed with suffering. For example, a pleasant feeling may arise when we start eating, but if eating was a real cause of happiness, then the more we ate the happier we would become. Yet the opposite is the case – the more we eat, the more uncomfortable we become.

Thinking this through I have concluded, not for the first time, that the same does indeed apply to all the other things we grasp at for pleasure, without exception. We’ve tried it all enough times, in this life and in countless previous lives – trying to find happiness in things or people outside the mind. Every time we get excited, “Perhaps this is it! This is the ultimate café, town to live in, relationship, weather, job!!” But it never lasts, does it?

Pringles 1Don’t get me wrong – I like eating, drinking, hanging out in the sun, and the rest of it as much as anyone else, and am not suggesting that we stop all these enjoyments (as if we even could). But it is important to find a way to transform them into the spiritual path through wisdom, compassion, and bliss, and we will only bother doing that if we see that in themselves they are not the real causes of our happiness.

I think we have to check this point carefully, not in an abstract way but based on our own activities and experiences at the moment – where are we investing our happiness? For example, what did you do today? Did it deliver the goods? Or was it more reminiscent of the words of Venerable Atisha:

Friends, the things you desire give no more contentment than drinking saltwater.

Pringles 3Or eating Pringles. I have often tried to find contentment in eating Pringles, and “once you pop, you cannot stop”, as their jingle goes — but I just end up with a sore mouth and slight feeling of nausea.

(And we are not even talking here about the problems of samsara, just the pleasures!! Which can often end up, weirdly, amounting to the same thing.)

Okay, I’ll start. I was just contemplating this all a bit earlier on this plane when my vegetarian Asian dinner arrived, a delicious BA curry, so much tastier than the stodgy pasta and dead chickens that all those meat-eaters have to eat! Ravenous after several hours of packing, traveling, security, and powerlessly waiting around, I eagerly stopped what I was doing (actually writing this), put lime pickle all over it, and shoved it in my mouth, barely managing to remember that it was not an actual cause of happiness, even though I had just been thinking about this subject. The first few mouthfuls were fine and dandy, then, hunger pangs abating, it already got a bit boring, and I started to toy with it, roll it around on my fork, and wonder, “What exactly is this?”, and “What shall I eat next?” One mouthful of the lemon cake was more than enough. To eat the bread roll or not to eat it, that was the next question. I decided not, but I have hedged my bets by buttering it and photo 1 (1)secreting it away for a snack later, no doubt so I can find it in a few days’ time mouldy and festering in my rucksack, like the banana I “kept for later” on my last plane trip, or the year-old cookies found in a forgotten pocket. I am a very slow learner when it comes to figuring out how to make samsara work for me. But there again, aren’t we all? Perhaps it is why we are still here, we are still hedging our bets, “One day it’ll work out, surely?! I just need to try harder!” Then I needed a coffee to wash down my coca cola, and while I was at it I thought I should finish my earlier purchased Kit Kat before it melted completely. Now I’m on a sugar/caffeine high, of which you, dear reader, are bearing the brunt. I also am waiting again, this time for the flight attendant to take this annoying meal tray away. I’d also like to use the bathroom, but I am in the window seat, and trays and bodies are everywhere, in my way. Oh, and did I mention that I dropped the tray of leftovers from this once appetizing curry all over my lap?

But my search for happiness on this flight is not over yet. Nowhere near. I still have 7 hours and 47 minutes to go. (And that’s just the first leg, getting me from London to San Francisco just so I can get on a whole other flight backward eastward to Denver, don’t even ask … ) When I watch a movie later, it may moreorless entertain me and keep me awake, but by the time I crawl into bed 5am UK time, I won’t feel I have accomplished much, really — just gone from A to C and back to B, killing time. If on the other hand I used this time in the sky plane in sky who takes these photosactually flying, thinking about renunciation, universal compassion, and wisdom, for example, or generating bliss and using that to meditate on emptiness, that would be a day well spent, whether or not I watched the movie or enjoyed the curry or even spilt more stuff over myself. My journey would have meant something. Something would have changed forever for the better.

Gen-la Dekyong went onto quote the verse from Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path:

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive
Give no contentment, only torment.

If we believed this from our own experience, we could reach a conclusion: “I don’t want artificial happiness. I want the real thing!” So what is the happiness we experience when we eat?  It is actually just a reduction in our previous suffering of hunger.  Buddha says that in this world no one has real happiness and their actions cause suffering.  But we keep looking; we are absolutely convinced that within this cycle of impure life we can find happiness.

I find it very helpful to consider how happiness could ever possibly come from outside the mind when there isn’t anything outside the mind to begin with?! Attachment is based on ignorance, grasping at (pleasant) things outside the mind, so no wonder it is futile.

We can remember the story of the thief rummaging around in Milarepa’s cave at night to find something to steal, only to hear Milarepa’s voice: “I cannot even find anything in here worth stealing in the daytime!” Buddhas in the light of their omniscient wisdom have searched and failed to find any real happiness in samsara, so what hope do we have in the darkness of our ignorance?

Over to you, do you think we can find happiness in objects and people outside the mind?