wisdom

The third arrow

The weekend that my wife told me she wanted a divorce, she took our kids away so that she could spend a few days with a friend. The children, who were four and six years old at the time, had been at school all day and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them. My wife thought this was no big deal, but to me it was a hard blow at a difficult time, and it set me up for a lonely weekend in an empty home. As with many people, my first instinct was to stuff myself with unhealthy, fatty foods, and to open a bottle of wine.

I imagine that evolutionary biology would say that we’ve evolved the instinct to eat high calorie foods at times of crisis, to help us weather whatever trials are ahead of us. Experientially, fatty, salty, carb-laden food like burgers and fries just feel comforting in the short term. But they often leave us uncomfortable, bloated, sluggish, and unhealthy. I felt this urge, but since I’d been working on being self-compassionate, I decided that a Thai curry, full of fresh vegetables, would be healthier and more pleasurable in the long term. I also avoided the temptation to drink, since I knew that was likely to make me feel depressed and self-pitying. I touched base with a few friends in order to let them know what was going on, and to get some emotional support. I went for a walk. I meditated.

None of this made the emotional pain I was going through vanish. Nor could I expect it to. But I wasn’t hiding from my pain, and I wasn’t doing anything that was going to negatively affect my wellbeing in the long-term. In fact I was doing many things—from exercising to bonding with friends—that would make me more resilient in the future.

The Buddha gave a very well-known teaching on the “two arrows,” which pointed out that the mind reacts to pain with resistance, which then causes more pain. Our initial pain is like being shot by an arrow. The pain that comes from our reactions is like being shot by a second arrow. But there’s a third arrow as well! This third arrow is in the same teaching, but for some reason the Buddha didn’t offer an image to go with it. Here’s how it’s described:

Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure.

It’s not so much pleasure that becomes our escape from pain, but its pursuit. Pursuing pleasure can distract us from pain, even if we never actually experience any pleasure. Emotional eating, trying to drink our sorrows away, compulsive Netflix binges, and so on — if they’re enjoyable at all, they usually end up making us feel worse in some way.

So what kind of arrow is the third arrow? Perhaps we could think of it as an arrow that’s been dipped in a narcotic drug. It numbs us for a while, but it leaves us with an emotional hangover.

The healthy alternative to the third arrow is practicing wise self-care. Wise self-care is any course of action that contributes to our long-term happiness and wellbeing and that helps us to cope better with our painful feelings.

Wise self-care is the opposite of the third arrow. Third arrow activity involves pursuing pleasure in an attempt to escape painful feelings; wise self-care starts with accepting those feelings. Third arrow actions have short-term pleasure as their aim; wise self-care takes into account our long-term happiness and wellbeing

Third arrow actions are reactive and unwise; wise self-care, as the name suggests, comes from a deeper, more mature perspective. Third arrow actions result in more suffering being created; wise self-care reduces our suffering, and in fact liberate us from suffering. Third arrow actions prevent us from growing and learning; wise self-care leads to growth. The third arrow is blind and habitual; wise self-care is aware and consciously chosen.

Wise self-care isn’t necessarily all about dealing with crises, though. It can be an ongoing effort to deal with the minor difficulties we experience in life.

If you keep trying to push away the jarring effect of being in messy surroundings, wise self-care might mean decluttering the house. If you worry about money and find looking at your bank balance to be stressful, it might mean creating a household budget. If you have low energy, wise self-care might mean getting eight hours of sleep, or taking a walk on your lunch break. It might involve making sure you see the doctor annually and the dentist twice a year, or taking a day off when you’re sick. It might mean setting up a daily meditation practice, or reading a book instead of watching TV. These are things that help us, and that also help us to help others. If we take care of and nourish ourselves, then we have more energy to help support others. In the long run, we need to take care of ourselves if we’re to be of service to others.

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Taking your hands off the controls

As living organisms anxious about our existence, we’re all naturally rigged to want to manage our lives with the goal of creating more pleasure and less pain for ourselves. Yet so many things are completely out of our control—aging, sickness, dying, other people dying, other people acting in ways we don’t like, our own moods and emotions…it’s all out of our hands.

Even so, when this automatic habit of controlling takes over, when our whole identity is in the persona of The Controller, we become removed from the qualities of presence, freshness, and spontaneity; we lose the ability to respond from a wiser, more compassionate place.

You might begin to notice this in your own life. For instance when you’re with another person and are feeling anxious, notice The Controller in you who’s trying to be experienced in a certain way. You might notice that the more insecure you feel, the more The Controller will hop into action.

