freedom

Buddhism, free will, and non-self

Woman standing in front of two doors, one red, one blue, implying a choice.

The concept of “free will” doesn’t sit very easily with Buddhism. As far as I’m aware, it’s considered an important idea because God rewards and punishes us depending on whether we choose good or evil, and in such a belief system it’s necessary that we be considered capable of choosing freely.

Actually, the concept of free will doesn’t sit very well with some aspects of Christianity. Think about it: if God is omniscient, he therefore knows every choice you will make in your life, and so every choice you make is predetermined, and so you have no free will. An omniscient God therefore rewards or punishes you based on something you have no choice about.

There’s no creator God in Buddhism, but because our culture has been steeped in Christianity for centuries, the question of whether there is free will often comes up, presenting itself as a pressing dilemma that we need to urgently solve.

First there’s the question of whether our will is actually free. And second, there’s the question of how there can be free will if there is no self to make choices.

The Buddha Often Taught In Terms of Contrasting Options

Buddhist practice rests on the notion that we can make choices. This seems to be in the same ball park as the concept of free will. The very first chapter of the Dhammapada is titled “The Pairs,” and it presents us with alternative choices. The first two verses illustrate this very clearly:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The point here is that there are choices, and our choices matter. The Buddha doesn’t explicitly say here that we have a choice, or that there’s such a thing as free will, but he is implying that there are choices to be made.

The Buddha Explained In Detail How Choice Happens

In other teachings, for example in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta,  the Buddha expands on how choice happens:

Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought: ‘Why don’t I meditate by continually dividing my thoughts into two classes?’ So I assigned sensual, malicious, and cruel thoughts to one class. And I assigned thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness to the second class.

Then, as I meditated—diligent, keen, and resolute—a sensual thought arose. I understood: ‘This sensual thought has arisen in me. It leads to hurting myself, hurting others, and hurting both. It blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment.’ When I reflected that it leads to hurting myself, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting others, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting both, it went away. When I reflected that it blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment, it went away. So I gave up, got rid of, and eliminated any sensual thoughts that arose.

The Buddha is clearly describing a process of making choices here. He makes a decision to categorize his thoughts, apparently on some kind of hunch that had arisen. As he notices the untoward effects of “thinking imbued with sensuality,” etc., he abandons those forms of thought.

Choice Is Karma

This choice arises from cetana, which is “will” or “intention.” And this cetana, the Buddha said, is “karma.”

Intention, I tell you, is kamma.

Karma is choice. Specifically, it’s the choice that shapes our character, for better or worse.

He Pointed Out That Our Choices Are Limited

But he also saw a limit to our ability to make choices in any given situation. For example, he pointed out:

Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

We’ll come back to “consciousness is not self.”

In the meantime, let’s just acknowledge that you can’t just decide what the nature of your consciousness will be. You can’t decide to be happy, for example. Well, you can, but it probably won’t change anything! You don’t have control over whether your body ages. You can’t make pain or illness go away by force of will.

If we have free will (the ability to make choices) then clearly there are limits in the choices it can make.

Choices Are Limited By the Preceding Conditions

Change comes about, the Buddha teaches, based upon the nature of the preceding conditions. For example, You can decide to grow crops, but you can’t make the seeds grow by force of will.

You can however plant seeds and water them, providing the requisite conditions:

There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed and well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed and well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water and then lets it out.

These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.’ But when the time has come, the farming householder’s crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.

This Principle Is Called Conditionality (Paṭicca Samuppāda)

In making choices, we’re working within a system of conditionality (paṭicca samuppāda). Certain things lead to certain other things in a relatively predictable way. We make choices only within the realm of what is possible.

What’s true for the cultivation of crops is true for for the cultivation of the mind as well:

In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging today or tomorrow or the next day.’ But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging.

Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: ‘Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

If you want insight (heightened discernment) to arise, you have first to cultivate meditative states (heightened mind). If you want to cultivate meditative states, you have to practice ethics (heightened virtue). These are the laws of “mental agriculture” within which we operate. And you can’t just decide “I’m going to be free from clinging.” You can only choose from what’s possible, and that’s not possible.

How Does Choice Happen Within Conditionality?

The mind has the ability to make predictions about the future. This is crucial in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta passage. The Buddha recalls that certain mental states have led to suffering for self and others. He notices that certain other mental states have led to freedom from suffering for self and others. This has been true in the past.

