anicca (impermanence)

When are you?

There’s a profound and miraculous mystery right under our noses: this instant of now has no duration at all, yet somehow it contains all the causes from the past that are creating the future. Everything arising to become this moment vanishes beneath our feet as the next moment wells up. Since it’s always now, now is eternal.

The nature of now is not New Age or esoteric. It is plain to see. It is apparent both in the material universe and in our own experiencing. Simply recognizing the nature of now can fill you with wonder, gratitude, and perhaps a sense of something sacred.

Further, by coming home to now, you immediately stop regretting or resenting the past and worrying about or driving toward the future. In your brain, this rumbling and grumbling – called rumination – is based in networks along the midline of the top of your head; while this helped our ancestors survive, today most of us go way overboard, and rumination is a big risk factor for mental health problems.

Additionally, through an intimacy with the present, moment after moment, you develop a growing sense – viscera, in your belly and bones – of:

  • Impermanence – you see the futility and foolishness of trying to cling to any of the ephemeral contents of this moment as a reliable basis for deep happiness.
  • Interconnectedness – you feel related to a vast network of causes that have shaped this moment, including to other people, life, nature, and the universe altogether.
  • Fullness – recognizing the incredible richness of this moment – its sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts, memories, emotions, desires, and other contents in the stream of consciousness – you relax craving and drivenness since you already feel so fed.

For most people, the subjective present is an interval one or two seconds long. It contains the last second or so of the immediate past as well as the emerging present often infused with expectations about the immediate future. It’s OK, therefore, if your sense of the present usually has a kind of temporal “thickness” to it. You will probably also have flashes of intuitive recognition of the infinitely thin duration of now that boggle and sometimes stop the mind.

The present moment is continually passing away, so if you try to hold onto it in any way – such as by remembering it or forming ideas about it – you are no longer in the present. Therefore, relax. Open to this moment. Not planning, not worrying, not lost in thought.

Instead of seeing yourself moving through time, explore the sense of being an ongoing presence, an awareness, through which time moves. Let the world come to you. Recognize that sights and sounds and all other mental phenomena appear without effort. You don’t have to do anything to be here now; you’re already here now. Let go some more.

Be aware of a single inhalation. Don’t try to sense or understand it as a whole. Allow yourself to be with this moment of sensation without remembering what was or wondering what will be. The same with a single exhalation, and then with breathing altogether.

Letting go, letting go.

Be particularly aware of endings, of sounds changing and thus disappearing in the instant of hearing, of each moment of consciousness altering and thus ending to be replaced by another one. (If you get frightened or disoriented by a growing sense of the vanishingness of each appearance of reality, focus on something concretely pleasurable and reassuring, like the sensation of flannel against your cheek or the touch of someone who loves you.)

Then be particularly aware of emergings, of the arising of matter and energy in the world and the arising of appearances – perceptions, thoughts, longings, etc. – in the inner one. Let go into feeling buoyed by the uprising swelling of this moment congealing into existence, endlessly renewed by the next emerging. Open to trusting in this process, like a wave continually carrying you even as it continually breaks into foam.

Above all, open to the enjoyments available in this moment, even if it is a hard one. No matter how bad it is, it is nurturingly remarkable that it is at all. I don’t mean this in any kind of sentimental, rose-colored-glasses kind of way. Sometimes what the moment holds is awful. But the nature of the moment – its transience, its interconnectedness with moments before and to come, its simultaneous emptying out and filling up – and the awareness of it and its contents, is never awful itself, and is in fact always unsullied and beautiful.

And much of the time, the moment will be filled with rewards overlooked in preoccupations with past or future, such as a dense incoming stream of sights and sounds, tastes and touches – even a sense of beautiful qualities of heart like warmth, compassion, sweetness, friendliness, and love.

So nourished, so full with the riches of now, who would want to be anywhen else?

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How thinking about death can lead to a better life

Thinking about death can actually be a good thing. An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values, according to a new analysis of recent scientific studies. Even non-conscious thinking about death – say walking by a cemetery – could prompt positive changes and promote helping others.

Past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fueling everything from prejudice and greed to violence. Such studies related to terror management theory (TMT), which posits that we uphold certain cultural beliefs to manage our feelings of mortality, have rarely explored the potential benefits of death awareness.

“This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviors has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction,” says Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the new study in the online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review this month. “There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being.”

In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, Vail and colleagues performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.

For example, Vail points to a study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008 that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger. “Researchers hypothesized that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviors,” Vail says.

The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.

