The Buddha

Liking yourself is not the antidote to hating yourself

You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?

The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.

I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.

But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being.  To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.

I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.

I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.

Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.

An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:

I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.

It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.

One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.

Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.

When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.

Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.

Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.

Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.

In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.

Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.

And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.

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Seeing experience as a movie

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peace is right here, right now

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

For the past month I’ve been recording a series of daily guided meditations, taking as my basis the teachings in a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball Sutta. This teaching (also sometimes called the “Honeycake Sutta” outlines a feedback loop whereby we end up causing ourselves suffering.

It describes how the basic situation is that consciousness, through sense organs, perceives objects (which can be internal, like thoughts, or external, like the words you’re reading now). This is called “contact.” The word “contact” contains the assumption that there is a self “contacting” a world that is separate from it. The Buddha is not saying this is how things actually are — just that that’s how we assume things are.

Within this field of contact we then have feeling responses to certain perceptions. The sutta doesn’t spell this out, but when the mind detects something as a potential threat it generates unpleasant sensations (feelings) in the body. When it detects a potential benefit it generates pleasant feelings. When something appears to have no bearing on our wellbeing no feeling (a “neutral feeling”) is produced.

What we have pleasant or unpleasant feelings about, we turn our attention to.

What we turn our attention to, we think about.

What we think about we (sometimes) obsess about.

What we obsess about assails us (i.e. causes us suffering) and reinforces our sense of having (or being) a separate self.

So we have a vicious circle, starting with the assumption of a separate self, and reinforcing that sense of separateness. Assuming we are separate, and feeling assailed, we continue to search among those things we have pleasant and unpleasant feelings about, trying to find peace by obsessing about them. This goes on and on and on.

A friend of mine recently gave a talk about this sutta, and he did the usual thing of talking about how mindfulness helps us to damp down the reactivity of this vicious cycle. If we find ourselves thinking obsessively then we can let go of them. With practice we can find ourselves experiencing our feelings and not have that turn into “storytelling” at all. This is of course perfectly valid as an explanation—but it’s also incomplete, because the discourse goes much further than this.

The sutta points out that were there is “no eye (or other sense organs), nothing seen (or perceived through the other senses) and no consciousness, then there is no feeling, no turning of our attention, no thinking, no obsessing, no being assailed, and no construction of a sense of self.

Now this might sound very odd, and might come off as nihilistic. What does it mean that there’s no eye (etc), nothing sensed, and no consciousness? Is it pointing to some state of blankness? To non-existence?

No, it’s simply talking, in very stripped-down language, about how we can drop the notions of a consciousness that is “me, mine, or myself” and a world out there that is “not me, not mine, not myself.” The alternative to this is just being. We just drop the whole process of reactivity all at once: not just letting go of our reactive thoughts, but coming to rest in an awareness of “self-and-world” without conceptualizing in terms of there being a self and a world. (We don’t even conceptualize that self and world are one, because that’s still a conceptualization in terms of self and world.)

Of course this isn’t something we can do in a “one and done” fashion. It’s something we need to do repeatedly, so that as we practice “just being” this starts to become the way we operate. But it is something you can do right now. It’s probably best to stop reading these words for a while and then spend a few minutes doing the following:

  • Just settle into an awareness of “self-and-world” (not taking those terms too literally).
  • Be aware of perceptions of sight and sound, perceptions arising in the body, and so on.
  • Be aware of any thinking that’s arising.
  • If there are any thoughts or impulses that have the character of trying to grasp or push away any aspect of your experience, let them go.
  • Notice how you are happier when you’re just resting with your experience, rather than trying to resist or grasp.
  • More thinking (resisting, grasping) will arise. Over and over again, let go of it.

Now that isn’t difficult. Sure, lots of thinking probably came up. And maybe you saw that as a threat to your wellbeing, and if felt unpleasant, and you had the desire to push that away, to make it stop. And that was you back into reactivity again. But you can notice that, and let it go. It’s natural that resistance and craving arise. You’ve spent a lifetime practicing those!

