Monday, 3 September 2018

Why we don't help and what we can do about it

My family and I have just returned from a very rich and varied week in New York, where we did all the usual tourist things, including a visit to the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a trip up the Empire State Building and a boat ride out to Liberty Island. This was all very wonderful and enriching, but what I want to share with you is a little incident that I must admit wasn’t one of my finest moments but gave me plenty of cause for reflection. We were just heading into the Coney Island subway after a happy afternoon spent on the beach, when a row broke out between a man and a woman who were waiting to board a bus. I’ve no idea what it was about, but suffice to say voices were raised, and there was a fair amount of pushing and shoving, which ended up with the woman falling over with the trolley she had with her. It was a slo-mo fall, which would have been quite comical if it hadn’t been so sad, but what happened next was remarkable. Nothing happened. The other people in the queue and standing around stood looking at her as she lay on the ground. Worse still, so did I. I was no more than 20 yards away and could easily have darted over to help her up, but I didn’t. She was eventually helped to her feet by a young man, and a police officer strolled over to sort things out. It was a minor incident, but I felt very remorseful as we caught the train and started ruminating. Why didn’t I help? I can only conclude that it was what you might call the Somebody Else’s Problem syndrome. I didn’t know her, she wasn’t a family member or a friend, so she wasn’t in my immediate sphere of concern. Had it been one of my kids, you can rest assured that I would have been straight in there. But this stranger somehow didn’t merit my care or attention.

OK, so this reflects badly on me, but I dare say I wouldn’t have been alone in my reaction. After all, how often do we pass homeless people by, for instance, without even acknowledging them. They have nothing to do with us, so why bother? A more creative response is suggested by 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva, author of a famous work on how to lead an ideal Buddhist life. He makes the point that, if we have a pain in our foot, we will act to alleviate it, so why don’t we respond equally quickly to the pain of others, to whom we are connected by our common humanity and shared desire to be happy? The problem, he suggests, lies in a failure of imagination, which is the basis of empathy. As the poet Shelley says: A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.” This I see as being one of the primary tasks of my practice as a Buddhist. 

Fortunately, I have a tried and tested meditation to help me out. In the metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, we bring to mind various people, some we know well and some we don’t, some we like and some we don’t, and simply wish them well. We step out of the narratives of preference and self-interest and try to see them as human beings just like us, with the same hopes and fears, desire to be loved and not to suffer.

My point is that you don’t necessarily have to sit down to meditate to do this. It just requires awareness of others and a willingness to see what we have in common. I wish I’d recalled this in those few moments when I was standing looking at that poor lady on the ground. But next time I’m resolved to do better. And I would really suggest that you do the same. When, for instance, you pass that homeless person in a doorway, really try to see them as a fellow human being. Even if you don’t want to give them money, which I think is a perfectly legitimate choice, make eye contact, greet them, make them feel seen. If someone is in distress, stop and help them. You will feel better, more connected, and so will they. Everyone wins, and the world is a better place for it.

Sunday, 18 March 2018


Last Saturday morning, I caught one of my sons gazing glumly into his bowl of cereal. The cereal in question was one of those brands you can get which are a bit chocolatey but low in sugar. When I asked him what the matter was, he told me it didn’t taste of anything. That’s because you’re used to having more sugar in your cereal, I told him, so you’re not used to tasting anything but sugar. At that point I had a sudden flashback to when I was a boy, to times when I used to spoon such a thick layer of white sugar onto my Weetabix that you could have measured it with a ruler. So what I ended upwith was the texture of Weetabix with the taste of sugar. It was only when I was heading into adulthood that I actually discovered what Weetabix tasted like when not slathered in the white stuff. The same thing happened when I gave up sugar in my tea and coffee; the initial experience was really weird, but I soon got used to the distinctive and subtle differences in flavour between different types of coffee and tea.

