Helping Others Who Struggle with Addiction

We live in an age of addiction. Porn, vaping, alcohol, marijuana, Facebook, video games, our phones, hard drugs, not to mention opioids which kill more than 30,000 people every year. Addiction devastates lives, but on a much more widespread level, it saps regular people of confidence and deprives us of any ability to gain control over our lives. More fundamentally, at a spiritual level, we can say all of us are addicted to samsaric life, and it is only this addiction which keeps us bound up in its endless sufferings. Virtually all of us know personally somebody struggling with addiction. The question is, how can we help? To answer this, I will first explain how addiction works and then offer some things we can do to help.

How does Addiction Work?

If we don’t understand addiction, we won’t be able to help those struggling with it. The best way to understand addiction is to identify it within ourselves. Addiction is a mental sickness, like depression, PTSD, burnout, bipolar disorder, etc. Addiction is fundamentally nothing more than a self-destructive habit of mind enforced, often, by physiological discomfort. It arises from a toxic combination of the delusions of strong attachment, pride, and lack of self-worth. Delusions are distorted ways of seeing things that we nonetheless believe to be true. Addiction persists because of an inability to keep the promises we make to ourselves, which then reinforces our sense of being a failure and of hopelessness. Let’s try unpack this.

Strong attachment. From a Buddhist perspective, attachment is a mind which mistakenly believes some external object is a cause of our happiness. We believe the object of our addiction – pick your poison – has the power from its side to make us happy. Attachment exaggerates this power and induces in us a desire to partake. We are “desire realm beings,” which means we actually have no choice but to pursue whatever we desire. If we desire to indulge in our our object of attachment more than to not, we will do so. Addiction is a particularly strong form of attachment that has reached uncontrolled proportions – in other words, even if we want to stop, and often part of us does want to – we feel like we can’t.

Pride. Practically speaking, pride is an exaggerated sense of ourself. Pride makes us feel like we are better than our lot in life, and makes us feel like we deserve better than what we have; but then feels slighted that we don’t have it. This sets us up for wanting a high. Our pride tells us we won’t get addicted, that we are better than others who have gotten addicted and we will be able to keep it under control. Then our pride prevents us from admitting we are addicted, telling ourselves all sorts of rationalizations and that we could quit if we wanted to, we just don’t really want to. Then our pride prevents us from seeking help when we need it. We have told everyone we don’t have a problem, and we don’t want to admit to them that we need help – we think we can break our addiction on our own. Then our pride feels attacked when others are just trying to help us by staging an intervention. At some point, our loved ones step in to try help us, but we then feel they don’t get it (we know better…), or that they are unfairly attacking us and we get defensive, thus grasping even more tightly to the rationalizations we have been telling ourself.

Lack of self-worth. The underbelly of pride is insecurity. Deep down, part of us knows we are not as good as our pride makes us out to be. But our sense of self-worth is bound up in our inflated view of ourself, so when it gets threatened, we feel attacked. Part of us knows we are addicted and that we have a problem. Part of us wants to stop, and perhaps we have tried many times, but we don’t feel we are strong enough. Knowing we have a problem we can’t fix makes us feel like a loser, and this grows into a feeling of hopelessness, which in turn makes us say, “screw it, my life sucks anyways, I might as well have at least some happiness from my addiction,” causing us to give in despite our earlier promise to not. Our indulging then fails to give us the joy we were after, and then we feel like a total loser and we beat ourselves up about how bad we are, thus feeding our lack of self-worth in a vicious spiral. The end of this path is a death of despair, either metaphorically by giving up on our life and ambitions or physically through overdose or suicide.

Inability to keep promises to ourself. The great Buddhist master Shantideva said fundamentally our ability to become a better person depends upon keeping the promises we make to ourself. Moral discipline is not something imposed from the outside, but something chosen from our own side. We decide for ourselves what behavior we want, and then make promises or vows to act in certain ways. Keeping those promises is how we grow internally. But, he cautions, if we make promises to ourself that we then break, we will lose confidence in ourself and our ability to keep our promises, and then they will become internally meaningless to us. Someone once famously said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I have done so at least a dozen times.” When people start to try quit, they realize just how addicted they are. When they quit, but subsequently “fall off the wagon” and give in to their addiction, they lose confidence in themselves and make breaking their promises to themselves a habit. This makes it even harder to successfully quit next time because we know when we make the promise to ourself, we are likely to break it. Eventually, we don’t even try anymore, knowing our addiction is stronger than us until it eventually takes over our life.

Enforced by discomfort. Virtually all addictions are enforced by some form of discomfort, either mental or physical. In Buddhist terms, we call this “changing suffering.” We say there are three types of suffering – manifest suffering, changing suffering, and pervasive suffering. Manifest suffering is actual pain, such as a broken leg, cancer, or mental grief, etc. Pervasive suffering is suffering that is the nature of the body and mind we have taken rebirth into. For example, an animal experiences animal suffering because it has taken rebirth in the body and mind of an animal. The same is true for humans, hungry ghosts, hell beings, and everyone else in samsara. Changing suffering is what we normally think of as happiness. Drinking a cool glass of water is a temporary reduction in our suffering of being thirsty. The relief of sitting is a temporary reduction of our suffering of standing for too long. Indulging in our object of addiction is a temporary reduction in our suffering of withdrawal. We think indulging brings us happiness, but in truth it is just temporarily reducing some other suffering in our life – be it loneliness, helplessness, dissatisfaction, or even physical withdrawal symptoms because our body has grown dependent. Our inability to patiently accept these sufferings and discomforts makes us chase after some form of relief.

How to Help Those we Love

Ultimately, we can’t help those who don’t want to be helped. We need to accept this, and know it is not our fault. There is a fundamental difference between compassion, wishing others were free from their suffering, and attachment to others not suffering, thinking our own happiness depends upon them making the right choices. Making this distinction is one of the hardest parts of helping others, but it is vital. Why? If we are attached to others making the right choices, then when they don’t, we fall with them, rendering us useless. Further, the other person senses that we have a selfish desire for them to quit, and so they don’t trust our intentions trying to help them. This causes them to reject our advice, even if it is exactly what they need to hear. When we are attached to them making the right choices, we will begin all sorts of manipulation tactics to get them to change, which will just cause them to resist us and grasp even more tightly onto their wrong views because nobody likes being manipulated and we all know when we are being manipulated. Ultimately, they need to make the right choices from their own side or it won’t stick. As long as our pressure is in place, they might make the right choice; but then as soon as our pressure is no longer present, they will let loose. That’s not sustainable. Us thinking it is our responsibility to get them to break their addiction actually serves to disempower them to take responsibility for themselves, thus denying them of agency and causing them to become dependent upon us to get better. Then, when they don’t, they will blame us, feeding our guilt and misplaced sense of responsibility. This will then create a vicious spiral of dysfunction between us and the person we are trying to help adding yet another obstacle to the person getting better. We need to accept we can’t control the choices they make. We need to accept that they will make wrong choices and suffer the consequences of those wrong choices. We need to accept that they might need to hit “rock bottom” before they decide to dig themselves out. We need to accept we are not responsible for the choices they make. We need to accept that we might not ourselves be capable of helping them navigate out of their addiction, and perhaps they need professional help. We also have to accept we can’t make them admit they have a problem or to want to get help. Accepting all of these things is a prerequisite for our ability to help them. It is also a prerequisite for our own sanity and emotional balance in dealing with the situation.

One of the first things we need to do is stop enabling their wrong choices. Sometimes we are so attached to preserving a relationship with the person that we don’t tell them what they need to hear, and so we go along with their addiction, pretending that nothing is wrong. This can especially happen in the context of parents with their children or between spouses. There is no contradiction between speaking hard truths and wanting a good relationship. In fact, a lasting relationship can only be built on a healthy foundation, and a failure to speak truth inevitably dooms the relationship anyways. It is because we love them and want the relationship to work that we can’t enable them any longer. Along the same lines, we need to draw a clear line in the sand that we will not accept them making us involuntarily complicit in their wrong choices. This takes many forms, such as us protecting them from the consequences of their wrong choices or them doing things we don’t approve of with our money or in our house, or them asking us to lie or cover for them, etc. We can tell them, “I can’t control what choices you make, but I can control whether I am complicit.” We are under no obligation to make their addiction easier for them.