“When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery,” Vail says. “Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism.”

For example, a 2010 study by Immo Fritsche of the University of Leipzig and co-authors revealed how increased death awareness can motivate sustainable behaviors when pro-environmental norms are made salient. And a study by Zachary Rothschild of the University of Kansas and co-workers in 2009 showed how an increased awareness of death can motivate American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to display peaceful compassion toward members of other groups when religious texts make such values more important.

Thinking about death can also promote better health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise. A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams when women were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.

One major implication of this body of work, Vail says, is that we should “turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people’s lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife.” Write the authors: “The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.”

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Aging as a Spiritual Practice, by Lewis Richmond

Aging as a Spiritual Practice, by Lewis Richmond

Here is a mindfulness practice from Lewis Richmond’s book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: Think of your life and its major events as a horizontal line. Your past stretches to the left of wherever you are on that line; your future stretches to the right. The events that stretch into the past are clear and unchangeable; the future is blurred: you don’t really know what events will eventually occupy that line or how long the line will eventually be. Think of this as horizontal time.

Title: Aging as a Spiritual Practice
Author: Lewis Richmond
Publisher: Gotham Books
ISBN: 978-159-24069-0-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

Now let’s move from horizontal time to vertical time. As you breathe in, imagine your breath moves up in a column from your cushion or chair. Breathing out, imagine the breath sinking down into the same place. “This vertical movement doesn’t go anywhere in space,” writes Richmond. “It doesn’t move from a certain past to an uncertain future. It just rests continually in the same spot.”

His book is full of interesting practices and ideas like this one.

When I read the title of the book, with its sub-title “A contemplative guide to growing older and wiser” I feared the worst. Would this book be drenched in denial and in piousness?

No piousness, I am glad to say, and no denial of reality. Lewis Richmond writes with honesty, clarity and humanity and his book contains much to interest readers of all ages. Actually he sounds like a guy you could sit back and have a beer with though as he’s a Zen Buddhist priest I assume he’ll be having the green tea.

See also:

He notes that we age one breath at a time. “When you observe your breath, you are not just passing through time; time is also passing through you.” No denial there but his concept of ageing one breath at a time adds a new dimension to mindfulness of breathing and to acceptance of what comes to us.

He is full of interesting perspectives like this. Consider non-judgemental attention. “… most people in the second half of life are paying close attention to the body in term of stamina, vigor, skin care, diet, weight loss, and attractiveness. But how many of us pay attention to our bodies without judgement? How many of us actually experience our bodies just as they are?”

That’s a fascinating question to bring to our mindfulness practice – and not just for those in the second half of life.

I was particularly taken by his “pebbles of life” practice. This comes from a fellow Zen priest who keeps a bowl of pebbles on a shelf beside a statute of Buddha. Each pebble represents a week of the rest (as he estimates it) of his life. Every Monday morning he removes a pebble from the bowl and returns it to the driveway he took it from.

This strikes me as an excellent way to cultivate an appreciation of the passing weeks but of course it involves turning towards the passing of time with death at the end of the journey. When I described this practice to a mindfulness class, all agreed it sounded like a very good idea. Then they began to change it around: how about using the practice to mark the passing of the year with a pebble for every month? Or how about putting a pebble in the bowl for every good experience we have? I was fascinated to see how quickly the need to escape from the contemplation of the ultimate ending of life asserted itself – and I have to admit that I haven’t yet gathered up the thousand pebbles I would allow myself for my own bowl.

Throughout his book Lewis Richmond tells stories of his own health and ageing experiences, of the experiences of others and explains aspects of Buddhism with admirable and enviable clarity.

In our era in the West, ageing has been described as a financial time bomb waiting to explode. People who grew up as the culture began to worship youth, now find themselves growing old. Those of us who are in the second half (or fourth quarter) of life must find a way to navigate our way through time bombs, the demands of the culture and our own health issues.

Anyone who wants to navigate with clarity, humour, and mindfulness will enjoy this book.

His previous books are Work as a Spiritual Practice, Healing Lazarus, and A Whole Life’s Work.

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Top five regrets of the dying

Susie Steiner, The Guardian: A nurse has recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and among the top ones is ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’.

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

There was no mention of more sex or bungee jumps.

