anicca (impermanence)

Reflections on the death of my mother

Photo from a photobooth, from 1961, showing a young woman with glasses holding a baby. She's smiling, while he's looking startled and overawed by the experience.

It’s my birthday today, and it’s unlike any I can remember from my now 63 years on this planet.

It’s the first birthday I’ve had since my mother* passed away on Christmas Eve, just 11 days ago.

My younger sister died just over a year ago, and I wrote then about how my practice helped me with the grief I felt. I’m not going to write about grief today, mainly because my primary emotions have been of relief and gratitude that she didn’t suffer longer. Her last days were pretty grim as she struggled to breathe, and things were only going to get worse. Today I want to look in a different direction.

Also see:

On previous birthdays my focus has usually been on myself: I am a year older. I have completed another cycle around the sun. Happy Birthday to me!

Now I’m more aware of the “birth” part of birthday. Today is the anniversary of the day that my mother gave birth to me. So today seems more about her than it is about me.

She carried me inside her body for more than nine months (I was fashionably late). I grew from a single cell into a baby nourished entirely by her; her body became my body.

Today I very much have a sense that I am a part of her that has, in a way, budded off and continues her existence in the world, even though she is no longer here. My life is a continuation of her life.

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River, parts of our mother often live on within us.

During gestation…

[C]ells from your mother’s body can cross the placental barrier and infiltrate your own body, in a process called “microchimerism.” These maternal cells can settle down anywhere in the body, including the blood, heart, liver, and thymus gland … These cellular interlopers have been shown to live within the offspring’s body for decades, and they may be with us for life. You are not just you, you’re your mother too.

These cells have been found in the pancreases of diabetic individuals, pumping out the insulin that the person can’t manufacture themselves. They’ve been found in damaged heart tissue, and are thought to be trying to repair it.

My mother may still be within me, trying to keep me healthy. (Admittedly, though, some autoimmune disease is believed to be a reaction to the presence of certain material cells.)

My brain and mind were profoundly shaped by her. My first experience of love was her love. We know from the horrible experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby rhesus monkeys how maternal deprivation destroys children. As one description of Harlow’s work says,

[T]he monkeys showed disturbed behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation. When the isolated infants were re-introduced to the group, they were unsure of how to interact — many stayed separate from the group, and some even died after refusing to eat.

Harlow’s experiment also proves the converse: the gift of love creates our humanity. Not our biological, chromosomal humanity, but our sense of ourselves as thinking, feeling beings connected in love with other thinking, feeling beings.

This was one of my mother’s gifts to me.

A child initially learns most of its language from its mother. The fact that I’m using language to communicate with you now is me passing that particular gift from her.

There are many character traits I picked up from her as well, not through conscious imitation but through unconscious imprinting. Some of those traits are helpful and some less so, but the point is that here too my life is a continuation of her life.

She inherited character traits from her parents, and they from theirs. As with the presence of maternal cells in our bodies, this is by no means all positive. Perhaps my task in life is to take the best of what has been passed on to me and amplify it, and to take the worst and eradicate it. And thus I can pass on the best of my mother to the world — not just through my children, but through all my contacts with other human beings.

My mother died on Christmas Eve. So I’ve now gone through one Christmas, New Year, and birthday without her. There’s a certain amount of grief been present, and there may be more to come — perhaps especially when those celebrations come around again — but that will fade. The love and gratitude, however, will remain.

*Her name was Eleanor Dorothy Stephen. She was born 16th March, 1938. Her birth certificate lists her family name as Tragheim, but she always went by Tragham, my grandad having begun to adopt a less German-sounding last name during the war.

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Honoring five Wildmind authors who are no longer with us

Parinirvana Buddha. Photograph by Ankur Panchbuddhe.

Parinirvana Buddha. Photograph by Ankur Panchbuddhe.

Today, February 15, is known as Parinirnava Day in much of the Buddhist world. It commemorates the anniversary of the Buddha’s death, or Parinirvana. It’s a time for bearing in mind the essential truth of change, instability, and impermanence (anicca).

It’s traditional on Parinirvana Day to read the scriptures concerning the Buddha’s death: especially the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. It’s also traditional to visit temples to meditate, and to remember that our own lives here on earth are limited. Parinirvana Day is also a time for remembering friends and family who have passed, and often we’ll place their images at the foot of an altar.

