anicca (impermanence)

The Centrality of Impermanence

flowing waterIf there is just one thing you should learn about this world, anicca is it. It may be an exaggeration to say that anicca, or impermanence, is the core of the Buddha’s teaching, but when we look closely at this single idea, the whole of the Buddha’s teaching begins to open up.

In Buddhism, impermanence is one of the three “marks” of existence, along with dukkha and anattā, or unsatisfactoriness and no-self. Together, these three marks form the core of a Buddhist conception of reality. Understanding this reality is often described as tantamount to awakening.

Indeed, in Vipassanā meditation we are taught to note, or to simply direct the mind to “see” these three marks in all of our experience. To fully see these marks in a way that is unshakable, in a way that you simply cannot forget, such that your every experience of the world resonates: “anicca, anattā, dukkha” is to be awakened. This is no easy task of course, requiring perhaps lifetimes of effort. But this insight alone is enough to cut the roots of ignorance that tie us to cycle after cycle of repeated suffering.

As if to emphasize the centrality of insight into the three marks, the Buddhist Jātakas (birth-stories) describe numerous beings who gained awakening through the realization of these three marks without hearing any teachings from a sammā-sambuddha, or fully and perfectly awakened one. These beings became known as pacceka-buddhas, or solitary awakened ones, because they neither followed another Buddha’s teachings nor taught others what they had discovered. So even from the early Buddhist texts we are taught that one can become awakened without following any “Buddhist” path per se, by simply gaining insight into the three marks of existence.

 With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering crumble  

So why is impermanence in particular so important? Because, as Ñanamoli Bhikkhu points out in his Buddhist Dictionary, ”It is from this all-embracing fact of impermanence that the other two universal characteristics, suffering dukkha and no-self anattā, are derived.” This may be helpful because so much is said and written by contemporary Buddhists about dukkha and anattā in isolation from the more fundamental fact of anicca. And many discussions on these topics, including my own at times, quickly spin off into abstraction, technical details, and heady philosophy.

And yet in the actual practice of meditation the “mark” that is most easily experienced is that of impermanence. With a stilled mind everything is experienced rising and falling. All is impermanent, from the pain in one’s knee: dancing, throbbing, pulsing, fading – to thoughts and ideas: arising as if from the clear sky and fading again into it without a trace, leaving behind pure clarity (or just more thoughts!). Watching this flow, the apparent “solidity” underlying our typical samsāric experience begins to crumble. If you’re anything like me, that solidity comes back a few minutes after most meditations, but experience of anicca is now undeniable.

With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering and sense of a permanent, unchanging self crumble. Obviously, if all is flow and change, then this goes for our “self” too. Our suffering is a result of thirsting after and clinging to bits of the world that we wrongly believe will give us lasting happiness. Realizing anicca, our grip on all of this is loosened. This was described to me once by the young daughter of one of my friends in grad school. “We learn to hold that which we love not like this,” she said, holding out a closed fist in front of her, “but like this,” and she turned her hand over, slowly extending her fingers.

 …insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra  

To work at stilling the mind to directly perceive anicca is to traverse a path to openness, acceptance, and a welcoming attitude toward life.

This work may be done in many ways. Calming meditation, such as mindfulness of breathing certainly forms the most widely taught foundation. Further techniques are numerous and are best pursued with the assistance of a teacher. The best known route in the West is the “path of wisdom,” which directs the student’s stilled mind directly at anicca. However, this path is not for everyone. Buddhaghosa, in his Visuddhimagga, describes how the “path of faith” works in Buddhism, drawing the practitioner by the heart, not so much the head, into direct confrontation with the changing nature of all experience. Peter Harvey discusses the rise of the early “Cult of Relics” in stating that, “Buddha-relics can be seen to remind devotees both of the impermanence of the Buddha and his entry to the deathless (nirvāṇa); they are a presence that reminds them of the absent Buddha…”

Thus we see that it might not be such an exaggeration to call insight into anicca the central goal of Buddhist practice, whether it is through the path of wisdom or the path of faith. We can trace the route back from suffering, through clinging and our mistaken notions of a permanent, unchanging self and lasting happiness in things of this world, to this one fundamental aspect of experience as it truly is. When we truly “get” impermanence, the cycle of ignorance and what follows begins to unravel. We might say that this insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra.

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Richard Wagner: “We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word.”

richard wagner

Wagner’s advice, that we need to learn to die, may bring up thoughts of our mortality: thoughts we may not be comfortable dwelling upon. But Bodhipaksa suggests learning to die really means learning to live fully, embracing the ungraspable flow of life.

“We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness,” wrote Richard Wagner.

In Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.

Religion is often supposed to free us from fear of death, and yet that doesn’t always happen. A recent study of patients with terminal cancer revealed that those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to insist on receiving intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion. Those who prayed most were most afraid of dying.

That’s rather sobering. Those who you think might be most happy to meet their end — so that they could meet their God — were those who most resisted death and clung desperately to life.

 …never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind.

This is ironic, and not just in the obvious sense; those who insist on heroic measures being taken to prolong their lives experience greater levels of psychological and physical distress because of the invasive nature of the medical and surgical interventions they insist upon. Clinging leads to suffering. Seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

Siegfried’s code could, I think, be expanded into something wider — never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind, with death being just one particular thing to be afraid of.

Life is full of “little deaths.” There are million things in each and every day of our lives that we can either cling to, or let go of.

Every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every feeling and emotion that arises is an opportunity for either clinging or for letting go. There are a million opportunities for experiencing fear: a million opportunities to live heroically, in small ways.

Examples: I’m driving to a class I’m teaching, going smack on the speed limit. A car behind me is driving too close, looking for an opportunity to blast by me. I’ve lost the “safe space” that I like to have between my car and the vehicle following. Fear arises. Will I just let this discomfort arise and pass, or will I tense up, start cursing the other driver, or speed up to try and put some distance between us, or slow down in order to get revenge? If I just keep driving, allowing the fear to exist, I find I can be comfortable with discomfort. I don’t, after all, have to fear the loss of the sense of ease that I previously had.

