Loving kindness

Image result for kadampa loveLove is kind: it is a mind that wishes happiness upon others. It is the great protector from suffering because when our mind is filled with love it is always at peace. There is a beautiful story from the life of Buddha Shakyamuni: when he is sitting under the bodhi tree striving for enlightenment, all the obstructing spirits in the world attack him with fearsome weapons; but through the force of his concentration on love, the spears and arrows turn into a rain of flowers. I think this is such a wonderful symbol for how love transforms our world and the people in it. When you love someone, they appear beautiful, you can see the good in them. While you truly love them, they can do nothing to hurt you.

This may at first glance seem like an overly romanticised view of love: in our experience, it feels like love can sometimes cause us pain, rather than protect us from it. But this is because it is very difficult for us to separate out all the different things that are happening in our mind. We may have a mind of love – just focused on wanting the other person’s happiness – but do we also perhaps have some attachment, wanting them to behave in a certain way in order to benefit us? For example, we may give someone good advice that we know could help them; if they fail to take that advice and we feel bad, check to see what is causing that bad feeling. Do we feel just a little bit slighted that our advice has been ignored? Were we expecting a bit more gratitude? If we could get rid of all the reactions that are about us rather than them, we would have no problems.

In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

We sometimes feel that the reason we are unhappy is that someone we love is in trouble. We need to remember that at the moment our love for others is almost invariably mixed with attachment, which is a self-centered mind. The love parents generally feel for their children, for example, is deep and genuine, but it is not always pure love. Mixed with it are feelings such as the need to feel loved and appreciated in return, the belief that their children are somehow part of them, a desire to impress other people through their children, and the hope that their children will in some way fulfil their parents’ ambitions and dreams. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between our love and our attachment for others, but when we are able to do so we shall see that it is invariably the attachment that is the cause of our suffering. Pure unconditional love never causes any pain or worry but only peace and joy.

Making our love completely pure is a big challenge, but it will be so worthwhile. To give us the motivation to train in this, practice watching your mind and try to discriminate between these minds of attachment and love. It sounds like it should be easy – they are polar opposites, after all – but it’s not easy at all. Keep asking yourself ‘is this thought really about me or them?’ until eventually we get used to distinguishing between the two. When we can spot the difference, we will be really encouraged to train in the mind of loving kindness, because we will know from our own experience that this precious mind of love brings real happiness.


Take it further: Loving kindness retreat

The eye of the storm: dealing with stress

Image result for stress quotesAlthough modern life is full of stressful situations, we do not have to get sucked into the whirlwind.

Instead of feeling frustration when we face difficulties, we can learn to cultivate a strong and stable mind that can respond to everything with equanimity: then we find ourselves in the eye of the storm. The chaos may continue to swirl around us, but our peace of mind is unaffected.

The key to finding this balance is first to realise that no situation is stressful from its own side. For example, we may think that our boss is a cause of stress because as soon as we catch sight of him or her our anxiety levels ratchet up a notch. But, if were an actual source of stress, then everyone would immediately feel stressed when they saw him. And maybe everyone who works alongside us does feel this too – but presumably, his mum finds sitting down with him for Sunday dinner quite relaxing. He is not the cause of our stress: our own mind is.

It’s actually a huge step towards attaining inner peace when we can acknowledge that our stress is coming from our own mental responses, not the external situation. Then we can start moving in the right direction. For as long as we think the only way to relieve our stress is to remove ourselves from difficult situations, it never gets better; even if we go on holiday we still feel stressed because we know we’ll soon have to go back and face the challenges we’re trying to escape from. When we start trying to change our mind, rather than the outside world, then we’re moving towards a stress-free life.

I’ve referred to that as ‘the eye of the storm’ because a stress-free life isn’t one characterised by lying on beaches sipping cocktails; we will continue to be surrounded by difficult people and unwished-for occurrences. Our external situation may not change at all, but that’s the point: it doesn’t need to. We’re in a calm and peaceful space in the midst of all that stormy weather, and that’s a real achievement to aim for.

Image result for stress cartoonsThere are lots of methods within Buddha’s teachings to combat our stress – I just want to give you one little practice that can make a big difference. It can be summed up in a verse by Shantideva:

If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.

If there is a way to remedy an unpleasant, difficult situation, what point is there in being unhappy? On the other hand, if it is completely impossible to remedy the situation or to fulfil our wishes, there is also no reason to get upset, for how will our becoming unhappy help? This line of reasoning is very useful, for we can apply it to any situation.

