The meaningful & the mundane

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesI think we all have a deep-seated craving to feel that our life has meaning – but what makes something meaningful? Nothing is meaningful from its own side: it all depends upon our motivation.

You probably expect me to tell you that you should meditate to make your life meaningful – but without the right motivation, even meditation won’t do that much. Don’t get me wrong, of course I think you should meditate! But why are you doing it?

The value of our meditation, and indeed of any virtuous action, depends primarily upon the motivation with which we engage in it. If we meditate with the motivation just to relax and improve our physical health, our meditation may accomplish these goals but it can hardly be considered a spiritual practice. The highest motivation of all is bodhichitta, the wish to attain full enlightenment to help all living beings. If we meditate with this motivation the merit of our meditation will be limitless.

Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

If you want a meaningful life, focus on improving your love and compassion. This is something we can be doing in conjunction with all our activities, not just when we sit down to meditate. To quote Eight Steps again:

Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. For example, when we talk to our friends our motivation is usually mixed with self-cherishing and we say whatever comes into our head, regardless of whether or not it is beneficial. We can however talk to others with the sole purpose of benefiting them, encouraging them to develop positive states of mind and taking care not to say anything that will upset them. Instead of thinking about how we can impress people, we should think about how we can help them, recalling how they are trapped in samsara and lack pure happiness. In this way, talking with our friends can become a means of improving our love, compassion, and other Mahayana realizations. If we can skilfully transform all our daily activities in this way, instead of feeling drained and tired when we sit down to meditate we shall feel joyful and inspired, and it will be easy to develop pure concentration.

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesWe can make everything meaningful if we just have the intention to do so. When you sit down to watch TV, if you develop the intention to learn from the experience then you can use what you see to improve your love, compassion, and renunciation. If you don’t develop a special intention, though, you will probably just vegetate on the sofa and go to bed feeling bored and unsatisfied!

Living a meaningful life means always keeping Dharma in our hearts. It doesn’t mean spending all day doing meditation or reciting prayers (although if you fancy doing that for a day, don’t let me stop you); it means doing all our usual daily activities with a positive motivation. I think it’s quite common that, once we have labelled ourselves as ‘a spiritual practitioner’, we make ourselves feel guilty whenever we do anything ‘mundane.’ That guilt accomplishes nothing: we need to remind ourselves that what it means to be a spiritual practitioner is changing our mind, not anything else. As long as your actions don’t hurt anyone, they are not a problem: just develop the right motivation, and they will become a part of your spiritual path.

Is a change as good as a break?

Image result for happiness is a cigar called hamletAh, a nice cup of tea and a chance to put my feet up – that’s better.

Is it better? For how long? Before long I’ll need to get up and stretch my legs; then I’ll keep needing to pee because of all that tea I drank. So I nip to the loo and Ah! That’s better! Really? For how long? If going to the loo really made things better, just stay on the toilet and your life would be rosy.

Buddha said that if something really was a cause of happiness, the more you had of it the happier you would feel. I often think that if I could just stay in bed I’d be happy – but when I was ten, I had an operation and had to stay in bed without moving for two weeks. Let me tell you, it was not a cause of happiness. When the doctor eventually told me I could get up, I was so excited: I leapt out of bed, and immediately vomited and passed out! So getting out of bed turned out not to be a true cause of happiness either.

In all the worldly things we do, we’re never really finding true sources of happiness; we’re actually just changing one suffering for another. For example, if we have a headache and we take a painkiller, our headache goes and we feel happy: but that happiness is in fact just a reduction of our previous suffering. If we were to conclude from that that painkillers are a real cause of happiness, we’d be in trouble (and probably having our stomach pumped). In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

Buddha called the pleasurable feelings that result from worldly enjoyments `changing suffering’ because they are simply the experience of a temporary reduction of manifest suffering. In other words, we experience pleasure due to the relief of our previous pain. For example, the pleasure we derive from eating is really just a temporary reduction of our hunger, the pleasure we derive from drinking is merely a temporary reduction of our thirst, and the pleasure we derive from ordinary relationships is for the most part merely a temporary reduction of our underlying loneliness.

