Cultivating healthy relationships: Motivation for series

The goal of this series of posts is to examine some of the Kadampa tools we have available for making our relationships more healthy, stable and rewarding.  Ever since the publication of Modern Buddhism, the main mission of the tradition has been to attain the union of Kadam Dharma and modern life.  Our modern lives are the field of our practice of the Kadam Dharma.  Just as there is the field of accumulating merit and the field of all living beings, so too there is the field of our practice.  The field of our practice is like our personally emanated training ground/camp to forge us into the Buddha we need to become.  If we wish, our drill sergeant can be Dorje Shugden.  Part of our modern life is our modern relationships with other modern people.  Conventionally, we can’t accomplish anything, spiritual or worldly, if we don’t know how to maintain good relationships with everyone.  Ultimately, we cannot attain enlightenment until we realize the emptiness of all other beings and our relationships with them.  We see them all as the dance of the fabric of our mind.

Will part of our motivation for wanting to fix our relationships be worldly?  Of course it will.  This is normal.  When we all come into the Dharma, one of the main reasons is because our relationships are so bad and we are seeking some solutions.  Learning these methods for worldly reasons is not bad.  Seeking the solution to our worldly problems with spiritual means is better than seeking solutions to our worldly problems with worldly means.  We don’t stop doing the right thing if our motivation is less than perfect.  We will want to do so for both worldly and spiritual reasons in the beginning, but over time the spiritual reasons will gradually purify the worldly ones until eventually our motivation is entirely spiritual.

There are no quick fix solutions to problems with our relationships, but there are proven methods for gradually breaking free from all dysfunctional patterns in our relationships.  I want to make this series of posts very relevant to our actual modern life situations.  If all of this remains academic information, there is actually little value.  We need to dig deep into our actual situations, and try come up with more healthy ways to deal with them.  As you read through these posts, I encourage you to try think of them directly in the context of your relationships.  Mentally try these ideas to see how they might work.  Please also feel free to post questions in the comments section and I will try answer them.  If we do this, we will also be able to learn from other’s situations as well.  This is why the Facebook groups are so important.  They enable us all to learn from one another and keep the Dharma relevant to our lives.  We should not expect that just because we read a few posts on a blog that we are going to be able to fix all our problems in our relationships.  Our goal should be to gain some valuable tools, and to get yourself started on a fresh way of approaching our situation.

This series of posts will have three main parts:  The first is “what is a healthy relationship”, the second is “how to resolve conflict in our relationships”, and the third is “how to bring out the best in others and ourselves.”

Before we begin with the topic, it is worthwhile going back to basics.  We all want happiness all of the time.  We mistakenly think our happiness depends upon external things, and as a result certain external things are seen as causes of our happiness and other external things are seen as causes of our suffering.  We will then develop attachment for the former and aversion for the latter.  But the reality is our happiness is a state of mind, it is an internal feeling.  Since its effect is internal, its cause must be so also.  The cause of happiness is inner peace.  When our mind is at peace, we will feel happy even in the worst of external conditions.  When our peace of mind has been disturbed, we will feel unhappy even in the best of external conditions.  From this, we can see that the essential condition for happiness is inner peace.  This then raises the question, “what is the cause of inner peace?”  Delusions, by definition, function to destroy our inner peace.  We know a particular mind is a delusion if it functions to destroy our inner peace.  In other words, any mind that destroys our inner peace is, by definition, what we call a delusion.  In the same way, virtuous states of mind, by definition cause our mind to become more peaceful.  We know a state of mind is a virtuous one if it functions to make our mind more peaceful.  All of Dharma practice, therefore, is training our mind to abandon its delusions and train our mind to cultivate virtuous states of mind.  The more we do this, the more peaceful our mind will become in all circumstances, and the happier we will be all of the time.

In the context of our relationships, we have countless opportunities to do this.  Some relationships generate delusions in us, such as attachment and anger; and some relationships generate virtuous state of mind in us, such as love and caring.  Most relationships have a mixture of both.  If we want to make our relationships healthy, stable and meaningful, we seek to abandon all deluded reactions on our part in our relationships and instead cultivate only virtuous responses to whatever may arise.  By learning how to do this, and by transforming any adversities that come our way, we will position our mind in a space where no matter what happens in our relationships, good or bad, it will function to generate virtuous states of mind in us.  In this space, even if there are problems in our relationship, they won’t be “problems” for us – they will be just another opportunity to practice abandoning harming others and learning to cherish them fully.

We have no control over what other’s do, so our main focus should be on getting our own actions correct.  We waste so much time thinking about what others need to do to change, and we fail to look at what we need to do.  We need to reverse this.  We need to redefine the problem.  Normally we define our problems in our relationships in external terms:  what others are doing, whether we are with somebody or not, and so forth.  Here we make an important distinction between situations and problems.  The situation is what it is, but whether it is a problem or not depends upon our mind.  It is our mind that makes our situation a problem.  Geshe-la says we should distinguish the outer problem from the inner problem.  He uses the example of a car that has broken down.  Normally, we say, “I have a problem.”  But this is not correct, the car has a problem.  Whether we have a problem depends on how our mind relates to the outer problem.  If our reaction is deluded, then we have an inner problem.  If our reaction is virtuous, then we have no inner problem, and we remain happy.  Our focus here will be to redefine our problem to be how our mind relates to the situation, not the situation itself.  The advantage of this is it puts you in total control of your own experience.  Geshe-la gives the example of imagine we had to cross a large, rocky surface.  What would make more sense, covering the entire surface with leather or just covering our feet.  It is certainly more efficient to just cover our feet.  In the same way, when we are confronted with the endless series of outer problems we call samsara, we have a choice:  either try make the external conditions exactly as we want them all of the time (good luck with that!) or we learn to make our mind react virtuously to whatever arises.  Surely a more effective strategy.

