anicca (impermanence)

Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction

“A mess in process”

One of the indisputable realities about being human is that we all have weaknesses. No one escapes this.

Some of us are able to acknowledge these less attractive aspects without being unduly fazed. Others tend to cultivate strategies to help hide the cracks. Yet others convince themselves that their weaknesses are inherent aberrations, with this view then becoming a rationale for indulging in aberrant behaviour. It is the last of these views that I tend to work with in addiction.

Some of us convince ourselves that we are such a waste of space that really, we should commit ourselves to a life of substance-induced mayhem or simply rid the rest of the world of our miserable presence by killing ourselves. This is true suffering.

The Buddha could well have been the best Alcohol and Drug clinician the world has ever seen. His First Noble Truth states that life involves suffering, discontentment, disgruntlement, disillusionment. He then tells us in his Second Noble Truth that suffering (dukkha) has a cause and that that cause is craving.

Wanting things to be a certain way is suffering because it precludes openness to what is, now, in this moment. Not getting what we want involves suffering because we want it so much. Even getting what we do want involves suffering because then we are fearful of losing it. Also, often we realize it isn’t what we wanted after all and now what are we to do once we have married our heart’s desire and find that the beloved has turned into a cold, and rather clammy, green frog?

The Third Noble Truth states that suffering can cease. If we acknowledge that everything that comes into being must, one day, dissolve, we learn to not clutch onto life with such desperation. If we acknowledge that such grasping is tantamount to grabbing a handful of water or holding onto a rainbow, we may reduce this habit of clinging and free our hearts from suffering.

When we embrace the truth of impermanence and even begin to enjoy the ephemeral, fleeting nature of it, we move from desperado mindset to butterfly mindset. We can say ‘no’ to that contracted, grasping human, clutching our booty, hiding out in an emotional desert. With a meditation practice under our belts, we can begin to loosen and lighten up, psychically alighting gently on a leaf, ready to move to the next honeysuckle. Hence we move from contraction and limitation to expansiveness and new possibilities.

Problems arise when not only do we expect changeable, fleeting processes to stay the same but when we also imagine our painful emotions to be permanent, especially when we are lost in them. But in reality, our emotions are even more fleeting than our thoughts. It is often our attitude to our emotions that cause us the suffering. That is probably why the Christians talk of eternal damnation in hell. When we are in hellish states of mind, even a minute feels like an eternity. When we are in heaven, it goes in a flash.

“The First Truth is Sorrow. Be not mocked!
Life which ye treasure is long drawn out agony:
Its pleasures are as birds which light and fly;
Only its pains abide.”
Sir Edwin Arnold The Light of Asia

Why do we perpetuate this fixed view of ourselves as fundamentally flawed, as a complete failure, as incapable of fitting in with societal mores? If we begin to relate to ourselves as a process, we start letting go of the pain. A friend, when first warming up to this concept, referred to himself as “a mess in process.” This is the beginning of true liberation.

Part of the deconstruction of a habit pattern of the mind is in listening to what Behavioural Therapists call Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATS). These can be deconstructed further to reveal core beliefs we cherish deep in our hearts. Albert Ellis, the founder of RET — Rational Emotive Therapy — exhorts us to DISPUTE such distortions.

For example, we might have the negative thought, “I always screw it up because I am so impulsive!”

Ellis tells us to first of all replace the ‘always’ with “sometimes” so we could pathologize ourselves less by saying:

“I sometimes make mistakes because part of me has a habit pattern of the mind that leaps into things without due consideration.”

Let’s take a good look at the silver lining of our alleged dysfunction. For example: What are the benefits of leaping into life without due consideration? Impulsive people have the novelty seeking gene, which scientists attribute to mutation; people with a deficit of Monoamine oxidase enzyme (MAO) live more dangerously than the more balanced amongst us. Even though it may kill us, humanity benefits from people willing to take risks because they don’t take the time to consider the consequences.

One scientific theory is that, had a bunch of Africans with this mutant gene not gotten into their canoes without a clue where they would end up, we may not have been as global a species as we currently are.

Instead of grabbing our dysfunction to use as a weapon to bludgeon ourselves into self-pity, it can be helpful to ponder the more colourful, even beneficial elements to it. How can you be mad at a gene?