The driver passes me. I experience the loss of the sense of being in front of someone. I fear a loss of status. It seems absurd, but that’s what happens. And it’s OK. I remind myself that driving’s not a competition (a useful mantra, I find). I wish the other driver well.

We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

A few minutes later in the same drive, and I feel a little bored. I’ve lost my sense of enjoyment. I fear the boredom. Will I turn on the car radio and see what’s on?

Maybe instead I’ll go deeper into my experience, take enjoyment in the quiet sensuality of driving, notice the movements in my body, the scenery passing by.

The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice these opportunities, nor do we notice when we capitulate to fear. These examples may seem trivial, but my point is that life is composed, in the main, of these supposedly trivial things.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” In each of the examples I gave above there’s an opportunity to love. I can relate to my own fear and discomfort with love. I can cultivate lovingkindness for the driver who tailgates and then passes me. After all his bad driving habits are no doubt being fueled by his own suffering. I can remind myself to appreciate (love) the ordinary experiences involved in driving, rather than assuming that I have to look outside of myself for fulfillment.

Wagner said we have to learn “to die in the fullest sense of the word.” I wonder if the fullest sense of the word “dying” is to die in every moment. Every time some experience arises that we can cling to or push away, we simply accept it and allow it to pass. And in doing so we have an opportunity to create moments of love that fill our lives.

Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to let clinging and aversion die. Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to live in the fullest sense of the word.

If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” because when we attempt to hold on to something that can’t, by its very nature, be held on to — and ultimately nothing can be held on to — we’re unable to appreciate. We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

Wagner, in the same letter where he talked about the necessity of learning to die, pointed out that the lesson we must learn is “to will what necessity imposes.” If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling. In order to live fully we have to learn to let go completely, to make it our “will” to embrace change and to cease clinging.

But what about “real” death. Siegfried embraced life, but the death that he didn’t fear was a literal one. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, frequently reminds us that “meditation is a preparation for death, and that death is a state of enforced meditation.” Learn to let go in life and we won’t end up like those sad terminal cancer patients, unable to accept the inevitable. We’ll perhaps be able to love death itself and see it as another opportunity to let go.

The next time you’re meditating, look at what’s going on as an illustration of the truth that you can either try to hold on, or you can love. When you feel frustration because your mind’s busier than you want it to be, realize that you can instead simply appreciate and love the sheer busyness of your mind. When you find yourself longing for some joy that has now passed, realize that you can instead simply love whatever happens to be present in your experience, and in that way experience a renewed joy.

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Four reasons Buddhists can love evolution

Charles Darwin

Evolution — at least in the United States — has a deeply troubled relationship with religion. Or at least it does with some religions.

As you can see from the Pew Trust chart below, Buddhists on the whole (81% of them) think that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth.

In fact of all the religious traditions included on the chart, Buddhists are the most accepting of evolution, with evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the least accepting.

Those of us who value an objective and evidence-based (read “scientific”) understanding of the world are greatly disturbed by attempts to displace sound science from the classroom, to introduce spurious ideas such as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design,” and to give the impression that evolution is somehow scientifically controversial, when in fact it’s backed by an overwhelming amount of evidence from all branches of science.

graph of belief in evolution, by religious affiliation

Many of us see the intrusion of religion into the public sphere as being a serious erosion of the principles of the US constitution, which protect us from government-sponsored religious coercion by ensuring that no religion can use government to foist itself upon us. We see the fear of Evolution that some religious practitioners have as being a potentially serious threat to our own religious freedoms.

But evolution, on the other hand, holds no fear for Buddhists, and in fact it fits with the Buddhist world view rather well. And this year being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of “The Origin Of Species,” this is perhaps a good time to explain why it is that Buddhism quite happily accepts evolution as an explanation for the origins of human life, and to explore how Buddhists relate to science in general and evolution in particular.

See also

NO CREATION MYTH

First up is that Buddhism has no creation myth to defend. It’s true that in the Pali Aggañña Sutta the Buddha tells a story about the creation of the world, in which he claims that the the universe goes through periods of evolution and involution (similar to the ideas of the “Big Bang” and what’s sometimes called “The Big Crunch” where gravitational forces draw all the matter in the universe back to a central point).

But the sutta is a parody on the claims of the religious Orthodox of the day — the Brahmins — to be a superior class of human being, with special privileges in society and a special relationship with the gods. The parody shows the gods to be deluded beings just like ourselves and the Brahmins to be Pretenders to social and religious pre-eminence. The Aggañña Sutta is clearly not to be taken literally as a origins myth.

If you need convincing of that fact, you’ll need to take a look at a broader range of Buddhist teachings, including the famous Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. In this parable the Buddha points out that religious practitioners who concern themselves with the origins of the universe and other topics are missing the point of religious practice.

Religion, a very fundamental sense, is not about God, myths, rules, or even beliefs. Instead it’s about moving from a state of suffering to a state of non-suffering. The rest of a religious tradition is merely (in theory, anyway) a tool to help us achieve the end of suffering.

The Buddha in fact said that he only taught one thing, suffering and how to end it. Contemplating the origins of the universe or any other such topic is merely a distraction. Just as a man shot with a poison arrow would die if instead of pulling out the arrow he speculated endlessly about who made the arrow, why it was shot, what kind of wood was used, etc, so too suffering beings continue to suffer as long as they focus on anything but understanding how suffering arises and how to deal with it. And even that is only useful insofar as those beings actually put their understanding into practice.

It’s likely that the Buddha had no special knowledge of the origins of the universe, but even if he had known he wouldn’t have discussed the matter: “And why are [these things] undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.

“Conjecture about the origin of the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” [Acintita Sutta]. Certainly, some fundamentalists seem seriously out-to-lunch, so perhaps the Buddha was right in claiming that dwelling repeatedly on things you can never prove from your own experience can drive you a bit crazy.

EMPHASIS ON SEEKING TRUTH, NOT BELIEVING DOGMA

Buddhism has an emphasis on seeking truth, and has no interest in getting people to “believe” anything. Belief is not a path to salvation. No amount of belief that the arrow isn’t poisoned, or belief that it was sent as a test of your faith, or that it’s a relatively new arrow and not the old arrow that carbon dating shows it to be will save you from suffering. It’s our actions that cause us suffering or help us to escape suffering.

