Posts

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

Emphasis on the inspiration

Image result for kadampa meditationThere are so many meditation practices, how do you decide where to place your emphasis?

I’m not going to tell you. I can’t: it’s something you have to work out for yourself.

To know what you need to be emphasising in your practice, you need to know your own mind. Geshe Chekhawa says ‘Purify your greatest delusion first.’ Work out what is your greatest stumbling-block: do you have a tendency towards anger, are you easily distracted, do you get discouraged? Our ‘greatest delusion’ will vary day to day, for example when you are with your parents you may tend to revert to a particular childish habit; but generally, there is also an underlying theme that we need to identify and tackle. E.g. your main problem may be a pessimistic attitude, and so your main emphasis will be working on seeing your own and other’s potential; then, when you visit your parents you can temporarily emphasise overcoming the bad habit particular to that situation.

Does this mean you should focus on your one special delusion to the exclusion of everything else? Again, your practice is personal so you need to work out what’s best for you; what is most important is that you continue to feel inspired. ‘Purify your greatest delusion first’ doesn’t mean getting obsessed with that delusion: it is all too easy to end up thinking ‘I’m such an angry person’ rather than ‘I want to overcome my anger.’ We will only be able to beat our bad habits if we are enjoying our spiritual practice, so it is important to always keep some of our emphasis on things that motivate and inspire us – this will give us the internal energy to tackle the harder aspects of our training. And remember to ask for blessings – we don’t have to face our problems alone. The Buddhas will always be delighted to help.

Although we may choose to emphasise certain things that are particular to us, it is still important to maintain a balanced practice – both so that we don’t get bogged down and become obsessive, and so that we don’t neglect those aspects of spiritual training that we don’t particularly like! The best way to do this is to maintain a regular lamrim meditation practice, following the 21 meditations in The New Meditation Handbook. With this, we can be certain we are covering all the bases, and it will help us to get to know all aspects of our mind better so that we can see clearly where our stumbling blocks are and what special practice we need to emphasise next.

A more in-depth introduction: How to Solve Your Problems half-day course

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!

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

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

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

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

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

 

Purification

calmEverything we experience is karma. Both our external conditions and the instinctive way we react to them arise from the potentials of our past actions. If you think that every single thought or action is creating potentialities in our minds, then how many potentialities must we be carrying around? It’s a good thing they don’t weigh anything, or we’d be flattened. And it’s a mixed bag: some good seeds, some bad. If we could ensure that there were only positive potentials in there, we would essentially have attained the Pure Land.

How do we do this? By making sure we don’t create and more negative potentialities, and by removing the ones already in there. Fortunately, we don’t have to just wait for those bad seeds to grow in order to be free of them – we can practice purification.

To purify, we transform our mind into the opposite of the negative mind that created the problem; we do this by cultivating four ‘powers’:

  • The power of regret
  • The power of reliance
  • The power of the opponent force
  • The power of promise

First, we deeply regret our negative actions because we recognize that they bring harmful results for both ourselves and others. Then, the power of reliance means that because our negative actions harmed either the Buddhas or ordinary beings, we now develop the opposite intention: refuge in the Three Jewels and compassion for everyone else. In order to purify we also need to be determined to break our bad habits and stop engaging in harmful actions – this is the power of promise.

The power of the opponent force is any positive action that we engage in with the intention to purify. There are some specific practices designed to speed our purification along – for example this weekend we’re doing a retreat with lots of prostrations – but any positive action can function to purify our mind. Patience is a particularly powerful purifier that we can practice all the time; if we remember the opponent powers, then every time we patiently accept any difficulty we are clearing away vast amounts of negative karma.

The more we purify, the easier it will be to keep a positive mind, because we will no longer be held back by the weight of our negative karma. The more positive our mind is, the easier it will be to purify’ and we will be racing towards the Pure Land.