How can we understand this? If we increase the cause of our worldly happiness, our happiness will gradually change into suffering. When we eat our favourite food it tastes wonderful, but if we were to continue plateful after plateful our enjoyment would soon change into discomfort, disgust, and eventually pain. The reverse, however, does not happen with painful experiences. For instance, hitting our finger with a hammer again and again can never become pleasurable, because it is a true cause of suffering. Just as a true cause of suffering can never give rise to happiness, so a true cause of happiness can never give rise to pain. Since the pleasurable feelings resulting from worldly enjoyments do turn into pain, it follows that they cannot be real happiness. Prolonged indulgence in eating, sport, sex, or any other ordinary enjoyment invariably leads to suffering.

I sit down until I become uncomfortable, and then I stand up. I stand until I become uncomfortable, and then I sit down again. Our whole day: stand up, sit down; stand up, sit down; get tired of it all and collapse in a heap. Rince; repeat. Is our whole life just a variation on standing up and sitting down?

We say a change is as good as a break, but maybe now it’s time for me to say: all this changing one suffering for another is getting me nowhere; what I really want is to break away from suffering altogether. We have an opportunity to do this, because at last we know what a true cause of happiness is: inner peace. Check it out: the more I have, do I become happier and happier? Is there ever a point where I say ‘that inner peace is becoming painful now, I need to stop and feel grumpy instead’? We have a true source of happiness within our grasp – so reach out and grab it.

I was watching the lambs this morning, so bouncy and joyful; but my enjoyment was tempered by thinking of all the suffering that lies in store for them. Do the few moments of happiness they achieve make up for a life of suffering? I think not. So why don’t I apply this to my own situation too: I want more than a life filled with just fleeting moments of changing suffering. I want a permanent cessation of all suffering, thank you very much.

Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems. We shall still have to experience them in our countless future lives and, even in this life, although we work very hard to prevent these problems, the sufferings of poverty, environmental pollution, and disease are increasing throughout the world. Furthermore, because of the power of modern technology there are now many great dangers developing in the world that have never been experienced before. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.

How to Transform Your Life

We can see from this that Buddha never said that we couldn’t appreciate the pleasure we do manage to find: when we’re hungry, we eat; when we’re in pain, we take a painkiller. But we can do that while at the same time remembering that we can achieve so much more than this. A change might be good, but a proper break will be even better.


Take this further: How to Solve Your Problems | Eight Steps to Happiness retreat

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!

Sunny side up

Image result for optimismMy New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to be more optimistic. I’ve always been a bit wary of optimism before: isn’t it just burying your head in the sand or putting on a pair of rose-tinted glasses? Now I’m beginning to understand – real optimism isn’t pretending things are perfect, it’s having the confidence that you can make things better.

This means believing in your potential, knowing that you can change. One day you will be a Buddha, for goodness sake, what is there to be pessimistic about?

Every living being has the potential to become a Buddha, someone who has completely purified his or her mind of all faults and limitations and has brought all good qualities to perfection. Our mind is like a cloudy sky, in essence clear and pure but overcast by the clouds of delusions. Just as the thickest clouds eventually disperse, so too even the heaviest delusions can be removed from our mind. Delusions such as hatred, greed, and ignorance are not an intrinsic part of the mind. If we apply the appropriate methods they can be completely eliminated, and we shall experience the supreme happiness of full enlightenment.

~ Eight Steps to Happiness

That’s from the introduction to Eight Steps; right from the very beginning, Geshe-la has been telling us this incredible truth. If we just had faith in these words, there would be no basis to ever be discouraged. As Shantideva says:

Having mounted the steed of bodhichitta
That dispels mental discouragement and physical weariness,
The Bodhisattva travels the path from joy to joy.
Knowing this, who could ever be discouraged?

We need to make a habit of relating to our potential rather than our present limitations. We are not confined by the self we normally see; this is just an illusion. Stop listening when that self insists on being ordinary: tell ourselves ‘I can be something better instead.’

Most importantly, optimism is a choice. We can actively decide to have faith in a better outcome; we don’t have to wait for the world to provide us with something to be optimistic about. We already have ample cause to be encouraged: this precious human life, a supreme Spiritual Guide, our Buddha nature just waiting to be discovered.