Buddhism encourages us not to believe what we’ve been told is the truth, but instead to seek the truth through our own experience. The Kalama Sutta, often called the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, is the most important source that affirms that we must each seek the truth though our own experience. The Kalamas were a clan who were rather confused because they had lots of teachers, both orthodox Brahmins and more experimental shramanas, coming to their area and giving contradictory teachings. Who was right? Who was wrong? The Kalamas were interested in the Buddha’s take on how to cut their through the thicket of views and establish what was true. The Buddha said,

Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’

That may not seem to leave much! You can’t trust sacred scriptures, tradition, or even so-called “common sense.” So what did the Buddha say could be trusted as a source of truth? He said,

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

So there are two things here. First, we have to trust our own experience. What leads to happiness and what leads to suffering? Second, we can trust “the wise” – but with the unspoken proviso that we have to establish who are “the wise” on the basis of — again — our experience.

It’s precisely fundamentalism’s “belief in beliefs” and its taking the writings of bronze age nomadic herdsmen as the infallible and literal word of God that leads them into the trap of having to deny the evidence of their own senses. As Barbara O’Brien writes on her About.com blog, “I mean, who you gonna believe? A 5,000-year-old book or your own lying eyes?”

For Buddhists, the outmoded scientific understanding of 5th century BCE India is simply not a problem. We’ve already been encouraged to reject anything that conflicts with evidence. And since the evidence from biology, physics, and chemistry suggests overwhelmingly that the universe is billions of years old and that life has evolved, even if Buddhist scriptures did conflict with evolution (which they don’t) we’d have an ethical obligation to discard them.

ACCEPTANCE OF IMPERMANENCE

When Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution through natural selection 150 years ago, virtually everyone — scientists and preachers alike — believed that species were fixed and immutable. What would the Buddha have said about the fact that species do in fact change and evolve over time? He’d have said, “Of course. All conditioned things are subject to change.” There simply is no problem in Buddhism with accepting that species evolve.

The monotheistic religions tend to take what’s called an “eternalistic” view of the universe. God is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow still manages to act). The soul is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow can be either saved or damned).

This view of things (or at least certain important things) is an attempt to find security in an unstable and impermanent world. Existentially, we find we suffer because we lose the things we love, including ourselves. How do we respond to the raw fact of impermanence? We can either argue that the self is in fact eternal and unchanging, or we can do as Buddhism does and accept and embrace change.

Buddhism sees the problem of change not as being change itself, but in how we relate to it — the problem is that we cling to impermanent things. When we cling to something impermanent (anything from status, or a new car, or a relationship, all the way to life itself) we will inevitably suffer as the thing we depend upon changes. The problem is not change, but clinging.

Buddhism would see the attempt to see species as immutable to be a form of clinging — clinging to the categories that the mind creates. In the mind of the eternalist it becomes a form of blasphemy to question the labels that the mind imposes upon reality. Buddhism is very astute at recognizing that all labels are merely arbitrary and static snapshots of our perception of an ever-changing process of change. Even the categories and labels that Buddhism uses are seen as being, ultimately, false. Thus we have texts like the Heart Sutra that negate important Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths (“There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path”) as well as numerous other teachings.

In the Pali texts it’s clear that the same approach is taken. The Dharma (the teachings and practices) are seen as a raft, to be abandoned when we reach the far shore of direct perception of reality. We of course need the raft just now, but it’s important also that we recognize that the raft is something to be abandoned. If we cling to it we’ll never be able to step onto the shores of true spiritual awakening.

So in short, Buddhism has no fear of impermanence. The evolution of species is just another example of impermanence and of the lack of inherent selfhood.

CONTINUITY OF EVOLUTION AND DHARMA

 

While traveling around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin was struck by the fact that he could understand facial expressions of people from different cultures, but not their languages or gestures. Darwin also believed that our sense of moral compassion came from a natural desire to alleviate the suffering of others. He was an ardent abolitionist. Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco … said … that these views are nearly identical to those of Tibetan Buddhists. “I am now calling myself a Darwinian,” Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama saying, after Ekman read him some passages of Darwin’s work. [From New Scientist]

That’s quite something, that the Dalai Lama considers himself a Darwinist. From an evolutionary point of view, ethics and compassion have evolved. They are a natural part of the evolved universe. This is important to the Dalai Lama because he has a profound belief that goodness is inherent to our nature.

The English Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, (who happens to be my own teacher) makes explicit this link between the Darwinianly evolved universe and the path of spirituality. He argues that we have inherited faculties such as self-awareness and compassion, but that our evolution is incomplete. Biological, or Darwinian evolution, he calls “The Lower Evolution,” while he compares and contrasts the spiritual path by referring to it as “The Higher Evolution.”

The Lower Evolution is not a conscious process, has no end-point (it is “non-teleological”), and operates on groups rather than on individuals. The Higher Evolution is not something that just happens to us: it’s the result of our own efforts to shape our consciousness, to make something of ourselves. The Higher Evolution is teleological — it has an end point. We find ourselves suffering, and the sense of self-awareness we have inherited allows us to ask why this is, and what we can do about it. The end point of The Higher Evolution is the attainment of non-suffering. And The Higher Evolution is an individual rather than a collective process. We can practice with others, we can learn from others, and we can even sometimes teach and guide others, but in the end it is we as individuals who must bring about the changes within ourselves that lead to non-suffering.

An old friend of mine once made a very interesting comparison between the Lower and Higher Evolutions. Biological evolution takes place through selection pressure. There are limited resources in the world and creatures must compete for them. Those creatures that are most successful at competing for resources will survive and will pass on their genetic adaptations to future generations. And so species evolve in response to selection pressure.

In the “environment” of the mind we have a “population” of mental habits and mental states. Some of those (greed, hatred, delusion) cause us suffering. Others, by contrast (compassion, awareness) tend to make us happier. Once we commit ourselves to the goal of suffering less, and as we maintain an awareness of that goal in our consciousness, we create a selection pressure of sorts.

