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.

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!

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.

‘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!


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.


Half empty

I’m naturally a pessimist; I’ve had to work very hard to reduce that tendancy, and it still periodically rears it’s ugly head. So I’ve really had to think about what pessimism and optimism are. As the pessimists among you will know, pessimism doesn’t really feel like pessimism; it seems like we’re just being realistic. To an extent, I think that’s true: pessimism is realism mixed with discouragement.

And a lot of what is called optimism seems unrealistic: you can’t just believe ‘it will all turn out for the best’ because sometimes that is simply untrue. ‘You’ll get better soon’ is a platitude, because you can’t know that; one of the multitude of illnesses we catch will turn out to be fatal. And aging certainly won’t just go away because we put on some rose-tinted glasses.

Now you’re thinking that I sound really pessimistic! No, I just believe our optimism needs to be based on reality. Buddha said we need to know the truth of suffering; that view only feels pessimistic if we don’t also believe that it can get better.While we need to look realistically at the nature of suffering, we also need confidence that we can free ourselves from this. This is renunciation, and it’s a uplifted mind – an optimistic mind – because we know we’re moving in the direction of real freedom. If we lack that confidence – if we don’t believe in our own potential to be completely released from suffering – then we end up feeling pessimistic instead.

Pessimism is actually not realistic, however it feels, because we are holding onto the negative characteristics of our situation and not recognizing it’s changability. Yes, things do tend to get worse if we do nothing to fix them; but, they also have the potential to get better, if we apply a spiritual solution. So if we take a realistic look at our world (in all it’s horror and it’s glory) with wisdom, we will become an optimist, because renunciation is ultimately the supreme form of optimism.

You’re not coming in

In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says:

When we look at external things we can usually distinguish those that are useful and valuable from those that are not. We must learn to look at our mind in the same way. Although the nature of our root mind is pure and clear, many conceptual thoughts arise from it, like bubbles arising within an ocean or rays of light arising from a single flame. Some of these thoughts are beneficial and lead to happiness both now and in the future, whereas others lead to suffering and the extreme misery of rebirth in the lower realms. We need to keep a constant watch over our mind and learn to distinguish between the beneficial and harmful thoughts that are arising moment by moment. Those who are able to do this are truly wise.

If we use meditation to become familiar with the pure, clear nature of our mind, then we will learn how to distinguish between positive and negative states of mind from our own experience. Geshe Chekawa calls recognizing our delusions one of the ‘three difficulties’ because generally our negative minds come disguised as our friends: we think attachment is encouraging us to have fun, for example, when actually it is undermining our ability to enjoy the things around us. Really try taking a look at what your mind is doing: say you are contentedly sitting on a train reading the paper, and someone drop-dead gorgeous comes and sits down next to you. Immediately you feel tougue-tied and self conscious; you worry you have food stuck in your teeth; they ask your name and you can’t remember what it is. Attachment has destroyed our peace of mind.

How did that happen? We let it. We allowed attachment into our mind.

You’re not coming in!

When we decide good/bad with regard to external things, most of the time we’re just going ‘ohhh, pretty.’ We’re not thinking about nutritional value, we just like the coloured icing; the sun-roof grabs our attention more than the airbags. If something is ugly, we’re not interested. So, I think it would be useful to see how ugly our negative states of mind really are. Imagine your delusions were to take on physical form – what would they look like? What is the real face of anger or selfishness? My delusions tend to look a bit like the orcs from Lord of the Rings: not someone you’d want hanging out in your front room. But, when delusions come knocking at the doorway of our mind, what do we do? We let them in!

When a monster comes calling, learn to slam the door in their face. Once you’ve invited them in, they will be one of those house-guests who just won’t leave – we know how hard it is to shift a bad mood – so don’t let them in in the first place. We need to protect our inner peace by making delusions stay outside the door – just see our negative train of thought for the demon it is and say ‘no way am I giving you the time of day.’ Leave the monsters outside, and our peace of mind within.

Dependency & Interdependence

We are so determined to be independent. When people try to help me, my instinct is to say ‘I’m fine; I can manage by myself.’ But it’s not true: I can’t. I can’t do anything by myself.

I had my breakfast: I didn’t need anyone else to make it for me. Really? Did I make the bread myself? The flour? Did I grow the wheat (or, in my case, the weird gluten-free alternative that I wouldn’t even recognise if I landed in a field of it)?

Actually, I’m like a little kid going ‘look at me, I’m all grown up, I can do it all by myself,’ and then needing mummy to get the milk off the top shelf of the fridge.

“Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others; we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write. Even the language we speak is not our own invention but the product of many generations. Without it we could not communicate with others nor share their ideas. We could not read this book, learn Dharma, nor even think clearly. All the facilities we take for granted, such as houses, cars, roads, shops, schools, hospitals, and cinemas, are produced solely through others’ kindness. When we travel by bus or car we take the roads for granted, but many people worked very hard to build them and make them safe for us to use.

 Wherever we look, we find only the kindness of others. We are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourself. Everything we have and everything we enjoy, including our very life, is due to the kindness of others. In fact, every happiness there is in the world arises as a result of others’ kindness.”

– Geshe Kelsang, Eight Steps to Happiness

If we’re going to be realistic, we are completely dependent on others: that’s OK. In fact, that’s quite beautiful: we are all part of the vast web of kindness that makes up life on Earth. Why would we want to separate ourselves from that?

Of course I’m not saying that this interdependence is a form of dependency. In fact, I think it’s because we try so hard to be independent that we do develop such an emotional dependency on others. Our drive to prove our self-sufficiency builds a wall between ourselves and others; we isolate ourselves behind our façade of ‘the self-made man,’ ‘the independent woman.’ And because we feel so isolated, we grasp onto anyone we feel can breach that wall, cling to them and feel we need them to be around. But this mental stickiness of attachment only arises because we can’t see that we are all connected; that wall around ourselves is only a mental construct.

When that wall comes down, we feel so free – we can rejoice in the connection we share with the whole world:

“Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.”

– Geshe Kelsang, Eight Steps to Happiness

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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