Practice: Healing Compassion

I have already written about a practice centred on the powerful emotion of compassion. However, today I came across an interesting variation of a practice on compassion (in the book Happiness by Matthieu Ricard): one that reflects our own suffering onto others, and helps us heal from our own suffering. This practice works as follows:

  1. Imagine those that encounter more hardships in their lives than you do; either by experiencing your hardships more severely or by having hardships from which you are spared.
  2. Send those all your love and compassion. Imagine this as a force of positive spirit emanating from you and reaching others, alleviating their hardships, if only by the fact that it is acknowledged by someone who cares.

This practice helps us to both strengthen our love and compassion, infinitely important emotions for a path towards enlightenment. This practice is well established among Buddhist practitioners. Connection with the suffering and hardships of others may bring us sadness but this sadness is quickly turned into strength by the powerful force of compassion and love, we can easily find within us.

Identity, Habits and Enlightenment

I recently read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. One of the interesting ideas presented in this book was that in order to bring about personal change, we need to start with our identity, then change our practices and processes and thus achieve better outcomes; as in, I am a health conscious person, therefore I will change my habit of eating fast food for lunch and thus eat healthy food for lunch. This is presented as being in contrast to our usual way of trying to facilitate change, which would be to start with outcomes; as in, I will eat healthy food for lunch, thus changing my habit of eating fast food and ultimately become a healthy person.

I thought this is a rather useful way to think about facilitating change, even though we need to take into account that it will usually be a two way process; what I do makes me what I am, but also what I am makes me do what I do. I am also still reading the book Happiness by Matthieu Ricard and today I came across a passage in there which I think brings an additional perspective on this.

Specifically Ricard discusses the Buddhist desire to become self-less. This is grounded in the belief that having a strong sense of self makes us liable to suffer. For instance, if I see myself as a formidable athlete and I get a permanent injury, it might bring me great unhappiness. Likewise, if I attach great importance to my self and my well-being, I am prone to develop thoughts that I am disadvantaged or easily become angry when thinking I have been wronged.

This line of thinking made me consider if building habits around a strong sense of identity might be as dangerous a path to follow as building habits around a desire to achieve a specific outcome. For instance, if I am developing a new habit because I want to loose weight, I might be disappointed when I do not succeed. However if I am developing the identity of myself as a slim person, it might bring me even greater unhappiness if I am not able to accomplish this. I think this very unhappiness might be the driver which makes using an identity based approach more likely to succeed; but it likewise makes it more dangerous for our general well-being.

I think it is quite important to develop an identity and have a life purpose. These should, however, be very carefully chosen. In choosing an identity, we should choose something which is helping us towards a path of greater happiness and enlightenment, rather than something which helps us achieve a lesser goal. Also our identity and purpose should not be dependent on external factors but only on things completely under our control. In the book Eternal Dharma, some possible life goals were discussed which I think were quite interesting. They centred around bringing love and kindness into the world. Here some further examples of identities/purposes which might be safe to adapt:

Having a strong identity is critical in finding success and happiness. However, as said, we must also keep in mind that an identity can do as much harm as it can do good. If I believe I am a person who loves shopping or going out above all, I am unlikely to bring much good into the world or for myself. But if I believe that I am kind and hard-working, I can be of great benefit to others and myself.

Fate

In life, things are bound to happen to us. Sometimes they are caused by our actions or inaction but, more often than not, things just happen for no apparent reason. I believe that how we think about the latter affects our well-being tremendously.

Given that seemingly random events play such a big part in our lives, we have developed a number of approaches to explain this randomness. In many world religions unexplainable events are attributed to the will of a higher power. Often this is nonsensical since many things that happen are in stark contrast to what is otherwise thought of the celestial being. Who would believe in a god which causes children dying from cancer?

We may also believe we have some kind of personal fate or destiny. We build a narrative that we are lucky with money, unlucky in love, destined to be happy, or destined to be unlucky in any of our endeavours. Any pattern of such interpretations which arise from our life are either random or a result of our own character and actions. There is absolutely no evidence that something like identifiable personal destiny exists.