This really got me thinking. Not only are most people in the modern age overexposed to sugar and other strong flavours to the point that we can often barely taste the food in front of us, but the same thing applies to varying degrees to all our other senses. You can’t go into a shop without being bombarded by Muzak, for instance, even in the loos! I don’t know about you, but I personally have no desire to listen to generic pop music while doing my business! We’re also bombarded by adverts of various kinds demanding our attention - the genius of the advertising industry lies in its ability to constantly draw us out of ourselves into a world of want. And then of course, we stick on the TV or the radio or get involved in the seductive world of social media on our mobile devices, and before we know it, we’ve lost all relationship with what’s actually going on, with our own inner life and experience.

And then I recalled another experience which resounds down the years as clear as the moment it happened. I was on retreat once, when somebody put a cup down on a work surface in the kitchen. I’ve no idea how many countless times I’ve heard cups going down on work surfaces, but this noise struck me for its exceptional purity, like the striking of a beautiful bell. The reason was that I’d been meditating a lot and was enjoying states of unusual mental and emotional clarity, free of the usual distractions of modern life. This enabled me to enjoy and relish even the simplest of sense experiences. And the experience resonated so strongly with me that I’ve never forgotten it, even a quarter of a century later.

These days I like to take time out to do nothing, to throw down my mobile and switch off the TV, to experience the simple messages of my senses in all their subtlety and shades of beauty. I’m not saying I do this very often, but when I do, I feel at my most relaxed and alive. There really is so much richness in even the little experiences conveyed by our senses. So my advice would be to do the same, at least every now and again. Turn off the box, turn off your phone, turn off your computer and give yourself the chance to enjoy the beauty of even the most ordinary and mundane of experiences. You’ll experience a richness that you would never otherwise have thought to look for.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Losing the remote - and keeping your cool

The other evening I was looking forward to sitting down in front of the TV. The problem was however that I couldn’t find the remote. I’m sure you know how it is: every device has its own remote, and the smaller the box, the smaller the remote that goes with it. And our box is pretty small. Having hunted in and under the sofas and even in the shoe drawer for good measure, I found myself getting increasingly exasperated, even slightly panicky. What if it never turned up? How would we watch TV? Would I have to spend money replacing it? It was a very unpleasant state to be in. Happily, my partner was unruffled and pointed out that we could just plug the aerial into the back of the TV the old fashioned way and watch it like that.

Sound familiar? And the point is this wasn’t a new response on my part. It’s actually pretty much the response I have every time we mislay a remote. Which is where one of the Buddha’s core teachings comes in: that actions have consequences, and that actions committed when we’re in mental states characterized by anger, frustration and the like cause us to suffer. Worse still, repeatedly acting in that way is habit-forming. Just as rivulets of water gradually carve a path out of the rock over which they flow, causing them to follow the same path with less and less possibility of diversion, repeatedly giving way to anger and resentment in the same circumstances makes it all the more likely that we will do so again next time around. In fact, much of human behaviour operates in this kind of reactive mode, simply repeating actions that we have done many times before, with all the unpleasantness that follows.

This is the Buddhist principle of karma. It has nothing to do with fate or some preordained path in life. What it means is exactly what I’ve described above: that acting in a particular way has the effect of shaping our character for the future. Giving into anger, frustration and resentment makes us more likely to do so again in the future, to the point where we run the risk of becoming angry, frustrated and resentful people.

But fortunately it works the other way too. The more we act with patience, out of love, concern for others and generosity, the more our hearts will open, and the more likely it is that our behaviour will in general be characterized by those qualities. We all act in these ways some of the time – they aren’t the preserve of the enlightened! But what we need to do is consciously apply ourselves to acting out of these positive states more and more often – and not giving in to their negative counterparts. In this way we’ll set up positive habits for the future.