Those habits that cause us suffering will tend to lose the battle for inner resources because we will choose not to feed them. Those mental habits that tend to being happiness will tend to thrive and grow because resources (our mental energy) is being poured into them.

Here’s what’s said to be a Cherokee legend, even though it isn’t:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This is evolution in action — not the Darwinian evolution of species but the Higher Evolution of the individual consciousness. Biological evolution has given us the tools of self-awareness and understanding that allow us to “evolve” ourselves into more spiritually advanced — and happier — beings. But it’s up to us to do the work of feeding only the helpful wolf.

Evolution is, for Buddhists, not something to deny or to be afraid of, but something to accept (as long as the evidence is in its favor) and to make use of.

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Overcoming “change blindness”

Would you like to see the world in a new way? A way that’s more authentic and satisfying? A way that taps into your infinite potential and helps others to realize theirs?

Eirik Solheim has put together an impressive time-lapse movie of a woodland scene that compresses an entire year into 40 seconds of footage. This kind of presentation helps us to see the world in a different, and in some respects more real, way.

The human mind and senses are not good at perceiving change. You look at a cloud once, and then again ten minutes later, and you think it’s the same cloud. Actually the entire shape and size of the cloud may have changed, but you simply don’t notice.

There are of course much more dramatic examples of this phenomenon, which is called “change blindness.” This YouTube link wil show you that 75% of people don’t notice when in the middle of a conversation the person they are talking to is replaced with a completely different person. And this second link will give you a chance to see how hard it is to observe change happening right in front of your eyes.

Now check out the Solheim video and see what change looks like sped up.

When watching the sped-up version of reality the mind becomes focused on the change that we usually tend not to notice because it’s happening on too slow a timescale for us to register or because we simply don’t pay attention.

Imagination and insight

I love this kind of presentation of reality and often find myself looking at the world (in my imagination, of course) in this way. The Six Element Practice, for example, is an insight meditation practice in which we reflect on impermanence and interconnectedness. We become aware of the body — not just those parts we can directly sense but the whole physical body as perceived in the imagination, right down to the internal organs and bone marrow — and sense each of the elements in turn: earth (solid matter), water (anything liquid), fire (the energy of metabolism), air (anything gaseous), space (the form that the physical elements take), and the consciousness that perceives those other elements.

In the case of the four physical elements of earth, water, fire and air, we not only notice the element within the body but we imaginatively connect with it in the outside world, reflecting that all the elements within the body come from outside. Not only do they come from outside, but they are in the process — right now — of returning to the outside world. The “self” is not a thing but a flow. In our imagination we actually see all this happening. When contemplating the earth element, for example, we see crops growing from the soil, we see those crops flowing into factories and stores, and into our bodies, and then back into the outside world as we defecate, shed skin cells and hair, and as we burn glucose in our cells. I see all this happening in a sped-up, compressed form, rather as in Eirik Solheim’s beautiful video. The body is no longer a static thing but is a fluid process.

To Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour (or less)

On one arts retreat I was co-leading (I taught the meditation, someone else was teaching the arty stuff) we were asked to go and connect with the landscape, and to choose one object that we could bring inside that expressed that connection. The retreat was in a beautiful glen in the Scottish highlands, and I stood on a spit of land where a river flowed into the loch (the very spit you see below). I found myself seeing the land as it once was, covered in a sheets of ice thousands of feet thick. I saw the ice melting, the loch forming surrounded by rock scraped bare, the flowing river dumping gravel and rocks, inch by inch building the very spit I was standing on as stones fell out of the flow and were deposited in a spreading fan. I saw trees rise and fall in the blink of an eye, wave after wave of them. I watched changes of ten millennia unfold before me in the space of a minute or two, until we reached the present moment in which I stood.

We’re often confined by the senses that we have. To us five minutes can seem like a long time. To a mountain a thousand years is a brief moment. Its only in our imaginations that we can perceive the world on different timescales, and come to see that the events of our lives are just flickers on a screen. Using our imagination in this way can reveal things in their impermanence, which means that we’re seeing them in a truer way than we usually do, where we fail to appreciate the reality of change.

In the Six Element Practice we free ourselves from the prison of our limited senses. We look at the body and we see a clear demarcation between self and other. Our skin marks the boundary between what’s inner and what’s outer. Yet in the practice we see that what’s “us” is made entirely of stuff that’s not us, and that this borrowed stuff is merely passing through. To realize that is to get much closer to reality.

Imagination allows us, as Blake put it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Seeing all beings as Buddhas

We tend to see ourselves as “things” — as relatively unchanging entities. We see others the same way. Sometimes as part of my practice I remind myself of the immense change that a person can go through by repeating a phrase from a Zen poem: “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas.” I take that like in this instance to indicate that even if someone is acting in a way that I don’t like and that I label as cruel or stupid, that person has the capacity to be a Buddha. If I relate to that person purely on the basis of who he or she is right now, I won’t encourage the emergence of their potential Buddhahood.

Relating to someone on the basis of how we see them right now is like seeing Solheim’s video reduced to a single frame. It’s a static way of seeing things. We’re disconnected from the reality of change. But imagine if we could consistently see that person not as a thing but as a process — if you could, at least in our imaginations — see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us?

When I manage to relate to another person as a potential Buddha — as a changing, evolving being who has the capacity for wisdom and compassion, I’m more likely to relate to them in a way that helps them grow into their potential. And I think it helps me grow into my own potential as well.

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Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Everything’s impermanent, but rather than be depressed by this fact we can use it to our advantage. Bodhipaksa looks at the Buddhist practice of developing lovingkindness and offers six lessons that can help us keep love alive.

