Posts by Vimalasara

Waking up to the truth

Buddhists touching the fingers of a giant Buddha statue.

A new monthly blog first Monday of the month by Vimalasara Aka Valerie Mason-John

My Ego

When I came to Buddhism 22 years ago, I would never have admitted to being an addict. After all I was doing what everybody else was doing in my work and social life. No one I knew  was in a 12 step program, or thinking about sobriety. We were in our 20s, happy go lucky and indulging in our hedonistic lives.

In fact when I first mentioned I was going to stop drinking, my friends were horrified. “What? Not even champagne?” How could I refuse such an offer? “Okay champagne only.” That’s how I became the champagne Queen. People knew not to offer me anything else but the fizz.

By the time I was 28 I got to a place in my life where I knew I had burnt copious holes in my brain. Something intuitively told me meditation was the answer, despite the fact I had never formally meditated before. However, I knew the brain was capable of developing new brain cells, and therefore it needed something like meditation, learning a new language or simply doing headstands to revitalize it. Meditation I thought was the easiest option.

Thankfully, visiting a Buddhist Temple was much more hip among my friends. After all, we all needed something to balance our lives in the fast lane.  It was safer than therapy, and not considered navel gazing. The fact I could go to meditation class, and go out clubbing all night after, was acceptable.

I drank Aqualibra and so nobody noticed I wasn’t drinking.  I could meditate for half an hour, get up from my cushions and feel high. I could go on a week retreat, and feel like I was tripping. My addict had found something else to obsess with. I hadn’t bargained for the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, or for reciting the five lay precepts, one of which was ‘abstaining from taking intoxicants.’

There came a point that I had to admit listening to dharma talks was having an impact on my life. Alcohol and stimulants began to fall away. Even some friends too, but most were inspired by the fact that I had found a natural way to be high. I got addicted to guarana,  a native American plant, and kola nut, an African caffeine bean. I had gone from being the champagne queen, to the Duracell battery, as I had more energy than anyone who had popped or snorted something.

I began to realize that champagne, stimulants and natural highs were all about my external ego. How sad was that? As soon as I realized this I began to let go. However, my root dis-ease, root addiction, was food. From the age of 16 I struggled with anorexia, and then became a chronic bulimic. I could not walk past a food shop, or a table of food without eating. I could not refuse food, and would steal and lie to get my choice of drug. I could not eat food without throwing it all up. And so I was on the pendulum of craving and aversion.

Amidst this whirl wind of partying, and natural highs, meditation had cultivated a gap. It was this gap, that led me to recovery. In the gap, I had to discover my own truth. That I was an addict, and I needed to change. Not just an addict to food, but I was addicted to life. I didn’t want to age, get sick or die. The irony was that I was living a life that could accelerate all of these things. I didn’t want to see the ascetic, the fourth sight of the Buddha. To witness the man begging, was too much of a harsh metaphor. It would mean having to let go of how I made my money, how I lived my life. I would have to question my ethics.

The four noble truths came to my rescue. Next month, some of the things that shaped me before I was graced with the Buddhist core teachings: The Four Noble Truths.

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Recovery Mondays: A Buddhist approach to recovery

Scrabble tiles saying "Decide, Commit, Repeat."

A new monthly blog first Monday of the month, by Vimalasara, a.k.a. Valerie Mason-John.

Why is it that so many people make new year’s resolutions, and two weeks later, they are off the wagon?

A study in 2007 by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol UK showed that 78% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, and those who succeed have 5 traits in common.

Men achieved their goal 22% more often when they engaged in goal setting, (a system where small measurable goals are being set; such as, a pound a week, instead of saying “lose weight”), while women succeeded 10% more when they made their goals public and got support from their friends.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, the date the new year begins is dependent on the culture we come from; not everyone writes down their resolutions for January 1st. Most cultures do, however, mark the beginning of their new year by letting go of the old.

In fact, up until 1751, the new year in England and Wales began on March 25th, despite the fact that the order of months in the Roman calendar has been January to December since King Numa Pompilius in about 700 BC. Many countries in Asia mark their new year in the spring period, which seems more apt for new year’s resolutions, as the new cycle of life in nature is about to emerge.