How To Solve Our Human Problems

For example, if you’re stuck in traffic and are about to be late for an important meeting, is there anything you can do to change that? No. So you have two options: you can be late and stressed, or you can be late and happy. You are going to be late either way: being stressed as well is a complete waste of energy, so don’t bother. At least you can waltz into your meeting (eventually) ready to impress everyone with your poise and resilience.


More: Dealing With Uncertainty | A Stress-Free Life

Rejoicing

we should focus exclusively on others' good qualities and pay no attention to any apparent faults

“We should focus exclusively on others’ good qualities and pay no attention to any apparent faults.”

Rejoicing means being happy to see the happiness of others; the simplest and sharpest way to slice through our jealousy, competitiveness, and pride. We just see someone who is enjoying good conditions or who possesses good qualities and we think ‘I’m glad for you.’ They’re happy; we share in their happiness.

In my experience, it’s simple as long as we don’t get caught up in thinking too much – you know, all that ‘But they don’t deserve it / I worked much harder than them / I try just as hard but no-one is praising me.’ One of the main points of rejoicing is to stop all that thinking about ourselves! Try instead just to think: ‘There’s little enough happiness in the world, I’m glad I get to see a little bit of it.’

As a matter of fact, everyone does deserve the happiness they enjoy, because anything good that people experience is a result of their previous positive actions, or good karma. In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe-la says:

Shantideva says that there are two things we can rejoice in: virtue, which is the cause of happiness, and happiness itself. It is not enough just to rejoice when we see others engaging in virtue, we also have to feel happy when we see them experiencing the results of their virtue. A Bodhisattva is like a mother who delights in the happiness and good fortune of her children. If we want to become Bodhisattvas we must also learn to delight in the happiness, success, relationships, possessions, and even the laughter of others.

Remembering that they created the causes for their present good conditions encourages us to see the good in others, and it also encourages us to emulate their good qualities and positive actions. In the same section as quoted above, Geshe-la uses the example of two friends who are practising Buddhism together, one emphasising meditation and the other emphasising study. If they rejoice in each other, each will be encouraged to develop a more balanced practice and there will be no basis for that pride which decides ‘my way of doing things is the only right way.’

We can also rejoice in our own positive actions whenever we are feeling a bit discouraged. Think of all the good causes we have created: every time we meditate, even if it doesn’t go well, we have created the cause to experience inner peace in the future. It may not feel like we’re getting far, but we are capable of creating an extraordinary amount of good fortune: just look at this human life. In our previous life, we planted the seeds for all the incredible conditions we have today. That means that last time round, we were a really good person. If we managed then, we can certainly do it again now!

Merry Something

Image result for raymond briggs father christmasI won’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ – not because I’m a Buddhist, but because it can get a bit annoying after a while. Do you find yourself thinking ‘Well, of course I’d like to have a Merry Christmas, but I’m under far too much pressure for that, thank you very much!’

The more expectation there is, the more we grasp at creating the conditions for a perfect day, then the harder it is to actually enjoy ourselves. It is the mind of attachment that creates those expectations, believing that after all the effort we’ve put in we absolutely must have fun; but ironically, the more pressure we put on ourselves to be happier, the less happy we become. It’s not wrong to want to be happy – at Christmas or any other time – but grasping after that happiness is not the way to go. Just focus on creating the causes of happiness – and I don’t mean by making perfect roast spuds, I mean by trying to stay relaxed and peaceful – and let our enjoyment arise naturally from that, without pushing.

Attachment is very narrow in its focus. In the same way that if we focus on just one person as being who we need then we will naturally develop attachment towards them, if we focus just on Christmas Day we will develop attachment to that as the source of our happiness. When we develop equanimity and love everyone, out focus is spread out and there is no longer any basis for attachment; in the same way, if we spread out our focus and aim to make every day a good day, not just one, then we’ll be able to relax and enjoy our Christmas.

So let go of Christmas and have a merry everyday!

P.S. If you need a bit of help recovering, come to our New Year course!

What’s your problem?

Image result for leaky roofWe all think we know exactly what – or who – is our problem, but we always identify that problem as being outside of our mind. And so we fix our problem by changing our job or our partner or our car or our hairstyle… and we still have problems. It can become a bit depressing after a while: all that effort, and what do we have to show for it? Nothing but a whole new set of problems. It’s not that it is impossible to solve our problems: it’s that in order to solve them, we first have to accurately identify what they are.

In Universal Compassion, Geshe-la uses the analogy of having a hole in the roof. It’s not enough just to put a bucket under it to catch the drips – you have to go and find the leak, fix it at its origin. I’ve always rather liked this example, because a friend of mine told me that a long time ago in the Brighton Centre they had this exact situation: a stain appeared on a bedroom ceiling, so they went up into the attic and put a bucket under the drip. Sorted: no more water in the bedroom. Then six months later the ceiling collapsed! This story shows that 1) we need to fix the root cause, not just deal with the symptoms, and 2) Buddhists are much better at fixing internal problems than external ones!