And that becomes the basis of predictions for the future: this mental state that has arisen will cause suffering. And that prediction becomes the basis of choice: “Well, then, since I don’t want to suffer or to make others suffer, I should drop this way of thinking and choose another way of thinking. Why don’t I choose to think in a way that has been shown, through experience, to lessen my own and others’ suffering?”

See also:

To think this way is to be aware of the principles of conditionality.

Our choices aren’t entirely free. We could decide not to do something that we know will make us suffer (e.g. binge eat) and yet feel compelled to do it. The decision to act in a way we don’t want forces itself upon us. We find that we don’t have the resources to resist it. We know that the action will cause suffering, but the conditions aren’t right for us to make any other choice in that moment.

What Is Freedom?

If you’re talking about free will, you’re talking about freedom. Free will means we’re free to do whatever we want. It’s the freedom to. I’ve shown that the Buddha pointed out that we can’t simply do whatever we want. That’s just not how the world works. It’s not how conditionality works. There are always limits to what we can choose. Will is never entirely free, because it can only interact with existing conditions, and those conditions limit what can happen next.

The Buddha’s conception of freedom was not freedom to, but freedom from. The Buddha’s concern was always about how we free ourselves from suffering. If someone had confronted him with the notion of freedom being the freedom to he’d probably have reminded this person that the purpose of spiritual practice is to become free from suffering.

His teaching was always about how to become free from suffering, and the method for doing this was to work within the bounds of what conditionality allows, making choices that lead to greater happiness — or, if you like, freedom from suffering. We become free of suffering by becoming free of the causes of suffering, which are selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. And we become free of those things by noticing them arising in the mind, and choosing not to exercise them, but to exercise their opposites. That’s what he’s saying in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta.

The Buddha doesn’t try to prove that choice happens, but simply takes it as a given. It’s our experience that choosing takes place. We can observe choices happening.

Wiggle Room Within Conditionality

I’ve said that we could decide not to do something that we know will cause us suffering (e.g. binge eating) and yet feel compelled to do it. Conversely, we could decide to do something wholesome (like meditate) and find that we can’t bring ourselves to do it for some reason.

At times we don’t have very much freedom, because the forces of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion are strong. But there’s always at least some wiggle room. The thought “This isn’t a good thing to do; maybe I shouldn’t do it” might be weak today, but it can get stronger over time, and eventually it might have enough strength to change how you act. So keep feeding that thought. It’s a wise thought.

There does always seem to be some wiggle-room for choice arising within the chain of conditions. Even if it doesn’t change the choices we make now, it might make a difference in the future. Who we are changes as we lessen the influence of selfish desire, ill will, and delusion, and as their opposites become stronger. In making wise choices, we’re becoming freer from suffering. That’s the important thing.

There Is No Self To Have Free Will

But what of the notion of anatta, or not-self? This was already referred to in one of the quotes above, and I promised I’d come back to it.

Consciousness (and the other skandhas — parts of our being) are “not oneself” (anatta) because one can’t control them, any more than we can choose to make crops suddenly appear or make an illness vanish, or decide to be happy for the rest of our lives.

Anatta, or not-self, simply means that the kind of self we think we have don’t actually exist. We think we have a self that is permanent, separate, unified, and capable of making choices consciously. We don’t have a self that works in that way. What we are is ever-changing, entangled with the world around us, and fragmented — and the choices that take place within whatever-we-are arise outside of consciousness. They arise before your conscious awareness registers them. Conscious awareness, in fact, doesn’t even make choices, as I discuss in Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist.

In the Dvedhavitakka quote above, the Buddha says, The thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’

“The thought occurred to me” indicates that this thought wasn’t the result of conscious decision-making. It was a hunch. It just arose. This is in fact true of all thoughts. Thoughts just appear to conscious awareness. Conscious awareness doesn’t create them. The fact that it seems that it does is a delusion. Thoughts occur (the Pāli is literally something like “it was to me thus“). You can watch this happening, and realize, as Thoreau did, that nothing is as unfamiliar and startling to us as our own thoughts. If we observe thoughts appearing, we can indeed be surprised by them; we have no idea what our thoughts will be until they appear. We have little or no awareness of how they are made.

Who we are — our “self” — is not unified. One part of the brain gives rise to a thought. As that thought arises, it percolates to the various parts of our consciousness and has an effect. You (your brain, your mind) is not a unified entity, but a community. The community evolves and changes as wiser parts of us recognize that this emotion and the actions arising from it will lead to suffering, while that emotion and the actions arising from it will free us from suffering. It takes time, because this is a long, slow process of education.