Defeating anger with love

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesWe can all see the destructive impact that anger has on our state of mind and our relationships; it is not hard to see that retaliating to anger with anger only causes more problems. It takes a lot of mental effort to re-train our mind to respond to other people’s challenging behavior in a different way, but we can learn to transform those situations that usually provoke anger into causes of love instead. We just have to look into things a bit more deeply than we normally do, instead of reacting on instinct.

The simplest way to do this is to recognize that there is always a reason for the way they behave. The reason may be a bit messed up, but if we look beyond our immediate gut reaction and ask why? then we will find a whole set of causes and conditions that have forced our adversary into a position where they feel they have no choice but to lash out. People only hurt us when they are hurting themselves; the people who harm us are suffering from delusions, so we should feel compassion for them.

As Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

“Buddhas see that delusions have many faults but they never see people as faulty, because they distinguish between people and their delusions. If someone is angry we think `He is a bad and angry person’, whereas Buddhas think `He is a suffering being afflicted with the inner disease of anger.’ If a friend of ours were suffering from cancer we would not blame him for his physical disease, and, in the same way, if someone is suffering from anger or attachment we should not blame him for the diseases of his mind.”

We know we can’t help becoming deluded – anger, resentment, jealousy and so forth are deeply ingrained habits. So if we have trouble controlling our own minds, why do we expect other people to be able to control theirs? It’s not their fault: they may try their best, but still get angry. It’s not as if that were something they would choose to do: who says ‘Oh yes, I really fancy flying into a blind rage right now, that will really win me some friends’? OK, maybe the Vikings were into that – but generally, we know people would prefer to be calm and happy: they just can’t manage it. It’s not fair to blame them for that – it would be adding insult to injury really. If they’ve become angry, they’re already miserable, so they don’t need us making it worse. In fact, we can make it better for them and for ourselves if we recognize they are suffering from the inner sickness of anger and wish for them to be freed from that suffering.

 

 

Find out more: weekend course

Exam preparation

I have a study programme exam looming, and I’m trying to prepare for it by mixing my mind with the text and keeping the teachings in my heart; but, as Geshe-la says:

“The real exam is daily life.”

The point of all the effort we apply to studying is to be ready for whatever life throws at us: and we need to be preparing right now because we never know when the next ‘exam’ will be. Study programme exams are easy, really, because the date is set and we know exactly when it’s coming; life doesn’t work like that! I always find challenges easier to deal with if I know they’re coming: like the dentist, for example – it’s scheduled pain, so I can take the time to prepare for it in advance, do some taking and giving meditation. When suffering takes me by surprise, it’s much harder to have a positive response. But that’s the problem, isn’t it – somehow we always seem to be surprised by suffering, even though it keeps happening. Once we accept that things will always go wrong, we can start preparing a positive response to them ahead of schedule. That’s what we do every day: revise for the exam that is always just around the corner.

The real exam, the test of what we have learned, is our own death. We may not have been given a date for that examination, but we know it’s definitely coming: now is the time to prepare. How do you revise for that test? Not by memorizing things from a book – by training to face adversity with wisdom.

Every day, ask yourself ‘am I ready to face death with equanimity?’ If the answer is no, then use the rest of that day to practice letting go of all your worries and anxieties about this life. When the answer is yes, you have nothing left in this world to fear.

 

Take this further: Building Self-Confidence

Kindness & contradictions

A friend said to me the other day ‘because I’m a kind person, I always assume other people are kind too, and it really shocks me when they’re not.’ I thought this raised an interesting question about what is the best way to view others, and my conclusion is that we need to find a way to embrace contradictions.

