How to overcome loneliness

Loneliness is a modern epidemic. COVID-19 has forced the world into isolation – closing centers of human bonding, trapping us in our homes, and leaving loved ones to die alone in hospitals.  While social media has in some ways made us more connected than ever, it has simultaneously left us feeling never more alone. The aftershock of the baby boom of the 1940s and 1950s is a gray tsunami of loneliness today. Our individualistic societies offer the promise of self-actualization, but they also erode all sense of solidarity and human connection. We live in an age of extreme loneliness, and humanity’s heart is aching.

Diagnosis matters.  If we don’t identify what exactly is the problem, we will waste our energy chasing after the wrong solutions.  Loneliness is not being alone.  Being alone is a physical state whereas loneliness is a mental feeling of isolation – a state of mind.  Being physically alone is neither a cause of suffering nor a cause of happiness.  In and of itself, it is neutral – indeed it is nothing.  Loneliness, in contrast, is a mental feeling or reaction to being alone.  It can arise – and often does – even when we are surrounded by others.  Loneliness is a form of deep inner suffering.  But it is perfectly possible to be alone without feeling lonely, indeed it is possible to be alone but feel inseparably one with all living things. In this post, I will try explain how.  I pray that all those who read this find relief from their inner sorrow.

The Suffering of Loneliness

Loneliness is a feeling of deep inner sadness and wanting. We feel as if everyone else is off with each other while we are left alone to suffer.  Merely seeing others together reminds us just how alone we are, and instead of being happy for them, we become jealous or depressed. We feel that we lack something we need – namely companionship or human support – and we can’t be happy without them.

Loneliness makes us feel helpless, burdened by problems we cannot overcome on our own. Life’s struggles are endless, and we are left to confront them on our own.  People who we think normally should be there to help us in our hour of need are too absorbed into their own lives to pay us any bother, much less offer a shoulder to cry on. Worse still, they become frustrated with all our tears and judge us for our pitiful state. We then can sometimes lash out at those around us in a misguided cry for help, only to find those closest to us avoiding our presence even more.  We feel like a failure because nobody wants to be our friend and our sadness is so heavy we struggle to even get out of bed. 

Loneliness robs us of any feeling of purpose in our life.  We wonder what is the point of even trying when we have nobody to enjoy things with and nobody really cares what happens to us?  Even when people do reach out to us or we are with others, it never feels enough to fill the seemingly bottomless void in our heart.  Lacking motivation, we feel ourselves sinking ever deeper into despair, worried we might not ever get back to feeling normal.

When we are plagued by loneliness, we can easily become trapped in feelings of self-pity. We exhaust our mental energy feeling sorry for ourselves and feeding our hopelessness that no matter what we do, it will never work.  We see no end in sight to our solitude and convince ourselves we will never make it through. The more lonely we feel, the more despondent we become when even the slightest thing that before we could have taken in stride occurs.  The more lonely we feel, the more tightly we grasp at ourselves as being separated from others. All of this then reinforces our feeling of loneliness in a vicious spiral.

Those who are lonely will often turn to negativity in an attempt to fit in with others.  This can take many forms, such as joining others in criticizing and indeed developing hatred for some other social group.  Or we can start to drink, take drugs, or “hook up” with others as a way of creating a feeling of belonging.  But in the process, we lose any sense self-respect and deep down we know such bonds with others are shallow and toxic to our soul.  Later, after we become addicted to these things, we will face the terrible choice between leaving our so-called “friends” or remaining incapable of escaping our life-destroying addictions or hatreds.

Loneliness often ends in death.  Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.  Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than the non-lonely.  More people die from deaths of despair – suicides or self-poisoning – than nearly any other cause of death.  But this can also take more subtle forms, such as those consumed by loneliness simply giving up trying to get better, leading to slow-motion decline.  Such pain is often invisible precisely because those experiencing it are either doing so away from others or inside their broken hearts.  Loneliness is even one of the primary causes of extremist violence, from terrorism to school shootings. From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness – or grasping at ourself as being separate from others – is actually the cause of all death because it is the very motor of samsara.

The Many Forms of Loneliness

Loneliness has many forms.  There is the loneliness of feeling unloved and abandoned.  Some children are neglected by their parents or made to feel no matter what they do, it is never good enough.  Middle school children the world over obsess over what others think about them and feel that nobody likes them, which for many is a fate worse than death.  In part due to social media and photo filters, millions are growing up today feeling un-“liked” and unattractive on their own.  Whereas before, people would get together with their friends, now we are all glued to our phones even when we are physically together. 

Teens and young adults now have the lowest rates of romantic relationships with others than any generation before them.  Marriage rates are falling, divorce rates are rising, lasting and deep relationships are fast becoming a thing of the past.  Because all of society tells us we are not good enough, we no longer feel good about ourselves, and without that we can never feel loved even if the whole world did love us.  Friends we used to have never call, and if they do reach out we rarely get more than a superficial text message or comment on our social media posts. 

There is also the feeling of loneliness in the face of our struggles.  Life is one endless series of difficulties.  Children with learning differences are made to feel dumb and nobody wants to be in groups with them.  Going off to college or leaving home for the first time feels as if we are thrown out into the world alone and unsure.  New parents are often shocked to find out just how isolating it can be to care for young children without adult companionship.  When financial difficulty strikes, no one is there to help.  When our parents become incapable of caring for themselves, we face the burden alone and, even when we have time to get away from such responsibilities, we have nothing to talk to others about besides our burdens which they don’t want to hear.  When our parents die, we feel truly on our own without anybody we can unconditionally fall back on. 

Many also suffer from the loneliness of physical isolation.  Social distancing related to COVID-19 has massively increased the amount of physical isolation in the world.  Some people find themselves alone because they have no friends, others find themselves alone sick in bed or in the hospital, incapable of doing anything except enduring their discomfort.  Our partners are sometimes called away from home due to work, leaving us alone looking after the kids and other family responsibilities on our own.  Sometimes we are alone because our partner leaves us for somebody else, and many old people return to an empty home after the death of their lifetime partner.

We can even feel alone while surrounded by others, such as going to a new school, beginning a new job, or being at a party where we don’t know anybody.  We can even feel alone when we are surrounded by people we know and who love us, but we cannot feel their love because of the want in our hearts. 

Getting old is a frequent source of loneliness.  We are no longer able to get out and do the things we enjoy and nobody wants to come see us because all we can do is sit in a chair or talk about the past.  And when death comes, we must face it alone. Our friends and relatives cannot help us. We all march to our death alone.

The Inner Causes of Loneliness

As discussed above, being alone is a physical state, but loneliness is a state of mind.  We might think the solution to loneliness is not being alone, but if we still have the mind of loneliness, we will feel just as alone no matter how many people we are with.  In Transform your Life, Geshe-la makes the distinction between out outer problem and our inner problem.  Our car breaking down is our outer problem, but our actual problem is our deluded mental reaction to this occurring.  We need a mechanic to fix our car, but we need to change our deluded way of responding to fix our mind.  If we solve our inner problem, outer situations will no longer be a problem for us.  Thus, the only real solution to our problems is doing the inner work necessary to change our mind.

This is equally true with loneliness.  When we understand our loneliness is an inner state of mind, we will realize the only solution to it is to change our mind.  Correctly diagnosing the problem is the essential first step to any treatment.  A failure to correctly diagnose the exact nature of our problem will mean we never actually find a solution.  We just continue to grasp forever at the wrong belief that because we are alone, we must suffer.  We might not be able to change the fact that we are alone, but we can definitely remove the feelings of loneliness from our mind.

From a Buddhist perspective, loneliness arises from a toxic brew of the ignorance of grasping at ourself as being somehow separate from others, a false belief that we need others to be happy, an obsessive concern thinking what we feel is supremely important, and a lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our aloneness into something spiritually useful.  Let’s unpack this.

In Buddhism, we say the root of all of our suffering is our self-grasping ignorance.  What does that mean?  It means we think the self we normally see – our present body and mind – is actually us.  We think we are this and not that.  We impute our “I” onto this very narrow, isolated thing failing to realize that we are in fact inseparably one with everything.  In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says we are like a cell in the body of living beings.  We are inextricably linked in a web of kindness providing everything needed to support our life.  Ultimately, everything is a dream like creation of mind, so everything is equally part of our mind – part of us.  We currently feel as if there is this giant chasm separating us from everything else, but this feeling is an illusion, a mistaken perception.  In truth, all things share the same ultimate nature, like different waves on a single ocean.  When we realize the ultimate nature of things, there is no basis for feeling alone because all feeling of distance between ourselves and others simply vanishes.

Loneliness hurts because we have attachment to others, thinking we need them to be happy.  What precisely does this mean?  Attachment is a mental mistake that thinks our happiness depends upon some external condition.  We convince ourselves we can’t be happy without this external condition.  We don’t even want to call this belief into question, and reject anybody who tells us otherwise. We then dedicate all our energies to bringing about the external change we seek as a solution to our mental pain.  If we are unsuccessful, we feel we have no choice but to be miserable.  And even if we are successful in obtaining what we desire, it doesn’t actually ever satisfy our inner want because the problem is actually coming from inside.  As explained above, loneliness is a feeling of sadness and wanting.  Attachment is what creates the feeling of wanting – a feeling of needing, but not finding.  Specifically, loneliness is pervaded by an attachment to others.  We convince ourselves we need companionship, a partner, a lover, a friend, or a shoulder to cry on to be happy.  And without these things, it is impossible for us to be happy.  Sometimes we will have no prospect of ever being re-united with others – or at least not for a long time – and then fall into despair that there is no end in sight to our sorrows.  But all of this is completely wrong.  Just because we think it is true and we have always believed it is true doesn’t mean it is, in fact, true.  Being alone, in and of itself, is neither a cause of happiness nor a cause of suffering.  It is just a condition, a state of affairs.  It is our mental reaction to this state that is the real cause of our suffering.  Whether we are happy or not depends not upon our external circumstance, but upon the peace within our mind.  Inner peace is a dependent-related phenomena.  In other words, if we create the causes for inner peace, our mind will be peaceful, and we will be happy.  If we don’t create these causes, our mind will never become peaceful, and we will never be happy no matter what our external circumstance.  We must be clear about this otherwise we will never get better.

Loneliness hurts because of our attachment to others.  How much it hurts depends upon our degree of what in Buddhism we call “self-cherishing.”  Attachment is the mistake creating the feeling of loneliness, and our self-cherishing is like the volume knob that amplifies how much our loneliness hurts.  Self-cherishing is an exaggerated sense of importance of our own feelings and well-being.  When we feel bad, we think it is a very big deal.  Why?  Because we think our own happiness is supremely important.  In the grand scheme of things, we are just one person and what we feel really doesn’t matter that much.  Yet to us, it is of utmost concern.  Why?  Because we have been fooled since beginningless time by the inner demon of self-cherishing.  When others are unhappy, we don’t think it is that big of a deal because to us, their happiness doesn’t matter.  Self-cherishing causes us to be obsessively concerned with our own wishes, and so when they are not fulfilled, we simply cannot bear it. But if we reduce our exaggerated sense of how much our own well-being matters, we will proportionately reduce how much it hurts to feel lonely.  If how we feel doesn’t matter, then it won’t matter that we are lonely.  Yes, we are lonely.  So what?  What’s the big deal?  Every time we feel the hurt of loneliness, we should view this as a powerful reminder of the need to reduce our self-cherishing.

What makes loneliness particularly difficult to bear is the feeling of hopelessness that often accompanies it.  Where does this hopelessness come from?  It comes from our lack of self-confidence in our ability to transform our present circumstance into something spiritually useful.  We think the problem is bigger than us, and we tell ourselves, “I can’t handle this.  I won’t be able to make it.”  Such thoughts are not only self-defeating, they are simply wrong.  If we believe we can’t handle it, then when we try to heal our mind of its pain, we lack power and we wind up self-sabotaging our efforts.  We think it won’t work anyways, so we don’t ever really try, and as a result, we continue to suffering.  We then use the failure of have any results to confirm our initial belief that nothing will work anyways.  No matter what we do, we always judge our efforts as not being good enough.  We constantly find fault in what we didn’t do right instead of rejoice in our progress, however small it might be.  We would never talk to others the way we talk to ourselves, constantly criticizing ourselves as such a failure and finding fault with everything we do.  So why should we talk to ourself in this way?  Thinking we won’t be able to make it is simply incorrect.  Because we have a pure potential, there is nothing we can’t do.  With our Guru’s blessings, we can accomplish anything.  Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible.  If we never give up trying, our eventual success is guaranteed.  There is no valid reason to believe we “can’t” do it.  Sure, it may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it is impossibly so.  In truth, we are simply our own worst enemy.  But we don’t need to be.  We can also be our best ally. 

How to overcome loneliness.

Having clearly understood the suffering of loneliness, the different forms of loneliness, and the inner causes of loneliness, we can now turn to how to actually overcome our feelings of loneliness.  These explanations for how to overcome our loneliness will lack power if we don’t clearly and accurately understand what exactly is our problem.  But if we are clear on the problem, we will appreciate and be motivated to train ourselves in the solution.  I will present nine different practices for reducing and finally eliminating our inner pain of loneliness.  All of the Buddhas guarantee if we patiently train in these practices, we will find the inner peace and contentment that we seek.

Accepting patiently what we cannot change

Shantideva explains when we are confronted with some difficulty, there are two possibilities:  either we can change the situation or we can’t.  If we can change the situation, then change it.  If we can’t, then we must learn to patiently accept it.  We need to make a distinction between unpleasant feelings and suffering.  Unpleasant feelings arise in the mind when delusions are present or negative karma is ripening.  This only becomes “suffering” if we don’t mentally accept these unpleasant feelings.  As long as we are still trying to push them away, we will suffer from them.  If instead, we can learn to wholeheartedly welcome them, we create the space within our mind to suffer.  Yes, we are suffering.  OK.  And…?  If we can accept them, our unpleasant feelings cease to be a “problem” and as a result, we no longer suffer from them.