For me, this blog often acts as a kind of memento mori, or reminder of death. To the best of my knowledge five people who have shared articles here have passed away: two of them I knew personally, while others I’d only exchanged emails with. I wanted to take the opportunity of Parinirvana Day to bring them to mind, to say a little about them, and to encourage you to read their articles.

Suvarnaprabha

Suvarnaprabha

The first is Suvarnaprabha, whose name means “Golden Radiance.” That was a great name for her, since she had a vibrant personality, full of humor, although she preferred to go by “Suvanna,” finding her Sanskrit name a bit combersome. She could be deeply serious, but she often laughed and inspired laughter in others. I vividly remember going with her to see Robin Williams perform in San Francisco, where she lived, and us spending the evening with tears running down our faces.

On Wildmind’s blog she wrote an advice column called “Ask Auntie Suvanna.” The original intent was for this to be a humour endeavor, but as time went by the requests for help became sadder and sadder. Suvanna’s responses were always kind and wise, though, and were often hilarious. I’d suggest starting with her pieces on the Buddhist approach to excess body hair, and On eating vegetarian monkey brains.

She also wrote a piece about teaching meditation in prison, which was very close to my heart as I was doing the same thing at the same time.

Suvanna documented her experience with cancer in two blogs, the first of which detailed her initial diagnosis and treatment, and the second of which, Crap, I’ve Got Cancer, took up the story of the cancer’s return.

Saddhamala (Nancy Nicolazzo)

Saddhamala

Saddhamala (“She who is garlanded with faith”) was someone else I knew personally. We first emailed each other around 1998, when I was at the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center in Missoula, Montana, and she was at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, although at that time she wasn’t yet ordained and went by her birth name, Nancy Nicolazzo. A few years later I moved to Newmarket myself, and I saw her a fair amount.

She was known as Nancy in her work as a chaplain and volunteer coordinator at a hospice, and it was in a hospice that she passed away. She’d had cancer that had metastasized. Knowing that death was inevitable she’d decided not to seek treatment. She was a talented woman who’d also worked as a consultant. In fact I once employed her to help me make my office space more pleasing and efficient, and the results were wonderful.

Saddhamala wrote many articles for Wildmind. She had done a lot of teaching and tended to distill her suggestions into lists of tips for practice. Sometimes, though, she wrote more personally, for example when she discussed her family background.

Marcus Hartsfield

Marcus Hartsfield

Marcus wasn’t someone I knew personally, and I must have met Marcus on social media. He was a therapist in California, and practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center. One of the striking things about Marcus was the number of tattoos he had — many of them Buddhist themed. I asked him to write an account of his journey on Wildmind’s blog, and so he wrote, Bodhi art: reclaiming the body with Buddhist tattoos, illustrated with a number of photographs.

Marcus passed away in 2013, I think. Not being a friend of his, I never did learn how Marcus died. Someone who knew him said he’d been ill, but she didn’t know anything beyond that.

Hazel Colditz

Hazel Colditz

Hazel Colditz was another Wildmind contributor I never had the good fortune to meet in person. I’m sure I would have liked her. Hazel was a talented photographer, documentary maker, and sculptor of rock and metal. She lived in the Arizona desert. We met on social media when she offered to review a book for me. She ended up writing three reviews in total, for “Taneesha Never Disparaging” by M. LaVora Perry, “Sitting Practice” by Caroline Adderson, and “Jake Fades” by David Guy. I always enjoyed her perspectives, and she was a joy to work with. She passed away in January, 2012, having battled an aggressive form of cancer for several months, and having endured multiple major surgeries.

Navachitta

Navachitta

Navachitta was part of the Auckland, New Zealand sangha of the Triratna Buddhist Community. She was ordained into the Order in the summer of 1990 in Taraloka, in Shropshire, England. I never new her personally, although we corresponded periodically by email for many years, and I always appreciated her support and encouragement.

Navachitta was a therapist who worked in private practice and was very active in the recovery community. You can read more about this aspect of her work in an interview she did with a representative of North West Buddhist Recovery.