Despite all this, the fact remains that millions of people all around the globe will be making new year’s resolutions on January 1st. These resolutions will range from abstaining from intoxicants or from over-indulging in food to paying off debt, getting physically active, or being less grumpy.

Apparently, the top 5 resolutions for 2012 are to

  • Be financially-savvy;
  • Read at least one book per month;
  • Eat properly;
  • Get enough sleep; and
  • Keep a journal of awesome moments.

Notice that none of them have anything to do with abstaining, which may be one of the factors that helps maintain a resolution. In Buddhism, we tend to think of vows—making a strong commitment to oneself. In the lay tradition there are five precepts that we can take and observe. A person may take only one or two precepts, or all five, precepts as a commitment to oneself to change. Though these precepts talk of refraining from an action, they are not commandments. They are what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Training Principals” for the mind. Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community has developed a positive antidote to each precept to help us train the mind:

  1. To refrain from harming living creatures (killing). With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing). With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. To refrain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify mind.

These antidotes could be seen as the remedy for keeping one’s commitment to oneself. Perhaps lending from Sangharakshita’s advice, when making a new year’s resolution for 2012, think about the antidote. And, most importantly, think about an action plan.

For example, the resolution, I will not overeat any more, could have the antidote, With serenity and courage, I purify my mind.

The action plan could be, I will seek help. I will record what I eat so that I notice exactly what I am doing with my food.

Awareness is the key to success when making a resolution.

Of course, we do not have to wait until the new year to change our lives. Some people use their birthday as a time of reflection. For others, fortunately or unfortunately, a tragic experience or threatening illness brings about period of reflection. However, after a period of time, we often find ourselves off the wagon again.

Buddhism, like many spiritual paths, can offer freedom from suffering if we are willing to open up to the core teachings of the Buddha. They can offer a way of living that enables us to stay on the wagon. Or in Buddhist speech, enable us to stay Mindful and Aware.

A short practice to enable us to become more Mindful

Take a long in breath – Take a long out breath
Observe a long in breath – Observe a long out breath
Become aware of the present moment
And Just sit –
Let your thoughts arise and cease
And Just sit – with heart/mind open to the present moment

Next Month – Exploring the first core teaching of Buddhism and Recovery. The First Noble Truth.

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Healing the mind’s wounds

Every time we have a thought tinged with ill will, jealousy, anger, hatred or revenge, we are self-harming, and we are causing a wound to the mind. Whether the thought be about ourselves or another being, or an inanimate object, we are injuring the mind.

Lama Rangdrol, at a talk in the Bay Area, spoke about how we don’t even trust that our minds will heal when we injure them. He said when we cut our hand, we find some ointment, and a band aid, and trust that it will heal, but we never trust our minds will heal when we have dark thoughts, or fall into depression.

I went away from this talk reflecting on what was the ointment and the band aid for the mind, and I realized it was metta: The practice of loving kindness. It was the meditation that the Buddha gave to his disciples who while meditating in the forests came running back to there teacher crying: “There are monsters, ghouls and evil spirits out there.” The Buddha smiled, calmed them and taught them the metta bhavana, the practice of friendliness, the release of the heart, which shines forth, blazes and penetrates all beings. Loving Kindness. He sent them back into the forest and not one monk returned out of fear. They had healed their minds.

Before we can soothe our minds and heal our minds, we must begin to slow our lives down so we can hear our thoughts.

The Buddha taught pain, and the cessation of pain. He gave us many formulations and methods to work with the pain. Metta, part of the four immeasurables, or the sublime abodes, is one of these methods.
Before we can soothe our minds and heal our minds, we must begin to slow our lives down so we can hear our thoughts. We must learn to allow our thoughts to arise and cease. We must learn not to hold on to our thoughts, or chase our thoughts like a child who is chasing his or her kite. We must learn not to dwell in our thoughts. We must trust the essence of the Buddha’s teaching, the universal law: “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.” This is the universal law of conditioned co-production.

In simpler terms we must trust that everything is impermanent, that things are always changing. If you tried to count your thoughts you would be amazed at how many thoughts you have in half an hour, and how many thoughts you try to hold on to.

