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

Merry Something

Image result for raymond briggs father christmasI won’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ – not because I’m a Buddhist, but because it can get a bit annoying after a while. Do you find yourself thinking ‘Well, of course I’d like to have a Merry Christmas, but I’m under far too much pressure for that, thank you very much!’

The more expectation there is, the more we grasp at creating the conditions for a perfect day, then the harder it is to actually enjoy ourselves. It is the mind of attachment that creates those expectations, believing that after all the effort we’ve put in we absolutely must have fun; but ironically, the more pressure we put on ourselves to be happier, the less happy we become. It’s not wrong to want to be happy – at Christmas or any other time – but grasping after that happiness is not the way to go. Just focus on creating the causes of happiness – and I don’t mean by making perfect roast spuds, I mean by trying to stay relaxed and peaceful – and let our enjoyment arise naturally from that, without pushing.

Attachment is very narrow in its focus. In the same way that if we focus on just one person as being who we need then we will naturally develop attachment towards them, if we focus just on Christmas Day we will develop attachment to that as the source of our happiness. When we develop equanimity and love everyone, out focus is spread out and there is no longer any basis for attachment; in the same way, if we spread out our focus and aim to make every day a good day, not just one, then we’ll be able to relax and enjoy our Christmas.

So let go of Christmas and have a merry everyday!

P.S. If you need a bit of help recovering, come to our New Year course!

Do we really want peace?

When you really wish for something, all your efforts are directed to achieving it, and you can accomplish incredible things. We all say we wish for world peace: so why haven’t we attained it? I think we need to question what the aspirations of our global society really are.

Historically, I would say that many human societies did not wish for peace. Battle was seen as a way of proving yourself, and a wish to avoid conflict was associated with dishonour. People’s pride was proven stronger than the wish for peace. Even as little as 100 years ago, a nationalistic pride was driving this country to create and maintain an empire. I would say there was not just pride but also competitiveness in this: little England saying to the other European powers ‘we may be small, but look what we can do!’

Churchill said:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

We like to think of these days as far behind us; surely now, after ‘the war to end all wars’ (twice), we have learnt to value peace? Certainly, more people try to avoid wars… but have we let go of the causes? Is that pride and competitiveness just focused on a different arena? In many ways, the same battles as have been fought throughout history with swords or guns are now being fought in the arena of economics. If the cut-throat world of business is all about beating opponents to win a higher profit margin, then isn’t this still moving just as far away from the wish for peace?

And when we play or watch competitive sports, are we not encouraging a glorification of conflict? I’m not saying sports are necessarily deluded: we can enjoy the game without having attachment to any particular outcome, we can learn to win without feeling superior and lose without feeling we have lost anything of ourselves. But it’s challenging to manage this! If we don’t make an effort, we are likely to default to pride and competitiveness; and in so doing we undermine not only our own inner peace but the development of outer peace.

So when you say you wish for world peace, check you really mean it; check that you want from your heart to let go of the delusions holding you back. When you really want it – when you want peace more than you want to prove yourself or come first or chase the honour and the glory – then you can and will make it happen. Geshe-la tells us:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds.”

 

So I think we need to ask ourselves – as individuals and as a society – if we are really ready to accept the cost of peace. Peace comes at a price: it will cost us our pride and our competitiveness. When we are willing to lose those, we will win a far greater prize.

Contentment

My favorite story of the many in Geshe-la’s books is the one about a poor man named Telwa who finds a jewel and gives it to the King. He is not being a subservient subject: when he hands over the jewel, he tells the King ‘I am content with what I have; but altough you have much wealth, you have a strong desire for more. You are the most needy person can can think of, so I am giving this jewel to you.’ Telwa shows not just kindness, but wisdom: he teaches us that the real wealth is the inner wealth of contentment.

Contentment is something we can find without even looking: we just need to stop chasing all of our desires. Contentment is a feeling of being satisfied with what we have, thinking ‘right here and now, there is nothing else I want or need.’ If we let go of our many attachments, we naturally find that contentment. Shantideva says:

“A person who has no attachment to attractive objects
Will find contentment – the best of all possessions.”

Our uncontrolled desire makes us like a hampster on a wheel – we keep running and running, but never get closer to our goal. For example, we want to get our house fixed up just right, but whatever colour we paint the front room, by next year something new will have caught our eye and we will start to feel dissatisfied again. Protector Nagarjuna said that desire is like an itch – you scratch it and get some brief relief… but it just moves somewhere else. The only real way to get rid of an itch is not to have it in the first place. What? He means that the way to find satisfaction is not by fulfilling all our desires, but by not having those desires in the first place. In the absence of desire, we simply are content.

If we get rid of our attachment, if we stop chasing after that something or someone who can give us satisfaction, then we can allow ourselves to just enjoy things as they are. Non-attachment doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate things; we can enjoy any good condition without grasping onto it. And because we have let go of attachment, we do not need those good conditions in order to be happy; we are content, because that contentment comes from within.

