Altruism and Meditation

man holding a bowl in both hands, receiving a serving of soup from another man holding a soup ladle

If meditation is supposed to be a training, a few questions arise. What are we training, what is the objective, and how do we go about training?

Meditation is a training of the mind. The reason for training the mind is because here is where the roots of our experience, our behaviour, our communication and the way we see ourselves are cultivated. The objective is to understand the openness and flexibility within the mind, and train it to become more useful, less problematic, freer and especially more beneficial. And the method is one of patience, small steps that accumulate over time bringing surprising results, felt clearly in our internal and external environment.

The training is quick to point out that our nature is very much centred on the self. This translates into our constant preoccupation in dealing with our own problems. We worry about creating the very best conditions to fulfil our needs. We try and make sure not to be lonely. We try and keep healthy. We entertain ourselves. We try to create reasons to appreciate ourselves through our work, through our opinions and through our lifestyle.

A selfish attitude is not necessarily one of greed, but a more common, all pervasive obsession in our minds with the self, the “I”. Most of everyone’s mind’s energy is focused on the needs of the self. When we look closely and honestly, it is difficult to find a truly selfless concern. It is difficult to find a single thought that has the same level of concern for someone else as we would have for ourselves.

Occasionally, we care about our loved ones, people close to us, friends and family in the same way we would care for ourselves. But we do not get the same level of satisfaction, and perhaps there is some doubt about how far we should go to be helpful. And if we think about people that aren’t so present in our lives, it seems impossible to have any sort of true concern for them. It is difficult to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  It is hard to use our minds for others.

We have been trained this way for a long time – to focus solely and completely on ourselves, what we can gain, what we can develop, who we will be, what others will think of us, what we are capable of, what we can show the world. We would like everyone to know our very own most original view, our most brand new opinion, our uniquely individual personality. We also want to make sure we are safe, secure, smart and cheerful all the time. We want to completely understand ourselves, make sure our lives are totally meaningful and make sure there is no space for regret in anything we do. We want to find a way to be totally free. This, we have been taught, is our mission in life.

Buddhist teachers have suggested for many centuries that this is probably not a healthy way to function in the world, and have gone to great lengths to create and develop methods of counteracting our obsession with the self, by gradually exchanging it for a deep concern for others.

The simple beginning for this training is to realize how much we have been focused on ourselves, how much we have used our intelligence, energy, wisdom, how much we have used our minds almost exclusively to work for ourselves.

Altruism begins with an awareness that our minds are capable of being trained in a more selfless way. This does not have to be a radical change, but starts with a simple thought about how you could be useful to someone else without asking for anything in exchange.

What does it take to be normal?

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Normality has been an ancient obsession of ours. We crave to conform, whether it be to societal norms, groups we identify with, our circle of friends or even what we believe the one person we admire would like us to be.

We create an idea of what being normal is based on what we think others expect. This then becomes what we expect of ourselves. Here are the qualities of what we believe normal to be:

  • Feeling approved by our loved ones, friends and peers
  • Belonging to society
  • Tasting success and fulfilment
  • Experiencing a high quality of life
  • Being appreciated for who we are
  • Keeping emotional stability

And so we work tirelessly to experience these feelings. But if we look closely and examine what being normal actually looks like, we have to look at the majority of people, how we are living our lives and how we feel about it. It seems there are a few qualities essential to the normal life:

  • Feeling somewhere between slightly and very frustrated about something or other. Relationships, career, family, our health and appearance, our quality of life, and the way we spend our time – all of these things that are meant to be fulfilling are often also a source of frustration.
  • Never feeling satisfied – constantly trying to improve our situation, whether materially, financially, emotionally or otherwise.
  • A yearning to get out of this cycle of frustration and craving for a solution.
  • An acceptance of this slightly unsatisfying situation, with an occasional attempt at trying to escape the rat race.

Most normal people around us will not display these qualities openly, and we may admire and aspire to be like them, believing they have achieved a stable, happy existence which we crave so much. But under the veneer of appearances, we often find there is a lot of dissatisfaction. Sometimes we have friends whom we believe are normal. When we get a chance to talk openly, we may find they too are in the same place. They are also trying to figure out and solve problems which keep them from feeling normal.