If we contain a kindly and light-hearted view of ourselves as a “mess in process” it means we can begin to feel more confident about ourselves and therefore work to align ourselves more with our values. If we see our profound dysfunction in less black and white terms, we can gradually transform our weaknesses into strengths. This moves us away from the pitiful, over-identified, victim mentality which keeps us, inextricably, stuck in the nasty old Slough of Despond.

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The second reminder: Death and impermanence

Dead, withered rose

‘One day I will die. I can not escape it. Death comes to everyone, including me.’

As I write this I have goose bumps. It enlivens me as well as scares me. There are many days I don’t want to die, and yet I know this is the cycle of life. Once I am born I am old enough to die. I remember speaking with one of my friends when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wanted to know how long she had? Little did she know she only had seven weeks. Reflecting on this question, I realized she had 49 years to live, it took 49 years for her to die. How long did she have? She had now.

And yet so many of us, including myself live life as is we are immortal as if we are immune to death, as if it will not happen to us. As if our first terminal diagnosis is the first warning that we get that we will die.

The Four Reminders

I remember once saying to a friend who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago: “Hold on, hold on I could die before you. Your husband could die before you. Some of your friends could die before you. There is no guarantee you will die first.” Life is immediate for all of us, our death is immediate to all of us, if we wake up to that reality. I know that to be so true. I have woken up in the morning, felt on top of the world, had a great day at work, jumped on my bicycle and been knocked down by a car, more than once. Life is fragile, we do not know when it will end, but we know it will end. The uncertainty of not knowing can be more stressful than the actual dying.

A dear friend of mine died at age 44, from ovarian cancer. Initially she was given five years to live. But during surgery to remove her ovaries the surgeon punctured her bowel. This accelerated her living. She was terrified of dying, and her partner asked her: ‘What is so awful about dying?’. She couldn’t answer, but after this question her life changed. She accepted her dying process, to the extent that we gave her a living funeral. I remember telling her we wanted to celebrate her before she died. She lit up, and then proceeded to tell me what food she wanted, which people she wanted to attend. She said: “I want this celebration to help me pass over.” Her mom, brother, extended family and friends came to say goodbye to her. We all rejoiced in her life, told her we loved her, and said goodbye to her. She sat through every single bit of it, present and alert. Two days later she died. My friend taught me not to fear death.

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

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One of my best friends has just died. Was it a shock? Was it sudden? I know that my friends, family and i will die. And yet it still comes as a shock. I realize I still do not accept impermanence. I am in resistance to the change, that my dear friend will no longer share long talks with me, no longer laugh with me no longer support me. My selfish mind continues to cause me suffering. I have multiplied my pain by resisting it. I want Georgina to still be here, so I can here her call me V, so she can tell me everything that is going on back home in England.
I am more prepared for my own demise than the demise of those I love and know in my life.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers this practise. When we part with people we love – we hold each other – and look at each other with loving kindness and say: “I love you and one day you will die”

I leave you with this quote from Pema Chodron – “It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.

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Tibetan sky burial photographs

Vultures cover a human body in a Tibetan "sky burial"

An astonishing series of photographs of a Tibetan “sky burial,” where a corpse is cut up and fed to vultures, with the remains being pounded into dust, has been viewed almost three quarters of a million times in 24 hours.

Vultures peck at a human skull, which has been almost entirely stripped of flesh

The images (view here) are very graphic, but as Justin Whitaker says, “As a poignant reminder of the impermanence of this body, they’re worth viewing.”

According to Wikipedia, in Tibet the practice is known as jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds.”

Sky burial is traditional in Tibet, where the ground is too rocky for interment to be practical, and where a lack of wood makes cremation unfeasible.

This kind of burial is a kind of meditation in itself. There’s long been a tradition in Buddhism of using corpses in order to reflect on impermanence and to reduce attachment to the human form. For example, in order to develop mindfulness the monk is encouraged to see his own body in the following way…

..as if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, picked at by crows, vultures, & hawks, by dogs, hyenas, & various other creatures… a skeleton smeared with flesh & blood, connected with tendons… a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, connected with tendons… a skeleton without flesh or blood, connected with tendons… bones detached from their tendons, scattered in all directions — here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a hip bone, there a back bone, here a rib, there a breast bone, here a shoulder bone, there a neck bone, here a jaw bone, there a tooth, here a skull… the bones whitened, somewhat like the color of shells… piled up, more than a year old… decomposed into a powder: He applies it to this very body, ‘This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.’