We may also think that everything is random. We can do one thing or another but, at the end, the inevitable force of epic Randomness will overrule any of our actions.

Finally we may think that everything is predetermined; that whatever we do is already written and that none of our actions will be able to change anything.

Scientifically speaking, this last view is probably the one closest to the truth. It is theorised that, if we were to be able to know the exact state of the universe in one moment, we should be able to infer all future states from that. However, spiritually speaking, this view is barren – it provides us with no nourishment and strength for our soul to be the best we can be.

Instead, I prefer a view which I came across in a book about Buddhism: “The Way Things Are” from Ole Nydahl. Lama Ole Nydal said that those which are advanced in their study of the teachings of the Buddha will see what happens to them in two ways:

They understand good things which happen to them as blessings. A blessing is something which is good for us and which is given to us by a higher power and there is very little question that whatever makes the world go round – be it the will of sentient power or the natural interaction of elementary particles – is far more powerful than us.

Bad things which happen, in contrasts, are understood as trials and challenges. I think we should go even further and understand them as opportunities. In a world without challenge, without suffering and friction, there can only be greyness. In order to taste the sweetness of understanding, balance and enlightenment, we need to sample the ordeals of ignorance, chaos and misguided principles; and the engine of events around us is willing to supply us plenty of these.

Our world – or at least how we experience it – is unquestionably a very complex system. Our only way to understand complex systems is to divide them into layers; from a layer grounded in physical reality to layers which become more and more abstract. Think of the stock market. On one layer, there are individual stocks changing hands at specific prices. For a person to know of each individual transaction is impossible. Instead, we aggregate the transactions into a particular price at which the stock is trading at. On a more abstract level, we speak of market sentiment; we differentiate if there is a bull or bear market; if investors in general are eager to invest or try to sell their stocks. On an even more abstract level, we may ask what the spiritual value of the stock market is. Does this bring good or bad for us and humanity?

The same layering applies for all the big and small events which happen in our lives. As said, on a physical, natural level, everything may be predetermined and our fate sealed forever. However, this level is of the same importance to us as is the ledger of all transactions for a stock is for a stock broker; that is of virtually no importance at all. What is very important for us though is the spiritual question what the point of all these seemingly random events is.

Thankfully looking at this question from the spiritual level allows us some degree of freedom how to interpret what is happening to us. We can decide to adopt the most wholesome and nourishing interpretation which does not conflict with the theories currently most favoured by science. In my view, that is the dual view expressed above. Embrace everything good happening as blessing; and embrace everything bad happening as an opportunity to bring us further along on the path to enlightenment.

What Makes Me Happy?

I am currently reading the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard and a small exercise is presented at the end of the first chapter. The exercise is to think about what gives us pleasure and happiness. This question got me contemplating for quite a while. It appears I am not thinking very often about whether I am happy or not, let alone the causes of my happiness. I usually live with the assumption that my life is quite a happy one, unless there is something specific happening that upsets me.

However contemplating this question might not be the worst of ideas, since, as Ricard argues, being happy and content is a skill that can be learned like anything else and understanding what makes us happy seems like a very important step in getting better at happiness. Some of the things that I could come up with that make me happy are the following:

  • My wife: how I can bring good things into her life, and how she brings good things into mine, such as a wonderful smile when I am coming home from work.
  • Work and mastery: being engaged in a task in a field, software development, that interests and challenges me.
  • Beauty: encountering beauty in the natural world or of the mind.
  • Being helpful: bringing goodness into other’s lives.
  • Creativity: the ability to think and create.

I think what also contributes to my happiness is the absence of certain things:

  • Anger: at someone or something I think has wronged me.
  • Jealousy: thinking that someone has something I deserve more than they do.
  • Feeling of being treated unfairly: thinking that someone has taken advantage of me, not paid me back in kind.
  • Tiredness: feeling of having no energy to do something.
  • Sickness: feeling of not being able to do something because I have a sickness or afraid of catching one.