Each of us is an evolving community, not a unity. It’s not the “Self” that educates the community. It’s just the wiser parts of the community (those that can draw the dots between present actions and future outcomes) that do the educating.

Ignore Free Will

In short, free will is an important concept  in Christianity because if our basic model is that God rewards or punishes us for our actions, we have to be free to choose. (Although free will also seems to be incompatible with the concept of an omniscient deity.)

But the concept of free will doesn’t fit with the observable facts of the world. Choices aren’t free. We’re not free to do whatever we want, because what happens next is constrained by past conditions. Being able to be free to do what we want is not relevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering.

There is no need for the concept of free will in Buddhism. It’s not relevant. It’s not even a real phenomenon, being based on a false view of choice (prior conditions mean we can’t always choose to do the right thing). Because it’s an illusory concept, we don’t need to reconcile Buddhism with it. In fact we should ignore the concept of free will except to critique it.

Instead we should focus on what’s relevant from the point of view of becoming free from Suffering. Choosing happens. By choosing wisely, the parts of us that have a longer-term perspective on what’s good for our well-being can make us happier — and create the conditions for greater freedom arising. The most important kind of freedom is freedom from suffering, not the freedom to do whatever we want (which isn’t possible anyway).

We need to keep our attention on our ability to choose, to choose wisely, and to observe that choice is simply happening, so that we can lose the false view that we have a self that chooses.

Forget “free will.” It’s irrelevant because it’s an illusion. It’s not necessary.

We don’t have free will, but we have all we need in order to become free from suffering. And that’s the crucial thing.

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Mindfulness: freedom from, freedom to

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/BkkVcWUgwEk
Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but it’s often poorly defined. To me its central and defining characteristic is self-observation. When we’re unmindful, there’s no self-observation going on. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

Thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions are all functioning, but there’s no inner observer, and so there’s no evaluation going on. Without evaluation there’s no mechanism for recognizing that certain thoughts etc. are causing us or others suffering. And so we’re really nothing more than a complex bundle of instincts and habits. Those instincts and habits can do amazing things, like drive a car (ever “woken up” to find you’ve driven somewhere and have no recollection of the journey?) or read a book (I often would find that I’d read several pages of a bedtime story to my kids and not paid attention to a single word I’d said.

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While you’re here, why not download Bodhi Mind, our FREE meditation iPhone app?

The key thing is our suffering. Or, to put it another way, the quality of our experience. With no observation, there’s nothing to stop us from making ourselves anything from mildly disgruntled to extremely unhappy.

When self-observation is taking place, we notice the effects of particular thoughts, words, actions, and so on. And so we’re able to make adjustments. We might notice that a certain train of thought is causing us to feel anxious or depressed or angry. We might realize that the train of thought isn’t even true. And we might decide to let go of it.

Mindfulness gives us two kinds of freedom. It gives us freedom from, and freedom to.

By “freedom from” I mean freeing ourselves from the tyranny of habit and instinct, and therefore a cultivating a growing freedom from the suffering that these unmindful behaviors cause. When we’re mindful, these habits and instincts are still there, of course. They don’t magically vanish. But when we’re mindful they’re less likely to control our minds, and instead are just thoughts and desires that we observe and that we may decide not to act on.

That’s radical in itself, because it profoundly changes the course of our being. But we also discover that we have not just freedom from unmindful ways of being, but the freedom to bring about different ways of being. We have the freedom to choose. We can choose to be kinder, for example. If we just remember that being kind is a possibility, we’re more likely to be kind. If we remember what it’s like to feel and act in a kind way, then those qualities are more likely to arise. If we’re free from angry thoughts we are also free to think in ways that are more empathetic and loving.

And what is true for being kinder is true for being patient, curious, courageous, accepting, appreciative, reflective, and for practicing other skillful qualities. With mindfulness we’re free to choose to be different.

Mindfulness gives us the freedom to stop causing ourselves and others suffering through unmindful habits, and to instead cultivate skillful habits that help to improve the quality of our own lives and that also impact other people in positive ways. It’s both freedom from and freedom to.

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Why meditation is for people who “can’t meditate”

Are you one of those people who think, “Oh, I could never meditate. My mind’s too busy!”?

I’m here to tell you that having a busy mind is the very best reason to meditate, not a reason to avoid it! After all we start going to the gym because we’re out of shape, not because we’re already fit. Meditating helps our busy minds become calmer.