A palliative nurse who has counselled the dying in their last days has revealed the most common regrets we have at the end of our lives. And among the top, from men in particular, is ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people …

Read the original article »

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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

Metaphors can be traps. We can end up taking them too literally. The point of a metaphor is to help us see things more clearly (“time slips through our hands like sand” helps us connect something intangible and abstract, like time, to a physical experience, like sand trickling through our fingers). But sometimes metaphors mislead, and make it harder for us to see things clearly. The image of the spiritual path is one of those metaphors that can potentially trap and mislead us.

The Buddha himself used the image of his teaching being a path. One of his key teachings is the Eightfold Path (aṭṭhaṅgika magga), and in a famous teaching he explained that he was like an explorer who had beaten a path to an ancient city that had been lost in the jungle, and has come back to lead others along the path to see his discovery for themselves. It’s a venerable image. The problem isn’t the image itself, but how we relate to it.

How long is this path?

The thing that strikes me as a problem with the path metaphor could be expressed in a question: how long do we think the path is?

In the Buddha’s day, people would often get enlightened very quickly. In some cases they just had to hear a phrase, and insight would arise. In some cases it would take longer — perhaps some years of practice. But it was doable. Even people living householder lifestyles would get enlightened without too much difficulty. I’m not aware of examples of householders getting enlightened immediately, but there were, according to the scriptures, thousands of lay followers who attained the first level of enlightenment, and many hundreds who were just short of full awakening. The path was short. In the case of those who got enlightened immediately, it wasn’t so such a path as a single step.

The later Mahāyāna teachings tended to elevate enlightenment in order to glorify the Buddha’s attainment and inspire faith. The bigger his attainment, the greater the spiritual hero he was, right? And the greater a spiritual hero he was, the more inspiring he was. The problem was that they started talking in terms of the path to awakening stretching over an uncountable number of lifetimes. Sure, this was meant to inspire us, but if you believe enlightenment is unattainable in this very lifetime, what’s the chance that it’s actually going to happen? If you think it’s going to take thousands of lifetimes to get enlightened, you probably doing think it might happen to you in this life. And certainly not right now, in this very moment.

An alternative to the “path” metaphor

So what’s the alternative to thinking of enlightenment as being at the end of a long, long path? You could think of it as being at the end of a short path: that’s pretty much what the Buddha seemed to have in mind. Or you use a different metaphor, and think of awakening as being right here, right now, but you’re not seeing it because you’re looking at your experience the wrong way. It’s like one of those “Magic Eye” 3D pictures from the 1990s that looks like a mess of squiggles and images fragments, until you let your eyes refocus in just the right way, and suddenly there’s a stereoscopic image right there in front of you. In a way, the image has been there all along, but you weren’t looking in the right way. Maybe at certain points you didn’t believe that you could ever see the image. Maybe you started to doubt there was anything there. But if you persist then — boom! — there it is.

Our spiritual cognitive distortions

There are a couple of Buddhist teachings that I think relate to this metaphor of the image that’s right in front of us, but unseen. One of these is the “Four Vipallāsas.” The word vipallāsa means “inversion, perversion, derangement, corruption, distortion.” It’s similar to what psychologists nowadays call a “cognitive distortion.” These four vipallāsas — or “spiritual cognitive distortions” — are that we see things that are impermanent as being permanent, see things that are sources of pain as being sources of happiness, see things that are lacking in inherent selfhood as having inherent selfhood, and see things that are ugly as being attractive.

Here’s the interesting thing: it’s not as if impermanence, for example, is hidden from us. We just don’t see it. It’s right in front of us, all the time, but our minds don’t seem to be equipped to notice it. In fact, I’ve noticed that Buddhists often like to talk about impermanence more than actually observe it.

So it’s happening right now. Anything you notice is changing. When you notice your body you may think “Oh, there’s my body” but actually all you’re noticing is an ever-changing pattern of sensation. There’s no “body” there that you can perceive. Right now you’re reading these words. What you’re seeing is constantly changing. What’s in your mind is constantly changing. Everything in your mind is constantly changing. Try looking for something in your experience that doesn’t change. Having any luck? You say that the coffee cup in front of you isn’t changing? But you don’t ever experience a “coffee cup.” You have sense impressions of a coffee cup, and those sense impressions are in constant flux. Your eyes are jittering around all the time, because the receptors in your retinas stop responding if they’re exposed to the same stimulus for more than a fraction of a second. If your eye was frozen in place you’d literally be blind. The only reason you can perceive anything is because of change — impermanence.

So change, non-self, etc., are there all the time. We just need to pay attention. Look. Look right now. Everything you’re experiencing is changing. Keep looking. Eventually, as with the Magic Eye pictures, you’ll see what’s been there all along.

