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Whatever the Weather

Happiness is a state of mind, right? It doesn’t depend on external conditions. Simple – so why does the weather still make such a difference to how I feel?

It looks like we’re not going to have summer this year, so I reckoned I’d better do something about developing some equanimity towards the weather. In Joyful Path, Geshe-la says:

“When we have developed equanimity towards all other living beings by training our mind in this meditation it will be very easy to maintain equanimity with regard to inanimate objects such as the weather.”

OK… but can we apply the instructions on developing equanimity directly to the weather? In the teachings, it tells us to become aware of our attachment and aversion. Let’s start with our attachment to sunshine: it seems that sun is inherently good… but actually I’m only thinking that because right now it happens to be raining. Right now, sunshine seems like my friend; but in the past, it has been my enemy. I once lived in Israel for four months and it only rained twice – I was so happy to see the rain that I ran outside and danced in it.

“Focusing our attention on both groups of friends and enemies, we meditate:

From my own point of view there is no significant difference between these two groups because sometimes my friends become my enemies and my enemies become my dear friends. Both are impermanent and can change very quickly. Therefore I will cease to make such false discriminations between them, favoring some and rejecting others. From now on I will maintain equanimity, free from strong attachment and strong aversion. I will avoid unbalanced attitudes of feeling very close to some and very distant from others.”

~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

I will stop feeling close to sunshine and distant from rain; if there was sunshine every day, England would not be nearly such a beautiful green place. And, of course, if it was too hot I’d complain about that – English people always complain about the weather, no matter what it is!

We can develop equanimity by realizing that our attitudes are constantly changing. Just as we put people in little boxes and think that’s who they really are, so we categorize the weather into good and bad and think it’s fixed that way. When we accept that it’s our mind and our mind alone that creates these labels – and that the labels change depending on our circumstances and our mood – then we are free to let go of our aversion and attachment and just be happy whatever the weather.

If any type of weather were inherently good or bad from its own side, then everyone would agree – but we can see that’s not the case. Just like with people, even if we dislike someone we can always find someone who disagrees (everyone has a mother who thinks they’re wonderful!), so whatever weather we’re having will make someone happy… even if at the moments it’s only the frogs.

So, I’m off to put this teaching into practice while camping in the lake district – wish me luck!

 

More info on transforming adversity: Universal Compassion FP

Confidence

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

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

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

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

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

More on this: Building Self-Confidence day course

Being kind to yourself

Meditation itself is the ultimate act of kindness towards both ourselves and others because it frees us from all our inner problems; but we also have to practice meditation in a kind way, being gentle and enjoying our meditation without putting pressure on ourselves to achieve results.

Buddhist practice is all about changing ourselves, but that change can only begin if we first accept ourselves as we are. That might sound like a contradiction at first, but accepting something doesn’t mean not trying to improve it. For example, we can let go of all anger about an illness we suffer from and be completely at peace with it, but still take the medicine to make us better. In the same way, we should be happy with who we are right now – a deluded mess! – because that is our starting point, the basis upon which we can realize our full potential.

That acceptance really helps us to practice in a kind and gentle way, which is actually far more effective than pushing for results. If we are under pressure, always thinking ‘I need to be better’ or ‘I should have stopped getting angry with my kids by now’ then we can never relax; and without a relaxed mind, it is difficult for any deep changes to take place within us.

To maintain that acceptance, we have to stop comparing ourselves to others. This can be a hard habit to break: it can sometimes feel like the playground competition of ‘my toy car is shinier than yours’ has followed us into adulthood, making all our interactions a subtle game of one-upmanship. This habit can follow us into our spiritual life as well, so we play the game with either ‘I’ve been meditating for longer than you so I must be better’ or ‘I have far more problems than you and far more delusions.’ We want to be either the best or the worst, but all these comparisons are meaningless: everyone is different and will progress at a different pace. We all have different tendencies which from a Buddhist point of view we have brought with us from our previous lives, so we all have a different starting point. We can be inspired by the good qualities and progress we see in others without making comparisons with ourself: we too have that potential.

If we can lay this foundation of gentle, unpressurized practice, then being kind to ourselves will naturally lead to sharing that kindness with others.

More: The Art of Kindness

 

The Wisdom of Wizards

So, this is probably the oddest topic I have ever chosen for a blog post, but I plan to impersonate a wizard at our Fundraising Fancy Dress Picnic next month and I am transforming this activity into a teaching on wisdom by seeing what inspiring words the great magic-users of literature have to share. Milarepa said that everything he encountered was his teacher, and Albus Dumbledore certainly gives some good Dharma advice:

‘To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.’

Encouragement not only to contemplate our death, but to prepare for death by working with our own mind. If we use our life wisely, then death will no longer be something to fear:

‘When death actually comes we shall feel like a child returning to the home of its parents, and pass away joyfully, without fear.’
– Geshe Kelsang, Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully

Professor Dumbledore is also very encouraging when it comes to focusing on our potential:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

We are not fixed, we change in dependence upon our choices: with every action we are shaping ourselves into new people, eventually into Buddhas. I may have a great ability to deceive others, for example, but this does not control who I am: I can choose to act against this harmful instinct and through my choices become a better person.