How can we accept unpleasant feelings?  There are two main ways.  First, we can accept them as purification of our past negative karma.  Since beginningless time, we have engaged in countless negative actions.  These actions have placed innumerable negative karmic potentialities on our mind which will, sooner or later, ripen if we do not purify them.  Once negative karma has ripened, not even Buddha can stop its effects.  The karma will have to run its course until it eventually exhausts itself.  When we mentally accept our unpleasant feelings as purification, it not only exhausts the presently activated negative karma, but we can purify all of the karma similar in nature to what is ripening.  We can think to ourselves, “through my patiently accepting my present difficulties, may I purify all of the negative karma of loneliness on my mind.”  Second, we can transform our suffering into an opportunity to train our mind in spiritual paths.  Shantideva explains suffering has many good qualities, but all of them are the opportunity suffering provides us to abandon our delusions and train in virtues.  Just as a beggar is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to practice giving, so too the arising of suffering or delusions in our mind is not an obstacle to somebody wishing to train their mind.  We feel bad, but it is not only not a problem, it is rocket fuel for our spiritual path.

Additionally, we can put our faith in Dorje Shugden.  Dorje Shugden is a specialized Buddha whose job it is to give us all of the outer and inner conditions we need for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  His job is not to fulfill all of our worldly wishes, but he can fulfill all of our pure spiritual wishes.  If what we want is an easy life, it will be impossible to accept that which we cannot change.  But if what we want is to make spiritual progress, then anything can be transformed into the path.  Dorje Shugden provides us with the wisdom blessings necessary to see how whatever arises is perfect for our spiritual training.  With regards to our being alone, we can request Dorje Shugden, “please arrange whatever is best.”  If our aloneness stops, then great; if it doesn’t, then we can know without a doubt that our being alone is exactly what we need to take the next step on our spiritual journey.

Learning to appreciate our alone time

All delusions function in the same way.  They mistakenly grasp at some mistaken notion (such as attachment or self-cherishing), then exaggerate that notion, relating to that exaggeration as if it were somehow true.  When it comes to loneliness, we mistakenly grasp at being alone as being inherently a bad thing, inherently a source of our suffering.  We convince ourselves we can’t be happy while alone.  We then exaggerate this wrong belief by dwelling on it again and again, convincing ourselves that it is true.  We think again and again, “I’m all alone, nobody is around to help,” and “I can’t enjoy anything while alone” or “it is so awful having to confront this on my own.”  Why are any of these things true?  They only become true if we believe them to be true. 

First of all, there are people around, we have just decided what we have is not good enough. Maybe we lack the physical presence of some people, but that does not mean we are actually alone.  And who says the people we do have around are not good enough?  Why is the support we have not good enough?  What specifically do we think we need from others?  What is wrong with doing things on our own?  Sure it is perhaps more fun to share a good movie or dinner with somebody, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the movie or dinner or walk on our own.  Why is it bad to have to solve our daily problems on our own?  Children resist learning how to sleep or walk on their own, but is there any denying they are better off for learning how to do so?  The same is true for our life challenges.  By learning how to work through our challenges on our own, we will grow in strength and confidence and will be able to take those qualities with us everywhere we go for the rest of our life.  Would we rather remain weak and dependent forever? 

Further, being alone has amazing good qualities.  We can do what we want – watch what we want, read books we never otherwise have time to read, and most importantly, engage in spiritual practices such as listening to, contemplating, or meditating on the Dharma.  Even from an ordinary perspective, getting away from others is often a huge relief because they are constantly placing so many unreasonable demands on us or otherwise act in such annoying ways.  How wonderful it would be to simply sit and relax, enjoying a little peace and quite from our otherwise hectic lives.  There are things that being alone enable us to do that we otherwise are never able to do.  So instead of looking at what we are missing, we need to appreciate the unique opportunities our aloneness affords us.

Abandoning attachment to others

As explained above, attachment to others is a mistaken belief that we need others to be happy.  It is true, we need to generate love and compassion for others to be happy, but we do not actually need to be with others to be happy.  We need to make a distinction between “nice to haves” and “necessities.”  Having companionship, somebody we can share our burdens with, or a shoulder to cry on are all nice to have, but we don’t actually need any of these things to be happy. 

Many people become fixated on having a partner, thinking they can’t be happy without one.  Or they become obsessed with having a baby, feeling their life has no meaning without one.  Some find a partner, but then feel lost and empty without them.  A very common form of attachment is needing others to help us carry our burdens or even just listen to us express the challenges we are going through.  None of these things are true.  They only become our lived experience because we think they are true.  With modern technology, such as social media, video calls, and the like, we are never really alone.  We might lack the physical presence of others, but besides being able to hold their hand or give them a hug, what difference does physical presence really make?  There are plenty of people who remain single their whole life or never have children and are perfectly happy.  Not having our partner around gives us a chance to stand on our own two feet and gain self-sufficiency and inner strength.  Being forced to solve our problems for ourselves enables us to grow and develop self-confidence. 

The hard truth is we were all born alone and we will all die alone. Even if they wanted to, others can’t solve our inner problems for us, only we can do that for ourselves.  Even if we had them around, they couldn’t really make any difference because the changes that need to be made are all internal.  Even the Buddhas can only show us the way, we have to travel the path ourselves.  Accepting our aloneness is in fact a huge part of growing up.  Some people go their whole lives without ever truly assuming responsibility for their own experience of life.  Do we want to remain forever like this?  Our aloneness gives us our unique chance to finally change.  Once we gain this inner strength, we can then become a source of wisdom, support, and emotional stability for others.  Our positive example will inspire others to develop their own emotional independence as well, protecting them from becoming trapped in abusive or co-dependent relationships.  The truth is most human problems would be solved if we could just abandon our attachment to others.

Cultivate a true self-confidence

As explained above, loneliness comes with hopelessness.  It makes us feel there is nothing we can do to change our plight.  But this is just wrong.  Most of all we just need to stop believing our self-defeating talk.

Geshe-la explains in How to Understand The Mind we need to develop three types of self-confidence:  confidence with respect to our potential, confidence in our actions, and confidence in thinking we can destroy our delusions.  

All of us have what is called our “pure potential” or our “Buddha nature.”  This potential is our true self.  It cannot be defiled nor destroyed, and once ripened, we too will enjoy the enlightened state.  Ripening this potential is simply a question of having the correct methods and persistent effort that never gives up, no matter how hard it gets.  Our pure potential is like the sky, and our present delusions are like clouds in the sky.  No matter how dark or violent the clouds, the sky always remains equally untouched.  Our loneliness is not us, it is just a cloud in our mind.  We can dissolve this cloud and feel the infinite expanse of the sky day and night.

Buddha said that eventually all living beings will attain full enlightenment, the only question is when we ourselves decide to start on the path.  The practical instructions he has given us for healing our mind are scientific methods for finding inner happiness.  Everyone who has sincerely and correctly put them into practice has discovered for themselves that they work.  Atisha explains the laws of karma are definite.  If we change our actions, we will change our experience.  This is guaranteed.  Just as there are laws of nature, so too there are laws of our mind; and if we learn how to work with them, we too will come to enjoy lasting inner peace. 

Finally, we need confidence that we can destroy our delusions.  Our delusions are not us, they are like mud in water, they are not an intrinsic part of our mind.  Our delusions are nothing more than bad habits of mind, and like all habits, with effort we can break them and create new, more healthy ones.  Great canyons are forged one drop of water at a time, and even iron blocks can be cut in two with a feather if we never give up trying.  If our delusions can be reduced – which we know they can – they can eventually be eliminated entirely. 

Abandoning self-cherishing

We often say, “I fell bad, I feel bad, I am not well,” but we never bother to ask ourselves, “why does that matter?”  As explained above, the extent of our self-cherishing is like a volume knob amplifying the hurt of our loneliness.  If we find ourselves experiencing unbearable pain, it is because we have out of control self-cherishing.  There is no other reason.  The more we reduce our self-cherishing, the less it will hurt.  It is as simple as that. 

How do we reduce our self-cherishing?  We have to see clearly that it is the root cause of all of our suffering.  There are two main ways of understanding this.  First, how we “feel” matters only because we think we matter.  Other than that, there is no reason.  The reality is the more we think it matters, the more intolerant we become to feeling anything bad, and this makes us hurt even more in a vicious spiral.  When our self-cherishing is strong, we cannot tolerate even the slightest thing going wrong.  Because our wishes matter “so much” we think everything that happens is a really big deal and we feel as if we are being violently buffeted by the waves of life. 

Second, all of our suffering comes from the ripening of our negative karma.  All of our negative karma comes from our past self-cherishing thinking we were more important than others.  Why do people currently neglect us?  Because we neglected others in the past.  Why are they currently frustrated with us while we suffer?  Because we were frustrated with others in the past when they were suffering.  Why do we feel so alone?  Because we abandoned others when they needed us most.  Why do we have to bear our burdens alone?  Because we failed to help others in their hour of need.  It is sometimes hard to admit to ourselves these karmic truths.  We feel like we are blaming ourselves, saying it is our own dumb fault that we are suffering now.  No, it is the fault of our past delusions, not us.  Delusions take over our mind and make it uncontrolled, and then compelled by them we engage in all sorts of negative actions.  We can feel like our present suffering is some sort of punishment that we deserve for being so bad, but this is just our guilt mistaking karmic gravity for divine punishment. 

Seeing how our present suffering is coming entirely from our self-cherishing, we can use our feelings of loneliness and abandonment as a powerful reminder that we must completely and utterly abandon our self-cherishing.  If we want to never go through this suffering again, we have no choice but to abandon our self-cherishing now.  Further, by abandoning it now, our unpleasant feelings will simply “not matter as much.”  Yes, we may feel bad, but we will think, “it doesn’t matter.”  This wisdom mind makes everything more tolerable.

Cherishing others

Geshe-la explains in Eight Steps to Happiness, “Cherishing others also protects us from the problems caused by desirous attachment. We often become strongly attached to another person who we feel will help us to overcome our loneliness by providing the comfort, security or excitement we crave. However, if we have a loving mind toward everyone, we do not feel lonely. Instead of clinging onto others to fulfill our desires we will want to help them fulfill their needs and wishes.” 

In truth, we are only alone if we are only thinking about ourselves.  If we are thinking about others, we are not alone.  They are with us in our thoughts.  If we are engaging in actions to cherish them, we feel close to them and never feel alone.  We can mentally imagine we are surrounded by all living beings and send them love and blessings.  If we have lost a loved one, we can remember that they have not disappeared, they are simply somewhere else.  We can still have a relationship with them, pray for them, and commit ourselves to becoming a Buddha for their sake.  Even doing simple things like writing letters or drawing pictures for others can make us feel close to others in our heart, and our feelings of loneliness go away. 

As long as we are looking to others to fill our empty voids, we will never overcome our feelings of loneliness even if we are surrounded by the whole world sending us love; but if we instead are working in our mind to cherish others and giving to others whatever it is we feel we need, we will feel ourselves being filled from within and will lack nothing.  As Saint Francis said:

O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to Eternal Life

Abandoning self-grasping

As explained above, the root of samsara is our self-grasping ignorance – the mind that grasps at ourselves as being this small, limited body and mind somehow distinct from everything else.  This view is factually just wrong.  We can see there is not a thing about us that actually does not come from others, and there is nothing we do that does not affect all other living beings.  This feeling of separateness between ourselves and others is a completely false fabrication of our mind that, regrettably, we have believed without question since beginningless time. 

The ultimate nature of all things is emptiness.  What does that mean?  It means that everything is a dream like creation of mind, with no more reality than last night’s dream.  What does this mean for our loneliness?  First, it means all of our feelings of loneliness are actually coming from a mistaken conception of who we are.  A wave cannot exist without its underlying ocean.  We think we are a wave somehow existing independently of the ocean of our mind.  Second, it means it is actually impossible for us to be alone because everyone and everything is necessarily a part of our mind.  Every living being is inside our mind, inseparable from our mind, and part of our mind – so how could we possibly be alone?  Third, if we realize the emptiness of all things, we will feel the false chasms between us and all phenomena fall away and we will merge with all things like water mixing with water.  Being alone itself is impossible and the feeling of loneliness has no basis in ultimate truth.  Fourth, and perhaps more immediately, if everything is created by mental imputation, that includes thinking being “alone” is “bad.”  It is not inherently bad, we can mentally reconstruct it as “good” or even “pure.” 

Realizing emptiness of ourself and all other phenomena is the definitive antidote to all feelings of loneliness.  It may take a long time to realize emptiness, but every step we take towards its realization will reduce our underlying feelings of loneliness.

Remembering we are always in the Presence of all the Buddhas

Normally, when people say they are lonely, people will tell them, “you are not alone, you have this person and that person in your life, etc.”  But this sort of thinking is really just a band aid because the underlying assumption is being alone is still a “bad” thing.  So I intentionally did not put much emphasis above on “you are not alone” because I wanted to show a deeper solution.  It is better to stare aloneness straight in the eye and get to the point where it is no longer a problem, instead of just rush to fill our aloneness with somebody.

However, from a spiritual point of view, we are not alone and never have been.  All of the Buddhas attained enlightenment for the express purpose of being able to be with each and every living being every day, with the ability to bestow blessings directly on the minds of all those they love (which is everyone).  All around us there are countless Buddhas.  It is only our ignorance and lack of faith that fails to see them and feel their presence.  The sun is always shining, even if we can’t see it due to the clouds.  If we removed the clouds, the sun would naturally and spontaneously shine forth. 

A literally translation of a “Buddha” is an “inner being.”  It is a being that lives in the realm of mind.  From one point of view, all living beings share the same ultimate nature, like the ocean to the myriad of waves.  A Buddha is somebody who has realized directly they are the ocean, and so they are necessarily present in every wave.  Another way of thinking about it is we all share the same pure potential of omniscient bliss realizing the emptiness of all phenomena directly and simultaneously.  Imagine a universal hub that all living beings are connected to like spokes.  If you shine a light in the hub itself, it illuminates all of the spokes simultaneously.  This is a Buddha’s experience and how they are able to be with each and every living being every day, bestowing blessings directly on the minds of all.  They have found their way to the center, from where they can benefit all.  And all Buddhas have done the same, meaning all of the Buddhas are with us every moment every day.