Not seeing the wood for the trees

I said there were a couple of teachings relating to not seeing what’s in front of us. The vipallāsas constitute one such teaching. The third fetter of “sīlabbata-parāmāsa,” usually translated as “dependence on rites and rituals,” is another. This is one of the three fetters that we break when we attain stream-entry, the first level of enlightenment.

The first fetter is straightforward — it’s when we no longer believe that we have a permanent, unchanging self. We keep observing that our experience is changing all the time, and eventually it clicks — that’s all there is. There’s just change.

The second fetter is doubt. Until we experience the breaking of the first fetter, there’s always some kind of doubt that it’s even possible. We may doubt that we can do it. (“Sure, other people can see these Magic Eye pictures, but I can’t.”) Or we may doubt that there’s a picture there. (“It’s a trick,” we say, as we stare hopelessly and the jumbled image.) Once we’ve seen that the separate and permanent self we’ve always taken for granted is an illusion, and once we’ve realized that it’s true that everything in our experience — everything! — is a constant flux, we feel a surge of confidence. We’ve stepped out of illusion, we know that the Buddha’s teaching is right, and we have confidence that further progress is possible. Actually, it’s inevitable.

But that third fetter — “dependence on rites and rituals” — what’s that got to do with anything? First it’s not a very good translation. “Sīla” is ethics or behavior, and “vata” (the second part of sīlabbata) is a religious duty, or observance, or spiritual practice. This is referring to the problem of our getting caught up in spiritual practices so that they become a hindrance to enlightenment, rather than a means to realizing enlightenment. For example, if we’re trying to be a “good Buddhist,” saying and doing all the right things, that’s of limited spiritual use. If we’re trying to impress people with our mastery of the teachings, that’s even worse.

Enlightenment is right here, right now

One of the most striking aspects of the experience of stream entry is a feeling of immediacy. When we have that perceptual shift and realize that what we’ve thought of as our “self” (permanent, unchanging, separate) is nothing more than a constellation of constantly changing events, it also strikes us that this is “obvious.” It’s right in front of our nose. It’s been in front of our nose our whole lives. But we just haven’t noticed.

Even the spiritual practices (sīla and vata) that we’ve been engaged with have sometimes prevented us from seeing the truth. We’ve been talking about impermanence, but not looking at it. We’ve been studying the path rather than walking it. Sometimes perhaps we’ve been walking the path, but haven’t wanted to stray too far, because it’s safe staying with the known.

So I suggest that sometimes, at least, we forget about the metaphor of the path, and instead think of enlightenment as being right here, right now. It’s just a question of recognizing what’s really going on — of allowing ourselves to see the impermanence that permeates every one of our experiences. We just need to look, and keep looking, until we see the obvious that’s sitting right in front of our noses.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” is from Orwell’s essay “In Front of Your Nose,” which was first published in the Tribune newspaper, London, March 22, 1946.

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Learning to love the flaws

As I wrote in my most recent book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

I think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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Remember what matters most

fall leaves, arranged in order of color

In every life, reminders arrive about what’s really important.

I’ve recently received one myself, in a form that’s already come to countless people and will come to countless more: news of a potentially serious health problem. My semi-annual dermatology mole check turned up a localized melanoma cancer in my ear that will need to come out immediately. The prognosis is very positive – this thing is “non-invasive” – but it’s certainly an intimation of mortality. Hopefully this particular bullet will whiz by, but it’s an uncomfortably concrete message that sooner or later something will catch up with each one of us.

Personally, I am doing alright with this. It’s like there are three layers to my mind as I write here, just a few days after I got the news. The top is focused on problem-solving. Beneath that there’s a furry little animal that’s upset and wants to curl up with loved ones. The bottom feels accepting, peaceful, and grateful.

Naturally enough, after the bullet passes – maybe taking a bit of your ear with it! – you reflect on your life, both past and to come. Of course, you don’t need a health scare – which in my case is small potatoes compared to what so many people around the world must deal with – to consider what you care about most. Then you appreciate the things you’ve honored so far, and you see where you could center yourself more in what’s truly important to you.

While it’s good advice not to sweat the small stuff, we also need to nurture the large stuff.

There are many good reasons to do so, from simply enjoying yourself to recognizing the truth that one day you’ll have just A Year to Live, the title of Stephen Levine’s haunting book. You’ll never know when you step over the invisible line and the countdown begins – 365 days left, then . . . – but you can know, before and after you cross it, that you’ve remembered the big things.

How do we do this?

A Few Questions

In this life, what do you really care about?