If being normal is meant to be a happy place, then why aren’t we happier, with a more peaceful stable world where we are all normal, satisfied, successful people? Perhaps it is because we are telling ourselves that there is no end to how normal you can be. There is no end to how much satisfaction you can search for. No end to how perfect life could be.

We could have a better love life, a better job, more independence, and more money. We could be more spiritual, more detached, travel more, have more fun. We could buy a better house, live in a better part of the city, and have better furniture and appliances. We could look more beautiful, be healthier and stronger.

Psychologically, we could be surer of ourselves, more open, less jealous, less agitated and anxious. We could be free of stress, joyful and relaxed. We could be more ambitious, smarter, faster and funnier.

Normal is supposed to mean the easiest way to be. But in fact, it is the hardest. It is this sort of unattainable frozen state that we created in our heads, that we believe other people are experiencing, and we think we should experience ourselves. We want to experience an unchangeable normality in a world that changes constantly. In a way, we create our own carrot on a stick situation, attached to this constant attempt at being normal. Even ‘Normal’ changes throughout life, as we change our priorities, our tastes, and the people we admire. As we experience normality and get frustrated with it, we choose the next normality to yearn for, never achieving the final ‘Normal’.

Perhaps this thing we call ‘Normal’ is not all that it is cracked up to be. Perhaps it is a sort of safe way of just accepting an imperfect experience of life, joining the multitude of people who have settled for a constant search for acceptance, security and belonging in spite of experiencing a constant fluctuation of dissatisfaction. If we are to ask more from life, if we are to ask that life be inherently a source of joy, satisfaction, creativity and strength, people will think we are crazy- ‘Why aren’t you Normal, for heaven’s sake? Why are you so weird? Why do you smile and laugh all the time? You must be crazy… ’

Nature

Many traditional Buddhist texts describe the spiritual path according to the Buddhist View. The spiritual path has an objective, which is referred to as ‘Enlightenment’ in English. The texts and contemporary teachers describe the qualities of Enlightenment in several ways. It is said to be the complete eradication of ignorance. It is also said to be the absolute perfection of the training in wisdom and compassion. And it is also mentioned that Enlightenment is the complete understanding and cessation of the causes of suffering.

As impossible or as foreign as this might sound, there have been many examples of people who have applied themselves to this path and achieved great results. This lineage of Enlightenment traces back to the Buddha, in an unbroken chain of disciples who become teachers, until our present day.

One of the very first steps tumblr_mmeqewnufE1qhtaazo1_500-e1403722930107when entering this path is to become aware of human nature. First by recognizing how rare a human life is. It is said that to earn a human life is as rare as a blind turtle who only surfaces once a year to stick her head through a yoke that has been floating in the ocean where she lives. And we can also see that although we are at this point 7 billion in number, there are probably that many insects in just one square mile in the jungle. Modern science is saying that there are 100 trillion bacteria in just one human body. So we could say that compared to other beings, we are like the stars that can be seen during the day as opposed to the stars that can be seen during the night.
o-GUT-BACTERIA-facebookOnce we recognize how rare human life is, then the path describes why we should regard this life as a most precious opportunity. It is said that a human life is the best vehicle to travel the spiritual path towards Enlightenment, the cessation of suffering, the perfection of Wisdom and Compassion, the eradication of ignorance. This is because human beings have a capacity of self-cognition, of reflection, of recognizing and training the mind that is not present in other beings.

Even if there are gods which are like what we would like to be, who live for millennia, without any exposure to suffering for long periods of time, with long exposure to pleasures we cannot even begin to imagine, without the need to develop an awareness of the flaws of their existence, human nature is still in a better position. We experience a level of suffering and frustration which we can cope with, while still having space in our minds to understand the causes of our frustrations and problems. We are able to identify with other people or animals, feeling their frustration, experiencing their problems, in order to develop compassion. And we are also able to find the space to look at our minds in order to understand our nature.