One wonderful anecdote: While living in Britain, Navachitta once went to a builder’s merchant, saying she was looking for sacks. But hearing her New Zealand accent, the men she was talking to unfortunately thought she was looking for “sex.” Hilarity (although to the best of my knowledge no sexual intercourse) ensued.

Before her untimely death she only had time to write three articles and reviews for Wildmind’s blog. One, entitled From drama to Dharma, was on addiction to drama. Her second piece, Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction, is about the connection between addiction and the potentially beneficial trait of novelty-seeking. Her final piece was a review of a book of poems by a fellow Order member, Satyadevi. The poems were inspired by natural and industrial disasters that had taken place in New Zealand.

Navachitta passed away in London at the age of 62 from a severe bacterial and viral infection.

***

I hope these stories have encouraged you to explore the work of the five individuals I’ve drawn attention to.

But on a deeper level, all five of their deaths were unexpected. I know I make assumptions about how long I’ll live (late eighties to early nineties?) and how I’ll die (either in my sleep or in a hospital bed?), but none of us ever knows when our time will come. It could be today.

And so the Buddha encouraged us to be mindful that death can come at any time, not so that we become afraid or depressed, but so that we be inspired to make the most of this precious opportunity to practice.

Life is swept along,
next-to-nothing its span.
For one swept to old age
no shelters exist.
Perceiving this danger in death,
one seeking peace
should drop the world’s bait.

We’re also asked to bear in mind, even more pithily, the remembrance, anicca vata sankhara : “Impermanent, indeed, are all created things.” Let’s mourn our losses, while tempering them with an awareness of their inevitability. And above all, let’s take them as an inspiration to live the best lives we can create.

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Dealing with the pain of change

leaves changing

The other day one of my meditation students wrote, asking for some advice. She was having to downsize and move into a smaller apartment. And this meant that she couldn’t hold on to some of her family heirlooms, like her mother’s wedding china. It also meant that her teenage son wouldn’t be able to continue living with her. That last part was particularly painful.

So I wrote the following in response:

Dear X.

It is hard to let go of things, and to have relationships change, so I can appreciate why you’re suffering.

The changes you’re going through are unique to you, even if others have been through similar experiences, so I offer the following only as things you might take as a starting point for your own reflections.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to about the move? It might be that you can focus on things like creating more of a sense of simplicity in your life, or creating a new space around you that supports aspirations you may have. If there are things you can look forward to, then focusing on those might help shift your perspective about the move… (continued below)

See also:

Ironically, I find myself with too much “stuff” at the moment. When Teresa and I moved in together, we ended up with duplicate furniture. Some we got rid of, but we ended up with two dining tables and no room for either of them, and so they’re in storage in our basement. I look in the basement and see all of this clutter, and I sometimes think that if it all disappeared one day I probably wouldn’t notice for weeks, since I hardly ever have a reason to go down there, and that if I did happen to walk into an empty basement I’d feel free! So really we should get rid of all that stuff, but unless we were moving again there’s really no motivation to do so.

Anyway, I do like to think of the freedom and lightness that comes from not being burdened by things I have but don’t use. I don’t know if that’s something that you could also embrace.

I sometimes also think about the fact that one day I’m going to die, and that, as they say, you can’t take it with you. Who would have your mother’s wedding china once you’ve passed away? If there’s no one obvious who would take it, then you might think about what the difference is between giving it away now and it being given away once you’re dead. Advantages to passing it on now (even to strangers) would be that you’d know someone else was enjoying it, that you’d given them this gift, and that you’d be in control of where it goes. Once you die, none of those things would be possible.

With regard to your son, I wonder if you could think of sending him out into the world as a man? Is there some way you could build up to ritually or ceremonially marking and celebrating this transition in his life? I can imagine, for example, that it would be lovely to create a book of wisdom teachings (maybe accompanied by photographs of the two of you) that could guide him as he goes into the world and remain as a tangible record of his transition. Something like that might give you a positive focus that mitigates the suffering of the change.

As I said, I’m just throwing some ideas out there. I’d be really fascinated to hear what you come up with yourself.

What has helped you get through painful periods of change? Why not share in the comments below.