By contrast, Western funeral practices tend to be very sanitized, to the point where many people have never seen a corpse. It’s almost as if we don’t want to think about our own morality, even at funerals.

By contrast, the Buddha suggested that we reflect often on the facts that we are prone to old age, sickness, and death. The point of this was not to induce depression, but to help us remember that our time here is brief, so that we make good use of it. Reflecting, for example, that we do not have much time with our loved ones can help us appreciate them more, and argue with them less. Remembering that our lives are short encourages us to make our lives meaningful.

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Embrace fragility

The truth of anything is like a mosaic with many tiles, many parts.

One part of the truth of things is that they are robust and enduring, whether it’s El Capitan in Yosemite or the love of a child for her mother and father.

Another part of the truth is that things bruise, tear, erode, disperse, or end – fundamentally, they’re fragile. Speaking of El Capitan, I knew of someone climbing it who had just placed anchors above a long horizontal crack when the sheet of granite he was standing on broke off to fall like a thousand-ton pancake to the valley floor below (he lived, clutching his anchors). Love and other feelings often change in a family. Bodies get ill, age, and die. Milk spills, glasses break, people mistreat you, good feelings fade. One’s sense of calm or worth is easily disturbed. Wars start and then end badly. Planets heat up and hurricanes flood cities. Earthquakes cause tidal waves and damage nuclear reactors.

A life is like a house of cards, and a single gust – a layoff at work, an injury, a misjudgment, a bit of bad luck – can knock it over. Taking a longer view, several billion years from now, our Sun will swell into a red giant star that consumes Mercury, Venus, and Earth: the Grand Canyon, Pacific Ocean, and all the works of humankind will come to an end, utterly fragile.

Sometimes we overestimate the fragility of things, as when we don’t recognize the deep wells of inner strength in ourselves and others. But I think we are more likely to deny or downplay the true extent of fragility: it’s scary to realize how delicate and vulnerable your body is, or the threads that bind you to others – so easily frayed by a single word – or the balance of climate and ecology on our planet. It’s scary and humbling – neither of which people like – to face the underlying frailty of the body, how easy it is for a relationship to go awry, the ways that so many of us are over-extended and running on fumes, the rickety underpinnings of the global financial system, the deep fissures within many nations, or the unpredictability and intensity of Mother Nature.

But if we don’t recognize fragility, we’ll miss chances to protect and nurture so many things that matter, and we’ll be needlessly surprised and upset when things do inevitably fall apart. We need to embrace fragility – to see it clearly and take it into our arms – to be grounded in truth, peaceful amidst life’s changes and endings, and resourceful in our stewardship of the things we care about.

How?

Simply be mindful of fragility – both actual and potential. Notice how many things do break – defined broadly – and notice how many more there are that could break and eventually will: “things” such as physical objects (e.g., cup, blouse, body, species, ecosystem, earth’s crust), relationships, projects, agreements, states of mind, lives, and societies.

Notice any discomfort with recognizing fragility. Be aware of the other tiles in the mosaic – such as stability, resilience, and repair – that can help you push through this discomfort. Appreciate that it is the fragility of things that often makes them most precious.

See the fragility of others, and their pains and losses related to all the things that have “broken” or could break for them. See the delicacy of their feelings, the sensitivities and vulnerabilities in their sense of worth or well-being. Let this knowing about others – both people you’re close to and those you’re not, even people who are difficult for you – open your heart to them. Knowing the fragility of others will naturally lead you away from being harsh or unkind to them.

See the brevity and flimsiness of your own life, and the fragility of your hopes and dreams: why wait another day to do all that you reasonably can to fulfill them?

Consider where you are unnecessarily fragile – perhaps too prickly about criticism, too vulnerable to a slumping mood, too prone to illness, too indebted, too isolated at work (or in life altogether), or too under-resourced in any significant area – and make a realistic plan for shoring these up. For example, I’ve been getting run-down and have realized I really need to make sleep a higher priority.

Do what’s in your heart about what’s fragile in our world – whether it’s an ailing elderly person next door or disaster victims across an ocean.