At the same time, we need to make it clear we are always there for them if and when they need help. Because we understand addiction is a sickness, not a failure, we don’t judge them for their addiction any more than we judge somebody who gets cancer. We need to communicate clearly we stand ready to help with open arms anytime. But we need to often wait until they ask for help, because if they don’t want our help and we “offer it,” they will just push it away, creating even more obstacles. It is possible that they want our help, but are afraid to ask. At such times, we can try skillfully just be there for them and show we are open to listening. Sometimes, they just need somebody who will listen, and them talking helps them come to some conclusions within themselves. If they see we listen with an open heart and without judgment, they might ask us for help or advice. Then, we can offer it. If they storm off on their own to go make wrong choices, as they go out the door, tell them, “Just know, I’m always here for you if you need me.” It may take many years before they come back, but knowing we are there for them provides a constant reassurance, and when they are in the dark parts of their addiction, they will remember us.

When we do ask for our help, we should begin by addressing whatever it is they perceive to be the problem, not what we think is the deeper problem. Oftentimes, they won’t be seeking our help on the addiction directly, but likely the consequences of some wrong choice they have made. Help them ethically navigate through those consequences while making it clear that they own them, but use these times to also address the deeper issue of why they got themselves into trouble to begin with. Don’t focus on the act of indulging in their addiction, dig deeper into the why they are addicted in the first place and what habits of mind lead them down such roads. If we address the deeper issues without directly saying “stop using XYZ,” then we are helping address the root causes while still leaving it up to them to make the choice to quit or not.

On addressing the addiction itself, help them identify for themselves how addiction works per the above. Fundamentally, all delusions are by nature deceptive. They promise one thing, but deliver the opposite. As explained, we are desire realm beings so overcoming addiction is NOT an issue of “will power,” rather it is an issue of changing our desires. If in our heart, we still want the object of our addiction, we might be able to use will power to stop for a little while, but we will just be repressing our attachment until eventually it grows in strength and overwhelms our will power. That is not a sustainable solution. Instead, we need to change our desires. There are two levels to this: not wanting the object of our addiction and not wanting to be addicted to anything. Both levels are addressed by “seeing through the deception of our delusions.” If we receive an email from a Nigerian Prince who wants to transfer $10 million to our bank account for safe keeping if only we send him our account numbers, it is dangerous only if we believe the lie. If we know it is a scam, we will correctly recognize the email as spam, and it will have no power over us. We simply hit delete and move on with our day. We can’t control whether the email arrives in our inbox, but we can completely cut its power over us by realizing it is deceptive. In exactly the same way, our delusions are the spam of our mind. These deceptive thoughts of attachment, pride, lack of self-worth, etc., arise in our mind, but they only have power over us if we believe their lies. We need to help the other person realize how their delusions are deceiving them. Mostly, you should just ask them questions which make them check their own experience to realize they have been burned by these lies again and again in the past, and they will continue to be burned for as long as they believe them. If they see them as deceptive, the thoughts will lose their power. In particular, all delusions exaggerate, so helping the other person break down the exaggeration in their mind will also reduce the power.

Oftentimes, reframing the choice of use or don’t use is helpful. If we are bored and think it is no big deal, indulging in our object of addiction seems like a good idea. But if we see that doing so strengthens the habits in our mind that sends us down the road of addiction, saps our self-confidence, causes us to eventually lose everything we hold dear, and makes us a puppet of their desires then it is a different choice. This is especially true when they are trying to quit. Let’s say they successfully go 10 days, but then are struggling. The pain of withdrawal seems so much more miserable than the relief they can get by indulging again. At such times help them realize that if they indulge now, all of the pain and misery they have accepted for the last 10 days will have been for nothing, and next time they quit they will have to go through all of this misery again to get to the other side. Help them realize if they make promises to quit, but then give in, then their inner promises will start to be meaningless, and if that happens, change becomes almost impossible – at a minimum, they will have to first reestablish the credibility of their inner promises before they start to get traction, and that will definitely mean they will need to go longer than 10 days next time. Help them see how these same habits of giving up show up in other aspects of their life, but if they learn to overcome it here, they will receive great benefit on many dimensions of their life. If they are spiritual, help them see the longer-term consequences of their choices. Help them understand it is not a question of will power, but of changing desires, and help them generate a larger, stronger desire that says no than the impulse to say yes.

One of the most important things is to stress the importance of keeping the promises we make to ourselves. First, help them realize that they have to decide from their own side to stop, not because of some pressure we apply. It is up to them. But that when they make a promise to themselves, they should keep it, come hell or high water. If we keep our promises, we can rejoice and our self-confidence grows. If we break our promises, we lose self-confidence as described above, until eventually our promises become meaningless and change impossible. Help them realize it is better to make small promises that they know they can keep than large promises that they know they will break. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say, “one day at a time.” We make a promise to ourself, “I will not drink today.” And then they keep it. And then they repeat that promise tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that, until eventually they are sustainably sober. Making promises is easy, keeping them is the practice. While we have made a promise, thoughts and impulses will arise encouraging us to break our promises. When these arise, we need to “see the deception” to cut their power. We need to remind ourselves of our wisdom desires to quit, knowing real freedom and confidence waits on the other side. We need to rejoice when we succeed in keeping our promise, and then make the promise again.

When those we love do fall off the wagon, help them not become plagued by guilt and beating themselves up. Instead, help them view it like learning to walk. You identify what mistakes you made, learn your lesson, then get back up and try again. If we want to quit, we can if we are willing to persevere and keep trying again and again until we eventually succeed. Sometimes people can succeed on the first try, for others, it may take years. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, we remain determined to one day win the war. One of the main reasons why we fall off the wagon is our inability to patiently accept the discomfort associated with withdrawal. What enables us to patiently accept our suffering is our ability to transform it into the path of personal growth. When we see working through our suffering helps us become a better person, then we have a valid reason to accept it. It is fuel for our spiritual development. Accepting this short term pain will result in long-term freedom, so it’s worth it.

Ultimately, from a Buddhist perspective, the world we inhabit and all the beings within it are nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream. If last night, we dreamt of somebody in a wheelchair, who put them there? Ultimately we did because they are part of our dream. In exactly the same way, if we are surrounded by appearances of people who are addicted, it is because our mind is dreaming them that way. They are a reflection of the addiction within our own mind. Venerable Tharchin once told me, “when you see faults in others, find them within yourself, and then purge them like bad blood. When you do, like magic, they will gradually disappear from those around you because ultimately they are projections of your own mind.” If we look at the world through an orange balloon, we might mistakenly think the world actually is orange. But when we remove the balloon, we then understand where the orange was coming from. In the same way, when we look at the world through the lens of our own addiction, we will see a world filled with addicts and think that they are actually there. When we remove the addiction from our own mind, then eventually people who are addicted will gradually disappear. This may take some time as the karma giving rise to these appearances gradually exhausts itself, but it will come. This may be hard for us to understand if we don’t have a lot of prior experience or understanding of the wisdom realizing emptiness, but fundamentally, as Geshe-la says, an impure mind experiences an impure world, and a pure mind experiences a pure world.