Whether we are happy or not in a situation depends 100% on our mind, and actually has nothing to do with the external situation.  It is our belief that we have no choice about our emotional response to the world we experience that leaves us the constant victim, and creates all our problems.  When we accept that it all depends upon our mind then we take things completely into the domain of something that we have total control over, namely our reaction to events, a solution becomes possible.  As long as we condition the solution to our problems on what others do, then our freedom will always be arbitrary, fragile, and outside our control. True happiness is inner peace, the ability to remain calm and positive regardless of our external situation.

The main focus of this series of posts is give us the internal tools we need to learn how to interact in our relationships in a more beneficial way.  We will explore more beneficial ways of looking at the situations we face, and we will find ways of being able to grow internally from every situation, regardless of whether it is good or bad externally.  If we can do this, then even if we remain in a difficult situation, for us it is good and we grow from it.  Our external sitaution may not have changed, but its status as a ‘problem’ for us has changed.  The extent to which we are happy depends upon the degree to which we have beneficial, healthy states of mind.

A tribute to my Dad on Father’s Day

We always talk about the kindness of our mothers, but I think it is equally important to take the time to think about the kindness of our fathers as well.  We quite often take for granted all that our mothers do, but I think we even more so take for granted all that our fathers do.  For myself, I have spent now 40 years of my life thinking more about everything my father didn’t do (and resenting him for that).  It is only now that I am beginning to see and appreciate him.  So I thought I would share with you my reflections on all that my Dad has done for me.

Of course I must begin with his greatest contribution of all.  Pretty much everything I have accomplished in my life, I have done so through having been fortunate enough to be born with a pretty good brain.  Where did that come from?  While my mother was of course smart, my father’s intellect is unparalleled.  Yes, hard work is important, but a high performing engine and hard work will really take you places.  I am very lucky to have been born into his genes.  I guess to go even further, the very fact that I have had any experiences at all is thanks to him, because without him having me (or keeping me) I wouldn’t have anything.  So in this sense, I owe him everything.

Second, he has instilled in me (all of my brothers really) a locomotive-like work ethic.  Nothing can be accomplished without working for it.  My father never stop working, and he has taught us to do the same.  And I don’t just mean working in our professional jobs, I mean working at all aspects of our life (family, fun, studies and jobs).  Even in his retirement, he always has projects he is working on.  This is a fantastic example.  He doesn’t waste a moment of his life, and he has taught me to do the same.  My wife was laughing at me the other day saying, “you are just like your Dad, you always are working on some project.”  It’s true (and she meant it as a compliment).  I am at my happiest when I feel like I am being productive.  So many people think the goal of life is to not have to do anything.  My father has taught me the opposite lesson – the goal of life is to do as much as we possibly can, to live our life to its fullest.

Third, his belief in me has given me the confidence to accomplish anything.  I think of all of the various “wise mantras” he repeated again and again as we were growing up, the one that I remember most (and that resonates most) is “there is nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.”  Perhaps we groaned a little as kids as he kept saying it, but again and again he hammered that message deep into our respective psyches.  The result?  He filled us with the confidence that it is true.  The reality is if people don’t think something is doable, then they don’t even try.  But he has removed that particular mental obstacle for me by helping me believe/know anything and everything, even enlightenment, is doable for us if we decide to do it.

Fourth, he has taught me how to be responsible with money.  Of course there may be some differences on the margin, but despite the fact I am fairly liberal at the macro level, there is no doubt I am quite conservative at the level of personal finance.  I remember whenI was little going to Minnesota in a Winnebago to visit my Grandma for a family reunuion and my Dad put on these tapes he had on responsible living.  Doug Klepper, I think was his name…  I was quite young at the time and had no concept of saving, but the tapes talked about always saving at least 10%, but preferably 20% of everything one makes and it explained why that was necessary.  My father explained again and again as we were kids the importance of saving up for the future, and he lived his life according to that example.  The results speak for themselves.  When I was teaching in Geneva, one of the courses I taught was on Personal Finance.  While there was a textbook, what I really taught was everything my father taught me.  And this concept of saving does not just apply to money, but to all aspects of resources (saving up favors, saving up a good reputation, etc.).  At a spiritual level, I very much think of the spiritual path in similar terms.  What does it mean to be a spiritual person?  It means to use this life to prepare for our future lives.  We are saving up our karma for the long road ahead.  We are investing our merit in the highest and best spiritual uses.  It is really exactly the same.