Ultimately, try to come to peace with the inevitable: all things fall apart, one way or another. Everything cracks. And yet there is something so beautiful about this part of the truth, as Leonard Cohen says much more eloquently than I can:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

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We are the miracle

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

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Joyful to have
such a human birth
Difficult to find
Free and well-
favored.

Composed by Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. 1974.

It is a miracle that we are born, and that we are still living. Every minute, world wide approximately 267 people are born and 108 people die. Just over 40% of us survive birth, and none of us survive death. Last month I asked you: ‘How are you making the most of your precious birth? I ask you again this month, as it is a reflection we could do daily.

Our human birth
ordinary and extraordinary
Our human birth
joyful and painful
Our human birth
healthy and unhealthy
Our human birth
longevity and fleeting
Our human birth
precious and worthless

Do not let your birth be worthless. Embrace this precious opportunity. There is the gap between birth and death. This gap is called life. Mind the gap.

  • What are you doing in the gap?
  • How awake are you in the gap?
  • What could you begin doing differently in the gap?
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Presence in the face of dying

At the end of a daylong meditation workshop, Pam, a woman in her late sixties, drew me aside. Her husband, Jerry, was near death after three years of suffering from lymphoma. “I wanted so much to save him,” she told me. “I looked into ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, every alternative treatment I could find, tracked every test result . . . We were going to beat this thing.” She sat back wearily in her chair, shoulders slumped. “And now I’m keeping in touch with everyone, giving updates, coordinating hospice care. If he’s not napping I try to make him comfortable, read to him . . .”

I responded gently, “It sounds like you’ve been trying really hard to take good care of Jerry . . . and it’s been very busy.” At these words, she gave me a smile of recognition. “Hmm, busy. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” She paused. “As far back as I can remember I’ve really been busy. But now . . . well, I just can’t sit back and let him go without a fight.”

Pam was silent for a few moments, then looked at me anxiously. “He could die any day now, Tara. Isn’t there some Buddhist practice or ritual that I should learn? Is there something I should be reading? How can I help him with this . . . with dying?”

“Pam,” I said, “you’ve already done so much . . . but the time for all that kind of activity is over. At this point, you don’t have to make anything happen, you don’t need to do anything.” I waited a moment and then added, “Just be with him. Let him know your love through the fullness of your presence.”

At this difficult time I was calling on a simple teaching that is central to my work with my meditation students and therapy clients: It is through realizing loving presence as our very essence, through being that presence, that we discover true freedom. In the face of inevitable loss, this timeless presence brings healing and peace to our own hearts and to the hearts of others.

“In those most difficult moments,” I suggested, “you might pause and recognize what you are feeling — the fear or anger or grief — and then inwardly whisper the phrase ‘I consent.’” I’d recently heard this phrase from Father Thomas Keating, and thought that as a Catholic, Pam might find it particularly valuable. Saying “I consent,” or as I more frequently teach, “yes,” relaxes our armoring against the present moment and allows us to meet life’s challenges with a more open heart.

Pam was nodding, but she had an intent, worried look. “I want to do this, Tara, but when I’m most upset, my mind speeds up. I start talking to myself . . . I talk to him . . . How will I remember to pause?”

“You probably will forget, at least some of the time,” I said, “and that’s totally natural. All you can do is have the intention to pause, the intention to feel what is going on and ‘let be.’” Pam’s face softened with understanding. “That I can do. I can intend, with all my heart, to be there for Jerry.”

A month after my conversation with Pam, she called to tell me what had happened after the workshop. She acknowledged that, even in those final weeks of her husband’s life, she had struggled with the urge to be busy, to find ways to feel useful. She shared that, one afternoon, Jerry began talking about having only a short time left, and about not being afraid of death. She bent over, gave him a kiss, and said quickly, “Oh dear, today’s been a good day, you seemed to have more energy. Let me make you some herbal tea.”

He fell silent, and the quietness shook her. “It became so clear to me in those moments that anything other than listening to what was really going on—anything other than being fully present—actually separated us … I avoided reality by suggesting a cup of tea. But my attempt to steer away from the truth took me away from him, and that was heartbreaking.”

While Pam boiled water for tea, she prayed, asking that her heart be fully present with Jerry. This prayer guided her in the days that followed. During those last few weeks, Pam said she had to keep letting go of all of her ideas about how her husband’s dying should be and what else she should be doing, and just remind herself to say “I consent.”