But for moments, perhaps quite a few moments, there is no conception of our having (or being) a self that perceives a separate world through our sense organs. Consciousness is not perceived as self, and that which is perceived by consciousness is not perceived as other. The whole self/other thing is simply set aside. And we don’t see our feelings as being threats to our wellbeing; instead they just are, and there is simply an awareness of them. And so (in those moments of pure being) the mind doesn’t obsess, and we’re not assailed, and we’re at peace.

This is something, as I’ve said, that we can practice. Now sometimes when people hear that word “practice” they think “Oh, that means there are lots and lots of things I have to do and then I can experience a sense of peace and calm. But practice doesn’t just mean “doing preparation” (like practicing scales on a piano so that you can play Bach). It also has to mean “getting better by actually doing something.” Letting go of your sense of having or being a separate self is something that you can do right now. The peace, contentment, and wellbeing that come from letting go is something that you can experience right now.

Peace is available right here, right now. Don’t try to grasp it. Don’t resist anything you think might be keeping it from you. Just be peace.

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Debunking seven myths about the Buddha

Depiction of the Buddha in a carved stone frieze

Some of the misconceptions about the Buddha are so common that you’ll find them in just about every book on Buddhism. The problem is that most of these books are merely rehashes of other books on Buddhism, so that misconceptions get passed on for decades and even centuries.

So here I’d like to debunk some myths about the Buddha. I’m not talking about myths like “The Buddha was a god” (he was a historical human figure) or that the Buddha was fat (that’s an entirely different figure, Budai, who was a Chinese monk). I’m going to debunk things that even many savvy Buddhists believe to be true because they’ve read them so often.

So here we go:

Myth #1: The Buddha Was Indian

The country of India didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, of course, but when people talk about the Buddha being Indian they mean that he was born in a place that is now part of present-day India. However, he was born (according to tradition) in a town called Lumbini, which was in the Sakyan country. Lumbini is in present-day Nepal, not India. Of course the Buddha spent much of his life in what is now India, but he wasn’t Indian. He was Nepalese—or at least he was born in a part of the world that is now known as Nepal.

Myth #2: The Buddha’s Name Was Siddhartha Gotama

In the scriptures the only name given to the Buddha is “Gotama.” This is usually understood to have been his family name, but it was probably his personal name. We know the personal names of his father, mother, son, aunt, cousins, and so on, and it would be weird if we don’t know the Buddha’s own given name.

As far as I know, the only places in the Pali scriptures where the Buddha is given the name Siddhattha (Siddhatta in Pāli) are in some very late texts called the āpadānas, and other late texts like the Jātakas. Here’s a text, for example, where “Siddhatta” is being recalled by a monk who had been a crocodile in a past life when the two had met! These texts seem to have been added to the canon centuries after the Buddha died. Since this one’s recalling the Buddha in a past life, it must have been very late.

So what was the Buddha’s name? In one very early text, in the Sutta Nipāta collection, the Buddha talks about his family:

Their clan name is Ādicca ,
the name of their lineage is the Sakyans.
I have gone forth from that family—
I do not yearn for sensual pleasure.

So it seems that the Buddha’s family name was Ādicca, which means “sun.” That family was, as we know, part of the Sakyan people. He was often referred to as Ādiccabandhu, usually rendered as “Kinsman of the sun.”

Now, Gotama was a brahmin family name. It’s very unlikely that the Buddha would have had a brahmin family name. In the early scriptures, brahmins are usually referred to by their family name. However, members of the Buddha’s family, who were not brahmins, are referred to by their personal names: Ānanda, Nanda, Devadatta, etc. It would be weird if the only member of the family who wasn’t referred to by his first name was the Buddha. So Gotama was probably his first name, and Ādicca his family name. He was likely “Gotama Ādicca,” not “Siddhatta Gotama” (Siddhartha Gautama). Gotama can definitely be a personal name as well as a family name. The Buddha’s aunt’s name was Gotami, and in fact Gautama is still a first name in India today.

Confusion seems to have arisen because of Gotama being a family name (although only for brahmins). People likely started thinking Gotama must be his last name, leaving him without a personal name. The title, Siddhartha, was used to fill that apparent gap.