When we realize this, we understand we are actually never alone.  All we need do is remember that all of the Buddhas, especially our Spiritual Guide, are with us and stand ready to bless our mind and help us along.  Unlike our ordinary friends, who cannot directly touch our mind, a Buddha can.  Buddhas blessings are like subtle infusions of their mind and realizations into our own.  When we generate faith and request their blessings, we will feel their love pour into us filling our mind with their eternal presence.

Go for refuge

Everything I describe above is not easy, but it is doable.  At present, the winds of our mind all blow in deluded directions and the wind is quite strong.  On our own, it is very hard to bring about the inner changes needed to reverse the current of our mind to flow in a better direction.  We need help.  Fortunately, we have help.

A foundational practice is “going for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”  What does that mean?  When our car breaks down, we go for refuge to a mechanic; when our tooth has a cavity, we go for refuge to a dentist.  In the same way, when our mind is plagued by the sickness of delusions, we go for refuge to the three precious jewels.  Practically speaking, what does this mean? 

It means we need to apply effort to request blessings from the Buddhas.  It was explained above that the Buddhas are always with us, but if we do not open the blinds of our mind, their sunlight cannot enter.  When we request their blessings, we open up our mind for their loving energy to enter into our hearts, giving us the wisdom and strength we need to overcome our loneliness by training in the practices above. 

It also means we need to apply effort to receiving help from the Sangha, or our pure spiritual friends.  There are Dharma centers all over the world and Facebook groups filled with people doing their best to put Buddha’s instructions into practice.  They know the struggles we are going through and have some experience they have gained from their prior practice.  They can share their experience with us and provide us with encouragement when we are feeling down.  But they cannot do the work for us – only we can do that for ourselves.

It finally means putting effort into practicing the Dharma.  Practicing Dharma means to apply effort to change the way we think to be slightly less deluded and slight more virtuous.  Drop by drop, the bucket is filled.  Step by step, the journey is made.  The practices described above will all work if we diligently train in them over a long period of time.  There are no quick fixes on the Buddhist path.  It takes work.  But the difference is our ordinary solutions to loneliness will never work no matter how long we try practice them.  The inner solution may take time, but its results are guaranteed.  And the reality is if we train sincerely, we will start to notice some results – we will feel slightly less lonely, or the loneliness we feel will be slightly more tolerable.  These early results will give us confidence that if we keep at it, eventually we will know permanent freedom. 

Conclusion

Loneliness is a terrible thing.  Millions around the world are experiencing great sorrow from it.  But fundamentally, it is just a state of mind.  If we change our mind, we can remove the debilitating feeling of loneliness, even if physically we remain alone for the rest of our life.  The practices described above are scientific methods that will work for whoever tries them.  What we do with this information, though, is up to us.  We have to decide to put in the effort to accept our situation and create new mental habits.  These sorts of inner changes will never happen on their own.  One day or another, perhaps after we have tried all other methods, we will come to accept if we want to feel better, we must do the inner work required.  There is no point blaming our being alone for our loneliness, the two have almost nothing to do with each other.  But if we correctly diagnose the problem in our mind and sincerely train in these more positive ways of thinking, I guarantee we will overcome all loneliness – not only now, but forever more.

I pray that all those who feel lonely find this post and that their minds are blessed to find something useful within it. I pray that all feelings of loneliness quickly cease and we all come to realize we are inseparably one in a web of kindness. May all beings feel the living presence of the Buddhas in their lives and turn towards them with faith. May everyone be filled with the courage necessary to embrace being alone as their opportunity to progress swiftly along the spiritual path.

My journey so far…

I have spent the last two days writing basically the story of my Dharma life, from my childhood through to today. A shorter version of this appeared before on my blog, but here I try tell the full story with all of the pivotal moments in my spiritual journey. It is long, but I hope you enjoy it and can learn from my many mistakes.

You can read it here: https://kadampaworkingdad.com/about-2/

It’s not our responsibility to make others happy, nor our fault if they are not happy

Intellectually understanding the Bodhisattva path is relatively easy. Practicing it skillfully in our daily life is much harder. For me at least, nowhere is this more true than when it comes to understanding our personal responsibility towards others’ happiness and freedom from suffering.

Attaining enlightenment depends upon Bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all. Bodhichitta depends upon great compassion, the wish to free all living beings from all of their suffering. Hinayanists develop universal love and great compassion, but what differentiates the Hinayana from the Mahayana path is the mind of “superior intention,” or the mind that assumes personal responsibility for the eventual enlightenment of others. As Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path, a bystander might wish a child not drown, but the child’s mother will dive in to save the child herself. As would-be bodhisattvas, it is not enough for us to merely wish others are free from all suffering, we must assume personal responsibility to make that happen. The entire Bodhisattva path is the practical expression of our superior intention. If we get superior intention wrong, then our entire bodhisattva path will likewise be wrong and unsustainable. But if we get superior intention correct, the rest of the bodhisattva path will be nearly effortless and always joyful.

Because we are still deluded beings, it is very easy to inadvertently develop all sorts of deluded interpretations of what it means to have “superior intention.” Personally, as a husband, father, and Dharma teacher, I have tumbled into quite a number of these deluded interpretations, and also led others down similar wrong paths. I am writing this to try hopefully spare others from making the same mistakes I have. There are three mistakes in particular I would like to highlight: viewing others’ suffering as our problem, misplaced responsibility arising from misdiagnosing what their problem is, and misplaced guilt causing us to push ourselves beyond our capacity.

Others’ suffering is ‘not my problem.’

Normally, when somebody says something like this, it is an incredibly heartless thing to say. It’s hard to think of a thought that seems more non-Buddhist! The entire point of the Buddhist path is to free others from their suffering. So how can we possibly look at others’ suffering and correctly think, “not my problem?”

We need to make a crystal clear distinction between great compassion and attachment to those we love not suffering. Great compassion is developed by first generating cherishing love for others – considering their happiness and well being to be important – and then contemplating all of the different ways that they suffer. Doing so naturally gives rise to a mind that “cannot bear” the suffering of others. Great compassion strongly wishes others were free from all of their suffering. Now let’s look at the mind of attachment to those we love not suffering. It too cannot bear the suffering of those we love and strongly wishes they were free from all of their suffering. Compassion is said to be a joyful, empowered mind; whereas attachment to those we love not suffering is a miserable, depressed mind. What exactly is the difference between the two?

The difference is attachment to those we love not suffering thinks others’ suffering is our problem whereas great compassion realizes clearly their suffering is not our problem. Attachment means to think our happiness depends upon some external thing, in this case others’ happiness. If we are attached to others being happy, then when they are not happy, we become unhappy. When they suffer, we go down with them.

But to say their suffering is not our problem sounds like we don’t care. Quite the opposite, actually. It is because we care and want to be of use to them that we cannot allow ourselves to become mentally attached to their well-being. Think of doctors trying to help their patients in the age of the Coronavirus or parents trying to raise their kids in a world of suffering. We are in the midst of an ocean of suffering, and if we do not free our mind from our attachment to others being happy, we will simply drown with the rest of them. Many doctors wind up committing suicide when confronted with the wave of suffering and their inability to stop it; many parents fall into depression as they powerlessly watch their kids make one wrong choice after another.

Our actual “problem” when we see others suffering is our deluded attachment to them not suffering. Paradoxically, we need to create the space within our mind for those we love to suffer to actually be able to help guide them out of their suffering. The mind of patient acceptance is a pre-requisite for developing the mind of renunciation. We need to accept that samsara is the nature of suffering and always will be. We need to give up hope of ever “fixing” samsara before we can once and for all make the decision to leave it behind. If we still think happiness can be found in samsara, we will invest our energies into securing a better position within it, rather than waking up from it. Thinking happiness can be found within samsara is a “non-acceptance” of samara’s true nature. By fully accepting samsara for what it is, we create the space in our mind for samsara to be – for ourselves to experience suffering. Once we accept suffering, we can begin to transform it into the path and use it for spiritual purposes. Then, unpleasant experiences cease to be a “problem” for us.

In exactly the same way, we need to accept as long as others remain in samsara, they too will suffer – sometimes terribly. Just as acceptance of our own suffering is the foundation of renunciation, so too acceptance of others’ suffering is the foundation of great compassion. We need to create the space in our mind for others to suffer. When we free our mind of attachment to others not suffering, we ourselves no longer have a “problem” with them suffering. This doesn’t mean we don’t care, rather it frees us up to actually be able to help because we are not preoccupied about our own welfare in the face of their suffering. Their suffering “is our great concern, but not our problem.”

Others’ suffering is ‘not our responsibility’ either

This is a tough one for parents. But also for someone in a couple, for anyone in a position of responsibility for others, and for Dharma teachers. When we see our kids suffer, like the mother in Geshe-la’s example for superior intention, we naturally want to dive in and save our child – often from themselves. Our children also expect this of us. They believe it is our responsibility to solve their problems for them – and why wouldn’t they think that, we have been doing so for their entire lives.

Just as great compassion and attachment to those we love not suffering are easily confused, so too are superior intention and feelings of misplaced responsibility towards others. Superior intention is the mind that takes personal responsibility for the welfare and eventual enlightenment of others. Misplaced responsibility – thinking it is our job to solve other people’s problems for them – also has a sense of personal responsibility in the face of others’ suffering. On the surface, they are very similar. Superior intention is the powerful mind of a bodhisattva, whereas misplaced responsibility is the heavy mind of a confused caregiver.

To differentiate clearly superior intention from misplaced responsibility we need to realize two key distinctions. First, conventionally speaking we can’t solve others’ problems for them, they need to resolve their own problems for themselves. Buddhas cannot bestow enlightenment upon us, they can only guide us on what we ourselves need to do to attain enlightenment. We can influence the external conditions around others, but only they can control their own mind. It is our responsibility to do what we can to help, but it is their responsibility to control their own mind. We can’t do that for them.

When others think it is our responsibility to solve their problems for them, it disempowers them to solve their own problems. So we need to be very clear in handing over responsibility to others for their own well-being, while being mindful of their capacity to assume responsibility for themselves. Eventually, we want to lead everyone into assuming personal responsibility for all living beings, but this begins with them assuming personal responsibility for themselves. In the beginning, a lot of the responsibility will fall on us because they are not yet capable of assuming responsibility for themselves, but the direction of our relationship should be to equip them with the skills and opportunities to be able to care for themselves. This will almost invariably create all sorts of conflict in our relationship with those we normally care for as they expect us to solve their problems for them and might resist us giving that responsibility back to them. At such times, we should clarify that our intention is to help them more by teaching them and giving them the opportunities to help themselves. It’s no different than a child learning to walk on their own – we should celebrate each transition of responsibility in the same way.

The second key distinction is correctly identifying what their problem is. If our mind is still pervaded by ignorance, we might think the reason why they are unhappy has something to do with their external circumstance, and so if they are to be happy, their external circumstance must change. Likewise, if their mind is still pervaded by ignorance, they will think it is their external circumstance that needs to change for them to be happy. But if their mind remains the same, they will be equally unhappy in their new circumstance as their old one, so nothing will really change. We need to be repeatedly clear with them that whether they are happy or not in a situation depends upon their own mind, not their external circumstance. Their problem is their delusions. They have no problem other than their delusions. This does not mean we don’t make external improvements where possible, but it does mean what really needs to change is their mind. It also means we are not responsible for how their mind reacts to things. Even if they insist it is their external circumstance that needs to change and we may be the only one who can change their external circumstance, we need wisdom knowing this won’t work and the only way they can be happy is if they change their own mind – which only they can do. If we assume it is our responsibility to change their mind, then once again, we disempower them to find their own happiness and we transform ourselves into something they need to emotionally manipulate to get us to do something so that they can change their mind. Endless misery for all.

It’s not our fault if they are unhappy

A close cousin of misplaced responsibility is misplaced guilt. We think it is our fault if others are unhappy. We think it is our fault if they suffer. We think it is our fault if they are deluded. We then blame ourselves whenever they suffer, and then this guilt drives us to do more for them. It can almost seem like our guilt is virtuous because it is propelling us to engage in virtuous actions for others. But this is wrong. Virtuous actions depend upon our intention, and guilt is delusion of self-hatred, not a virtuous intention of cherishing others. Motivated by guilt, we help others to avoid beating ourselves up (which hurts), not out of any caring for others.

When we are driven by guilt, we tend to push ourselves way beyond our capacity to help, and this then leads to burnout of ourselves and even greater dependency of others upon us to be happy. In other words, we destroy our own capacity to help others by burning out and we actually harm others by reinforcing their wrong belief that they cannot be happy unless we do something for them. We think we are being the kind bodhisattva, cherishing others no matter the cost to ourselves, but actually we are allowing our guilt to destroy ourselves. What makes this particularly hard is others are convinced it is up to us to solve their problems for them, and they will tap into our guilt to emotionally manipulate us into doing something for them to be happy. This can even reach the point where others threaten self-harm or even suicide if we don’t step up. Because of our misplaced responsibility and misplaced guilt, we then give in to their manipulations – or even actively participate in them – and just cause the cycle of suffering to continue further.

We need wisdom in such situations. If others are unhappy, it is the product of their karma and their own delusions, neither of which are our fault. They are responsible for their own karma and their own delusions. We cannot manage their karma for them and we cannot manage their delusions for them. Only they can do it for themselves. We also need to be aware of our current capacity. If we push ourselves so hard that we burn out, then we are useless to others and can help them less in the long-run. We need to be very targeted in what help we provide to make sure it is help that will actually make a difference knowing they are responsible for their own karma and mental reactions. Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is “not help.” Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to say no. But we need to do so without guilt. Wisdom is the antidote to misplaced guilt.

Don’t be like me

In my own life, I have made these three mistakes many times, and they have been the source of almost all of the suffering I have experienced by being a husband, a father, and a Dharma teacher. I have also, ignorantly, wound up transmitting these same mistaken trains of thought onto others, inadvertently causing them to generate attachment to others’ not suffering, developing misplaced responsibility, and pushing themselves to burnout out of misplaced guilt.