We all have our different ways of becoming The Controller. Sometimes we try to control by framing or presenting things in a certain way to elicit a certain response. Some of us control by withdrawing. For instance, we might find ourselves thinking, “Okay, if you’re going to treat me this way, then I’m going to pull back.”

Another way we control is by withdrawing from ourselves, by shutting down. One football coach talks about an exchange with a former player: “I told him, ‘What is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?’ The player said, ‘Coach, I don’t know, and I don’t care.’”

We also try to control by worrying. It’s completely ineffective, but it’s what we do. We worry and obsess; we think and we plan.

Yet even though wanting to control things is a natural part of our biology, the question is: are we doing it in a way that causes our identity to be completely wrapped up in it? Often, when we’re trying to manage everything, we tend to get locked into an experience of ourselves as a tight, egoist self, and lose sight of who we really are.

In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes how, in the 1950s, a few highly trained pilots were attempting to fly at altitudes higher than had ever been achieved. The first pilots to face this challenge responded by frantically trying to stabilize their planes when they went out of control. They would apply correction after correction, yet, because they were way out of the earth’s atmosphere, the rules of thermodynamics no longer applied, so the planes just went crazy. The more furiously they manipulated the controls, the wilder the rides became. Screaming helplessly to ground control, “What do I do next?!” the pilots would plunge to their deaths.

This tragic drama occurred several times until one of the pilots, Chuck Yeager, inadvertently struck upon a solution. When his plane began to tumble, Yeager was thrown violently around in the cockpit and knocked out. Unconsciously, he plummeted toward Earth. Seven miles later, the plane re-entered the planet’s denser atmosphere, where standard navigation strategies could be implemented. He steadied the craft and landed. In doing so, he had discovered the only life-saving response that was possible in this desperate situation: don’t do anything. Take your hands off the controls.

It’s the exact same way with us. As Wolfe wrote, “It’s the only solution that you had. You take your hands off the controls.”

Hopefully, you can bypass being knocked unconscious to discover this truth! What you can do is begin to notice whenever you have somehow become The Controller, and just pause, notice what’s happening, and ask yourself, “what is this like?” What does my body feel like? My heart? What is my mind like? Is there any space at all? Do I like myself when I’m identified as The Controller?

This pause gives the possibility of a new choice. You might ask yourself, “What would happen if I just took my hands off the controls a little? What would happen if I simply attended to the present moment, to the experience of being here and now?”

As you slowly begin to take your hands off the controls, it’s important to bring compassion to whatever arises, since, behind the controlling is often anxiety, fear, and sometimes even panic. It can even help to bring a hand to your heart, breathe with it, and feel that your touch is offering kindness to that insecurity.

The next time you find yourself in some way trying desperately to land safely, your compassion might be what finally gives you the courage you need to let go of the controls. In doing so, you might discover that each time you let go, it becomes easier and easier to re-enter the atmosphere of your own aliveness. Gradually you’ll come home to the flow of your own living presence, the warmth and space of your awakening heart.

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The art of self-forgiveness

Everyone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, King David, the Buddha, everybody.

It’s important to acknowledge mistakes, feel appropriate remorse, and learn from them so they don’t happen again. But most people keep beating themselves up way past the point of usefulness: they’re unfairly self-critical.

Inside the mind are many sub-personalities. For example, one part of me might set the alarm clock for 6 am to get up and exercise . . . and then when it goes off, another part of me could grumble: “Who set the darn clock?” More broadly, there is a kind of inner critic and inner protector inside each of us. For most people, that inner critic is continually yammering away, looking for something, anything, to find fault with. It magnifies small failings into big ones, punishes you over and over for things long past, ignores the larger context, and doesn’t credit you for your efforts to make amends.

Therefore, you really need your inner protector to stick up for you: to put your weaknesses and misdeeds in perspective, to highlight your many good qualities surrounding your lapses, to encourage you to keep getting back on the high road even if you’ve gone down the low one, and – frankly – to tell that inner critic to Shut Up.

With the support of your inner protector, you can see your faults clearly with fearing that will drag you into a pit of feeling awful, clean up whatever mess you’ve made as best you can, and move on. The only wholesome purpose of guilt, shame, or remorse is learning – not punishment! – so that you don’t mess up in that way again. Anything past the point of learning is just needless suffering. Plus excessive guilt, etc., actually gets in the way of you contributing to others and helping make this world a better place, by undermining your energy, mood, confidence, and sense of worth.

Seeing faults clearly, taking responsibility for them with remorse and making amends, and then coming to peace about them: this is what I mean by forgiving yourself.

How?

Start by picking something relatively small that you’re still being hard on yourself about, and then try one or more of the methods below. I’ve spelled them out in detail since that’s often useful, but you could do the gist of these methods in a few minutes or less.

