The Relativity of Perception
- The primordial purity of the ground completely transcends words, concepts, and formulations.
-Jamgon Kongtrul, Myriad Worlds,translated and edited by the International Committee of Kunkhyab Choling
The Definition of emptiness as “infinite possibility” is a basic description of a very complicated term. A subtler meaning, which might have been lost on early translators, implies that whatever arises out of this infinite potential-whether it’s a thought, a word, a planet, or a table-doesn’t truly exist as a “thing” in itself, but is rather the result of numerous causes and conditions. If any of those causes or conditions are changed or removed, a different phenomenon will arise. Like the principles outlined in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, quantum mechanics tends to describe experience in terms not simply of a single possible chain of events leading to a single result, but rather of probabilities of events and occurrences-which, in an odd way, is closer to the Buddhist understanding of absolute reality, in which a variety of outcomes are theoretically possible.
- Whatever depends on conditions is explained to be empty. . . .
-Sutra Requested by Madropa,
translated by Ari Goldfield
To use a simple example, imagine two different chairs: one that has four sturdy legs and one that has two good legs and two cracked ones. If you sit in the chair that has four good legs, you’ll be very comfortable. Sit in the other one and you’ll end up on the floor. On a superficial level, they can both be said to be “chairs.” But your experience of each “chair” will be unmistakably different because the underlying conditions are not the same.
This coming together of different causes is known, in Buddhist terms, as interdependence. We can see the principle of interdependence at work all the time in the world around us. A seed, for example, carries within itself the potential for growth, but it can only realize its potential-that is, become a tree, a bush, or a vine-under certain conditions. It has to be planted, watered, and given the proper amount of light. Even under the right conditions, whatever grows depends on the kind of seed planted. An apple seed won’t grow into an orange tree, nor will an orange seed become a tree that suddenly sprouts apples. So, even within a seed, the principle of interdependence applies.
Similarly, the choices we make in our daily lives do have a relative effect, setting in motion causes and conditions that create inevitable consequences in the domain of relative reality. Relative choices are like stones tossed in a pond. Even if the stone doesn’t go very far, wherever it falls, concentric ripples will spread out from the area where the stone hits. There’s no way for this not to happen (unless, of course, your aim is really bad and you miss the pond altogether and send a stone sailing through your neighbor’s window, in which case a whole different set of consequences will occur).
In the same way, your ideas about yourself-“I’m not good enough,” “I’m too fat,” or “I made a horrible mistake yesterday”-are based on prior causes and conditions. Maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe someone said something you didn’t like earlier in the day. Or maybe you’re just hungry and your body is crying out for vitamins or minerals that it needs to function properly. Something as simple as a lack of water can cause fatigue, headaches, and an inability to concentrate. Any number of things can determine the nature of relative experience without changing the absolute reality of who you are.
When I was being examined by neuroscientists at the laboratory in Wisconsin, I asked a lot of questions about how modern scientists understand perception. Buddhists have their own theories, but I was curious about the Western scientific point of view. What I learned was that from a strictly neuroscientific standpoint any act of perception requires three essential elements: a stimulus-such as a visual form, a sound, a smell, a taste, or something we touch or that touches us; a sensory organ; and a set of neuronal circuits in the brain that organize and make sense of the signals received from the sense organ.
Using visual perception of a banana as an example, the scientists I spoke with explained that the optic nerves-the sensory neurons in the eye-first detect a long yellow curved thing, which maybe has a brown spot at either end. Excited by this stimulus, the neurons start firing off messages to the thalamus, a neuronal structure located at the very center of the brain. The thalamus is something like a central switchboard, like the kind portrayed in old movies, where sensory messages are sorted before being passed to other areas of the brain.
Once the messages from the optic nerves are sorted by the thalamus, they’re sent to the limbic system, the region of the brain chiefly responsible for processing emotional responses and sensations of pain and pleasure. At this point our brains make a sort of immediate judgment on whether the visual stimulus-in this case the long yellow curved thing with brown spots at either end-is a good thing, a bad thing, or something neutral. Like the feeling we sometimes get in the presence of other people, we tend to refer to this immediate response as a “gut reaction,” though it doesn’t occur entirely in the stomach. It’s just a lot easier to use this shorthand description than to go into details like “a stimulation of neurons in the limbic region.”
As this information is processed in the limbic area, it is simultaneously passed “higher up” to the regions of the neocortex, the mainly analytical region of the brain, where it’s organized into patterns-or, more specifically, concepts-that provide the guide or map we use to navigate the everyday world. The neocortex evaluates the pattern and arrives at the conclusion that the object that stimulated our optic nerve cells is, in fact, a banana. And if the neocortex has already created the pattern or concept “banana,” it offers up all sorts of associated details based on past experiences-for example, what a banana tastes like, whether we like the taste or not, and all sorts of other details related to our concept of a banana, all of which enable us to decide how to respond with greater precision to the object we see as a banana.