The first step to recovery is recognizing how I have been making these mistakes. Then, it is an issue of reminding myself again and again of the wisdom that counters the mistakes. Largely, it is an issue of training myself in new habits of how I relate to others, and accepting the relationship tensions that will naturally arise as I change my ways. In the short run, it may lead to more conflict with others, but in the long-run it will lead to more healthy and sustainable relationships with others. It will also enable us to enjoy our bodhisattva path instead of feel this enormous heavy pressure we put on ourselves to solve everyone’s problems for them in ignorant ways, or the emotional strain of fearing emotional blackmail from others if we don’t conform to their wishes.

In writing all of this, I hope others can learn from my mistakes and thereby be of much greater benefit to others, not only now, but for lifetimes to come. We need superior intention, but it needs to be informed by wisdom.

Sticking our nose in others’ conflicts

Pretty much ever since I first started practicing Dharma, I’ve felt it was my responsibility to try help those I love get along with each other. I would often stick myself in the middle of every conflict and try resolve their differences for them. While I thought I was being the good bodhisattva, I’m increasingly realizing my motivation has largely been attachment to outer harmony and aversion to those I love being hurt by one other.

My efforts at peace making just caused them to start to expect me to solve their problems for them and use me as a weapon against the other person. This made all of our relationships dysfunctional to a degree and deprived them of the opportunity to learn how to work through things themselves. The truth is we cannot manage other people’s karma and relationships for them, and if there is delusion in our motivation, our efforts to do so will just make things worse.

Now, I’m working to resist the temptation to re-insert myself in the middle and to let go of my attachment to those I love being happy and getting along with one another. I need to focus on overcoming the delusions in my own mind and try maintain healthy relationships with everyone in my life while accepting others might not get along all the time, and that’s okay. Of course, I can encourage others to get along, but I don’t need to put myself in the middle. I can offer good advice if asked, but I should refrain from doing so if not asked. I can pray for others to heal their differences, but I need to let go of attachment to them doing so.

Understanding the Dharma is easy. Actually practicing it skillfully in daily life is hard.

The Power of Correct Belief

Every stage of the path of both Sutra and Tantra is, in the final analysis, a meditation on correct belief. Understanding what are correct beliefs and how they function is therefore of fundamental importance. For some, this post may seem very technical. But if we understand correct beliefs, I believe we can gain great confidence in our spiritual path. Gen Tharchin said, “when we understand clearly how the Dharma works to produce its effects, effort becomes effortless.”

What is a correct belief?

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la says, “the definition of correct belief is a non-valid cognizer that realizes its conceived object.” In short, a correct belief is the mental action of believing in something that exists and is true. Meditation on correct beliefs transforms them into valid cognizers which know (as opposed to merely believe) the truth of the object. Meditation is the process of familiarizing ourselves with a virtuous object. We do so through study and practice. Study and practice give us the valid reasons and personal experience which establish irrefutably the truth of the objects of our correct belief. Knowledge held by correct beliefs is correct, but vulnerable to doubts. Knowledge held by valid cognizers is also correct, but invulnerable to doubts – it knows the truth.

Before we can appreciate the power of correct beliefs, we must answer a fundamental question of how they are established. In other words, how do we know if a belief is correct or not? Ordinary beings attempt to establish truth by demonstrating something is objectively true. To be objectively true means it is true on the side of the object, and not dependent upon any subjective perception or opinion. But clearly this doesn’t work for Prasangika Buddhists who reject that anything exists on the side of the object. If nothing exists on the side of the object, then nothing can be objectively true. Understanding this can lead many people into an existential crisis – if things can’t be objectively established, then they can’t be established at all, and there is no basis for establishing anything as true. Every subjective opinion becomes equally valid, including genocidal mentalities like Hitler’s, which is a disturbing conclusion to say the least. For this reason, many people wind up rejecting the teachings on emptiness altogether because to accept them leads to terrible consequences – namely the extreme of relativism that all subjective opinions are equally valid to those who hold them.

So how do we escape this conundrum? Dharmakirti’s Commentary to Valid Cognition provides the answer. Lorig is the teachings on how to understand the mind. Lorig can be taught at many different levels depending upon one’s understanding of emptiness. Dharmakirti presents Lorig from the perspective of the Madhyamika Prasangika, or the highest view of emptiness. For modern Kadampas, the book How to Understand the Mind is our commentary to valid cognition from the Prasangika perspective.

Epistemology is the study of how truth is established. All the lower schools of Lorig establish truth on the side of the object – or objectively. The Prasangika presentation of Lorig is a philosophical Copernican Revolution in Buddhist epistemology. Prior to Copernicus, everyone thought the sun revolved around the earth. Copernicus turned all of this on its head by showing the earth revolved around the sun. In the same way, all of the lower schools attempt to establish truth on the side of the object. Prasangikas establish truth on the side of the mind. If the mind knowing an object is valid, then the object known to that mind is valid. If an object is known to be true to a Superior Being (a being who has a direct realization of ultimate truth or emptiness), then that object is established to be true. In other words, an object is true if it is known to be true by a Superior being.

But since we ourselves are not a Superior being, how are we to know what is true to them and how are we to establish what is true? In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la provides us with a compass pointing us in the direction of knowing what are valid minds (which in turn know valid objects). A valid mind is one that “leads us in the direction of purity and happiness.” In other words, truth is established by looking at the function of believing something. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of purity and happiness, then it is true. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of impurity and suffering, then it is false. Virtuous minds, by definition, are those that function to make our mind pure and peaceful. Deluded minds, by definition, are those that make make our mind impure and unpeaceful. We distinguish what is a virtuous and what is a deluded mind by looking at the function believing that mind has on our mind. If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, we call that something “virtuous.” If believing something makes our mind impure and unpeaceful, we call that something “deluded.” As both Gen Losang and Gen Tharchin often say, “what is true is simply what is beneficial to believe.” If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, it is beneficial to believe, and thus established as “true” from a Prasangika point of view. This enables us to escape from the extremes of both objectivism and relativism. Truth can be established on the side of the mind and we can say without a doubt that Hitler is wrong.

In this way, all objects of Dharma – of both Sutra and Tantra – can be established as true. They are known and taught by valid minds, and believing them moves our mind in the direction of purity and happiness.

This then begs the question “how” does believing in correct objects move our mind in the direction of purity and happiness? If we understand this, we will see the power of correct beliefs. In fact, we will see the power of the entire spiritual path since the entire path is a series of meditations on correct beliefs.

The Karma of Correct Beliefs

To understand the power of correct beliefs, we need to understand the karma we create through them. All mental actions create karma, and correct beliefs are mental actions – they are verbs, not nouns. All actions have four karmic effects: the effect similar to the cause, the tendency similar to the cause, the environmental effect, and the ripened effect.

The effect similar to the cause of a correct belief can be understood as follows. The mental action of a correct belief functions to purify the mind of the obstructions that prevent us from realizing directly the truth of that object. Because the object is in fact true and exists, when we engage in the mental action of believing it, it functions to purify our mind of everything preventing us from knowing it to be true. The analogy of the toy snake is very helpful here. If in fact a toy snake exists, the more we investigate our assumption that it is just a toy snake, the more vividly and accurately it will appear to our mind to be a toy snake until eventually we see directly and without a doubt that it is a toy snake. In contrast, the more we investigate carefully our assumption that it is a real snake, the less a real snake will appear and we will discover that despite thinking it was a real snake, we were mistaken – in fact, it is just a toy snake. The same is true for all correct beliefs. The more we investigate them with study and practice, the more they are established in our mind to be true. We transform what was a correct belief into a valid cognizer. In this way, all realizations of Sutra and Tantra are gained.

The tendency similar to the cause of correct belief is a future tendency to more naturally believe correct things. Gen Losang says, “what is natural is simply what is familiar.” When we have familiarity believing something to be true, it becomes more natural for us to believe that thing. Tendencies similar to the cause of correct beliefs are extremely helpful because we build up spiritual momentum within our mind until eventually it becomes like a locomotive barreling down the spiritual track. In space there is no friction, so if force is applied, an object moving through space will gain momentum; and once set in motion, it will keep going forever because there is no friction to ever slow it down. In the same way, the effect similar to the cause removes the karmic friction within our mind preventing us from realizing directly something is true, and the tendency similar to the cause creates self-reinforcing momentum in our mind to realize directly the correct object.

The environmental effect of a correct belief is to abide in an environment which is conducive to believing in correct things. We see this all the time in society. When we are surrounded by people who think in similar ways, we naturally start to think in the same ways – almost through osmosis. Sometimes this socialization effect can be negative – such as hanging out with gangsters – or it can be positive – such as surrounding ourselves with Sangha friends. Milarepa once said he does not need Dharma books because everything confirms the truth of Dharma for him. Why? Because he had ample environmental effects similar to the cause of correct belief ripening. His mind was positioned in such a way through the tendencies and effects similar to the cause to believe correct things that every object in his environment was conducive to him realizing directly the truth of his correct views.

The ripened effect of a correct belief is being born already validly knowing the truth of our correct view. The teachings on karma explain that the only things we take with us into our future lives are our mind and the karma we have planted on it. When highly realized beings die they are able to carry their prior Dharma understandings with them from life to life – they are simply born already having Dharma realizations. Of course there are many degrees of having a Dharma realization, from the initial understandings to yogic direct perceivers. A Buddha has realized directly the truth of all objects of Dharma, and when they are reborn, they retain their enlightened mind forever. This is the final goal of correct beliefs – to gain their ripened effects. The effects similar to the cause, the tendencies similar to the case, and the environmental effects of correct beliefs all eventually lead to the ripened effect of correct beliefs.

Seen in this way, we can understand how fundamentally the entire path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. The mental action of meditation – familiarizing ourselves with the virtuous object – creates the karma that transforms our correct beliefs into valid cognizers.

The Path as Meditations on Correct Beliefs

All our Sutra Lamrim meditations, for example, are meditations on correct beliefs. Each object of the Lamrim is a correct belief. When we contemplate, meditate on, and practice in our daily life the different Lamrim teachings, we add valid reasons and personal experience which transform correct beliefs into valid cognizers. In science, we talk about necessary and sufficient causes. In Buddhism, we talk about substantial and circumstantial causes. The substantial cause of an oak tree is an acorn; and the circumstantial causes are the water, sunlight, and rich soil. In the same way, the substantial causes of valid cognizers are correct beliefs; and our study, meditation, and daily practice of the Lamrim teachings are the circumstantial causes which transform the acorn of our correct beliefs into the oak tree of valid cognizers. Just as you can never have an oak tree without an acorn, no matter how much water, sunlight, and rich soil you add; so too we can never have valid cognizers without correct beliefs, no matter how much study, meditation, and daily practice we add. They are fundamental and foundational.

In Tantra, it is said that all we need to attain enlightenment is faith and imagination. In other words, all we need is correct belief in our pure imaginations. In Tantra, we generate ourselves, our environment, our enjoyments, and our activities into ourselves as the deity, abiding in the pure land, enjoying all things as the dance of bliss and emptiness, and engaging in the enlightened deeds of a Buddha. This is a meditation on a correct belief.

At this point, an objection can arise – how can this be a correct belief if I am not, in fact, a Buddha? Rather, it seems like this is make believe. There are two main answers to this objection. First, this objection is grasping at ourselves inherently being one thing or another from the side of ourselves. But there is nothing about us that exists from the side of ourselves – we are empty of “objective” existence, or existence on the side of the object of ourself. Second, wherever we imagine a Buddha a Buddha actually goes. So if we imagine that our body and mind (and our subtle body and mind) transform into the body and mind of the deity (and our subtle body transforms into the body mandala of the deity), then actual Buddhas enter into our imagination. They are actually there. Wherever a Buddha goes, they perform their function, which is to bestow blessings. A blessing functions to move our mind in the direction of enlightenment, gradually transforming it from an ordinary state into an enlightened state. By imagining ourself, our body, our mind, and our subtle body and mind are all Buddhas, actual Buddhas enter into us and perform their function, which is to bless our mind moving it in the direction of enlightenment. Believing ourself, our environment, our enjoyments and our deeds are completely pure is a mental action. The effect similar to the cause is to purify the obstructions on our mind to seeing ourself directly in this way. The tendency similar to the cause is to build up spiritual momentum or familiarity with seeing ourselves in this way until it becomes entirely natural. The environmental effect will be to come to see our environment as a pure land. And the ripened effect will be to be reborn as the deity in the pure land (or as a Tantric bodhisattva reborn in a pure land so as to complete one’s training). What could possibly be more important than this?

The more we read all of our Dharma books – be they of Sutra or Tantra – the more we realize in the end all of the spiritual path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. Meditating on correct beliefs is the sine qua non of spiritual practice. Or, put more poetically, it is the very heart of the spiritual path from which a thousand million blissful flowers of Dharma realizations may bloom.

Pure View as Compassionate Action

Abiding in a world without suffering right now

There is no doubt the world is hurting right now. Many of us very much want to do something to help, but are at a loss for what to do besides stay at home and perhaps say a few Tara or Medicine Buddha mantras. I would say our job right now is to quite literally construct and abide in a new world, free from all suffering. We can do this through our correct imagination. We can do this through our Tantric practice – not as some future attainment, but right here and right now. If we want to end the virus, we must end samsara.

Believing is Seeing

Sometimes people object, “yeah, it’s nice to dance with the Dakinis for a while in my mind, but when I come out of meditation, I’m right back in it. It was all a nice imagination, but the world continues to suffer and the virus continues to rage. Nothing has really changed, it’s not that much different from me watching some internal Netflix show.” This objection is completely wrong.

To understand why we first need to understand – precisely – how correct imagination works at the karmic level. Everything we perceive is a mere karmic appearance to mind. There is no samsara and there is no pure land, both are just different karmic appearances – one mistaken, one pure. But both arise from karma.

We create the karma for samsara by grasping at things existing from their own side, independently of our mind, and then living and acting as if that was true. When we do this, ALL of the karma we create is contaminated, and when that karma ripens in the future, it will manifest in the form of things that appear vividly to be existing from their own side. Then, through the force of mental habit, we will assent to these appearances believing they do in fact exist from their own side, and the cycle starts all over.

We create the karma for the pure land through believing our correct imagination. All of us are capable of generating correct imagination. We can go through the visualizations of the sadhana, and imagine all sorts of beautiful things, but we don’t really believe what we are doing, so it lacks any power. We think it is just a mental light show, and not real, and that nothing is really changing. We imagine, but we don’t believe our imagination. And we are right, if we don’t believe our imagination, then it is true, nothing is really changing.