Thankfully I do not encounter these feelings all that often; but if I do, they certainly impact my level of happiness. Ricard calls these ‘mental toxins’.

A subquestion of the question posed is whether the things that bring us happiness could easily be taken from us. I think that is probably the case with what I have identified as contributing to my happiness. However I am not so sure if that should worry me.

I think some things, they make us happy, but they can also be taken away from us; but the happiness they bring outweigh the dangers of loosing them. I think it is thus still wise to embrace them – and ready ourselves for the possibility of loss.

Ultimately, of course, it is most important to find a deep, lasting and unassailable happiness. This I think can be achieved by finding a deeper purpose that provides us with a foundation for happiness. I think that I am still in the process of identifying this purpose for myself; sometimes I feel like that I have found it; and sometimes it seems to slip away from me.

I think it is very easy to live our modern day lives and loose sight of the question of the deeper meaning of existence. We are so busy with other things; so occupied with readily available distractions; and I am susceptible to this admittedly.

I feel like that my deeper purpose is to bring good into this world; to give back some of the blessing of the miracle of my existence. However, I am still unsure how I should go about this and also about what exactly good entails.

Thus I think I still have a long way to go on a road to deep and unassailable happiness. The question that Ricard poses is I think a very good one. I believe thinking about it has been valuable for me and I will try to make sure that I will keep it in my mind and in the process hopefully get better at happiness.

Picture credit: kikatani

Look Within

Look within; within is the fountain of all good.

Marcus Aurelius

We often go about our lives in a robot-like way. We do what is prescribed by our biological, social and cultural programming; seek social confirmation, seek good-looking mates, seek power, seek wealth, and we do so without thinking about it.

Sometimes this leads us to satisfaction and contentment, and sometimes to misery. Living our lives in such a way is risky, since we are drifting, controlled by external forces and forces within ourselves which guide us unconsciously.

Stoic and Buddhist philosophy suggests a better way for us; that we must first of all become aware of our inner selves, our thoughts and desires. Only once we have found inner peace and harmony, can we be be truly happy and bring happiness into the world.

Image credit: 1239652

Practice: Irrelevance and Impermanence

The universe is very big. We are very small. The universe exists for an immeasurably long time. Our lives are very short. These are simple facts that we often forget. An omission which easily leads us to overestimate the importance of our life, actions and feelings in the greater context of existence.

Western culture is built around the idea that  there lies tremendous value in each and every individual. The following two quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the German Basic law illustrate the Western focus on the individual and their protection from the area of Enlightenment and modernity respectively:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. […] Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law. […] Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. 

Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

I believe that this understanding of basic human rights is the foundation of the peace and prosperity my generation enjoys. These documents provide a very robust legal framework for creating a peaceful and functioning society. However, they are a poor spiritual guide in that they omit some fundamental truths about our existence – that there is little factual grounds for imbuing our puny lives with such outsize importance (the original justification for this was found in Christianity – as God endowing the ‘unalienable rights’.)

We cannot find true enlightenment if we do not face what is fact to the best of our knowledge. Thus we need to overcome the basic assumption that each and every life, and especially our own life, is inherently immeasurably valuable. This thought at first might not sound very comforting; but it can be a source of tremendous strength. You don’t need to be special; there is no point. You can focus on what has been given to you, your simple, small and short life and embrace all that is good within it, without having to believe in some false higher purpose.

One of the key concepts in Buddhist philosophy is the understanding that life is suffering, and that the impermanence of everything – people, thoughts, objects – is one of the key drivers of this suffering. It is a truly inalienable fact of life and, to find peace and wisdom, we need to understand and acknowledge it:

The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realised the nature of the world. 