What I’ve described is just a bare outline of the process of perception. But even a glimpse of the process provides a clue to how even an ordinary object can become a cause of happiness or unhappiness. Once we’ve arrived at the stage where we recognize a banana, we’re really not seeing the original object anymore. Instead, we’re seeing an image of it constructed by the neocortex. And this image is conditioned by a huge variety of factors, including our environment, expectations, and prior experiences, as well as the very structure of our neuronal circuitry. In the brain itself, the sensory processes and all these factors can be said to be interdependent in the sense that they continuously influence one another. Because the neocortex ultimately provides the pattern by which we’re able to recognize, name, and predict the behavior, or “rules,” associated with an object we perceive, it does, in a very profound sense, shape the world for us. In other words, we’re not seeing the absolute reality of the banana, but rather its relative appearance, a mentally constructed image.
To illustrate this point, during the first Mind and Life Institute conference in 1987, Dr. Livingston described a simple experiment that involved presenting a group of research subjects with the letter T, carefully drawn so that both the horizontal and the vertical segments were exactly equal in length. I When asked whether one of the two segments was longer than the other or equal in length, three different responses were given, each based on the subjects’ backgrounds. For example, most of the people who lived or had been raised in mainly flat environments, like the Netherlands, tended to see the horizontal (or flat) segment as longer. By contrast, people living or raised in mountainous environments, and therefore more likely to perceive things in terms of up and down, were overwhelmingly convinced that the vertical segment was longer. Only a small group of subjects was able to recognize the two segments as equal in length.
In strictly biological terms, then, the brain is an active participant in the shaping and conditioning of perception. Although scientists would not deny that there is a “real world” of objects beyond the confines of the body, it’s generally agreed that even though sensory experiences appear to be very direct and immediate, the processes involved are far more subtle and complex than they appear. As Francisco Varela commented later on in the conference, “It’s as if the brain actually makes the world come through in perception.”
The brain’s active role in the process of perception plays a critical part in determining our ordinary state of mind. And this active role opens the possibility for those willing to undertake certain practices of mental training to gradually change long-standing perceptions shaped by years of prior conditioning. Through retraining, the brain can develop new neuronal connections, through which it becomes possible not only to transform existing perceptions but also to move beyond ordinary mental conditions of anxiety, helplessness, and pain and toward a more lasting experience of happiness and peace.
This is good news for anyone who feels trapped in ideas about the way life is. Nothing in your experience-your thoughts, feelings, or sensations-is as fixed and unchangeable as it appears. Your perceptions are only crude approximations of the true nature of things. Actually, the universe in which you live and the universe in your mind form an integrated whole. As explained to me by neuroscientists, physicists, and psychologists, in a bold effort to describe reality in objective, rational terms, modern science has begun to restore in us a sense of the magic and majesty of existence.
Subjects and Objects: A Neuroscientific View
- Dualistic thought is the dynamic energy of mind.
-Jamgon Kongtrul, Creation and Completion,
translated by Sarah Harding
Armed with a bit more information about physics and biology, we can ask some deeper questions about the absolute reality of emptiness and the relative reality of daily experience. For example, if what we perceive is just an image of an object, and the object itself, from the point of view of a physicist, is a whirling mass of tiny particles, then why do we experience something like a table in front of us as solid? How can we see and feel a glass of water on the table? If we drink the water, it seems real and tangible enough. How can that be? If we don’t drink water, we’ll be thirsty. Why?
To begin with, the mind engages in many ways in a process that is known as dzinpa, a Tibetan word that means “grasping.” Dzinpa is the tendency of mind to fixate on objects as inherently real. Buddhist training offers an alternative approach to experiencing life from an essentially fear-based perspective of survival in favor of experiencing it as a parade of odd and wonderful events. The difference can be demonstrated through a simple example. Imagine that I’m holding my mala (a string of prayer beads similar to a rosary) in my hand with m palm turned downward. For this example, the mala represents all the possessions people usually feel they need: a nice car, fine clothes, good food, a well-paying job, a comfortable home, and so on. If I hold my mala tightly, some part of it always seems to escape my grasp and hang outside my hand. If I try to grasp the loose part, a longer bit of the mala falls through my fingers; and if I try to grasp that, an even longer piece slips through. If I continue this process, I’ll eventually lose my grasp on the entire mala. If, however, I turn my palm upward, and allow the mala to simply rest in my open palm, nothing falls through. The beads sit in my hand loosely.
To use another example, imagine you’re sitting in a room full of people looking at a table at the front of the room. Your tendency is to relate to the table as a thing in itself, a completely whole, self-contained object, independent of subjective observation. But a table has a top, legs, sides, a back, and a front. If you remember that it’s made up of these different parts, can you really define it as a singular object?
In their exploration of the “conductor-less” brain, neuroscientists have discovered that the brains of sentient beings have evolved specifically to recognize and respond to patterns. Among the billions of neurons that make up the human brain, some neurons are specifically adapted to detect shapes, while others are dedicated to detecting colors, smells, sounds, movements, and so on. At the same time, our brains are endowed with mechanisms that enable us to extract what neuroscientists call “global,” or pattern like, relationships.