But, if we do believe our imagination, then everything not only comes alive in our meditation, it actually works to karmically create pure worlds right here and right now. The key point is understanding that believing our correct imaginations is how we complete the karma of our mental action. If we accidentally squashed a bug, we did not complete the karma of killing because we didn’t have the intention to kill it. Our deluded intention is necessary to complete the karmic action. In the same way, believing our imaginations to be true (not inherently true, but union of the two truths true) functions to complete the karma. The same is true for the practice of taking and giving, which is really Sutra’s version of Tantra.

Creating Temporary Pure Lands

Now we might object, “OK, believing our imagination to be true functions to complete the karma, but the fruit of that karma won’t ripen until the future (otherwise effect and cause would be simultaneous) so I still haven’t actually transformed the world – everyone is still suffering.” There are three answers to this objection. First, if we have this doubt, we are not actually believing our imaginations – we are still hanging on to our doubts, so we are still not completing the karma. Second, this is still grasping at there being a world out there that exists independently of our mind. And third – and this point is subtle – if we are fully believing our correct imaginations, from the point of view of our experience, we quite literally abide in a world without suffering. Geshe-la sometimes talks about temporary emanations, such as when Lama Tsongkhapa enters into our teachers during teachings. In the same way, believing this correct imagination creates a temporary pure land.

Next, we might object, “OK, for me it creates a temporary pure land, but for everybody else, they remain stuck in samsara and the virus is still infecting people. So it is no different than you creating some happy place for yourself inside your mind, like being in a glass box while the war still ravages around us.” While it is true each one of us creates our own karma, and if others are not creating similar karma they will remain in their own karmically created samsara, this objection misses the point. First, it doesn’t matter if its “objectively true” (because nothing is), the point is the only way we can complete the karma is by fully believing it to be true without doubts. Holding onto the doubts means the karma is not completed, and so it produces few good results. Second, this objection still grasps at others’ minds as existing independently of our own. If we dreamt of somebody in a wheel chair, who put them there? Our mind. In the same way, if in our waking state, we “dream” of a world filled with disease and suffering, who put everyone there? Our mind. Others’ minds are also empty of inherent existence. The others that we normally see are the beings of our contaminated karmic dream. We can intentionally dream a different world, one in which there is quite literally zero suffering, we are the deity, and everyone else are Dakas and Dakinis.

Pulling our Head out of the Sand of Samsara

To this, we might object, “yeah, but isn’t this just burying my head in the sand, pretending there is no suffering? I will then do nothing to compassionately help those experiencing mental and physical pain.” Answering this objection is where we get to the punch line: from the point of view of tantra, pure view is compassionate action and our compassionate action is maintaining pure view. Wherever we imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes. Wherever a Buddha goes, they accomplish their function, which is to bless the minds of others. When we believe our pure view, fully and completely believe it, all of the Buddhas enter into the other person (who is just a being of our karmic dream) and transform them into a temporary pure being. We should not doubt that they are not experiencing themselves in this way because doing so is still grasping on to some part of them existing from their own side independently of our mind and depriving them of receiving Buddhas into that part of them. We should also believe that they are experiencing themselves in that way. This is the most compassionate thing we can do because through this correct imagination, the Buddhas enter into every aspect of them without residual, thus maximizing the blessings we can bestow upon them and thus the benefit they receive from our pure view.

In truth, we currently are burying our head in the sand of samsara, and Buddha is trying to pull our head out into the pure lands.

But what if they still appear to our mind to be suffering? Shouldn’t we tend to that? Yes, of course we should. This appearance of them still suffering is our residual ordinary appearance which has not yet exhausted itself. With our residual ordinary appearance of ourself we compassionately tend to the residual ordinary appearance of the other person, exactly as normal; while at the same time, with our believing ourselves to be the deity, we believe our correct imagination of them being a Daka or a Dakini. We practice the union of sutra and tantra. When we are in the meditation session, we have dissolved everything we normally see into emptiness, and every appearance is a pure one – there is no residual ordinary appearance. In the meditation break, when residual ordinary appearances arise again, we practice this layered approach of sutra and tantra simultaneously. Doing so creates the experience that we are quite literally purifying all of samsara in real time, gradually dissolving it into our pure world.

Gaining Experience in the Meditation Session

To help us gain some experience with this, it is vital that we infuse emptiness into every aspect of our Tantric sadhana practice. Sometimes we can feel like, “I never seem to practice emptiness in my tantric practice, I’m so busy with all these complex visualizations that I don’t get any deep experience of emptiness.”

We should think of the sadhana like a spiritual buffet. Different people will take different items in different portion sizes at a buffet depending upon what they hunger for and what their body needs. In the same way, different practitioners will emphasize different parts of the sadhana depending upon their needs and desires. Each time, we do all of the sadhana, but we can pause wherever we’d like for as long as we’d like to emphasize those parts that move our mind the most. Our problem is usually just an issue of not having the time to pause for long because we have to get to work, but with the present lockdowns from the virus, this is not our problem.

It seems there are two places within the sadhana where we can do a nice, long emptiness meditation to get a good feel for it: In the very beginning before we start, we can dissolve everything into emptiness, bathe in the clear light for a while, and then out of emptiness generate the appearances of the sadhana. The second, of course, is bringing death into the path to the truth body where the final object of meditation is emptiness.

We need to be careful to not confuse nothingness with emptiness. It should not feel as if nothing is arising in our mind, rather it should feel like a shocking reminder that everything we thought existed – the virus in all its horrible glory – in fact does not. As Geshe-la says all the time, “the things we normally see do not exist.” We are so convinced there is an actual reality around us, when in fact, there is nothing actually there. It has always been nothing more than mistaken appearance. This awareness protects us once again from thinking our generation stage practice is like retreating into a “safe space” within our mind like a glass box while the war ravages around us. Instead, we bring about a deep transformation of reality itself, creating a world quite literally free from all suffering.

We should view the non-emptiness meditation parts of the sadhana as training in the union of the two truths. We should see each appearance of the visualization as the dance of bliss and emptiness – never losing that feeling of emptiness we got at the beginning and at the death meditation. The union of conventional and ultimate truth is actually deeper than emptiness itself. I sometimes think of it as I looked so deep into emptiness, I found mere appearance. Each appearance is a mere karmic appearance of mind, generated through the force of my compassion, to liberate all beings.

Faith is Emptiness in Action

From my perspective, “faith is emptiness in action.” Faith, actually, makes no sense without emptiness. How could we take refuge in something that is independent of us and exists outside of us? When children blow air into soap, it creates beautiful bubbles that they take great delight in. In the same way, when we blow the pure winds of our faith into the space of emptiness, we get the pure appearances of the sadhana visualizations. When we experience it this way, every word of the sadhana comes alive as an expression of our faith.

Yes, the world we normally see is currently hurting. The question is what can we do about it? Through believing our correct imagination in this way, we can quite literally karmically reconstruct this world of sickness and suffering into a pure land in real time. Because we fully believe our pure imagination, we experience the world right now as a pure land; and through the karma we create engaging in this practice, eventually everything will directly appear to us and everyone else as completely pure. But if we are doing the practice correctly, we won’t even notice that happening because, from our perspective, we will already have been abiding in the pure lands for some time, the same as everybody else.

The Lamrim of the Coronavirus

The outbreak of the Coronavirus has the potential to be the most devastating event since World War II. The toll in human life and economic and social collapse risks being beyond a scale of anything we have seen in our lifetimes. This quite naturally gives rise to a host of delusions within our mind. The outbreak is hard enough to deal with; adding uncontrolled, unpeaceful minds into the mix will only make coping with it that much harder.

The Lamrim, directly or indirectly, is the antidote to all delusions. If we can learn how to respond to the outbreak with Lamrim minds, then instead of generating delusions, we will gain Dharma wisdom. Then, instead of it just being suffering, the outbreak will become a powerful cause of our enlightenment. Only by attaining enlightenment can we free both ourselves and others permanently from all sickness. There is no lasting solution to the sufferings of sickness and disease other than Dharma.

What follows are my thoughts on how we can use the Lamrim to overcome the delusions that arise due to the outbreak, and how the outbreak teaches us the truth of Dharma. The goal here is simple: when we think of the outbreak, we want it to lead us to some conclusion of Lamrim. Then, instead of generating delusions, the outbreak causes us to generate Lamrim minds. These are simply my personal reflections. If you have your own thoughts, please share them so we can all learn from each other.

Precious Human Life: Throughout the entire world, others are terrified of this virus, many will become extremely sick or die. They have nowhere to turn and no means to transform this into something useful. I, however, through unbelievable good fortune, have found the Kadam Dharma. I have a precious opportunity to find permanent freedom from all sickness and disease, and be able to lead others to similar freedom. I must seize this precious opportunity while I still have the chance. I may never get such an opportunity again for aeons.

Death: This outbreak came out of nowhere, and in a few short months will change the world forever. Millions may die, and I could be one of them. And even if I am not, I could die from one of countless other diseases, or even in a car accident on the way to the hospital. There is no certainty in life, and we could lose this precious opportunity to escape from samsara at any moment. I must practice Dharma right now and not waste a single moment.

Lower realms: The outbreak is giving us a glimpse of the infinite sufferings of the lower realms. The world is about to descend into a resembling hell for potentially 6 months or longer. We are being shown, first hand, what samara is really all about. If I die today, I would quite likely fall into the lower realms and experience far worse sufferings than this. I am on the precipice, and could fall at any point. I must seek refuge and purify my negative karma while I still can.

Refuge: I have infinite negative karma on my mind, any of which could cause me to get the coronavirus and fall into the lower realms. The only lasting solution to this problem is to purify my negative karma and to attain liberation and enlightenment. If I don’t, it is just a question of time before the suffering I read about becomes my own. The Dharma of Lamrim is my ultimate refuge. Only it can provide lasting protection. To prevent my mind from becoming negative, thus activating my negative karma, I need a continuous stream of Buddha’s blessings. During these dark times, it is easy to grow despondent or fearful. But my spiritual family, my Sangha friends, can help show a good example and lift me up. I must make effort to transform this outbreak into powerful lessons of Lamrim, to receive Buddha’s blessings to stay positive, and to turn to my spiritual friends for inspiration. Through reliance on the three jewels, we will not only make it through this outbreak, we will spiritually grow from it.

Karma: All suffering arises from negative karma. In my countless previous lives – and in this life – I have engaged in terrible actions which have hurt others, deceived them, and sacrificed them for my own selfish purposes. In particular, being surrounded by disease is the environmental effect of sexual misconduct. Because I have killed, I may die. Because I have stolen from others, I may not have what I need if I get sick. Because I have neglected others, I may not get proper access to medical care. I have the karma to experience all of this and more. This karma is like millions of time bombs which could explode at any point. I am careful to wash my hands, but am I even more careful about not engaging in negativity? If I don’t purify my negative karma, it is 100% guaranteed I will get the coronavirus, and far worse, in this or my future lives. It is just a question of time. If I continue to engage in negative actions, I guarantee endless future misery. Once my negative karma ripens, not even Buddha can reverse it – I’ll have no choice but to ride it out. Therefore, I must purify my negative karma before it ripens while I still can. I must stop engaging in negative actions, but instead engage in virtuous ones that will lead to happiness in this and all my future lives. Karma makes exceptions for no one.

Renunciation: Samsara is the nature of sickness. For as long as I remain in it, it is inevitable I will get the coronavirus and much worse, again and again and again. For as long as I impute my “I” onto a samsaric body, I will be subject to its sufferings, including terrible sickness. I am very afraid of getting the Coronavirus, but I should be much more afraid of remaining in contaminated aggregates, the foundation of all sickness. Even if I avoid getting the coronavirus now, it is just a question of time before I get some other sickness, which might be far worse. The only way I will find lasting freedom from all sickness is to once and for all escape from samsara. There is no other way.

Equanimity: The Coronavirus is showing me just how biased my mind is. When I think of my own family getting the virus, I become very concerned and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect them. Yet, when I read about others getting the virus, it is just a statistic I am tracking on the Johns Hopkins map. When I read about people within the Trump administration or certain political leaders I dislike possibly getting the virus, there is this ugly part of my mind that thinks they are getting what they deserve. How horrible! Yet, that is the honest truth of how unbalanced and biased my mind is. We are all equal in not wanting to suffer. These biased minds disturb my inner balance and prevent me from truly being of service to others by transforming this outbreak into a cause of enlightenment. I must develop a balanced mind, caring equally for all without partiality.

Mothers: Every single person in lockdown is my mother. So is every person who gets sick, loses their job, is working the medical front lines, is stocking my grocery store or delivering my food. So too is every person who is dying.

Remembering the kindesss of others: These people have cared for me countless times in the past when I have been sick. They have stayed up to take care of me, blown my nose, cleaned up my vomit, and exposed themselves to my illness all to take care of me. If those still working would stop, I would starve, society would collapse into roving gangs, and quite literally all hell would break loose. They are risking their lives so this does not happen. I must repay everyone’s kindness by caring for them in every way I can.

Equalizing self with others. I am extremely concerned about myself getting the virus. Because I have diabetes, I am particularly at risk of having a severe reaction. Apparently also, if there was some sort of triage where they couldn’t care for everybody, I would likely be left to die. This scares me. I am doing everything I reasonably can to avoid that happening. Yet, there is nothing about me that makes me any more important than anybody else. If there were limited hospital capacity, I would want it to go to me. Why? I’m no more important than anybody else. I should cherish each and every living being as I do for myself. We are all different cells in the body of life, and the entire body of life is being attacked by this virus. What affects one of us, impacts us all.

Dangers of self-cherishing. The only reason why I am in danger of the outbreak is because in the past, motivated by selfishness, I engaged in the negative karma that would give rise to such suffering. If medical supplies or food or other basic necessities become scarce, I feel the need to hoard what I’ve got so I don’t run out, even though it is hoarding behavior that will trigger exactly the sort of shortages I fear. But because everybody else is hoarding, if I don’t, I will have nothing. If society breaks down, it will be because everyone resorted to an “every one fend for themselves” mentality. If this gets really ugly, that is exactly what might happen. The true root cause of this outbreak and all of the negative economic, social, and political consequences the flow from it, is selfishness. Thinking only of themselves, there are people going out and risking spreading the disease to others. I must abandon completely this evil mind.