Myth #3: The Buddha Was Born Hindu

There was no religion called Hinduism at the time the Buddha was born, and so it would be anachronistic to say that the Buddha was born a Hindu. There were many religious traditions that were around at that time. There was one common one that we call Brahminism, which was a hereditary sacrificial tradition based on ancient Indian texts called the Vedas. This is one of the traditions that evolved into contemporary Hinduism. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha followed this Vedic tradition at any time in his life. In fact he probably didn’t. We know that the Sakyans argued that they were superior to the Brahmins, and so it seems unlikely that they followed their religious tradition.

There’s mention in the scriptures that in Kosala and Magadha (territories close to Sakya) there were “Brahmin villages.” According to Bronkhorst (“Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism”) there is evidence that Brahmins tended to cluster together in villages. I thought I’d at some point seen a reference to a Brahmin village in Sakya, although I haven’t been able to track that down. Whether or not there was such a village, the implication is that if Brahminism was present in Sakya it wasn’t ubiquitous and probably wasn’t the dominant religious tradition.

In one discourse a Brahmin talks about visiting the Sakyan capital, Kapilavatthu, and being shocked that brahmins were not honored there. It is “neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that the Sākyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour to Brahmans,” he complains. It’s all too easy for us to think that India is a Hindu country. Therefore it has always been a Hindu country. But in doing so we’re projecting the present (and a rough approximation of the present at that) into a very different past.

In the scriptures there’s simply no mention of the Buddha practicing any religion until after he left home and became a follower of first Alara Kalama and then Uddaka Ramaputta. These teachers were not followers of the Vedas. They seem to have rejected Vedic authority and ran forest renunciate communities based on seeking the truth through meditation. There were presumably philosophical aspects to Alara and Uddaka’s teachings, however, since the Buddha talks about having “memorized” them and having mastered “lip-recital and oral recitation.”

The Vedic tradition was not meditative, but involved rituals of sacrifice and purity in order to influence the gods. There’s no evidence, either, that the Buddha ever worshipped any of the Brahmins’ gods, which are now Hindu gods.

So there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu, or a follower of any tradition rooted in the Vedas, or a worshipper of Hindu deities.

Myth #4: The Buddha Was a Prince

The Sakyan territory was one of a number of republics in the north of the Indian subcontinent. These republics had no kings, and instead were governed by representatives of the people. Some of them may have been democratic, but as far as we know the Sakyans were governed by a council of the heads of the major families that lived there. The Buddha’s father was not a king, but more like a senator.

There are a few reasons why people might have later assumed that the Buddha was the heir to a kingdom. Even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the small republics started being swallowed up by neighboring monarchical kingdoms. After a few generations of being ruled by kings, people may have tended to assume that things had always been like that, and assumed that if his father had been a Sakyan ruler, he must have been a king.

But there’s also a tendency for religious traditions to want to see their founders as having had extraordinary lives and pedigrees, and it’s much more grand to say that the Buddha was the son of a king than heir to the head of one of the leading Sakyan families.

And in trying to obtain patronage from actual kings (who could make or break a religious tradition) it would have been a good PR move to say that your founder was also of royal stock.

I can think of one discourse where the Buddha is referred to as a prince, but it’s an odd one. The sutta is in two parts, the first—with the prince reference—being heavily mythological and narrated by some unknown person. The second part is a question from a disciple followed by a very practical response from the Buddha. There’s no reference in the second part to the Buddha being from a royal family. Given that historically the Buddha could not have been a prince, it seems likely that the mythological introduction was added later. Moreover, the word translated as “prince” is “kumāra”, which merely meant “boy.” The Buddha’s father isn’t referred to as a “king” here, so I assume it’s just habit that leads people to translate kumāra as “prince.” The term for a royal prince would be “rājakumāra”.