Looking back, what has mattered to you? Looking ahead, what do you want to keep on the front burner?

Consider this well-known suggestion: imagine resting comfortably in your last few days and reflecting on your life; what do you want to be glad that you felt and did, that you made a priority?

Some Big Things

I’ll offer here some things I’ve been thinking about lately. See what fits for you, and add your own. Here we go.

You. The sweet soft vulnerable innerness upon which both the chocolate kisses and sharp darts of life land. Your own well-being. What you make of what the poet Mary Oliver has called “your one wild and precious life.”

Love in its many forms, from compassion and small acts of kindness to passionate romance and profound cherishing. The people who matter to you.

Tasting – with all your senses – whatever is delicious in this moment: a ripe banana, birdsong, the curve of a highway railing, the lips of a lover, being alive . . .

Practice. Helping yourself routinely to deepen in awareness and to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of your mind.

Karma yoga – a Hindu term that means skillful action toward wholesome ends, engaged as practice, imbued with a sense of union with whatever is sacred to you. This includes taking care of details that matter, and appreciating the power of little things to add up over time for better or worse.

Letting go. Exhaling, relaxing, changing your mind, moving on, disengaging from upsets (while also standing up for things that matter).

The thing(s) you keep putting off – perhaps speaking your mind to someone, writing that book, returning to the piano, making time to exercise, or seeing the Grand Canyon.

Being, making time for hanging out with no agenda. Rather than doing, the addiction of modern life. Doing crowds out being like cancer cells crowd out healthy ones.

Remembering to remember the big things. And to act upon them. Before it’s too late.

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Secular prayer flags

Secular prayer flags made by students at Timberlane High School, New Hampshire

A few days ago I gave a talk at a high school about 40 minutes from my house. Some of the students had made secular “prayer flags,” which had the purpose of expressing their positive thoughts and sending them out into the world.

The prayer flags had been hung where they would brighten up a rather unattractive central courtyard, which now contained a “ger” (Tibetan yurt), designed (I think) in the geometry class. You can just see the ger in the background of the second photograph.

Some of the images were intriguing, and I wish I’d been able to talk more with individual students to discover more about what they were trying to communicate.

Below, you’ll find the text of the address I gave to the students who made these flags.

Secular prayer flag with image of Audrey Hepburn

 

String of secular prayer flags created by high school students in New Hampshire

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here, and I’d like to thank you for having me. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve been putting your positive thoughts on flags and sending them out into the universe. Of course I don’t believe that your thoughts will literally be sent out on the wind, but I see great significance in what you’re doing.

To print your positive thoughts on fabric you have, of course, to have had a positive thought. And that in itself is a very significant thing to do.

How many people consciously cultivate positive thoughts? I suspect it’s not many. Most of our thinking is “accidental” and most of it is negative.

The world is direly in need of positive thinking. It’s even more in need of compassion and clarity.

The world is very much in need of idealism.

Now to some people the word “idealism” is a slur, an insult. Idealists are seen as being disconnected from reality. They’re seen as dreamers. They’re seen as impractical. They’re seen as naive.

But to me, idealism is a beautiful thing. To have a meaningful life, we have to have goals that go beyond the mere satisfying of our selfish desires.

Of course some idealists are indeed dreamers. Some idealists are impractical, and naive. But the best idealists are practical, grounded, and wise people. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. He was an idealist. He was a dreamer. He had a dream. He dreamt of course of ending racial segregation, and had much success in turning his dream into reality.

But Dr King didn’t stop at just having a dream. He attempted to live his dream. And in doing so he put himself in the way of angry mobs, policemen’s batons, and eventually an assassin’s bullet. And his actions, and those of the many courageous people who stood by him, changed this country for ever.

And lest we forget, in the year before Dr. King’s murder, marriage between black and white people was still illegal in 15 states. At the time of our current president’s birth, in 1961, there were over 20 states in which his parents could not legally be married.

There has been much progress made since those days — our current president is after all a black man — but there is much still to be done. We still need our practical dreamers. We need them more than ever.

King dreamed of ending racial segregation, but he also dreamed of ending poverty, and one of the reasons he opposed the war in Vietnam was because it diverted funds from social welfare projects.

And in the field of poverty we especially need practical dreamers. The number of people living in poverty in the United States is higher now than it was at the time of King’s death. Of course the population of the country is higher too, but the percentage of the population living in poverty was lower at the time of King’s murder than in almost every year since then, and it was lower than it is today. Yes, a greater percent of the US population lives in poverty than in 1968.