Advantages of cherishing others. As a planet, as a nation, as a community, and as a family, the only way we are going to get through all of this is if we cherish each other. This outbreak could unleash the worst of humanity, or it could give rise to the best of it. I suspect it will do a lot of both. The common denominator of the worst will be selfishness, but the common denominator of the best will be those people, families, communities, and nations that cherished others, cared for others, and protected others. In these crazy times, the best way we can cherish others is to stay in our homes and place no demands on the system unless we absolutely have to. If somebody is there for me when I need them, it will be because I cherished others in the past. If others care for me, it will be because I cared for others. All the good there is in the world today struggling to pierce through the clouds of suffering come from cherishing others. When they write the history of my mental continuum, let them say at this moment of great peril, I stood on the side of cherishing others. Even if doing so costs me my life.

Exchanging self with others. It’s simple really: I need to impute my “I” onto all others, and impute “others” onto myself. Only then will my actions become correct, only then will I stop my selfish attitudes and walk through this crisis as the enlightened beings would. Look at me, then look at them. I remain trapped in samsara, fearing for my life and perhaps that of my family, preoccupied with what is happening in this world and in different countries. I’ve been getting mad at my family, at my colleagues at work, at political leaders, looking for somebody to blame for my struggles. Yet the Buddhas remain like the sun, shining the light of their blessings into the minds of each and every living being, emanating whatever they need, encouraging us to pray, and guiding us on how to transform this pandemic into the spiritual path. What is the core difference between them and me? I am seized by selfishness and they are driven by selflessness. I must become like them and cherish only others.

Great compassion. When I think of my own suffering, I naturally generate the wish to free myself, both temporarily and permanently from all sickness and suffering. Why? Because I love and cherish myself (even my true self, my Buddha nature), I wish to free my pure potential from all suffering. On the basis of exchanging self with others, wishing all beings could enjoy everlasting freedom from all sickness, I merely need look at the world today, and compassion will naturally arise. Everyone is gripped by fear, people are struggling to breathe, many are dying. Doctors and nurses are putting their own lives on the line to save others. They are being put in impossible situations of having to decide who will live and who will die. Millions are losing their jobs, companies are going bankrupt, people’s life savings are being wiped out. And this is just the beginning of what potentially could last months or a year or more if we are unable to get this under control. In all my life, I have never felt so close to the apocalypse. Perhaps it won’t come to that, perhaps it will all blow over. But perhaps it won’t, and we stand on the brink of a truly global calamity. The truth of the matter is this is only a taste of samsara’s sufferings. Everyone we see will suffer from this and far more for as long as they remain in samsara. Doctors can help us in this life, but they cannot protect us from having to experience the sicknesses of samsara again and again and again, for time without end. I wish everyone were free from their fears, sicknesses, and sufferings. The suffering of samsara is simply too great to even imagine, and we are seeing only a glimpse of its horrors.

Taking. It is not enough for me to merely wish others were free from the sufferings of the coronavirus outbreak (and all of the other sufferings of samsara), I must do something about it. I look around me, and many people simply don’t know how to mentally process all of this, and they become gripped by fear and paralyzed by worry, feeling there is no escape. It is up to me to assume personal responsibility to be the emotional anchor for those around me. If they can’t handle it, then I need to handle it because somebody has to. This is too serious. I look out into the world and see it becoming terribly sick. Most people don’t have the experience with Dharma that I have been blessed to have. I have been given Dharma tools that enable me to transform whatever arises into the path. I might struggle at first, but I know through blessings, I will be able to do so. I’m in a much better position to take on suffering and sickness than others are, so it only makes sense that all sickness ripen on me and not them. Please, I pray from the depths of my heart, may everyone’s Coronavirus ripen on me so that no one else need suffer from it ever again. May I alone suffer all of the economic and social consequences of this outbreak so others may live in freedom and community. May all of the fear and sickness of countless beings throughout samsara ripen upon me right now so that they may know respite. May I make this prayer in all sincerity.

Wishing love. It is not enough for others to be free from sickness and suffering, they need to enjoy good health, a sense of community, and an abundance of resources and care. They need to feel that their governments and their communities will come together, protect them during the storm, and then help them rebuild afterwards. They need to find the spiritual path that leads to everlasting freedom and joy. They need to know a life free from even the name sickness. They need to experience the bliss of wisdom bodies that have the power to emanate whatever living beings require. I wish all beings could enjoy such things.

Giving. Once again, it is not enough for me to simply wish others enjoyed this sort of happiness. I can’t just wait around for somebody else to help others, I need to assume personal responsibility for the welfare of all. I have been blessed with abundance, so it is up to me to give these things to others. May whatever resources I have flow to others. May whatever love I receive fall upon others. May whatever wisdom I have gained ripen in others’ minds. May whatever opportunities I have to practice Dharma manifest in the life of others. May whatever fearlessness I experience wash over others like a refreshing wind. May I send out countless emanations into the world, spontaneously manifesting for others whatever they require. May all of their food become medicine nectars, bestowing upon them immortal vajra bodies. May the light of my love shine like an eternal sun bringing joy to all.

Bodhichitta. As much as I would want to, I currently lack the ability to take on the suffering of the outbreak and give others back eternal good health. In truth, I can barely make it through my day without getting upset at somebody because I too am worried about what is to come. My diabetes makes me extremely limited in what I can do without exposing myself and potentially risking my precious human life. In truth, for as long as I remain in samsara, I am basically useless to others. If I want to help others, take on their suffering, give them back enlightenment, then I myself need to do whatever it takes to become a Buddha. I need to dedicate my life sincerely to the spiritual path because only it provides a lasting solution for those I love. Otherwise, I will just be swept away like everyone else, and they will have no hope. But if I become a Buddha, I will become untouchable by sickness. Even if my emanations appear to die from such sicknesses, in truth, I will never have left the pure land and can emanate some more. By becoming a Buddha, I can emanate pure lands where beings can take rebirth in safety, receive Dharma instructions, purify their subtle bodies, and themselves become Buddhas. Slowly but surely, we can empty samsara. I must do this. What other choice do I have?

Tranquil Abiding. My mind is completely distracted by the outbreak. Throughout the day, I am reading articles, checking up on the statistics, going through my facebook feed, and other things. If I am not careful, the more I consume information about the impending suffering of the world, the more distraught I may become, and the more irritable and useless I will become. Something is a distraction only if it is not thinking about Dharma. If every time I think about the outbreak it gives rise to a Dharma mind, then learning about the outbreak won’t be a distraction, instead it will be a fuel for my practice. While fantastic, even that is not good enough. If I am to realize my bodhichitta wish, I need to bring my mind completely under control. When I sit down to meditate, I need to fully absorb myself in my prayers and self-generation practice. If I don’t, I will never make the progress I need to make; but if I do, I can swiftly move along the path and put myself in a position to help others. They say time is of the essence in addressing the pandemic, that actions now have huge implications down the road by cutting down the exponential rate of growth. The same is true with us attaining enlightenment. The longer we take, the more living beings will suffer. The more distracted we allow ourselves to become, the longer it will take for us to accomplish our spiritual goals. We owe it to others to concentrate fully, without any distractions.

Superior seeing. Ultimately, this outbreak and the world in which it is happening is just a contaminated appearance to mind. It is a bad dream, but one we are trapped in. There is no permanent escape from the virus in the dream, the only lasting solution is to wake up from it. None of this is real, but we nonetheless suffer from it because we believe it is. When we connect with the emptiness of a phenomena, we purify the contaminated karma giving rise to its appearance. In ultimate truth, there is no coronavirus, there is no pandemic, there is no economic collapse, there is no political upheaval, none of it. Just emptiness – all of one equal taste in great bliss. We may not be doctors or nurses on the front lines, but all of us can meditate on the emptiness of all of this for the sake of the whole world, and thereby help purify the contaminated karma giving rise to it all. By realizing emptiness, we will be able to ourselves escape from samsara, build our pure land, and then be in a position to provide lasting refuge for all living beings. With emptiness, everything is possible.

Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide. If it were not for my spiritual guide, I would not even know of these Lamrim minds, much less have the opportunity to realize them. I, like everyone else, would be a leaf blown around from one suffering to another by the winds of karma. But with my guru’s blessings, I can accomplish anything. I can transform the arising of the coronavirus into a powerful cause of my enlightenment. Through his blessings, even if I get the virus myself and ultimately die from it, I will be able to transform that experience into the path. All around me, people are scared and suffering in different ways. I am completely incapable of helping them, I don’t know what to say to help, and am sometimes barely able to hold things together myself. Yet, by bringing my guru into my heart, he can act through me. His words and become my words. His thoughts can become my thoughts. I can completely get out of the way and let him work through me in this world. Geshe-la is in all of us, and he wants to help this world in its hour of need. How can he do so? Through all of us. We can become an extension of his body, speech, and mind in this world. Through practicing his Dharma, we can move our mind into his pure land from where we can help all being forever. Geshe-la, I beg you, please remain in my heart forever. Guide me through this. Help me know how I can be of service. Reveal to me the paths I should follow. Bestow upon me the wisdom I need. Touch my heart with your love for all beings.

Dedication. May all those who read this become free form all fear, sickness, suffering, and death. May all of the suffering in the world ripen solely on me, and may all others enjoy the bliss of Keajra. May every time we think of the outbreak and its aftermath remind us all of the truth of Dharma and the wisdom of the Lamrim. In this way, may all beings find eternal health.

How to Transform the Coronavirus Outbreak into the Spiritual Path

“Milarepa said that he regarded everything that appeared to his mind as a Dharma book. All things confirmed the truth of Buddha’s teachings and increased his spiritual experience.” – Joyful Path of Good Fortune

For the last several months, China and much of East Asia have been dealing with the Coronavirus outbreak. There was hope, at first, that the virus could be contained, but most public health experts now believe that is impossible. It is now breaking out in Europe, North America, and most significantly in developing countries that lack sufficient public health infrastructure or administrative means to contain it. Some have said the spring and summer heat will kill it, but they forget there is a Southern Hemisphere, where our summer is their winter. While nobody has a crystal ball, all reliable sources point to one conclusion – the Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is technically called, is now and will remain for the foreseeable future a fact of modern life.

The question we must ask ourselves is how can we transform this into the spiritual path Milarepa-style? As Kadampa’s, we may not be able to stop the spread of the virus (though we need to do our part), but we can use the Dharma wisdom we have been taught to help stop the spread of delusions associated with this outbreak. The nurses and doctors who are heroically on the front lines of the virus outbreak should be our role models. The difference is we as spiritual practitioners need to be the first-responders to the arguably more dangerous outbreak – mass delusions. At worst, the virus can kill us only in this life, but the delusions people are generating towards this virus will harm us in this and in all of our future lives. Delusions are the true pandemic.

Countering Mass Delusions

Transforming this outbreak into the spiritual path for ourselves is vital – more on that below. But let’s first talk about how to help others swept away by mass delusions – specifically irrational fear and racism. All delusions function in the same way – they mentally project a mistaken reality, and then we relate to that mistake projection as if it were actually true. Countering delusions – others’ or our own – is the essence of the Bodhisattva’s way of life. The outbreak is triggering mass delusions, delusions only function is to harm, and we need to become part of the solution.

Irrational Fear

Planet-wide, it is no exaggeration to say people are freaking out. Human psychology is not individual rational actors, but rather the mentality of a herd. It is very easy to be swept away by the herd. Fear can be divided into two types – rational and irrational. It is perfectly rational to fear delusions, negative karma, samsaric rebirth, and even solitary peace. These things can genuinely hurt us and others and are the deep causes of all of our suffering. Irrational fears are misplaced fears – fear of something we don’t need to fear. The reality is on the aggregate, the total human suffering from delusions about the Coronavirus FAR EXCEEDS the suffering from the virus itself. Delusions are the real virus.

Let me be clear in my meaning here. I’m not saying we should not fear the virus or take the necessary precautions advised by experts. This virus has the potential to be a global catastrophe. Experts are now estimating that if we do nothing, somewhere between 30%-70% of the global population will get the virus. Globally, that’s between two and five billion people, with between 200 and 500 million deaths worldwide. This has the potential to be as devastating as a major war. But humanity is not doing nothing, people are acting to minimize the spread, and we should encourage everybody to do everything experts are advising. Externally, we need to act exactly as normal and take this thing as seriously as we would a mobilization for a major war. Before a hurricane, it is calm and skies are clear. That is when we need to prepare. Once the storm hits, it’s too late. If we all do what we are supposed to do externally, we can mitigate enormously the impacts of all of this, and possibly escape with relatively minimal overall impacts.

What I’m saying is the bigger pandemic is the delusions humanity generates in response to this crisis. Doing what is externally required of us is good, but not good enough. As Kadampas, we need to deal with the inner outbreak of delusions.

The short version is while we should externally do what we can to avoid getting the virus, internally we should not fear it. We can take precautions without delusions. Aversion mentally projects some external thing to be a cause of our suffering, exaggerates its harmfulness, and then relates to that exaggerated projection as if it were true. Typically, aversions can be countered by rational explanations, deflating the exaggeration, and presenting a more balanced view of the situation. Here, the analogy of the toy snake is particularly useful. If it is dark and we are not looking too closely, it is possible we can see a snake on the path, and be seized by strong fear. But then, when we look more closely, we realize it is a toy snake, and our fear subsides. Even though in fact there was not ever an actual snake there, one nonetheless appeared vividly to our mind and we generated real emotional fear. The truth of the situation didn’t matter. But when presented with new information realizing it was just a toy snake, our fear went away. Right now, when people think about the prospects of getting the virus, they see a real snake; when we know we can transform it into the path, we realize it is a toy snake. The virus is still the virus, but our fear of it goes away.