Consider the familiar example of a little group of visual symbols, called emoticons, often used in e-mail messages ::-).This group is easily recognized as a “smiley face,” with two eyes “:,” a nose “-,” and a mouth “).” If, however, these three objects were rearranged as ) – :, the brain wouldn’t recognize a pattern and would merely interpret the shapes as random dots, lines, and curves.
Neuroscientists I’ve spoken with have explained that these pattern recognition mechanisms operate almost simultaneously with the neuronal recognition of shapes, colors, and so on through neuronal synchrony-which, in very simple terms, may be described as a process in which neurons across widely separated areas of the brain spontaneously and instantaneously communicate with one another. For instance, when the shapes ::-) are perceived in this precise formation, the corresponding neurons signal one another in a spontaneous yet precisely coordinated fashion that represents recognition of a specific pattern. When no pattern is perceived, the corresponding neurons signal one another randomly.
This tendency to identify patterns or objects is the clearest biological illustration of dzinpa I have so far encountered. I suspect it evolved as some sort of survival function, since the ability to discriminate among harmful, beneficial, and neutral objects or events would be quite handy! As I’ll explain later on, clinical studies indicate that the practice of meditation extends the mechanism of neuronal synchrony to a point where the perceiver can begin to recognize consciously that his or her mind and the experiences or objects that his or her mind perceives are one and the same. In other words, the practice of meditation over a long period dissolves artificial distinctions between subject and object-which in turn offers the perceiver the freedom to determine the quality of his or her own experience, the freedom to distinguish between what is real and what is merely an appearance.
Dissolving the distinction between subject and object, however, doesn’t mean that perception becomes a great big blur. You still continue to perceive experience in terms of subject and object, while at the same time recognizing that the distinction is essentially conceptual. In other words, the perception of an object is not different from the mind that perceives it.
Because this shift is difficult to grasp intellectually, in order to develop some understanding, it’s necessary to resort once again to the analogy of a dream. In a dream, if you recognize that what you’re experiencing is just a dream, then you also recognize that whatever you experience in the dream is merely occurring in your own mind. Recognizing this, in turn, frees you from the limitations of “dream problems:’ “dream suffering,” or “dream limitations.” The dream still continues, but recognition liberates you from whatever pain or unpleasantness your dream scenarios present. Fear, pain, and suffering are replaced by a sense of almost childlike wonder: “Wow, look what my mind is capable of producing!”
In the same way, in waking life, transcending the distinction between subject and object is equivalent to recognizing that whatever you experience is not separate from the mind that experiences it. Waking life doesn’t stop, but your experience or perception of it shifts from one of limitation to one of wonder and amazement.
Why Are We Unhappy?
- By whom and how were the weapons of hell created?
-Santideva, The Bodhicaryavatara,
translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton
The conditioning factors are often referred to in Buddhist terms as “mental afflictions:’ or sometimes “poisons.” Although the texts of Buddhist psychology examine a wide range of conditioning factors, all of them agree in identifying three primary afflictions that form the basis of all other factors that inhibit our ability to see things as they really are: ignorance, attachment, and aversion
Ignorance is a fundamental inability to recognize the infinite potential, clarity, and power of our own minds, as if we were looking at the world through colored glass: Whatever we see is disguised or distorted by the colors of the glass. On the most essential level, ignorance distorts the basically open experience of awareness into dualistic distinctions between inherently existing categories of “self’ and “other.”
Ignorance is thus a twofold problem. Once we establish the neuronal habit of identifying ourselves as a single, independently existing “self,” we inevitably start to see whatever is not “self’ as “other.” “Other” can be anything: a table, a banana, another person, or even something this “self’ is thinking or feeling. Everything we experience becomes, in a sense, a stranger. And as we become accustomed to distinguishing between “self’ and “other,” we lock ourselves into a dualistic mode of perception, drawing conceptual boundaries between our “self’ and the rest of the world “out there,” a world that seems so vast that we almost can’t help but begin to think of ourselves as very small, limited, and vulnerable. We begin looking at other people, material objects, and so on as potential sources of happiness and unhappiness, and life becomes a struggle to get what we need in order to be happy before somebody else grabs it.
This struggle is known in Sanskrit as samsara, which literally means “wheel” or “circle.” Specifically, samsara refers to the wheel or circle of unhappiness, a habit of running around in circles, chasing after the same experiences again and again, each time expecting a different result. If you’ve ever watched a dog or a cat chasing its own tail, you’ve seen the essence of samsara. And even though it might be funny to watch an animal chase its tail, it’s not so funny when your own mind does the same thing.
The opposite of samsara is nirvana, a term that is almost as completely misunderstood as emptiness. A Sanskrit word roughly translated as “extinguishing” or “blowing out” (as in the blowing out of the flame of a candle), nirvana is often interpreted as a state of total bliss or happiness, arising from the extinguishing or “blowing out” of the ego or the idea of “self.” This interpretation is accurate to a certain extent, except that it doesn’t take into account that most of us live as embodied beings going about our lives in the relatively real world of moral, ethical, legal, and physical distinctions.