And in fact, since the recession of 2008, the poverty rate in the US has been rising dramatically.

Here are the figures for the last three years for which we have figures:

2008 39.8 million
2009 43.6 million
2010 46.2 million

2011 is almost certain to be worse.

The United States now creates more than twice as much wealth per head of population as it did in 1968, the year of Dr. King’s murder. The country is more than twice as wealthy as it was when King campaigned against poverty, and yet there are more people living below the poverty line than in his lifetime.

(In case you’re wondering where all the wealth our country has been creating has gone, roughly 82 percent of all the nation’s gains in wealth between 1983 and 2009 went to the richest 5 percent of households.)

We’ve become a more unequal society since King had his dream of ending poverty.

So on the one hand we have a black president, which I think would have stunned Dr. King in a positive sense. But on the other we have seen the problem of poverty worsen, which I think would have found not only shocking, but incomprehensible.

I mention all this because I think it’s obvious that we need more practical dreamers.

Of course if your dream is simply to be part of the richest 5%, then I wish you well.

I want to say a bit more about so-called “prayer flags.” It’s only in the west that we call these prayer flags. In Tibet, where the tradition originated, they’re called Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all beings. They are not intended to send prayers to heaven, but to symbolize the sending of good wishes into the world, much as you have been doing.

But there’s an important aspect of prayer flags that’s often overlooked. They are impermanent. They are hung out in the elements, exposed to harsh sunlight, constantly torn at by the wind, frozen, thawed, and soaked in the rain. The quickly become tattered rags. Eventually, in order to prevent them becoming litter, they are taken down and burned.

The flags — the Dar Cho — return to the elements from which they came.

And this reminds me of two things. The first is to do with the burning of the Dar Cho. Buddhists are fond of burning incense, and besides the fact that incense usually smells nice, it has a symbolic function.

When you light a stick of incense in a meditation room, the smoke doesn’t stay within the room. It drifts out, and circulates around the world. It never stops. It just keeps on going forever.

And the symbolism of this is to do with what goes on in a meditation room. There are many things that people can be doing when they’re sitting there with their eyes closed. But one of the things they do is to cultivate positive thoughts. They cultivate love, and compassion, and kindness, and patience. And here’s where the symbolism comes in. When people cultivate kindness, and compassion, and patience, those qualities don’t stay in the meditation room any more than the incense smoke does. The positive emotion that’s developed has an effect on the world.

We can even measure this. It has in fact been measured by psychologists, not specifically in relation to meditation, but more generally in relation to positive emotion. When a person is emotionally positive, this affects the people they’re in contact with. And they have an effect on those that they in turn are in contact with. And so on.

In fact psychologists have been able to measure the effects of emotionally positive people radiating out to their friend’s friend’s friends. It’s actually measurable. Of course the effect, just like the incense smoke, never stops. It permeates the entire world. But just as you can no longer smell the perfume of the incense once you’re a certain distance away, to the effect of a positive person becomes more dilute as it moves out into the world around them.

This is true for negative emotions as well, by the way. Which is all the more reason that we need to work at bringing more compassion into the world.

So there’s something to think about. The positive thoughts you’ve been cultivating will quite literally affect the entire world.

By cultivating the positive thoughts you’ve printed on these Dar Cho, you’ve become more emotionally positive. And while the writing on these flags will not literally waft on the breeze out into the world, your concerns for the world around you will affect the people you know, and the people those people know, and so on. There is no end to it.

The other thing I wanted to mention about prayer flags is that they symbolize impermanence. Just as they are impermanent, so are we. Prayer flags remind us the unavoidabiity of death. In fact everything we see reminds us of impermanence, although we often don’t want to think about it.

We generally assume that thinking about death is a bummer. That it’ll bring us down. That it’ll depress us.

But that’s not actually the case. Again this has been studied. When we fully accept that we will die, we feel challenged to make something of our lives. There’s a saying, “Very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

And it’s true. When people are dying, they mostly wish two things. They wish they’d paid more attention to having a joyful life. And they wish they’d loved more. Take it from the dying: love and joy are the two most important things in life.

People who consciously think about death are more likely to embrace life, and to love more.

Just take a minute to picture yourself on your deathbed. If you want to avoid having regrets about how you spent your life, start right now. Think about what kind of life would be the most meaningful for you. Become a practical dreamer.

And take another moment, right now, to look at someone standing next to you. The person standing next to you will die soon. We’ll all die soon. It might not seem like it from your perspective, right now, as teenagers, but again, very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I hadn’t lived as long.