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Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

See also:

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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This one small shift can help you be more at peace

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

Often when we see change we act like it’s a big surprise that the universe has been hiding from us. “Who’s that old person looking at me from the mirror?” we ask. We see new gray hairs or wrinkles and treat this like it’s a personal failing. It’s as if we think we could have stopped this natural process of change if only we’d tried harder.

Blind to change

Sometimes we don’t even see change. Psychologists have been studying the phenomenon of “change blindness” for many years. In one of my favorite experiments, people who volunteered for a psychological study were asked to report to a certain office. As they checked in at the reception area, the receptionist said he needed to give them an information packet. He’d then duck down behind the counter, stand up, and hand it to them.

What the overwhelming majority of participants failed to notice was that the person who stood up was not the same person they had been talking to just a moment before. An accomplice had been hiding behind the counter, and immediately after the first receptionist had ducked down, a second person would stand up. The two people had different heights, different facial features, and were dressed differently. Yet very few study participants noticed the these changes. Our minds simply aren’t good at noticing change, even when that change is, you would think, obvious.

We also tend to see others as fixed and unchanging, and yet appreciating their impermanence can help us be more patient with and forgiving toward them. The following exercise might help you to experience this directly.

The Three Ages

Think about someone you tend to get into conflict with. This may even be someone you’re intimate with. Perhaps they have some habit that irritates you or hurts your feelings. (Right now I’m thinking of a colleague who sometimes sighs and rolls her eyes when I express my opinions, as if she thinks I’m naive, unintelligent, or tiresome in some way. I don’t enjoy being treated in this way, and just remembering these things is painful.) Visualize the person who upsets you, and whatever it is they do that upsets you. Notice what feelings arise in the body, and observe them as mindfully as you can.

Now, imagine that on one side of this person you see them as a baby, maybe just under a year old. The baby is able to sit up but not to walk or even to talk, beyond cute babbling. And on the other side you see them as an extremely old person, perhaps in their late 90s. They’re frail, and barely clinging to life. Now you have three images of this person you get annoyed by. You see them as a baby, as they are now, and in extreme old age. And with that image in mind, call to mind once again that annoying thing they do that bothers you. Now see how you feel.

What this does

Most often as people who do this exercise experience either greater compassion for the other person, or a sense of sadness. They find that that annoying habit just isn’t that annoying, once they see it in the context of an entire human life. These responses of sadness or compassion arise because we’re appreciating the fleeting nature of human life.

This awareness of impermanence can help us let go of resentment and other forms of reactivity. We see that in the context of our short time together on this planet it’s simply not important.

Applying this in my life…

I’ve found this approach useful in my daily life with my children. Sometimes, like all children, they are difficult to deal with. When they were young they went through tantrums, and now, as they’re approaching their teens, their behavior is sometimes challenging in different ways. In the midst of a difficult interaction with them I try to see them not just as they are now, but as they were when they were adorable babies, and as I imagine they will be as mature, confident, and well-rounded adults.

When I see them in this way I see that their current selves and current behaviors are nothing more than a passing phase. My role as their father then becomes being compassionately present with them as they move toward adulthood. The more I  bear this in mind, the more relaxed and kind I am with my children.

…and in yours

You might want to try this way of seeing people you have difficulty with. Try playing with this at times you’re not actively in conflict with them. This practice makes it more likely you’ll relate to them compassionately when difficulties do happen to flare up.

This simple shift in perception brings us calm, peace, and compassion.

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Seeing experience as a movie

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

In my last post I said I’d been teaching meditations based on a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball or Honeycake Sutta. This teaching is about relaxing our sense of being separate from the world.

On one level it’s about simply being with our experience rather than reacting to it. That’s the approach to this teaching that most people adopt. On another, deeper, level it’s about not identifying with any of our experience being me or mine. We don’t think “this is my experience” or “this is me here, having an experience.” This when there is experiencing going on, without any sense of there being an experience or something that is experienced. It’s a radically simple practice once you find a way in to it (and helping people find that way in is what I try to do).

As often happens, my meditation practice went off in an unexpected direction as I taught these meditations based on the Honeycake Sutta. My meditation practice often isn’t something I do, but something that happens within me. It has a life of its own. And it’s always interesting seeing where we end up.