Then if you like, work up to more significant issues.

Here we go:

  • Start by getting in touch, as best you can, with the feeling of being cared about by some being: a friend or mate, spiritual being, pet, or person from your childhood. Open to the sense that aspects of this being, including the caring for you, have been taken into your own mind as parts of your inner protector.
  • Staying with feeling cared about, list some of your many good qualities. You could ask the protector what it knows about you. These are facts, not flattery, and you don’t need a halo to have good qualities like patience, determination, fairness, or kindness.
  • If you yelled at a child, lied at work, partied too hard, let a friend down, cheated on a partner, or were secretly glad about someone’s downfall – whateverit was – acknowledge the facts: what happened, what was in your mind at the time, the relevant context and history, and the results for yourself and others. Notice any facts that are hard to face – like the look in a child’s eyes when you yelled at her – and be especially open to them; they’re the ones that are keeping you stuck. It is always the truth that sets us free.
  • Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt, remorse, or shame, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more. (This point is very important.) You could ask others what they think about this sorting (and about other points below) – include those you may have wronged – but you alone get to decide what’s right. For example, if you gossiped about someone and embellished a mistake he made, you might decide that the lie in your exaggeration is a moral fault deserving a wince of remorse, but that casual gossip (which most of us do, at one time or another) is simply unskillful and should be corrected (i.e., never done again) without self-flagellation.
  • In an honest way, take responsibility for your moral fault(s) and unskillfulness. Say in your mind or out loud (or write): I am responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . Let yourself feel it. Then add to yourself: But I am NOT responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . For example, you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in.
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, and to repair things and make amends. Let this sink in. Appreciate yourself. Next, decide what if anything remains to be done – inside your own heart or out there in the world – and then do it. Let it sink in that you’re doing it, and appreciate yourself for this, too.
  • Now check in with your inner protector: is there anything else you should face or do? Listen to that “still quiet voice of conscience,” so different from the pounding scorn of the critic. If you truly know that something remains, then take care of it. But otherwise, know in your heart that what needed learning has been learned, and that what needed doing has been done.
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, in writing, or perhaps to others statements like: I forgive myself for ______ , _______ , and _______ . I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better. You could also ask the inner protector to forgive you, or others out in the world, including maybe the person you wronged.
  • You may need to go through one or more the steps above again and again to truly forgive yourself, and that’s alright. Allow the experience of being forgiven to take some time to sink in. Help it sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others for you to stop beating yourself up.

May you be at peace.

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Mindfulness and the big picture

Someone asked me:

I keep hearing about mindfulness where one needs to pay attention to everything. But I am a bit confused and hoping someone can explain it to me in details. Am I supposed to be mindful of everything all at the same time? For example, every time I talk, I automatically remember to be careful about what words I should use. But how can one be mindful of everything all at the same time?

Actually, it’s not necessary, and usually not possible or desirable, to pay attention to everything at once. Right now I’m typing these words, and so I’m not paying attention to the sounds coming from outside the house. I could pause and listen to the sound of a passing airplane, but then I’d have to stop typing. So what’s my purpose — listening or typing? Right now I want to type.

But if I want to type, then I need to check my posture from time to time to make sure it’s going to support my purpose. If my posture had been trained to be perfect, then I wouldn’t need to do this. But it’s not perfect, so I pause for a second and check in with my body. I notice I’m slumping a little; I straighten up. What’s my purpose? Typing. Why am I paying attention to my posture? Because I want to type.

There’s a cluster of things I need to pay attention to if I want to type. I’ve mentioned posture, but I might in certain circumstances have to pause and reflect on what I’m going to say: that’s mindfulness of my thinking. I might have to pause and pay attention to how I feel. I might notice I’m tired and it’s time to rest.

Another example: My questioner mentioned being aware of the words he’s using in conversation. You need to do that. But you’d also want to be aware of the person you’re talking to, because you want to know what effect your words are having. Is the other person understanding you? What’s their emotional response to what you’re saying? To know that, you have to pay attention to them, and also to yourself — you’ll sense whether the other person is at ease by sensing whether you are at ease, for example.

And you need to be aware of what your response is to what they say to you. Again, you need to notice your feelings, what your thoughts are, etc.

Again, there’s a natural set of experiences that you need to pay attention to while you’re in a conversation with someone. The factors I’ve mentioned aren’t meant to be exhaustive. For example, sometimes when I’m listening to someone talk, my mind tends to wander to something I’m preoccupied with, and so I find it helpful to notice the movements of the breathing in my belly in order that I can stay grounded.