Fifth, he has been incredibly generous with his family.  It is no exaggeration to say he has given far more to his family than the rest of the family combined.  And how much has he asked in return?  To my knowledge absolutely nothing.  Do people express appropriate gratitude for all that he has given?  No, they don’t, they generally take it for granted (myself included).  Has that stopped him from continuing to be very generous?  Not at all.  That is quite a testament to his being.  He supported us as kids, he supported us to get our education, he flew us back when we were young adults and had nothing so we could maintain contact with the family, he always paid for meals whenever we would go out, and hugely he kept his lake cabin for us (at great expense) so that our kids can now enjoy it as they do.  Of all the things he has ever spent his money on, I can’t think of anything that has brought greater benefit and enjoyment than this lake cabin.  It is not just an issue of all of the fun things we can do at the lake, it is more how the lake provides a locus for bringing (and keeping) together my entire family.  At a more personal level, he has year after year made his home available for us to use in the Summers.  This has enabled us to come back again and again, and due to that we have been able to stay close to the rest of our family.  The real fruit of this is seen every day of the summer and how close my kids are to my brother’s kids.  How close my wife is to my brother’s wife.  How close my family is to my uncle’s family.  How much closer I am to my brother.  NONE of this would be possible if he wasn’t so generous in offering up his home.  We could not afford both the travel to Spokane and the lodging while there, so the end result would have been us not going back and none of the above would be possible.  Coming back to Spokane every year has so incredibly shaped my kids for the better, and he has made it all possible.

Sixth, he serves as a constant intellectual point of reference in my thinking about pretty much everything.  I really don’t interact with any Republicans.  Everyone in Europe (right and left alike) are far to the left of pretty much everyone in the U.S., and pretty much everybody in the State Department is from the left as well.  I don’t want to be a hack.  I don’t want to be partisan.  I want to support those ideas which work best, and that is necessarily some combination of views from both sides.  Even though I don’t have contact with many people to the right of me, I know very well what my father thinks and how he thinks, and I always ask myself “what would my Dad think about this?”  He is always in my mind offering his perspective on things.  This helps keep me balanced in my views in more ways than he probably realizes.

Seventh, he has also taught us how to play.  I think the go-cart was probably the funnest toy we had as kids.  No, I take that back, the little boat was the best.  By a big margin, in fact, the little boat was the best.  But on top of that, four wheelers, snowmobiles, his planes, his boats, everything!  Man, who gets to do all of those things as a kid?  While it is important to work hard, it is also important to know how to have fun and enjoy life.  He has shown us how to do that and he has allowed us to share in his fun.  He actually built a stunt plane on his own, and it is a blast to go up in it!

Lastly (but by no means least), he showed a great example of what it means to be a supportive husband.  I was too young to know what really happened with my mother, but I do remember she herself explaining to me many times that the divorce was her fault.  In many ways, she viewed divorcing my father as her biggest mistake, and her subsequent bitterness towards him was in many ways driven more by personal regret from having made such a mistake than anything else.  With my Dad’s second wife, he gave her every opportunity possible.  It is not his fault she turned to alcohol and drugs.  He stuck with her, trying to help her and support her through her difficulties far longer than pretty much anybody else would.  And he took her son from another marriage in as his full and equal son, and he continued to do so even after he and his second wife split.  And most significantly in my book, he was (and continue to be) nothing short of a super-star when it comes to supporting his now third wife.  I may have not had anything useful to say when the two of them were going through those darkest of days with chemo and radiation treatment, but that doesn’t in any way diminish my admiration for how he did it.  He was there for her 100%.  While she, of course, had it the worst; it is easy to overlook how hard all of that must have been on him.  But that was not his concern, he was concerned only with her.  Love, in my view, is when we care for others without asking anything in return; and true love is when we care for others joyfully even when it involves great personal sacrifice.  That’s what he has done, that is the example he has shown. This is the example I hope to emulate.

So I wanted to publicly express my gratitude to my father for all that he has done.  I can be a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes with him and I often take for granted all that he has done.  I am really at keeping in touch with him and expressing my gratitude.  But I am grateful.  What I have said above is what I really think about him.  What I have said above is the overwhelming majority of my thoughts when I think about him.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that almost all relationships are consumed by talking about the differences and problems that we easily lose sight of the vast commonalities and shared enjoyments.  This can create a false impression that the differences and problems are all we think about the people around us, when in reality it is not that at all.

So how can I pay my father back for all of the above?  I can think of no better way than to try to do the same for my kids in the hopes they do the same for their kids.  In this way, his kindness, wisdom and generosity will continue on hopefully for many generations to come.

Happy Father’s Day.

Reconnecting with our roots

I am on home leave right now.  The purpose of home leave is for us to reconnect with our roots.  When we spend a lot of time abroad or away from home, it is easy to lose the connection with a sense of home.  Yet home is a very important concept:  it is the place we can go back to to refind ourselves and our roots.  Why is this important?  Because it provides us with a good mirror for seeing how much we have changed, and also for seeing how much we haven’t changed.  When we are with ourselves every day, we find it difficult to identify these changes, but by going home and reconnecting with our roots we can see this more clearly.  From a Dharma perspective, I find it useful to see how my mind relates to the different people I met.  What is interesting, is my thoughts are almost exclusively deluded!  Identifying this, though, is the first of the three difficulties.  Just diagnosing how our mind is sick is itself an important spiritual practice.