Metta is one of the ways we can begin to soothe our thinking.

This is my reflection for the summer and fall months. I offer this poem, which I wrote some time ago. With Loving kindness,
Vimalasara.

Advice For Your Anger

There is nothing worse than seeing flaming red
With Butterflies churning away in your stomach.
And your body has ignited into a blazing fire
Extinguishing all the love in your heart.
It’s a warning. Your mind is full of toxic passion.
It’s your bull inside your head, charging with raging anger.

And when your body is consumed with anger
You need to stop when the stars before your eyes are red.
You need to realize that you’re not in control of your passion
If you can feel your breath palpitating inside your stomach.
It’s a warning that you’ve abandoned your heart
You need to find some love to put out your intoxicating fire.

If you ever hear yourself hissing and spitting like a fire
Take a deep breath and try to control your red hot anger.
This will help you dampen your worst thoughts inside your heart
Otherwise you may trigger another person to see sizzling red.
And they’ll stoke up everything from the depths of their stomach
And you will retaliate with a fuming and burning passion.

God forbid you don’t commit a crime of passion.
And pray that you manage to put out your bush fire
With the hope that you can calm your head and stomach
And douse out the fanning flames of your anger.
Try to ignore, every time someone winds you up and waves red
By remembering that it’s important to pause and connect to your heart.

Beware that when hatred sparks up inside your heart
Jealousy and revenge will become compulsive passions
Not even a street traffic light stuck on flashing red
Will stop your anger – It will flare up into a scorching fire.
Hatred is also resentment, prejudice and ill will mingled with anger
Try not to harbor these smoldering poisons inside your stomach.

Anger and hatred mustn’t become flammable luggage inside your stomach
Otherwise you’ll be unhappy and have fear stalking your head and heart.
And not even your family and friends will cope with your fiery anger.
Try to let go of all your pollutant and heated passions
Because they will stoke your head into a combustible fire
And you’ll be like the colored blind bull lunging towards the color red.

So when you feel a flicker of fire inside your stomach
It’s a warning that you’re full of anger and imagining red
What you need is compassion purifying your heart.

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Waking up into the moment

The goal of Buddhist practice is “bodhi” or “Awakening.” Waking up fully to reality may yet be far off, but Vimalasara reflects on how in our day-to-day lives the times just before and after sleep can be valuable opportunities for practice.

The first thought when I woke up was, “I want my mind back.” After years of working hard to meet deadlines as a journalist and partying all night with my friends it felt like my brain was riddled with holes. There were big gaps in my memory and I’d sometimes joked that my brain was poisoned with stimulants and alcohol. And it was poisoned, but even worse my heart was toxic as well. And when I woke that morning, at the age of twenty-nine, I knew I had to make a change in my life. And I did.

And it often seems to work like that. We wake in the morning and some things have sorted themselves out. We’re clearer. We know what we need to do.

In my case I’d been meditating and starting to reflect on my life, but on that morning I had a sense of urgency to change how I was living. Meditation was the thing that woke me up, but it was sleep that provided the means for it to do so.

In my book, Detox Your Heart, I talk about how important it is that we pause in our lives so that we can connect with ourselves, and sleep is one of the places we pause. We may not pause at all during the day, but when we get into bed the physical body stops. So sleep was a place where I would stop, and where I had no control over what happened in my dreams or thoughts. In my waking life I’d try to control things, but in my sleeping life I couldn’t do that. When sleeping, our conscious habits of control are on hold, and other inner voices can make themselves heard. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there are moments of insight when we wake up, moments when we’re clearer and have a better sense of what we really need.

I think it’s really important to become aware of what we feel first thing in the morning. Waking up is a significant moment for getting in touch with what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and how we’re doing. It’s a significant moment in which to check in. But often we don’t. The alarm goes off, we’ve got to get up, and we’ve got all these things to do. But waking up is a significant moment where it can really benefit us to take a few minutes to just to check in and gauge how we are feeling and thinking.