But when you’re in a conversation you probably don’t want to be paying attention to a passing airplane, to the sound of a ticking clock, or to another conversation that’s going on elsewhere. Those are distractions to your purpose, which is being in communication with the other person.

So what you do is dependent on what your overall purpose is. We don’t practice mindfulness for the sake of practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t an end in itself. It’s a tool. There are a few times we want to be open to everything that’s arising — for example in meditation — but that’s quite rare, and done as a form of training. Generally, you need to bear in mind what you’re actually doing (this is called sampajañña) and then pay attention to a set of experiences connected with that task (this is called sati).

I’m not suggesting being dogmatic, and sometimes you’ll need to shift your purpose. Having the attitude “I’m not going to pay attention to what my colleague is saying because I’m typing” isn’t helpful. There are higher-order purposes and you need to have some common sense. Harmony with others is one of those. If there’s an interruption from another person, you need to deal with it.

This need for higher order purposes is implicit in the Buddha’s eightfold path, of which mindfulness is just part. A key aspect of the eightfold path is the first, samma-ditthi, which is right view. It’s right view that gives us our overall context or purpose in life: for me the simplest way to look at this big picture is that Buddhism is about learning how we cause suffering for ourselves and others, so that we can find freedom from suffering. That view then carries over into the other factors of the path. To take just the example of the second factor of the path, samma sankappa, what emotions do we want to encourage and which do we want to discourage? Emotions of greed and hatred cause suffering. Compassion, patience, etc. free us from suffering. Right view tells us where we want to be headed, while mindfulness lets us know what we’re working with and monitors our progress. I don’t intend to do a full description of the eightfold path—just to illustrate that mindfulness traditionally has a broader context, and can’t be understood without reference to the big picture.

Mindfulness stripped of that context—stripped of its Buddhist context and secularized, as it often is—is still a useful tool, but it can also be confusing, as my questioner has found.

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Drop the load

Are you doing too much?

You may have seen the old Mickey Mouse movie in which he is working at a conveyor belt in a factory. More and more widgets come at him that he has to handle, and he gets increasingly frazzled as he struggles to keep up.

Do you ever feel the same way? Think about all the dishes, emails, meetings, reports, drives, calls returned, laundry folded, children tucked into bed, friends comforted, errands run, etc. etc. Most of a person’s tasks, even all of them, could be individually rewarding and done for a good purpose, but taken as a whole they’re often too much. It’s certainly gotten this way for me.

Doing crowds out being, the urgent crowds out the important, and you go to bed after working hard all day feeling frustrated and maybe self-critical that you didn’t get more done. Meanwhile, the stress chemistry of your body has gotten jacked up since hurrying, multi-tasking, and feeling pressured trigger essentially the same hormonal and neural mechanisms that helped our ancestors run away from charging lions. At the heart of it all there’s an unfreedom: you can feel chained to obligatory tasks.

What to do?

How?

Take on Fewer Tasks
Of course it’s good to make an effort, to hold up your end of the log. You honor your previous commitments. And sometimes new things come your way – some wonderful, some not – that do require a lot of work, like having children, finishing college, starting a business, or getting through an unexpected and serious illness.

But when you can – and this has become very important for me lately – be careful about adding new, discretionary items into the commitments hopper. Give yourself time to think. Be really really clear about all the little things that will come with this additional obligation, including new things you’ll have to think about or take time doing. Are the rewards of the new commitment really worth these costs?

Don’t be hypnotized by the rewards of the new thing. Wisdom is choosing a greater happiness over a lesser one. Sometimes you have to give up the lesser rewards of the new thing for the greater rewards of allowing some new space to clear in your life.

Put a Fence around Doing
As a young man I worked briefly in a factory loading cases of soft drinks onto pallets for trucks. It was hard physical labor, but at the end of the shift when we clocked out it was definitively over – what a relief. Similarly, set a time each day when you are truly done: no more emails, no more housework, no more projects. You made an effort today, you did what you could, and now you’re clocked out.

A related way to approach this is in terms of the saying, “first put the big rocks in your bucket.” In other words, make time commitments to what you value more that will push what you value less to the margins. If you value exercise, commit to a class at the gym or reschedule dinner to give you time for a run when you get home from work. If you value meditation or prayer in the morning, get to bed half an hour sooner so you can get up half an hour earlier to do your practice. Imagine looking back on your life: will you care that you got all those To Do’s done or care that you did the things that mattered most to you?

Shift Your Relationship to Tasks
Getting stuff done sometimes seems like the secular religion of the developed world, especially in America, where we routinely make sacrifices at the altar of doingness. I’m this way myself: my main compulsion/addiction is crossing off items on my To Do list. Instead, try to see task-doing in a freer and more disenchanted way.