Queuing up for happiness

Once, when I was looking for the right place to buy a ticket for something, I asked a woman standing in a line ‘what is this queue for?’ and she replied ‘I don’t know.’ It’s amazing, isn’t it – us Brits actually like queuing so much that we will stand in queues even if there is nothing to be queuing for! With all this constant queuing, one might think that we’re very patient people. The thing is, it’s not that we actually enjoy it: we just like having something to complain about. That’s not patience: standing around displaying our stiff upper lip is more like having a passive-aggressive argument with the universe, whereas real patience is a happy mind. That’s right: not just putting up with it, but actually being perfectly content with things going wrong.

That’s why the practice of patience is so essential in our modern world: because things are always going wrong. We can’t change that – we can only change the way we respond. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam on your way to an important meeting, you have two choises: you can be late and stressed, or you can be late and happy. Neither option will take the traffic jam away: the only control we can take in that situation is over the state of our mind. We can choose to accept the situation we find ourselves in, not wishing it was different or saying ‘it isn’t fair’, and through that acceptance we stay at peace.

Geshe-la describes patience as ‘an open, accommodating, and peaceful heart.’ We always need patience; even if there are practical things we can do to improve our external situation, it is only patience that can solve the inner problem of stress and frustration. For example, our computer crashes; we feel irritated; we restart the computer and find it has miraculously saved all our work, so our external problem has gone away; but we still have a horrible state of mind because we allowed anger to take hold. So, we need to practice patience when there is nothing we can do to change our situation, and we need to practice patience while we are fixing those situations we can change.

Whatever our situation, we just recognize that it simply is the way it is. No amount of complaining is going to change that. If we can do something constructive to make things better, then good, go ahead: but at this moment, right now, this is what we’ve got and we must accept that for what it is. If we can do this, just accept ‘this is the way it is,’ then we relax, we stop fighting with the reality of our experience; then we can honestly say ‘it’s OK; this is the way it is and that’s OK.’

Take this further: Dealing With Anger day course

The Politics of Peace

I’m being topical this week, by asking what politics is all about? Fundamentally, I think it’s about change, about making the world into what we concieve as being a better place. But we have to question whether politics can provide that. Where does a better world come from? It has to come from pure minds. While people have greed, intolerance, and selfishness, we cannot expect to live in a pure and harmoneous society, no matter who is voted into government. We all have to take some responsibility for being part of the problem. For example, a consumer society is motivated by the greed of each individual within it: we all want cheap bananas, while rarely thinking of the social or environmental cost.

If each individual is part of the problem, we all need to be part of the solution: we can’t expect govenrment legislation to solve the problem for us. We can create peace within our own minds and share that with others, allow that inner peace to produce an outer peace in our immediate circle, and eventually in our whole society.

In Transform Your Life, Geshe-la says:

Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds. We can send so-called ‘peacekeeping forces’ into areas of conflict, but peace cannot be imposed from the outside with guns. Only by creating peace within our own mind and helping others do the same can we hope to achieve peace in this world.

We expect far too much from politics: if we’re expecting political solutions to solve our own problems, then we are not taking responsibility for our own minds. I’m not saying we don’t need politics: our society does need to be organized, and we can try to do that in the fairest and most humane ways. But just changing Prime Minister will never be enough; we need to remove the negative views and intentions within everyone’s minds. To do that, we first have to stop believing that external change can solve our problems, and start looking for change within.

Because of our expectation that political change alone can create the world we want to live in, we easily develop attachment to our political views. Even is a view is beneficial, if we develop attachment to it, believing it is the only opinion that counts, then we create problems. Tune in to a political debate: everyone is talking louder and louder, but no-one is listening to each other’s opinions.

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.

Geshe Kelsang, How to Solve Our Human Problems

If we allow attachment to views to arise strongly, then politics stops being about making the world better and becomes just about being right. Of course we all have views – that’s fine. But we wary of attchment telling you that other people’s views don’t matter.

I’m not saying that our political system is bad – there are certainly far worse – or that we shouldn’t be part of it. But I think that as we vote, we should recognize the limitations of politics. We can’t wait for politicians to solve our problems and then complain when they don’t. Thay can’t; it’s not their fault. We have to solve the problem of our own unpeaceful minds ourselves.

So, I vote for peace; and the power to make that happen begins with me.

You’re not coming in

In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

When we look at external things we can usually distinguish those that are useful and valuable from those that are not. We must learn to look at our mind in the same way. Although the nature of our root mind is pure and clear, many conceptual thoughts arise from it, like bubbles arising within an ocean or rays of light arising from a single flame. Some of these thoughts are beneficial and lead to happiness both now and in the future, whereas others lead to suffering and the extreme misery of rebirth in the lower realms. We need to keep a constant watch over our mind and learn to distinguish between the beneficial and harmful thoughts that are arising moment by moment. Those who are able to do this are truly wise.