Lovingkindness meditation presupposes a number of factors that cause love to grow. If you’re not familiar with the practice of lovingkindness meditation I wholeheartedly recommend that you try it. This kind of meditation is a gentle but powerful way of working with our emotions, and I’ve noticed the following principles embedded in the form of the meditation:

  1. First, we have to pay attention to ourselves. If we’re not aware of ourselves and our feelings then we’ll lack the responsiveness that allows us to love others. In the formal practice we bring our awareness into the body and into our hearts.
  2. If we don’t cultivate a basic sense of caring for ourselves and our own well-being then we’ll also find it hard to love others. So we need to start here and develop a wholesome relationship with ourselves. The sitting practice of lovingkindness always begins with us cultivating love for ourselves.
  3. Then we have to give others our attention. We can’t include love in a package of multitasking. We need to spend time with others, and to give them as best as possible our full attention. When my attention is divided between my daughter and, say, some article I’m trying to read, an unpleasant tension arises that can easily lead to impatience. It’s much better just to put down what I’m doing and focus just on her. The more we give people our undivided attention the easier it is to cultivate love for them.
  4. We need to relate to others as feeling beings, and to take their happiness seriously. When we see others as being either means or obstacles to our own happiness we’re not relating to them as feeling beings. To love is to take another’s well-being seriously, and we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the need others have to be happy.
  5. We need to communicate that we love others. In lovingkindness meditation we commonly repeat phrases like, “May you be well. May you be at ease.” Even if we never speak those words to the other person they have an effect on how we feel. But outside of meditation it’s even more powerful to communicate with another person that we love them. This doesn’t have to be done in words, of course. A glance or a kind act can be an effective way of communicating a sense that we love others. But the words themselves are less ambiguous and often more powerful.
  6. We need to repeat the above frequently. Love, if it’s not being cultivated, is beginning the slow process of withering. We need to bear others in mind as often as we can, calling to mind our love for them. We need to spend as much time as we can with those we love. In this way, our love can keep being reborn and our irritability, intolerance, and indifference towards others can fade quietly away.

Buddhism teaches that everything’s impermanent, which can seem like a real downer until you look more closely into what that means. At first glance it can seem rather depressing: I’m impermanent, and everything I love is impermanent too. I’m going to die. Everything I love is going to die. Love itself is impermanent. Oh, oh! Here comes bleak existential despair!

But the fact that everything is impermanent is actually the most wonderful thing about life. If anything about me was not impermanent then that would be something I couldn’t change. If my personality was not impermanent I’d never be able to change it. I’d be stuck with those aspects of my personality (like my irritability and my distractedness) that cause me most suffering. And the same’s true for you. If you have a tendency to depression, or to over-eating, or to anxiety, those tendencies are impermanent. They can be changed. They can become less predominant in your life. They can even disappear entirely.

What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events…

Love dies, but it is also reborn. Hatred is reborn, but it also dies. What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events being born and dying and being reborn again.

We tend to think of death and rebirth in “macro” terms — about the end of one life of the beginning of another, but actually death and rebirth are taking place in this very moment as cells, sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts are coming into being and passing away. Left to their own devices — without our conscious intervention — the overall texture of our personality won’t tend to change much over time. Things keep changing, but they change in such a way that the stay the same, much as you can look at an eddy in a river and see that in every moment it’s different, but it still has about the same size, shape and position.

Generally it takes conscious intervention to bring about a change in the balance of the various mental factors that constitute a personality. A mindful awareness of our mental states, combined with skillful action, helps shape the process of death and rebirth that’s moment by moment unfolding within our consciousness. Something as simple as letting go of a critical and angry train of thought helps that part of ourselves to pass on into oblivion. Choosing to think about what we’ve achieved helps bring about more happiness. Contemplating the fact that, just as we do, others experience suffering and wish to be happy helps to bring into being the forces of compassion and love.

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do.

Events can shape us, of course. Tragic events, unpleasant events, unexpected blessings, and the responses of others can bring about profound changes in our personality and outlook. But it’s the way we respond to outside events that is the true shaper of our being. It’s we, ultimately, who change ourselves.

It’s good to bear all of this in mind when we contemplate love. Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a “thing” that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

If we are not bringing love into being, it is in the process of dying within us. If we don’t sustain our love, it withers — slowly perhaps, but inexorably. We have to pay attention to love in order that it continues to live and grow within us. And this means that we have to pay attention to others in order that our love continue to flourish.

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Blaise Pascal: “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room”

Blaise Pascal

Everyone is prey to distractedness, to seeing solace in activity as an escape from experiencing ourselves. In fact this is one of the major obstacles to a meaningful life. Bodhipaksa argues, however, that the force underlying our distractedness is a creative one, and that properly channeled it can take us all the way to enlightenment.

I’ve always been fond of this saying from Pascal’s Pensées, which reminds me that not being at peace with ourselves is a human condition rather than a uniquely modern one. All people at all times have suffered the pains of boredom, self-doubt, loneliness, irritability, restlessness, and anxiety that come from not being at peace with ourselves. I’ve experienced my fair share of that.

Like many people I have an ideal of being at peace and of enjoying rest. I struggle in my life to live and even sometimes to accomplish something meaningful, and all the time with the idea that sometime in the future — in a few weeks or perhaps next year — life will be more spacious and restful and I’ll have more time for meditating and reflecting, and for doing things that I find truly meaningful. And yet when by some rare combination of circumstances I have some free time, I find that I soon start to think about what I can do with it. And then I’m back to square one.

It’s part of the human condition to be restless.

It’s part of the human condition to be restless, to be seeking something better than we have at the moment. The Buddhist word for this is tanha, which literally means thirst. We all have a sense of thirst at the core of our being, a dissatisfaction that drives us to find meaning and happiness. But all too often we don’t actually move in the direction of finding meaning and happiness. We just move. Without self-awareness we are inclined simply to find diversion (the word “diversion” usually means “distraction” but its root meaning is “to turn away from”). We fill our lives with busyness, with distraction. And having done so we are temporarily released from our thirst. In the white heat of activity we are less aware that we are suffering.

Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are.

Inevitably though, we crave a lull in activity, being exhausted of or bored by the activities we’re engaged in. Running around pursuing happiness can be exhilarating, but it fails to address our deep-seated longing for meaning and happiness, and in the midst of busyness our thirst re-asserts itself, driving us towards stillness. And so we cycle through activity, a craving for respite, a brief experience of rest, and a renewed desire for activity.