Toward the end of the series I found myself regarding my experience as being like a movie. This opened up some interesting perspectives, but before I share that I’d like to say something about another teaching from the Buddha that cross-pollenated, so to speak, with the Honeycake. This is a discourse called the Phena-Pindupama Sutta. Phena means “foam.” Pindupama means “lump.” So this is the “Discourse on the Lump of Foam.”

In the Phena-Pindupama Sutta the Buddha is on the banks of the Ganges river, talking to the monks about the way in which our experience is, in a sense, illusory in nature. Being beside a river, he starts off by using water metaphors. The physical forms we see, he says, including our own physical form, are like a lump of foam drifting downriver: just as someone with discernment could examine that foam and find that there’s no substance to it — that it’s “empty, void, without substance” — so, as we examine form, we find it’s exactly the same.

What does this mean? Isn’t it obvious that our bodies are solid and substantial? Well, when in meditation we take our attention deeply into the body, what do we find? Do we actually experience any solidity or substance? All that we can ever know are sensations. We have sensations that the mind translates into concepts like “substance” and “solid” but those are still just sensations. The sensations that we think of as representing contact with something solid are nothing more than sensations of resistance. And when we look very closely at those or any other sensations they’re anything but solid. They’re nothing more than pinpoints of perception. They’re not stable, but wink in and out of existence, moment by moment. This is something that any of us can verify, although it does take some investment of time in developing the relevant observational skills.

Feelings, the Buddha tells the monks, are like bubbles appearing and disappearing rapidly as a heavy raindrop slams into the river’s surface. Here too, we can train ourselves to look closely at the nature of feelings. We may think of feelings as persisting over time, but if we look closely we see that they are simply internal sensations. During a rainstorm there are always splashes on the surface of water. But each splash lasts for just an instant. Feelings, examined closely, are like that too: pinpoints of sensation, suspended in space, winking in and out of existence with incredible rapidity. “What substance could there be in feeling?” the Buddha asks.

From this point on the Buddha seems to have run out of river metaphors: thoughts and concepts are like a mirage shimmering over hot ground; emotional impulses are like the pith of a banana tree, which, onion-like, has layers and layers that can be removed, leaving nothing, since this kind of tree has no heartwood; consciousness is like an magic trick—an illusion created by a conjurer. All of these things lack substance. And this can be confirmed in our experience as well. What substance is there in the sounds and images that we experience in memory and imagination? What substance is there in anger or desire? In consciousness itself?

The metaphors that the Buddha chose were apt for his times, and are still useful for us. But in my own life, the most appropriate, simple, and helpful analogy is borrowed from the illusion that we call “cinema.” My physical, emotional, and mental experience is like a movie. My body fabricates sensations. My brain fabricates feelings in the body. My mind fabricates sounds and images and conceptual categories within itself. And all of these things are insubstantial. And they are things that I can observe, like a movie.

And, like a movie, our experience can be profoundly absorbing. When my feelings are hurt, I think of the hurt as a real thing. Anger appears, and I think that’s real too. I believe all the stories I tell myself about how the person who hurt me is selfish, or bad, or clueless.

But what if I realize that I’m watching a movie. What then?

Once I start to accept that my body and mind are fabricating a movie for me, I take it all less seriously. Watching the movie of my experience, I can experience pleasure and discomfort in the body, and it’s all something to be appreciated, the same way I appreciate the tender and the tense moments in a film. I can experience my feelings, and whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant I find I can enjoy them just the same. Impulses arise, and if they are unloving or unhelpful can I let them dissolve like the unreal things they are: I don’t need to take them seriously. I recognize that my thoughts, my memories, and my imaginings of the future are simply movies that run in the mind.

It’s all a movie. To see things this way is simple. It’s effective. And it’s new to me, so it’s work in progress. Please excuse if my explanation lacks coherence in any way.

And I know, from messages I receive from damaged people, that there’s a possibility that some will mistake what I say to mean that nothing matters. But that’s not true. What matters is to love everything—especially the parts of us and of others that take the movie to be real. For those parts need our love and compassion. This gives life meaning. Love and meaning are part of the movie too, but they are ultimately what the movie is about. We don’t have to believe this: it’s simply how things are and our task is simply to see it. This is what we are to see: our true nature is connectedness and compassion.