This is not the case with animals, who are mostly concerned with survival or pleasure or fear. And then if we are to think about beings in hell, as they are mentioned in texts, the amount of their pain and suffering would not allow them any possibility to even conceive the idea of a spiritual path.

The Buddhist point of view is that human natureGold-nugget-4-871 has tremendous potential, which we need to remind ourselves constantly. Then reminding ourselves, we need to take responsibility for it. It is as if we have a golden nugget hidden in a trash can full of trash to the brim. We forgot the golden nugget is there, and as long as we ignore it, the golden nugget will stay there, under the garbage. Human nature is the golden nugget, although we are surely inclined to believe that the garbage also belongs to our nature. So the job of the path is to clear this idea from our minds, to reveal the true potential, releasing all that we can offer.

Engaging

Every day we experience feelings, emotions and thoughts. We remember our past and wonder about our future. We experience the present through our senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste – and we also experience the present through our minds. Our experience of the present mixes with our feelings, emotions, thoughts and wonderment of past and future.

Through this chemistry, we become 8816622924_53c872508a_zfascinated with the train of thoughts, emotions and feelings that results. We fully believe in this continuous loop of emotions, feelings and thoughts creating more emotions, feelings and thoughts. This fascination sometimes brings us some enjoyment and sometimes brings us some drama and frustration. It sometimes brings us dullness and a lack of appreciation for anything in particular.

We become fully invested in this cycle. We are completely focused, following our experience faithfully, letting it take us where it wants. We are very disciplined, loyal and skilled in accepting this presentation without question. We are absorbed, disciplined and focused into a certain way of being, a certain way of seeing ourselves, a certain way of seeing our experience.

When we are angry, we are absorbed and focused into anger, angry thoughts, angry feelings and an angry will to act. When we are lustful, we are absorbed and focused into lust, lustful thoughts, lustful feelings and a lustful will to act. When we are dull, we are absorbed and focused into dullness, dull thoughts, dull feelings and a dull way of acting. So it can be said that we are constantly meditating.

6259646764_ff031ce0b3_zThis meditating mind is like a child, constantly voicing its concerns. Like a child, the mind is constantly looking for attention, making sure every single thing goes according to its preferences. Sometimes, this child like mind makes demands just for the sake of making demands. It manipulates in various skilful ways, making a lot of noise, making sure it is heard and obeyed.

Like a child, the mind is not purposefully trying to be annoying. It just lacks knowledge, training and education. A child has all the potential of a mature adult, but without the knowledge, discernment and experience.

When a parent is raising a child, he or she looks for the best ways to educate the child. In this process, the parent may find that being aggressive to the child does not bring the desired results. The child might temporarily be quiet and obedient, but then it might keep that aggression to be released at a later date. The parent might also find that accepting the child’s every whim, complaint, laziness and manipulation is also not helpful. The child might think that everything revolves around him or herself, creating a distorted view of the world that will be frustrated at a later date.

So the parent finds a way to balance a friendly stance with firm guidance and direction. The parent has a vast amount of knowledge to impart in a short time, and needs to find the most skillful way to communicate this knowledge in a positive, mutually trusting environment.

The meditation of engaging the mind is like a parent educating a child. We engage the untrained, attention seeking, chaotic mind in a friendly, calm, relaxed way so there is trust. Then we gradually and pakchildskilfully train, educate and communicate the full potential of this child like mind to itself. We cultivate the vision of the fully matured mind. And we gradually and skilfully communicate this vision to the mind.

Loving Kindness

Cultivating Loving Kindness is an important part of meditation. We might have an initial impression that regards Loving Kindness as a ‘feel good’ type of escapism. It might be awkward to think about developing a loving attitude. In our culture this might be seen as a sign of weakness. In meditation, a truly loving mind and a truly kind attitude are the sign of real inner strength, character and self-understanding.

Loving Kindness engenders more harmony, tolerance and flexibility. It is the antidote to the habitual critical attitude that tries to find the fault in everything. It is an understanding that our condition already throws enough criticism, enough obstacles and enough difficulties at us. So we have the responsibility to have a kind attitude towards ourselves.