For the last couple of weeks I have been on a whirlwind tour of my past.  First, I went to L.A. to visit some friends from college.  The first friends I saw were C & B.  C is a Senior Partner of a large private equity firm that invests in commercial real estate.  He manages a $1.4 billion dollar portfolio in Southern California.  His wife is a doctor.  They are extremely successful in their careers and are basically swimming in money.  I found myself jealous of their success.  I found myself thinking, “I was smarter and more capable than them in college, I should be doing even better than they are.”  Ugly thought.  The spiritual lesson I learned from visiting them was to not be jealous of others’ successes, but to instead rejoice in them and realize we each have our own path.

I then met with my mother in law for breakfast.  She is one of the most amazing and genuinely kind and giving people you will ever meet.  There is nothing she wouldn’t do for others.  She has had a very hard life, but her response to all the hate that has been thrown at her has been to become even kinder.  They say you are not marrying the daughter, you are actually marrying her mother because the daughter becomes the mother over time.  If this is so, I am sure glad I married my wife because her mother is fabulous.

I then met with my old debate coach.  College, for me, was a pretext to debate.  I don’t really know what I learned in college, everything I took from it was from debate.  My debate coach is basically one of the founding fathers of modern debate.  He is a social activist who teaches debate around the world as a means of promoting participatory democracy.  He has projects throughout Eastern Europe, Africa and some of the most troubled neighborhoods in the U.S.  He will soon put his debate courses on-line, where his ideas will touch millions around the world.  I asked him, “why do you do all that you do?”  He said, “because one should.  If you have a skill, it is your responsibility to share it with others.  This is one thing the Communists got right.”  Very inspiring example of what one dedicated individual can do in the world.

I then met my old debate partner.  When we were in college, he was a radical leftist seeking to overthrow “the man.”  He is now a corporate lawyer defending bankers being sued for securities fraud!  He is making a ton of money, but is miserable.  He has become quite cynical about ever being able to make a positive difference in the world.  He has no idea he is in a body (literally, this is true), has ate his way to type-2 diabetes, works about 90 hours a week, hardly ever sleeps, has a completely disorganized life and knows that he is heading towards some sort of train wreck with his life.  Yet, it was great to see him again.  We were able to have one of our classic late night “jam sessions” where we discuss the cosmic implications of everything.  The spiritual lessons I learned from my visit is it is important to have our life together, to keep our body healthy and in alignment with our mind, and to never forget that we can make any work meaningful if we relate to it in a meaningful way.

I then went to Portland where I went to High School.  I visited my old elementary, middle and high schools.  I stayed with my best friend from first grade through 12th grade.  His fireball of a Philipino mom basically raised me.  When I walked into her house, she looked at me and said “what happened to you?!?  You’re bald and you got fat!”  She says it like it is, but she is always right – the quality of her family is testament to that.  My friend is working as a chip maker for Intel, but his real passion is coaching soccer for the teams his kids are on.  He coaches 4 different soccer teams.  He showed me the importance of investing time in your kids and the importance of sports to a kids development.  We desperately wanted to play our old favorite board game Axis and Allies, but couldn’t find it.  Why?  Because his house was a total mess!  Interesting how most of my old friends are slobs!  hee hee  Another reason why I am lucky to have my wife who has established a very high standard of cleanliness and organization in our home.  I also saw the parents of my high school girlfriend.  The mom now has M.S. and is falling apart.  The Dad is the same as always.  They too helped raise me and seeing them helped me remember that.  I then saw another old friend who used to be a young Republican but is now a hippy environmentalist.  She was with a guy who was a real jerk to her and who wanted them to be a “power couple”, now she is with a guitar player.  Externally, most people conclude he is a real loser, but in reality he is a quality human being who loves her and their kids very much.  Success takes many different forms.

I then flew up to Seattle.  I saw an old high school friend who is one of those pure geniuses.  He graduated from CalTech and has been at the cutting edge of invention his whole life.  First he did all sorts of work with lasers, from guidance systems to computer networking.  He is now working on the technology which will one day allow cars and trucks to drive themselves.  He met his wife on, she is also brilliant and teaches mythology to gifted students around the world through on-line courses.  Their kids likewise glow with brilliance.  In high school, he would have been the last person who you would expect to be married with a healthy, stable family.  Now, he has a model family.

I then went up to see one of my brothers.  He was an undercover narcotics detective, but now works with the canine drug detection unit.  He intentionally chooses to work night shifts, part because he likes the freedom and part escapism.  His son, unfortunately, talks only of the bars he visits and the computer games he plays despite having a very young baby with a now ex-girlfriend who he hates.  My brother is a little ashamed of his life and his family and so winds up avoiding my father who has high expectations.  The spiritual lesson I took from my visit with him is the importance of accepting people as they are and that avoidance can become such a habit that it is almost impossible to come back from.