So if we don’t have a sense of meaning, purpose, and love in our lives, it would be unwise to embrace this this perspective of seeing our experience as being like a movie created for us. When there’s a healthy sense of love and meaning in our lives, disillusionment is a positive experience. Without those things it can be devastating. But once we do have a basis of love, appreciation, and purpose, then to see life as a movie is a way of deepening those skillful qualities even further. It’s a way of liberating ourselves from investment in the beliefs and clinging that obscure the reality of connectedness and compassion, which is what we truly are.

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Jack Kornfield: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Jack Kornfield, in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” In other words, we put off important things, assuming that we can do them later. But there may not be any “later.” Life is short; make good use of it.

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, but it’s not something he said. It’s Jack Kornfield’s adaptation of something from Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Don Juan in his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” where the shaman says:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change?

The resemblance isn’t coincidental — Jack makes reference to this quote in one of his talks.

Recognizing that our time here is brief can help us appreciate life and see what the important things are. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how, in the light of that, it’s important that we take responsibility for our lives.

Life is short; make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But if you really take on board how brief our time here is, you’re also forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable. And for most of us that’s loving, being loved, and living meaningfully. “Fun” comes much further down the list. Love and meaning, it turns out, are more fun than fun itself.

Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique. Being aware that the breath you’re taking right now will never come again makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, try noticing how each moment is unique. That moment, and that moment, and that moment—each one flits by. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

Think about those around you, about those close to you, about those you’re connected to with ties of blood or love. Think about those who barely register in your attention, and about those you don’t like. Every one of them is going to die. And you’re going to die.

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Life is unpredictable. When you’re with someone, you have no idea if you’ll ever see each other again. Everyone you see today—this may your last encounter. And maybe you should behave as if it was. What last impression, what last words, would you like them to have of you, should either of you die tomorrow?

As I often say, “Life is short; be kind“.

Try adopting as a mantra, “We may never meet again.” Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. Let yourself feel affection. Let yourself appreciate others’ basic goodness. Let your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to find happiness in a world where true happiness is rare. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love: Now.

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The key to a happier life is learning how to suffer better

Photo by Dawid Zawi?a on Unsplash

One of the Buddha’s key teachings — arguably the key teaching — is the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, which is that we cling, 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state.

Although these four truths, or facts, might suggest that we can somehow learn to avoid suffering, what’s really required is that we learn to deal better with life’s sufferings, because they are inevitable. In other words, we need to learn to get better at suffering. It’s not that we should seek suffering, but that when it comes we can learn to respond to it in a way that doesn’t cause us further suffering.

So I have a few suggestions here to help you suffer better.

1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life

If we think that we can somehow go through life on a blissful cloud, we’re going to end up disappointed. And disappointment is just another form of suffering. Thinking we can avoid suffering makes us think we’re failing when suffering inevitably happens.

2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure

It’s very easy for us to form the impression that other people are a lot happier than we are. Social media doesn’t help here, since a lot of people present only the highlights of their lives online. And there are messages like “happiness is a choice” which make us think that if we’re unhappy we must be failing somehow. After all, if we could just choose to be happy we wouldn’t experience a lot of suffering, would we? But suffering is a universal. It’s something we are all going to experience — not just once in a while but every day. It’s not a sign of personal failure when we’re unhappy, but just a sign we’re alive.

3. Recognize when you are suffering

When people hear about suffering they often think of major things like cancer, bereavement, or starvation. Those are weighty forms of suffering, but fortunately they’re relatively rare in our lives. Most of our suffering is on a smaller scale: frustration, worry, anger, disappointment, loneliness, desire, and so on. These kinds of suffering are woven into the fabric of our days. Overlooking that these experiences are painful allows our suffering to run on unchecked. So when you’re frustrated, worried, etc., acknowledge that suffering is present.

4. Turn toward suffering so that you can learn from it

It’s natural to want to turn away from suffering, and to try to replace it with a more pleasant experience. Sometimes this even seems to work, but in the long term it builds up an unhelpful habit of aversion which itself creates more suffering. Ultimately the way out of suffering is through suffering. This means that we have to courageously turn to face painful experiences so that we can observe them with mindfulness and equanimity. Only that way can we learn the deeper lessons of suffering, such as, you are not your suffering.