Of course, just as when you start going to the gym the first thing you notice is how out of condition you are, it’s often a shock when we first meditate to discover just how unruly our minds are. But that’s OK. That’s something we just learn to accept.

As we meditate, we start to recognize that it’s OK to have a lot of thinking going on. We learn that when we try to fight with or repress our thinking, it just makes us tense, and gives us a sense of failure. A lot of what we do in meditation involves paying attention to our breathing. Of course we quickly lose our focus and get distracted, but whenever we catch ourselves having got caught up in a train of thought, we let go of the thinking and return to the breathing again. We learn to see this as a process: follow the breathing, get distracted, return to the breathing. Rinse and repeat.

Those moments when we notice that we’ve been distracted and return to the breathing are very important. Our first instinct may be to curse ourselves — “Aargh! I’ve been distracted again!” — but what’s really going on is something worth celebrating: you’ve returned to mindful awareness. You’ve come home. So you can remind yourself to appreciate these little successes. This helps you to feel good about meditating. In a way, the more you get distracted, the more opportunities you have to feel good about coming back to the breathing again!

Something I want to stress is that a very ordinary but very amazing thing has happened when you realize you’ve been distracted. Your consciousness has changed its state in a subtle but quite radical way.

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While you’re here, why not download Bodhi Mind, our FREE meditation iPhone app?

When you were caught up in a train of thought you had no choice, no free will, no mindful awareness. You hadn’t decided to think about whatever was on your mind. You weren’t aware you were doing it. You had no ability to disengage from the thoughts. You were on automatic pilot. You were in a trance-like state.

This kind of distracted thinking is rather like dreaming. It was only when you “woke up” and mindful awareness, for whatever reason, re-emerged, that you realized that you were caught up in a story-line and were able to make a conscious choice to let go of it. In that moment of awakening from the daydream, you became free.

People think that meditation is some kind of trance. But it’s the opposite. It’s waking up from the trance of distracted thinking.

The moment you step back into mindful awareness, you move from being a kind of automaton to being more fully human. You’re free to choose where to direct your mind. You’re free to return your attention to your breathing rather than to engage in distracted thinking that, for the most part, makes you angry, tense, anxious, or depressed.

You became capable of taking responsibility for your own mind and even your own destiny.

You’re also free to change the emotional quality of your mind. You can choose not to be impatient, and to accept that it’s OK that you were distracted. You can choose to be kind to yourself, and to be kind to your mind, returning your attention to the breathing with patience and gentleness, as you might return a baby bird to its nest.

Choosing to go back to the breathing, rather than to be distracted, changes the mind in the long-term. Choosing to be patient and kind with ourselves also changes the mind long-term. We become calmer. We become kinder. We become better able to deal with life’s difficulties.

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Enjoy the freedom not to…

iStock_000003971862XSmallWe’re pulled and prodded by financial pressures, commuter traffic, corporate policies, technology, advertising, politics, and the people we work with and live with. Also, internal forces yank the proverbial chains, including emotional reactions, compelling desires, “shoulds,” and internalized “voices” from parents and other authority figures.

Sometimes these pressures are necessary, like a flashing light on your car’s dashboard telling you to get gas. Even a broken clock is right two times a day.

But on the whole these pressures are stressful and breed a sense of helplessness. Plus, a lot of the internal forces come from childhood, irrational fears, unfair self-criticism, ancient tendencies in the brain (e.g., its negativity bias), or the darker corners of human nature; acting out these forces is bad for us and others.

Giving oneself over to these pressures is un-free, like being a puppet tugged by many strings. It’s the opposite of well-being to be “hijacked,” “obsessed,” “addicted,” “plugged in,” or “compelled” – which all imply mental servitude if not slavery.

On the other hand, a sense of inner freedom is a hallmark of emotional healing, mental health, self-actualization, and the upper reaches of human potential. For example, a common term for enlightenment is “liberation.”

In plain English, we all know what it feels like to be pushed around . . . and what it feels like to have choices and be autonomous.

So, lately I’ve been softly saying this phrase in my mind – the freedom not to – and seeing what happens. And what’s been happening is great. A feeling of ease, of room to breathe, of not needing to jump to some task or to agree or disagree immediately with someone. A sense of shock absorbers between me and my emotional reactions, of not making a mess that I’ve got to clean up later, of not embarrassing myself, of not swapping a minute of pleasure for an hour of pain.

Being intimate with life while feeling free within it.

How?