At first she was mechanically repeating the words, but after a few days she felt as if her heart actually started consenting. When her gut tightened with clutches of fear and feelings of helplessness, she’d stay with those feelings, consenting to the depth of her vulnerability. When the restless urge to “do something” arose, she’d notice that and be still, letting it come and go. And as the great waves of grief rolled through, she’d again say, “I consent,” opening to the huge aching weight of loss.

This intimate presence with her inner experience allowed Pam to fully attend to Jerry. As she put it, “When all of me was truly consenting to the fear and pain, I knew how to take care of him. I sensed when to whisper words of encouragement or just listen, ways to reassure him with touch . . . how to sing to him, be quiet with him. How to be with him.”

Before she ended the call, Pam shared with me what she considered to be the gift of her last days with Jerry, the answer to her prayers: “In the silence, I could see past a sense of ‘him’ and ‘me.’ It became clear that we were a field of loving—total openness, warmth, light. He’s gone, but that field of loving is always with me. My heart knows that I came home . . . truly I came home to love.”

Pam’s willingness to be present with her inner life, no matter how painful, made it possible for her to connect with the vastness of love. Her growing capacity for staying with the truth of her moment-to-moment experience, for embracing the true refuge of presence, enabled her to find her way home, even in the midst of great loss.

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Find stillness

empty bench seen from behind. Beyond it is a foggy landscape.

Things keep changing. The clock ticks, the day unfolds, trees grow, leaves turn brown, hair turns gray, children grow up and leave home, attention skitters from this to that, the cookie is delicious but then it’s all gone, you’re mad about something for awhile and then get over it, consciousness streams on and on and on.

Many changes are certainly good. Most people are glad to put middle school behind them. I’m still happy about shifting thirty years ago from single to married. Painkillers, flush toilets, and the internet seem like pretty good ideas. It’s lovely to watch grass waving in the wind or a river passing. Fundamentally, if there were no change, nothing could happen, reality would be frozen forever. I once asked my friend Tom what he thought God was and he said “possibility.”

On the other hand, many changes are uncomfortable, even awful. The body gets creaky, and worse. We lose those we love and eventually lose life itself. Families drift apart, companies fail, dictators tighten their grip, nations go to war. The planet warms at human hands, as each day we pour nearly a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Countless species go extinct. As William Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

And change itself is often – maybe innately – stressful. When you really open to the fact always in front of our noses that each moment of now decays and disappears in the instant it arises – it can feel rather alarming. Life and time sweep us along. As soon as something pleasant occurs in the mind’s flow we reach for it but whoosh it passes away right through our fingers leaving disappointment behind. Inherently, anything that changes is not a reliable basis for enduring contentment and fulfillment.

Yet it is also true that some things remain always the same. In their stillness you can find a refuge, an island in the stream of changes, a place to stand for perspective and wisdom about events and your reactions to them, a respite from the race, quiet amidst the noise. Perhaps even find a sense of something transcendental, outside the frame of passing phenomena.

How?

Stillness, a sense of the unchanging, is all around, and at different levels. Look for it, explore its effects on you, and let it sink in.

For example, it’s not the ultimate stillness, but there is that lovely feeling when the house is quiet and you’re sitting in peace, the dishes are done and the kids are fine (or the equivalent), and you can really let down and let go. In your character, you have enduring strengths and virtues and values; situations change, but your good intentions persist. In relationships, love abides – even for people who drive you crazy!

More subtly, there is the moment at the very top of a tossed ball’s trajectory when it’s neither rising nor falling, the pause before the first stroke of the brush, that space between exhalation and inhalation, the silence in which sounds occur, or the discernible gap between thoughts when your mind is quiet.

In your mind there is always an underlying calm and well-being that contains emotional reactions, like a riverbed that is still even as the flood rushes over it (if you’re not aware of this, truly, with practice you can find and stabilize a sense of it). There is also the unchanging field of awareness, itself never altered by the thoughts passing through it.

More abstractly, 2+2=4 forever; the area of a circle will always be pi times the radius squared; etc. The fact that something has occurred will never change. The people who have loved you will always have loved you; they will always have found you lovable. Whatever is fundamentally true – including, ironically, the truth of impermanence – has an unchanging stillness at its heart. Things change, but the nature of things – emergent, interdependent, transient – does not.