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‘Loving Kindness’ in Tibetan Script

This attitude is not necessarily a cuddle, a smile and some nice complements. A kind loving attitude is first and foremost an acceptance without judgements. We look at ourselves – our internal and external difficulties, our qualities, our self-image, our relationships and our work: the whole spectrum. There is an effort to shift seeing myself as a problem to be solved, which comes from a lack of acceptance, towards a relationship of friendship, allowance and open potential.

We can gradually develop this attitude towards ourselves without being accountable to no one else. We have been trained to be self-critical and self-deprecating. We have habituated ourselves to find few reasons to appreciate our being. Meanwhile, we are very clear and elaborate on our faults and problems. So as an individual, we can decide to tilt this balance. It is not necessary to find a reason why you should actually be kind to yourself. The only person accountable is you. Even if no one else believes that you should enjoy yourself, you have the right to do so and be fine with it.

The convincing might never happen. You might have an internal discussion: ‘why should I fall in love with myself? It is such a selfish, stupid thing to do… I should better look down on myself so I don’t look like an idiot.’ Loving one self, being satisfied and fulfilled is everyone’s dream. But if we actually meet someone who has really done this, we will probably think they are crazy. The norm is to be an incomplete, unfulfilled, self-loathing person. This is what it means to be normal. This is what we tell each other to do, this is how we expect to be.

If someone suggests you can be loving to yourself – not in an egotistical, self-indulgent, temporary way – but on the basis of real self-respect, real appreciation and real acceptance, you might think twice before engaging in that conversation. You might feel awkward even thinking about it. Yes, we are shy about developing a healthy, wholesome, loving relationship with ourselves which is full of acceptance, appreciation and kindness. This is something to be developed, nurtured and cultivated.

The way you relate to yourself affects others. When Loving Kindness really works its way through an individual, it affects others naturally, even effortlessly.  Rather than being a selfish attempt to feel good, cultivating Loving Kindness, even in secret, is a sure way to benefit oneself and others.

Emotions

emotions2Once, someone suggested to me that emotions are the cause of all my problems. In fact, he suggested that emotions are the problems. Then he also suggested that emotions are just an illusion, and so are my problems.

These suggestions have really bothered me for a long time. I had never really looked at my emotions in this way. I mostly love my emotions and leave them untouched and unquestioned. I think they are the natural expression of my individuality.

My individuality is my most cherished treasure, my very own way of seeing the world, my most refined sense of taste, my sensibility, my opinions. My personality is defined by the things, attitudes, people, references and ideas I love and hold dear and those that I loathe and disgust.

My problems are at the very core of my definition of myself. They are my personal challenges. I must live through and overcome them, in order to become the person I want to be. Without my problems and emotions, there is not much left to who I am.

When someone told me that the very things tumblr_n482lq4T9g1r5kiffo1_500I use to define myself are an illusion that causes my problems, there was a big clash. As much as I wanted to ignore this absurdity, I had to prove to myself that this was just not true. With this idea in the back of my mind, I spent time with my cherished emotions and problems, looking for the beauty and reality I had always seen in them.

To my surprise, over the years, this observation has shaken up my understanding about emotions. Again and again, I have observed that powerful emotional experiences have certain characteristics which I was previously unaware of. Anger, anxiety, attachment, confusion, jealousy, laziness and other emotions seem to be temporary – they are triggered, run their course and dissolve. I am not able to control emotions deliberately, but when I manage to remember this temporary quality when experiencing emotions, this subtly affects their relevance, meaning and sense of urgency.

butoh-2Once in a while, I am able to realize that I am in the middle of a deep emotional state. I tell myself: ‘This is Anger’ or ‘This is Desire’ or ‘This is Doubt’. With this realization there is some space to be able to observe how the emotion is affecting me. I can see reactions in my body, muscles, organs, blood pressure and nerves.

