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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.

Just a little problem

elephant scared of mouse

Why are we scared of something so insignificant?

A friend said to me today, ‘Self-cherishing is just a little problem.’ I gaped at her in amazement, thinking, ‘My self-cherishing is pretty huge, actually!’ But then I let myself accept her view. Self-cherishing is a small problem; it’s only our self-cherishing that makes us think it’s so large.

Let me explain: self-cherishing is our ordinary view that sees ourselves as important and neglects the happiness of others. Geshe-la says that we have never had a single moment of our lives without this mistaken view, and for us, it is almost as natural as breathing. That sounds pretty big, right? But only because we are thinking about ourselves.

When we occupy the centre of our thoughts, self-cherishing seems like an insurmountable problem, because when we are focused on ourself we are feeding into our self-cherishing. As soon as we stop thinking about ourselves and focus on others, self-cherishing is reduced to a little problem: it’s just one mistaken thought in the mind of just one person.

Image result for eight steps to happinessIt really is that simple: move the focus of your attention to other people, and the problem disappears. That only seems difficult from the point of view of our delusions; stop letting our self-cherishing tell us how hard it is and just get on with it.

Whatever you’re doing, just ask yourself, ‘Who am I doing this for?’ If you are eating, stop eating for yourself and start eating in order to nourish your body to give you the energy to help others. When you wash, instead of being concerned with prettying yourself up, think ‘I’m cleaning myself so I don’t upset others by smelling!’ If we just keep forgetting about ourselves in a virtuous way, we stop letting self-cherishing puff itself up into something huge. It’s like we’ve taken our head out of the stormcloud and can see the vast space of the sky-like mind, because our mind has expanded to fit in our concern for all living beings.

Image result for eight steps to happinessKISS. No, don’t kiss everyone: that may be taking cherishing others a step too far! Keep It Simple, Stupid. I really think that Dharma practice could be simple if we let it. Even profound teachings like emptiness are in fact simple – it’s our minds that are complicated, we obscure the simplicity. Buddha said we become ‘exhausted by our elaborations’ – eventually, we get so tired of making things difficult for ourselves that we actually start to practice cherishing others!

The path to enlightenment is really very simple – all we need to do is stop cherishing ourself and learn to cherish others. All other spiritual realisations will naturally follow from this.

Eight Steps to Happiness


Take it further: Universal Compassion 

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!

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!

Lamrim playlist

Related imageIf you’re someone who listens to music, this is a post about how you can transform that activity into a spiritual practice by listening out for Dharma teachings in the songs. Everything can teach us something – it’s all a matter of how we interpret it. If we want to, we can develop our own personal playlist of music that helps us to generate virtuous minds.

The first time I remember doing this was on the way to a branch class many years ago; I had taken precepts that morning – a strict moral discipline practice that we keep for a day, which includes not listening to music. But one of my students was giving me a lift to class, and she put the radio on really loud – I didn’t want to upset her or freak her out by asking her to turn it off (she was really new to Buddhism), so I thought ‘I absolutely have to transform this music into something meaningful!’ I still remember the song that was playing: I’m a believer by the Monkees. I’d always found it rather annoying, but I made a real effort and decided: ‘this song is about Green Tara, my favourite Buddha.’ And I developed loads of faith listening to the song; to this day, whenever I hear it I instinctively think of Tara.

I’m building up a playlist for the whole of Lamrim, the 21 meditations on the stages of the path to enlightenment. Of course, the way music affects us is very personal, so everyone needs to make their own selection, but I thought I’d share the teachings in some of my more obvious favourites.

My top tune for reminding me of death and impermanence is Pink Floyd’s Time:

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Do you feel like you bounded off the starting line, or are you still standing in line at the coffee shop beside the track, not even aware that the race has begun without you? The race towards death started at the moment of our birth, and we do not get to pause for a breather even for a moment. I used to find this song a bit depressing (as though I was, indeed, just hanging on in quiet desperation); but now I find it motivates me to make the most of my life.