Moving toward ultimate matters, and where language fails, you may have a sense of something unchangingly transcendental, divine. Or, perhaps related, an intuition of that which is unconditioned always just prior to the emergence of conditioned phenomena.

Wherever you find it, enjoy stillness and let it feed you. It’s a relief from the noise and bustle, a source of clarity and peace. Give yourself the space, the permission, to be still – at least in your mind – amidst those who are busy. To use a traditional saying:

May that which is still
be that in which your mind delights.

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The first reminder: My precious birth

Newborn baby

I hope it is not too late to realize that joyful is my precious birth. If we are deep in the disease of an addiction it is impossible to realize and to take advantage of our precious birth. When we are sober, clean and free from anything that obsesses or controls the mind we have emotional and spiritual health. Only then can we begin to appreciate our precious birth.

Every human that is born has a precious birth. The difference is that some of us have the perfect conditions to realize our potential while others are born into conditions where their potential can be hindered by external factors they had no control over, like sickness, diseases, war, famine and natural disasters. Those of us living in countries without these factors can also hinder our potential by the internal factors created by the mind; greed, hatred and delusion.

The Four Reminders

I have gratitude right now in this moment because I have my physical health, energy, and more than enough food to eat. What do I have to complain about? I currently live in country that is free of war on its own territory. I can walk outside my house and not fear I may walk on a land mine. I have my freedom as a woman, and yet I still complain. If I get sick, I can go to a doctor and not worry about the cost, and know that I will be treated with decent care. Yet I still complain. How fortunate I am. And If I don’t realize this good fortune I will be wasting my life. Wasting my precious birth. I will be at risk of turning to alcohol, food, or any other false comforter to fill the void in my life.

Knowing all of this, how should I live my life? I choose to live each moment as if it were the last. ‘I do that ‘ an addict may well say. However most addicts live life as if there is no tomorrow. The addict lives life chasing yesterdays experiences and tomorrows desires. The addict lives in complete denial of seeing things as they really are. Not just the addict, but most people live their life like this. Our minds are so full of delusions, stories we tell our selves, resentments and craving that it is impossible to see things as they really are.

If I could live my life as if every moment was the first and the last my life would be different. How? I don’t know. But I do know if my mind was not attached to the past, or the future it would be different. Free of mental turmoil, without the craving for something to dull my feelings.

If tomorrow I get sick or, tomorrow I get knocked off my bicycle and lose a limb. I know that if I hold onto the past of when I was well, and had all my limbs, I will suffer even more. If I was able to be in the moment of my life, I would be able to see my precious birth despite my physical disability. I shudder at the thought of this, and I know that there are people in the world who can live with that acceptance and awareness. Not letting a physical disability take away their precious birth.

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

Support local bookstores: Buy from Indiebound (US) or Bookshop (UK)

I’ve had two cancer scares. The first was when I was 24. I remember thinking “I have to change my life”. It worked, the cancerous cells disappeared. But I didn’t change my life. I was most definitely on the path that led to more suffering. I numbed everything out with work, social life and denial. Before my next cancer scare, I was attacked. It took being almost strangled to death at age 27 for me to change my life. It was my wake up call. I wasn’t meant to die. I got away, alive. So what was I going to do with my precious birth?

Exactly this. I told myself this was not going to be another thing to pull me down. It never has. I have never been a victim of this incident. Sometimes it’s as if it never happened. I didn’t hold on to it. I let it go, and moved into the next moment. Yes it had an impact, that lasted a few months, in dreams. But the only pain that took time to go was the physical side effect in my neck.  Even that subsided. I turned to Buddhism soon after and woke up to my precious birth.

My second cancer scare was at 35. I remember walking out of the clinic and thinking I’ve had a good life, it is okay to die. I’ve lived 35 long years, yes it would be good to live some more, but you could hardly say poor thing she died so young. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

I could never have thought so positively if it wasn’t for my Buddhist training. It so happened my doctor was wrong. It wasn’t cancerous cysts, just fibroids.  And so I am still here. Still trying to live this precious life ethically with mindfulness and wisdom. Rather than live it mindlessly by numbing out in front of the tv, on the computer, eating food, alcohol, substance abuse, depression or anger. Life is too short for that, which is why our birth is so precious.

We have the mental factors to see things as they really are. If we were to nurture our faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom we would be moving towards the good, have awareness, focused concentration and intelligent understanding.

