Change Your Mental Habits
by His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, Jigme Pema Wangchen
We can’t often change the physical reality of a given situation, but our minds have quite an amazing effect on how we perceive, interpret and therefore cope with it. In Buddhism, we talk about the ‘dualistic’ mind, which basically describes how the human mind tends to try and see everything in black and white, good or bad, while knowing that life rarely fits into such neat boxes. Even when we have a conversation, we often feel like we are on one side or the other – that we have to take a stance or a point of view and defend it with all our intellect and verbal skills, ideally so the other person will back down and we will ‘win’. But lucky is the person who sees every conversation as a chance to learn and see something in life from another person’s perspective.
Kashyapa, consider the world of three thousand great thousand worlds and the grasses, trees, forests, as well as the medicinal herbs, in their many varieties, with their different names and colours which the mountains, streams, valleys and flatlands produce. A thick cloud spreads out, covering the three thousand great thousand worlds, raining on them equally everywhere at the same time, its moisture reaching every part. The grasses, trees, forests and medicinal herbs – those of small roots, small stalks, small branches and small leaves, those of medium-sized roots, medium-sized stalks, medium-sized branches, medium-sized leaves or those of large roots, large stalks, large branches, and large leaves, and also all the trees, whether great or small, according to their size, small, medium, or large – all receive a portion of it. From the rain of the one cloud each according to its nature grows, blossoms, and bears fruit. Although they grow from the same ground and are moistened by the same rain, still, all the grasses and trees are different. THE LOTUS SUTRA
Just as all the herbs and flowers and trees in the Lotus Sutra have unique potential, even though they all receive the rain from one cloud, so is true for us human beings. We each see things from our own unique perspective, made up of our experiences, our personalities and emotions. All of these different ways of seeing are interesting and valid, and so if we can encourage ourselves to look at situations from alternative angles, we might dissolve some of the blocks between us and our happiness. Life is full of surprises. Why would we use the phrase, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ if it were as simple as saying one thing is good or another is bad?
SAME EXPERIENCE, DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE
Life rarely goes perfectly according to our plans; it’s up to us whether we see that as a problem or a blessing, as Cathy discovered while on retreat with us at Druk Amitabha Mountain:
When we go on retreat to the nunnery at Druk Amitabha Mountain, we walk down the steep hill to the famous Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu for kora or circumambulation, which means walking around the circumference of the stupa a certain number of times before giving an offering. This time we went in the evening and so made an offering of lights by lighting as many candles as possible to send out good wishes to the world.
His Holiness always walks at an incredible pace and I always try to stay with the front group. I was running to keep up when I managed to trip where the side of the road falls away into the gutter and twisted my ankle quite badly, so that I could only walk very slowly and gingerly around the stupa.
I soon fell way behind the main group at the front. This was new for me; I had been forced to slow down by an unfortunate occurrence, but it turned out to be a wonderful and new experience. As I walked I noticed so much more along the way. Life around the Swayambhunath Stupa is there in all its colours. It is a very raw place where the most unfortunate people will go to die, spending their last days under a sheet of plastic if they are lucky and then finally laid to rest under a white sheet, with the charity of strangers paying for the funeral cremation. It is also a place of constant activity, a whirl of colour, community, commerce and gathering.
As I reached the place where we would make the offering of lights there were already some nuns there, quietly lighting dozens upon dozens of thin white candles up the steps of the stupa. It was so peaceful and beautiful. I knelt down and began to light candles, enjoying the quiet company and taking in the energy of the place while thinking about the offering.
By slowing down, I was able to see the same experience with new eyes. It was a good lesson for me, both to not always push to be at the front, which I must admit I do as much in life as I do during the kora, and also to be open to seeing things from different perspectives. I hope I will be able to apply that lesson, whether it is in being more relaxed about differences of opinion or that it’s ok if things don’t go according to plan – it might end up being very interesting!
THE MIND IS LIMITLESS
Through his advanced mind training and meditation, the Buddha was known to go through walls, through solid rock and even fly across mountain tops. Of course, this defies our usual logic and the laws of physics. But, through the power of his unlimited mind, Buddha was able to go beyond accepted conventions, beyond all labels and understand that what we see as a wall is a perception and so might easily be walked through.