There’s another discourse, principally about the previous life of a mythical Buddha called Vipassi—see Myth #5—where the Buddha is portrayed as describing his parents as a king and queen. Again, this is at odds with the historical reality, and it’s interesting that once again we have a mythical context for this royal reference. And here again there’s a translation issue. The word for a royal king was “mahārājā,” while the Buddha’s father is called a “rājā” in this sutta. At the Buddha’s time the word rājā was (according to the Pali Dictionary) “primarily an appellative (or title) of a khattiya [member of the aristocratic warrior class], and often the two [khattiya and rājā] are used promiscuously.

Myth #5: The Buddha Saw Four Sights

Just about every book on Buddhism will tell you about the so-called Four Sights that prompted the Buddha to leave home on a spiritual quest. It goes like this: The Buddha was brought up in three palaces and not allowed to go outside. However, he insisted on going on a series of chariot rides to explore the capital, and saw 1) an old person, 2) a sick person, 3) a dead person, and 4) a beatific homeless wanderer. These Four Sights provoked a spiritual crisis, and so he left home in search to find a way to overcome suffering.

This story is certainly found in the scriptures. It’s even told by the Buddha himself. But he tells it about someone else! This is a tale that the Buddha tells about a legendary former Buddha called Vipassi. So these events are clearly not presented as something that happened to the Buddha himself. Sometimes people try to make sense of the story as it applies to be Buddha by psychologizing it: it was as if he saw an old person, sick person, and so on for the first time. But there’s no need to interpret this supposed episode from the Buddha’s life, since there’s no reason to think it ever happened.

The Buddha talks very movingly in one scripture about the spiritual crisis that provoked him to leave home:

I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:

Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.

This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.

Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
[Attadanda Sutta]

This, in my eyes, is much more human and relatable than the legend of the four sights.

We know that the Buddha’s people, the Sakyans, had contentious relations with some of their neighbors, and there were battles over things like access to water for irrigation. They literally were like fish fighting over too small a quantity of water, and that may be what he was referring to here. It was probably this kind of strife that impelled the Buddha to leave home. He certainly didn’t see four sights in any literal way, although he did talk about how he saw through the “intoxication” of youth, wellness, and life, which correspond to the first three sights.

Myth #6: The Buddha Lived in Three Palaces

Although the scriptures have the Buddha talking about how in his youth he lived in three “palaces,” this almost certainly isn’t the case. Excavations of Kapilavastu show the dwellings there to have been rather modest. Sakya wasn’t a rich country, and there seem to have been no palaces. The word translated as “palace” (pāsāda) can mean anything from the residence of a king, to a building on high foundations, all the way down to a “raised platform.” The “palace” translation is probably shaped by the myth that the Buddha was from a royal family. In fact Bhikkhu Sujato translates pāsāda as “stilt longhouse,” which is historically and archaeologically more accurate, although admittedly less grand.

Myth #7: The Buddha Left Home In the Middle of the Night

Legends detail how the Buddha “went forth” in the middle of the night, tiptoeing through the sleeping concubines who were strewn over his harem so as not to wake them up. He left without saying goodbye to anyone—not even his father, step-mother, or his wife, who had a young child to take care of. How rude!

In the scriptures, however, he talks about how he said farewell to his parents. It’s less dramatic, but again more human and believable. We can’t know for sure, but he probably spent a lot of time talking over his desire to leave home.

When I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair and beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness. [Mahasaccaka Sutta and Ariyapariyesana sutta.]

The reference to “parents” is interesting, since the Buddha’s mother is supposed to have passed away not long after giving birth to him. It could be that “parents” refers to his father and stepmother (his dad married his mother’s sister). Or it could be that the legend of the Buddha’s mother dying after his birth is just that—a legend.

Anyway, the story of the Buddha sneaking out in the middle of the night just doesn’t match with what’s in the early scriptures.

People Get Mad About This Sort of Stuff

When I’ve written about this kind of thing in the past I’ve ended up getting a fair amount of hate mail. Some Hindus don’t like it if you say there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu. Some Buddhists don’t like it if you say the Buddha wasn’t a prince, or in fact contradict anything they believe in. I get called names.

One of the emphases in the Buddha’s early teachings was not clinging to views. When we cling to beliefs, he pointed out, we end up disputing and fighting with each other.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have views, but that we should hold them lightly, not fight over them, and be prepared to change our views in response to new evidence. You might want the Buddha to have been a prince, for example, because that’s what you’re used to hearing. And you might get angry when you hear otherwise. But if the scriptural and historical evidence points in other directions then it’s wise for us to change our views.

