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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!

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.

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

Confidence

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

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

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

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

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

More on this: Building Self-Confidence day course

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

 

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

Six impossible things

Inspired by our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, I decided to believe six ‘impossible’ things. There are many things I believe in now that would have seemed impossible to me before I discovered Buddha’s teachings, and still more things that it would be helpful to stretch my imagination around. For example, do you really believe it’s possible to be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions? Many people would say that’s an impossibility, and because of mistakenly holding onto that view they limit their own potential for happiness.

When Alice says ‘One can’t believe impossible things’, the Red Queen replies ‘I dare say you haven’t had enough practice.’ This is true for us as well: with familiarity, we can expand our mind to fit in new ideas, realizing that they only seemed impossible because of our limited view.

In particular, we expand our mind by increasing our wisdom realizing emptiness. Our faith in all Buddha’s teachings, and in our own potential to realize them, will be supported by this wisdom. For example, I believe in Pure Lands – the pure world created by an Enlightened mind – because I understand that this world is no more than a dream-like appearance that will become gradually purer as I  purify my mind.

Nagarjuna said ‘for whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.’ My favorite ever story is from Ocean of Nectar:

“One day, his Abbot decided that it would be beneficial if Chandrakirti were to demonstrate his meditative powers and mental freedom to the other monks. To this end, he appointed Chandrakirti as storekeeper to the monastery, a post that involved the great responsibility of looking after the cows and buffaloes kept by the monastery to supply its dairy produce. Chandrakirti, however, refused to take milk from the animals because he felt it should be saved for their young, and he left them to wander freely on the neighboring hills. Nevertheless, he still managed to provide the monks with an abundant supply of dairy produce!

One day Chandrakirti and his assistant Suryakirti were summoned before the Abbot and the assembled monks and asked to explain how they managed to provide such an abundant supply of food while the animals were roaming unattended on the hills. To the great delight of the entire assembly Suryakirti explained that Chandrakirti had painted a picture of a cow on a wall and was drawing from this picture all the milk that was required:

Glorious Chandrakirti perfectly sustains and nourishes the monks
By drawing milk from pictures of cows!”

When I fully understand Buddha’s teachings on the union of the two truths, I will see how it is possible to milk a picture of a cow; until then, how can I say what is impossible? A more useful question is what is it more beneficial to believe? Why don’t you think of your own list of six impossible things, six beneficial beliefs that are made possible by your understanding of Dharma. Here’s mine:

  1. That big hairy biker is really my mother
  2. One day, I will have a dragon (Pema Shugden has one; I want one too)
  3. Time is merely imputed, so Monday morning is actually longer than Friday afternoon
  4. My invisible friend is with me always, like the shadow of my body
  5. The Pure Land in my head is real
  6. I will become a Buddha

Please share your six impossible things!


P.S. If this all sounds impossible, try reading: Holding on to rainbows | We are such stuff as dreams are made on

 

Buddha thinks I’m awesome

buddhaThis is a post for all those practitioners who tend to get discouraged and give themselves a hard time about not being good enough. I think if you have those tendencies, it’s very easy to practice incorrectly, especially when it comes to the teachings on abandoning self-cherishing.

Yes, we try to be altruistic and think of others before ourselves; but we also have to be happy with ourselves and recognize our good qualities. It’s all too easy to think that decreasing our self-cherishing means that we should find fault with ourselves; it doesn’t. We should not think less of ourselves: we should think of ourselves less. In fact, if we’re reducing our self-cherishing, we should pat ourselves on the back! Yes, we need to recognize our faults and not hide from them, but becoming obsessed with them is just another form of self-cherishing. The point of Buddhist practice is to make us happy, remember?!

In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

We might also ask, `If I had no self-cherishing, would that not mean that I dislike myself? Surely it is necessary to accept and love myself, for if I cannot love myself how can I love others?’ This is an important point…This [commitment] advises Lojong practitioners to be happy with themselves. 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.

Hate ourselves? That sounds a bit extreme, but I think it’s worth really checking our mind to see if we have turned in upon ourselves and are focusing exclusively on the negativity in our mind to the exclusion of our pure potential. We can’t grow into a better person if we are holding onto our faults and believing they define us.

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la lists three types of non-deluded pride which help us to be confident and happy practitioners. These are: pride in our potential, pride in our virtuous activities, and pride in being able to overcome our delusions. These types of pride are not about puffing ourselves up, because we’re not thinking ‘I am something special,’ we’re thinking ‘I will be something special.’ I will defeat all my delusions because Buddha said so. And who’s more likely to be right, him or me? When we fail to believe in our potential, we’re basically thinking that we know better than Buddha does! Buddha thinks you’re awesome, so you’d better believe it.

Thanks to Luna Kadampa for inspiring this post.

Lots more on this topic: Eight Steps to Happiness | In-depth Study