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.

Special cases

In Training the Mind in Seven Points Geshe Chekawa advises ‘Always meditate on special cases.’ For example:

If there is someone with whom we always seem to get angry, we should make a special point of meditating on being patient with them.

In fact, we can learn to regard our ‘special cases’ as our closest friends.

It all depends on what we want. Do we authentically want to develop inner peace? Do we see this as more important than our external conditions? If we do really want to attain spiritual realizations, then we should value the challenging people in our lives and cherish them for the precious opportunities they give us.

The problem is, we tend to think of preciousness as being an intrinsic quality, based on a person or thing having some innate value. But it is all defined by our wishes. For example, I was once driving with a friend of mine, and we passed a farm displaying a sign:

Well rotted goat’s manure: bring your own bag!

I immediately developed some rather unpleasant mental images… and my friend said ‘Wow! That’s exactly what I need, let’s pull over and get some.’ Oh joy. So, because it was useful to him for growing vegetables, that manure appeared to him as something precious. Let’s apply that to other people: some of them may seem reminiscent of well-rotted goat’s manure, but they are precious because they are the basis for our training in virtuous minds. In Eight Steps, Geshe-la says:

How can we learn to love with no one to love? How can we practise giving with no one to give to, or patience with no one to irritate us? Whenever we see another living being we can increase our spiritual qualities such as love and compassion, and in this way we come closer to enlightenment and the fulfilment of our deepest wishes. How kind living beings are to act as the objects of our love and compassion. How precious they are!

If people just left me alone (as I generally want them to do) then I would frankly never get around to training my mind. It’s true, isn’t it? I only really try when I’m being pushed. I practice giving because people demand my time and energy; I practice patience because it would just be too stressful not to. If other people weren’t offering me that encouragement, I would never develop a stronger mind, and so I would remain unhappy. When people challenge us they are leading us directly towards happiness.

Thanks, guys. Bring it on.

‘Tis the season

It’s supposed to be the season to be jolly, but how are we supposed to manage that while doing last-minute Christmas shopping? One seasonal-themed way to keep a positive mind is through practicing giving. Just buying presents for people won’t necessarily make us happy, but a mind wishing to give will. Like with all Buddhist practices, giving is about what we do with our mind, not externals. You don’t have to spend a lot in order to be extremely generous.

Last Christmas my mum gave her great-nephew some lego, and it didn’t cost her a penny because it was the lego I used to play with. When we were wrapping it up (which took a long time, as we had to build everything to check all the pieces were there) she was so happy because she was remembering how much joy I got from it as a kid, and thinking about how much it was going to be enjoyed again. That happiness she was feeling is a mind of generosity: wanting to give just to make others happy.

Giving isn’t just about the presents. One of the best ways you can give to your family at Christmas is by giving your time. Time tends to be one of our most closely-guarded possessions, especially if we have lots of extended family pouring in, we start grasping more and more tightly at having some space just for ourselves. Face it, that’s not likely to happen: so try to just let it go. Instead, try deciding to gift your time and your attention to others. Listen to them, take an interest – it’s so unusual, so they will appreciate it, and it will make our mind lighter too.

It only works if you do it from your heart. Putting up with people we don’t like isn’t giving, it’s just repressing our anger. Real generosity has to come from truly wanting to give, knowing that everything – material things, out time, our energy – takes on more value when given away. If we hoard these things for ourselves, where do they get us? At the end of our life, what will we have to show for having kept them? We will have run out of time, and all our possessions will have to left behind. Holding on to things for ourselves gains us nothing; by offering them to others, we fill our mind with virtue and lead a happy life.

Most importantly, we give our love. When we deeply wish for those around us to be happy, generosity in all its forms will naturally follow – and so will a very Merry Christmas!

 

How to love terrorists

I have said many times – and I think most people will agree – that without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. This is not just a trite saying: it means we have a chance, and a responsibility, to make things better. Part of having peace in our hearts is to love and accept everyone with equanimity. Many people would say this is unrealistic, that we can’t treat people with equanimity when there are that minority who engage in such harmful actions – but this is a misunderstanding. Loving someone does not mean we passively condone their negative behavior, but I firmly believe that the only way to change someone’s actions is to begin by accepting and loving them:

Being accepted feels very different to being judged. When someone feels judged, they automatically become tight and defensive, but when they feel accepted they can relax, and this allows their good qualities to come to the surface.

We can learn to love people who are engaging in negative actions by learning to distinguish between a person and their delusions. Where we might see a suicide bomber and think ‘this is a bad person,’ a Buddha would think ‘this is a suffering being afflicted by the inner disease of delusions such as anger.’ This distinction is subtle but so important for us: we can learn to see that there is no such thing as an evil person. Everyone has the potential for goodness, even if that may presently be obscured by the clouds of delusion. In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la uses the example of a child throwing a tantrum. Although the mother is not blind to her child’s destructive behavior, she does not give him up as a lost cause – she continues to see him as beautiful and full of potential. That doesn’t mean she won’t correct his behavior; but she will do so with a loving mind, not judging but only wanting him to grow into his full potential.