If you found yourself getting indignant while reading this article, that’s a fair indication that there’s some clinging going on. That’s normal. But clinging leads to suffering. So let go. Adapt. You’ll be happier!

PS. Here’s an article by scholar Peter Harvey, called In Search of the Real Buddha, that covers some of the same ground and debunks some of the other mythology surrounding the Buddha.

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The deep practice of just being peace

Recently I’ve been reading The Buddha Before Buddhism, by Gil Fronsdal, which is a translation of what is believed to be one of the oldest Buddhist teachings. It’s had a powerful effect on the way I practice.

It’s interesting how simple this text is. There are no lists: no elaborate eightfold path, no detailed exposition of four noble truths. Rebirth comes up mainly when discussing the beliefs of other teachers; the effects of our actions are mainly discussed in terms of this life, here and now.

There’s nothing about Nirvana, or some future state of spiritual breakthrough. Bliss or happiness are not the main goals; peace is.

And that is the part I find most interesting. Peace, or being at peace, is the goal. There’s not a great deal of emphasis on how to get there in the future. Instead it seems that we’re just to be there now.

And that’s where the effect of reading The Buddha Before Buddhism comes in. I’ve found myself simply noticing whether “unpeace” has arisen, and simply pausing. Sometimes the thought, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” arises.

That thought triggers spontaneous action. I ask, “How do I move my body in such a way that peace manifests?” Well, I move slowly and gracefully. “How do I eat in such a way that I feel at peace?” I eat slowly and mindfully, and without trying to do anything else at the same time.

If I’m feeling a bit tired and over-stimulated the question, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” triggers the desire to rest. I put down whatever I’m doing, and just become aware of my surroundings, my body, my breathing, and so on. It’s not necessary to be happy; just to be at peace.

If I find myself anxious, the question is not “How do I get rid of this anxiety,” but how do I be at peace with this anxiety?” And my mind seems to already know to stop striving to be free of anxiety, and instead to accept it with mindfulness and kindness. There’s no need to get rid of anxiety in order to be at peace. Peace and anxious states can co-exist.

These “questions” that I’ve mentioned don’t necessarily appear as words. It’s more of a wordless realization that there is a state of peace that’s accessible, and that a way can be found to allow it to arise. It’s just like when I’m going to the local post office: I don’t need to talk myself through the journey. I don’t need to say, “OK, now I go up these stairs, then I turn left onto Main Street, then I cross the road at the lights…” Just as it’s enough to know that the post office is my destination for my feet to be able to find their own way there, it’s enough for me to remember that peace is what I want, and then my body and mind will take me there.

And there’s no intellectual process I have to work through in order to figure out how to respond. I don’t need to think anything through. The movement toward peace just happens spontaneously.

I suspect that for most people the greatest barrier would be the belief that they have to do something in order to get themselves to a state of peace. But really you don’t need to do anything. You just need to get out of the way and to let peace happen. You don’t need to learn what to do: your mind and body already know what needs to be let go of.

Another barrier might be the habit we have of constantly thinking that we have to defer wellbeing for sometime — specified or unspecified — in the future. “I just have to get out of debt,” of “I can be happy once I’ve lost 20 pounds,” or “I can relax once this busy spell is over.” This really is a habit of unconsciously deferring wellbeing — often to a time that never arrives, since we keep thinking of new things that have to be done before we can feel happy.

But the practice I’ve been doing is very simple and immediate. It’s also radically simple. And in my experience so far it’s been surprisingly effective.

A third barrier might well be that of expectations. We might have the expectation that peace is something extraordinary. And so when peace is present, and seems quite ordinary, we might think “This can’t be it” and return to craving some kind of ideal state, rejecting the peace that’s already present.

The “solution” to these barriers — grasping, deferring, rejecting — is incredibly simple. It’s just what I’ve said, which is asking, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace.” Let go of grasping, right now, and experience peace. Let go of deferring happiness right now, and just be at peace. Let go of your resistance to peace, and just experience it.