I then went to visit my family in Spokane.  My father leads a very charmed life, flying his own plane between his home in Palm Springs in the Winter, his beautiful home in Spokane overlooking the valley for Spring and Fall, and his boat in the Summer.  His third wife is finally the right one for him and she is fantastic – a good friend of his dating back 45 years.  His problem, though, is he has a tendency to stand in judgment of everyone around him who falls short of his very high expectations.  He doesn’t mean to do this, he thinks he is just encouraging people to live up to (his vision of) their potential, but it has the effect of making people feel judged, so they then avoid him.  He then laments how everyone avoids him or neglects him and he doesn’t understand why.  He is extremely rich and gives more in absolute terms than probably everybody else in the family combined, but in percentage terms he gives very little and people judge him as being miserly.  This is also a source of constant frustration for him.  He says nothing is more important to him than family, but he struggles to spend any time with his family or invest in their lives.  He has worked so hard his whole life providing for others, he feels he now has to cherish himself while he is still healthy and still can.  He is a very good guy, but has no spiritual foundations in him at all – in fact, he has a rejection of anything spiritual as being a bunch of superstitious non-sense.  My problem is I constantly judge him through the lens of Dharma.  I focus more on resentment for what he didn’t give than gratitude for what he did give.  I constantly feel the need to try to change him or get him to embrace goodness, when in reality I am just trying to get him to accept me.  I find myself EXTREMELY preoccupied with whether he approves of me and my choices, so much so you would think I was 10 years old.  There is so much we can learn about ourselves by looking into the mirror of our parents.

I also saw my other brother with whom I have grown very close over the years.  He has basically adopted my father’s life (took over his practice, basically walking exactly in my father’s footsteps).  But he is doing it right.  He invests completely in his kids, even though he sometimes overdoes it on pumping them up with how great they are.  His kids are great, but it does not help them to breed pride into them.  That small mistake aside, he is a great human being who has saved my butt many many times.  I love him very much. I also saw my extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.  We have a huge family in Spokane and it is great to bring them all together.  It is from this that I have a love of large families.  My Sangha is my global vajra family that I hope to be reborn into life after life.

Sorry this was a long post, but I wanted to get all of this down.  I guess the main point is it is useful from time to time to reconnect with our roots.  We can learn so much about ourself and our path by doing so.

Reflections on healing our heart

Once we see the negative in one thing, we will soon see it in all things.

Getting distance, mentally or physically, is not the same as running away.

We can’t repress our anger, we need to let it go.

We are right that others behavior is wrong. We are wrong to not forgive them for it.

First fix what is wrong in your own heart, then forgive others for what is wrong in theirs.

There is little in this world more beautiful than a heart big enough to forgive others for their mistakes, especially when they can’t even see or admit them.

We should not expect others to get it right.  How could they? They have no guide and don’t even know they are lost.

At the core of it, we just want people to love us without judgment.  This begins by doing the same for them.

Be with others in their suffering, but do not join them in its cause.

If you want to help others, first heal your own mind of what ails them.

When you need strength, pray.


Please don’t ruin the holidays for everyone else

The holiday season is supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year, and that is exactly why it is generally the opposite!  What happens around the holiday season is people say, “it is supposed to be special”, and because it is “special” we have higher expectations for how things are supposed to go a certain way.  When they predictably fail to do so, we then get upset because things are not unfolding according to our expectations.  Then, because we get upset, we make everybody else around us stressed out as they try live up to our expectations or we just make them miserable because they become the objects of our frustration and anger.

What I typically do when faced with this dynamic is I then harbor all sorts of resentment that the other person is getting upset in this way, and then I starting acting all stupid saying things like “I want to do whatever you want to do” “I want to do whatever will stop you from being upset.”  I might not say these things, but my actions will speak louder than words.  My goal when I act like this is not to genuinely make the other person happy, but instead to try demonstrate to the other person that they are being unreasonable.  So unsurprisingly, they know I am not being sincere and then we enter into these snarky exchanges where each side is trying to give the other person what they want, but not really doing so, because the real objective is to highlight to the other person that they are being unreasonable.

Another typical way we ruin the holidays is project all sorts of expectations about how others need to be grateful for our giving or our acts of kindness, and then when they are not grateful, we get upset at them about that.  This then ruins our giving and robs them of any enjoyment.  Or we can generate all sorts of jealousy about how others are getting more gifts than we are or we generate resentment about how we gave to others more than they gave to us.

Another common thing that happens is we have our relatives over.  We project that they can sometimes be difficult people so we do everything we can to try engineer the situation and the kids so nothing happens that could possibly upset the relatives or guests coming over.  But because we are more uptight and trying to make everything perfect, we create a pressure cooker for our kids, so they feel this and inevitably start acting up.  We then clamp down on them and guilt trip them saying things like “So and so didn’t come here to just to see you fight and act up.”  This of course just causes us to enter into a fight with them, creating the very problem we were trying to avoid.  It also makes our kids feel bad about themselves, they feel like a failure because they have ruined the holiday, and then they enter into a self-pity/anger spiral.

One of my favorite ways that I ruin the holidays is quite ironic.  I have seen all of the dynamics above and gotten upset at my family for falling into them.  I want everybody to just relax and have a good time.  But then I am doing the same thing I am accusing them of!  I am expecting them to be more chillaxed and easy going than they normally are, and then when they show even the slightest frustration about anything, I then freak out completely and think “there you go again, ruining another holiday.”  I so insist that everyone be easygoing that I myself am the least easygoing of them all.  I then self-righteously lecture others about how they shouldn’t expect everything to be perfect on holidays, etc.