At a minimum, if we want to help others overcome their own addiction, we need to take the time to identify the addictions we ourselves have and overcome those within us. When we do, we will set a good example of somebody overcoming their addictions, and in the process we will gain the wisdom others need to be able to help them overcome their own addictions. Venerable Tharchin also says that when we gain wisdom realization, those who need that wisdom will begin to appear in our life so that we can share it with them. It is not a coincidence that the most effective addiction counselors were themselves once addicts. They know how addiction works, and they are sharing their experience with others who similarly suffer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, never underestimate the power of prayer. Buddhas accomplish almost all of their virtuous deeds through the power of their prayer. We often lack the ability to resist our delusions on our own, but the blessings of holy beings can fill our mind with the compassion, strength, and wisdom we need. The effectiveness of our prayers for others depends upon the purity of our compassion for them free from attachment, the closeness of our karmic connection to them, the strength of our faith in the Buddhas, and the depth of our realization of emptiness understanding they are not separate from us. Prayer works if done for long enough. Don’t expect immediate results, just keep improving how qualified your prayers are and keep praying. Results may not even come in this lifetime, but as Buddhist, we have a long-term view. Eventually, we will become a Buddha, and eventually we will guide all those we love out of their suffering and to everlasting peace and happiness.

I pray that all those who read this are able to help those they love, and that all beings eventually become free from all addiction.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as a Kadampa

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States.  Thanksgiving is part of modern life and one of the most important days on the American calendar.  Therefore, it is our job to figure out how to celebrate it in a Kadampa way.

Traditionally on Thanksgiving, extended families get together and have a big feast and give thanks for the things and people in their life.  Even if people live far away, they travel to reunite with their family.  It is really only at Thanksgiving and Christmas that most Americans make a point of coming together as a family.  But that is often where the trouble starts!  We all have our uncle Bob or Grandpa John who just can’t help themselves saying offensive things.  Because it is supposed to be a “special day,” Mom and others get all stressed out that everything has to be “perfect,” but it is their anxiety about perfection that ruins it for everybody else.  Then of course, there is always the cynic – the person who is “too good” for Thanksgiving and feels the need to lambaste everyone else for their hypocrisy, fake friendliness, and consumerism come tomorrow.  Or perhaps we are Uncle Bob, the Nervous Nellie, or the cynic ruining the holiday for everyone else.  So the first things a Kadampa needs to do on Thanksgiving is to (1) fully accept and love our obnoxious relatives for who they are without feeling the need to change them in any way, and (2) make sure we are not the one ruining the holiday for everyone else.  As a cultural tradition, getting together with your family to give thanks is something to be rejoiced in, so we should throw ourselves into it and do what we can to make it good for everybody else.

Next, of course, comes the question about being vegetarian – or even more difficult, a vegan – on Thanksgiving.  What’s a good Kadampa to do with a giant Turkey carcass on the table, butter on the bread and mashed potatoes, and a hungry hoard ready to dig in?  Here, it entirely depends upon circumstance.  If your family is accepting of your vegetarianism, then make a vegetarian dish that you can share with everybody, and you eat what you can.  If your family does not understand and will feel offended or judged by your dietary choices, then I would advise to not make a stink out of it.  Take a small piece, eat a few bites without commentary to be polite and not hurt the cook’s feelings who prepared this big elaborate meal, and get on with your day.  But under no circumstances should you get on your soap box and make everybody else feel judged or guilty about their choices.  It is not our place to tell other people what dietary choices they should make.  Say some prayers for all the turkeys slaughtered on Thanksgiving, then transform everything into a giant Tsog offering and imagine you are offering up completely purified nectar to all the heroes and dakinis gathered around the table.

Usually during Thanksgiving, often during the meal, there comes a time where everyone explains what they are grateful for.  If your family is not accepting of your Buddhist path, now is not the time to profess your gratitude for your guru and the three precious jewels!  Internally, you should of course generate such gratitude.  But externally, you should express gratitude for things everyone else at the table can likewise generate gratitude for.  Why is this important?  If you express gratitude for something others are not grateful for, they may politely smile while you say your thanks, but in their heart they will be generating a critical mind towards your object of thanks.  You may feel like you have made your point, but they will have accumulated negative karma of holding on tightly to wrong views.  If you focus your thanks on things that everyone can be grateful for, then it is like you are leading a guided meditation in gratitude for all our kind mothers.

One of the hardest parts about Thanksgiving is, if we are honest, we don’t necessarily like our family very much.  Of course this isn’t true for everybody, but it is true for many people.  We are all just so different – different views and different priorities in life.  The members of our family have unique abilities to say all the wrong things which upset us in so many different ways, whether it is the irresponsible brother, controlling mother, judging father, obnoxious uncle, or embarrassing aunt, we find something we don’t like in all those closest to us.  One thing I have seen quite frequently among Kadampas is a very pure love for all the living beings they have never met, but general aversion for those closest to them in their life.  It’s easy to love all living beings in the abstract, loving actual deluded and annoying people is a different thing altogether.  Geshe-la tells us in all of his books we should start by learning how to love our family and those closest to us, and then gradually expand the scope of our love outwards until it encompasses all living beings.  Thanksgiving is a good day to start doing it right.  Love them, accept them, stop judging them.

Some people, though, find themselves alone on Thanksgiving.  Perhaps there is so much conflict in their family that they just don’t get together anymore.  Perhaps they would like to be with their family, but they lack the financial resources to join them.  Perhaps their whole family has already passed away.  Depression and suicide rates are often highest during the holidays.  We attach so much importance to these holidays, and then when people find themselves alone or unloved, they fall into despair.  When we were little, my mom was a single mother and the holidays were very important to her.  Fortunately, some kind person always found a place at their table for us.  It was annoying for me and my brother because we had to spend Thanksgiving with people we didn’t know nor particularly get along with, but it made a big difference for my emotionally fragile mother.  If we know somebody who is alone on Thanksgiving, we should invite them to join us.  There are so many people hurting out there, and most people just want to feel loved.  So create a space at your table for them as my mother’s friends did for her.  Don’t underestimate the difference such a gesture can make.

I also think it would be wonderful if every Dharma center in America had a Thanksgiving party in which everyone was welcome.  Geshe-la often talks about Dharma centers as belonging to the community.  Why can’t a Dharma center have a Thanksgiving celebration?  This could be a private affair for the people of the center, or it could even be an open house community celebration for anybody to come.  In addition to a great meal and quality friends, discussions can be had about the kindness of all our mothers.  It doesn’t matter if the people who come never come back, or perhaps they only come on Thanksgiving because they have nowhere else to go.  We are grateful for all living beings, so Thanksgiving is our chance to give some love and kindness back.  Gen-la Losang once asked who is more important, the people who come to the center and stay or the people who come and never come back?  If we look at how most centers are run, it seems our answer is the people who come and stay.  But he said the correct answer is those who never come back for the simple reason they are more numerous.  If somebody comes once, but walks away thinking, “hey, those Buddhists ain’t bad,” then they have just created the karma to find the path again in the future.  If our centers belong to the community, there is no reason why our centers can’t start doing community service.  Perhaps this isn’t currently the tradition at our center, but there is no reason why it can’t become a tradition next year.

Internally, for me, Thanksgiving is a reminder that for the most part I am an extremely ungrateful individual and I take for granted the kindness of everyone around me.  As those who have been following my blog for a long time know, I have had lots of difficulties with my father over the years.  At the core of it, he simply finds me ungrateful for all that he has done for me.  Historically, I have disagreed and protested, but if I’m honest, he is right. I take for granted all of the kindness others have shown me, and I feel as if I am entitled to him showing me kindness. No matter how much kindness he or my mother have ever showed me, my general view has been “not good enough.” I might even conventionally have been right that he should have done more, but what good does such an attitude do. If others find me ungrateful, then instead of becoming defensive, I should use that as a reminder that I need to be more grateful.  How could that be a bad thing?  

If we think about it, a feeling of gratitude is really the foundation of the entire Mahayana path.  It is not enough to just generate a feeling of gratitude once a year on Thanksgiving, nor is it enough to generate such a feeling once every 21 days when we come around to it on our Lamrim cycle.  Rather, gratitude should be a way of life.  Venerable Tharchin says that the definition of a realization of Dharma is when all of our actions are consistent with that realization and none of our actions are in contradiction with it.  A feeling of gratitude towards everyone is a stage of the path, and one we should carry with us every day of the year.