Peace is right here, right now. Stop ignoring it, and let it be your experience. Just be peace.

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New Year Ramblings

What I’m up to
On January 1st I launch the online Mindfulness-Based Addiction Recovery course for 28 days. Mindfulness Based Addiction Recovery course during the month of January 2018. For people in recovery and people working in the field of recovery

Join me – and free your mind from addictive behaviours and substances. It takes 21 days to change a habit, and a lifetime to maintain the change. You lose the past and gain a new freedom. All addictive behaviours begin in the body. Sensations in the body drive our habits. And the breath can put a break on our habits. By breathing fully into the body and out with awareness. Sounds simple but not easy. And Guess what. You have me to coach you daily for 28 days.

What I’m Thinking
I need to pay attention to my personal recovery. It’s so easy to be out there in the world writing books, giving talks, coaching people and changing lives. And it’s so easy for me to neglect myself and not be walking my talk. The Buddha was inspired by a mendicant begging for alms. He thought that this beggar may have the answer, and why? This beggar was not clothed as a Saddhu, a Deva, or an Asura. He was not on top of a mountain giving great sermons. He was simply radiating stillness, simplicity and contentment. This is what I’m thinking about by right now. Can I simply live recovery breath by breath, and let the teachings that flow from me just be icing on the cake.

Inspiring Quote
“Consider the eight-part program laid down in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right-mindedness and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self-care basic to Buddhism”.
This was written by the co-founder of AA Dr Bob in a pamphlet called Spiritual Milestones. This is a priceless gem because many people often question how does Buddhist Recovery fit in with their 12 step Recovery? Or wonder if Buddhist Recovery will contradict their 12 step program?

What I’m Watching
The Dhamma Brothers
Unfortunately, this is a documentary you have to pay for. And it’s worth every cent. This documentary follows the lives of several men in a maximum security prison in the USA, with one of them on death row. Donaldson correction centre in Massachusetts was the first prison in the West to introduce ten-day Vipassana retreats as taught by SN Goenka. Two of Goenka’s assistant teachers moved into prison for ten days and slept in a prison cell for the duration of the course. The impact on the men is moving to the extent it changes some of their lives forever. Ten hours a day of focussing on the bodily sensations and 10 days of noble silence, transformed a whole prison culture. The course was such a success that the people who taught it couldn’t wait to go back to prison and teach it again.

What I’m Obsessing about
I have a year of travel, retreats, public speaking, and professional training. I’ve been thinking about how to take good care of myself. Because for anyone who is in recovery from addictive behaviours and substances this can be a time of picking up and relapsing. So it’s a time for me to work my recovery program.

What I noticed
When we help others we help ourselves. And when we help ourselves we help others. On Christmas day I travelled by ferry to the city and opened up the doors of my Buddhist centre for our weekly session Recovery Mondays. Five people turned up, and we meditated on forgiveness and spoke about the family members we needed to make peace with, in our thoughts. I noticed that I still have some resentment towards my mother. I’m angry because she wants to re-write my story and tell me what she thinks she did, rather than what she did. Laughable, so what if she wants to re-write my story. I can rewrite mine too. It was a delightful evening getting in touch with this awareness and sharing the evening with others. I see more clearly that making peace with my mother does not mean I have to be in physical contact with her, it means I have to cultivate positivity every time she comes to mind and wish her unconditional loving-kindness.

Something I’m doing
I’ve asked someone to mentor me through my own 8 Step Recovery Program. I figure that if I expect others to be mentored through the program I could at least see what it’s like to be mentored. More about this next month.

New Updated Edition of Detox Your Heart – Meditations on Emotional Trauma 2017

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Happy New Breath

Woman in water, breathing out bubbles

Every breath can be the beginning of a new year. One breath at a time can seem a long time for people in recovery. Many people are afraid to connect to the subtle sensations in the nostrils and on the upper lip, that we label as the breath. Connecting to the subtle sensations of breathing means we have to slow down and become aware of our body, thoughts and feelings.