The best way to go about this might be to start small. In my case, it might simply be to accept that TV remotes sometimes get lost, realise it’s not the end of the world, count to ten and let go. I’m sure you have your equivalent little unhelpful habit too. So next time you find yourself getting wound up about the same old little thing, take a breath, pause and try and let go of it. You’ll find, as I do when I manage it, that it’s a real relief. On the other hand, try not to miss opportunities to show kindness and generosity when they present themselves. I’ve no doubt this is the beginning of the path to greater happiness and contentment, and I’m sure you’ll find it is too.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Parinirvana, death and freedom

So today's festival day marks the Buddha's great decease in the sala tree grove at Kusinagara at the end of a period of wandering and teaching that apparently lasted up to 45 years. The Pali scriptures record the occasion very fully. One particularly touching episode relates the story of the lamentation of Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and attendant for the last 25 years of his life: it's quite short so I'll quote it in full:

Then Ven. Ananda, going into a [nearby] building, stood leaning against the door jamb, weeping: "Here I am, still in training, with work left to do, and the total Unbinding of my teacher is about to occur — the teacher who has had such sympathy for me!"

Then the Blessed One said to the monks, "Monks, where is Ananda?"

"Lord, Ven. Ananda, having gone into that building, stands leaning against the door jamb, weeping: 'Here I am, still in training, with work left to do, and the total Unbinding of my teacher is about to occur — the teacher who has had such sympathy for me!'"

Then the Blessed One told a certain monk, "Come, monk. In my name, call Ananda, saying, 'The Teacher calls you, my friend.'"

"As you say, lord," the monk answered and, having gone to Ven. Ananda, on arrival he said, "The Teacher calls you, my friend."

"As you say, my friend," Ven. Ananda replied. Then he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, "Enough, Ananda. Don't grieve. Don't lament. Haven't I already taught you the state of growing different with regard to all things dear & appealing, the state of becoming separate, the state of becoming otherwise? What else is there to expect? It's impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.

"For a long time, Ananda, you have waited on the Tathagata with physical acts of good will — helpful, happy, whole-hearted, without limit; with verbal acts of good will... with mental acts of good will — helpful, happy, whole-hearted, without limit. You are one who has made merit. Commit yourself to exertion, and soon you will be without mental fermentations."

This is a lovely episode isn't it, although you can't help but feel that Ananda's grief is directed at his own sense of loss, which I guess is always the nature of grief: "here I am with work left to do, but my teacher is now about to leave me". But it's particularly worth noting that the Buddha tells Ananda not to grieve, as the Buddha's passing is both natural and inevitable, fully in accordance with his teaching of impermanence, and Ananda cannot expect not to be separated from that which is dear and appealing. Even on his deathbed the Buddha's concern is with the welfare of his disciple, that he should fully understand and act on what he has been taught. His attitude is one of total kindness and encouragement. He doesn't sound like a man who is worried that his life's about to be snuffed out. He doesn't sound scared. I don't know about you, but I get scared when I think about my own death. I can only reflect on it for a short while before my mind just kind of slides off into more comfortable territory. The difference is, of course, that the Buddha is enlightened, that he has already experienced klesha-nirvana, an awakening that eliminates all negative mental states and all confusion regarding the nature of reality, and Ananda has not. So Ananda is, from our point of view, understandably upset that the Buddha 's time of "unbinding" is at hand.

But hang on a minute. The Buddha is already enlightened, fully emancipated. So what is this "unbinding" that Ananda refers to? When I looked up "unbinding" online I found that it is used as a synonym for nirvana itself, one explanation being that nirvana is like the extinguishing of a flame that is bound to its fuel, releasing the flame from bondage, unbinding it. But if the Buddha isn't yet fully unbound, something is still binding him until the point of death. But what?

The answer lies in the title of today's festival - Parinirvana Day. What Parinirvana means is "nirvana without remainder". To see what that means we should compare the two types of nirvana I've already mentioned: klesha-nirvana and Parinirvana. As I said, klesha-nirvana arises with the extinction of the passions, of all negative mental states and views concerning the nature of reality. But what's left behind? Well, the answer is the Buddha's psychophysical organism, his senses, his total experience of embodiment on any plane of conditioned existence. This is the remainder in nirvana without remainder. It's a telling expression: the Buddha's entire embodied experience dismissed, as it were, as leftovers. It does at the very least indicate a perspective that is unimaginably different from ours! There's also a sense of deep mystery: if the remainder is everything we experience in this life, what on earth can be experienced as being outside it? Thats a tricky one, and I'll return to it later.

