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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.

 

 

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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.

Transforming adversity

Sorry I’ve been quiet for a while, I was nursing a horrible cold – so I thought I’d transform that experience into something meaningful by using it as the basis for this post.

One of the most wonderful things about Buddha’s teachings is the array of practices we can use to transform adversity into the spiritual path. Even if we take just a little bit of this advice and put it into practice, we fell a little better – like a diamond, where even a small sliver is worth something. We can use our problems to help us develop:

  • Patience
  • Renunciation, recognizing we will only be free from suffering when we escape from this imperfect world
  • Compassion, by using our suffering to help us empathize with others
  • Wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of all our experiences

Our suffering can be the entire path to enlightenment, but we can’t use our adversity to gain deep experience until we are able to apply patience to it. Patient acceptance is the key to all the other practices because it allows us to relax into our situation. I know it sounds strange to talk about relaxing when we’re suffering or in a challenging situation, but we can’t really transform our mind into virtue unless it is relaxed and comfortable. That’s why we always do breathing meditation at the beginning of classes: we need to start from a peaceful place. In the same way, when we encounter challenges we have to start by being patient, which allows us to relax.

Patience is a mind that has stopped fighting against reality. We say ‘yes, it does hurt; that’s the way it is.’ We simply accept our present reality, we let go of all the ‘it’s not fair, I don’t like it, why does it have to be this way, I want it to stop’ and just accept. That is a very relaxed mind, free from all inner conflict; from that mental space, we can move on to develop a positive and constructive view. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe-la says:

Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara. This recognition is the basis for developing renunciation, the spontaneous wish to attain complete freedom from every trace of dissatisfaction, which in turn is the foundation of all the higher spiritual realizations leading to the boundless happiness of liberation and enlightenment. But this recognition can only dawn within the clear and open mind of patient acceptance. For as long as we are in conflict with life’s difficulties, thinking that things should be different from the way they are and blaming circumstances or other people for our unhappiness, we shall never have the clarity or spaciousness of mind to see what it is that is really binding us. Patience allows us to see clearly the mental habit patterns that keep us locked in samsara, and thereby enables us to begin to undo them. Patience is therefore the foundation of the everlasting freedom and bliss of liberation.

Patience really is the key that unlocks the door to our spiritual development. In my experience, trying to engage in the other practices without establishing the baseline of patience first feels inauthentic. We can gain some good feeling, and that’s wonderful; but for it to be really transformative it needs to be built on the bedrock of patience.

In order to be patient with our suffering, we can remember karma, recognizing our present problems as the result of our previous actions and seeing them as the payment of a long-standing debt. When we experience the suffering, that karma is purified; so our current difficulties are cleaning our mind and smoothing the path of our future. If we recognize that a pain is performing a useful function, it’s much easier to accept. For example, if someone stuck a needle in your arm for no reason you would probably yell blue murder; but if that needle contained an antidote you needed you would hardly even register the pain of the injection. If we can see all of our sufferings as performing a useful function – purifying our mind of negative karma – then it will be easy to be patient. We may still feel it, like the pinprick of an injection, but there will be no mental pain associated with it. We can relax.

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.

If we keep training in developing patience, eventually our suffering will no longer disturb our mind. Instead of interfering with our peace of mind, our problems will become the springboard for our spiritual life.

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.

Feedback Loop

You know those conversations that go round in endless circles and refuse to die? Like here when dinner is ready: “After you”; “No, after you”; “No, please, after you” until I go “aarrgh!” and walk to the front of the queue! I think they are an excellent analogy for karma, which can cause our lives to feel like one of these giant feedback loops. For example, we constantly find ourselves confronted with people who put us down; even people who hardly know us may treat us like this for no discernable reason. And it is also karma – the tendencies similar to the cause – that make us keep responding in the same unhelpful ways again and again.

Understanding where it’s coming from can help us break the pattern. If we recognize that it’s potentialities within our own mind that maintain that cycle, we can start to respond in a different way. When we see a pattern in our lives start to repeat itself, we immediately remember ‘oh-oh, feedback loop!’ That recognition will change our view: we will stop blaming others, stop feeling like the world is victimizing us, stop feeling powerless. We can break the cycle by choosing not to respond in the way that feels hard-wired into us by our karmic tendencies.

By remembering that the whole situation – including our emotional response to it – is just karma, we can let go of our anger and resentment and just accept it the way it is. That acceptance will help to break the cycle because patience functions to purify our negative karma. The more we let go of our negative responses and stay at peace with the situation the purer our mind will become, until we have cleared away the potentials that were creating that feedback loop.

More about karma: on kadampa.org | on kadampalife.org 

I am always right

Sometimes I take a step back and realize just how many of my problems are created by the conviction that I’m always right.

I actually gave a friend some advice on parenting the other day. I have no children and am in fact completely hopeless with kids, yet I still thought my way was superior to hers, despite her years of experience. So of course my ‘wisdom’ was insensitive and offensive. Is it just me, or are you also mentally cringing with the memory of times you’ve done something similar?

But it’s not just embarrassing, it’s also dangerous. If we look at the real basis for most conflicts, we will find this exaggeration of the value and importance of one view or opinion over another. People hold onto their religious or political views and feel they are justified in imposing those views on others because they are, of course, right. Just as this arrogance creates international conflict, we can also start wars within our families over the correct way of doing the washing up and what exactly constitutes a balanced meal. I think for as long as we keep grasping at our opinions in this way, conflict is inevitable. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe-la says:

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. Many problems are also caused by people’s attachment to their religious views.

What we need is some humility, the ability to be open to other people’s views. Eight Steps to Happiness tell us ‘we hold our opinions and interests very strongly and are not willing to see a situation from another point of view.’ Humility gives us that willingness to step outside of ourselves. Most of the time, we don’t need to establish who is ‘right’ in order to resolve an argument: there is no real right or wrong way to do the washing up, for example, just two equally valid methods. As long as we are humble enough to say ‘my way is not the only possible right way’ then we can be happy to allow room for different opinions.

That doesn’t mean we adopt other people’s ideas just to avoid rocking the boat: we can respect other people’s opinions without sharing them. Even if someone’s way of seeing things is very distorted – if they are racist or intolerant in some other way – we can still accept how they feel and recognize that their view is coming from delusions. Then we will not judge them or feel superior to them. It’s only in that acceptance and absence of judgement that we can help people develop more compassionate views.

Stubbornly holding onto ‘I am always right’ and trying to push this view onto others only ever creates conflict – even if our view is right, we’re going about things in the wrong way. People don’t like to be dictated to. When we are willing to let go of our own fixed views, then other people will likely do the same.

 

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

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.’

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