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The meaningful & the mundane

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesI think we all have a deep-seated craving to feel that our life has meaning – but what makes something meaningful? Nothing is meaningful from its own side: it all depends upon our motivation.

You probably expect me to tell you that you should meditate to make your life meaningful – but without the right motivation, even meditation won’t do that much. Don’t get me wrong, of course I think you should meditate! But why are you doing it?

The value of our meditation, and indeed of any virtuous action, depends primarily upon the motivation with which we engage in it. If we meditate with the motivation just to relax and improve our physical health, our meditation may accomplish these goals but it can hardly be considered a spiritual practice. The highest motivation of all is bodhichitta, the wish to attain full enlightenment to help all living beings. If we meditate with this motivation the merit of our meditation will be limitless.

Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

If you want a meaningful life, focus on improving your love and compassion. This is something we can be doing in conjunction with all our activities, not just when we sit down to meditate. To quote Eight Steps again:

Activities such as cooking, working, talking, and relaxing are not intrinsically mundane; they are mundane only if done with a mundane mind. By doing exactly the same actions with a spiritual motivation they become pure spiritual practices. For example, when we talk to our friends our motivation is usually mixed with self-cherishing and we say whatever comes into our head, regardless of whether or not it is beneficial. We can however talk to others with the sole purpose of benefiting them, encouraging them to develop positive states of mind and taking care not to say anything that will upset them. Instead of thinking about how we can impress people, we should think about how we can help them, recalling how they are trapped in samsara and lack pure happiness. In this way, talking with our friends can become a means of improving our love, compassion, and other Mahayana realizations. If we can skilfully transform all our daily activities in this way, instead of feeling drained and tired when we sit down to meditate we shall feel joyful and inspired, and it will be easy to develop pure concentration.

Image result for geshe kelsang gyatso quotesWe can make everything meaningful if we just have the intention to do so. When you sit down to watch TV, if you develop the intention to learn from the experience then you can use what you see to improve your love, compassion, and renunciation. If you don’t develop a special intention, though, you will probably just vegetate on the sofa and go to bed feeling bored and unsatisfied!

Living a meaningful life means always keeping Dharma in our hearts. It doesn’t mean spending all day doing meditation or reciting prayers (although if you fancy doing that for a day, don’t let me stop you); it means doing all our usual daily activities with a positive motivation. I think it’s quite common that, once we have labelled ourselves as ‘a spiritual practitioner’, we make ourselves feel guilty whenever we do anything ‘mundane.’ That guilt accomplishes nothing: we need to remind ourselves that what it means to be a spiritual practitioner is changing our mind, not anything else. As long as your actions don’t hurt anyone, they are not a problem: just develop the right motivation, and they will become a part of your spiritual path.

Loving kindness

Image result for kadampa loveLove is kind: it is a mind that wishes happiness upon others. It is the great protector from suffering because when our mind is filled with love it is always at peace. There is a beautiful story from the life of Buddha Shakyamuni: when he is sitting under the bodhi tree striving for enlightenment, all the obstructing spirits in the world attack him with fearsome weapons; but through the force of his concentration on love, the spears and arrows turn into a rain of flowers. I think this is such a wonderful symbol for how love transforms our world and the people in it. When you love someone, they appear beautiful, you can see the good in them. While you truly love them, they can do nothing to hurt you.

This may at first glance seem like an overly romanticised view of love: in our experience, it feels like love can sometimes cause us pain, rather than protect us from it. But this is because it is very difficult for us to separate out all the different things that are happening in our mind. We may have a mind of love – just focused on wanting the other person’s happiness – but do we also perhaps have some attachment, wanting them to behave in a certain way in order to benefit us? For example, we may give someone good advice that we know could help them; if they fail to take that advice and we feel bad, check to see what is causing that bad feeling. Do we feel just a little bit slighted that our advice has been ignored? Were we expecting a bit more gratitude? If we could get rid of all the reactions that are about us rather than them, we would have no problems.

In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

We sometimes feel that the reason we are unhappy is that someone we love is in trouble. We need to remember that at the moment our love for others is almost invariably mixed with attachment, which is a self-centered mind. The love parents generally feel for their children, for example, is deep and genuine, but it is not always pure love. Mixed with it are feelings such as the need to feel loved and appreciated in return, the belief that their children are somehow part of them, a desire to impress other people through their children, and the hope that their children will in some way fulfil their parents’ ambitions and dreams. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between our love and our attachment for others, but when we are able to do so we shall see that it is invariably the attachment that is the cause of our suffering. Pure unconditional love never causes any pain or worry but only peace and joy.

Making our love completely pure is a big challenge, but it will be so worthwhile. To give us the motivation to train in this, practice watching your mind and try to discriminate between these minds of attachment and love. It sounds like it should be easy – they are polar opposites, after all – but it’s not easy at all. Keep asking yourself ‘is this thought really about me or them?’ until eventually we get used to distinguishing between the two. When we can spot the difference, we will be really encouraged to train in the mind of loving kindness, because we will know from our own experience that this precious mind of love brings real happiness.


Take it further: Loving kindness retreat

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

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

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

 

Mother’s Day

Hi, Mum. Yes, I’m talking to you! Today I’m remembering the kindness of all living beings, because they are all my mothers. This is one of my favorite Buddhist views: it sounds so outrageous at first, but after a bit of thought it comes to be really obvious. All living beings have been our mothers because we have had countless previous lives and in each of those lives we had a mother. Who were all those previous mothers? Everyone around us. They have been reborn into different forms, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have been my mother.

This was actually the topic of the first meditation class I ever went to, and although I thought it was slightly mad I also found it profoundly beautiful, and it really affected the way I saw the world.  I love my mum; she gave me this life and all the opportunities I have. She is the kindest person in the world to me – and everybody has at some time shown me this same outstanding kindness. This way of viewing others is so helpful: I see little birds outside my window just now collecting seeds from my bird feeder to take back to their young, and my heart just opens: once upon a time, they cherished me in just the same way.

When you look at things logically, this view that all living beings are our mother is obvious: it’s just a question of numbers. Countless lives, finite living beings. But the fact that it’s kind of weird also helps me – it makes me take a lighter approach. When a big hairy builder wolf-whistles at me in the street I think ‘that’s my mum’ and instead of feeling intimidated I want to laugh at how strange this world can be!

So today, try out this view: wish everyone a happy mother’s day (just mentally, or they’ll think you’re mad!) and see how close this makes you feel to others.

Special cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, guys. Bring it on.

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

How to love terrorists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in the same boat

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

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

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

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