Those of us with addictions are often trying to flee the body, feelings and thoughts. Instead of coming back to the body, we are trying to have out-of-body experiences, get high, have altered states, and not be in touch with everyday reality.

The Buddha taught the four foundations of mindfulness. The contemplation of the body, feelings, thoughts and mind objects (like hindrances, six senses, the five skandhas and the seven factors of enlightenment).

This is what the Buddha taught. He taught the practise of anapanasati to help us contemplate these four foundations. He taught us how to breathe again. This is the essence, the pulse of this practice. Inhaling and exhaling, aware of the length, and sensation of each breathing moment. Allowing breathing to soothe the body, to soothe mental formation, to liberate the heart, and relinquish all habits.

A whole lifetime passes in each breathing moment. What we do in each moment impacts the next. With every inhale there is an exhale until the last breathing moment.

The past connects to the present, and the present connects to the future. Just like the inhale and exhale. By having awareness of every breathing moment we can impact this flow of reality.

How many of us are aware of breathing? Have you ever tried to be attached to breathing? Attachment only arises when we have the difficulty of breathing. When we don’t inhale enough oxygen it causes us to choke, have asthma attacks, or struggling for another inhale and exhale.

When we experience excitement or upset, our bodies can contract, we interrupt the flow of breathing. Rarely do we experience the full capacity of inhaling and exhaling. We need to be aware that lack of oxygen to the brain and heart befuddles our mental states and at worse brain damage. On an emotional level when our brain and hearts do not receive enough oxygen, we strangle our hearts and mind, and cause damage to our whole body. Anger, hatred, ill will, and even obsessive love is the cause of emotional brain and or heart damage.

The Buddha teaches us to become aware of breathing, because this is the antidote to the poisons of the heart like, greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddha rediscovered the way through breathing.

You could ask yourself, “When did I stop breathing?”

Take some minutes to reflect on this question, perhaps repeating it to yourself several times. I stopped breathing the day my biological mother left me somewhere and never came back. As a 6 week old baby, I most probably learned to scream, kick, and cry, blocking the flow of air, hoping this would soothe my pain.

So let’s relearn breathing.

Inhaling, I know I am breathing in. Exhaling I know I am breathing out. Give it a go, ten minutes and see what happens.

Happy New Breath.

New Updated Edition of Detox Your Heart – Meditations on Emotional Trauma 2017

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Insight is not enough

flower

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight. (Let’s just accept the loaded word “gaining” for now.) On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts.

As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal many people set themselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insight into non-self. And while that is crucial to attaining the goal, simply having insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terns of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other.

This is where we should conceive of our practice leading. This is the goal we should orient our lives around.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of gaining insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning and a sense of despair. These cases are rare, and I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation before the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, there seems to have been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation. Many meditation teachers have an habit of trying to ignore these potential problems, but fortunately they are being studied and hopefully we’ll learn more about them in time.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. Developing insight removes certain barriers to the arising of skillful qualities and (often) to the dropping away of some of the grossly unskillful ones, but it takes effort to actually bring about growth.

I’d encourage you, then, to develop, on the cushion and in daily life, the qualities I’ve mentioned. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

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Turning towards the sting of suffering

Tattoo of three arrows on a man's back, surrounded by inflamed skin

Suffering is the beginning of the path.

What is suffering? It’s traditionally described as an ill fitting wheel on a chariot. I tend to think of a buckled wheel on my bicycle. It’s a bumpy unsatisfactory journey from A to B. However suffering can be an invitation for us to do the work.

The Buddha has done the work for us. All we need to do is practice. When the Prince became distressed at the sight of aging, sickness and death, he stepped onto the path. He was inspired by a mendicant who was radiating peace and begging for alms. With great energy, faith, meditation, concentration and wisdom, he found an end to suffering and laid out the map of the four noble truths and the eightfold path.

While these teachings may seem too much to take on, we can begin doing the work by turning towards the unpleasant. When we turn towards the unpleasant, it takes the longevity out of suffering.

