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?

Having the Buddhas raise your children through you

There is no doubt that being a parent is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.  School, work, friends, no problem.  Being a parent, HELP!  It is non-stop, we never know what the right thing to do is, everything we do seems to backfire, there is nothing rational about it, and everybody is expected to somehow already know how to do it.  And the stakes are high, if you make a mess of things, you literally can ruin your kid’s entire life.  We are loathe to ask our own parents to help out, either because we are too proud or they are too busy, too old or just simply too obnoxious to have around!  We can’t afford to hire an experienced nanny to help out.  So what to do?  We need to accept that we don’t know what we are doing, and instead call in for enlightened help!

A wise person once told me, “it is only when you have tried everything else and realized that you can’t do it on your own that you are ready to go for refuge.”  Our ability to have the Buddhas raise our children through us depends first and foremost on our have humbly accepted that they would do a far better job than we can.

Wouldn’t it be great to have fully enlightened beings raise our children?  They would certainly know how to respond in every situation.  They never tire.  They have the power to be with our children 24/7, even when we are not around.  Most importantly, they have the power to bless their minds.  A blessing functions to turn the mind away from wrong paths and towards correct paths.  It comes from the inside, where the individual knows from within what the right thing to do is, not the outside like some external control.  This is exactly what our kids need!  Buddha’s know the past, present and future directly and simultaneously, so they see the big picture and how to prepare our children for the challenges that lie ahead.  They have perfect wisdom that knows how to transform any situation into the path.  Certain Buddhas have the power to prevent obstacles from arising and to arrange all of the perfect outer and inner conditions so that everything that happens to us becomes a cause of our enlightenment.  They are completely selfless and completely reliable.  How much better would they be at raising our kids than we are!

So assuming we want them to raise our kids for us, how practically can we bring that about.  There are several things we can do:

  1. When you go to spiritual teachings or study and practice the Dharma, do so with the intention of gaining the realizations necessary to be an enlightened parent for your children.  The motivation with which we practice determines the nature of the fruit of our practice.  If this is our intention, then as we receive teachings our mind will be blessed in a special way where we understand how to apply what we are learning to becoming a better parent.  But we should be careful to not fall into the mistake of listening to the instructions by thinking, “this is what my kid needs to hear and understand.”  No, we should listen to the instructions as personal advice for what we need to hear so that we can become a better parent for them.
  2. Always keep your spiritual guide at your heart.  One of the unique qualities of a Buddha is wherever you imagine them, they instantaneously go.  And wherever a Buddha goes, they accomplish their function, which is to bestow blessings.  In particular, it is taught that the Spiritual Guide is a gateway through which we gain access to ALL of the Buddhas.  So by imagining our Spiritual Guide at our heart, we in effect bring all of the Buddhas into our heart.  We need to come to view our ordinary body and mind as a vehicle or as tools.  They are not us.  We mentally hand over our body and mind to the Buddhas, requesting them to work through us to raise our children for us.  We might object to having somebody else take over control of our body and mind, but the profound truth is who we think we are does not exist at all, and who we really are is in fact one with all of the Buddhas.  They are our true selves, and it is only our ignorance which prevents us from realizing this.  So we are not really handing our body and mind over to somebody else, but rather allowing them to come under the control of our true selves.
  3. Whenever you don’t know what to do, request guidance for what to do.  Venerable Geshe-la explained a special method for doing this.  We first imagine that all of the Buddhas are at our heart, and we generate strong faith that they are indeed there and have united inseparably with our own root mind.  We then generate a very pure compassionate and loving motivation, free from any attachment, that our children be free from all suffering and come to enjoy perfect happiness.  In particular, we generate a pure motivation that we be blessed with the wisdom to know how to help and guide our children through whatever difficult time they are facing.  While holding this pure motivation and a mind of deep faith, we allow our mind to become completely still and quiet so that we can “hear” the answer to our prayers.  Eventually, a plan or image or understanding will arise within our mind.  We will understand the problem, know the solution, and see how everything fits together.  It will simultaneously feel like an answer that is coming from “somebody else” while at the same time being realized as our own understanding.  If at first we don’t get an answer, we can engage in some purification practices, trying to purify all the obstacles to our receiving a reply, we can offer a mandala to accumulate some mert, and then try our request once again.  When we get a partial answer, we can then go through this process again and again seeking further clarification until we know exactly what to do and how to do it.
  4. Post a permanent guard around our children!  Some really rich people hire special body guards to be with their children all of the time so that they never get into any danger or trouble.  We obviously can’t afford to do this, and our kids would probably come to resent it anyways.  But there is alternative, and it is free!  There is a special Buddha called a Wisdom Dharma Protector, and his job is to eliminate all obstacles and create the perfect conditions for our enlightenment.  Dharma Protectors can be requested to perform this function either for ourselves or for others, such as our children.  So we make the request with deep faith and again a pure motivation, “forever and always (meaning 24/7 for the rest of eternity), please always stand watch over my children, protecting them from obstacles and arranging for them the perfect conditions for their swiftest possible enlightenment.  Please bless them with the wisdom to always know how to transform any situation into an opportunity for their personal growth.”  Then imagine that the Wisdom Dharma Protector emanates a powerful protection circle around our children and everything that appears to their mind is now in fact emanated by the Wisdom Dharma Protector for their benefit.  It is important to remember that the Dharma Protector is only interested in our children’s enlightenment, not their comfort!  They are not a babysitter or a maid.  They will push our children to their limits, giving them unique challenges, but as parents we can know that these situations are exactly what our children need to grow and become better people.

If we do these four things, at worst we will become a much wiser and more effective parent, and at best we will become an open channel through which the Buddhas can directly raise our children.  Once we know how to do this with our children, we can then extend the same practice to our intereactions with everybody else.  The Buddhas stand ready to help us in every domain of our life, work, family and on the meditation cushion.  We simply need to accept we need their help, develop faith in them, generate a pure motivation for receiving their help, and then quiet our mind to be able to receive their guideance.  Once we become experienced with this, our daily practice will literally feel like a one-on-one daily session with our Spiritual Guide where he provides us with all the wisdom and guidance we need, both in and out of meditation.  This experience later becomes the basis for a very qualified divine pride in our Tantric practice.  Eventually this experience transforms into our becoming of one nature with all of the Buddhas, in other words, our own full enlightenment.

Your turn:  What is the most difficult situation in your life where you see clearly it would be better to have the Buddhas work through you than to have you deal with it on your own?