I can see reactions in my mind. Sometimes there is a repeating train of thought that never resolves itself. Sometimes there is a lack of clarity, with internal conversations without much logic. Sometimes there is an imperative tone that will not go away until I fulfil the command of my thoughts.

I can also see reactions in my communication with others. Emotions impact on what I say and how I say it. They also impact on how I listen to other people and how I interpret what they are trying to communicate. Conversations are made harder and confusing. There is a  filter to the meaning of conversations, limiting perspectives for clear communication.

If I try to trace the causes of emotions, I can ???????????????????????????????????????????????????see they have a trigger, a certain event that sparks the beginning of the process. Once the trigger happens, there is no escaping the emotion. The process might be slower or faster, but once the cause is there, the emotion will develop. If the emotion is really powerful, it will take over my mind, my senses, my thoughts, my body, my ability to communicate – my whole being. I am not able to escape this state and sometimes it seems like it will never end and there is nothing I can do about it. But once the reaction is done and the cause is not present anymore, the emotion will fade.

I can identify a kind of powerlessness, or a lack of choice or freedom which constantly experiencing emotions creates. I can see myself being taken for a ride, thrown about, confused, coerced and convinced by my own emotions. It sometimes becomes difficult to identify what is really beneficial or harmful.

emotionsI can see that over the years, different emotions have been triggered by similar events. There are some things I used to love and now I can’t stand. There are things I would never want to touch and now I can’t get enough of. The definitions of what makes me happy have changed many times. My priorities have changed many times. I also see that right now, other people radically disagree with me on what is enjoyable, what is important, what is unpleasant, what doesn’t matter and what to do this weekend.

This suggests that ultimately, my problems are not dependent on external things, but on how I experience, judge and react to events. These experiences, judgements and reactions seem to be informed by emotions. But if emotions are temporary events that leave me confused and without a choice, what are my options?

Simplicity

simplicity2When you start being curious about meditation, the most attractive things are the most foreign. You imagine experiences of new states of mind, a mind without thoughts, or a mind filled with pure happiness. You get interested in the ideas of Buddhist philosophy, giving new meanings to Reality. Mantras, special rituals, specific techniques – all of these colourful aspects of meditation are what you would like to work with from the start.

Although these are interesting and useful tools, they sometimes give a much more complex idea than what meditation really is. At the beginning, if we could boil meditation down to its simplest form, what would it be?

ComplexityWe are usually attracted to complexity. We like to build a big puzzle with our minds, our lives, our personality and emotions. We cover ourselves with worries, with definitions, with paradoxes. Trying to create an image of who we are, trying to understand how others see us, trying to shape ourselves into an image of who we wish to be, trying to be stable, we want to be interesting, cool, likable, strong, successful and beautiful.

We like to cultivate emotional dramas that give context to our day to day. Difficulties in relationships professionally, in friendships, romance, psychologically – all of these dramas we complain about are the very same dramas that we use to define ourselves, because they are our most cherished challenges. These are the challenges we try to overcome, getting involved in complex interweaving webs of internal and external conversations. The more complex the better. And eventually, we forget we were trying to overcome them. Now we identify with them. And the complexity builds.

The simplest description of meditation is perhaps to cultivate clarity and discernment about what is beneficial and what is harmful. But this is not necessarily done by rationally going through every situation and trying to get answers. It has to do with a much simpler attitude: honesty. In this case, honesty means gradually shifting from explaining everything into an attitude of observing, contemplating and understanding.

And what is the subject of this meditation? It is not any esoteric, special or difficult subject. Meditation starts with the most ordinary mind and the most ordinary body. Your mind and your body. Meditation starts when you can observe your mind and body, with an attitude of openness. You are not trying to get anything, you are not looking for results, you are not getting stuck with internal comments, and you are not bothered if you get thoughts about the value of what you are doing. The anxious, impatient thoughts come, and they go.

puddle4If we use the metaphor of a puddle of water, every time you touch it, there are ripples. The ripples continue for a while after you have touched it. Then they gradually come to a stand, and the surface of the puddle is completely flat. Then if you touch it again, even if ever so gently, ripples start again, and will take time to become still once more.