However, many of us find it difficult to face the sting of unpleasantness. Somebody gives us feedback, and there is the sting of sensations arising in the body, if we face the unpleasantness that arises in the body, the stinger will dissolve with time.

When a bee stings us, the best thing we can do is turn towards the sting and pull the stinger out. We must do the same when we have been stung by an external or internal action. We must embrace the entire experience of the human condition.

If we turn away from the sensations in the body, the stinger will calcify and our suffering will multiply.

Turning away from the sting of unpleasantness is limited, because when we do, we are resisting our pain. Shinzen Young says Pain x Resistance = suffering. Our resistance is manifested in our choice of distractions.

In the short term, the bottle of booze, the line of coke, the shot of heroin, even the blast of rage, may seem to take the sting out of the unpleasant. And it does for a while, as we become numb, but once the effects have worn off our suffering has multiplied.

When we turn away from our experience of sensations it put us on the wheel of becoming, the wheel of cyclic existence, the wheel of life. This wheel is a traditional Buddhist teaching on birth, death and our existence in Samsara. Samsara being the total confusion and creation of our inner and external worlds.

At the hub of this wheel is the pig that represents ignorance (delusion). In India it was seen the pig slept in the dirtiest places and ate what ever was fed to it.

Some of us with addictions have slept in some the dirtiest or most dangerous places and have eaten what ever has been fed to us. And that includes dirty drugs, or drinking methylated spirits.

The pig chases the snake. The snake represents aversions/hatred. It’s said that snakes will strike or be aroused at the slightest of touch. Many of us are like this too, we can blow up at the slightest thing and live our life on edge. The snake chases the cock.

The cock represents attachment/greed. The cock is symbolic of those birds that are often attached to their partners. Those of us with addictions are attached to our choice of distraction.

The cock chases the pig, the pig chases the snake and the snake chases the cock, as if they were on a vicious cycle of suffering. They move around and around the hub chasing each others tails.

Every time we turn to our choice of distraction we become one of these creatures running around and around chasing our tails.

Liberation from the Wheel of Life does not mean escape, the Buddha implied. It means clear perception of oneself, of the entire range of the human experience.

Prince Siddhartha vowed to find an end of suffering. He did not vow to gain enlightenment. We must stop chasing enlightenment, those blissful highs, and turn towards our own suffering if we are to gain liberation.

Join me online in July – A course working with our feelings, thoughts, awareness and addictions.

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com.

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Step eight: Helping others to share the benefits we have gained

Eight Step Recovery

When the Prince Siddhartha glimpsed the Fourth Sight, a mendicant begging for alms in the streets, he was inspired to go forth from his life in the palace. You could see this as literally going forth, or the prince going forth from the palace of his mind that had kept him in imprisoned in deluded thinking.

Until he was able to go beyond the four walls of the palace that the King his father had built for him, Siddhartha thought he was never going to age, get sick or die.

Upon seeing the first three sights; an aging person, a sick person and a dead person, he experienced a spiritual crisis and felt compelled to find the way out of all this suffering. The mendicant offered him a way out, the Prince witnessed somebody radiating stillness, simplicity and contentment. This mendicant did not seem concerned about worldly attachments or worried about the demise of his youth, health and life. Siddhartha thought this person may have the answer.

The Eight Steps

This mendicant was sharing the benefits he had gained. And we too can do the same. Just as this mendicant will never know that it was he who inspired the prince to go forth and attain Buddhahood, we too can inspire people by the way we live our lives.

Helping others to share the benefits we have gained does not mean we have to write a book, or set a meeting up or blaze the trail. This is a difficult task, even Shakyamuni when he gained enlightenment hesitated to share the benefits he had gained, as he thought nobody would understand him. Nobody would believe how simple it was to find a way out of suffering. Thankfully he did share the benefits.

All of us are teaching. We teach by the way we live our lives. We teach by the way we integrate our talk with our walk. When we help others we help ourselves. And when we help our selves we help others. This month I am helping others by teaching an Tricycle Magazine Online Retreat. I hope some of you will join me. I continue to help others so I can help myself. Helping others brings my recovery right to the for front of my daily practice. I thank you all for this gift.

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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