Watch your mind and its sense of “must” when it comes to tasks. Keep returning to the feeling that you are choosing to do the task, not driven to it. Remind yourself – when it’s true – that you actually don’t have to do a particular task. Try to calm down any sense of drivenness or urgency. Slow down a little. Try to do tasks from the “green zone” in which you experience that your fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection are already basically being met.

See the ways that your attention narrows down on the next thing to do and the one after that. Try to stay aware of the big picture, that things as a whole are fine, that this particular task in front of you is just a tiny tile in a huge mosaic. It’s not worth getting tense or intense about.

When you do finish a task, take a moment to register it. Let an appropriate sense of completion and satisfaction land before rushing on to the next thing. Keep in mind the ways that a mundane task is linked to larger things. Changing a diaper is linked to loving and protecting a child; driving to work is linked to providing for oneself and others.

Recognize That Tasks Are “Empty”
And, if it’s meaningful to you, you can try something I’ve been exploring lately. Be aware of the experience of doing a task – the sights and sounds and emotions while washing dishes, say – and then notice how the experience is made up of many parts that constantly change and blend into each other. While the plate in your hand is substantial – you can hold onto it – your experience of the plate is not: the sensations and images of the plate are insubstantial; you can’t hold onto them. Your experience of the plate – and everything else, too – is “empty” of independent substantiality.

When you look at task-doing this way – not so much as things happening “out there” but as experiences happening “in here” – and you can see the multi-part, fleeting, insubstantial, and “empty” nature of these experiences, something shifts. You feel freer inside, less bound to tasks, and more relaxed and open. When seen as empty – not meaningless and not nonexistent, but insubstantial and ephemeral – the anticipated pleasures of getting stuff done aren’t as compelling and the anticipated pains of not doing aren’t as worrisome. You still get a lot done, but in a more peaceful way.

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Compassion and causing pain (Day 36)

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe other day I wrote about “Idiot Compassion,” which I described as ‘…avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a harm time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”’

Idiot compassion, a term Chogyam Trungpa adapted from Gurdjieff, lacks both wisdom and courage. We don’t want to jeopardize being thought of as a “nice person” and so we’re unwilling to be direct with people when that’s needed. We’re afraid to say ‘no’ to our children, for example. This is the lack of courage.

And we lack the ability to see that our actions will only lead to more suffering. That’s the lack of wisdom. So when you’re naive and too quick to place trust in someone, you’re not being compassionate, you’re just making an unwise decision.

Someone on Facebook raised an interesting objection:

Compassion is central to Buddhism, and I think it’s a bit more complicated that shying away from causing pain because it will cause some people to suffer more in the future. I mean, isn’t that the type of reasoning that Buddhist monks in Burma are using to justify their attacks against Rohingya Muslims? Don’t get me wrong, I hear what you are saying, but I don’t agree that true compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. I think statements like that totally miss the point of compassion in Buddhism.

The point that “Compassion [is] … a bit more complicated than [not?] shying away from causing pain because it will cause some people to suffer more in the future” is perfectly valid, but then I’d never said that that was all there was to compassion. In fact I’d made the point that even in those circumstances where you have to be compassionate and made hard decisions, a lot of self-awareness, empathy, and wisdom are required. It’s not easy to be wisely compassionate.

And the defining characteristic of compassion is that it’s about wanting people to be free from pain, and from the causes of pain, which are unskillful states of delusion, grasping, and aversion. So most of the time we aren’t going to be causing pain while acting compassionately. These are relatively rare events for most of us. Some of us may know addicts, or people who have dysfunctional lifestyles, and may often have to practice the tough compassion of saying “no.” Those of us who have children have to do that a lot. But most of our compassion is just compassion — sensing the pain of others and responding with kindness. Hopefully that’s going to be experienced on the other end as supportive, encouraging, and sympathetic, with no hint of harshness or judgement. Usually we only need to be tough when others are trying to use us to enable their own dysfunctions.

Isn’t that the type of reasoning that Buddhist monks in Burma are using to justify their attacks against Rohingya Muslims?

If you’re unaware, there are Buddhist monks in Burma who are actively persecuting the minority Muslim population. They have been stirring up hatred and encouraging violence. Sometimes they’ve been participating in violence, against every precept of Buddhism.

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But they haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, been saying that they’re acting compassionately. They are more apt to say that they are “protecting Buddhism,” which is of course nonsense since they are destroying Buddhism by violating its central tenet of nonviolence, and by bringing Buddhism into disrepute world-wide.