In the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak, especially when we consider some transmission occurs even if the person does not have a fever or other symptoms, we start to mentally project everyone around us is infected and every surface we touch is covered with the virus. It can get to the point where we feel like going outside is just dangerous, like the whole world is filled with gaseous disease. Every time we see somebody wearing a mask, it then reinforces our fear that the virus is everywhere. This is our toy snake. In actual fact, statistically speaking, very few people actually have the virus – at present at least, this could change very quickly if people do not take the necessary precautions – and almost none of the surfaces we encounter are dangerous. But danger appears vividly to our mind, and we relate to these projections as if they were actually true and become seized by fear.

This is not to say nobody is infected and no surfaces are dangerous, just that what appears to our mind is not reliable and much of our fear is exaggerated and irrational. As we become aware of these facts, just like realizing it is a toy snake, the majority of our exaggerated fears will subside and we can deal with the situation in a balanced way. What is a balanced way? Externally, we take every precaution experts advise; internally, we learn to patiently accept whatever arises.

But what if we get sick? Shouldn’t we fear that? First of all, not all sickness is the Coronavirus. We have gotten colds and flus our whole life, and it could be just that – a cold or a flu. No big deal. Second, not all infections of the Coronavirus are fatal – experts put the mortality rate at between 0.025% and 1.5%. Young people seem to not be too affected, but older people are dying at much higher rates. The overwhelming majority of cases will be no different than any other flu people get. Not pleasant, but perfectly endurable and survivable. Some people have been infected and showed no symptoms whatsoever – it simply passed through them with barely a blip. But for vulnerable populations, it is a real risk. Regardless, whatever happens, our job is to transform it into the path by responding to it with wisdom and compassion.

Samsara is the nature of sickness. It is an unavoidable part of human life. We transform it into the spiritual path like we do any other sickness we might get. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer strike people all of the time. We will inevitably get sick many times in our life, and likely die of some sickness. It is just a question of when and which sickness. Sickness itself is a fact of samsara, whether it is a problem for us or a blessing depends upon whether we transform its arising into the path.

In many respects, it’s almost better to just assume now we will get the virus. That way we can mentally begin to accept it and start thinking about how we will transform it into the path. When we see how we will do so, our fear will subside. This does not mean we should not still take all the normal precautions to avoid getting it, it just means we accept even if we do get it – even if we die from it – it will not be a problem because spiritually we will grow from it. By staring into the worst case scenario and realizing it need not be a problem for us, our fears will subside. Wisdom brings fearlessness. We only fear that which harms us, but if we can transform everything into something that spiritually helps us, we have nothing to fear.

Racism

Exotic diseases that start out in foreign places leads to a natural fear of unknown others. In today’s political climate, so-called political “leaders” are none too happy to stoke racist fears of immigrants and others for their own narrow political gain. “We need to ‘keep them out’ because they are all ridden with disease,” is a popular refrain. As long as we allow irrational fear to remain in our mind, we make ourselves susceptible to becoming ensnared in racist tropes. We may even begin propagating them ourselves, thinking we are keeping people safe. Long after the Coronavirus has left the front pages, the racism will remain. It is far more destructive to human society than the virus itself, and if we are not careful, we too can become part of the problem. There is no wall strong enough to keep out microscopic germs. The germs themselves don’t care what race anybody is. We have a responsibility to push back against racist exploitation of human illness.

How to Transform the Outbreak for Ourselves

Having looked carefully at the mass delusions of irrational fear and racism, how can we ourselves transform the outbreak into the spiritual path? Transforming some difficulty into the path does not make the difficulty go away, it just makes it spiritually useful. If the difficulty can become a powerful cause of our own or others’ enlightenment, then on-net from a spiritual point of view, the difficulty becomes a good thing, it becomes rocket fuel for spiritual growth.

How would Milarepa look at all of this?

First, and most obviously, the outbreak is a good lesson in karma. Some people get it and others don’t. Of those who get it, some die and others don’t. Why the difference? It’s the same as why some people die in a plane crash and others don’t – it’s a question of what karma do we have and what karma is ripening. We all have the karma to get the Coronavirus and countless other diseases. Karma is the deep cause. If you don’t want to get the virus or any other sickness, then apply effort to purify your negative karma. Further, negative minds activate negative karma, positive minds activate positive karma, and pure minds activate pure karma. So just as we are careful to wash our hands and not touch our face, so too we should be careful to not let our mind become negative, because that is how we activate the karma of ourselves possibly getting sick.

Second, use the outbreak to strengthen your renunciation. The only reason why we get sick is because we are still identifying with contaminated samsaric aggregates that get sick. Humans experience human suffering because they identify with human bodies and minds. We might be able to avoid catching the Coronavirus, but for as long as we remain in contaminated aggregates, we will inevitably get and possibly die from some sickness. The only long-term sustainable solution to sickness is to escape from samsara once and for all.

Third, we can use this as an opportunity to practice cherishing others. Even if we ourselves are not likely to die from this because we are not part of a vulnerable population, we can still become a carrier of the disease and inadvertently infect somebody else who is vulnerable. So we should all be careful as an act of cherishing others. We can help people who are afraid by presenting things in a balanced way and showing them how they can transform it into the path if they ever did get sick, or we can teach them about the nature of samsara. If we come to know people who have gotten sick, we can care for them and help them (while of course protecting ourselves from getting sick as well). The possibilities for cherishing others are limitless when surrounded by suffering.

Fourth, we can use the outbreak to increase our compassion. Look at how much suffering there is – both physically from the virus and mentally from the anxiety – in the world as a result of the outbreak. Think of all of the other sicknesses there are circulating throughout the world. All samsaric beings are, in effect, being cooked in a giant stew of disease. None of us can escape it for as long as we remain in samsara. And this will go on and on and on for eternity until we stop it. Sometimes considering such a state of affairs can make us extremely sad and depressed. But this only happens because we lack sufficient faith that there is a solution. Through reliance on the three jewels, we can eventually help all beings escape once and for all from all sickness. Seeing their suffering will still be unbearable, but instead of dragging us down, it will energize us to realize the solution. This is not a game. Outbreaks such as this can help shatter our complacency in our Dharma practice, and become the forcing action to start to actually get serious about progressing along the spiritual path. What other solution is there? In this way, the outbreak becomes a powerful cause of our bodhichitta, and through that, we will eventually gain the ability to help each and every living being find everlasting freedom from all sickness. If only one practitioner generates a qualified bodhichitta as a result of this outbreak, and that bodhichitta eventually leads to their enlightenment, then on the aggregate we can say the outbreak will have resulted in more good than harm. Now imagine thousands of Kadampas develop such a bodhichitta. This outbreak could mark the turning point in the spiriutal fate of millions. Whether it does depends entirely upon us.

In Universal Compassion, Geshe-la explains the practice of taking and giving is the essence of transforming adverse conditions into the path, or Lojong practice. If we ourselves discover irrational fear or racism in our mind, we can imagine that we are taking on all the irrational fear and racism of everyone in this world and the fear and racism in our own mind is that which we have taken on. Then, we use our Dharma wisdom to overcome it within our own mind, and then give back our fearlessness and universal love. Taking on our own future or others’ suffering is one of the most powerful methods for overcoming our fears. This courageous mind willing to take on others suffering so they don’t have to experience it eradicates our selfishness and, paradoxically, actually purifies the negative karma that could possibly cause us to get sick in the first place. Likewise, we can mentally imagine we take on everyone’s Coronavirus and give them back immortal vajra bodies free from all sickness. We need not fear practicing taking, we should fear not practicing it and remaining burdened by our negative karma.

The outbreak is also an excellent opportunity to train in Tantra. Tantric practice, fundamentally, is a method for creating pure worlds. It is not enough to just wish to escape from samsara and sickness, Tantra is our spiritual method for constructing alternative pure realities. Heruka and Vajrayogini never get sick because their bodies are made of wisdom light. There is no sickness in Keajraland because there is no karmic basis for it to arise. China may be able to build a new hospital in 10 days, but once built, people still die from sickness within it. Through our Tantric practice, we can generate spiritual field hospitals where all of the doctors are emanations of Medicine Buddha and all of the medicine is pure healing nectar. We can purify the deep contaminated karma giving rise to worlds of sickness and replace them with charnel grounds in which all appearances teach the truth of Dharma. The body mandala deities of Heruka and Vajrayogini are the supreme nurses who can purify the subtle bodies and minds of all beings, resulting in a permanent healing of all sickness. Such results might not be instantaneous, but if we are persistent with our effort, they are guaranteed. There is no need to give in to hopelessness and despair, the solutions lay at our feet. We need merely pick them up and use them and never give up until all beings know everlasting freedom.

Whether this outbreak is a cause of mass delusion and pernicious racism depends, fundamentally, upon all of us. We each have a responsibility to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Dharma wisdom shows us how. We cannot control how others think, but we can control how we react to the outbreak. If we do the right things for long enough, this world will get better. Ultimately, this outbreak is a powerful lesson in the truth of Dharma and a unique opportunity for us to supercharge our spiritual life. If we succeed in transforming the outbreak into the spiritual path, all of the suffering associated with it will not have been for naught. We can make it meaningful, and indeed spiritually beneficial for the world. Now, the ball is in our court. The only question that remains is what will we do with our opportunity?

How to accept depression, anxiety, and mental illnesss

Depression is not fun. But it need not be a “problem.” Mental illness in general arises when our deluded mental habits become chronic, often leading to our mind – and even our body or nervous system – becoming injured. Often, there is some external trigger, such as an abusive childhood or some extreme emotional trauma from life events. Some people, for a variety of karmic reasons, carry even a genetic legacy making them more prone to mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and so forth. In any case, it is not our fault that our mind reacts to adverse life events in deluded, negative ways. Nobody intentionally becomes deluded, rather delusions just arise uncontrolledly as our habitual response to difficult circumstances. The good news is we can learn to change our mental habits, and our current mental state gives us a great opportunity to train in doing so. But we will not be able to do so unless we first learn to patiently accept our current situation. To “accept” in Dharma terms means “to be at peace with how things are.” Things are as they are, and from a spiritual point of view, this is not a “problem” for us.

Unfortunately, there is tremendous mental stigma associated with mental illness. Society seems to accept physical illness, such as the flu, a broken leg, or cancer; but it judges mental illness as some sort of personal failure. We then internalize this stigma, and begin to judge ourselves, viewing ourself as a failure because we are not well. Excuse my French, but this is just bullish*t! Samsara is the nature of sickness, and if truth be told, all physical sickness actually arises from mental sickness from either this or previous lives. Mental sickness happens, just as physical sickness does. It is not our fault, and it is not a personal failure. Society is simply wrong, and we should ignore the views of the ignorant.

Before we get to how to accept our depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, first two words about medications: take them! Geshe-la is very clear about a Kadampa practitioner’s relationship with traditional medicine, doctors, etc. If we have a headache, we take an aspirin just like everybody else, and then we practice patient acceptance while we wait for it to take effect. When we suffer from strong depression, etc., we are sometimes so impacted we are simply unable to “practice Dharma.” Medications help put us back into a zone where we can once again train our mind, and then we use the Dharma we have learned to work through the rest. We should view our medications as karmic emanations of Medicine Buddha and strongly believe they have the power to heal our mind. If we are to transform our ordinary food into medicine nectar, then surely we should transform our medications in the same way. Similarly, we should see our doctors, talk with our psychologist, and take the time to rest exactly as normal.

Healing our mind from depression and anxiety takes time. It is during this time that we need to practice patient acceptance. I find there are three main obstacles to accepting our current state: hopelessness, fear, and impatience wanting it all to be over.

Hopelessness primarily arises because either we assume our current state will last forever or we lack confidence in our capacity to make it to the other side. Hopelessness causes us to think our efforts to get better will fail no matter what, so we give up even trying. Hopelessness quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. First of all, nothing is permanent. Everything is constantly changing, and as they say, “this too shall pass.” Second, the laws of karma are definite. If we create good causes for long enough, we will get better. Finally, all of us are destined to eventually reach enlightenment, the only question is when. So whether it is soon or in a future life, it is definite we will make it to the other side. Giving in to hopelessness is not only self-defeating, it is factually wrong.

Being mentally ill can give rise to all sorts of fear. It can be very scary when, as a result of depression or other mental illness, we lose our normal mental capacities. We fear it might be permanent or we fear something going wrong and not being able to deal with it. This can then lead to anxiety, which can become generalized, leading to a further erosion of our mental capacities in a vicious cycle. How can we overcome this? First, we need to remember our pure potential is indestructible. It is our Buddha nature, and it lies within all of us. No matter how terrifying the storm clouds, the sky always remains untouched. Second, our mind being ill gives us countless opportunities to apply effort to heal it, so our current illness is rocket fuel for our spiritual development and karma. Third, we can use our temporary state to develop compassion for those going through aging, whose loss of capacity is irreversible, at least in this life. Fourth, we can use our current state as an opportunity to practice taking – either taking on our own future suffering now, or taking on others’ suffering similar to what we are going through. The practice of taking is one of the most powerful means of purifying the negative karma giving rise to our current difficulties.

Sometimes when we have been mentally ill for a long time, we can become impatient wishing it was all over. People who suffer form physical sickness or injury often develop similar impatience. If we indulge this mind and allow ourselves to become impatient with our recovery, we will not speed up our getting better, we will simply make ourselves more miserable along the way. The bottom line is we have no way of knowing if our current state will last only a couple of weeks or a couple of years. This too, we must learn to accept. How? Faith in Dorje Shugden. Dorje Shugden is a wisdom Buddha who blesses our mind with the ability to see how our situation is in fact perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment. In this way, nothing is an obstacle and everything is helpful to our spiritual development. We can think of our convalescence period as a special form of spiritual retreat where we can work on our mind. We don’t know how long it will last, but we do know it is exactly what we need and we are protected. Anybody who has done long retreat knows it is not bliss, rainbows, and unicorns; rather it is more like hard work cleaning out the grime in the deepest recesses of our mind. It can be quite unpleasant, but we know it is only by doing a deep cleaning that we will be able to enjoy a lasting freshness and purity.

In conclusion, while depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses may be “unpleasant to go through,” from a spiritual perspective, they are a good thing. We need to embrace them in this way. If we accept our circumstance, we will no longer experience it as “suffering.” It will still be there, we will just experience it differently. We will experience it as deep healing of our mind.