Trying to live in this world without abiding by its relative distinctions would be as foolish and difficult as trying to avoid the consequences of being born right- or left-handed. What would be the point? A more precise interpretation of nirvana is the adoption of a broad perspective that admits all experiences, pleasurable or painful, as aspects of awareness. Naturally, most people would prefer to experience only the “high notes” of happiness. But as a student of mine recently pointed out, eliminating the “low notes” from a Beethoven symphony—or any modern song, for that matter-would result in a pretty cheap and tinny experience.
Samsara and nirvana are perhaps best understood as points of view. Samsara is a point of view based primarily on defining and identifying with experiences as either painful or unpleasant. Nirvana is a fundamentally objective state of mind: an acceptance of experience without judgments, which opens us to the potential for seeing solutions that may not be directly connected to our survival as individuals, but rather to the survival of all sentient beings.
Which brings us to the second of the three primary mental afflictions.
The perception of “self’ as separate from “others” is, as discussed earlier, an essentially biological mechanism-an established pattern of neuronal gossip that consistently signals other parts of the nervous system that each of us is a distinct, independently existing creature that needs certain things in order to perpetuate its existence. Because we live in physical bodies, some of these things we need, such as oxygen, food, and water, are truly indispensable. In addition, studies of infant survival that people have discussed with me have shown that survival requires a certain amount of physical nurturing.’ We need to be touched; we need to be spoken to; we need the simple fact of our existence to be acknowledged.
Problems begin, however, when we generalize biologically essential things into areas that have nothing to do with basic survival. In Buddhist terms, this generalization is known as “attachment” or “desire”which, like ignorance, can be seen as having a purely neurological basis.
When we experience something like chocolate, for example, as pleasant, we establish a neuronal connection that equates chocolate with the physical sensation of enjoyment. This is not to say that chocolate in itself is a good or bad thing. There are lots of chemicals in chocolate that create a physical sensation of pleasure. It’s our neuronal attachment to chocolate that creates problems.
Attachment is in many ways comparable to addiction, a compulsive dependency on external objects or experiences to manufacture an illusion of wholeness. Unfortunately, like other addictions, attachment becomes more intense over time. Whatever satisfaction we might experience when we attain something or someone we desire doesn’t last. Whatever or whoever made us happy today, this month, or this year is bound to change. Change is the only constant of relative reality.
The Buddha compared attachment to drinking salt water from an ocean. The more we drink, the thirstier we get. Likewise, when our mind is conditioned by attachment, however much we have, we never really experience contentment. We lose the ability to distinguish between the bare experience of happiness and whatever objects temporarily make us happy. As a result, we not only become dependent on the object, but we also reinforce the neuronal patterns that condition us to rely on an external source to give us happiness.
You can substitute any number of objects for chocolate. For some people, relationships are the key to happiness. When they see someone they think is attractive, they try all kinds of ways to approach him or her. But if they finally manage to become involved with that person, the relationship doesn’t turn out to be as satisfying as they imagined. Why? Because the object of their attachment is not really an external thing. It’s a story spun by the neurons in the brain; and that story unfolds on many different levels, ranging from what they think they might gain from achieving what they desire to what they fear if they fail to get it.
Other people think they’d be really happy if they experienced an extreme stroke of good luck, like winning the lottery. But an interesting study by Philip Brinkman that I heard about from one of my students has shown that people who had recently won a lottery were not that much happier than a control group who hadn’t experienced the excitement of suddenly becoming rich. In fact, after the initial thrill wore off, the people who’d won a lottery reported finding less enjoyment in the everyday pleasures, like chatting with friends, getting compliments, or simply reading a magazine, than people who hadn’t experienced such a major change.
The study reminded me of a story I heard not long ago about an old man who’d bought a ticket for a lottery worth more than a hundred million dollars. A short time after buying the ticket, he developed a heart problem and was sent to the hospital under the care of a doctor who ordered strict bed rest and absolutely forbade anything that would cause undue excitement. While the old man was in the hospital, his ticket actually won the lottery. Since he was in a hospital, of course, the old man didn’t know about his good fortune, but his children and his wife found out and went to the hospital to tell the man the news.
On the way to his hospital room, they met his doctor and told him all about the old man’s good fortune. As soon as they’d finished, the doctor pleaded with them not to say anything just yet. “He might get so excited,” the doctor explained, “that he could die from the strain on his heart.” The man’s wife and children argued with the doctor, believing that the good news would help improve his condition. But in the end they agreed to let the doctor break the news, gently and slowly so as not to cause the man undue excitement.
While the man’s wife and children sat waiting in the hall, the doctor went into his patient’s room. He began by asking the man all sorts of questions about his symptoms, how he was feeling, and so on; and after a while, he asked, very casually, “Have you ever bought a ticket for the lottery?”