For one or more of the items just below, imagine what it would feel like for you to have the freedom not to:

  • Press your point home
  • Struggle to get someone to change his or her mind
  • Have a second drink. Or a first one.
  • Worry what other people think about you
  • React to what is swirling around you
  • Act on an impulse
  • Get into an argument
  • Be swept along by anger
  • Identify with a mood or point of view passing through awareness
  • Take something personally
  • Take responsibility for the experiences of other people
  • Criticize yourself for not being able to fit into a pair of jeans
  • Resist what’s unpleasant
  • Drive toward what’s pleasant
  • Cling to what’s heartfelt

For one or more of the items just above, imagine how your greater freedom would help others. Also, let others be freer themselves with you; give them room to breathe, time to think and feel.
hardwiring
Faced with things that grab you in daily life, play with phrases like these in your mind: I’m free not to . . . I’m free not to __________ . . . I’m free . . . there is choice . . . Slow things down, pause, buy yourself some time, that space of freedom between stimulus and response. If others are getting intense, try gently talking to yourself, reminding yourself: You are free . . . you can choose your response . . . they are over there and you are over here . . . there is a freedom . . .

Notice what it’s like to feel freer. Enjoy it. Let this experience sink in.

Be at peace.

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What are you bracing against?

atlas 01The title of this practice is a little tongue-in-cheek. What I mean is, most of us – me included – spend time worrying about criticism: past, present, and even future. Yes, try hard, keep agreements, “don’t be evil,” etc. But sooner or later – usually sooner – someone is going to point out the error in your ways. Often in subtle versions that still have an implicit criticism, such as giving advice, helping or teaching when you don’t really need it, making corrections, comparing you negatively to others, or focusing on the one tile in the mosaic of your actions that’s problematic while staying mum about the 99 other good tiles.

In other words, criticism is unavoidable. Sometimes we take it in with good grace, other times it stings, and sometimes both are true. As profoundly social human animals, it is natural for criticism to sting sometimes. But whatever sting is inherent, we add to this pain with the jabs we give ourselves.

This “bonus pain” – a self-inflicted wound – includes continuing the criticism inside your head long after the other person has moved on. Or pounding on yourself way out of proportion to what happened; on the highly technical 0-10 Messing Up Silly Scale (MUSS), what you did was a 2 but on the related 0-10 Fiercely Undoing Self-worth Scale (FUSS), you are lambasting yourself at a 5 or even 10: not fair at all. Or ignoring all your many other good qualities – the other 99 tiles – while ruminating about the criticism.

We also jab ourselves with needless pain when we brace ourselves against possible future criticism, or play needlessly small to avoid it. In many cases, the criticism is never going to happen or it’s very unlikely or even if it did happen it would not be a big deal. We tend to transfer into adulthood expectations we acquired as children, or as younger adults. Maybe there was a lot of criticism from someone back then but you’re probably in a different place today. I’ve spent way too much of my life hunkering down or over-preparing to preempt an anticipated shaming attack . . . that would not occur anyway.

And even if the criticism does come, will it actually be the terrible experience you dread? Usually not. You can roll with it, take what’s useful, form your own conclusions about the person making the criticism, learn and move on. Accepting criticism as inevitable and refusing to live under its shadow will free you up and make you happier.
How?

When criticism, even subtle, comes your way, pause and try to sort it out in your own mind so you’re sure you understand it. Sometimes criticism is narrow and specific, but often it’s vague, general, and has multiple things mixed up in it (e.g., some statements are accurate but others are exaggerated, tone, content, rationale, values). Slow down the interaction so it doesn’t go off the rails. The ancient emotion centers in the brain get about a two second head start over the more recent logical centers, so buy yourself some time for all the resources inside your head to come on line. Meanwhile, shore yourself up by thinking about people who like or love you, and by remembering some of the many ways you do good and are good.

Once you understand the criticism in its parts and aspects, make your own unilateral decision about it. A fair amount of the criticism that comes your way is flat out mistaken. The other person is wrong on the facts or doesn’t understand the larger context. Think of the many scientific theories that were initially scorned but have proven correct over time.

Of the criticism that remains, some is preferences or values disguised as thoughtful suggestions. For example, when you’re driving, suppose the passenger says you should slow down or speed up when actually you are perfectly safe and the other person just likes it slower or faster. Some people value closeness more than others; just because you like more cave time than your partner doesn’t make you cold or rejecting; nor is your partner smothering or controlling; it’s just a difference in values: grounds for inquiry, compassion, and negotiation, but not criticism.