Image result for blame cartoonsIn Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe-la helps us identify what we really need to change:

Whenever we have a problem it is easy to think that our problem is caused by our particular circumstances, and that if we were to change our circumstances our problem would disappear. We blame other people, our friends, our food, our government, our times, the weather, society, history, and so forth. However, external circumstances such as these are not the main causes of our problems. All our problems are mainly caused by our own past actions, and once their effects are ripening there is no way we can avoid them. Therefore, instead of trying to run away from our problems by constructing new situations in life, we need to recognize these painful experiences as the consequences of our own harmful actions and develop a heartfelt wish to abandon their causes.

What are the causes of our own harmful actions? Our delusions, those mistaken habits of mind that lead us to harm both ourselves and others. Being able to identify the internal causes of our problems is good news: it’s the first step to fixing things once and for all. Instead of feeling disheartened when things go wrong, we can think ‘now I have the opportunity to change my mind and stop responding to this kind of situation in a negative way.’ This is really the first step to being a spiritual practitioner: we have to be willing to take responsibility for our own mind, and not keep blaming other things for our problems. We need to be brave, to accept that we are unhappy because we have delusions in our mind and not because of our external conditions.

This might sound a bit heavy, but it makes us feel much lighter because at last we can see an actual solution to our problems. No more buckets needed, I’ve learnt how to fix the roof!

 

More on this: Keep Karma and Carry On

Whatever the Weather

Happiness is a state of mind, right? It doesn’t depend on external conditions. Simple – so why does the weather still make such a difference to how I feel?

It looks like we’re not going to have summer this year, so I reckoned I’d better do something about developing some equanimity towards the weather. In Joyful Path, Geshe-la says:

“When we have developed equanimity towards all other living beings by training our mind in this meditation it will be very easy to maintain equanimity with regard to inanimate objects such as the weather.”

OK… but can we apply the instructions on developing equanimity directly to the weather? In the teachings, it tells us to become aware of our attachment and aversion. Let’s start with our attachment to sunshine: it seems that sun is inherently good… but actually I’m only thinking that because right now it happens to be raining. Right now, sunshine seems like my friend; but in the past, it has been my enemy. I once lived in Israel for four months and it only rained twice – I was so happy to see the rain that I ran outside and danced in it.

“Focusing our attention on both groups of friends and enemies, we meditate:

From my own point of view there is no significant difference between these two groups because sometimes my friends become my enemies and my enemies become my dear friends. Both are impermanent and can change very quickly. Therefore I will cease to make such false discriminations between them, favoring some and rejecting others. From now on I will maintain equanimity, free from strong attachment and strong aversion. I will avoid unbalanced attitudes of feeling very close to some and very distant from others.”

~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

I will stop feeling close to sunshine and distant from rain; if there was sunshine every day, England would not be nearly such a beautiful green place. And, of course, if it was too hot I’d complain about that – English people always complain about the weather, no matter what it is!

We can develop equanimity by realizing that our attitudes are constantly changing. Just as we put people in little boxes and think that’s who they really are, so we categorize the weather into good and bad and think it’s fixed that way. When we accept that it’s our mind and our mind alone that creates these labels – and that the labels change depending on our circumstances and our mood – then we are free to let go of our aversion and attachment and just be happy whatever the weather.

If any type of weather were inherently good or bad from its own side, then everyone would agree – but we can see that’s not the case. Just like with people, even if we dislike someone we can always find someone who disagrees (everyone has a mother who thinks they’re wonderful!), so whatever weather we’re having will make someone happy… even if at the moments it’s only the frogs.

So, I’m off to put this teaching into practice while camping in the lake district – wish me luck!

 

More info on transforming adversity: Universal Compassion FP

Confidence

Most of the tips you see on how to develop self-confidence recommend telling yourself how great you are and that you can achieve anything. I’m not so convinced – sometimes this will just be setting you up for disappointment. England will probably not win the European cup, however many fans tell themselves ‘we’re the best.’ If our confidence is based on the belief that we are better than someone else, then our bubble will be popped soon enough and we’ll end up discouraged. A more honest confidence comes out of recognizing the equality of self and others.

If we consider ourselves and others to be of equal importance, we level the playing field so there will never be a reason to think that our contribution to the world is less significant than anyone else’s. For example, if we’re in a meeting we can confidently express our opinion because we will feel that our view is just as valid as our colleagues’.