For another example, Bridge Over Troubled Water reminds me of bodhichitta. The lyric, ‘Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind,’ makes me remember that the way we are trying to help others through our spiritual practice goes beyond the mundane: we don’t just want to make their samsaric lives easier, we want to lead them to real peace of mind. Did Simon and Garfunkel intend this meaning when they wrote the song? Probably not; but it’s my freedom to choose to interpret it in that way, and that brings far greater results than listening with an ordinary mind.

What songs are on your lamrim playlist? Please share them in the comments and you might inspire someone else to start transforming music into positive minds!

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

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

Exam preparation

I have a study programme exam looming, and I’m trying to prepare for it by mixing my mind with the text and keeping the teachings in my heart; but, as Geshe-la says:

“The real exam is daily life.”

The point of all the effort we apply to studying is to be ready for whatever life throws at us: and we need to be preparing right now because we never know when the next ‘exam’ will be. Study programme exams are easy, really, because the date is set and we know exactly when it’s coming; life doesn’t work like that! I always find challenges easier to deal with if I know they’re coming: like the dentist, for example – it’s scheduled pain, so I can take the time to prepare for it in advance, do some taking and giving meditation. When suffering takes me by surprise, it’s much harder to have a positive response. But that’s the problem, isn’t it – somehow we always seem to be surprised by suffering, even though it keeps happening. Once we accept that things will always go wrong, we can start preparing a positive response to them ahead of schedule. That’s what we do every day: revise for the exam that is always just around the corner.

The real exam, the test of what we have learned, is our own death. We may not have been given a date for that examination, but we know it’s definitely coming: now is the time to prepare. How do you revise for that test? Not by memorizing things from a book – by training to face adversity with wisdom.

Every day, ask yourself ‘am I ready to face death with equanimity?’ If the answer is no, then use the rest of that day to practice letting go of all your worries and anxieties about this life. When the answer is yes, you have nothing left in this world to fear.

 

Take this further: Building Self-Confidence

Kindness & contradictions

A friend said to me the other day ‘because I’m a kind person, I always assume other people are kind too, and it really shocks me when they’re not.’ I thought this raised an interesting question about what is the best way to view others, and my conclusion is that we need to find a way to embrace contradictions.

We should definitely train to view others as kind; I would say it is a good thing to assume others will behave with kindness. Does this mean we’re blind to their faults? No, we don’t put on rose-tinted glasses: we recognize that people are deluded, and it is the nature of deluded people to behave in unkind ways. There is a contradiction there, but I think it’s one we can learn to work with. Assuming kindness is not the same as expecting it. When we assume people will be kind, we’re seeing their potential – and relating to people’s potential for kindness will help them to become better people. But, we know they are samsaric beings, and it’s unrealistic to expect anyone in samsara to live up to their potential all the time. So we can accept their negative behaviour without it damaging our assumption that they are kind. As Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

“One of the best ways to regard others as precious is to remember their kindness. Once again we may object `How can I see others as kind when they engage in so many cruel and harmful actions?’ To answer this we need to understand that when people harm others they are controlled by their delusions. Delusions are like a powerful hallucinogenic drug that forces people to act in ways that are contrary to their real nature. A person under the influence of delusions is not in his right mind, because he is creating terrible suffering for himself and no one in their right mind would create suffering for himself. All delusions are based on a mistaken way of seeing things. When we see things as they really are, our delusions naturally disappear and virtuous minds naturally manifest. Minds such as love and kindness are based on reality and are an expression of our pure nature. Thus when we view others as kind we are seeing beyond their delusions and are relating to their pure nature, their Buddha nature.”

In the same way, we can trust people even though we know on one level that they are untrustworthy. If we want to live in a world filled with trustworthy people, we have to create it through our trust, allow that to bring out the best in people. Of course we need wisdom – we don’t just invite a thief into our house – but we have to allow our hearts to be open enough to trust even if we have been let down a thousand times. People will continue to break our trust because they cannot help being controlled by their delusions; but they are still trustworthy because they have Buddha nature.

So, we assume kindness without expecting kindness. If we embrace this contradiction, we can keep a pure view of others without having any unrealistic expectations.

Take this further: Defeating Anger with Love weekend  |  Universal Compassion study classes