But Thanksgiving is about more than just feeling grateful, it is also about “giving” back.  Giving is one of our basic virtues, and one of our perfections  which will take us to enlightenment.  Venerable Tharchin says the thought “mine” is the opposite of the mind of giving, so the way to perfect our giving is to stop imputing “mine” on anything, instead we should mentally give everything we have to others.  We mentally think everything, including our very body and mind, belong to others.  We give them to others.  Of course we may still retain control over certain things, but we should have no sense of ownership over anything.  We are custodians of things for others, but our intention is to use them all for their benefit.  We offer our body, our mind, our money, our time, our family, our careers, everything, to others.  We commit that we will use everything we have for their sake.  At the very least, we can offer a good meal and a warm heart.  In the end, what most people want is to feel loved.  This is something we can give if we put a little effort into it.

Most of all, on Thanksgiving, I try give thanks to those closest to me.  Before I got married, I had a vision where Tara came to me and handed to me a child.  As she did so, she said, “this is where you will find your love.”  My children may be a lot of work, insanely expensive, and they may be maddening at times, but I love them with all my heart.  There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.  If they were not in my life, I wouldn’t know what it means to really love another person and put their interests first.  The path would remain quite abstract.  I am also extremely grateful for my wife.  I have to work all the time, but she takes care of our kids and she takes care of our home.  She is my best friend.  Before I received highest yoga tantra empowerments for the first time, I met with Venerable Tharchin for the first time.  I explained to him all of the troubles I was having with my then girlfriend, and he told me two things.  First, view all of her apparent faults as reflections of the faults within your own mind, and then purge those faults like bad blood.  When you do, they will “magically” disappear from her because they aren’t coming from her side anyways.  Second, he said, “never forget she is an emanation of Vajrayogini sent to bring you in this life to the pure land.”  Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand emptiness enough to understand that my now wife is or isn’t anything from her own side, but thinking she was an emanation saved our relationship and enabled me to transform my relationship with her into the path.  Later, when I came to understand emptiness a bit more, I realized it didn’t matter what she was, it was beneficial for me to believe she is an emanation.  Now, after more than 20 years of marriage, I’m starting to come back to Venerable Tharchin’s words – she is an emanation, not in an inherently existent sense, but in the same sense that any emanation is an emanation. Every day, her every action and her every word, functions to ripen me on the path. Externally, she appears to act entirely normally, gets angry or sad like everybody else, but her normal is now my blessing. All of us can get to the same point with our partners no matter how they act or what they might do. Our partners have come to get us and take us to pure Dakini land, even if they don’t know it! Be grateful for them entering into your life in this way.

I think it is very important that we also learn to be genuinely grateful for our suffering. If we are honest about our spiritual practice, we usually only really get serious when we are experiencing some type of suffering. Then, when the difficult period in our life has passed, we go back to enjoying samsara and going through the motions with our practice. The solution to this problem is to “know suffering,” not just intellectually, but with our heart. We need to actually see our samsaric happiness as nothing more than a temporary reprieve from the endless slaughterhouse of samsara. We need to know our ordinary body and mind – our contaminated aggregates – as a cage that will torment us until the day we die, only to be thrown into a new prison cell which is likely to be far worse. We need to know our delusions are like devils duping us to follow paths that all end only in the fires of the deepest hell. We need to know all of the negative karma on our mind that we have not yet purified is like time bombs that can explode at any moment, shattering our lives and everything we hold dear. Such suffering is inevitable unless we end it as a possibility. It will never end on its own. When we actually “know” our suffering in our heart, then we will be motivated to practice sincerely, day and night, from this day until we are finally out. When we are grateful for our suffering, we are able to “accept” it. When we accept our suffering, it is no longer a “problem” for us. It may still be unpleasant, but it is not a problem, and so in many ways, we no longer “suffer” from it. Suffering comes primarily from non-acceptance of unpleasant feelings. But if we can develop an attitude of gratitude towards our difficulties, we will be able to accept them and realize that they are actually our most important fuel for our spiritual life.

Most of all, I am thankful for Geshe-la entering into my life.  He found me at my darkest hour, pulled me up, gave me a purpose, taught me what my real problem was (my own deluded, unpeaceful mind), gave me methods that work to heal my mind, provided me with perfectly reliable outer and inner advice, opened up my heart, revealed to me the magic of faith, provided teachers and centers who could help me bring the Dharma into my life, gave me the opportunity to teach the Dharma, and has been with me when I have felt otherwise alone.  He has created for me a vajra family of Sangha Brothers and Sisters who are some of the dearest people in my life, even though I rarely am able to see them.  He has shown me the root of my suffering and a doorway out.  He has provided me with everything I need to enter, progress along, and complete the path.  He has blessed my mind with countless empowerments, and has promised to remain in my heart helping me along until I attain the final goal.  Most of all, he has introduced me to Dorje Shugden and defended him when anybody and everybody else would have abandoned him.  Dorje Shugden is my guru, yidam and protector who helps me in this life and will be with me when I need him most – at the time of my death.

On Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all of this.  And I offer myself as a servant to my guru and to all living beings.  Please keep me in your service for as long as space exists.

Faith is emptiness in action

In the old days, the Lamrim cycle started with faith and ended with emptiness, but with the New Meditation Handbook, Geshe-la put faith as the last meditation after emptiness. Most people assumed this was done primarily to make it easier for newer practitioners who find faith hard, but I actually think there was a much more profound meaning in this change. Namely, that faith is emptiness in action. Technically, the final meditation is Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide, but we accomplish that primarily through faith. All of the paths of tantra are, fundamentally, practices of reliance upon the Spiritual Guide on the foundation of realizing emptiness.

First some definitions. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe-la explains, “Faith is a naturally virtuous mind that functions mainly to oppose the perception of faults in its observed object.” There are three types of faith: believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Believing faith is essentially believing an object to be true without knowing it directly ourselves. Admiring faith is admiring the good qualities of holy objects, such as the three jewels. Wishing faith is wishing to have those good qualities ourselves. Emptiness is the way things are, as opposed to the way they appear. Fundamentally, emptiness explains that despite things appearing to exist independently of the mind, in fact they are all nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream, with not even the slightest trace of anything existing from its own side – in other words, everything is created by mind. According to Sutra, we say emptiness appears as conventional objects; and according to Tantra we say the emptiness of the very subtle mind of great bliss appears as conventional objects.

On the basis of these definitions, how can we understand faith is emptiness in action? Believing faith is a correct belief in any object that is conducive to our spiritual development. A lot of people have great difficulty with faith because they still have doubts whether what they are believing in is actually true, and since they cannot be sure, they err on the side of not believing the object. But if we understand everything is empty – in other words, nothing is objectively true (by this I mean truth being established on the side of the object) – then there is no basis for this hesitation, since nothing is “actually” true in the sense we mean it. But if there is no objective truth, how then do we establish truth in the Dharma? Technically, we say things are conventionally true if they are known to be true by superior beings. Practically, though, because there is no objective truth we establish truth by examining what is most beneficial to believe. Venerable Tharchin and Gen Losang frequently have said, “what is true or not true is not the point, the question is what is most beneficial to believe.” If believing in a certain way is beneficial, then we can “choose” to believe it to be true because doing so is “conducive to our spiritual development.”

But the relationship between believing faith and emptiness is much deeper – what is in fact true IS what is most beneficial to believe because what is most beneficial to believe is consistent with how things truly are, namely empty. The implication is profound – it means not only can we confidently believe in things that are beneficial to believe, but the North Star for being able to discern what is true is examining what is most beneficial to believe. This protects us from falling into the extremes of nihilism or relativism thinking because nothing is objectively true then either nothing is true or everything is equally true if people believe it to be. Practically, this enables us to let go of our crippling doubts about whether our objects of faith are true or not and allows our mind to play with the dance of beneficial belief. It is enough for us to see the benefits of believing in a certain way, and then we choose to do so on that basis. This is why in our Dharma books every meditation begins with an explanation of the benefits of that particular meditation.