Nirvana without remainder in the sources I've found refers to nirvana without the five skandhas. Many of you will be familiar with these from the Heart Sutra, which contains the lines "the Bodhisattva of compassion, when he meditated deeply, saw the emptiness of all five skandhas and sundered the bonds that caused him suffering". The sutra then goes on to say what they are, in some cases a bit idiosyncratically. I'll tell you about them in a moment. But first its already worth noting here the association between the skandhas and suffering.

The skandhas, the remainder abandoned by the Buddha at the point of Parinirvana, are basically a way of describing the sum total of our experience. I prefer talking in terms of experience rather than material or stuff out there because our experience is all we can know, and anything else is speculation. They are the experience of physical form, feeling in the primary sense of pleasant, painful and neutral, perception, actions and consciousness. Between them, according to early Buddhist teachings, they completely exhaust anything we can possibly experience in the universe.

Firstly, form, or rupa. The rupa skandha covers the experience relayed via the physical senses. It is everything we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. You might say that it is the world "out there", although it also includes our embodied sense of ourselves - our own physicality. Traditionally it is talked about principally in terms of the four great elements or earth, water, fire and air plus a whole load of secondary experiences which I won't go into now. Let's try to get a sense of this in immediate practical terms. Put out your hand and touch something, the floor or your chair or leg. What happens? Well, there's an experience of solidity, of resistance. You can't put your hand through it. That is the earth element. But at the same time there's a feeling of flexibility, of flow. If you press down your flesh gives way, and if you move your fingers you get a sense of fluidity. That's the water element. There is also an experience of temperature, warm or cold. That's fire. And lastly, in your hands and in your whole body there's a sense of expansion, of buoyancy. They aren't like slabs of rock or dead fish. That's the air element. And between them these elements make up all the essentials of our experience of materiality.

And if you look closely you'll find that the experience comes with a feeling tone. It might be mildly pleasant, mildly unpleasant or too neutral for you to identify a particular feeling tone. But of course we're all familiar with pleasant and painful feelings in our lives, from toothache to heartbreak. All of these start with simple hedonic feeling, which is vedana, which can be physical or mental. If you've ever discussed the wheel of life, you will know how crucial vedana is in the generation of suffering. But more of that in a minute.

If you look at your hand, a couple of things happen. You see a particular shape with bits sticking out of it, lines, shadow and light, colour tones, and you recognise it as "my hand". That's perception - sanna - which is our faculty for recognising things, say colours or shapes, and using our previous experience of them to categorise the objects that have them as this or that. This is of course a useful skill, as it enables me to tell the difference between a bus and a biscuit.

I can use my hands in various ways. I can make a cup of tea as an act of thoughtfulness for a friend or reluctantly because I’ve been asked but don’t really want to; I can paint a picture to beautify my own mind and delight other people or to curry favour with a totalitarian regime, or I can fire a gun in sport or in anger. These actions all condition certain effects, and those effects depend on the mental state in which I perform the action. Negative mental states give rise to suffering, positive mental states conduce to happiness, and neutral mental states have no particular karmic effect. Volitional actions that give rise to particular consequences are known as samskaras. I've also heard them described as all the actions that make up our life, which is all of them really.

And finally, what makes it possible for me to perceive my hands, to see or smell them, to touch with them? The answer is consciousness. Our western view of consciousness tends to see it as a kind of field that surrounds us, into which objects enter and are then registered by that consciousness, but the Buddhist take on it is different. early Buddhist teaching has it that each sense organ is associated with a particular consciousness: eye consciousness, ear consciousness and so on, and that for an act of perception to take place there needs to be a functioning organ, an object "out there" and consciousness to link the two. Consciousness only arises under these conditions. So consciousness isn't an ever-present field that surrounds us but is instead dependent on conditions to manifest. This is vinnana, the fifth and last of the skandhas, of the elements that make up all our experience.

So to recap, we have form, feeling, perception, action and consciousness. And that's all. There is nothing else.

