‘Tis the season to be jolly

Image result for christmas stress cartoonIt’s the season of goodwill, generosity, peace on Earth, all that lovely stuff: so why is it harder to love people at Christmas than at any other time of the year?

When we get stressed, our mind fills up with mental noise and it’s hard to find space for other people in it. And Christmas can be stressful, what with all the expectations.

Image result for christmas stress cartoonSo, we need a strategy for not biting anyone’s head off this year. First, try to identify what is causing you stress. No, I don’t mean the gift shopping or the cooking or the in-laws – they are not the cause of your stress! Stress is a part of the mind, and comes from our unhelpful ways of thinking: so identify the thoughts that are sending you into a tail-spin. Is it the expectation of a perfect dinner, or expecting there to be a big family row?

Then we can try to adjust our expectations. Instead of expecting the worst, we can try and reduce the likelihood of an argument by being peaceful ourselves, so we can act as a calming influence on those around us. And instead of expecting perfection, we can be realistic. What is a ‘perfect’ Christmas dinner anyway? Surely, it is one where people are relaxed, not stressed – and that doesn’t depend on the spuds being roasted exactly right, it depends on you being relaxed!

So, let’s focus on changing our minds to prepare for Christmas: being happy is the best present you can give your family.

Coping with change

Image result for tree winter summerMost of us get a bit anxious when things change. I thought this post seemed topical because, as you may know, Nagarjuna Centre has just bought a new building and is in the (rather drawn-out) process of moving home. This is a truly wonderful change… but sometimes even changes for the better can make us uncomfortable. We cling onto the familiar, even when the familiar is not that great.

It is this clinging that causes anxiety, rather than the change itself. So to overcome the anxiety, we need to learn to accept the inevitability of change.

Buddha said, ‘The end of collection is dispersion.’ Everything we know is impermanent. This is like the scientific law of entropy – which, if you simplify it to my level, boils down to ‘everything falls apart.’ You might think I’m getting a bit depressing now – but actually, impermanence is a wonderful thing. Imagine if we were fixed exactly the way we are now: ok, we wouldn’t get any older, but we also wouldn’t get any wiser or happier. Change is opportunity, creativity – the opportunity to create and recreate ourselves. Change is challenging, yes; but without challenges, would we take the opportunity to really grow as people?

Image result for impermanenceIt is very helpful to meditate on impermanence: on our own mortality, on the gradual decay of all physical things, on the temporary nature of our relationships. Buddha also said, ‘This world is as impermanent as autumn clouds.’ If we meditate in this way, then instead of panicking when things slip away from us we will develop an acceptance: of course I’m losing my hair, this is just the nature of things. Of course my washing machine has broken, it was only ever temporary. Of course my entire life has been turned upside-down: that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

When we can accept change, we can make it meaningful. We can view the constant rising and falling of things as like the entrance and exit of actors on a stage, not getting caught up in the play. And, more importantly, we can start to take control of the changes within our own mind. Change is inevitable: our mind is changing constantly, even if we’re not trying to change it. If we do not direct that change in a positive direction, then that process of change will just exaggerate our present mental habits. If we get grumpy now, what will we be like when we’re eighty years old and stuck in front of the TV all day in a nursing home? If, instead of fighting against change, we learn to embrace it, then in every moment we can recognise that we have the opportunity to shape the next moment: our mind will be different, so what do we want it to be?

Happy World Smile Day!

Image result for we all smile in the same languageAtisha said, ‘Always keep a smiling face and a loving mind, and speak truthfully without malice.’ Today – World Smile Day – would be a good day to imagine what the world would be like if everybody could follow just this one simple piece of advice.

Making an effort to smile naturally makes you feel better, and it is so infectious – smile at the cashier in a supermarket and watch the smile spread down the queue behind you. When you see how simple it can be – and how rewarding – to bring a bit of joy to others, you really start to appreciate the value of love. If just a facial expression can make so much difference, think how profound a change can be brought about by a genuinely loving heart.

Image result for WorldSmileDayThe official #WorldSmileDay campaign uses the tagline:

Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile!

Sometimes it feels like trying to be an altruistic person in our crazy materialistic world is such a struggle – but we should take the time to appreciate how small things can bring real results. Making someone smile doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it could have made a great deal of difference to them. Rejoice whenever you see a smile.

Image result for smile quotesSomeone who can keep smiling no matter what is like gold: untarnished and consistently shining in any circumstances. And greatly to be valued.

We can all be of great value to our society by keeping a loving heart and bringing a smile to everyone we meet. If we aspire to be that person, it will help us to keep a positive view and good intentions towards others, and if we have good intentions we will always have a beneficial impact on the world around us.

So, at least for today, remember how powerful a smile is and let the joy in your heart appear for everyone to share.


More: Study Eight Steps to Happiness

Selfie Culture

Image result for selfieWhy is it so much more interesting to look at pictures of ourselves than others? Come on, you know it’s true: how many times have you browsed rather apathetically through Facebook posts and then suddenly sat up and paid attention because that photo has meeeee in it? ‘Oh look, there I am: the most important person in the universe!’

This culture of placing the self first, while deeply instinctive, is also deeply damaging. Our greatest happiness is to be found through our love and compassion for others; Geshe Kelsang calls our love for others ‘an inexhaustible fountain of happiness within our own hearts.’ So our self-concern is actively preventing our happiness by diverting all our attention away from others.

Image result for selfie cartoonWe need to check the truth of this within our own experience: it isn’t hard to do. Say if you have some minor pain, observe how you feel if you focus all your attention on yourself. In all likelihood, that minor suffering will become exaggerated and take up all your awareness. Then observe how you feel if you have that same pain but turn your attention to others; just something as simple as making someone else a cup of tea takes your mind off your pain and therefore lessens it. Taking our focus away from self and onto other always makes us feel better; our problems take up less space in our mind, so of course they feel smaller.