When we pause and reflect — assuming we can find enough time and mental space in which to do so — we can become aware of this cycle and become dissatisfied with it. We can decide to make a break with our habitual avoidance of our real needs. And so we can decide to make a more conscious effort to find real meaning in our lives. That’s where meditation and mindfulness often come into our lives. We get to the point where the same-old-same-old looks tired and worn out and unattractive, and we intuit that we’ll really have to work with ourselves if we’re going to make a real change in our lives.

Inner restlessness is a powerful force within that drives us onwards.

What is meditation (or, more broadly, mindfulness) if not learning how to sit quietly in a room? Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are. And that’s the first opportunity to learn to be at peace with ourselves. When we see the inner tumult of our minds we have a choice: to become frustrated or to be forgiving with ourselves. It takes time and practice, but we can learn to accept that the mind is restless. Paradoxically, realizing this brings a measure of peace because we are less caught up in fighting with ourselves.

Our tanha — the inner thirst that drives us to look for a more satisfying way of being — now has a sense of direction and clarity. We develop more of an instinctual sense that the way to happiness is through facing ourselves rather than running away from ourselves. We realize that we have to transform states of mind that lead to unhappiness and cultivate those that lead to a deeper sense of fulfillment.

J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées

We learn simply to observe our thoughts rather than to get caught up in fantasies; our mindfulness deepens. We stand back from our thoughts, just noticing them; our patience becomes stronger. We find it’s possible to let go of anger and develop kindness. We find that the mind becomes less restless and that there’s a greater sense of calmness. Rather than being caught up with inner conflicts we are more at ease and happiness arises. We feel a sense of direction manifesting in our lives and we experience greater confidence.

Ultimately, Pascal points out in that same passage in his Pensées, our desire for diversion is an avoidance of the sense of our own mortality. Our “weak and mortal condition” is a “natural misfortune” that afflicts us and renders us inconsolable. Our being, he points out, is contingent (we might never have been born had circumstances been different) and impermanent (it’s certain we will die). And thus there is a deep-seated fear of non-existence, to which the ego tries to blind itself by embracing diversion and removing any possibility for deeper reflection. Meditation helps here as well.

As we continue to observe the mind we realize that all of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise in our experience are impermanent. Within ourselves we can find nothing that is unchanging and enduring. Everything is in flux. All is change. Where then, is the “self” that we fear will die? With continued examination we begin to realize that “death” is happening in every moment. To change is to die, and change is taking place in every instant. And if that’s true, then rebirth is also taking place in every moment. As something changes, it becomes something else, and that “something else” is born. Looking a little deeper, we see that there is no “thing” to change. There is just process. The ego, upon examination, simply ceases to exist (at least in the way we used to think about it). There’s no permanent self to be found in our experience. And since the ego has ceased to exist we no longer have to fear its destruction. Death has lost its sting. Life has found its ultimate meaning. Contentment has been victorious over restlessness.

I have to keep saying “no” to distractions in order to say “yes” to my dreams.

Our tanha is not something to be seen as “bad” or even (in Buddhist terms) “unskillful.” It’s actually a powerful force within that drives us onwards. Without awareness it will drive us in circles where we make the same mistakes over and over. With awareness it leads us on to greater fulfillment and happiness.

In my own life I’ve found that I’m managing to live out my dream of being a full time writer. It takes discipline and mindfulness. I have to turn away from seductive diversions — even diversions like teaching that I find fulfilling and enjoyable in their own right. But I have to keep saying “no” to distractions (even to creative opportunities) in order to say “yes” to my dreams. And it’s challenging: the scary thing about the prospect of living your dream is that you may, when you get there, discover that it’s not what you want to do after all — and then where would you be? But it’s also rewarding and nourishing.

At the same time I have to bear in mind that no career — not even writing — can bring me true happiness. For that I have to face up to the “natural misfortune of my weak and mortal condition.” I have to cultivate insight. I have to learn to be able to sit — not writing — in a quiet room.

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Seven Buddhist strategies for coping with stress

Girl blowing dandelion seeds, against a background of dark trees.

We all know that mindfulness and meditation are increasingly taught as ways of coping with stressful situations. But what about other forms of Buddhist practice? A research study led by Dr. Russ Phillips, a Buddhist and professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University, identified 14 Buddhist coping strategies by asking Buddhist practitioners what coping mechanisms they used and by examining the outcomes.

The use of religion to cope with stress — known as religious or spiritual coping — has been studied across many different faith traditions, but rarely within Buddhism. Much research has been conducted on meditation and mindfulness, two common Buddhist practices, but rarely has this research examined such practices in a Buddhist context. Additionally, meditation and mindfulness are not the only coping mechanisms used by Buddhists, and yet no scale of religious coping in Buddhists exists to complement the measures created for other religions.

To produce the questionnaire. Dr. Phillips’ team initially interviewed 24 Buddhists of varying backgrounds across the United States about how Buddhism was involved in the ways they dealt with stress. They then used a scientific process called “thematic analysis” to determine common Buddhist coping strategies across the participants’ responses. As a result of this initial research, the team hypothesized that there were 18 major ways Buddhism was involved in the coping process, and for each form of coping various questions were devised for a questionnaire.

In the spring of 2008, Dr. Phillips recruited 550 Buddhists from across the United States to take the Buddhist coping questionnaire, which had been narrowed down to 95 items. Participants were asked to consider a stressful event, and rate how often they engaged in what each item said (for example: To cope with the stressor, how much did you remind yourself of the concept of impermanence? — “Not at All” — “A Little” — “Quite a Bit”).

The hypothesis that there were 18 types of coping strategy within Buddhism was the first casualty — a statistical analysis revealed there were only 14.

The seven Buddhist coping strategies that were studied further are:

  1. Meditation: Focusing in a relaxed, nonjudgmental way on one structured aspect of a situation (e.g., breath, mantra).
  2. Mindfulness: Nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment.
  3. Lovingkindness: Being nonjudgmental, compassionate, kind to oneself and others.
  4. Morality: Practicing right speech, right action, and right livelihood, and doing these things with good intention.
  5. Impermanence: Realizing nothing lasts forever.
  6. Comprehensive Karma: Acknowledgement that one’s past, present, and future actions will have consequences, and that one has the ability to control his/her current actions.
  7. Fatalistic Karma: Feeling a sense of helplessness, that one’s past actions have led to one’s current state, and there is nothing one can do to avoid those consequences.