All very interesting, perhaps (at least to me!), but what does it have to do with enlightenment and the Buddha and us? Well, a lot. The composite word often used in the Pali scriptures is "upadanakhanda", which means "the skandhas afflicted by clinging". The unenlightened many folk don't just have skandhas, they have skandhas afflicted by clinging. The enlightened, in contrast, do not, except inasmuch as their skandhas are objects of clinging for the unenlightened. What does this all mean? Well, I think it means that we ordinary people take our skandhas and add the idea of a self to them. My form, my feelings, my perceptions, my actions and my consciousness. And it is this positing of a self that opens us up to suffering. If things are mine, then losing them will cause me suffering. A belief in me in here sets up an opposition with everything else out there, and that is a recipe for tension and unhappiness. And this all arises on the basis of an illusion, as the self we posit just isn't there.

Let's examine this a bit. If something is truly mine, then I would expect to be able to dispose of it as I see fit, like I do my car or my computer. But in terms of the skandhas that doesn't really hold water. If rupa or form were really mine, I would be able to control the information conveyed by my senses. Instead of bumping up against a wall, I ought to be able to walk through it or at least to choose the physical experience I have. But I can't. I can only experience the physical sensations that the conditions – the particular materiality of my body - allow me to experience. So rupa depends on conditions. And if I am really rupa, what happens when I'm asleep can no longer feel my body? Do I cease to be? What about someone who is paralysed from the neck down? Or someone who loses a limb? Are they any less themselves? I think the answer has to be no. So rupa can't be any basis for an independent and autonomous me. The same goes for feelings or vedana: not even the Buddha could control painful, neutral or pleasant sensations except on a temporary basis by going into dhyāna. So how can I possibly hope to? And vedanā are transient, changing constantly and not enduring for ever. And what about perceptions? I can't look at Abhayanara and see Napoleon or Harry Potter, unless I'm delusional that is. I can’t see a car and perceive a wombat. I can try to make my perceptions more accurate, for instance by recognising a rope as a rope and not a snake, but the basic stuff that experience presents to me is given by the nature of my senses and the information they relay to me, backed up by all my past experience. And my perceptions are continuously changing. To see this, all you have to do is get up and turn in a circle. As the visual field changes, so does your visual perception. You can’t do anything about it. So this doesn't admit the possibility of an autonomous me calling the perceptual shots. And, as far as samskaras go, I will admit that I can to some extent control my actions, but we probably all know how easy it is to be controlled by them. And there is never any complete autonomy in our actions, as they are all conditioned by motives that arise from feeling and perception. These motives may be skilful or unskilful, but, because they are conditioned, they do not constitute a self. And, lastly, there is consciousness, which in Buddhism is nothing other than a moment-by-moment arising in dependence on the presence of sense organs and sense objects. The tendency to put all these things together to create a separate and enduring "me" is very strong, and the feeling we have of that self is very strong, but, as Chökyi Nyima Rimpoche puts it, the closer you look, the more elusive it gets.

So positing a self on the basis of the skandhas - clinging to them - causes us suffering. The self needs protecting by pushing away things that appear threatening to it and trying to cling on to things it thinks will make it happy. This kind of push-pull tension is virtually ever-present and leads to enormous amounts of dissatisfaction. I’m sure none of you needs to hear any more about this to know that it’s true!

The Buddha also had skandhas. He had senses, feelings, perceptions, actions and consciousness. But his realisation consisted in seeing that no permanent self was to be found in them. With this realisation came the end of identification, the end of all kinds of emotional and psychological suffering. He let go of identifying the skandhas as being him. When seen in this light, the idea of the skandhas as "remainder" starts to make sense. Whatever the Buddha was, he wasn't to be found in the skandhas. This recalls the line from the Heart Sutra: "the Bodhisattva of compassion, when he meditated deeply, saw the emptiness of all five skandhas, and sundered the bonds that caused him suffering." No longer beset by ideas of me or mine, the Buddha cut off all suffering at the root.