Admiring faith is the ability to see and appreciate the good qualities of the three jewels. Admiring faith makes us marvel at the wonders of virtuous objects, which naturally leads to wishing faith to acquire those good qualities ourselves. But the teachings on admiring faith and pure view can sometimes lead to a great deal of confusion for people, especially when they see “Sangha Jewels” engaging in inappropriate action or they hear their teachers giving “wrong teachings.” Many people wind up abandoning the path as a result, and many centers or their administrators will try deflect blame away from their mistakes by saying the people at the center don’t have sufficiently pure view. Are we supposed to just look the other way and pretend we didn’t see the inappropriate actions or hear the wrong teachings? No, that would be repression of our doubts and the quick path to becoming cult-like in our relation to the Dharma. Are we then supposed to say what is incorrect is somehow correct because we are supposed to be maintaining pure view? No, because then we are believing things that are not beneficial to believe and we are following wrong understandings.

How does understanding the relationship between faith and emptiness enable us to escape these problems? The functional definition of delusion is our mind projects something mistaken onto an object, and then we mistakenly believe that projection to actually be true from the side of the object. The wisdom realizing emptiness completely undermines the premise of all delusions by showing nothing exists on the side of the object, it’s all just projection of our mind. So if we see fault in a holy object, the fault is necessarily coming from our own mind and not the holy object. Admiring faith uses the wisdom realizing emptiness to differentiate the perception of fault in the holy object from the holy object itself, which is without faults. The more we differentiate the two, the more we can appreciate the good qualities of the holy object and not be obstructed by the perception of some fault inherent in the holy object despite it appearing vividly to our mind. In short, we are able to say, “the fault I am perceiving is coming from my mind and not the holy object itself.” In other words, the faulty thing I am seeing is not the holy object, but my misunderstanding of it. To actually “find” the holy object, I need to find a way to see it without fault.

Sometimes when we hear a Dharma teaching, our understanding of its meaning leaves our mind feeling disturbed. This is a perfect sign we have misunderstood the teaching because all Dharma, if understood correctly, functions to make our mind peaceful and happy. So we can correctly say to ourselves, “I must be misunderstanding what is being said because this is making me disturbed,” and then we ask questions until we can understand the subject in a way that leaves our mind peaceful and happy. When somebody in the Sangha does something inappropriate, we can do the same thing. Obviously we don’t say what is inappropriate is somehow appropriate, but we can ask ourselves, “what is this inappropriate behavior teaching me?” Since it is teaching us what is appropriate, we are receiving a perfectly beneficial teaching from the appearance of the inappropriate behavior. This enables us to call out wrong behavior for what it is without it undermining our faith. Then, no matter what scandal befalls what teacher, our faith and conviction in the Dharma just grows stronger and stronger.

But there is a deeper level still to the relationship between admiring faith and emptiness. Sangha, by definition, is somebody who shows us a good example and inspires us to follow the path. So what do we do when they show a bad example? Emptiness is the answer – when they are showing a bad example, they are no longer “Sangha.” The label Sangha can only validly be imputed onto somebody showing a good example. When they are not showing a good example, they are no longer “Sangha.” Nobody is inherently Sangha, and there is no Sangha that exists from its own side. It is perfectly possible for the same person to sometimes show a good example, at which point they are Sangha; and at other times show a bad example, at which point they are not Sangha. Just as somebody can be a temporary emanation, so too somebody can temporarily be Sangha. In a similar way, when we hear faulty Dharma teachings, even from the throne, it can sometimes lead to great confusion. Should we believe the wrong thing to be correct? Or if we see the mistake, do we lose faith in the teacher as no longer being reliable because they made a mistake in their teaching? Of course not. We can either say, “the wrong thing they just said reminds me of the correct thing,” thus enabling us to receive perfectly reliable understandings even though what is being said is incorrect; or we can say, this wrong thing is not ‘Dharma,’ so I don’t have to take it on board and instead I should listen to and focus on what is Dharma in the other things they are saying. Temporary Dharma teachings. Emptiness enables us to differentiate what is to be relied upon and what is not, thus freeing us from grasping at inherently existent three jewels that somehow need to appear to be perfect from their own side. With emptiness, we understand the three jewels become perfect when we view them in a perfect way.

What is the relationship between wishing faith and emptiness? Wishing faith is wishing to acquire ourselves the good qualities our admiring faith appreciated. Wishing faith then induces effort, and effort leads to attainments. But, if we grasp at ourselves and our faults as being inherently existent and unchangeable, then we develop doubts about our ability to actually change, acquire these good qualities, and become a Buddha. Our grasping at ourself as being ordinary keeps us ordinary. When we realize the emptiness of ourself, we realize we become infinitely (and effortlessly) changeable. Ignorance grasping at ourself is like friction on the spiritual path, letting go of that ignorance creates a frictionless progression along the path.

But again, it goes much deeper. All of Generation Stage and Completion Stage of highest yoga tantra is essentially a giant exercise in the relationship between faith and emptiness. Fundamentally, Tantra is quite simple: we change the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary samsaric aggregates to the completely pure aggregates of the Guru Deity. We mentally generate these pure aggregates, and then identify with them as ourselves. Our faith in our Spiritual Guide makes the aggregates imputedly “pure” and our wisdom realizing emptiness enables us to identify with them without any residual of our ordinary self. It is said all we need to practice Tantra is faith and imagination. We imagine pure worlds, then believe in them as being true. Because they are correct beliefs, with familiarity of believing in our pure imaginations, they become our living reality. Often times people get hung up on self-generation meditations saying, “this is just fantasy land, I’m not really Heruka.” This completely misses the point and comes from a grasping at us actually being one thing or another. To escape this doubt we need to understand the relationship between karma and emptiness. Karma is mental action. We don’t believe we are Heruka because we actually already are, rather we engage in the mental action of believing we are Heruka because doing so creates the karma for us to later appear to ourself directly as being Heruka. Again, what is true or not true is not the point, what matters is what is beneficial to believe. The correct belief of divine pride is a mental action that creates a karma which will ripen in the future of ourselves being Heruka. So we can believe in it fully and without reservation, even though we know we are not yet Heruka.

Further, we are not saying that our ordinary aggregates are Heruka, that would be a wrong conception. Our ordinary aggregates are a valid basis for imputing our ordinary self, but not Heruka. So if in our generation stage meditation, it is our ordinary aggregates appearing, we don’t say they are Heruka, they are the cloud-like obstructions obscuring the mentally generated Heruka we are trying to identify with. We again use emptiness to differentiate the completely pure object we are seeking to identify with and the self that we normally see. As Geshe-la says, without faith we could practice Tantra for a thousand years and never experience any results; but with faith, Tantra becomes the quick path.

For me, Geshe-la moving Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide to the last meditation of the Lamrim cycle is a profound teaching on the critical relationship between emptiness and faith. On the basis of realizing emptiness, we set our faith free to dance.

Repression is our worst enemy

When I left Los Angeles more than 20 years ago, I had a meeting with my teacher Gen Lekma to ask her for some parting advice. She said, “train in the first of the three difficulties.” For those of you unfamiliar with this, Geshe Chekawa gives various precepts for training the mind, one of which is to train in the three difficulties. They are: identify your delusions; apply opponents to reduce them; and finally eliminate them with the antidote, the wisdom realizing emptiness. Identifying my delusions seemed like such a basic practice, and I fancied myself as an “advanced practitioner,” so I felt kind of let down by this and didn’t quite see its value. Now, so many years later, I’m beginning to realize how we can’t even really get started with our practice until we do this first step right. It is the foundation of everything, and something a lot of us really struggle with. I know I do.