I often say that turning inwards in this way is a revolutionary act because it has such a profound impact on how we live. If we check in with ourselves in the morning and we know we’re feeling vulnerable, for example, we can put on a layer of emotional protection before we go out of the door and know that we need to take extra care. Otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves getting angry later in the day and be surprised about it and not know why it’s happened. Or if we wake up and we’re already angry then at least we’re forewarned and we can deal with the anger as best we can — befriending it, taking it as a warning that we need to take care of ourselves throughout the day, allowing the experience to be there but letting go of it and softening the heart. When we take the time to tune in in the morning it alerts us to what’s going on and we can deal with that appropriately.

It’s important to become aware of what we’re feeling because that’s what we’re taking into the world and that’s what we’re communicating through. If we could be aware of what’s going on 24/7 that would be great, but that’s difficult to do and I think that the morning is one of those times where we can really begin to introduce the practice of mindfulness, because it is the time when we’ve stopped, we’ve slowed down.

I’m one of these people that sometimes wakes up and pretends to be asleep. By “pretending to be asleep” I mean I’ll have an insight but not want to acknowledge it. I don’t want to know something I already know. I want to avoid truths that I find are uncomfortable. I want to pretend that something isn’t happening when it is.

I think a lot of people pretend to be asleep. I had a friend who told me she hadn’t read my book yet and so I asked her why not. And she said that she hadn’t read it because she knew she’d have to start doing things differently in her life. And I laughed, because it’s so common that people know, but they don’t want to know that they know.

Unless we’ve mastered the art of lucid dreaming we can’t directly affect what goes on in our sleeping lives — any maybe we shouldn’t — but we can choose what we’re going to do just before we sleep and the moment we wake up, and those choices can have a big effect on our lives.

When I’m mindful I’m really aware of what I do before I go to sleep. I don’t like to watch intense films — films with murder in them for example — just before I go to bed. Like most people I wouldn’t drink coffee just before going to bed because it stimulates the mind, yet intense movies can be just as stimulating. And I notice that if I just sit and check in for a few minutes it has a completely different impact than if I just go straight to bed from whatever I’ve just been doing. Even cleaning your teeth with mindfulness is a really good thing to do before going to bed. It’s a time of pausing.

We can also reflect before we go to sleep. This week I’ve been reflecting on impermanence by sitting and turning over in my head that the sexual relationship I’m in will change, and that it will end one day, even if it’s through death. I’ve been reflecting on all the things that I’m attached to in this way. I’ve been doing this because I still find that I react emotionally much more to the prospect of paying a large phone bill than I do to the fact that I’m going to die some day! Sometimes our priorities are just completely out of proportion and we need to reflect to bring things back into balance.

And reflecting on impermanence before going to bed has led to me feeling much more in the present this week. I’ve been quicker to notice my mind going off, have brought myself back to my experience more quickly, and have been enjoying the preciousness of life, or at least getting more glimpses of that preciousness.

What we consciously think about first thing in the morning is an important practice. There are several exercises in my book where I suggest that people do a specific action first thing when they wake up — taking some deep breaths, or checking in, or using an affirmation. If I use an affirmation first thing in the morning it’ll be with me for the whole day. What we first think about in the morning has a significant impact. If my affirmation is “I am lovable, I am lovable” that sets me up for the day and when difficult things happen I remember my affirmation and it gives me support.

We all have rituals in the morning. My partner gets up especially early to have a long bath and read. When I was a journalist I had to start with reading or listening to the news — and I was glad to be able to give that up because it was such a harsh way to start the day. So what I suggest to people is that they introduce positive rituals — rituals that support a healthier mind and heart.

Buddhism talks about the goal of practice being to wake up in a metaphorical sense. And yet our literal waking up is such an important time. It’s when we have breakthroughs, it’s when we have a natural opportunity to check in with ourselves, and it’s when we can start developing positive rituals that help us to be more awake and aware in our daily lives.

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Learning hatred

Vimalasara

Hatred is not innate. It is learned. We are not born with hatred in our hearts, but we are born into a culture of hatred. We can see the evidence around us. It’s in our newspapers, on television, in our communities. Some of us enjoy watching war being acted out on television. Violence has become entertainment. When I explore conflict with young children, some of them say that if it’s tough at home they’ll take it out on somebody at school. For many of them, fighting in the playground is entertainment. One child said it’s like going to a movie. With the advent of mobile phones with video cameras, children will boast about videoing fights and charge their friends to watch.