The study determined that the participants’ answers on these seven forms of Buddhist coping did better at predicting how participants were feeling about the outcome of the stressful event than other measures on the survey — such as how spiritual a person was, or what age they were.

The seven were not selected for especial study out of the total 14 strategies that had been identified because they were most effective, but simply because the team were most interested in those particular approaches. The other seven coping strategies will be researched more thoroughly in a follow-up study.

How much the participants had actually used each of these seven approaches correlated closely with how they felt about the outcome of the stressful event. Thus, meditating, practicing mindfulness, practicing ethical right action, lovingkindness, or considering the Buddhist ideas of impermanence or karma were helpful.

The only exception was fatalistic karma — the more a person felt helpless and believed there was nothing they could do about the stressor because their past actions led to the current situation, the worse the participant reported feeling about themselves, and the poorer the outcome of the stressful life event. While all of the other seven coping strategies were shown to have some positive effect, only fatalistic karma was shown to have a negative effect.

Some participants reported to the researchers that a fatalistic karma outlook is not an accurate portrayal of how karma works according to Buddhism. However, the researchers are at pains to work out that they were not studying Buddhist theology, but the coping methods actually used by Buddhists (and believed by those people to be a part of their Buddhist practice), whether or not those coping methods are genuinely Buddhist. They were therefore examining people’s perceptions of what Buddhism teaches rather than the “official” Buddhist versions of those teachings.

Interestingly, meditation and mindfulness, although shown by the study to be highly effective coping strategies, were not as effective as practicing lovingkindness, right understanding, and impermanence, which jointly scored 3.1 out of a possible 4.0 for effectiveness, compared to a joint 3.0 for meditation and mindfulness.

The most effective coping strategies are therefore cultivating lovingkindness (metta), or being nonjudgmental, compassionate, kind to oneself and others; right understanding, or trying to see the world as it truly is; and reflecting on impermanence, or the notion that all things (including our problems) pass.

The other seven coping strategies, to be studied later, were:

  1. Sangha support: turning to other Buddhists for advice, connection, and compassion.
  2. Dharma: turning to study of Buddhist teachings for support.
  3. No-self: recognizing that there is no separate self because everything is interconnected and impermanent.
  4. Inter-being: understanding that everything is interconnected and nothing is independent
  5. Right understanding: trying to see the world as it really is.
  6. “Bad Buddhist”: understanding that your problems arise because you are not practicing correctly.
  7. “It ain’t easy being Buddhist”: recognizing that Buddhism is not an easy path and that the benefits of practice lie in the future while we must experience difficulties in the short-term.

The “Bad Buddhist” approach to coping was one of the few coping strategies, along with karmic fatalism, that had a negative effect. This was not a strategy that the research team had expected to find. It instead emerged from the reported experiences of the Buddhist practitioners participating in the study. Similarly, the existence of the “It ain’t easy being Buddhist” strategy was not predicted in advance by the researchers, but was reported by practitioners.

13% of the participants in the survey were immigrants from other, mostly Asian, countries, while the rest were western Buddhists.

Dr. Phillips’ team intends to continue its analysis, and to publish the results of the other seven major forms of Buddhist coping later this summer.

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: the Buddhist approach to excess body hair

Lon Chaney in The Werewolf

Honey, we’re out of dog food again.

Ever despair at how to cultivate lovingkindness for Dick Cheney, or ponder the effect of anti-depressants on Buddha Nature? If so, check out Auntie Suvanna, who applies her unique wisdom and wit to your queries about life, meditation, Dharma, family and relationship issues, or anything else that comes up. Why not write to her and tell her your troubles?

Dear Auntie,
I can’t stand my boyfriend’s ear hair anymore. He has little pointy gray hairs growing out of the tops of his ears. He isn’t concerned about it, he says he’s had it since he was in his 20’s. I wonder if one day he will look like a werewolf. Or maybe one day the hair will cover not only the top of his ears but the back and bottom as well and they will grow into convenient but gross natural ear muffs. Should I try to get used to the pointy hairs? Should I make him trim it? Should I seek a bald-eared partner? He doesn’t even know it bothers me. Am I petty? This is serious.
Sincerely Grossed Out

Dear Grossed Out,

American culture is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with body hair.

Dictionary.com defines petty as “of little or no importance or consequence.” In spite of her good manners, Auntie has to say she is finding it hard to envisage ear hair as important and consequential. On the other hand, irritation is at least consequential, so let’s see if we can tackle that. Otherwise you might get more and more pent up, until one day you will blow like Krakatoa, spewing burning rubble all over your boyfriend’s unsuspecting and relatively innocent hairy ears.

American culture is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with body hair. Women, especially, shave, wax, pluck, trim, or laser almost every patch of visible hair on the body. Perhaps deep down we are all Creationists worried about looking like apes… At any rate for overcoming this collective aversion, Auntie suggests doing various kinds of research. Get your facts! I know you would prefer to forget all about ear hair, but you can’t. It’s part of life. It’s part of your life. It arose in dependence on conditions, the conditions of the human form. Fact is, as men age, their hair seems to move more and more from their head to their ears and nose. That’s just the way it is. As the great Buddhist sage Shantideva said, it’s like getting angry at the sky because there is a cloud in it.

You must face — we all must face — right now, the inescapable truth of ear hair.

Though your boyfriend’s visible ear hair is dead, like all hair it is still very much a part of his body. Made up of long chains of amino acids (proteins), it (or at least the root) contains all his genetic information. His ethnic origin, what he has smoked, and what he has eaten – all this information resides in just one shaft of his ear hair. It is but one ground force unit within the battalion of hair that covers his entire body, with the exception of soles of his feet, the palms of his hands, and his lips. It grows at the same rate as other hair, about 1 cm per month, and lasts at least three years. You must face — we all must face — right now, the inescapable truth of ear hair. And as always, however things are, they can always be worse.

