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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.

Are we nearly there yet?

The sounds of childhood: ‘I’m booooored! Are we nearly there yet?’

The spiritual path is really all about repetition. We do the same meditations every day; in our culture that constantly chases new thrills, this is quite revolutionary. So how do we do this without getting bored?

In my experience, we only get bored with spiritual training when we don’t really get something: when it is intellectual, rather than experiential. I have been to many introductory talks about meditation, where I hear the same things I’ve heard hundreds of times before; but I don’t get bored with being told that happiness is a state of mind, I sit up and go ‘Yes, that’s so true!’ The words mean something to me because they’re backed up by my experience. So if we find ourselves becoming bored with a practice, it’s a sign that we don’t have a deep experience of it yet – in which case, we need to do it more, not follow our boredom away to something else!

Remember that boredom is a delusion, it’s tricking us: there isn’t really something else out there that is going to remove our dissatisfaction. Boredom is a subtle type of anger that will not be content with things as they are. If we recognize this then we can actually use it to help motivate us: our spiritual practice is not a cause of boredom, it’s the only way to stop being bored, because for as long as we have an ordinary deluded mind we will inevitably be dissatisfied by everything. So just sit with it, see how deceptive our dissatisfaction is, and keep on repeating our meditations for as long as it takes.

Take this further: Weekly meditation classes | A calm mind

Thanks to ArtificeBlade for the image.

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

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.

Give & Take

I’ve often heard people say that love is about give and take, but I think that’s missing the point. Love is all about giving: it’s attachment that wants to take. If we want to get things right in our relationships with others, we first have to apply this to our relationship with ourself.

If we love ourselves, we want to give ourselves happiness; renunciation is a form of love, because we are wanting ourselves to possess the supreme happiness of liberation and working to give ourselves the opportunity to attain it. This is completely different from self-cherishing, which in my experience more closely resembles attachment: we want to take happiness for ourselves, even to the detriment of others.

Watch your mind to try to see this difference. I think you’ll find that when you are wishing to give yourself happiness, you are naturally more inclined to virtue because you want to create opportunities for inner peace. Contrast this to the feeling of wanting to take happiness: it’s like the world owes us this and we’re just waiting to receive it.

I often get asked ‘Isn’t it selfish to cherish others if we’re doing it because we know it will make us happy?’ No, it’s not selfish. When we cherish others, we are sharing in their happiness. All living beings deserve to be happy, and we are a living being. It is only selfish to grasp after our happiness whilst neglecting that of others. That’s why self-cherishing is a part of the ignorance of self-grasping: with both minds, we are grasping at a self divorced from others. We stop being part of ‘all living beings’ and become our own little island… and then when we think ‘may all living beings be happy’ we do not include ourselves and think that makes us more virtuous. Leaving ourselves out is self-cherishing. Geshe-la says in Eight Steps ‘when we abandon self-cherishing we do not loose our wish to be happy.’ It’s very important not to confuse the two, or it will undermine our ability to love others – we will remain unable to separate the give and the take.

 

Learn more: In-depth Study  |  The Art of Kindness day course

New Year’s resolutions: a work in progress

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions when I realized that come the 1st February I couldn’t even remember what I had promised anymore. So I’m going to try and re-inspire myself – and hopefully you too – to make resolutions that are sustainable.

I think the first thing that lets us down is not believing that we can achieve the goals we set ourselves; fundamentally, not believing we can really change. But our minds are infinitely flexible. We know we are constantly changing: we start off the day all optimistic, and my the time we get to work we’re grumpy again. Although we often see this changeability moving in the wrong direction, it does show us how fluid the state of our mind is! This should give us confidence that we can learn to channel that change in a positive direction. That starts with our imagination. We need a mental image of the person we want to become, and we believe we can become that person because who we are is not fixed.

As well as developing this confidence in our potential, we also need to be able to accept who we are right now. Otherwise, we expect the changes we want to happen immediately and become discouraged whenever negative mental habit-patterns arise again. Although we want to change, we can only do that from the foundation of where we are. If we don’t understand ourselves, there is no basis to grow. For example, lots of people every year make a resolution to do more exercise – why doesn’t that resolution stick? To answer that, you need to be able to identify what internal roadblocks you are putting up, what fears and insecurities are preventing you wanting to engage. Only by knowing our own mind, and accepting that as our starting point (however messy it might be) can we move on and make positive changes.

I think it can be easy to lose touch with who we are. We have so many different roles and responsibilities, people expect so much of us, we become so busy being what other people demand of us that we don’t really know who we are anymore. And we can use that as a way of hiding from the parts of our self we don’t want to acknowledge… but without accepting ourselves as we are we have no foundation to build on. We have to be happy with ourselves if we are to become better people. Geshe-la says:

If we are excessively self-critical we shall turn in upon ourself and become discouraged, and this will make it very difficult for us to turn our mind to cherishing others. Although it is necessary to be aware of our faults, we should not hate ourself for them… Abandoning self-cherishing completely is not easy and will take a long time. If we are not happy with ourself, or foolishly neglect our own well-being, we shall have neither the confidence nor the energy to effect such a radical spiritual transformation.

We should not feel discouraged when we identify our delusions because this is the first step to overcoming them. We simply accept ‘this is where I’m at right now; I’m a work in progress. Now I can let this go and become the person I want to be.’ The only thing that can ever prevent us from achieving that is our own discouragement – as long as we stay focused on our potential we will gradually move towards it.

More inspiration for the New Year:  New Year Course  |  January Retreats