5. Recognize that you are not your suffering

We often experience suffering “conjoined” with it, as the Buddha put it. We identify with our suffering, as if it’s ourselves. But experiences of suffering are like the reflections of clouds in a lake; they’re just passing through, and aren’t part of the lake itself. When we experience suffering mindfully, we step back from it and observe it as a separate phenomenon. We recognize that it’s not us. And so the suffering feels lighter and more bearable.

6. Take the drama out of your suffering

Painful experiences evolved as a means to motivate us to avoid potential threats, and so they usually catch our attention very effectively. But often our assessment is overblown and we react as if a situation is life-threatening even when there’s no real danger. For example if we were abandoned or ignored a lot in our childhood we may react strongly to the merest hint of someone not responding to us. I’ve found it helps to remember that feelings are simply a warning mechanism, and that it’s ultimately just the firing of neurons in the nervous system. An unpleasant feeling is not the end of the world; it’s just information that you can choose to act on or not.

7. See how your thinking affects your feelings

A lot of the time we just think, think, think, think, think — and the whole time we’re making ourselves miserable. We get so caught up in our stories, and are so convinced that our stories are true and helpful, that we don’t recognize that we’re making ourselves suffer. Once you start noticing how your thoughts affect how you feel, you start finding yourself going, “Whoa! What am I doing to myself right now?” And you have an opportunity to relate in a different way to whatever’s troubling you.

8. See how your feelings affect your thinking

Not only do our thoughts affect how we feel, but our feelings affect how we think. For example, when we’re anxious, we look for things to worry about. When we find we’re in a mood we can choose to observe our unpleasant feelings rather than let them dominate the mind. The mind actively observes, rather than being passively pushed around.

9. Learn to reframe

When we practice mindfulness of our suffering — those messages produced by the mind in order to motivate us to avoid potential threats — we start to see how we construct those messages in the first place. We have internal “rules” about what constitutes a threat. For example, we can have a rule that says “My partner forgetting something I’ve asked them to remember means that they don’t care about me.” When the partner forgets, we feel hurt or afraid, and then perhaps angry or resentful. Realizing we have such rules allows us to rewrite them, and to reframe situations in our lives. For example we can counter the rule above by recognizing that it takes time to learn new habits (the partner remembering that thing) and that people are often preoccupied and distracted, and forget things. The new rules we create should attempt to be realistic and compassionate, otherwise they too will end up causing us to suffer.

10. Relate compassionately to your pain

When a friend’s unhappy you probably treat them with empathy, support, kindness, and compassion, because these are the most appropriate response to pain. Your suffering is just a part of you that’s in pain. Relate to it the same way. Talk to it kindly. Look at it compassionately. Touch it (or the place where it’s manifesting most strongly in the body) with reassurance.

11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering

Think about something in the past that caused you suffering but which now doesn’t bother you. I can think, for example, of a time in my 20s when I got into a small amount of debt and got rally anxious about it. Now, however, I can think about it without feeling the slightest bit bothered. The panic I experienced at that time has just gone. One of our fears about feelings is that we’ll get stuck in them, that we’ll feel depressed or anxious or whatever forever. But our feelings never last. As we observe that fact over and over again it starts to sink in, and we learn to take our feelings less seriously and not overreact to them: OK, I’m feeling sad today. Tomorrow I’ll feel different.

12. Observe the transparency of your feelings

I’ve said that feelings are internally generated sensations arising in the body, and that they act as signals, warning us of potential threats. We tend to respond to painful feelings as if they were actual threats, and so we overreact. It’s as if every time the smoke detector went off while you were cooking you ran out into the street in a panic, rather than looking at the situation and realizing that it was your sizzling veggieburger that was triggering the alarm. If we train ourselves to look very closely at feelings of suffering, we can notice something astonishing; there’s nothing real there. There are just twinkling pinpoints of sensation suspended in space. They’re like holographic projections. It’s a trick of the mind that makes them seem real, and observing the trick closely allows us to see through it.