If we use meditation to become familiar with the pure, clear nature of our mind, then we will learn how to distinguish between positive and negative states of mind from our own experience. Geshe Chekawa calls recognizing our delusions one of the ‘three difficulties’ because generally our negative minds come disguised as our friends: we think attachment is encouraging us to have fun, for example, when actually it is undermining our ability to enjoy the things around us. Really try taking a look at what your mind is doing: say you are contentedly sitting on a train reading the paper, and someone drop-dead gorgeous comes and sits down next to you. Immediately you feel tougue-tied and self conscious; you worry you have food stuck in your teeth; they ask your name and you can’t remember what it is. Attachment has destroyed our peace of mind.

How did that happen? We let it. We allowed attachment into our mind.

You’re not coming in!

When we decide good/bad with regard to external things, most of the time we’re just going ‘ohhh, pretty.’ We’re not thinking about nutritional value, we just like the coloured icing; the sun-roof grabs our attention more than the airbags. If something is ugly, we’re not interested. So, I think it would be useful to see how ugly our negative states of mind really are. Imagine your delusions were to take on physical form – what would they look like? What is the real face of anger or selfishness? My delusions tend to look a bit like the orcs from Lord of the Rings: not someone you’d want hanging out in your front room. But, when delusions come knocking at the doorway of our mind, what do we do? We let them in!

When a monster comes calling, learn to slam the door in their face. Once you’ve invited them in, they will be one of those house-guests who just won’t leave – we know how hard it is to shift a bad mood – so don’t let them in in the first place. We need to protect our inner peace by making delusions stay outside the door – just see our negative train of thought for the demon it is and say ‘no way am I giving you the time of day.’ Leave the monsters outside, and our peace of mind within.

But it looks so easy…

Watch your breath… so simple. But, as you will know if you’ve ever tried, simple is not the same as easy. I think that’s why it’s so easy to get frustrated with meditation – because the idea is so simple, we expect to be able to do it. But ease only comes through familiarity – this is true of everything. I remember when I first started learning to drive: it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to co-ordinate all those hands and feet to do separate, seemingly disconnected, things. In fact, it carried on feeling that way for a long time – over two years worth of lessons and two failed driving tests – but it did eventually become easy. How? Just through familiarity.

It’s the same with meditation: we’re trying to do something very unfamiliar to us, i.e. relax. We try to relax all the time: we soak in the tub or go on foreign holidays, depending on our budget; but however much money we throw at the problem, relaxing is a lot harder than it sounds, because we’re simply not used to it. If our mind is busy, we will not feel relaxed. So although meditation might not be easy, don’t give in to the frustration.

Meditation would be a lot easier if we stopped having such hign expectations of ourselves, if we stopped thinking ‘but I should be able to do it by now.’ When I first started meditating, I would get so frustrated every time a distracting thought came up. Eventually, I strated to judge how well a session had gone not by how well I had been able to concentrate, but by how well I had been able to accept the fact that I couldn’t concentrate! When I learnt to be patient with myself, I was naturally more relaxed and therefore less distracted.

Trying to push distracting thought away doesn’t work; it’s better to accept they are arising, then gently let them go. And it is hard work – but that hard work will pay off. We will gradually develop familiarity with stillness.

Further practice: Learn to Meditate | Lunchtime Classes

Today will be a good day

Why was today a good day? Because lots of things went wrong, and that was fine by me.

Normally, we tend to judge our day by external things – whether our plans worked out or went pear-shaped, whether we managed to avoid difficult situations or ended up in at the deep end. But from a spiritual point of view, what is more important is not what happens, but how we deal with the things that happen. The old Kadampa teachers used to say that the real way to see if we’re making progress is to check each year: ‘do I have less than before, and am I happier?’ If we can maintain a happy mind even when in more and more challenging situations, this is a real sign of progress: then we can be confident that today will be a good day.

car breakdownToday, for example, my car wouldn’t start. A friend advised me ‘it’s just a little stone on the path; just put it to one side’ and I thought ‘OK, I can do that,’ and stopped worrying.

Of course, I still had to fix the car. Changing my mind had made me relax, but it didn’t make the car start! So I made lots of phone calls and spent lots of money, and all of that gave me a headache. So, I applied the same reasoning again: getting upset about having a headache will not make it go away, so I will just accept the way things are. Then because my mind was peaceful, I started to relax, and my headache began to go away.

So today counts as a win: not because nothing went wrong, but because I used the challenges to help me develop my mind.

This is the real essence of Buddha’s teachings on transforming adverse conditions. We have to let go of the idea that things will always go our way: this is an impossible wish. Instead, we find different – better – mental responses to our problems.

“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.

We do not need to become unhappy just because things do not go our way. Although until now this has indeed been our reaction to difficulties, once we recognize that it does not work we are free to respond in a more realistic and constructive way.”

– Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, How to Solve our Human Problems

Once we have accepted that things will keep going wrong, we are free to learn how to develop more constructive mental attitudes, so that – with practice – we can confidently say ‘today will be a good day, because whatever happens I know I will be able to keep a peaceful mind.’

Find out more: weekly meditation classes | in-depth study