The other extreme I often fall into in the holiday season is thinking “holidays are just not worth the hassle – everybody just fights and gets upset anyways.”  Secretly, I wish that there weren’t any holidays at all so we didn’t have to deal with all of the drama.  But then others around me who do want to celebrate the holidays sense that I am being all bah-humbug.  They feel like I am not really into it and am bitter about the whole thing.  I then ruin their fun.  They then get upset at me about that, I of course deny that I am doing it, I then enter into my “whatever will avoid you getting upset martyrdom” mode, and this just makes things awful for everybody.

We deluded beings are quite funny creatures!  I just can’t help but imagine the Buddhas up in the pure land having a good-hearted laugh at it all.  The sign that our reunucination is qualified is our samsara makes us laugh.  I imagine that the sign that our bodhcihitta is qualified is we find samsara absolutely hilarious!  You just gotta laugh at how silly we sometimes act.

So this holiday season my objective is to just happily accept whatever happens.  I am going to try genuinely get into it and not be bah-humbug.  I am going to try not project expectations that everybody somehow miraculously stop being deluded on the holidays.  I am going to try be happy for others, think about others, and give them the space to be something less than perfect.  I am going to laugh at myself when I find myself getting all huffy-puffy.  I am going to try spend quality time just loving my kids, because at the end of the day that is what they want more than anything else.  I am going to try not to make them feel guilty if they don’t live up to my expectations.  I will probably fall short of my aspirations, but that too will be a great opportunity to learn, grow and laugh!

Your turn:  What are some funny ways in which you have ruined other’s holidays before?  What are you going to do differently this year so that you don’t ruin other’s holidays?

Dealing with attachment to what other people think

Attachment to what other people think is, in my view, one of the biggest problems in the modern world.  We basically think our happiness depends upon what others are thinking, and when they think something we don’t want them to think, we become unhappy.  This is ridiculous self-torture!

First, we can’t really say with any certainty what they are actually thinking becasue we  cannot read their minds.  More often than not, we simply project what they are supposedly thinking and then get upset about that.  Second, what they think does not in any way harm us, it harms them.  If somebody thinks I am great or somebody thinks I am a jerk, it has no power whatsoever to affect me, so why become upset by it?  We all know the phrase, “sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  But with what people are thinking, they are not even verbal words!  So how can it affect us?  Third, what other people are thinking is nothing more than a karmic echo of what we ourselves have thought about other people in the past.  So if you want people to stop thinking bad things about you, stop thinking bad things about others.  Additionally, their thinking bad things gives you a chance to purify your past negative thoughts towards others, so by learning how to accept and transform it, we set the stage for a much better future.

For me, one of my biggest problems is I do not worry so much about what other people think of me (well, I do, but I am also so arrogant that I often don’t care what other people think – but that is a different problem).  Rather, what really bothers me is when people are angry around me.  This takes three forms:  they are angry at me, they are angry at those I love or they are just angry at the world.

In all of these cases of other’s anger, there are two things in particular I need to focus on.  First, a doctor does not get upset about the fact that her patients are sick, rather helping heal them of their sicknesses is what gives meaning to her life.  Anger is a mental illness, the victims of which I need to develop compassion for.  Second, I need to accept that the very nature of samsaric life is to be surrounded by deluded people.  Why would it be any other way?  To expect otherwise is to not understand and truly accept the nature of samsara.  How can I pretend to be an aspiring bodhisattva, wishing to lead all beings to freedom from their delusions, if I can’t handle or stand being around deluded people?  That’s absurd!

If they are angry at me, I need to accept this as purification, use it as an opportunity to identify and overcome my own faults, and realize their anger is not my problem.  When they are angry at those I love, I need to do what I can to protect the person who is the victim of the other’s anger while accepting that it is also their karma and there is very little I can do about it.  I do what I can, but accept the rest.  When the other person is just angry at the world (or some annoyance in life), I need to view the other person as a mirror showing me the faults of anger, encouraging me to overcome it within my own mind.  It is particularly hypocritical to get angry at those who are angry simply because they are getting angry!

Overcoming our attachment to what other people think is not easy, but it is one of our principal trainings as a practitioner in this modern world.

Your turn:  Describe how you are attached to what other people think of you, and how this creates problems for you.

Why people have affairs

At the beginning of many relationships, there is this special magic you feel with the other person.  Your heart naturally feels warm when you think about them, they appear to you to be just a wonderful person, you see good in them, and every once in a while, they also feel the same way about you!  Magic!  This feels so good because in our heart of hearts, we all long to be linked with others by love.  It is as if our heart knows that this feeling of separation and isolation we feel is not the natural state of our relationship with others and we get a glimpse of the experience of loving interconnectedness.

The reason why people have affairs is because they lose this feeling with the person they are with (more on that below).  They then meet somebody (or refind a long lost love from earlier in life), feel that magical spark again, and since it feels so good they start heading towards it.  If there are sexual feelings towards this new person, and especially if the feelings are reciprocal, it is almost an irresistable combination.  They see the difference in the feelings towards their regular partner, become increasingly dissastisfied, and gradually the relationship erodes away.  Affairs are often not just sexual flings, they are usually a by product of having lost that special feeling with the one we are with, and then being hit with it with somebody else.