Another more drastic and probably more effective type of research would be to spend a great deal of time contemplating in detail the nature of your own body, part by part. Investigate it. See what’s what. Divide it into categories such as solid and liquid, and reflect on each component. In addition to ubiquitous hair you will discover nails, skin, flesh, teeth, veins, nerves, tendons, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, spleen, lungs, stomach, intestines, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, saliva, mucus, and urine. You will find what everyone’s body is composed of, and you will deeply understand ear hair. (Warning: This contemplation may cause nausea, loss of libido, and understated fashions such as coveralls.)

Finally, on a practical note, if it still bugs, kindly ask your boyfriend if he would allow you to trim it. If he agrees, invest in some clippers and have at it. Using scissors around ears is more dangerous than werewolves!

Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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Waking up into the moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I once had a disturbed young man come to a meditation class I was teaching in Edinburgh. As we’d gathered and during the meditation instruction I’d noticed that he was unusually intense and that he had noticeably poor personal hygiene, but in most ways he seemed like a fairly typical young man.

In the discussion following, however, his conversation started to veer off into more bizarre areas. He’d had “cosmic” experiences during the meditation session — experiences whose details I no longer recall but which sounded very off-balance. His girlfriend was apparently an Iranian princess. He was being shadowed by various security forces. Later still, as we were winding up and preparing to leave, and he was able to talk to me more or less alone, his conversation became more delusional still. He had developed special powers through his spiritual practice and could make things happen in the world around him. As we talked a housefly smacked noisily into the glass door we were standing beside. “See!” he said, excitedly. “I made that happen.”

He was obviously ill and suffering, and I experienced that pang of knowing that there was little or nothing I could do to help.

I’m no mental health professional, but his behaviors reminded me of what little I knew about schizophrenia and so I suggested as kindly as I could that he might be misinterpreting his experiences and that he might want to talk to a doctor about what was going on. He was clearly having problems with his mental health, but here’s the thing: according to the Buddha, so were the rest of us. “All worldlings are mad,” he said.*

“Worldling” is a translation of “putthujana,” which is simply anyone who isn’t enlightened. That’s me, and you. The Buddha had his own ideas about what constitutes mental health, and by his definition anyone who isn’t well on the way to Enlightenment is insane. Quite how literally he meant it when he said “All worldlings are mad” is hard to say, but when he looked at ordinary people like us going about their daily business he saw a world out of balance — and a world that by necessity is out of balance, because it is composed of those same off-kilter individuals.

He had a term for this imbalance, which was viparyasa in Sanskrit, although the less-well-known Pali equivalent vipallasa is a bit easier on the tongue and the eye. Vipallasa means “inversion,” “perversion,” or “derangement.” Specifically, in using this term the Buddha was talking about the ways in which we misunderstand the world we live in, and the ways in which we misunderstand ourselves. Just at the young man at my meditation class was constantly misinterpreting what was happening (“See! I made that happen”) so too do the rest of us live in a virtual reality of delusion, confusion, and distortion.

What’s more, we largely share the same delusions, which means that we don’t even realize that our minds are disturbed. And thus, as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.

When I think of the vipallasas in modern life I’m overwhelmed by examples, but the one that springs most to mind is to materialism. We keep thinking that the answer to our sense of existential dissatisfaction is to buy more stuff: more stuff, and better stuff. I guess I notice this most with gadgets, but for other people it’s houses, furniture, shoes, clothes, or cars — none of which I care about at all. I get a new gadget — the shiny MacBook Pro I’m writing this article on, for example — and I feel a sense of pleasure just looking at it. It’s better, faster, prettier than any computer I’ve had before. But then what happens over time? Newer, better, faster, prettier computers come on the market, and I start comparing my machine unfavorably with them. My gadget starts to look a bit old-fashioned (after only six months!), less cool, less capable. It feels less fast. And I’m no longer so happy with it. I now start to hanker after something new.

And I’ve been through all this craziness before. (Don’t they say that insanity is doing the same time over and over and expecting a different result?) Even knowing that I’m on a materialistic treadmill doesn’t entirely blunt the craving for a new computer, although to give myself credit I live without a television and rarely make impulse purchases. But on some level I really believe that the answer to the discomfort of my cravings will arrive in a box carried by a UPS truck.

I work with these cravings in my meditation and in my daily life, because the Buddha suggested that there was a better answer to the problem of craving. His advice was that we need to look deeply at our craving itself, and to realize the many levels of delusion that come packaged with it. The new gadget (or pair of shoes, or that lovely sweater, or sexy car) doesn’t contain a magical ingredient that will make us happy. The object of our craving is impermanent and therefore incapable of giving lasting satisfaction.

Our craving itself is impermanent! We can watch cravings arise and pass. As we watch them come and go, choosing not to act on them, they begin to develop an unreal appearance. As we start increasingly to see through them we no longer take them so seriously, and they become weaker and less frequent. And in the end we come to see what the Buddha himself saw, which is that the answer to the problem of our cravings is not acquiring the object of our cravings but letting go of craving itself.

It’s through abandoning craving that we will finally find peace, that we’ll come back to our senses, stop seeing things in a distorted way, and find true health and wellbeing. And having done that, to whatever degree, we can look around at the imbalance that surrounds us — really seeing it — and then compassionately reach out to others so that we can help them bring about their own healing.


* I’ve since learned that this quotation is not from the Buddha, but is ultimately from the commentator Buddhaghosa. You can read more here.

Also the quote, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” seems to be a condensation of something Krishnamurti said in his “Commentaries on Living, Series 3” (1960): “Is society healthy, that an individual should return to it? Has not society itself helped to make the individual unhealthy? Of course, the unhealthy must be made healthy, that goes without saying; but why should the individual adjust himself to an unhealthy society? If he is healthy, he will not be a part of it. Without first questioning the health of society, what is the good of helping misfits to conform to society?” Thanks to reader George Coyne for supplying the full quotation.

The condensed form used in the title of this article seems to have first been attributed to Krishnamurti by Mark Vonnegut in “The Eden Express” (1975). Misattributed or inaccurate quotes abound on the internet.

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