Well, not quite all suffering. There was still suffering in the remainder. Particularly when he got old, the Buddha's body was a source of constant discomfort. He would get backache, and at one point he memorably describes his body as being like a broken-down old cart, held together by straps. It is said that he could only escape from physical discomfort by going into dhyana. But the difference between him and us was that not identifying with the experience meant that he didn't suffer any of the psychological or emotional suffering that we normally do when the skandhas don't play ball.

So we get the idea of the Buddha's skandhas binding him to the material plane, even though his mind was completely free - and completely unfathomable. If the Buddha wasn't to be found in any of the skandhas, where was he? Well, there's the problem. If the five skandhas exhaust everything that can be experienced, what is there outside them? The Pali word to describe this mysterious realm is Lokuttara, which, rather unhelpfully, means "above the world". So if you're not careful you can start imagining some kind of realm above and beyond the suffering of samsara, a bit like the Christian heaven, into which the Buddha happily ascended in spirit and then, at the point of his death, in his entirety. I've recently been reading an interesting little book called "Honest to God", written in 1962 by the then bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, which deals with the same problematic issue from a Christian perspective. Robinson says that the traditional Christian idea of God "up there", beyond the reach of straining church spires, was at some point replaced by the idea of God "out there": one spatial metaphor replaced by another. But his point was that increasing scientific understanding of the universe rendered this idea absurd for modern people, and a completely different understanding of transcendence was needed: the presence of the divine in everyday things, sanctified by love, like the bread and wine. This struck a real chord with me: the problem lies in the concepts themselves. The skandhas are not things in themselves: they are merely limited concepts that have a certain instrumental value but are empty of real existence, of self. And the idea of nirvana, of emptiness itself, is likewise a concept, an inspiring one perhaps, but limited nonetheless in our understanding to a particular state or set of states experienced by an entity. In reality there is no difference between them: the distinction between the conditioned existence that we create by grasping the skandhas and the unconditioned nature of nirvana is ultimately illusory. To become free, the Buddha had to let go of an idea of there being a self that could be free or unfree. And this ultimate freedom was realised with the final abandonment of the skandhas at Parinirvana. Even to say the Buddha became free is to miss the point, to posit an entity that could attain to freedom. Perhaps the closest we can get is simply to say that the Buddha was – is - freedom itself, above any categories of freedom or bondage. A freedom that is ultimate bliss - for, without limits of any kind, how could there be suffering of any kind - and compassion for anyone stuck in notions of self or, for that matter, not-self. A freedom that was supreme letting go.

Which brings me to my final point, which intersects with our practice. When we get involved in the Dharma we are quite naturally looking to better ourselves, to change, to become kinder, more aware, and wiser. There's nothing wrong with any of this, but I would argue that we tend to see progress in the Dharma life as equivalent to becoming a better me: kinder, more aware, but still essentially me. And the reason we can't comprehend enlightenment is because it is impossible for us to think in terms other than being us, essentially separate and recognisable, albeit with various bells and whistles. This is what you might call the developmental model. Great, but not sufficient on its own. I think we also need to engage with letting go, letting go of identification with our skandhas, of ourselves as a particular being. Letting go of boundaries, of self-interest. And I think we have practices that allow us to do this. Take the metta bhavana for instance. Viewed in one way, it is a practice of developing kindness, becoming kinder and friendlier. Viewed in another, however, it's about letting go of the difference between ourselves and other people, transcending them, being united with others in a field of love. And even the good old mindfulness of breathing. Is it a concentration exercise or an opportunity to see the changing nature of our experience and to cease to identify with it? What about simple acts of generosity? A truly generous impulse is a momentary realisation of the emptiness of any distinction between ourselves and the recipient of our generosity. It offers a glimpse of that mysterious state that is neither of the world nor not of the world, not in the skandhas but nowhere else either.

So this is the question I would like to leave you with. When you think of your Dharma life, what terms do you think in? Do you think of adding positive qualities onto yourself but staying essentially the same, or do you also experience those mysterious moments in which the self loses traction, and you find yourself in a state of greater openness and connectedness with others?