All of these dynamics occur because we mistakenly think these special feelings reside in and are dependent upon the other person.  We relate to the other person like we relate to any other samsaric object, really, where we believe that happiness resides within the other person and by “consuming” the other person we can get some of it.  The problem is as soon as we start relating to other people like they are samsaric objects that have the power to give us happiness, things start going south!  We start to relate to them like a drug, where we are trying to get our fix, and we need more and more of them to get the same high.  But then they are no longer able to provide us with the same good feelings they once did, and we become frustrated with them because they are not living up to our expectations.  We lose the magic.  We then are willing to do anything to get it back.  We start acting in all sorts of goofy ways towards the other person, alternating between being a sychophant to being a raging lunatic, and then back again.  The relationship grows increasingly dysfunctional, we increasingly blame the other person, and we start to hate ourselves for how we are stuck in such a dynamic.  We blame them for how we are, and so we start hating them.  We have invested so much in chasing the end of the rainbow with them we become willing to do anything to get some good out of the relationship to justify all that we have done.  But the more we run after the mirage, the more it escapes us.  Eventually, we decide to end it.  But we go back – again and again – caught in a vicious cycle.  Eventually, though, we realize it is a cycle and start to break free completely.  At some point we walk away and don’t fall back in.

But if we still grasp at other people as samsaric objects, it is just a question of time before we fall into a similarly dysfunctional dynamic with somebody else.

So how do we protect ourselves against this?  Simple, we need to realize that the magic is within us and within our own mind, and it is in no way dependent upon the other person.  This magic is called affectionate love, and we can cultivate it within our mind with training.  We can feel this magic towards everyone all of the time.  Our affectionate love can become like the sun which radiates out towards all around us.  The sun does not need the objects it illuminates to be a source of warmth, it simply radiates from its own inner fire.  It is the same with affectionate love.  When we know it comes from within and is not dependent upon or sourced in others, then we stop chasing the rainbow and instead we start becoming a loving person.  We learn how to feel affectionate love for everyone around us.  Of course we will express this love differently with different people depending upon our karmic relationship with them, but the warm, magical feelings within us remain within us all of the time.  We must apply effort to cultivate and sustain these feelings, but it is an internal project, not one of stalking and manipulating others to get them to do what we want them to do so we can regain the feelings.

So how do we generate these feelings?  Simple:  take the time to identify and appreciate the good qualities of others.  Each being has within them Buddha nature, so each being has within them all of the qualities and potential for all goodness.  We need to appreciate others.  See the good in others, draw it out, transform all of their faults into opportunities to practice.  Then you will appreciate all that they do, good and bad, and your feelings of affectionate love will be stable and ever lasting.

(Please note, no, I am not having an affair!  I am just reflecting on what I have observed and understood.  Just thought I needed to clarify that!  hee hee)

Your turn:  Describe how relating to others as an object of attachment has created problems in your life.

Cherishing others enough to listen to them

Our self-grasping ignorance falsely convinces us that we are just our ordinary body and mind.  It seems natural to cherish ourselves, but what we are confused about is who we really are.  In reality, we are the fully inter-dependent mandala of all living beings, of which our ordinary body and mind are but one small part, like one of countless limbs on the body of life.  We cherish all living beings not out of self-martyrdom but rather because doing so is simply more accurate in terms of cherishing who we really are.  Instead of seeking to optimize what is best for the small, ignorant conception of self; we seek to optimize what is best for our full selves, namely the ocean of all living beings.

People will not be open to your perspective if they do not feel you understand them.  If you speak without first demonstrating that you fully understand where they are coming from, they will dismiss what you have to say and they will spend their time trying to explain to you their perspective.  As banal as it is to say, it is impossible to demonstrate you understand somebody if you do not know how to listen to them.  People know when you are really listening and when you are actually just planning on what you are going to say.

If you look at all of the great examples within ours and other traditions what you find is people who actually know how to listen to others as an act of cherishing them.  How do we do this?  I would say there are four key elements to effective listening:

  1. Shut off completely your own inner commentary and just try to understand where the other person is coming from.  Generate a sincere desire to understand the other person.
  2. Accept the other person without judgement, regardless of what it is they are saying.
  3. Have no ulterior, selfish motive where you are in any way attached to or dependent upon what choices the other person makes.  In other words, you only want what is best for them.
  4. You filter everything you hear through the lens of how everything that is happening to the other person is actually perfect in terms of giving the other person an opportunity to work on improving themselves.

Developing the skill of listening well is one of the most important qualities we need to develop along the bodhisattva path.  Fortunately, this is a skill we can practice developing all day, every day.  Very often the mere act of really listening to somebody is all we need to do to help them.  They are able to verbalize what is happening to them, and by doing so they can better see and understand their own situation and how they should proceed.  When we accept them without judgement, they are able to accept themselves.  By seeing how what is happening to them is perfect, they miraculously start to see things the same way without us even having to say a word.

Your turn:  Give an example from your life where simply listening to somebody helped them.