With practice, when you meditate, you can learn to stop ‘touching’ the mind. Then, the water of the mind becomes very still, untouched. It reflects itself very clearly and precisely. This is its simplest state. As soon as you see yourself watching the mind, you have touched the water again. Ripples start. So you need to get used to not touching the water. It’s exciting in the beginning, to be able to see the mind in its natural state, doing what it does, without getting involved. The immediate reaction is to get involved! “Oh, I like this!” “This is very nice!” “I am so relaxed!” Then the water is stirred again…

Gradually, you can be with your mind, with your body naturally for a while. Than honesty naturally develops out of simply being, simply seeing how things are.

Light

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Enlightenment can be a very esoteric subject. It can be treated with irony, or it can be a new agey, wishy-washy thing that nobody wants to talk about. So I had a hard time trying to think of a way to communicate the basic idea of what Enlightenment means in the Buddhist tradition. In the end, the best starting point I found was the life story of the Buddha.

As far as I understand, Enlightenment is something the Buddha discovered in his life time that serves as inspiration and example of what a human being can accomplish. Buddha’s motivation for his search begins with facing the frustrating nature of existence. Born as a prince named Siddharta he is protected from all pain and suffering by the royal family. Once he leaves his palace for a stroll and encounters a sick person, an old person and a corpse on the way to its funeral. He questions his attendants on the meaning of these events. As he learns that old age, sickness and death are unavoidable parts of life, it dawns on him that the world undergoes an immense amount of continuous suffering and pain, and that the life of riches, pleasures and plenty he is leading are meaningless in the face of this reality.

The prince escapes the palace against the will of the royal family, with the aim to understand the cause of all this suffering. Now this is India five thousand years ago, filled with spiritual masters of all kinds. Siddharta decides to study with the most accomplished masters he can find. After mastering their teachings, he evaluates that there is still no understanding on the root of suffering. He goes from master to master, learning all there is available, but without accomplishing his aim.

He then decides to go deeply into suffering, by practicing asceticism to an extreme. For years he feeds on a few grains. Eventually fasting completely, becoming a bag of bones, forcing himself into the polar opposite of his life in the palace, he looks to understand the root cause of all suffering.

Eventually, Siddharta finds no answer in this practice, disappointed that extreme suffering is also not conducive to understanding. After bringing his body back to normal, he sits under a tree, vowing not to arise out of meditation until he has achieved his aim. With much concentration and focus, he allows no distractions to get in the way. There is no fear and no desire that manages to take his mind away from his aim. Finally, when achieving understanding, he touches the ground, as the Earth is witness to his achievement. He is free of suffering, thanks to Wisdom borne by exertion.

Understanding the root of suffering, he is now awake to the nature of existence. Some old companions eventually notice that he has found something unique, and ask for teachings. The Buddha thinks no one will understand these deep truths he has discovered, and so refuses to teach. After much begging and asking from these disciples, claiming that some people may be able to understand, the Buddha finally decides to teach, beginning the communication on the nature of Enlightenment, known as the Dharma. And so he does for decades, until the end of his life, teaching many facets, methods and perspectives on the meaning, nature and path to Enlightenment.

The Buddha’s life story conveys a powerful message: that human beings are able to understand their nature and the nature of reality to the point where suffering, frustration and anxiety are extinguished. The claim here is that we have a very precious opportunity.

It is very easy for most people to identify with the idea that life is frustrating, with its condition of constant change and uncertainty. At the same time, we are able to acknowledge this situation and work with it. We have a life pleasant enough, with enough leisure and space to study our condition, to work with our dissatisfaction. This condition of just enough frustration and leisure is seen as a precious situation, rare, short-lived and unique.

It is often mentioned in Buddhist literature that even though there might be 7 billion human beings in the world, you can find just this amount of ants in one ant colony. This implies a human life is precious, rare, and not to be taken for granted.