The old man replied that, in fact, he had bought a ticket just before coming to the hospital.
“If you won the lottery,” the doctor asked, “how would you feel?”
“Well, if I do, that would be nice. If I don’t, that would be fine, too. I’m an old man and won’t live much longer. Whether I win or not, it doesn’t really matter.”
”You couldn’t really feel that way,” the doctor said, in the manner of someone speaking purely theoretically. “If you won, you’d be really excited, right?”
But the old man replied, “Not really. In fact, I’d be happy to give you half of it if you could find a way to make me feel better.”
The doctor laughed. “Don’t even think about it,” he said. “I was just asking.”
But the patient insisted, “No, I mean it. If I won the lottery, I really would give you half of what I won if you could make me feel better.”
Again, the doctor laughed. “Why don’t you write a letter,” he joked, “saying you’d give me half?”
“Sure, why not?” the old man agreed, reaching over to the table next to his bed and picking up a pad of paper. Slowly, feebly, he wrote out a letter agreeing to give the doctor half of any lottery money he might win, signed it, and handed it to the doctor. When the doctor looked at the letter and the signature, he got so excited over the idea of getting so much money that he fell over dead on the spot.
As soon as the doctor fell, the old man started shouting. Hearing the noise, the man’s wife and children feared that the doctor had been right all along, that the news really had been too exciting, and the old man had died from the strain on his heart. They rushed into the room, only to find the old man sitting up in his bed and the doctor crumpled on the floor. While the nurses and other hospital staff rushed around trying to revive the doctor, the old man’s family quietly told him that he had won the lottery. Much to their surprise, he didn’t seem all that excited about learning that he’d just won millions of dollars, and the news didn’t do him any damage at all. In fact, after a few weeks his condition improved and he was released from the hospital. Certainly he was glad to enjoy his new wealth, but he wasn’t all that attached to it. The doctor, on the other hand, had been so attached to the idea of having so much money, and his excitement was so great, that his heart couldn’t bear the strain and he died.
Every strong attachment generates an equally powerful fear that we’ll either fail to get what we want or lose whatever we’ve already gained. This fear, in the language of Buddhism, is known as aversion: a resistance to the inevitable changes that occur as a consequence of the impermanent nature of relative reality.
The notion of a lasting, independently existing self urges us to expend enormous effort in resisting the inevitability of change, making sure that this “self’ remains safe and secure. When we’ve achieved some condition that makes us feel whole and complete, we want everything to stay exactly as it is. The deeper our attachment to whatever provides us with this sense of completeness, the greater our fear of losing it, and the more brutal our pain if we do lose it.
In many ways, aversion is a self-fulfilling prophecy, compelling us to act in ways that practically guarantee that our efforts to attain whatever we think will bring us lasting peace, stability, and contentment will fail. Just think for a moment about how you act around someone to whom you feel a strong attraction. Do you behave like the suave, sophisticated, and self-confident person you’d like the other person to see, or do you suddenly become a tongue-tied goon? If this person talks and laughs with someone else, do you feel hurt or jealous, and betray your pain and jealousy in small or obvious ways? Do you become so fiercely attached to the other person to such a degree that he or she senses your desperation and begins to avoid you?
Aversion reinforces neuronal patterns that generate a mental construct of yourself as limited, weak, and incomplete. Because anything that might undermine the independence of this mentally constructed “self’ is perceived as a threat, you unconsciously expend an enormous amount of energy on the lookout for potential dangers. Adrenaline rips through your body, your heart races, your muscles tense, and your lungs pump like mad. All these sensations are symptoms of stress, which, as I’ve heard from many scientists, can cause a huge variety of problems, including depression, sleeping disorders, digestive problems, rashes, thyroid and kidney malfunctions, high blood pressure, and even high cholesterol.
On a purely emotional level, aversion tends to manifest as anger and even hatred. Instead of recognizing that whatever unhappiness you feel is based on a mentally constructed image, you find it only “natural” to blame other people, external objects, or situations for your pain. When people behave in a way that appears to prevent you from obtaining what you desire, you begin to think of them as untrustworthy or mean, and you’ll go out of your way either to avoid them or strike back at them. In the grip of anger, you see everyone and everything as enemies. As a result, your inner and outer worlds become smaller and smaller. You lose faith in yourself, and reinforce specific neuronal patterns that generate feelings of fear and vulnerability.
Affliction or Opportunity?
- Consider the advantages of this rare human existence.
-Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty,translated by Judith Hanson
It’s easy to think of mental afflictions as defects of character. But that would be a devaluation of ourselves. Our capacity for emotions, for distinguishing between pain and pleasure, and for experiencing “gut responses” has played and continues to play a critical survival function, enabling us almost instantaneously to adapt to subtle changes in the world around us, and to formulate those adaptations consciously so that we can recall them at will and pass them along to succeeding generations.