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The stories we tell ourselves and how they cause us suffering

A few weeks ago I was on retreat when I came across someone who’d just arrived a little late and was in conversation with another retreatant in the lounge. I said hello but didn’t get a reply. Feeling a bit put out, I wandered over the tea bar and started concocting a story in my mind about the guy who’d ignored me: he didn’t like me, or I wasn’t important enough to talk to or he had better things to do. None of this made me feel any happier. Anyway, it turned out he simply hadn’t heard me and came over to say hello. So my story got blown out of the water, and we then got on fine.

This is a trivial example of something much more serious that the Buddhist tradition calls “papancha”, best translated as mental proliferation. It goes something like this: something happens, like being ignored as I was, that gives you an unpleasant feeling, and, on the basis of that feeling you interpret the event a certain way, just as I did on retreat. Before you know it, that interpretation has taken shape and solidified into its own reality through a process of thought. This rapidly gets out of control and creates a version of the world that may have nothing to do with what actually happened.
And our interpretation of what happens isn’t random. It’s determined by all sorts of factors like our previous experience, self-view, education, social background, the media and many others. In my example, my response was coloured by a tendency to lack self-confidence and my selective memory of previous encounters with the same man.

The reason this is so serious is that it’s how over-identification with ideology and fanaticism arise. If you’re only ever exposed to one narrative, like radical Islamism or the relentless demonization of immigrants, contact with certain people will give rise to an unpleasant feeling. This can colour your perceptions of them to the extent that they can cease to be human. And when people cease to be human, it’s easier to wish them ill and actively commit acts of harm, as we’ve seen so tragically in recent weeks.

So what can we do about it? The Buddhist take on the stories we concoct is to see them as just that: stories. How often do we stop to consider whether we’re in full possession of the facts when we give our opinion about things? The Buddha tells us to go right back to that unpleasant feeling and not to get involved in fabricating stories that may cause us to act in ways we later regret. This involves a high level of attention and mindfulness – and a readiness to question our experience.

And then, of course, there’s love. Just as clinging too tightly to a particular story can prevent us from seeing other people as human, trying to cultivate love will do the opposite. If we can truly learn to love people we will never run the risk of dehumanizing them.

Buddhism offers a wonderful practice for the development of love, sometimes referred to in the tradition as “loving-kindness”. You start by cultivating well-wishing towards yourself, reflecting on the fact that you want to be happy and well. You then bring to mind a good friend, and wish the same for them. By degrees you move on to someone you don’t know well, someone you find difficult, and all people and sentient beings everywhere. I know from experience that this is a wonderfully effective practice. And if everyone did it, there would be much less room for conflict and strife in the world.
But even if you don’t meditate you can still pause every now and again and reflect on whether the way you’re acting or speaking is subtly dehumanizing someone, and what the underlying view is. I would strongly recommend that you give this a try, as it can make the world of difference to your relationships with all sorts of people.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Suffering and the Self

I’ve just been dealing with some disturbing news: one of the translation agencies I work for has given me some negative feedback about my work and announced a scaling-back, for the time being at least, of the type and amount of work I can do for them. The e-mail came on a Friday afternoon, which rather put a damper on my weekend!

This isn’t very nice, as anyone who has been criticised will know! But, as I’ve been reflecting on its implications, I’ve come to realise that, oddly enough, my discomfort isn’t so much about the possible loss of livelihood. No, what bothers me much more is the challenge this represents to my idea of who I am – to my self, you might say.

Buddhism tells us that all unenlightened people are subject to suffering in various forms. This isn’t of course to say that we suffer all the time – life for most of us is a mix of pleasurable and painful experience - but what it does mean is that a thread of suffering is woven right through the tapestry of individual lives: bodily pain, the loss of a relationship, fear of future unhappiness and a basic sense of lack are all forms of suffering that we will all encounter at some time or other. The tradition goes on to say that all emotional and mental suffering is due to our inability to see that everything is subject to change and nothing mundane can be relied on to make us happy. This goes in particular for our own individual self, which is no more than an ever-changing flux of passing physical, emotional and mental events which change as our conditions change. But we believe that this self is somehow fixed and unchanging, fundamentally separate from the world around it – and the only way to bridge the gap - to be happy - is through things like material possessions, relationships, membership of groups of one kind or another - and status. And when they fail to satisfy us - which they inevitably do - we suffer.