The five hindrances of craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth and torpor and doubt would no longer obscure the mind. We would have made use of our precious birth.

As I write this month’s blog I can’t but help think about the tragedy in America. It is so sad. A precious life wasted, many precious lives lost. What happened to that poor kid James Holmes for him to be caught up in a delusion and use his intellect to massacre innocent people? Why did he waste his precious birth?

We live in a world today where our children are indoctrinated by greed, hatred and delusion. Just watch the video games that are marketed to youth. Kids are rewarded, given points for killing someone. Young people I have worked with, have told me that: ‘video games are screwing up some of their friends’.

We have to wake up to reality. We are nurturing a generation of young people who have different values than their parents. Video games are just one example where we are teaching young people about violence uncritically.

We have to take responsibility. It’s not just about our birth. It is about the precious birth of generations to come. In living our lives wisely we will help those born after us to realize their full potential.

How are you making the most of your precious birth?

Next month a reflection on the first reminder.

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Let it go!

Most people, me included, are holding onto at least one thing way past its expiration date.

It could be a belief, perhaps that your hair is falling out and you are ugly and unlovable as a result; that you can’t say what you really feel in an intimate relationship; or that you must lose ten pounds to be attractive. It could be a desire, such as wishing someone would treat you better, pushing to make a project be successful, yearning for a certain kind of partner, or wanting to cure an illness. It could be a feeling, like a fear, grudge, resentment, longtime grief, or sense of low worth. It could be a behavior, like such as jogging with aging knees, playing video games, or buying clothes. It could be something you insist others do, such as make their beds, drive a certain way when you’re in the car, or meet particular goals at work.

Some of the things we’re attached to are obviously problematic – and usually we know it, or could know it with a little reflection – such as self-critical thoughts, obsessions or compulsions, defensiveness about your issues, or drinking too much. These things are relatively straightforward to deal with, even though it could be difficult.

The hard things are the ones that make sense, that have good things about them, that would be good for you and likely others if they could work out – like longing for love from someone, or wishing more people would come to your store, or hoping that you’re free of cancer – but, alas, are either not worth the price or it’s sadly clear that you just can’t make them happen.

You’ve watered the tree, fertilized it, protected it, even danced around it at midnight under a full moon . . . and it’s still not bearing any fruit.

Now what do you do?

Sometimes you just have to let it go.

For starters, take a clear look at yourself. For example, I’m a churner, a plugger. It’s tough for me to accept that my efforts are not producing the results I want. But to keep trying to grow corn in the Sahara – pick your own metaphor – when there’s little or no pay-off either present or in sight means that you are stressing yourself and probably others for little gain, plus wasting time, attention, and other resources that could be better invested elsewhere.

Step back from your situation, from whatever it is that you’re attached to, and try to hold it in a larger perspective. Get some distance from it, as if you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale and relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions truly present to have it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it simply out of your hands, so that your own striving – however well-intended, skillful, and honorable – just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or time to let it go. Be with these reflections – perhaps sitting quietly with a cup of tea, or in some place that is beautiful or sacred to you – and let their answers sink in.

You can help yourself let something go by making it concrete. For example, put a small stone or other object in your hand and imagine that it is the thing you’ve been attached to. Hold onto it hard; let your desires and thoughts about it flow through awareness; feel the costs related to it; and when you’re ready, open your hand and drop it – and open as well to any sense of relief, freedom, ease, or insight. You could do a similar practice by writing a note about this attachment, and then tearing it up and letting its pieces fall away. Or you could talk with a trusted being – perhaps a friend or therapist, or in your own kind of prayer – and explore the attachment, communicate your intentions to move on, and let it go.

You might still have the wish that something work out, but you no longer feel driven, compelled, intense, fixed, caught up, identified, or strongly desirous about it. You have accepted the way it is. You have surrendered; in a healthy sense, you have given up. Make space for the disappointment or grieving that’s natural when you let go of something that’s been important for you. It’s normal to feel sad about a loss. Then after a while, it occupies your mind less and less, and you move on to more fruitful things.

Let good things come into the space that’s been opened up by whatever you’ve let go. These could be more time, freedom, energy, peace, creativity, or love. Of course, there are many things worth pursuing, including the next breath, but you can make wholesome efforts while simultaneously letting go of attachment to their results. Let yourself be surprised – both by what might replace what you’ve released, and by the power of letting go in general. As the great Thai Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Chah, once said:

If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness.
If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.