I think this is the single most practical truth we can ever learn. I’m feeling inspired about this at the moment because it is working pretty well to distract me from my pain! I had a tooth extracted this morning, which I was rather nervous about, so I made a big effort to transform it through the practice of taking, whereby I imagined that my pain was actually functioning to relieve the suffering of others. I visualized everyone else’s suffering dissolving into me, and believed that it was all being purified by my present experience of pain; it really worked to keep my mind peaceful.

So far at least… now I just have to keep it up for the next few days until the swelling goes down… and then for the rest of my life, of course. Wish me luck!


More: The Joy of Unconditional Love free talks

 

Faultless

Related image‘Love everyone,’ we’re told. Easier said than done! But if we could learn to stop seeing faults in others, it would be easy to cherish them.

Focusing on faults in others creates fault-lines in our relationships; too much pressure, and they can crack right open. In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

Unfortunately we have become very skilled in recognising the faults of others, and we devote a great deal of mental energy to listing them, analysing them, and even meditating on them! With this critical attitude, if we disagree with our partner or colleagues about something, instead of trying to understand their point of view we repeatedly think of many reasons why we are right and they are wrong. By focusing exclusively on their faults and limitations we become angry and resentful, and rather than cherishing them we develop the wish to harm or discredit them. In this way small disagreements can easily turn into conflicts that simmer for months.

I don’t think it’s hard to see the downside of this fault-finding mind – but stopping it is another matter. After all, it’s just so easy to see other’s faults: they are so obvious! It’s not like we go out looking for faults, right? They are just there!

Buddha said that living beings have no faults. Our immediate response may be, ‘Clearly, Buddha doesn’t know the same people I do!’ – but it just takes a small shift in our view and we too can come to see everyone as faultless. The trick is being able to differentiate between a person and their delusions. To quote Eight Steps again:

Delusions are the enemies of sentient beings, and just as we would not blame a victim for the faults of his attacker, why should we blame sentient beings for the faults of their inner enemies? When someone is temporarily overpowered by the inner enemy of anger it is inappropriate to blame him, because he and the anger in his mind are two separate phenomena. … The only appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is compassion.

People behave in negative ways, there is no denying that – but it’s not their fault, it’s the fault of the delusions in their mind. If they were freed from those negative thoughts, their minds would be at peace and they would never wish to harm others. Harmful actions only arise from a state of suffering: so we should wish for everyone to be happy, then they would behave in the positive manner that we’d like from them.

Image result for geshe kelsang quotes loveIt’s just a subtle change of perspective; but if we learn to recognise this differentiation between a person and their delusions, then we can start to see beyond their delusions to their pure potential. Focusing on that potential is better for us – it allows us to keep a peaceful, loving mind, regardless of people’s negative behaviour – and it is better for them because by focusing on that potential we naturally help and encourage it to grow.

When we can see everyone as faultless, we have no external enemies. The only enemies are delusions – so we decide, ‘I will destroy the inner enemy of my delusions, and help everyone else defeat theirs.’

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

The eye of the storm: dealing with stress

Image result for stress quotesAlthough modern life is full of stressful situations, we do not have to get sucked into the whirlwind.

Instead of feeling frustration when we face difficulties, we can learn to cultivate a strong and stable mind that can respond to everything with equanimity: then we find ourselves in the eye of the storm. The chaos may continue to swirl around us, but our peace of mind is unaffected.

The key to finding this balance is first to realise that no situation is stressful from its own side. For example, we may think that our boss is a cause of stress because as soon as we catch sight of him or her our anxiety levels ratchet up a notch. But, if were an actual source of stress, then everyone would immediately feel stressed when they saw him. And maybe everyone who works alongside us does feel this too – but presumably, his mum finds sitting down with him for Sunday dinner quite relaxing. He is not the cause of our stress: our own mind is.

It’s actually a huge step towards attaining inner peace when we can acknowledge that our stress is coming from our own mental responses, not the external situation. Then we can start moving in the right direction. For as long as we think the only way to relieve our stress is to remove ourselves from difficult situations, it never gets better; even if we go on holiday we still feel stressed because we know we’ll soon have to go back and face the challenges we’re trying to escape from. When we start trying to change our mind, rather than the outside world, then we’re moving towards a stress-free life.

I’ve referred to that as ‘the eye of the storm’ because a stress-free life isn’t one characterised by lying on beaches sipping cocktails; we will continue to be surrounded by difficult people and unwished-for occurrences. Our external situation may not change at all, but that’s the point: it doesn’t need to. We’re in a calm and peaceful space in the midst of all that stormy weather, and that’s a real achievement to aim for.

Image result for stress cartoonsThere are lots of methods within Buddha’s teachings to combat our stress – I just want to give you one little practice that can make a big difference. It can be summed up in a verse by Shantideva:

If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.

If there is a way to remedy an unpleasant, difficult situation, what point is there in being unhappy? On the other hand, if it is completely impossible to remedy the situation or to fulfil our wishes, there is also no reason to get upset, for how will our becoming unhappy help? This line of reasoning is very useful, for we can apply it to any situation.

How To Solve Our Human Problems

For example, if you’re stuck in traffic and are about to be late for an important meeting, is there anything you can do to change that? No. So you have two options: you can be late and stressed, or you can be late and happy. You are going to be late either way: being stressed as well is a complete waste of energy, so don’t bother. At least you can waltz into your meeting (eventually) ready to impress everyone with your poise and resilience.


More: Dealing With Uncertainty | A Stress-Free Life

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!

How to Transform Your Life

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!