Another chunk of criticism coming at you is thoughtful suggestions disguised as moral fault finding; now your passenger says you should be ashamed of yourself for endangering others when in fact all you need to do is back off another couple of car lengths from the car in front of you on the freeway; you’re not reckless but could be more skillful.

Then there is that which is worthy of healthy remorse. It’s up to you to decide what this part is. Feel what’s appropriate, learn the lesson, make amends if they’re called for, know that you’ve done what you could, ask yourself how much remorse or shame you’d want a friend to bear who did whatever you did, and then see if you can ask no more or less from yourself.

Knowing that you can handle criticism in these ways, let yourself be more open to it. Don’t stonewall or intimidate others who have a criticism for you; then it just festers or bursts out in other ways.

But also don’t walk on eggshells to avoid trouble (unless you’re in a dangerous situation, which is a different sort of problem) or obsess or over-plan to make sure you make no mistakes. A close friend is an extremely successful professor at a top-of-the-food-chain elite university, and I asked him once what led to his success. He said that while his colleagues/competitors were perfecting their one paper, he was finishing three of his own; one of these would be rejected for publication, one would come back with corrections he could make, and one would be accepted immediately; then when the inevitable criticisms did come down the road, he’d already moved on to his next three papers.

Mostly, just recognize that criticism in its various forms and flavors (and smells) is a fact of life. So be it. Our lives and this world have bigger problems, and much bigger opportunities. Time to live more bravely and freely.

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Reflections on pleasure, beauty and blessings

Asian child laughing as he runs through the spray from a lawn sprinkler on a sunny day

We live in a culture where the pursuit of pleasure is alive and flourishing.  We work hard and we seek relief and escape that we find in many different ways, many pleasurable ways.

For some, pleasure is defined as freedom from work, unstructured time, travel, leisure activities, not following a proscribed plan, or leaving responsibilities behind.

Pleasure can be seen as an escape from:

  • our responsibilities (recreating rather than working)
  • things that are “good” for us (eating chocolate rather than a salad) or
  • things that benefit us (taking a day off from exercising).

We many see exercise or meditation in this way, activities that we “should” do.

For many years I struggled in my meditation practice. I struggled because I believed that meditation should be a way to free my mind of thoughts and I should enter a state of bliss. My meditations were not like that.

Rather than a quiet mind, my sitting meditations consisted of list-making, obsessive thinking and attempting to follow a structure, like counting breaths, letting go of thoughts, and putting thoughts aside until the meditation was finished.

Those forms of meditation were not helpful for me. I felt frustrated and I felt as though I had failed to meditate correctly.

I started thinking about mindfulness and how to apply it in my daily life. As I practiced mindfulness off the cushion,  my intuition told me it was a form of meditation that suited me. I instinctively knew that I would benefit by practicing mindfulness, that I would learn about myself and become more aware, kinder, more honest and more generous to myself and others.

Then I read a comment about mindfulness that helped me to commit to this practice without feeling like I should do it but rather I want to do it. I read that mindfulness is pleasurable in itself, and I found it to be true.

Tasks previously considered mundane, repetitive or unimportant, when done mindfully, became pleasurable.  Sitting with a friend is pleasurable.  Driving to work early in the morning became pleasurable. Even sitting in meetings, when mindful, became pleasurable.

Mindfulness, being fully in the present moment, giving full attention to what I do is truly pleasurable. Mindlessness, running on automatic pilot, doing one thing and wishing to do something else or be somewhere else is the opposite of pleasurable.

Being a person who loves pleasure, and experiencing the pleasure of mindfulness made the practice something I wanted to commit to and has become a way of life for me. When I am mindful, I am living life fully, in the present moment and even during difficult times, I see beauty, blessings and wisdom that is always present.

When I am mindful, my mind is quiet and my heart is open and I find great pleasure in that. I wish the same for you.

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Is there a link between gratitude and happiness?

Woman showing gratitude with a gesture of prayer

Research suggests that people who feel gratitude benefit in the following ways. They’re:

1. happier
2. less depressed
3. less stressed
4. more satisfied with their lives and social relationships
5. aware of their purpose in life
6. self confident
7. positive
8. able to cope with the difficulties in positive ways
9. more likely to seek support from other people, and
10. able to learn and grow from their experiences.

It has been said that gratitude is strongly linked with mental health. Several times in my life I have kept a gratitude journal, in which I have written about five things I was grateful for each day. I kept this journal on my computer in the form of writing an email to a friend each evening with my list of things I was grateful for. Many times I felt grateful for more than five things.