In the case of Enlightenment, the cause of suffering, frustration and anxiety is attributed to ignorance. Ignorance here is not stupidity, but lack of understanding. This implies that this situation can be changed. In the case of Enlightenment, Wisdom and understanding are the antidotes. Then Wisdom and understanding are not seen as external, but inherent qualities that can be developed. And the possibility of the development of these qualities is an especially close feature of a rare, precious human life.

Trusting

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No, this is NOT about trusting me so that I can control your mind, your life and your future. This is also NOT about me telling you what to trust, what is right or wrong. Rather it is an open exploration about what it is that we trust to give us stability, confidence and ultimately the holy grail of happiness.

Now it is old news that material possessions, money, fame and even physical pleasure are not the source of lasting satisfaction. These create a short term gratification that generates further desire for more. What is left is a feeling of lacking, of neediness. Then I turn to the mind.

I can look at my mind and try to change things in there. I can try to change the way I think, my attitude, the way I relate to people or the way I think about myself. I can lie in bed late at night when I am all alone with my thoughts and try to create a way to go around my frustrations in a rational, logical way. I can try to face my frustrations as if they were a problem to be solved.

I can look at my lack of ability to handle myself in a positive way and try to learn how to do it properly. I can try to create reasons to like myself, by forcing new ways of thinking or by doing more yoga, meditating every day, working hard, going to the gym or getting more followers on social media.

It seems I need to rationalize a reason to feel that I can be confident, stable or ‘happy’. It seems I need to understand my problems, so I can solve them, so I can arrive at a final solution where I will not need to work on myself again. But then, everyone knows that we need to work on ourselves throughout the whole of our lives. We always have something new to learn about ourselves, new problems to overcome.

Now this is a characteristic way of operating the mind that is much centred on a logical, rational, analytical, almost scientific process of understanding myself. But one can ask: Is this the only way available to me? Is this way of looking at myself, my experience and my being working for me?

Everyone has heard about ‘chakras’, which sounds like a magical word describing coloured lights coming from different parts of my body. But chakras could be described more concretely as the different centres of the body which each have their own characteristics, their own functions, qualities and weaknesses. The main centres are the head, throat, heart and belly.

When I think of myself, I identify immediately with my head. This is where I am, where my mind is, where my self is, where I exist. This is the place in my body where I can solve my problems, take my decisions and understand myself.

The head has this intelligence, this logical, analytical way of looking at everything. But what about the heart? If I would spend five minutes centred at my heart, in the same way I am usually centred at my head, would I find a different way of seeing? If I spend some time ‘being from the heart’ (I know, this sounds a little tacky, or maybe very tacky) am I going to look at myself differently? Is my decision making going to change?

In the heart, there are no thoughts. There is no descriptive analysis of situations, no chain of rational logic. But it seems there is something happening in there. The heart reacts to feelings, emotions, to positive and negative input. And these reactions are not mild. Our blood pumps harder when we are scared, angry, loved, nervous and joyful. If I take the time to be in the heart for a few minutes, it seems I can explore a different source of information for the mind to work with. When I stay in the heart area – the chest, upper back or the actual blood pumping muscle, listening to the beats, the circulation, exploring the subtle sensations – , I start to get a quiet feedback, which is quite different from the feedback in the head.

It seems that the main difference between the head and the heart is that the head looks for conditions, for reasons that I can use to validate or justify my confidence, stability, happiness, or whatever it is that I am looking for, while the heart communicates an unconditional permission for me to be happy with myself, satisfied with myself, unafraid of myself, confident in myself. So one is conditional, while the other is unconditional.

Now both these ways of being seem to have a valid place in how I work with my mind. But I am using my head perhaps 90% of the time. Perhaps this is not the most balanced way of doing this. Maybe the head, logic, reasoning, analysis and discursive, descriptive thought are not the best tools for everything. I have a whole new section in my toolbox, stored in the heart centre. I can learn how to use these, so that I understand what they are for, so that I can develop some new skills about my mind, myself, my satisfaction, my happiness.

I can work to develop better communication with this unconditional source of love, courage and satisfaction. I can balance myself between the loving heart and the intelligent head, in a very real, down to earth way.