If we blame others, it only leads to resentment. If we blame their delusions, it increases our compassion. Instead of wanting that person to suffer for what they have done, we recognize that they are already suffering; they are suffering from the disease of anger. If we could remove that suffering, cure them of that disease, then their negative behavior would cease. So the most appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is to wish for them to be happy, because then they would have no reason to harm anyone. At the very least we should not add more delusions into the mix by becoming angry with them!

Another way of thinking that can help us to see beyond a person’s negativity is to recognize the vast web of causes and conditions that bring about any situation. Geshe-la says:

Our normal view is that there is an inherently existent aggressor harming an inherently existent victim. This is a complete misconception of the situation. In reality, the aggressor and the victim are interdependent and utterly without inherent, or independent, existence. If we try mentally to isolate the aggressor from everything else in order to pinpoint someone we can blame, we cannot do so, for the aggressor has no existence independent of the other elements of the situation. The aggressor depends on his delusions and on the karma of the victim that impelled the aggressor to behave in that way at that moment; as well as on the circumstances of the situation, his personal and family background, the society in which he lives, his previous lives, and his being trapped in a samsaric body and mind. When we search for the aggressor in this way, he disappears in an endless web of relationships, causes, and conditions – there is no inherently existent person we can find to blame.

When we look at all the different causes that made that person who they are, we will find only one thing left to blame: delusions. Not just the delusions in that person’s mind, but in everyone’s; the negative views that are perpetuated from generation to generation, that become a part of a society, that result in a division between ‘us and them.’ If we can remove those delusions from just one person – ourselves – then we have already made a change in our society. We are all interconnected, so that change affects everyone. By choosing to love instead of blame, we will have made a start towards unraveling that web of causes and conditions that brings about terrorism.

Be mine

We grasp onto so many things as being ours, but are we correct in doing so, and what effect does it have on our minds?

This possessiveness is an aspect of our attachment, which only ever functions to disturb our mind. Maybe we have a special coffee cup at work: how do we feel when someone else dares to use it? What about when people borrow our prized possessions and fail to return them?

We even regard other people as our possessions: my spouse, my child. I thought we’d banned slavery generations ago? When we get possessive, we start expecting people to act like an extension of us, for example expecting our children to adopt our own ambitions, and this can only put pressure on our relationships.

What does it really mean for something to be ours? If we truly possessed something, we would be able to take it with us when we die; but there is nothing outside of our own mind that we can hold onto after death. Even our own body – our most treasured possession – will be left behind. We do not possess any external thing.

Everything is impermanent: our material possessions, our family, even our youth and beauty and health. We can’t hold onto any of it, so grasping at them as ‘mine’ only causes pain. If we can learn to recognize their transitory nature, we can enjoy these things without grasping; in fact we can appreciate them more because we know they cannot last.

I am always right

Sometimes I take a step back and realize just how many of my problems are created by the conviction that I’m always right.

I actually gave a friend some advice on parenting the other day. I have no children and am in fact completely hopeless with kids, yet I still thought my way was superior to hers, despite her years of experience. So of course my ‘wisdom’ was insensitive and offensive. Is it just me, or are you also mentally cringing with the memory of times you’ve done something similar?

But it’s not just embarrassing, it’s also dangerous. If we look at the real basis for most conflicts, we will find this exaggeration of the value and importance of one view or opinion over another. People hold onto their religious or political views and feel they are justified in imposing those views on others because they are, of course, right. Just as this arrogance creates international conflict, we can also start wars within our families over the correct way of doing the washing up and what exactly constitutes a balanced meal. I think for as long as we keep grasping at our opinions in this way, conflict is inevitable. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe-la says:

Due to strong attachment to our own views, we immediately experience the inner problem of unpleasant feelings when someone opposes them. This causes us to become angry, which leads to arguments and conflicts with others, and this in turn gives rise to further problems. Most political problems experienced throughout the world are caused by people with strong attachment to their own views. Many problems are also caused by people’s attachment to their religious views.

What we need is some humility, the ability to be open to other people’s views. Eight Steps to Happiness tell us ‘we hold our opinions and interests very strongly and are not willing to see a situation from another point of view.’ Humility gives us that willingness to step outside of ourselves. Most of the time, we don’t need to establish who is ‘right’ in order to resolve an argument: there is no real right or wrong way to do the washing up, for example, just two equally valid methods. As long as we are humble enough to say ‘my way is not the only possible right way’ then we can be happy to allow room for different opinions.

That doesn’t mean we adopt other people’s ideas just to avoid rocking the boat: we can respect other people’s opinions without sharing them. Even if someone’s way of seeing things is very distorted – if they are racist or intolerant in some other way – we can still accept how they feel and recognize that their view is coming from delusions. Then we will not judge them or feel superior to them. It’s only in that acceptance and absence of judgement that we can help people develop more compassionate views.