But even if those monks were saying that they were motivated by compassion, this would in no way be a valid interpretation of compassionate action within the Buddha’s ethical framework.

Here’s the Buddha on violence:

“Here, student, some woman or man is a killer of living beings, murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell.”

And here he is on compassion:

“But here some woman or man, having abandoned the killing of living beings, abstains from killing living beings, lays aside the rod and lays aside the knife, is considerate and merciful and dwells compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world.”

Leaving aside the heaven and hell aspect, the Buddha consistently presents compassion and violence as diametrically opposed, and mutually exclusive.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha makes clear the empathic reasons for abstaining from causing harm:

All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

And in the famous parable of the saw, he pointed out that if you experience anger even when sawed limb from limb by bandits, then in that moment you are not following his teachings. So it’s clear that these so-called monks are not following the Buddha’s teachings on compassion.

I hear what you are saying, but I don’t agree that true compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. I think statements like that totally miss the point of compassion in Buddhism.

In the sutta I quoted from in my post the other day, the example was of a child with a sharp object lodged in its throat. What would you do? You want to help the child, but you’re going to hurt the child by removing the object. Well, obviously you go ahead and remove it, because the harm done by not acting is much greater.

Similarly, if you’re a doctor acting out of compassion you don’t shy away from inflicting pain by giving injections, resetting bones, etc. It is going to hurt people to tell them they have cancer; would a compassionate doctor shy away from causing pain in that circumstance? Of course not.

So sometimes when we’re acting compassionately, we have to accept that it’s going to cause hurt or pain. We don’t want to cause hurt or pain. That’s not our intention. But it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen.

But we do have to be careful of rationalizing — that is, of explaining away unkind actions by saying that they’re for the good of others. You do see that happening. One of the forms of rationalization that most bothers me is when adults hit children “for their own good.” I don’t think that’s ever necessary or acceptable. And when this is described as “love,” I shudder, for I sense a deep confusion about what love is. If there’s any desire to inflict pain as punishment, this isn’t love or compassion. This is power and control.

If there’s ever any mental harshness in your mind about the other person, or words calculated to hurt, then beware! You probably need to get in touch with your own vulnerability, and to recognize that you too mess up, that you too create suffering for yourself, despite your best efforts not to do so. You need to try to understand the other person’s confusion and delusion. They are seeking happiness in the things they do, although they may be very deluded and doing things that can’t possibly make them happy in the long term.

And most importantly, if there’s any trace of pleasure taken in delivering bad news, or in saying “no,” or in any way hurting people’s feelings, that’s an indication that cruelty is present. And when cruelty is present, compassion is absent.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Fourth reminder: the defects of samsara

Ocean wave

Samsara
Is an ocean of suffering,
Unendurable,
Unbearably intense.

Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

So what is Samsara? Most of us have heard of Nirvana. And assume Samsara is the exact opposite. Nirvana is more the juxtaposition of Samsara that can give a feeling of balance. Nirvana and Samsara are here, in this present moment. Both of them right here, right now. If we have suffered from an addiction we would have experienced a taste of what Samsara could be.

I’m not sure it is helpful to define either concept. Though of course Samsara is some of what I have alluded to before. Our lack of recognizing that we have had a precious birth, our denial of our own death, the karma of taking a human body, all this is Samsara. It is the cycle of life, and it’s consequence of decay and death.

All beings have suffered for eons, and will continue to do so until Nirvana is attained. Nirvana is more than a state of bliss or peace. It is indefinable. But I would say that we are moving towards it if we can cultivate, equanimity, simplicity, stillness and contentment in our lives.

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I’m aware of having spoken much about the finality of life, or the part of the cycle of life which is death. But there are many of us who will get sick for a prolonged time before we die. Many of us who will age, and loose much of our mobility and even our faculties before we die. Samsara is right in this moment of not accepting, old age and sickness. It is possible to be happy in sickness, happy in old age, and happy at the point of death.

How can this be? The Buddhist path offers a path of liberation, a path of ethics, meditation and wisdom. This threefold path can lead us to the point of seeing that there is an end of suffering, and if we take this path it will lead us away from suffering. It will point us in the direction of Nirvana.

There is much hope in life, if we take the opportunity and invite the full cycle of life into our hearts and minds. I find myself reflecting on the following questions often.

  • How do we hold death lightly?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may be diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to an old age with little mobility?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to be a 100, be well, but have no friends or family alive around me?
  • How do I live?

I must live in the now. Moment by moment without the distraction of the past or the future.