As you look at the person next to you, aware of the fact that they’ll die soon, you might find your heart opening a little. You might feel a bit more tenderness and respect, and kindness. Try and remember that. And try and remember that in geological time scales, the life of a human being is briefer than the life of a prayer flag is to us.

A human life isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough to make a difference in other human lives.

So in conclusion, I’d encourage you to take away the following thoughts:

  • The world needs practical dreamers. In some ways things have gotten better, but in other ways they’re no better than they were — or are worse — than when your grandparents were your age.
  • Don’t let your thinking be accidental. Consciously think. Consciously cultivate positive thoughts and positive emotions of love and compassion.
  • You can have an effect. In fact you do have an effect. Your inspiration, your idealism, your positive emotions, will change our society for the better. It’s measurable.
  • And lastly, think about the fact that you’re going to die. Think about the fact that everyone you know is going to die. Let an awareness of our impermanence enrich your life. Live so that you’ll have no regrets on your deathbed. Embrace life. Live well. Love well. And leave the world a better place than you found it.
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On prayer flags and changing the world

An address I’m scheduled to give today at a high school in New Hampshire, where the students have been making secular prayer flags, in order to “send their positive thoughts into the world.”

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here, and I’d like to thank you for having me. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve been putting your positive thoughts on flags and sending them out into the universe. Of course I don’t believe that your thoughts will literally be sent out on the wind, but I see great significance in what you’re doing.

To print your positive thoughts on fabric you have, of course, to have had a positive thought. And that in itself is a very significant thing to do.

How many people consciously cultivate positive thoughts? I suspect it’s not many. Most of our thinking is “accidental” and most of it is negative.

The world is direly in need of positive thinking. It’s even more in need of compassion and clarity.

The world is very much in need of idealism.

Now to some people the word “idealism” is a slur, an insult. Idealists are seen as being disconnected from reality. They’re seen as dreamers. They’re seen as impractical. They’re seen as naive.

But to me, idealism is a beautiful thing. To have a meaningful life, we have to have goals that go beyond the mere satisfying of our selfish desires.

Of course some idealists are indeed dreamers. Some idealists are impractical, and naive. But the best idealists are practical, grounded, and wise people. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. He was an idealist. He was a dreamer. He had a dream. He dreamt of course of ending racial segregation, and had much success in turning his dream into reality.

But Dr King didn’t stop at just having a dream. He attempted to live his dream. And in doing so he put himself in the way of angry mobs, policemen’s batons, and eventually an assassin’s bullet. And his actions, and those of the many courageous people who stood by him, changed this country for ever.

And lest we forget, in the year before Dr. King’s murder, marriage between black and white people was still illegal in 15 states. At the time of our current president’s birth, in 1961, there were over 20 states in which his parents could not legally be married.

There has been much progress made since those days — our current president is after all a black man — but there is much still to be done. We still need our practical dreamers. We need them more than ever.

King dreamed of ending racial segregation, but he also dreamed of ending poverty, and one of the reasons he opposed the war in Vietnam was because it diverted funds from social welfare projects.

And in the field of poverty we especially need practical dreamers. The number of people living in poverty in the United States is higher now than it was at the time of King’s death. Of course the population of the country is higher too, but the percentage of the population living in poverty was lower at the time of King’s murder than in almost every year since then, and it was lower than it is today. Yes, a greater percent of the US population lives in poverty than in 1968.

And in fact, since the recession of 2008, the poverty rate in the US has been rising dramatically.

Here are the figures for the last three years for which we have figures:

2008 39.8 million
2009 43.6 million
2010 46.2 million

2011 is almost certain to be worse.

The United States now creates more than twice as much wealth per head of population as it did in 1968, the year of Dr. King’s murder. The country is more than twice as wealthy as it was when King campaigned against poverty, and yet there are more people living below the poverty line than in his lifetime.

(In case you’re wondering where all the wealth our country has been creating has gone, roughly 82 percent of all the nation’s gains in wealth between 1983 and 2009 went to the richest 5 percent of households.)

We’ve become a more unequal society since King had his dream of ending poverty.

So on the one hand we have a black president, which I think would have stunned Dr. King in a positive sense. But on the other we have seen the problem of poverty worsen, which I think would have found not only shocking, but incomprehensible.

I mention all this because I think it’s obvious that we need more practical dreamers.

Of course if your dream is simply to be part of the richest 5%, then I wish you well.