Perhaps an easier example to think about is water: for fish, water is home, but while we humans might be given life by drinking it, water would kill us before it could be our home. So the meaning or purpose of water changes depending on the angle from which we are looking at it. In other words, we don’t need to cling to any one definition. The same is true of happiness: we don’t need to try and define it – it can mean different things to different people. As the Zen saying goes: ‘To her lover a beautiful woman is a delight; to a monk she is a distraction; to a mosquito, a good meal.’
Many years ago when white people first arrived in Tibet, the people there were very scared of them because they looked so strange with their yellow hair and blue eyes – they had never seen people like this before. They would clap at the white people, as was their custom to shoo something scary away; but the white people, for their part, felt very happy when they were clapped, as in their culture it was a sign of appreciation.
As you begin to make more of a conscious choice to step outside of your usual mental habits, you will naturally learn to see things differently, as you will no longer be so firmly rooted in your usual position – or at least you will notice that you are looking at the world through your own individual set of filters. Why would this help when it comes to nourishing happiness as your state of mind? As you can imagine, if we always look at things from the same angle, we begin to set very fixed ideas of what we believe to be right or good; we get into a mental rut, rather than allowing our state of mind to flow and be flexible. We even begin to set our definition of happiness into stone: if the picture of our lives looks a certain way, it’s ok and we can be happy; but if anything changes in that picture, we resist and feel anxious that we will no longer be happy. When we only allow ourselves one way of seeing we are easily angered or irritated when other people don’t fit in with our opinion of what is appropriate behaviour; we have a long list of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ that make us highly critical and judgemental.
If we can’t develop the ability to step into another person’s shoes, then it is very difficult to make meaningful connections or have empathy and compassion for others. We can become quite isolated in our own minds, unable to bend or adapt – which is why giving our minds a bit of a workout every now and then is a very good idea. Just like a car engine, if we leave the mind alone for too long, it becomes rusty and what should be moving parts become stiff or stuck.
SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY
If you develop the ability to see things differently sometimes, then your idea of happiness will be flexible. Perhaps you have always seen the glass as half empty; now is your chance to choose to look from another angle and see it as half full.
Take money as an example. Whether people have a great deal of money or not very much at all, there will still be different ways of seeing it. I know men and women who have become very successful through their work. Some feel very comfortable with this, they truly appreciate the fruits of their labour and are not terribly attached to material things; they are very happy that they are able to give a great deal away while also having a nice roof over their head and providing a good education for their children. But I also meet people who have so much one might think they could never have any worries about money, yet who, from their own point of view, worry constantly about losing their riches or feel jealous of a neighbour whose house or car is even bigger than theirs. They live in fear that it will all disappear, even to the point of being miserly. I feel sorrow for these people who put off their happiness because of a way of seeing. When I connect with people who are very fixed or solid in their views like this, my hope is that gradually, with practice, the ropes that hold their minds down will loosen and dissolve. Then they will understand the great good they might do with their success, and how they might accept that it’s ok for them to enjoy themselves too.
I have visited many holy cave retreats and monasteries where masters practised and attained enlightenment. Visiting these holy places gives us great encouragement, but when I see ruined buildings and statues, I feel quite sad and ask why would humans destroy beautiful things? I know it is because they are holy places, and that very sadly some people of different religions will fight over their beliefs and end up destroying places of prayer. I wish for people to forget about them being holy, at least try to appreciate the beauty. It is the same if we have a mind that is limited and only able to accept our own ideas of right and wrong, we would become like those people who destroy beautiful things in others’ cultures, traditions and countries, we would become those unhappy ones living in a box. When things do not follow our way, they have to be destroyed. This is the same as relationships, when our friends or family do not follow our instructions, we have the tendency to be angry and mad at them, though never at ourselves.
This is why I always say, watch your mind, if you can guard your mind, your speech and actions would be okay. Most of the time, we don’t do that. Instead, we are always looking outward, measuring others against our own peculiar standards. Do not expect others to follow our ways, each of us has our own path, some may be similar, but never exactly the same.
OUR MINDS CREATE OUR WORLD
It is a joy for me to see how the experience of our Pad Yatras may bring moments of true understanding to volunteers, like Joanna, who then take these moments into their lives:
One of the most inspiring experiences I have had is a quiet joyfulness just in the middle of turbulent emotional and strong physical challenges during the Pad Yatras. What I appreciate mostly is the inner space which opens spontaneously within, while strong emotions arise, dissolve, arise and dissolve … and still joyfulness radiates from within. Like a lotus in the middle of mud. I will never forget the taste of a piece of old bread which I first refused to take, but soon took the decision: this is our dinner. Then I stopped wanting something else and the old bread became delicious and yummy. Later I realised it is how the mind creates realities. Often, since then, similar experiences have happened in my daily life and the piece of old bread reminds me how to change my mind and be satisfied with what is there now.