Mantras – Transforming Negativity

Cahnting

Mantras are one of the oldest forms of Buddhist practice. A collection of syllables imbued with meaning, mantras have no literal sense. They are symbols of intentions, a way to focus and concentrate the mind. Mantras work as tools, but also work as expressions of qualities that are difficult to describe in words. The repetition of mantras brings these qualities to mind, opening the way to explore their meaning. With their exploration and understanding, these qualities can be embodied in our attitude, and eventually become part of action.

As expression, the recitation of mantras brings these qualities alive, opening the space for their presence, counterbalancing the overwhelming amount of chaotic negativity, which fuels confused, negative intentions. These negative, confused intentions become the sources of action that is unaware of its consequences.

Negativity has many levels. It is expressed in the conflicts between countries and cultures, dividing people with extreme opinions fuelled by a lack of understanding about how to create harmony and synergy.  On a personal level, conflicts in relationships are born from the same lack of understanding, where interests of the individual overwhelm the possibility of an intention of mutual benefit. Going further, there are the internal conflicts of the mind, undermining the personal, most intimate intentions for a satisfying, joyful experience of daily life.

A lot of the negativity present in our environment is rooted in the mind. The starting point is a misunderstanding of what is really beneficial, of what is the most beneficial way to operate the mind. We don’t take the time to try and understand the purpose and potential of our minds. This creates lack of clarity, obstacles and difficulties to our simple wish to be happy.

Mantras work on the transformation of this situation. They start as an expression of the intention to transform this situation. Then they can become the encouragement to gradually activate this transformation and finally they become the expression of the transformed quality, the base for further development.

The Buddhist tradition describes the benefits of each mantra, when chanted once, one hundred times, one thousand times, one hundred thousand times and so forth. This implies that the mind has an infinite potential for transformation, from a confused, problematic burden to a wise, open, inspired guide and companion.

Mantras are usually associated with a deity or figure related to the Buddhist tradition. The Vajra Guru mantra, which we chanted last Tuesday, is associated to Padmasambhava, a historic figure responsible for bringing Buddhism to Tibet. There are many texts describing Padmasambhava’s journey, which blend history, myth and legend. His most relevant quality in terms of transforming negativity is the account of his encounter with what are called demons.  Born in Uddiyana, in what is modern day Afghanistan, he arrived in Tibet with the intention to bring Buddhist wisdom to the land. Encountering these demons who were causing many obstacles to his work, Padmasambhava did not work to destroy them, but tamed the demons, transforming them into protectors of the new Buddhist tradition he would later create.

His mantra reads:

OM AH HUM VAJRA GURU PADMA SIDDHI HUM

We can use the metaphor of taming demons to understand one of the significances of this mantra. The demons in this case are all the negativities that are constantly getting in the way of understanding, peace and harmony. These are outer demons, as well as inner demons, which we experience on a daily basis. The repeated recitation of the mantra asks for us to face these demons, understand them, pacify them and transform them into our protectors.

Many people have questioned me about the relevance of the years I spent at a Buddhist Retreat Centre in California, working as a volunteer on sacred art projects, practicing and studying Buddhism. Is this a useful thing to do? Does it help with anything? Is it not just an isolated effort that does not affect the major issues of world problems? I certainly had these doubts myself.

When I think about it, my motivation was the view that while there is a lot of negativity being so clearly expressed in the world on a daily basis, what I was helping to do there was to create symbols of beneficial intentions, which would be expressing very directly and clearly the wish for the well-being of everyone, without exception. This, I thought, would create an opposing, balancing force with immediacy, affecting the balance of what is being expressed moment by moment globally. I felt this was a very worthy objective, not looking at solving things in the future, but creating and expressing the potential of mind and action for goodness on a daily basis.

I believe that those who attended the chanting session last Tuesday could understand what I am trying to express here in words. Usually, when we leave our minds alone, they go all over the place. But if a small group of people sit together to focus on transforming negativity, personal and shared, concentrating and expressing this intention through mantra, it can be of no harm. In fact, I believe it creates benefit.