Such extraordinary sensitivity reinforces one of the most basic lessons taught by the Buddha, which was to consider how precious this human life is, with all its freedoms and opportunities; how difficult it is to obtain such a life; and how easy it is to lose it.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe that human life is a cosmic accident, a karmic lesson, or the work of a divine creator. If you simply pause to consider the huge variety and number of creatures that share the planet with us, compared with the relatively small percentage of human beings, you have to conclude that the chances of being born as a human being are extremely rare. And in demonstrating the extraordinary complexity and sensitivity of the human brain, modern science reminds us how fortunate we are to have been born human, with the very human capacity to feel and to sense the feelings of those around us.
From a Buddhist standpoint, the automatic nature of human emotional tendencies represents an interesting challenge. It doesn’t require a microscope to observe psychological habits; most people don’t have to look any further than their last relationship. They begin by thinking, This time it’s going to be different. A few weeks, months, or years later, they smack their heads, thinking, Oh no, this is. exactly the same type of relationship I was involved in before.
Or you can look at your professional life. You start a new job thinking, This time I’m not going to end up spending hours and hours working late, only to get criticized for not doing enough. Yet three or four months into the job, you find your.self canceling appointments or calling friends to say, “I can’t make dinner tonight. I have too much work to do.”
Despite your best intentions, you find yourself repeating the same patterns while expecting a different result. Many of the people I’ve worked with over the years have talked about how they daydreamed about getting through the week so they could enjoy the weekend. But when the weekend is over, they’re back at their desks for another week, daydreaming about the next weekend. Or they tell me about how they’ve invested enormous time and effort in completing a project, but never allow themselves to experience any sense of accomplishment because they have to start working on the next task on their list. Even when they’re relaxing, they say they’re preoccupied by something that happened the previous week, the previous month, or even the previous year, replaying scenes over and over in their minds, trying to figure out what they could have done to make the outcome more satisfying.
Fortunately, the more familiar we become with examining our minds, the closer we come to finding a solution to whatever problem we might be facing, and the more easily we recognize that whatever we experience attachment, aversion, stress, anxiety, fear, or longing-is simply a fabrication of our own minds.
People who have invested a sincere effort in exploring their inner wealth naturally tend to develop a certain kind of fame, respect, and credibility, regardless of their external circumstances. Their conduct in all kinds of situations inspires in others a profound sense of respect, admiration, and trust. Their success in the world has nothing to do with personal ambition or a craving for attention. It doesn’t come from owning a nice car or a beautiful home, or having an important job title. It stems, rather, from a spacious and relaxed state of well-being, which allows them to see people and situations more clearly, but also to maintain a basic sense of happiness regardless of their personal circumstances.
In fact, we often hear of rich, famous, or otherwise influential people who are one day forced to acknowledge that their achievements haven’t given them the happiness they expected. In spite of their wealth and power, they swim in an ocean of pain, which is sometimes so deep that suicide seems the only escape. Such intense pain results from believing that objects or situations can create lasting happiness.
If you truly want to discover a lasting sense of peace and contentment, you need to learn to rest your mind. Only by resting the mind can its innate qualities be revealed. The simplest way to clear water obscured by mud and other sediments is to allow the water to grow still. In the same way, if you allow the mind to come to rest, ignorance, attachment, aversion, and all other mental afflictions will gradually settle, and the compassion, clarity, and infinite expanse of your mind’s real nature will be revealed.
Compassion: Opening the Heart of the Mind
The first step in formal practice is, as usual, to assume a correct posture and allow your mind to rest for a few moments. Then bring to mind someone or something that you don’t like. Don’t judge what you feel. Give yourself complete permission to feel it. Simply letting go of judgments and justifications will let you experience a certain degree of openness and clarity.
The next step is to admit to yourself that whatever you’re feeling anger, resentment, jealousy, or desire-is in itself the source of whatever pain or discomfort you’re experiencing. The object of your feeling isn’t the source of your pain, but rather your own mentally generated response to whomever or whatever you’re focusing on.
For example, you might bring your attention to someone who’s said something to you that sounded cruel, critical, or contemptuous-or even to someone who has told you an outright lie. Then, allow yourself to recognize that all that has occurred is that someone has emitted sounds and you have heard them. If you’ve spent even a little bit of time practicing calm-abiding meditation on sound, this aspect of “exchanging self for others” will probably feel familiar.
At this point, three options are available to you. The first, and most likely, option is to allow yourself to be consumed by anger, guilt, or resentment.
The second (which is very unlikely) is to think, I should have spent more time meditating on sound.
The third option is to imagine yourself as the person who said or did whatever you felt as painful. Ask yourself whether what that person said or did was really motivated by a desire to hurt you, or whether he or she was trying to alleviate his or her own pain or fear.
In many cases, you know the answer already. You may have overheard some talk about the other person’s health or relationship, or some threat to his or her professional standing. But even if you don’t know the specifics of a person’s situation, you’ll know from your own practice of developing compassion for yourself and of extending it toward others that there is only one possible motive behind someone’s behavior: the desire to feel safe or happy. And if people say or do something hurtful, it’s because they don’t feel safe or happy. In other words, they’re scared.