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Awakening to our true nature

Spiritual practice is about coming back, over and over again, to love and mindfulness, making those our home.

I subscribe to the newsletters of Rick Hanson, who contributes articles to Wildmind and who is a well-known author and neuropsychologist. He’s a very stimulating man! Today’s newsletter was an interesting one, and it prompted some thinking on my part.

He opens by asking a much-pondered question about human nature: “Deep down, are we basically good or bad?” From a neurological point of view, he comes down firmly on the side of good.

His reasoning is this:

When the body is not disturbed by hunger, thirst, pain, or illness, and when the mind is not disturbed by threat, frustration, or rejection, then most people settle into their resting state, a sustainable equilibrium in which the body refuels and repairs itself and the mind feels peaceful, happy, and loving.

Basically, he’s talking about the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for “fight, flee, or freeze” responses to potential danger) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “rest and digest” response that brings us back to balance when danger is past). Rick calls this “rest and digest” state the Responsive mode, and the “flight, flight, or freeze” state the Reactive mode.

Rick points out that the Responsive mode is our default state — a fundamental “strange attractor” in our brain states. And therefore, he says, it’s this relaxed and loving state that’s your true nature: “Your deepest nature is peace not hatred, happiness not greed, love not heartache, and wisdom not confusion.”

I don’t have any disagreement with this at all. What Rick is trying to do, I think, is to align neuroscience with certain Buddhist views of Buddha Nature which suggest that the mind is inherently pure and compassionate. Buddha Nature can be a useful way to see things as long as it’s not taken too seriously.

The thought I had, though, was that relaxation and rest, and even happiness and love, are not enough. It’s great to be free from stress — for a while. But then what happens if we stay relaxed? We start to seek out sources of excitement. We can’t handle too much peace! I don’t think that the resting state is actually a “sustainable equilibrium,” because rest and being “peaceful, happy, and loving” are not in themselves deeply satisfying enough for us. We always want something more. And the resting state is fragile because it’s always going to be challenged by events from our lives (a crazy day at the office, a child with a tantrum).

The untrained mind in Responsive mode can never be loving enough, or peaceful enough to avoid being tipped over into reactivity. So we need to deepen our capacity for responsiveness. We need to train the mind, and not simply relax. I’m not disagreeing with Rick or criticizing him, incidentally, — just drawing out some of the implications of his presentation; Rick suggests a number of ways in his newsletter of how we can “tip forward into our deepest nature.”

Cultivating attentiveness, or mindfulness, changes the base state of our Responsive mode so that it’s less prone to reactivity. With mindfulness we notice quicker when the mind is starting to slip into reactivity. And this allows us to act. In a mindful state we learn to regulate the brain’s “fight or flight” module, the amygdala. In fact, with repeated training the amygdala — the part of the brain largely responsible for the Reactive mode — gets smaller, the parts of the brain responsible for regulating the amygdala get larger, and the number of connections from one to the other (allowing for this regulation) increase.

Deepening our lovingkindness by training in metta — as Buddhism calls the loving response that wants others to be happy — also helps us to go more deeply into Rick’s Responsive mode. Lovingkindness allows us to calm down the amygdala faster. The amygdala’s task is to scan our environment, looking for danger, and to alert us (via a flood of visceral feelings) when it’s detected a potential threat. Lovingkindness allows us to see people as beings who want to be happy rather than as beings who want to hurt us (and very few people want to hurt us). Rather than seeing someone’s anger, say, as a threat to our peace of mind, we refocus on their wellbeing; how can I help this person be happier? and we develop more lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves, as well. We take care of ourselves through compassion rather than through fear and anger.

These two practices, of mindfulness and lovingkindness, don’t fix thing instantly. But they help us bring ourselves back into the Responsive mode over and over again. And we do have to keep coming back, because our reactions to life’s events will keep propelling us into Reactive mode. That’s what training’s about; coming back over and over again to our purpose or living from a deeper level of fulfillment.

Lastly, a deep appreciation of change helps us to feel less threatened so that we can put the amygdala (perhaps, if this is what Awakening is really like) permanently offline, so that the Responsive mode becomes not just our default mode, but where we live, permanently.

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