What does this have to do with repression? In Buddhist terms, we define repression as “pretending we are not deluded.” We basically don’t admit, even to ourselves, that our mind is deluded. There are lots of reasons why we do this, which I will get to below. But when we do this, we shove the delusions we have underneath the carpet where they grow and metastasize, until one day they blow in some dramatic fashion. But even before they blow, they eat away at our happiness under the surface, and drag us down like carrying around lead weight. If we have repressed attachment, we will never feel satisfied and will feel we are always lacking something; if we have repressed anger, we will be easily irritable and always blame outside things for our general state. If we have repressed jealousy, we will tend to grumble with bitterness when others experience some good fortune. Life will generally be miserable.

More profoundly, if we do not admit to ourselves we have delusions in our mind, then no matter how much we seem to be practicing Dharma, we will actually make no progress whatsoever. We will externally appear to be “doing Dharma,” but our mind will remain as deluded as ever, even after decades of so-called “Dharma practice.” Our failure to accept and admit the existence of delusions in our mind robs us of our spiritual life just a thoroughly and completely as distractions do. Worse, we can easily fall into the trap of religious self-righteousness of using our spiritual teachings as a lens through which we judge everyone else’s failures, instead of as personal advice for how we ourselves need to change. Repression can frequently lead to burnout as we push ourselves too hard, or to depression as we never deal with what is happening in our own mind, or to anxiety of fearing everything, but not really knowing why. Repression allows the enemies of our delusions to roam freely in our mind hidden from view, undermining everything. It is like entering into battle blind-folded, and then being surprised when we keep getting hit by surprise.

Why do we repress? Why do we pretend that we are not deluded? There are many common traps, and I have fallen into all of them at different times. The biggest is pride. We have an inflated view of ourself, and our sense of self-confidence and self-worth is wrapped up in this inflated view. When this view gets challenged – and admitting we are sick with delusions definitely challenges the view of our awesomeness – we feel threatened and then seek to rationalize away our delusions, deflect blame onto others, and feel we are being unfairly attacked. A prideful mind necessarily represses. It takes a humble mind to admit our mind is sick.

Another major cause of repression is guilt. When we identify delusions in our mind, we view it somehow as a major failure, and we then start beating ourselves up over it. Often times if our parents or teachers would try make us feel bad or guilty about our mistakes in an effort to get us to do the right things, we then adopt the same approach with ourselves – beating ourselves up over our mistakes thinking doing so will somehow get us to change our behavior. But self-hatred is still hatred and a delusion. And being beaten up hurts, whether it is others doing it to us or us doing it to ourselves. Guilt fails to make the distinction between “my mind is sick with delusions” and “I am a bad person who deserves to be punished.” Since guilt hurts, it’s easier to repress.

Misunderstanding of Dharma can also frequently cause repression. For example, the Dharma explains we should forget about ourselves and put others first, so we think it is somehow a fault to focus on healing ourselves. We are so busy “helping others” overcome their delusions, that we never bother to look at our own. Likewise, when we are sincerely serving others and helping them deal with their own crises, we can sometimes simply not have time to think about ourselves while helping others. For example, there was a time when there was a lot of emotional drama in my family and I was trying to be there for everyone to help them navigate through their delusions, but I was getting down and frazzled and burned out. I then wrote a very good Sangha friend, asking for his advice on how to help my family, etc., and he said, “you seem to be understanding quite well what is going on in their minds, but you are neglecting the real issue of what is going on in your own mind as you help them.” By reframing things in this way, I began to see how I was making the same mistakes in my mind that I was seeing them make in their minds. With mind as creator of all, the cause of the problem became more clear.

Dharma also tells us we should “never accept delusions,” and so when delusions arise in our mind, we feel like we need to either deny they are there because we are such a “good Dharma practitioner” or we quickly try shove them back under the carpet without deconstructing their power. Kadam Morten once made a wonderfully helpful distinction. He said we need to “accept the existence of delusions in our mind without accepting their validity.” So we accept, “yes, delusions are arising in my mind; but I know they are wrong ways of thinking.” Just as we can admit there are clouds in the sky, but realize they are not the sky; so too we can admit the clouds of delusions in our mind, but realize they are not our mind itself. This enables us to not pretend we are not deluded, while not assenting to the wrong views of our delusions, thus cutting their power over us. What gives our delusions power is we believe them to be true. When they arise, but we know they are wrong, they are no more dangerous to us than a spam email we know to be a scam. It is annoying, but it has no power over us. No matter how violent the storm, the sky remains equally untouched.

Dharma teachers and advanced practitioners also can develop a very peculiar form of repression. They know that their ability to help others depends upon others having faith in them. We tell ourselves, if others knew just how deluded we are, then they wouldn’t have faith in us anymore, and then they would not receive benefit from us. So we need to pretend we are somehow more advanced or more holy than we are, and we put on this show of being such a great and advanced practitioner. Ridiculous!!! But it is actually quite sad because many very experienced teachers have fallen into this trap, and then eventually spiritually imploded in some way when their repressed delusions caught up with them. Because we are desire realm beings, we do what we want. If our desires are deluded but we hold onto the outer appearance of Dharma, our delusions will then hijack our Dharma understanding to rationalize getting what our delusions want. This most commonly manifests as sex scandals of teachers misusing the teachings on tantra to justify satisfying their sexual attachments, but it can also take the form of abuses of spiritual power such as our anger hijacking our Dharma understanding to try control and change others or our pride hijacking our Dharma to encourage others to venerate us.

Most cult-like behavior fundamentally comes from repression by teachers and senior leaders. Such cult-like behavior then undermines others faith in the tradition as a whole, thus harming the Dharma in this world. Because of repression, when others point out our mistakes as a tradition, we feel unfairly attacked, deflect blame, and make those we have harmed feel like it is their fault because they lack sufficient pure view. Cult-like behavior, and we all have traces of it, arises directly from repression. If we fail to admit the extent to which we are making these mistakes, we will continue to do so and thus undermine our fundamental wish to help spread the Dharma for the benefit of all. But it can also come from influential practitioners in a Dharma center. There are all sorts of manipulative tactics people in Dharma centers use to try get people to come back to the center or come to the teachings or go to festivals, or whatever. On the surface, it is because they know the value of the Dharma and want others to enjoy its healing power; but that pure motivation is easily mixed with an attachment to people coming to the center or others recognizing us for all the work we have done to spread the Dharma. We then start getting upset at everyone in the Sangha for not coming enough or not doing enough to help out, and quickly the harmony of a center is destroyed. Because we can’t admit we are the problem, we blame the students and those who come to the center. They sense that, and may do more in the short-run, but over time they will grow resentful themselves and say, “I’m out of here.” The center administrators might even feel relieved that the person leaves since they were just a trouble-maker anyways and that was secretly their desire that the person leave because they are a “cause of our unhappiness.”

Distractions are often called the thief of our spiritual life, and this is true. But I’m increasingly of the view that repression is the real thief of our spiritual life. Repression and Dharma practice are actually mutually exclusive. If we are pretending that we are not deluded, then our “practice” of Dharma just becomes another way of repressing our delusions by shoving them back under the carpet without actually addressing them. Distractions are, fundamentally, repressed attachments. Why does our mind keep going to our distractions? Because we still mistakenly think our happiness can be found by thinking about them. Why do we think that? Because we haven’t acknowledged our attachment and then used our wisdom to deconstruct it.

Gen Lekma was right. Train in the first of the three difficulties.

Recovering from stressful times

All of us will have periods in our life when we are under extreme stress or emotional strain. This could be due to caring for somebody who is very sick or emotionally wrought, having been in major conflict with close friends or family, losing our job or experiencing significant financial difficulties, going through major changes in our life, or simply feeling overwhelmed with everything we are responsible for. We live in samsara, and samsara is a stressful place. During the periods of significant stress, we often find ourselves “getting in the zone” and just dealing with everything coming at us. We know it is stressful and hard, but we are in a heightened state and focused on dealing with the external crisis at hand. But then after the crisis has passed, we find ourselves crashing down.