Salla Sutta: The Arrow

Impermanence and suffering are two of the ‘three marks of existence’ in Buddhism with the third one being the concept of non-self. Non-self in essence asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in any living beings. For me, it is one of the more esoteric theories in Buddhism and I tend to classify it into the category of deliberations which easily leads us around in circles while being of little use. What I like to take away from it is the insight that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is mostly an illusion and believing that we have an immortal, immeasurable valuable soul is a belief held easily only with a good helping of self-aggrandisement.

The following practice is based on two basic understandings: Firstly, that we are impermanent and, secondly, that we are irrelevant in the sense that there is no magic to our lives which make them meaningful beyond the observable. 

  1. Become aware of the place where you currently are.
  2. Grasp in your mind the people who are in your building, then your suburb, then your city, then your country and finally the whole earth; each one so very similar to you and you being such a small part of them all.
  3. Become aware of the moment in time that currently is. Realise that in a hundred years you will have ceased to exist and your moment and struggles will mean little to those succeeding you. (If you happen to think you are rich and famous or have the opportunity to become so, add one hundred thousand years to the time-frame in this exercise.)
  4. Understand that by realising this you are acknowledging a fundamental truth of who you are and your place in the world. Your impermanence and irrelevance notwithstanding embrace the miracle of your existence, the ability to think and feel; the miracle that you may behold the beauty of the world, and to cherish the opportunity to add your microscopic ripple to the ocean of time and matter surrounding your life.

This practice and its theoretical justification is similar to the practice of embracing interbeing discussed earlier. The practice for embracing interbeing is only different in that it focuses on the connectedness of things while this practice is more inward bound, in asserting our place and identity in what we know existence to be.

In contrast to the practices of love, forgiveness and gratitude this practice is not immediately comforting. In fact it can be quite disturbing. It might be easier to live our lives if indeed there was any form of evidence that there is something magical which makes each of our lives worthwhile and valuable. Alas there is not. Given this, we need to face the facts as we are able to comprehend them. True enlightenment requires to be truthful to ourselves and finding wisdom within the constraints brought to us by the observable world:

Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.

Sahassavagga: The Thousands

Image credit: Earthrise by Bill Anders

Practice: Love

One of the most precious gift we have been given is our ability to love. Our love may encompass the big and small, our love may encompass the beautiful and ugly, our love may encompass ourselves and everything around us. Think about the many layers of your love; the romantic love for someone special, the love for something you like to do, the love for your family, the universal love which drives your desire to help those in need and protect everything in creation from harm.

Love is a central tenant of many world religions. In Christianity both the love of worshippers for God and Jesus as well as the love of God and Jesus for worshippers are often repeated themes. Likewise worshippers are encouraged to love one another and others:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.

1 Thessalonians 3:12

In Buddhism love or loving-kindness is known as one of the four immeasurable minds. It is in essence the strong wish that all sentient beings be well and happy:

Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness

While we should practice our ability to feel this kind of love in every action and thought, the following practice may help us to become more mindful of our ability to love and strengthen it:

  1. Take five deep breaths
  2. Think of the love you feel for someone close to you, such as your partner, parents, pets, children or friends.
  3. Think of someone who was wronged you – do you have the capacity to feel love for them?
  4. Think of yourself, with all your faults and shortcomings. Can you find love for yourself?
  5. Think of all of humankind, every single living soul. Can you find love for each and every one?
  6. Think of all sentient beings. Cows grooming their calves; lion brothers fighting for their territory; elephants wondering together. Can you find love for each and every one?
  7. Think of existence as a whole; every particle in the universe, every field and power, seemingly endless time itself. Can you find love for this vessel in which we exist?

Love just like gratitude and forgiveness is a powerful, deep emotion. We have a natural ability to love and using this ability may make us stronger and wiser. Unfortunately in times when we are weak, it is often difficult to find love, and much easier to find hatred and self-pity. If we find ourselves unable to love easily, we may follow some of the other practices to help us be stronger and unlock our ability to love unconditionally again.

Image credit: Dan Sudermann