Looking in the Mirror of Dharma: Understanding how negativity functions in our mind

Many people make New Year’s resolutions, but it is not long before their good intentions are forgotten or overwhelmed by their negative tendencies. On the surface, it may appear that our mind is relatively free from negativity and for the most part we lead a morally healthy life, but we should not fool ourselves. When we lift the surface rock, we discover underneath all sorts of mental cockroaches or other disgusting creatures bustling about. Our normal reaction is to quickly put the rock back down and run away, but this just leaves the negativity to fester. We cannot bring impurity with us into the pure land, and we must eventually leave all negativity behind. If we are to once and for all root out the negativity from our mind, we need to have the courage to stare into the abyss of our mind and understand clearly how our negativity functions.

The heart of the matter is we are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to do what we desire. At present, we still have negative desires, so it is inevitable we will eventually act upon them. The solution is not will power, because if we still desire negativity and simply use will power to hold ourselves back, eventually our defenses will be worn down and we will succumb. Someone once said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done so at least a dozen times.” The only lasting solution is to change our desires, where we genuinely do not want to engage in negativity and we want to engage in virtue. If this is our desire, our actions will naturally follow. The main function of the Lamrim is to change our desires from negative to positive, from ordinary to spiritual. But this takes time. The question is how do we manage the transition when we have mixed desires – some negative and some virtuous? To answer this, we must have a clear and honest understanding of how negativity functions in our mind. Only then can we dismantle the mechanisms of negativity within our mind.

Gaining the ability to look in the Mirror of Dharma

Why do we find it so hard to look objectively at our negativity? It seems there are three main reasons. First, we don’t think what we are doing is negative, so we don’t find a problem with our behavior. Second, our pride refuses to acknowledge our mistakes because doing so would challenge our exalted view of ourselves. And third, for a variety of cultural reasons, we have internalized an ethic of guilt that beats ourselves up when we make mistakes, and being beat up hurts (even when we do it to ourselves).

To overcome these three obstacles, we need to engage in this investigation like a scientist. We need to objectively investigate any discrepancies between what the Dharma explains as negative and what we think is negative. We need to check if we are right and under what circumstances we are wrong. If we don’t know a behavior as negative, we won’t abandon it. We also need to objectively examine our own behavior and see how it stacks up against what is prescribed in the Dharma. Sometimes our downfalls are obvious – even epic – sometimes, they are very subtle. We need to be honest with ourselves, not exaggerating our negativity, but also not rationalizing it away as nothing. Perhaps most importantly, we need to stop blaming ourselves or judging ourselves for our mistakes. When we beat ourselves up with guilt, we reduce our confidence berating ourselves as an idiot for having engaged in the negativity, etc., or we feed a self-perception of being a failure, which undermines our ability to succeed next time. Just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean that we are bad. In the Dharma there is no bad, there is only good and even better. Just because there is something even better doesn’t mean we are failing, it simply means we have further room to grow.

Pride and guilt in particular are a dangerous combination. Our pride causes us to expect perfection from ourselves, or at the very least, it expects us to already be better than we are; but our guilt then beats ourselves up for any deviation from these expectations for ourselves. Trapped between pride and guilt, we cannot win and are never good enough – we are not as good as our pride expects us to already be and then our guilt makes us feel like a horrible person for not living up to these unrealistic expectations. This can get so bad, even looking at the negative tendencies in our mind can trigger some sort of breakdown. Because all delusions exaggerate, our pride exaggerates how good we should already be, and our guilt exaggerates our departures from our self-imposed expectations. We then see the negativity, feel we “should” already not be like that, and our guilt then judges us as a total incompetent failure incapable of confronting, much less overcoming our negative tendencies. We then see only our total incapacity in front of a monumental problem, leaving us with the feeling we are hopelessly doomed.

The solution to this trap is we need to have compassion for ourselves (otherwise known as renunciation). We have inherited aeons worth of negative tendencies, and swimming upstream against them is not easy. We do not need to already be better than we are, rather we are where we are at and we simply take the next right step. Negative tendencies will arise in our mind and mistakes will be made, but we never give up, and with persistent effort, step by step, we will definitely get there in the end. This is the mind of definite emergence – a deep feeling of joy knowing we are definitively on our way out and all of our suffering will soon come to a final end. We will emerge on the other side into an infinite expanse of permanent inner freedom from all suffering. The mind of definite emergence knows if we never give up, we will inevitably succeed.

Renunciation, I believe, is one of the hardest minds for Westerners to generate because we instantly interpret it through the lens of aesthetic-style deprivation of any joy and self-flagellating judgment and guilt. In truth, renunciation means self-care or true self-love. The difference between the self-love of the narcissist and the self-love of renunciation is the former loves our non-existent self of our ignorance and the later loves our true self or our pure potential. My wife once got sick with pneumonia, and she was beating herself up over it because she wasn’t able to take care of her five children at home that needed her. We wrote Geshe-la requesting his prayers, and he wrote back telling her, “you should take care of your self so that you can get better.” What a perfect description of the balanced mind of renunciation.

Stages of the path to negative actions

Having hopefully gained the ability to look honestly (and happily) at the negative tendencies in our mind, we can now examine how they function.

Downfalls almost always begin with an impulse to engage in negativity. We have within our mind countless negative tendencies from our past lives to think, speak, or act in negative ways. We have spent the vast majority of our eternity in the lower realms where we engaged in almost exclusively negative actions. It is said it is easier to attain enlightenment once born human than to be born human once we have taken rebirth in the lower realms. Why? Because while we are there, virtually all of our actions are negative. These tendencies tempt us now to once again engage in negativity. If left unchecked, these desires grow and grow until they become unstoppable.

As they grow, we first rationalize why our negative desire isn’t really that negative. We might come up with some sort of justification for why we “deserve” to engage in the negativity, as if it was some sort of reward for our good behavior or as compensation for some past injustice we have experienced. To paraphrase Shantideva, we run towards negativity as if it were a pleasure garden and avoid virtue as if it were the plague. Why? Because we are still fundamentally confused about what are the causes of our happiness and suffering. In Request to the Lord of All Lineages, Geshe-la says, “the cause of suffering is non-virtuous actions and the cause of happiness is virtuous actions. Since this is completely true, I will definitely abandon the first and practice the second.”

While the negative desire is building in our mind, we will also find ways of minimizing the consequences of the negativity. “It’s not really that bad,” we convince ourself. Typically, we will only consider the immediate consequences, such as the contaminated happiness we might get from engaging in the negativity against the likelihood of getting caught or others finding out what we have done. There will definitely be times when we can “get away with” our negativity and nobody will ever know, so we think, “why not?” But we can never escape our karma – its laws are definite. We might think to ourselves, “who am I hurting?” Finding nobody, we then think it is OK, but we are forgetting about how it is hurting ourselves. Is the short-lived pleasure or benefit we are likely to get from our negative action worth it when we consider the long-run karmic consequences? Surely not, but we don’t really believe in karma that much anyways, and besides, we wrongly think, we can always engage in purification afterwards, so once again, “why not?” If we don’t think our action was wrong, we can’t generate genuine regret; and without regret, we cannot actually purify. Purification is not complete without the power of the promise, but if we think we can always purify later so it doesn’t matter if we engage in negativity, our “promises” lack any power and no purification will actually take place.

As our negative desires continue to build, at some point, we make the decision that we will engage in the negativity, but we will then try find ways of minimizing how negative it will be. “I’ll just do it this once,” or “I’ll only do this, but not that.” We then start rationalizing how that would be OK and not so bad, and eventually we execute on our negative plan. Whether this process from the initial impulse to the final deed is a matter of weeks, hours, or mere seconds, we almost always go through these stages.

Post-negativity self-deceptions

Once we engage in the negative action, it almost never works out in the way we hoped. We didn’t get the reward or benefit we were hoping for. At this point, usually one of two things happens. Either, we start to beat ourselves up about what a terrible, stupid person we are for having engaged in the negativity, and we go down the path of guilt thinking our punishing ourselves will somehow deter us from engaging in negativity in the future. But guilt never works because it erodes our capacity and confidence. Or we start to identify why we didn’t get the reward we were hoping for, and we start to plot how we can be more skilled in our negativity next time so that we do. We think, “I have already started down this path and got nothing, I want to at least get something out of it,” so we double-down on our negativity and start planning for next time. In this way, we start to chase the rainbow of our negativity until we eventually fall off a cliff into the lower realms. This is actually the most dangerous aspect of engaging in negative actions – each time we do so, we create the tendencies to do so again. Our checks on our behavior grow weaker and weaker until eventually there are no checks at all.

After we have engaged in the negativity, we will start to get flashbacks recalling what we have done. Our negative actions are often like ghosts that haunt us by reminding us of our transgressions. At such times, we engage in all sorts of evasive tactics. For example, we will just look the other way and shove it back under the carpet pretending it isn’t there. Or we will rationalize to ourselves why the negative action wasn’t that bad and it is no big deal. Or we start to beat ourselves up with guilt. Or we give in to hopelessness, thinking we will never be able to get out of our negativity, so why bother trying anymore. We might as well enjoy ourselves with our negativity since we can’t escape it. Or we revert to “will power” trying to consolidate our iron-clad determination to not do that negative action again, even though we still “want” to do so. All of these tactics inevitably fail. The worst of these is giving in to hopelessness, because then, quite obviously, we have no hope.

Or perhaps we genuinely do feel regret for our negative action, realize it was a mistake, understand its karmic consequences, and really don’t want to engage in the negative action again. But we grasp at our negative actions and karma as being inherently existent and immune from purification. We think our actions are so bad and our purification practice so weak and insincere, that it won’t ever be purified. We have total faith in the laws of negative karma, but none in the power of purification. This can then quickly lead to despair, hopelessness, and guilt. Worse, it can lead to us not even trying to purify, because “what’s the point, it won’t work anyways.”

Seeing all of our negativity and how it functions in our mind can very easily lead to us feeling discouraged, thinking it is simply too hard to overcome our delusions and negative habits. We then can conclude the spiritual path is just too hard, and we settle for some vague self-commitment to generally be a good person. Or perhaps we give up on the path altogether or find another spiritual path which seems less demanding. When we are at this stage, it is easy to develop negative views towards the three jewels, thinking they are judging us or punishing us or rejecting us. At such times, all of the hypocrisies and shortcomings of our Sangha friends and teachers become quite vivid. They are judging me, but look at what they are doing! What they are doing is far worse, yet nothing ever happens to them. This whole tradition is a big sham full of spiritual phonies. It’s not enough for me to just leave this evil tradition, I need to tear it down to “protect” others from being ensnared by it.

Let me spare everyone the surprise: we are all the same. We are all hypocrites and we are all making one mistake after another. But that is not a reason to abandon the path, that is a valid reason for redoubling our efforts to practice it purely and skillfully. The teachings themselves are flawless, it is our ability to practice them that is flawed. But that is entirely normal! We are practitioners, not Buddhas. Of course we are making mistakes. It doesn’t matter what mistakes others are making, it doesn’t even matter what mistakes we are making. All that matters is that we are learning from every mistake that appears to our mind. If we do, then no matter what appears, we will learn and grow. Our job is not to change others or expose their hypocrisies, our job is to change ourselves and overcome our own. But we need to be patient with ourselves, understanding this will take time. When we are patient with ourselves, then we will learn to be patient with others’ imperfections as well. But here too lies a potential trap. We think, “slowly, slowly, try my best,” but we understand this to mean I don’t really have to change, I can just keep telling myself I am trying my best when in reality I’m not really doing anything.

Cutting the power of negativity in our mind

So how do we escape all of the above? What is the solution to all of this? In the end, each wrong turn described above comes from believing our delusions. Our delusions tempt us, rationalize, beat us up, or leave us discouraged. But they are all lies. The solution here is simple: see through the lies of our deluded tendencies. We need to make a clear distinction between the arising of a deluded tendency in our mind and the mental action of a delusion. A deluded tendency is the ripening of a past karma in our mind that causes us to think in a particular way. A new mental action of a delusion only occurs when we assent to or believe the lies of the deluded tendency. In other words, deluded tendency + belief = delusion. If instead when our deluded tendencies arise we use our wisdom to see through their lies and we identify clearly their deception, then the power of that deluded tendency over us is cut. The deluded tendency is still there, but it has no power. In other words, deluded tendency + disbelief = moral discipline. Slowly but surely we break the hold our deluded tendencies have over us until eventually we are no longer their puppet. They flail about, but we remain not just unmoved, but un-fooled. Christians say the “devil” works through deception. He tricks us into believing that following him will lead to some happiness. We break his hold over us by no longer being fooled by his deceptions. This is exactly correct, we merely need to replace “devil” with “delusion” and the meaning is the same.

When we find ourselves being haunted by our negative actions in the way explained above, view it as an opportunity to once again engage in purification for the negative action. We generate a sincere regret, we rely upon the three jewels, we engage in some virtuous action as an antidote, and we renew our promise to not go down that road again recognizing it as – quite literally – the highway to hell. Our particularly strong negative actions may haunt us for many years, but that’s OK, each time they do, we again engage in purification practice. Eventually, they will haunt us no more.

It takes great courage to honestly admit our negativity. We don’t have to go around and publicly declare everything we have ever done wrong, but we do have to be honest with ourselves and with our spiritual guide in our heart. Purification practice is sometimes called confession practice. Confession is not just stating (even internally) our negative actions, rather it is done with a wisdom acknowledgement that they are indeed negative conjoined with a sincere promise to not repeat such actions. Again, the Christians are very close, they just sometimes get side-tracked in guilt or thinking some external God is determining their fate, when it simply comes down to the internal laws of physics, otherwise known as the laws of karma.

Staring into the abyss of our own negativity can be daunting, but it is worth the effort. We need to work gradually to dismantle the obstacles of ignorance, pride, and guilt which prevent us from doing so. We need to request wisdom blessings to be able to see how negativity functions in our own mind in a way that we can gradually disarm and deconstruct it. Our negativity is not an intrinsic part of our mind, it is rather merely a current of bad habits and their karmic waste. Ultimately, it is just a question of changing our desires, and Lamrim is the tried and tested method for doing so. With persistent effort, we can eventually clean up our mind completely. Then, we will know a freedom and happiness beyond all others.