Growing awareness of my own behavioural patterns helps me to offer a better support to my clients. This simple understanding and acceptance towards myself goes automatically to my closest relationships, to my clients and to others. I listen better, think more clearly and take care with my words. The changes I have experienced within myself keep giving me a deeper confidence in everyone’s abilities to change towards wellbeing and to meet without fear the challenges of life.
PAUSE TO REFLECT
If you were to look into a still pond at night and see the reflection of the moon, it would look exactly the same as if you were looking directly at the moon itself. To our eyes there is no difference and yet we know that the moon in the lake is just a reflection, an illusion.
You can use your own mirror for this exercise: simply take a minute to look at yourself in the mirror. You can see every little detail – how tall you are, how many grey hairs you have today. But despite appearances, it is not real. Like the moon in the lake, the face you see is just a reflection.
This is a contemplative meditation that helps us to understand that nothing in the world has a fixed reality. It improves our ability to understand how it is our minds that give meaning to everything around us – that there is no one truth, but only perception and appearance. This explains why two people who have experienced exactly the same situation might have very different perceptions of it. As a simple example, think of when you are on holiday in the countryside – when it rains you are very disappointed, but the farmers are rejoicing. So is rain good or bad? There is no fixed answer.
The aim of such contemplation is to train our minds, so that we are able to step into another person’s shoes to try and see things from their point of view, even when we are initially angered or upset by their actions. It’s so easy to judge others, and we often forget to pause and see that usually there are many conditions involved in a given situation and that we might not be perfect ourselves. After all, if we were perfect, we would be Buddha, and Buddha wouldn’t have had an argument in the first place! It’s up to us: we always have a choice whether to cling on to one narrow view of the world or open our minds up to embracing difference and seeing the beauty in variety.
THE ILLUSION OF REALITY
It can be difficult to consider that our concept of reality is just that – a concept, rather than a universal truth. How can we have anything concrete to show for our lives if reality is just an illusion of the mind? Trevor is a lawyer, which can be a very adversarial role – on one side of the ‘truth’ or another:
The Gyalwang Drupka frequently says that we need to cultivate a view that the world around us is like a dream or an illusion. Frankly, it had scared me to put his words into practice because it felt as though I would lose touch with reality. Recently, I have tried following his teaching, and it has had the opposite effect. I feel more grounded and open to possibility.
Like many people, my world is frequently governed by anxiety, anger or fear. I work as a lawyer and constantly feel scrutinised by opposing counsel or even my colleagues. It is the nature of a profession – that in the United States at least – is deliberately designed to be adversarial. This sense of scrutiny leads to a pervasive sense of insecurity that causes me to feel anxious or angry a lot of the time.
By attempting to cultivate a view that the world is dream-like, the anxiety and anger have begun to dissipate. I believe that these feelings were the result of me tightly grasping to my expectations, my views and even my own sense of self. Seeing these things as a dream gives me space. I do not need to worry so much if the reality in which I live is not substantial.
Seeing the illusion-like nature of our reality is not a sojourn into nihilism. To the contrary: viewing reality as dream-like has allowed me to let go of negative emotions and act with more compassion. When I hear nasty, unfounded words from opposing counsel, I grow less angry because these words – and the emotions to which they give rise – hold a less concrete meaning. Likewise, if I need to confront someone with whom I am working over a difficult issue, I am better able to do so without anger. I can take the time to focus on what the other person needs because I have the space to see my views as no more or less important than theirs.
Rather than losing touch with reality, I have gained a better grasp of it. I am given space and openness to see vast, dreamy possibilities – including the possibility of acting with love to others, even in my own most difficult moments.
If you are brave and look at yourself openly and honestly, willing to learn from your experiences, to change yourself and develop your life for the better, then you will certainly feel vulnerable and you might even be a little fearful of what you might see. But if you have the courage to look at your own imperfections, quirks and things that you would like to improve, then you will also be understanding of the imperfections and vulnerabilities of others. Rather than being quick to judge or criticise, you will have more patience because you will know we are all in the same boat, doing our best to be happy. You will be more accepting of difference, which makes for a much easier, happier way of life.