It is not uncommon at such times to feel depressed, excessively frustrated with everybody around us, or to become uncharacteristically selfish. We become depressed because the stress hormones are no longer sustaining us and everything we had been repressing while we were in crisis mode comes roaring to the surface. We become excessively frustrated with everyone around us because we have been dealing with so much for so long, we have reached our limit and just can’t deal with anything anymore – we are simply sick of dealing with problems, and want them all to just go away. We become uncharacteristically selfish because while we were in crisis mode we were completely focused on helping others with their ordeal, but then when it is over we become acutely aware of our own needs and wishes that we have been repressing while caring for others. Working through all of this is what recovery from stressful times is all about.

The first thing we must realize is all of this is entirely normal. We oftentimes expect ourselves to be perfect, and then feel it is some sort of failure when we come crashing down. We are not yet Buddhas, we are humble practitioners making our way along the spiritual path. Stressful situations are just that – stressful. They push us beyond our comfort zone and beyond our capacity to deal with easily. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to handle the stressful situation perfectly, nor to not have to go through a recovery process once the crisis has passed. We need to accept where we are at and view the recovery period as an opportunity to fully process all that we just went through. If truth be told, from a spiritual point of view, the recovery period is when we experience the most growth. Crashing down or becoming excessively irritable or uncharacteristically selfish are all the natural byproducts of having repressed some of our delusions during the crisis period, and the recovery period is when these come back to the surface to give us a chance to work through them. This is when the real spiritual growth occurs; and when we get to the other side of it, we will be spiritually stronger than we have ever been before.

Second, we should not feel guilty about taking care of ourself during our recovery period. We sometimes mistakenly think because we are would-be bodhisattvas, it is selfish of us to engage in some self-care. This is completely wrong. If we think about it, the entire spiritual path is a process of self-healing. We have been deeply wounded by aeons in samsara, and the spiritual path is one of recovery from that trauma and its causes. What matters is our motivation for taking care of ourself. If we are doing so with a desire to recover and therefore be in a better position to care for others even more in the future, there is no fault. Sometimes our pride starts to kick in where we think we shouldn’t need to recover or have some self-healing time. As Jonathan from Queer Eye would say, “sorry sister, it doesn’t work that way.” Admitting to ourself we need to rest and recover and heal is is the first step to getting better and not a sign of weakness or failure, but rather a sign of inner wisdom.

Third, we need to tend to the basics of our bodily needs. It’s normal that we are exhausted, so there is no fault in catching up on our sleep. Fatigue is cumulative and it can become a chronic condition if we don’t take the time to rest. We don’t need to feel guilty about this, thinking we should be up and about helping others. We are helping them more in the long-run be recovering our strength through rest. Likewise, it is important to get some exercise and move our body. It’s enough to go for long walks out in nature, the point is physical activity helps reset our inner winds and get us out of spinning in our head with our thoughts. And we should make sure we eat. Sometimes when we are recovering or are very down, we lose our appetite and eat less and less. This can further deplete our strength, and with it our confidence and ability to recovery. It doesn’t matter if you eat your comfort foods you normally try avoid when you are trying to eat healthy. In other words, recovering from stress is probably not the time to begin that kale diet! Ha ha.

In this regard, there is also no fault in using medications to help us recover. We do have bodies, and bodies have hormones that can get out of balance. It is not some failure of our spiritual practice to sometimes need medications any more than it is to take regular medicine when we become physically ill. Sickness – whether physical or mental – is sickness, and medicines can help. We created the karma to live in a world where medicines exist, and Geshe-la says clearly there is no fault in taking that aspirin while we simultaneously work on our patient acceptance. This is especially true after a period of extreme stress. The stressful period created an imbalance in our hormones, and when the stress is over, things come crashing down and we swing to a different kind of imbalance. These are physiological facts, not spiritual failures.

Fourth, remember your guru at your heart and your Sangha at your back. Gen-la Dekyong’s favorite prayer is “please remain at my heart always.” There is no failure in needing or seeking help. We take refuge in all three jewels, not just the Dharma jewel. Our guru stands ready to bless our mind and fill it with the strength and wisdom we need. All we need to do is remember him at our heart and request his help with faith. Keep your prayers simple, such as “give me strength,” “help me see the light,” and “please heal my mind.” We likewise need to make an effort to reach out to our Sangha friends who we trust. Sometimes our pride is the biggest obstacle to doing so – for some reason we don’t want them to know we still suffer and become deluded. That’s ridiculous, we all fall down, and we all could use some help picking ourselves back up. Oftentimes, what we need more than anything else, is simply somebody who will listen to us without judgment. Simply verbalizing what we have been bottling up inside often helps to see it all in perspective, find our own answers, and let it all go. So remember your guru, talk with your spiritual friends, and hug your teddy bear without shame.

Fifth, take the time to reflect back on the stressful period to unearth and work through everything you previously repressed. When we are in crisis mode, we are often so busy “helping others” deal with their situation, that we don’t stop to check how we ourselves are doing in those stressful situations. This is normal because when others are in crisis is sometimes not the most appropriate time to be saying, “but what about me!?” But after the crisis has passed, we need to ask ourselves the question, “how did that situation make me feel?” “What was I and what do I think about all of that?” We need to ask these questions to bring to the surface everything we repressed. Once on the surface, we can the use our Dharma wisdom, the blessings of our guru, and the support of our spiritual friends to gradually work through it all. In many ways, the primary task of the recovery period is to deal with everything we have repressed. Our feelings of depression, irritability, or selfishness are actually all just everything we repressed coming back to the surface.

Give yourself the time you need to work through all of this. It is hard work. It is a bit like spiritual retreat. Those who have never done retreat often think it is going out into the woods and getting away from it all for a blissful period of relaxing mediation. HA! It’s usually quite the opposite. Retreat is often spiritual surgery we are performing on ourselves. We go deep into our mind, find the cancer that has been spreading within, we take it out, and then sew ourselves back up again. After long retreats, people are often quite sensitive to the slightest thing and then think, “I guess I failed in my retreat because now I am more sensitive than I was before I entered into it.” Others, expecting us to come back from retreat all zen are likewise equally surprised by our heightened sensitivity. But when we recover from a physical surgery, it takes time, we are sore, and often very cautious and sensitive. It is the same after a long retreat.

The recovery period after stressful times is, in the final analysis, a form of spiritual retreat. It’s hard work, but when we get to the other side of it, we are stronger, healthier, and much more empathetic to those who suffer. By working through our struggles we learn how to help others work through theirs. This is how we gain the wisdom we need to help others, and is an inescapable part of the spiritual path. Recovering from stressful times might not be fun, it might not be easy, but it is definitely spiritually worth it.

How to avoid sinking with those we love when they suffer

We need to make a very clear distinction between attachment to others not suffering and compassion for those who suffer. Attachment to others not suffering is we believe our happiness depends upon others not suffering. We try help them not suffer because when they do, we do. There are two key problems with this. First, it is fundamentally concerned about ourselves, we need them to be happy so we can be happy. Second, and more importantly, when they fall, we fall with them. Our attachment is like chains tying us to them, so when they sink, we sink with them. If we sink with them, we are worthless to them and those dependent upon us sink with us.
We can only develop pure compassion wishing others were free from their suffering by first gaining a mind of patient acceptance that they are suffering. If we can’t accept they are suffering, they can’t accept that they are suffering, and then their suffering becomes intolerable, accelerating the sinking of all. Just because they are suffering does not mean we have to suffer as well because of that. This doesn’t mean we don’t care, and it doesn’t mean we don’t act to do something. Quite the opposite, when our compassion is free from attachment, then we can genuinely care and actually do something because we are not drowning with them.
Pure compassion is also a wisdom mind that understands what are the causes of suffering – delusions and negative karma – and what are the cause of happiness – wisdom and virtuous actions. The person suffering will almost always be blaming something outside of their mind for their suffering, and thinking what needs to change is something external. Of course, sometimes external changes are needed, and we should make all that we can reasonably do, but fundamentally whether they are happy or not depends upon their mental outlook. Pure compassion therefore seeks to transmit appropriate wisdom to help the suffering person also, and eventually primarily, change their mind. As they change their mind, they will naturally start making better external choices, and then both the inside and the outside start to get better.
None of this is easy. In fact, this is some of the hardest parts of the path. But if we truly want to help lead our loved ones out of their suffering, we must learn to make these distinctions.