The confidence that is based on equalizing self and others also does not contradict being humble. I can’t remember who said this, but it’s a great quote:

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Humility grows out of an inner strength that values ourselves highly enough to be able to set our own agenda aside; we can take a back seat and give others the limelight because when we have authentic self-confidence we don’t need others’ recognition or approval.

More on this: Building Self-Confidence day course

Do we really want peace?

When you really wish for something, all your efforts are directed to achieving it, and you can accomplish incredible things. We all say we wish for world peace: so why haven’t we attained it? I think we need to question what the aspirations of our global society really are.

Historically, I would say that many human societies did not wish for peace. Battle was seen as a way of proving yourself, and a wish to avoid conflict was associated with dishonour. People’s pride was proven stronger than the wish for peace. Even as little as 100 years ago, a nationalistic pride was driving this country to create and maintain an empire. I would say there was not just pride but also competitiveness in this: little England saying to the other European powers ‘we may be small, but look what we can do!’

Churchill said:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

We like to think of these days as far behind us; surely now, after ‘the war to end all wars’ (twice), we have learnt to value peace? Certainly, more people try to avoid wars… but have we let go of the causes? Is that pride and competitiveness just focused on a different arena? In many ways, the same battles as have been fought throughout history with swords or guns are now being fought in the arena of economics. If the cut-throat world of business is all about beating opponents to win a higher profit margin, then isn’t this still moving just as far away from the wish for peace?

And when we play or watch competitive sports, are we not encouraging a glorification of conflict? I’m not saying sports are necessarily deluded: we can enjoy the game without having attachment to any particular outcome, we can learn to win without feeling superior and lose without feeling we have lost anything of ourselves. But it’s challenging to manage this! If we don’t make an effort, we are likely to default to pride and competitiveness; and in so doing we undermine not only our own inner peace but the development of outer peace.

So when you say you wish for world peace, check you really mean it; check that you want from your heart to let go of the delusions holding you back. When you really want it – when you want peace more than you want to prove yourself or come first or chase the honour and the glory – then you can and will make it happen. Geshe-la tells us:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds.”

 

So I think we need to ask ourselves – as individuals and as a society – if we are really ready to accept the cost of peace. Peace comes at a price: it will cost us our pride and our competitiveness. When we are willing to lose those, we will win a far greater prize.

A daily meditation practice

‘How do I find the time?’

Before we can even start trying to meditate, the first hurdle is clearing the space in our day to do it. Most people claim not to have enough time, but the irony is that if you took some time for meditation you would stop feeling so busy. A lot of our busyness is internal rather than external: we don’t actually have more than we can manage to do, we just have so little mental space that we can’t plan or prioritize and so we feel a lot busier than we really are. If we started our day with just five minutes of meditation, we would feel like we had gained a lot of time.

To make sure we take that time for meditation, we have to really believe in the benefits it will bring. We only do the things we want to do. We can’t bully ourselves into a meditation habit, but if we remember how much more space meditation could create in our lives we will naturally develop a wish to engage.

What should we focus on?

There are many different objects of meditation to choose from, but I would recommend two practices for a basic daily schedule:

1A breathing meditation or similar to calm the mind. We can’t gain deep experience of any of the more contemplative meditations until we gain some ability to let go of distractions and enjoy some taste of inner peace. So it is really helpful to spend a bit of time – 5, 10, 15 minutes, whatever feels comfortable – just letting go and settling the mind.

The New Meditation Handbook - Front Cover2Secondly, we can add in a meditation to help us maintain that peaceful mind. We can follow the meditations presented in The New Meditation Handbook, a series of 21 meditations that we practice in a three-week cycle. After three weeks we have covered everything we need to reach our full spiritual potential; then we can start the cycle again, gaining a deeper experience each time we go round.

This presentation of 21 meditations – which we call lamrim – is particularly helpful as a way of integrating everything we learn about Buddhist practice. If you come along to weekly meditation classes, it can feel like we’re constantly getting new information: there are so many good ideas being thrown at us, but how do we remember and apply them all? If we are familiar with the 21 lamrim meditations, we will see that all the advice we’re given fits into one of these practices: the structure of lamrim is like a storeroom where can keep all of the spiritual instructions filed away in the more useful place, ready to come to our aid when we need it.

I think this would be the ideal daily practice: one session of breathing meditation, and one of lamrim. If you don’t feel up to meditating twice a day, that’s OK – start with just some breathing meditation and build up to doing more.

I also find it very helpful to combine meditation with some prayers to prepare the mind: the Liberating Prayer which we use at all our classes, or the Heart Jewel prayers if you have more time. I’ll write more about that soon!

More info: Meditation Classes | Learn to Meditate courseThe New Meditation Handbook