It is so easy to focus on circumstances or people whom we are disappointed in. Continually thinking about negative people and situations results in feeling depressed, angry, annoyed, irritable, and generally cranky. We talk to our friends looking for justification for feeling this negativity which just makes us feel worse.

The habit of writing in a gratitude journal each evening is a way of focusing our attention on what is positive in our lives. It also helps us to look for things to be grateful for during the day. Gratitude enters our consciousness and directs our minds towards positivity.

Some of the items in my gratitude journal are: healthy children, dear friends, a sweet cottage to live in, the pond by my cottage, freedom to explore creativity, work that I have enjoyed or not enjoyed but learned from, finding spiritual practice that inspires me, appreciation for beauty in nature and in people, a sense of aesthetics, enjoying simple pleasures, simplifying my life, taking time to really listen to people, cooking for myself and my friends, good movies, good popcorn to munch while I watch the good movies, instances which have been very difficult that have taught me about myself, kayaking, dancing, sunsets, small acts of kindness, strolling through museums, looking at a photograph of the Dalai Lama, availability of books, the ocean, pristine snow covered woods, giving and receiving gifts and especially gifts from the heart, observed acts of generosity and kindness.

Remembering all these things lifts my heart. It is easy to understand how gratitude is responsible for the positive and healthy characteristics of people who feel it. We spend so much time looking for things to make ourselves happy – and all we really have to do is appreciate what is all around us each and every day.

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Born to be free

rebel buddhaDzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, explains that our innate drive for freedom can be expressed either destructively or creatively.

Rebel Buddha is an exploration of what it means to be free and how it is that we can become free. Although we may vote for the head of our government, marry for love, and worship the divine or mundane powers of our choice, most of us don’t really feel free in our day-to-day lives. When we talk about freedom, we’re also talking about its opposite — bondage, lack of independence, being subject to the control of something or someone outside ourselves. No one likes it, and when we find ourselves in that situation, we quickly start trying to figure out a way around it. Any restriction on our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” arouses fierce resistance. When our happiness and freedom are at stake, we become capable of transforming ourselves into rebels.

Title: Rebel Buddha
Author: Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-874-5
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

There’s something of a rebellious streak in all of us. Usually it’s dormant, but sometimes it’s provoked into expression. If nurtured and guided with wisdom and compassion, it can be a positive force that frees us from fear and ignorance. If it manifests neurotically, however, full of resentment, anger, and self-interest, then it can turn into a destructive force that harms oneself as much as it does others. When confronted with a threat to our freedom or independence and that rebellious streak surfaces, we can choose how to react and channel that energy. It can become part of a contemplative process that leads to insight. Sometimes that insight comes quickly, but it can also take years.

According to the Buddha, our freedom is never in question. We are born free. The true nature of the mind is enlightened wisdom and compassion. Our minds are always brilliantly awake and aware. Nevertheless, we’re often plagued by painful thoughts and the emotional unrest that goes with them. We live in states of confusion and fear from which we see no escape. Our problem is that we don’t see who we truly are at the deepest level. We don’t recognize the power of our enlightened nature. We trust the reality we see before our eyes and accept its validity until something comes along — an illness, accident, or disappointment — to disillusion us. Then we might be ready to question our beliefs and start searching for a more meaningful and lasting truth. Once we take that step, we’re starting off on the road to freedom.

On this road, what we free ourselves from is illusion, and what frees us from illusion is the discovery of truth. To make that discovery, we need to enlist the powerful intelligence of our own awake mind and turn it toward our goal of exposing, opposing, and overcoming deception. That is the essence and mission of “rebel buddha”: to free us from the illusions we create by ourselves, about ourselves, and those that masquerade as reality in our cultural and religious institutions.

We start by looking at the dramas in our life, not with our ordinary eyes, but with the eyes of dharma. What is drama and what is dharma? I guess you could say drama is illusion that acts like truth, and dharma is truth itself—the way things are, the basic state of reality that does not change from day to day according to fashion or one’s mood or agenda. To change dharma into drama, all you need are the elements of any good play: emotion, conflict, and action—a sense that something urgent and meaningful is happening to the characters involved. Our personal dramas may begin with the ‘facts’ about who we are and what we are doing, but, fueled by our emotions and concepts, they can quickly evolve into pure imagination and become as difficult to decipher as the storylines of our dreams. Then our sense of reality becomes further and further removed from basic reality itself. We lose track of who we really are. We have no means of telling fact from fiction, or developing the self-knowledge or wisdom that can free us from our illusions.