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Day 12 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 012Almost everyone is going around making judgments all the time, about others — and about themselves. It’s hard to remember to be compassionate, or to actually be compassionate if we remember. Here’s one perspective that helps me.

Behind every negative emotion, there’s a positive intent or valid need. So when we’re grumpy and unpleasant to people, for example, there’s a need and an intent to defend ourselves (our feelings being fragile and easily provoked at that time). When we crave something it’s because we’re short on happiness, and see the object of our craving as a source of the happiness we need. When we’re worrying about something we’re looking for a solution to something we find threatening. And so on.

Negative emotions are strategies for achieving happiness. The problem with them is that they don’t work! In fact they cause us further problems, which we then try to solve using more negative emotion. This is the vicious cycle that the Buddha called samsara — the endless “Faring on.”

Mindfulness and compassion are more effective strategies for dealing with those same needs. So our feelings are fragile and we mindfully and compassionately pay attention to them so that we don’t bite people’s heads off; we notice our craving, realize we’re in need of happiness, are mindfully aware that the thing we crave isn’t going to work, and seek a more skillful way to bring a sense of well-being into our lives; rather than worrying about change we learn to accept what we can’t change and focus on changing what we can change, etc., etc. The underlying needs, and the intent to meet those needs, are the same. But the way we go about meeting those needs is different. And more effective.

And it’s interesting to realize that all those people who annoy us by not being the way we want them to be (often by acting unskillfully) are themselves blindly trying to find happiness, pursuing failed strategies for the umpteenth time. They’re acting out of suffering, and as a result seek happiness but only end up creating further suffering for themselves and others. Because they don’t know of any alternatives.

When you realize this, it’s easier to be compassionate.

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The radiant awareness living through us

Sometimes you hear a voice through
the door calling you, as fish out of
water hear the waves, or a hunting
falcon hears the drum’s ‘Come Back, Come Back’.
This turning toward what you deeply love
saves you …
—Rumi

Soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha set out to share his teachings with others. People were struck by his extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. One man asked him who he was. “Are you a celestial being or a god?” “No,” responded the Buddha. “Are you a saint or sage?” Again the Buddha responded, “No.” “Are you some kind of magician or wizard?” “No,” said the Buddha. “Well then, what are you?” The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

I often share this story because it is a reminder that what might seem like an extraordinary occurrence — spiritual awakening — is a built-in human capacity. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha’s birth name) was a human being, not a deity. When Buddhists take refuge in the historical Buddha, whose name literally means “one who is awake,” they are drawing on the inspiration of a fellow human who was able to realize his inner freedom.

Like us, Siddhartha experienced bodily pain and disease, and, like us, he encountered inner distress and conflict. For those who follow the Buddha, reflecting on his courageous investigation of reality, and his awakening to a timeless and compassionate presence, brings confidence that this same potential lies within each of us.

In a similar way we might reflect on Jesus or on teachers and healers from other traditions. Any spiritually mature, openhearted human being helps us trust that we too can awaken. You may have already touched upon this outer refuge with a caring and wise teacher or mentor.

My eighty-six-year-old aunt, a specialist in childhood blood diseases, traces her love of nature and her determination to be a doctor to a science class in junior high school. Very few women entered medical school at that time, but her teacher, a woman of passionate intellect, conveyed a pivotal message: “Trust your intelligence and let your curiosity shine!”

An African American friend who leads corporate diversity trainings found refuge and inspiration in his minister, a leader in the civil rights movement and an exemplar of generosity, humor, and wisdom.

I found refuge in my first meditation teacher, Stephen: His great love of meditating, and his own unfolding clarity and kindness, helped awaken my devotion to the spiritual path.

We respond to our mentors because they speak to qualities of heart and mind, qualities of awareness, that are already within us. Their gift is that they remind us of what is possible and call it forth. Much in the same way, we are drawn to spiritual figures that help connect us with our inner goodness.

About ten years ago I began experimenting with a simple self-guided meditation. I would call on the presence of the divine mother (the sacred feminine) and over the next minute or so, I would begin to sense a radiant openness surrounding me. As I imagined the mind of this awakened being, I could sense vastness and lucidity.

Then, as I imagined the heart of the divine mother, that openness filled with warmth and sensitivity. Finally, I’d direct my attention inward, to see how that tender, radiant, all-inclusive awareness was living inside me. I’d feel my body, heart, and mind light up as if the sunlit sky was suffusing every cell of my body and shining through the spaces between the cells.

I’ve come to see that through this meditation, I was exploring the movement from outer refuge to inner refuge.By regularly contacting these facets of sacred presence within me, I was deepening my faith in my own essential being.