And you know what it’s like to be scared.
Recognizing this about someone else is the essence of exchanging self for others.
Another method of exchanging yourself for others is to choose a “neutral” focus-a person or an animal you may not know directly, but whose suffering you’re somewhat aware of. Your focus could be a child in a foreign country, dying of thirst or hunger, or an animal caught in a steel trap, desperately chewing off its leg to escape. These “neutral” beings experience all kinds of suffering over which they have no control and from which they cannot protect or free themselves. Yet the pain they feel and their desperate desire to free themselves from it are easily understandable, because you share the same basic longing. So, even though you don’t know them, you recognize their state of mind, and experience their pain and fear as your own. I’m willing to bet that extending compassion in this way-toward those you don’t like or those you don’t know-won’t turn you into a boring, lazy old sheep.
- May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
-The Four Immeasurables
There’s a particular meditation practice that can help generate immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion. In Tibetan, this practice is called tonglen, which may be translated into English as “sending and taking.”
Tonglen is actually quite an easy practice, requiring only a simple coordination of imagination and breathing. The first step is simply to recognize that as much as you want to achieve happiness and avoid suffering, other beings also feel the same way. There is no need to visualize specific beings, although you may start out with a specific visualization if you find it helpful. Eventually, however, the practice of taking and sending extends beyond those you can imagine to include all sentient beings-including animals, insects, and inhabitants of dimensions you don’t possess the knowledge or capacity to see.
The point, as I was taught, is simply to remember that the universe is filled with an infinite number of beings, and to think, Just as I want happiness, all beings want happiness. Just as I wish to avoid suffering, all beings wish to avoid suffering. I am just one person, while the number of other beings is infinite. The well-being of this infinite number is more important than that of one. And as you allow these thoughts to roll around in your mind, you’ll actually begin to find yourself actively engaged in wishing for others’ freedom from suffering.
Begin by assuming a correct posture and allowing your mind to simply rest for a few moments. Then use your breath to send all your happiness to all sentient beings and absorb their suffering. As you exhale, imagine all the happiness and benefits you’ve acquired during your life pouring out of yourself in the form of pure light that spreads to all beings and dissolves into them, fulfilling all their needs and eliminating their suffering. As soon as you start to breathe out, imagine the light immediately touching all beings, and that by the time you finish exhaling, the light has already dissolved into them. As you inhale, imagine the pain and suffering of all sentient beings as a dark, smoky light being absorbed through your nostrils and dissolving into your heart.
As you continue this practice, imagine that all beings are freed from suffering, and filled with bliss and happiness. After practicing in this way for a few moments, simply allow your mind to rest. Then take up the practice again, alternating between periods of tonglen and resting your mind.
If it helps your visualization, you can sit with your body very straight and rest your hands in loosely closed fists on the tops of your thighs. As you breathe out, open your fingers and slide your hands down your thighs toward your knees while you imagine the light going out toward all beings. As you inhale, slide your hands back up, forming loosely closed fists as through drawing the dark light of others’ suffering and dissolving it into yourself.
The universe is filled with so many different kinds of creatures, it’s impossible even to imagine them all, much less offer direct and immediate help to each and every one. But through the practice of tonglen, you open your mind to infinite creatures and wish for their well-being. The result is that eventually your mind becomes clearer, calmer, more focused and aware, and you develop the capacity to help others in infinite ways, both directly and indirectly.
An old Tibetan folktale illustrates the benefits of developing this sort of all-encompassing compassion. A nomad who spent his days walking across the mountains was constantly pained by the rough and thorny ground because he didn’t have any shoes. Over the course of his travels, he began to collect the skins of dead animals and spread them along the mountain paths, covering the stones and thorns. The problem was that even with great effort, he could only cover several hundred square yards. At last it came to him that if he simply used a few small hides to make himself a pair of shoes, he could walk for thousands of miles without any pain. Simply by covering his feet with leather, he covered the entire earth with leather.
In the same way, if you try to deal with each conflict, each emotion, and each negative thought as it occurs, you’re like the nomad trying to cover the world with leather. If, instead, you work at developing a loving and peaceful mind, you can apply the same solution to every problem in your life.
- A person who has . . . awakened the force of genuine compassion will be quite capable of working physically, verbally, and mentally for the welfare of others.
-Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson
The practice of bodhicitta-the mind of awakening-may seem almost magical, in the sense that when you choose to deal with other people as if they were already fully enlightened, they tend to respond in a more positive, confident, and peaceful manner than they otherwise might. But really there is nothing magical about the process. You’re simply looking at and acting toward people on the level of their full potential, and they respond to the best of their ability in the same way.
As mentioned earlier, there are two aspects of bodhicitta, absolute and relative. Absolute bodhicitta is the direct insight into the nature of mind. Within absolute bodhicitta, or the absolutely awakened mind, there is no distinction between subject and object, self and other; all sentient beings are spontaneously recognized as perfect manifestations of Buddha nature. Very few people are capable of experiencing absolute bodhicitta right away, however. I certainly wasn’t. Like most people, I needed to train along the more gradual path of relative bodhicitta.