How to break free from abusive relationships

Many abusers maintain control over their victims with a combination of three manipulations. First, they blame the victim, trying to convince them it is their fault the abuser gets angry. Second, they make the victim feel incompetent and incapable so that the victim feels they can never escape. Third, they offer the occasional act of love and kindness so the victim keeps coming back chasing after those moments of relief. These three manipulations are all questions of degree, like volume knobs turned up and down to maintain control.

Why does the abuser do this? It’s all about maintaining control. Because they have extreme attachment thinking their happiness depends upon what the other person does, they feel they need to control their victim to get them to do the “right” things. It is sometimes even motivated by confused form of caring. The abuser cannot bear those they love suffering, so they get mad at them to prevent their victim from doing things that the abuser thinks could cause them suffering. For example, a child gets hurt on the playground and a parent beats them for having played recklessly. 

Virtually all dysfunctional relationships have similitudes of such abusive manipulations. Often victims of abuse turn into abusers themselves despite vowing to never do so.

If we find ourselves a manipulator of others, check and see if we are doing these three things and ask ourselves why. Realize your happiness does not depend upon what other people do, but depends upon the inner conditions of your own mind. If your mind is happy, you will be happy regardless of what others do. If your mind is unhappy, you will be unhappy, again, regardless of what others do. Blaming others for your unhappiness doesn’t help you because you spend your time and energy controlling others instead of healing your own mind. And you create a tremendous amount of negative karma in the process, which will one day come back to bite you. Also, learn to accept those around you will suffer, and there is often little to nothing you can do about it. Their suffering is an opportunity for you to care for others and improve your qualities of love and compassion. Accept each person must learn to travel their own path in their own way, and sometimes the best way to learn lessons is to have life teach them.

If we find ourselves the victim of these three forms of manipulation, we need to train in learning to disarm them. To disarm any of them, we first need to realize clearly how they are harmful to both ourselves and to the person using them. Then we need a method for actually disarming them.

Disarming others blaming us for their unhappiness: When others get mad at us, they are blaming us for their unhappiness, saying it is our fault they are angry or miserable. If we assent to their view, thinking they are right, we can quickly develop self-hatred thinking how awful we are. We also then think it is our responsibility to change ourselves or manage all of the external conditions around the angry person so that they don’t get angry. We become terrified of them getting angry, and exhaust ourselves trying to arrange everything to avoid their wrath. This doesn’t help the angry person, rather it just encourages them to continue to get angry as a means of getting what they want; and, more deeply, it wrongly confirms their mistaken belief that their happiness depends upon what we do. Further, it doesn’t help them because our assenting to their view that we are to blame enables them to continue to create all sorts of terrible negative karma for themselves by continuing to abuse us. To disarm this, we need to remember each person is responsible for what happens in their own mind and their own experience of life. This is true for the abuser and it is true for us, and it is true for everyone. We need to be crystal clear about this and internally categorically refuse to assent to their assignment of blame. Just because they blame us for their unhappiness doesn’t mean they are right.

Disarming others making us feel incompetent: The abuser is often largely motivated by attachment thinking that the other person’s actions are an essential condition of their own happiness. They actually fear us leaving, so they have to prevent our escape, even if they are doing so only sub-consciously. One of the most effective ways of them preventing our escape is convincing us that we are incapable of doing so. They tell us we are weak, we are stupid, we are incompetent, we are worthless, and we are powerless so that we convince ourselves we can’t get out and we resign ourselves to our fate. Once we assent to this, we are “broken,” like a horse who submits to its master. To disarm this, we need to once again not assent to their view of us. Just as we are not to blame for their experience of life despite them vividly thinking we are, so too we are not the enfeebled person they make us out to be. Here we need to make a clear distinction between ourselves and our delusions. Our true self is our pure potential that one day will ripen in our full enlightenment. While this may seem impossibly far off in the future, it is nonetheless the destiny of all of us. The only question is when it happens. When it happens depends upon us choosing to embark upon the path of ripening that potential. Our delusions are like clouds, and our true self is like the sky. No matter how violent the storm, the sky itself is never tarnished by what passes through it. The same is true with our true selves. The laws of karma are definite, so if we start to create new karmic causes and we make effort to purify our negative karma, it is 100% guaranteed we will eventually succeed in changing our karma and dispelling the clouds of negativity from the sky of our mind. All we need is perseverance and correct spiritual methods for purifying our mind. Simply recognizing that the other person is making us feel incapable of escape as a method of control helps break the spell – we see what is going on, so its power over us is broken. We should awaken the inner French person in us and set out to prove wrong those who say we can’t escape.

Disarming being duped by occasional acts of kindness: When the victim of abuse has had enough and is starting to make the decision to leave, the abuser will often then say things like, “I’m sorry, I’ll change, I promise.” They will then be kind and offer some love. Because we have been so hollowed out by their previous abuse, their kindness and love comes as this huge relief to our inner pain, and we go running back. These acts of occasional kindness are like drugs which give us the occasional relief, or even feelings of ecstasy, which we then start chasing after. We seek their validation that we are not so awful, not so incompetent, and that we are worthy of love. We think, maybe the person is redeemable and I can help them. I can save them. So out of “compassion,” I need to keep going back. They need me. To disarm this manipulation, we need to identify clearly how every time we go back, things almost immediately start to return to the past patterns and the abusive behavior starts up again. These occasional acts of kindness are part of the cycle of abuse, and should be viewed as such. They do not exist outside of the abuse, they are part of it. When we see it as part of the cycle, we are much less likely to be fooled. It’s just like spam. When we first receive the email from the Nigerian princess who wants to transfer us money for safe keeping if only we give her our bank account numbers, we might be tempted; but once we see it for the scam that it is, even though it might still show up in our inbox, we will no longer be fooled by it. Likewise, we need to realize we can never fill the void we feel within through external validation. Quite the opposite actually, the more we chase external validation and love, the more we amplify the void within. The only way to fill the void within is to ripen our own pure potential and realize we actually lack nothing. As Buddha said, do not seek enlightenment outside of your own mind. We need to be kind to our true selves by escaping from these three manipulations.

Escaping from abusive relationships is never easy. It always seems easier to go back. We know as soon as we try to start to get out, they can harm us in so many ways and we fear that, so we remain trapped in fear. It is true, if we try escape, they will throw everything they have at us and it will hurt. But the short-term pain of getting out is much less than the long-term misery of forever remaining trapped. It is no different than somebody who is addicted to drugs. Breaking addictions is hard, but those who succeed in doing so never regret having broken free. The same is true for escaping abusive relationships. Breaking free begins with deciding to do so. It ends with disarming completely these three forms of manipulation.

Once we have made the decision to break free, our problems become largely material in nature. We may lack the material means to be self-sufficient where we are not dependent upon our abuser for our basic survival. This is particularly true for children, or for wives who have no means of supporting themselves financially. Overcoming this obstacle can be difficult. The solution is often some combination of (1) learning to need less, (2) becoming humble enough to ask for help, (3) gradually developing means of self-sufficiency, and (4) praying conditions arrange for us to escape.

None of this is easy, and all of this takes time. But escape is possible. As they say, “it does get better.” We just need to believe while we may be trapped now, one day we will escape. Then we work to build the outer and inner conditions necessary for us to do so.

I pray that all those who read this find release.