Which brings us back to my uncomfortable experience. My sense of identity revolves, as it does for everyone else, around strong and fixed ideas of who I am. Here are just a few of them: I am a capable, professional translator, able to hold my head up high in the world of work. But to be told out of the blue that I might not be as capable and professional as I thought has delivered a stiff challenge to this sense of my self, and I’ve been observing how my ego has been thrashing about like a landed fish trying to hold on to my certainty – they must be wrong, I must defend myself, how dare they…? This has been very painful. Yet, objectively speaking, the facts are simple: if they’re wrong, and I’m as good as I think I am, then there’s no problem. If I’m not, I can learn from the experience and improve – again, no problem. This doesn’t suddenly make me a bad or worthless person. But because this sense of self is so strong – yet so easily challenged – it’s very difficult to be rational.

What I’ve been trying to do is observe the suffering brought about by the gyrations of my mind and understand as deeply as I can that the cause of my own suffering is my sense of separate selfhood. Not easy, but it has kept things in perspective. Freedom from suffering isn’t to be found in blaming others for our unhappiness – the only way to free ourselves is to take on board that what really makes us unhappy is our strong sense of self. So, the next time someone criticises you, consider this: either they have a point, which will provide an opportunity for you to grow and develop, or they don’t, so why get upset about it? 

Contentment vs consumerism

posted 11 Jan 2016, 13:49 by Akasharaja Bruton

As another Christmas season passes and you clear away the tree, the decorations and all the discarded wrapping paper, you may be looking back on a period of frantic shopping and consumption and perhaps feeling the after effects – on your bank account and your waistline! It’s no coincidence that January sees the launch of various initiatives to reduce consumption, what with Dry January, where the emphasis is on abstaining from alcohol, and even Veganuary, in which various celebs line up to urge us to refrain from consuming  animal products for the month. Whatever you may feel about these causes, I think they touch on a point which is important from the point of view of human wellbeing and happiness and is stressed time and again in Buddhism – the need to moderate consumption and to look within for more real and lasting sources of contentment and happiness.

The advertising industry is of course always telling us that consumption is the path to happiness. Just think of all those beautiful and smiling young people – and they are almost invariably young – we see in adverts promoting new cars, perfumes and mobile phones. The clear message is that having particular consumer goods will bring us lasting happiness. There’s no denying the thrill you get from a new car or a new phone but, as you probably know from experience, the thrill fades and the sense of lack returns. And off we go again on the consumerist treadmill, looking for that next object of desire which will permanently banish all dissatisfaction. You and I may both know this, at least rationally, but, in my case, the knowledge doesn’t stop me from yearning for the next generation of Bluetooth loudspeakers in the hope of a blissful tomorrow.

I exaggerate of course – but perhaps only a little! We may not consciously think like that, but the emotional attachment to external objects as sources of lasting satisfaction runs very deep. Buddhism addresses this problem head on with its core teaching that craving is the cause of dissatisfaction and even suffering. Because the things we yearn for aren’t permanent – they break and get lost – and sooner or later we get bored with them because we’re looking for happiness from things outside ourselves that can’t ultimately provide it.

My teacher and the founder of my Order, Sangharakshita, teaches that the positive antidote to craving is the cultivation of stillness, simplicity and contentment – and those things can only come from within. Sometimes when I sit down to meditate on the breath, I’m struck by a sense of relief at the sheer simplicity of what I’m doing. I don’t need any gadgets or apps, all I have to do is watch my breath as it comes and goes and, if I’m lucky, the sense of restless craving for sense experience will fade and I’m left with a deep sense of satisfaction and contentment in the experience itself. Meditation may well of course not be your thing, but I think the point holds good – true satisfaction can only be found within. There are other ways to experience this, and I’m sure I’ve talked about them before, such as sitting quietly on your own or with a friend, being in nature or being happily immersed in a really good book. Perhaps you might try to find your own source of inner contentment this year – I guarantee that you will notice the benefit!