There are several reasons why this path is referred to as “relative.” First, it is related to absolute bodhicitta in the sense that it shares the same goal: the direct experience of Buddha nature, or awakened mind. To use an analogy, absolute bodhicitta is like the top floor of a building, while relative bodhicitta may be compared to the lower floors. All the floors are part of the same building, but each of the lower floors stands in a relative relationship to the top floor. If we want to reach the top floor, we have to pass through all of the lower floors. Second, when we’ve achieved the state of absolute bodhicitta, there is no distinction between sentient beings; every living creature is understood as a perfect manifestation of Buddha nature. In the practice of relative bodhicitta, however, we’re still working within the framework of a relationship between subject and object or self and other. Finally, according to many great teachers, such as Jamgon Kongtrul in his book The Torch of Certainty, development of absolute bodhicitta depends on developing relative bodhicitta.’
Developing relative bodhicitta always involves two aspects: aspiration and application. Aspiration bodhicitta involves cultivating the heartfelt desire to raise all sentient beings to the level at which they recognize their Buddha nature. We begin by thinking, I wish to attain complete awakening in order to help all sentient beings attain the same state. Aspiration bodhicitta focuses on the fruit, or the result, of practice. In this sense, aspiration bodhicitta is like focusing on the goal of carrying everyone to a certain destination-for example, London, Paris, or Washington, D.C. In the case of aspiration bodhicitta, of course, the “destination” is the total awakening of the mind, or absolute bodhicitta. Application bodhicitta-often compared in classic texts to actually taking the steps to arrive at an intended destination focuses on the path of attaining the goal of aspiration bodhicitta: the liberation of all sentient beings from all forms and causes of suffering through recognition of their Buddha nature.
As mentioned, while practicing relative bodhicitta, we’re still caught up in regarding other sentient beings from a slightly dualistic perspective, as if their existence were relative to our own. But when we generate the motivation to lift not only ourselves but all sentient beings to the level of complete recognition of Buddha nature, an odd thing happens: The dualistic perspective of “self’ and “other” begins very gradually to dissolve, and we grow in wisdom and power to help others as well as ourselves.
As an approach to life, cultivating relative bodhicitta is certainly an improvement on the way we ordinarily deal with others, though it does take a certain amount of work. It’s so easy to condemn other people who don’t agree with our own point of view, isn’t it? Most of us do so as easily and unthinkingly as smashing a mosquito, a cockroach, or a fly. The essence of developing relative bodhicitta is to recognize that the desire to squash a bug and the urge to condemn a person who disagrees with us are fundamentally the same. It’s a fight-or-flight response deeply embedded in the reptilian layer of our brains-or, to put it more bluntly, our crocodile nature.
So the first step in developing relative bodhicitta is to decide, “Would I rather be a crocodile or a human being?”
Certainly there are advantages to being a crocodile. Crocodiles are very good at outsmarting their enemies and simply surviving. But they cannot love or experience being loved. They don’t have friends. They can never experience the joys of raising children. They have very little appreciation for art or music. They can’t laugh. And many of them end up as shoes.
If you’ve gotten this far in reading this book, chances are you’re not a crocodile. But you’ve probably met a few people who act like crocodiles. The first step in developing relative bodhicitta is to let go of your distaste for “crocodilelike” people and cultivate some sense of compassion toward them, because they don’t recognize how much of the richness and beauty of life they’re missing. Once you can do that, extending relative bodhicitta toward all sentient beings-including real crocodiles and whatever other living creatures might annoy, frighten, or disgust you-becomes a lot easier. If you just take a moment to think about how much these creatures are missing out on, your heart will almost automatically open up to them.
Actually, aspiration bodhicitta and application bodhicitta are like two sides of the same coin. One can’t exist without the other. Aspiration bodhicitta is the cultivation of an unrestricted readiness to help all living beings achieve a state of complete happiness and freedom from pain and suffering. Whether you’re actually able to free them doesn’t matter. The important thing is your intention. Application bodhicitta involves the activities required to carry out your intention. Practicing one aspect strengthens your ability to cultivate the other.
There are many ways to practice application bodhicitta: for example, trying your best to refrain from stealing, lying, gossiping, and speaking or acting in ways that intentionally cause pain; acting generously toward others; patching up quarrels; speaking gently and calmly rather than “flying off the handle”; and rejoicing in the good things that happen to other people rather than allowing yourself to become overwhelmed by jealousy or envy. Conduct of this sort is a means of extending the experience of meditation into every aspect of daily life.
There is no greater inspiration, no greater courage, than the intention to lead all beings to the perfect freedom and complete well-being of recognizing their true nature. Whether you accomplish this intention isn’t important. The intention alone has such power that as you work with it, your mind will become stronger; your mental afflictions will diminish; you’ll become more skillful in helping other beings; and in so doing, you’ll create the causes and conditions for your own well-being.