Stubbornly holding onto ‘I am always right’ and trying to push this view onto others only ever creates conflict – even if our view is right, we’re going about things in the wrong way. People don’t like to be dictated to. When we are willing to let go of our own fixed views, then other people will likely do the same.

 

All in the same boat

Paper Boat by EredelSo, in my last post, I was telling you all to stay focused on a mind of love; pretty good general advice, I think. “Yes,” I hear you cry, “it may be a good idea, but how do I do it? People just wind me up!”

That’s why I like Buddhism so much: Buddha doesn’t tell you what to do, he tells you how to do it. If we want to learn to love people, we can; we just have to decide firmly that it’s a good idea, and then familiarize ourselves with speicial views that generate the feeling of love in our hearts. For example, we think about the kindness of others, and how we all wish for happiness – these contemplations make us feel connected to others.

It’s that feeling of connection that is key. We naturally wish for our own happiness, because we see things from our own point of view; if we realize that everyone else thinks the same, everyone feels “my happiness matters because it is mine”, then what basis is there for thinking my happiness is more important? It’s all the same: my feelings and others’ are exactly the same, we both just wish to be happy and avoid suffering.

As we say, we’re all in the same boat. That’s a very good metaphor, because if lots of people are in a boat together, they all have to work together to move n the direction of land; if everyone rows in different directions, no-one will get anywhere. In the same way, since everyone wishes for happiness, it makes no sense to think just of my own individual happiness – this will not really get me anywhere. It makes more sense to work towards the happiness of everyone together: change “what do I want” into “what do we want.” Then we’re paddling our little boat towards enlightenment.

What should I focus on?

Mindfulness is basically deciding what to focus on. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it really is the key to our happiness, because what we focus on dictates how we feel. When we dwell on something negative, eg the faults of a person, it causes a negative mind; if insted we make the effort to focus on their kindness, we stay peaceful and positive.

It is our choice: one object can be either negative or positive depending on where we focus our attention. Focusing on the negative is called inappropriate attention because it causes unpleasent feelings to arise in our mind; that bad feeling does not come from the object, it comes from our own unhelpful view. It is so liberating to realize that we have the freedom to choose how we feel: no-one and nothing has the power to make us feel bad, it all depends upon our mind. Simply, it depends on what we focus on.

We need to get to know our own triggers – what conditions encourage our mind to become negative – so that we can overcome these tendencies.

 

Appropriate attention means choosing to focus on things in a way that generates positive feelings. Shantideva compares our mind to a wild elephant; we need to use the rope of mindfulness to tie this elephant to the stake of our virtuous object. This way of training our mind is huge; our mind is very complex and there are many positive and negative impulses arising moment by moment. But if you want one thing to stick your attention to, you can’t go wrong with cherishing others. If we maintain a strong intention to cherish others, this will counteract all our negative tendencies and be the cause of only pleasent feelings.

There are so many things we can choose to focus on; in fact, I sometimes find it difficult to decide between all the wonderful possibilities… and so I end up not having much of a focus at all! Cherishing others pretty much covers all the bases. Geshe-la once said that the best way to keep all of our vows is to cherish others, because this naturally makes us want to behave in a pure way. So if at any time you don’t have a clear positive focus for your mind, then put in this intention, ‘I will help others in everything I say and do today.’ Keep repeating it to yourself until your attention is firmly stuck on, and you will be able to enjoy the beautiful peaceful feeling of love in your heart all day.

Living In the Moment

We try to escape from the present moment because we are not happy with where we are; we feel like the past or the future can offer us something better. We are often so dissatisfied with our life and the choices we feel are open to us. But from a spiritual perspective, we are in the best possible position: we have the opportunity to change our mind, and learn from every situation we find ourselves in. The Kadampa teachings allow us to make anything into part of our spiritual path; because we have these teachings in our heart, we have the perfect conditions for spiritual growth. It doesn’t matter how busy we are or how many problems we have, we can make it all a part of our inner development. Because we have such perfect conditions for spiritual growth, our choices are actually limitless. So why would I want things to be other than the way they are? If we keep a spiritual perspective, we won’t want to waste our life being trapped in the past or worrying about the future; we will be glad to be in this moment, thinking ‘I am so happy to be exactly where I am right now.’

I find the teachings on karma to be very helpful in maintaining this perspective. That seems strange at first, because karma means thinking about our past actions and the future effects of our actions – how is that keeping us in the present moment? Remembering karma helps us stay in the moment because we realize that it is our actions in this moment that create our future. In each instant, I am forming my future experiences; every moment is a potential goldmine… or a minefield. I don’t want to miss a second of it.

Using mindfulness to stay focused on our present intentions and actions keeps our mind clear of all concerns about the past or future. We can still make plans for the future, but we won’t get caught up in them because we know it is the good karma we can collect now that is the main condition we need to fulfil our wishes.

 Further reading: Modern Buddhism