To cherish others we need to understand their perspective

Most human conflict comes from a failure to understand the perspective of the people we are interacting with.  We interpret their actions through the lens of our own perspective, not theirs.  As a result, we misunderstand their intentions, conclude they are being unreasonable and enter into conflict with them.  The internet society, in which everyone cocoons themselves in a virtual world of people who share exactly their own perspective then reinforces this polorization of perspectives and amplifies the conflict.  The solution to this sort of conflict is to first take the time to understand the other person’s perspective and then to consider important for ourselves whatever is important to them.

How do we understand the other person’s perspective?  The starting point is to assume they are acting in good faith.  Most inter-perspective misunderstandings come from assuming that people are not acting in good faith, and as a result they misunderstand everything the other person is saying.  They then accuse the other person of not acting in good faith, the other person then goes on the defensive or starts to counter-attack saying the same thing.  Then the discussion becomes about each side defending against false accusations instead of real problem solving.  This dynamic is true between rich and poor, majority and minority, black and white, between any two countries and also between those who have a unicultural perspective and those who have an inter-cultural perspective.  This last one is playing itself out in virtually every country between those who are uniculturally whatever country or region they are coming from and those who are participating in the project of globalization.  At an interpersonal level, once again, most conflicts come from this same problem and pattern of misunderstanding.  So first, unless you have compelling proof otherwise, always assume the other person is acting in good faith, just with a different set of priorities, values and understandings of how things work.

The second thing we need to do is to learn to cherish what the other person considers to be important.  We talk all the time in the Dharma about cherishing others.  But practically speaking, how do we do this?  We primarily do this by taking the time to understand what is important to the other person and then to likewise take the time to realize how what they consider to be important has real value – in other words we need to learn how to realize the importance of what they consider to be important.  To cherish something means to consider it to be important.  We find out what is important to others and then we learn to appreciate the importance of that.  Of course, if what the other person considers to be important is wrong or harmful, we can reject that, but most of the time people just value different things.

The irony is this:  when we demonstrate that we understand the other person’s perspective and we also consider to be important what they consider to be important then they come to trust us and believe us when we speak.  Then they will be open to listening to what we have to say, and real communication can take place.  They can then also come to understand and appreciate our perspective and there is a real chance the differences can be worked out.

Your turn:  View yourself through the perspective of the person with whom you have the most problems.  What does this teach you?

Helping people make their own decisions

When people come to me for advice, I have a terrible tendency to tell them what to do instead of help them come to their own decision.  Our job as bodhisattvas is to help people cultivate within themselves the wisdom to make their own sound decisions.  If we always tell people what they should do, then it may help them in their current situation, but it doesn’t help them learn to be able to make their own decisions in future situations.  As banal as it may seem, it is the whole “teach a man to fish” logic.  Likewise, when somebody makes their own decision, they “own it” and therefore it has much more power within their mind.

When we give people the answers, we also sometimes risk them rejecting our advice because they may feel like we are imposing something on them or somehow depriving them of their freedom to make their own choices.  Alternatively, if we give people the answers, we can sometimes create a spiritual laziness in the other person where they just let us tell them what to do without them doing the internal work of figuring out for themselves what they should do (and thereby improve their spiritual decision making).  In such a situation, it may seem like they have faith, but we are actually depriving them of developing their own wisdom.

Does this mean we should never give people advice of what to do?  Of course not.  But there are conditions for when we should do so.  First, we should make sure that they are actually asking for our advice.  If they are not, we should definitely not give them any (except under very extreme circumstances).  Second, we should make it absolutely clear that the other person is completely free to ignore our advice without there being any emotional or relational penalty.  Third, we should do so more in general principles of how to approach the problem, not the specifics of what they should exactly do (so you give them a direction, but leave them to figure out how the general principle specifically applies to their situation).  Fourth, and most importantly, we should always make sure the other person understands the “why” behind our advice, not just the “what” they should do.

When you do offer advice, do so in the verbal context of telling an illustrative story about something that happened to you once or about somebody else you know without directly applying the story to their situation (let them make that connection).  Or at the limit, say something like “if it was me, I would do …”

As a general rule, when we offer advice to others, we should do so as part of a general program of gradually weaning them off of us telling them what to do.  In the beginning, people will want us to tell them specifically what they should do.  This is not necessarily a bad thing because if they do so for enough time they will learn and gain some experience with spiritual decision making and understand the “why” they are doing things in that way.  Over time, they start to become familiar with these “whys” and see that the correct spiritual choice works, so they are then able to better make good decisions in the future on their own.  Then we gradually wean them off of us telling them what they should do by asking them more questions which then leads them to their own answers.  Eventually, they won’t need to come to us as much because they have become sufficiently familiar with the key principles of their spiritual decision making that they no longer need to come to us.

So as hard as it is for me, I have recently been putting a great deal of emphasis on holding back from telling people what to do and instead just talking generally or asking more questions.

(Ha ha!  I just re-read this post, and the whole thing is written in the language of me telling you, the reader, what you should do!  How ironic!  I was going to go back and change it to “I am trying to do …”, but I find it so funny the way it is that I decided to just leave it.  Have a good laugh!  I clearly have a long way to go!)

Your turn:  What skillful advice do you have about how to help people make good decisions on their own?