I believe that when the Buddha talks about ending suffering, he’s not talking about arranging life so that nothing bad happens to us, or even of learning to relate to our experience so skillfully that suffering doesn’t arise. I think he’s talking about the fact that suffering fundamentally doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion created by the mind. The mind creates suffering. The mind believes it. But the mind also wants to be free from it. And it can be, if we just look at our experience closely enough, with compassion and with an awareness of impermanence.

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The great mystery of being

Wildmind’s online course, The Great Mystery of Being: A Practical Introduction to the Experience of Non-Self, begins on Wednesday, September 20th.

The greatest insights that the Buddha had are that our sense of self is a burden that we drag around with us, and that it’s possible to lay down that burden.

The six element practice is a beautiful and poetic reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness — and especially non-self.

The practice encourages us to examine everything that we take to be “us” and “ours” and teaches us to see that nothing in the mind or body truly belongs to us.

In fact the concept of there being an “us” that anything can belong to is subjected to close analysis.

It does this by examining each of the “elements” that constitutes the body and mind:

  1. Earth — everything solid within the body
  2. Water — everything liquid within the body
  3. Fire — all energy within the body
  4. Air — anything gaseous within the body
  5. Space — our sense of separateness
  6. Consciousness — our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings

Over the course of six weeks we’ll explore each of these elements in turn, and see how everything that we take to be “us” is in fact merely “borrowed” from the outside world.

In time, our illusion of having a separate and permanent self can be seen through. No longer do we have to worry about whether the “self” we thought we had is good enough, worthy enough, capable of becoming awakened, etc. Instead we come to a direct perception of the thoroughgoing nature of impermanence, so that our “self” is nothing more than a dance of ever changing experiences. Accompanying this is a profound sense of release, relief, and confidence.

There’s no promise that these six weeks will take you all the way to awakening, but you’ll certainly experience a shift in how you perceive yourself. You’ll at least experience a taste of liberation.

Register today to explore the great mystery of being!

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The most important thing you need to know about life, according to Buddhism

Arguably the central teaching of Buddhism, without which the others make no sense, is that things change.

While “things change” may seem like a commonplace observation, made by dozens (at least) of philosophers and religious teachers over the last few millennia, the Buddha wasn’t content simply to pay lip-service to the concept of impermanence, but followed through the implications of this fact as far as he possibly could.

He saw our resistance to change as the source of our suffering. He talked about this resistance in terms of clinging — a desperate attempt to hold onto stability in the flowing river of time.

Clinging sometimes manifests as expectation — we want something to happen in a particular way, and we suffer when it doesn’t. This can result in huge amounts of suffering, when for example we have unrequited love (expecting the other person to reciprocate our feelings when they don’t), or when we get depressed when life doesn’t turn out the way we’d expected it to. Expectation can also work in much smaller ways, though, as when we get frustrated when we want the traffic or supermarket checkout line to move faster than it does.

One of the implications of impermanence is that things are changing in dependence on things that are also changing. The movements of traffic depend on the weather, on road conditions, on the number of people on the road, the individual mental states of drivers, and so on. Life is complex, and largely out of our control.

And so one way we can become happier is to recognize when we have expectations, and to let go of them. To give you an example from my own life, I’d often feel frustrated when my kids (who are still fairly young) take longer than I expect to do things I want them to do, like get ready to go out. I used to end up getting annoyed with them, and sometimes yelling. Now I’m more likely to see that I have an expectation that’s going to make me suffer, and to let go of it. Taking a deep breath, letting go, and accepting that I can’t control my children helps me to be more at ease when we’re getting ready to go someplace.

We can also let go of expectations that we won’t age or get sick, that the weather will cooperate with our plans, that our possessions will last forever without breaking, and so on.

While the fact of things changing can seem like a problem that we have to manage, it’s also a blessing. We’re capable of change. We may have habits that cause suffering for us and others around us, but we can unlearn those habits. And we can learn new ways of being. We can learn to be wiser, kinder, more patient, and so on. There’s nothing about us that is so fixed that it can’t change.

The Buddha’s teachings emphasized how the mind can progressively change in ways that allow us greater happiness and freedom. Without getting too technical, he outlined several lists of progressive mental states leading to the complete freedom from suffering that’s called Awakening or nirvana.

When we resist it, change is a curse. When we accept it, change is simply a fact. When we embrace it, change is a blessing.

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