Realizing who we are fulfills our human potential. We intuit that we are more mysterious and vast than the small self we experience through our stories and changing emotions. As we learn to attend directly to our own awareness, we discover the timeless and wakeful space of our true nature.

This is the great gift of following a spiritual path: coming to trust that you can find a way to the true refuge of your own loving awareness, your own perfect Buddha nature. You realize that you can start right where you are, in the midst of your life, and find peace in any circumstance. Even at those moments when the ground shakes terribly beneath you—when there’s a loss that will alter your life forever—you can still trust that you willfind your way home. This is possible because you’ve touched the timeless love and awareness that are intrinsic to who you already are.

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Feed the mouse: using appreciation to generate inner nourishment

As the nervous system evolved, your brain developed in three stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

Since the brain is integrated, avoiding, approaching, and attaching are accomplished by its parts working together. Nonetheless, each of these functions is particularly served and shaped by the region of the brain that first evolved to handle it.

Petting your inner lizard was about how to soothe and calm the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. This article continues the series by focusing on how to help the early mammalian parts of your brain feel rewarded, satisfied, and fulfilled: in a word, fed.

This has many benefits. For starters, when you feel fed – physically, emotionally, conceptually, and even spiritually – you naturally let go of longing, disappointment, frustration, and craving. The hungry heart gets a full meal; goals are attained and the striving for them relaxes; one feels lifted by life as it is. What a relief!

Feeling fed also helps you enjoy positive emotions such as pleasure, contentment, accomplishment, ease, and worth. As Barbara Fredrickson and other researchers have shown, these good feelings reduce stress, help people bounce back from illness and loss, strengthen resilience, draw attention to the big picture, and build inner resources. And when your own cup runneth over, studies have found that you’re more inclined to give to others; feeling good helps you do good.

Last, consider this matter in a larger context. Many of us live in an economy that emphasizes endless consumer demand and in a culture that emphasizes endless striving for success and status. Sure, enjoy a nice new sweater and pursue healthy ambitions. But it’s also vitally important – both for ourselves and for the planet whose resources we’re devouring like kids gorging on cake – that we appreciate the many ways we already have so, SO much.

So, in everyday life, draw on opportunities to feel fed – and as you do, really take in these experiences, weaving them into the fabric of your brain and being. For example:

  • While eating, be aware of the food going into you, becoming a part of you. Take pleasure in eating, and know that you are getting enough.
  • While breathing, know that you are getting all the oxygen you need.
  • Absorb sights and sounds, smells and touches. Open to the sense of how these benefit you; for instance, recognize that the seeing of a green light, a passage in a book, or a flower is good for you.
  • Receive the warmth and help of other people, which comes in many ways, including compassion, kindness, humor, practical aid, and useful information.
  • Get a sense of being supported by the natural world: by the ground you walk on, by sunlight and water, by plants and animals, by the universe itself.
  • Feel protected, enabled, and delighted by human craft, ranging from the wheel to the Hubble telescope, with things like glass, paper, refrigerators, the internet, and painkillers in between.
  • Be aware of money coming to you, whether it’s what you’re earning hour by hour or project by project, or the financial support of others (probably in a frame in which you are supporting them in other ways).
  • Notice the accomplishment of goals, particularly little ones like washing a dish, making it to work, or pushing “send” on an email. Register the sense of an aim attained, and help yourself feel at least a little rewarded.
  • Appreciate how even difficult experiences are bringing good things to you. For example, even though exercise can be uncomfortable, it feeds your muscle fibers, immune system, and heart.
  • Right now – having read this list just above – let yourself be fed . . . by knowing that many many things can feed you!

Then, from time to time – such as at meals or just before sleep – take a moment to appreciate some of what you’ve already received. Consider the food you’ve taken in, the things you’ve gotten done, the material well-being you do have, the love that’s come your way. Sure, we’ve all sometimes had to slurp a thin soup; but to put these shortfalls in perspective, take a moment to consider how little so many people worldwide have, a billion of whom will go to bed hungry tonight.

As you register the sense of being fed, in one way or another, help it sink down into yourself. Imagine a little furry part of you that’s nibbling away at all this “food,” chewing and swallowing from a huge, abundant pile of goodies that’s greater than anyone – mouse or human – can ever consume. Take your time with the felt sense of absorbing, internalizing, digesting, There’s more than enough. Let knowing this sink in again and again.

Turn as well into the present – the only time we are ever truly fed. In the past there may not have been enough, in the future there may not be enough . . . but right now, in what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Pure Land of this moment, most of us most of the time are buoyed by so many blessings. Falling open and into the Now, being now, fed by simply being, by being itself.

Being fed.

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