We should definitely train to view others as kind; I would say it is a good thing to assume others will behave with kindness. Does this mean we’re blind to their faults? No, we don’t put on rose-tinted glasses: we recognize that people are deluded, and it is the nature of deluded people to behave in unkind ways. There is a contradiction there, but I think it’s one we can learn to work with. Assuming kindness is not the same as expecting it. When we assume people will be kind, we’re seeing their potential – and relating to people’s potential for kindness will help them to become better people. But, we know they are samsaric beings, and it’s unrealistic to expect anyone in samsara to live up to their potential all the time. So we can accept their negative behaviour without it damaging our assumption that they are kind. As Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

“One of the best ways to regard others as precious is to remember their kindness. Once again we may object `How can I see others as kind when they engage in so many cruel and harmful actions?’ To answer this we need to understand that when people harm others they are controlled by their delusions. Delusions are like a powerful hallucinogenic drug that forces people to act in ways that are contrary to their real nature. A person under the influence of delusions is not in his right mind, because he is creating terrible suffering for himself and no one in their right mind would create suffering for himself. All delusions are based on a mistaken way of seeing things. When we see things as they really are, our delusions naturally disappear and virtuous minds naturally manifest. Minds such as love and kindness are based on reality and are an expression of our pure nature. Thus when we view others as kind we are seeing beyond their delusions and are relating to their pure nature, their Buddha nature.”

In the same way, we can trust people even though we know on one level that they are untrustworthy. If we want to live in a world filled with trustworthy people, we have to create it through our trust, allow that to bring out the best in people. Of course we need wisdom – we don’t just invite a thief into our house – but we have to allow our hearts to be open enough to trust even if we have been let down a thousand times. People will continue to break our trust because they cannot help being controlled by their delusions; but they are still trustworthy because they have Buddha nature.

So, we assume kindness without expecting kindness. If we embrace this contradiction, we can keep a pure view of others without having any unrealistic expectations.

Take this further: Defeating Anger with Love weekend  |  Universal Compassion study classes

Being kind to yourself

Meditation itself is the ultimate act of kindness towards both ourselves and others because it frees us from all our inner problems; but we also have to practice meditation in a kind way, being gentle and enjoying our meditation without putting pressure on ourselves to achieve results.

Buddhist practice is all about changing ourselves, but that change can only begin if we first accept ourselves as we are. That might sound like a contradiction at first, but accepting something doesn’t mean not trying to improve it. For example, we can let go of all anger about an illness we suffer from and be completely at peace with it, but still take the medicine to make us better. In the same way, we should be happy with who we are right now – a deluded mess! – because that is our starting point, the basis upon which we can realize our full potential.

That acceptance really helps us to practice in a kind and gentle way, which is actually far more effective than pushing for results. If we are under pressure, always thinking ‘I need to be better’ or ‘I should have stopped getting angry with my kids by now’ then we can never relax; and without a relaxed mind, it is difficult for any deep changes to take place within us.

To maintain that acceptance, we have to stop comparing ourselves to others. This can be a hard habit to break: it can sometimes feel like the playground competition of ‘my toy car is shinier than yours’ has followed us into adulthood, making all our interactions a subtle game of one-upmanship. This habit can follow us into our spiritual life as well, so we play the game with either ‘I’ve been meditating for longer than you so I must be better’ or ‘I have far more problems than you and far more delusions.’ We want to be either the best or the worst, but all these comparisons are meaningless: everyone is different and will progress at a different pace. We all have different tendencies which from a Buddhist point of view we have brought with us from our previous lives, so we all have a different starting point. We can be inspired by the good qualities and progress we see in others without making comparisons with ourself: we too have that potential.

If we can lay this foundation of gentle, unpressurized practice, then being kind to ourselves will naturally lead to sharing that kindness with others.

More: The Art of Kindness

 

Transforming adversity

Sorry I’ve been quiet for a while, I was nursing a horrible cold – so I thought I’d transform that experience into something meaningful by using it as the basis for this post.

One of the most wonderful things about Buddha’s teachings is the array of practices we can use to transform adversity into the spiritual path. Even if we take just a little bit of this advice and put it into practice, we fell a little better – like a diamond, where even a small sliver is worth something. We can use our problems to help us develop:

  • Patience
  • Renunciation, recognizing we will only be free from suffering when we escape from this imperfect world
  • Compassion, by using our suffering to help us empathize with others
  • Wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of all our experiences

Our suffering can be the entire path to enlightenment, but we can’t use our adversity to gain deep experience until we are able to apply patience to it. Patient acceptance is the key to all the other practices because it allows us to relax into our situation. I know it sounds strange to talk about relaxing when we’re suffering or in a challenging situation, but we can’t really transform our mind into virtue unless it is relaxed and comfortable. That’s why we always do breathing meditation at the beginning of classes: we need to start from a peaceful place. In the same way, when we encounter challenges we have to start by being patient, which allows us to relax.