We can also gain some insight into compassion from Gandalf:

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

Magic gives the wizard great power, and so they can teach us about how to use power wisely – which is, in essence, the practice of moral discipline. This is from one of my favorite books, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea:

“The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing but does only and wholly what he must do.”

Moral discipline is walking a narrow path – but it does not feel restrictive because it is a path chosen by our wisdom that knows right from wrong. As our practice of Buddhism deepens, we do find that our choices are simplified: as we see more clearly how to bring happiness to ourselves and others, then it is obvious what we need to do.

And to conclude, some words of wisdom from the creator of Harry Potter, who tells us that we all have our own magic:

‘We do not need magic to change the world – we have all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.’

Help us make the magic happen: Fancy Dress Fundraiser

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.

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.

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 

New Year’s resolutions: a work in progress

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions when I realized that come the 1st February I couldn’t even remember what I had promised anymore. So I’m going to try and re-inspire myself – and hopefully you too – to make resolutions that are sustainable.

I think the first thing that lets us down is not believing that we can achieve the goals we set ourselves; fundamentally, not believing we can really change. But our minds are infinitely flexible. We know we are constantly changing: we start off the day all optimistic, and my the time we get to work we’re grumpy again. Although we often see this changeability moving in the wrong direction, it does show us how fluid the state of our mind is! This should give us confidence that we can learn to channel that change in a positive direction. That starts with our imagination. We need a mental image of the person we want to become, and we believe we can become that person because who we are is not fixed.

As well as developing this confidence in our potential, we also need to be able to accept who we are right now. Otherwise, we expect the changes we want to happen immediately and become discouraged whenever negative mental habit-patterns arise again. Although we want to change, we can only do that from the foundation of where we are. If we don’t understand ourselves, there is no basis to grow. For example, lots of people every year make a resolution to do more exercise – why doesn’t that resolution stick? To answer that, you need to be able to identify what internal roadblocks you are putting up, what fears and insecurities are preventing you wanting to engage. Only by knowing our own mind, and accepting that as our starting point (however messy it might be) can we move on and make positive changes.

I think it can be easy to lose touch with who we are. We have so many different roles and responsibilities, people expect so much of us, we become so busy being what other people demand of us that we don’t really know who we are anymore. And we can use that as a way of hiding from the parts of our self we don’t want to acknowledge… but without accepting ourselves as we are we have no foundation to build on. We have to be happy with ourselves if we are to become better people. Geshe-la says:

If we are excessively self-critical we shall turn in upon ourself and become discouraged, and this will make it very difficult for us to turn our mind to cherishing others. Although it is necessary to be aware of our faults, we should not hate ourself for them… Abandoning self-cherishing completely is not easy and will take a long time. If we are not happy with ourself, or foolishly neglect our own well-being, we shall have neither the confidence nor the energy to effect such a radical spiritual transformation.

We should not feel discouraged when we identify our delusions because this is the first step to overcoming them. We simply accept ‘this is where I’m at right now; I’m a work in progress. Now I can let this go and become the person I want to be.’ The only thing that can ever prevent us from achieving that is our own discouragement – as long as we stay focused on our potential we will gradually move towards it.

More inspiration for the New Year:  New Year Course  |  January Retreats

‘Tis the season

It’s supposed to be the season to be jolly, but how are we supposed to manage that while doing last-minute Christmas shopping? One seasonal-themed way to keep a positive mind is through practicing giving. Just buying presents for people won’t necessarily make us happy, but a mind wishing to give will. Like with all Buddhist practices, giving is about what we do with our mind, not externals. You don’t have to spend a lot in order to be extremely generous.

Last Christmas my mum gave her great-nephew some lego, and it didn’t cost her a penny because it was the lego I used to play with. When we were wrapping it up (which took a long time, as we had to build everything to check all the pieces were there) she was so happy because she was remembering how much joy I got from it as a kid, and thinking about how much it was going to be enjoyed again. That happiness she was feeling is a mind of generosity: wanting to give just to make others happy.

Giving isn’t just about the presents. One of the best ways you can give to your family at Christmas is by giving your time. Time tends to be one of our most closely-guarded possessions, especially if we have lots of extended family pouring in, we start grasping more and more tightly at having some space just for ourselves. Face it, that’s not likely to happen: so try to just let it go. Instead, try deciding to gift your time and your attention to others. Listen to them, take an interest – it’s so unusual, so they will appreciate it, and it will make our mind lighter too.

It only works if you do it from your heart. Putting up with people we don’t like isn’t giving, it’s just repressing our anger. Real generosity has to come from truly wanting to give, knowing that everything – material things, out time, our energy – takes on more value when given away. If we hoard these things for ourselves, where do they get us? At the end of our life, what will we have to show for having kept them? We will have run out of time, and all our possessions will have to left behind. Holding on to things for ourselves gains us nothing; by offering them to others, we fill our mind with virtue and lead a happy life.

Most importantly, we give our love. When we deeply wish for those around us to be happy, generosity in all its forms will naturally follow – and so will a very Merry Christmas!