We know children learn by imitating adults, and if they grow up with violence around them they learn how to confuse hatred and anger with love. When their parents or carers fight each other, the children witness violent behavior. Some children see their mother being physically abused in one breath, and in the next hear their father tell their mother he loves her. The mother might also tell the child that daddy hit her because he loves her, in order to make things all right for the child. Similarly, if we were hit as a child and told by the adult it’s because they love us, we begin to think love is violent, so it is OK to be violent. People who remain in violent relationships have often learned as children that violence is part and parcel of all types of love relationships. Another way a child learns hatred is when he or she is physically, sexually, or mentally abused; then the feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, and invasion can be so difficult to contain that the strong emotion of hatred can help temporarily quash the fear and pain.

Some theories state that children are more able to cope with their lives if they hear the gruesome tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Some writers, like Bruno Bettelheim, claim that fairytales are important for a child’s development. He believes they help children become powerful in relation to adults, especially in stories in which a little boy has overcome a giant. Although this is true, I would also argue that fairytales are often about humiliation or annihilation. The classic children’s fairytales are often based on good and evil. The good person can never do wrong; their behavior is justified, even if it is hateful. It is almost as though they have a right to behave in a way that annihilates another being. While I believe some fairytales can have a positive effect on a child’s development, I’m not convinced that we are completely aware of the effect of some of the more violent and humiliating stories. Are they the best stories to tell children just before they are tucked up in bed? What effect do they have? I know for myself that when I fall asleep after hearing violent or disturbing news, it affects my thoughts, and even how I feel when I wake the next morning.

Some people are born into communities where hatred and violence are prevalent. In the film City of God (2002), we see how children as young as five and six pick up guns and kill people in the ghettoes of Brazil. In some war zones, the soldiers are little more than children fighting as guerrillas. I have worked in London with boys as young as eight and nine who carry knives, sell drugs, and where it is not uncommon to have a parent or sibling shot dead or killed in a fight.

Then there is the hatred we just take for granted. Throughout modern British history, police have been called pigs. This language will have an effect on how we interact with the police. Stories passed down from African families about slavery, and from Jewish families about genocide, have meant some people have grown up with hatred towards the colonizer or towards the Germans. In fact, we grow up with so much of how our families may have been wronged, or had to struggle in past generations. it is inevitable that our hearts will be affected.

Practice: reflecting on the past

Take a moment to pause, then become aware how you might have been affected while growing up. Recall some of the stories that affected your heart. Try to recognize which of your prejudices come from your parents, teachers, or the media.

By recognizing our conditioning we can begin to let go of hatred in our heart

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Getting to know our feelings

Vimalasara

Buddhist author Vimalasara discusses how we respond to unwanted feelings.

When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else.

Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe they need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord.

Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid — until they become poisonous in our hearts.

So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful — even itchy — feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.

The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours any more. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, our hands make fists, our heart beats faster, and so on.

Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view. Some people have out of body experiences.

In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable, it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight — most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter, and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.

Here is a check list of physical responses to anger. Which ones resonate for you?

  • I feel out of breath or choked
  • my heart beats faster
  • my voice becomes high or shaky
  • I have dangerous thoughts
  • I clench my fists
  • I raise my voice
  • I wave my hands about
  • I make myself bigger
  • I grind my teeth
  • I can’t hear or see anybody else
  • I lose control

Feelings are energy. They evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise. See what you do with them and see what you attach them to.

Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we project it internally or externally.

We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to something, including ourselves, and they often turn into toxic stories that poison our hearts. For example, when feelings of anger arise, the anger becomes toxic when we place it on another human being or ourselves in the form of judgmental thoughts and interpretations. If we just sat with the feelings of anger, paying little attention to our thoughts, they would not attach to anything, and the feelings of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience.

Learning to sit with our feelings without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease is, I believe, the best teaching of all. By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something I might regret.

Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.

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