Patience is a mind that has stopped fighting against reality. We say ‘yes, it does hurt; that’s the way it is.’ We simply accept our present reality, we let go of all the ‘it’s not fair, I don’t like it, why does it have to be this way, I want it to stop’ and just accept. That is a very relaxed mind, free from all inner conflict; from that mental space, we can move on to develop a positive and constructive view. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe-la says:

Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara. This recognition is the basis for developing renunciation, the spontaneous wish to attain complete freedom from every trace of dissatisfaction, which in turn is the foundation of all the higher spiritual realizations leading to the boundless happiness of liberation and enlightenment. But this recognition can only dawn within the clear and open mind of patient acceptance. For as long as we are in conflict with life’s difficulties, thinking that things should be different from the way they are and blaming circumstances or other people for our unhappiness, we shall never have the clarity or spaciousness of mind to see what it is that is really binding us. Patience allows us to see clearly the mental habit patterns that keep us locked in samsara, and thereby enables us to begin to undo them. Patience is therefore the foundation of the everlasting freedom and bliss of liberation.

Patience really is the key that unlocks the door to our spiritual development. In my experience, trying to engage in the other practices without establishing the baseline of patience first feels inauthentic. We can gain some good feeling, and that’s wonderful; but for it to be really transformative it needs to be built on the bedrock of patience.

In order to be patient with our suffering, we can remember karma, recognizing our present problems as the result of our previous actions and seeing them as the payment of a long-standing debt. When we experience the suffering, that karma is purified; so our current difficulties are cleaning our mind and smoothing the path of our future. If we recognize that a pain is performing a useful function, it’s much easier to accept. For example, if someone stuck a needle in your arm for no reason you would probably yell blue murder; but if that needle contained an antidote you needed you would hardly even register the pain of the injection. If we can see all of our sufferings as performing a useful function – purifying our mind of negative karma – then it will be easy to be patient. We may still feel it, like the pinprick of an injection, but there will be no mental pain associated with it. We can relax.

If we learn to accept unavoidable suffering, unhappy thoughts will never arise to disturb us. There are many difficult and unpleasant circumstances that we cannot avoid, but we can certainly avoid the unhappiness and anger these circumstances normally provoke in us. It is these habitual reactions to hardship, rather than the hardship itself, that disturb our day-to-day peace of mind, as well as our spiritual practice.

If we keep training in developing patience, eventually our suffering will no longer disturb our mind. Instead of interfering with our peace of mind, our problems will become the springboard for our spiritual life.

Mother’s Day

Hi, Mum. Yes, I’m talking to you! Today I’m remembering the kindness of all living beings, because they are all my mothers. This is one of my favorite Buddhist views: it sounds so outrageous at first, but after a bit of thought it comes to be really obvious. All living beings have been our mothers because we have had countless previous lives and in each of those lives we had a mother. Who were all those previous mothers? Everyone around us. They have been reborn into different forms, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have been my mother.

This was actually the topic of the first meditation class I ever went to, and although I thought it was slightly mad I also found it profoundly beautiful, and it really affected the way I saw the world.  I love my mum; she gave me this life and all the opportunities I have. She is the kindest person in the world to me – and everybody has at some time shown me this same outstanding kindness. This way of viewing others is so helpful: I see little birds outside my window just now collecting seeds from my bird feeder to take back to their young, and my heart just opens: once upon a time, they cherished me in just the same way.

When you look at things logically, this view that all living beings are our mother is obvious: it’s just a question of numbers. Countless lives, finite living beings. But the fact that it’s kind of weird also helps me – it makes me take a lighter approach. When a big hairy builder wolf-whistles at me in the street I think ‘that’s my mum’ and instead of feeling intimidated I want to laugh at how strange this world can be!

So today, try out this view: wish everyone a happy mother’s day (just mentally, or they’ll think you’re mad!) and see how close this makes you feel to others.