The Rebel Buddha North American Tour, featuring Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and other leading voices in Western Buddhism, kicks off on November 14 in New York, NY at The Cooper Union’s Great Hall. The Tour will continue to Halifax, Toronto, and Boulder, and will conclude in Seattle.

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Are we free?

The more aware we become of ourselves, the more we notice that our minds resort to pre-programmed “scripts” — habitual ways of reacting to the world. Srimati discusses how awareness creates the freedom to choose our responses and free ourselves from our conditioning.

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Letting go, always letting go

martha and maryIn the first of a series of articles, The Rev. Canon Renée Miller explores Buddhist practice from the perspective of her own Christian faith.

The Dalai Lama says that meditation is the cure for every problem. That seems a bold claim to make. When we consider the various small and large problems in our lives, it doesn’t seem that meditation could resolve them. What can sitting in silence, counting our breaths do about the pain we feel in our bodies, or the fear we experience when we face death, or the lack of purpose we sometimes feel, or even the bread we baked that did not rise as it should have? How is meditation a solution for that?

Meditation actually applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating or simplistic we find the problem to be. These principles can be seen in stories of people that have lived them out. One story in the Christian tradition is about two sisters, Martha and Mary. We don’t know if either of the women was accustomed to meditating, but we do know that when Jesus arrived for dinner Mary was insistent on simply sitting at his feet. She didn’t seem to want to speak or attend to the details of the meal preparations. Martha, on the other hand, was so distracted, so worried about all that needed to be done, so consumed with the problems that loomed before her, that all she could do was complain – certainly not meditate!

 Meditation applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating we find the problem to be.  

Jesus’ response to Martha was that Mary had chosen the best part and it wouldn’t be taken from her. Jesus was saying what the Dalai Lama might have said to Martha — that meditation was the solution for every problem — even cleaning the house, getting the table set, seating the guests, being sure that all the dishes were prepared properly and that conversation flowed with ease.

We are accustomed to dealing with our problems by trying to find solutions to them, or by trying to escape them altogether. On the one hand, we stress, we worry, we plan and strategize, or we get more outside opinions. On the other hand, we turn on the television, take a drink, plan a party, shop, take a trip, surf the Internet. Even though neither approach seems to get us the results we hope for, we feel that we are at least doing something -– even if it’s just stressing about our problem.

I have found in my own tradition that there are two principles of meditation that make it the solution to every problem. First, we learn about letting go. Second, we give up our attachment to the result. The most important of these is the first -– learning to let go. It is counter-intuitive because we are so used to holding on, controlling, making something happen by our own will and action. Letting go takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon. The good news of that is that it takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon! In other words, when we sit in meditation and find issues, thoughts, and problems rising in our soul and we simply let them go, we are cutting them loose from us. Because we are no longer attached to them they cease to have power over us.

 Letting go removes the drama around our problems, and leaves us with nothing to stress about  

When we fully accept this, we move into the second principle of not being attached to the result. This is critical because we can separate ourselves from a problem for awhile, but still be seeking a certain resolution to it. When we fully let go of the result, we become as open as curious as children about how things will turn out. We’re no longer so afraid or uncertain. We may take action on our problem, but we are as surprised as anyone else about how it will all unfold.

Meditation helps us learn to let go and helps us practice letting go on a regular basis. It’s really only when we let go that we are able to be detached from what acts on our lives from outside. It’s only when we let go that we experience the freedom of detachment from results.

Letting go is not easy. It’s hard even during the midst of meditation, much less in the hard reality of everyday life. When we’re impatient waiting in line to check out at the grocery store, it’s not easy to let go. When our spouse has misinterpreted something we said, it’s not easy to let go. When our net worth drops yet again, it’s not easy to let go. When our computer doesn’t respond, it’s not easy to let go. When someone hurts us or betrays us, it’s not easy to let go. These are the hard, implacable areas of life – the ones where we tend simply to respond as we’ve always responded. Unfortunately, we continue to get the same results.

Imagine what would happen if we learned to let go. Imagine what would happen if we became detached from results. I believe we would begin to see our souls developing peace and fullness. I believe we would begin to see joy and hope slipping into everything we experienced – even those things that were less than desirable. I believe we would find ourselves becoming braver and bolder.

The divine truth is that the invitation to sit down and breathe is always there. And when we sit down and breathe we are surprised to find ourselves stilled and filled.

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