I want to say a bit more about so-called “prayer flags.” It’s only in the west that we call these prayer flags. In Tibet, where the tradition originated, they’re called Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all beings. They are not intended to send prayers to heaven, but to symbolize the sending of good wishes into the world, much as you have been doing.

But there’s an important aspect of prayer flags that’s often overlooked. They are impermanent. They are hung out in the elements, exposed to harsh sunlight, constantly torn at by the wind, frozen, thawed, and soaked in the rain. The quickly become tattered rags. Eventually, in order to prevent them becoming litter, they are taken down and burned.

The flags — the Dar Cho — return to the elements from which they came.

And this reminds me of two things. The first is to do with the burning of the Dar Cho. Buddhists are fond of burning incense, and besides the fact that incense usually smells nice, it has a symbolic function.

When you light a stick of incense in a meditation room, the smoke doesn’t stay within the room. It drifts out, and circulates around the world. It never stops. It just keeps on going forever.

And the symbolism of this is to do with what goes on in a meditation room. There are many things that people can be doing when they’re sitting there with their eyes closed. But one of the things they do is to cultivate positive thoughts. They cultivate love, and compassion, and kindness, and patience. And here’s where the symbolism comes in. When people cultivate kindness, and compassion, and patience, those qualities don’t stay in the meditation room any more than the incense smoke does. The positive emotion that’s developed has an effect on the world.

We can even measure this. It has in fact been measured by psychologists, not specifically in relation to meditation, but more generally in relation to positive emotion. When a person is emotionally positive, this affects the people they’re in contact with. And they have an effect on those that they in turn are in contact with. And so on.

In fact psychologists have been able to measure the effects of emotionally positive people radiating out to their friend’s friend’s friends. It’s actually measurable. Of course the effect, just like the incense smoke, never stops. It permeates the entire world. But just as you can no longer smell the perfume of the incense once you’re a certain distance away, to the effect of a positive person becomes more dilute as it moves out into the world around them.

This is true for negative emotions as well, by the way. Which is all the more reason that we need to work at bringing more compassion into the world.

So there’s something to think about. The positive thoughts you’ve been cultivating will quite literally affect the entire world.

By cultivating the positive thoughts you’ve printed on these Dar Cho, you’ve become more emotionally positive. And while the writing on these flags will not literally waft on the breeze out into the world, your concerns for the world around you will affect the people you know, and the people those people know, and so on. There is no end to it.

The other thing I wanted to mention about prayer flags is that they symbolize impermanence. Just as they are impermanent, so are we. Prayer flags remind us the unavoidability of death. In fact everything we see reminds us of impermanence, although we often don’t want to think about it.

We generally assume that thinking about death is a bummer. That it’ll bring us down. That it’ll depress us.

But that’s not actually the case. Again this has been studied. When we fully accept that we will die, we feel challenged to make something of our lives. There’s a saying, “Very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

And it’s true. When people are dying, they mostly wish two things. They wish they’d paid more attention to having a joyful life. And they wish they’d loved more. Take it from the dying: love and joy are the two most important things in life.

People who consciously think about death are more likely to embrace life, and to love more.

Just take a minute to picture yourself on your deathbed. If you want to avoid having regrets about how you spent your life, start right now. Think about what kind of life would be the most meaningful for you. Become a practical dreamer.

And take another moment, right now, to look at someone standing next to you. The person standing next to you will die soon. We’ll all die soon. It might not seem like it from your perspective, right now, as teenagers, but again, very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I hadn’t lived as long.

As you look at the person next to you, aware of the fact that they’ll die soon, you might find your heart opening a little. You might feel a bit more tenderness and respect, and kindness. Try and remember that. And try and remember that in geological time scales, the life of a human being is briefer than the life of a prayer flag is to us.

A human life isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough to make a difference in other human lives.

So in conclusion, I’d encourage you to take away the following thoughts:

  • The world needs practical dreamers. In some ways things have gotten better, but in other ways they’re no better than they were — or are worse — than when your grandparents were your age.
  • Don’t let your thinking be accidental. Consciously think. Consciously cultivate positive thoughts and positive emotions of love and compassion.
  • You can have an effect. In fact you do have an effect. Your inspiration, your idealism, your positive emotions, will change our society for the better. It’s measurable.
  • And lastly, think about the fact that you’re going to die. Think about the fact that everyone you know is going to die. Let an awareness of our impermanence enrich your life. Live so that you’ll have no regrets on your deathbed. Embrace life. Live well. Love well. And leave the world a better place than you found it.
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