News headlines are dominated by catastrophes, conflicts and controversies. Reporting is sensationalistic and biased, and is designed to deliberately manipulate and trigger our well-honed predispositions and instincts. These stories are slanted to evoke fear, outrage, despair, and worry in us.
With this awareness foremost in our minds, every time we turn on our televisions, watch or read online news, we should have a reliable method (according to Ponlop Rinpoche) to mindfully consume the news and deal with strong emotions.
1. Respond not React
Before turning on your phone or television, breathe deeply into your belly, and check in regularly with your breath and feelings throughout. It is worthwhile to know which situations or current issues evoke strong feelings, and to make a conscious decision to respond rather than react when that issue arises. This skill of responding is beneficial for our overall well-being.
2. Different Perspectives
Know that every situation or issue has different perspectives and supporters. To lessen your reactivity and broaden your mind, read international reports and other accounts of the situation. Doing this kind of research automatically pulls us out of our tight focus, and give us a bird’s eye view of the situation. Distance decreases emotion, and increases clarity and wisdom.
3. Training the Mind
Decide in advance that you will use the news as the opportunity to train your mind and grow your knowledge about yourself. So as you read or watch the news, let one part of your mind be calmly observing your reactions, thoughts, feelings and attitudes. We know how to split our minds in this manner. For e.g. we do it when we are walking and talking: one part of the mind is watching where we place our foot and another is tracking the conversation. This practice of detached observation of ourselves will train the mind to be more controlled.
4. Seeing the Commonalities/Inter-Connectedness
We can also use the news to grow our understanding of those we oppose. This doesn’t mean we condone everything or even agree with them. The choice here is to shift the focus away from our differences and onto our commonalities. We make the choice/choose to be tolerant, expansive and kind towards the people we disagree with. We try to understand their point of view and emotions around the issue.
We grow this sense of shared experience by recognizing that they are just like me: they want happiness and not sadness, they care for their loved ones, and they suffer fears, vulnerabilities and worries just as I do. And for victims of natural and man-made disasters we send them loving kindness, or wishes to be free from their pain..
Be kind to yourself when you forget to follow these steps. Here too, use your own experience of forgetting and your response to forgetting for reflection and growth.
May all our experiences lead us to freedom and happiness.
It’s already February, and for some of us, maintaining our new year’s resolutions may be starting to become a little harder. With the cold, dark, rainy days we’ve been having, I personally have been struggling to get up and get to the gym at my usual time. So knowing how challenging it can be to follow through on our good intentions, here are some quick pointers on maintaining enthusiasm, determination, and drive on the path to beneficial change.
No matter what goal or resolution you’ve set for yourself - meditating, working out, dieting, or saving - the five points below will be helpful:
Remind yourself of your intrinsic motivation.
Sit down and take a few calming breaths. Then contemplate what satisfies and dissatisfies you about your life. Something spurred you to the resolution you took, so get back in touch with it. Reflecting on the reasons for that decision will motivate you again.
Another benefit of this kind of review is it will show if you need to adjust the scope and size of your goal. Having a manageable goal is the most important element for a successful outcome.
Review the benefits.
One of the best ways to inspire yourself is to make a list of the benefits. Put these on post-it notes or index cards, then keep them on your bedside table and tape them to your bathroom mirror. Review the benefits of this new habit or program you’ve undertaken as often as possible.
On the flip side, try to avoid evaluating your progress too often and too soon as this can discourage you. Set up a realistic time frame to help you get a clear picture of your short term progress and to inspire you towards a long term lifestyle change.
If your resolution is to begin meditating, losing weight, or improving your relationships with loved ones or colleagues, then having a physical representation or reminder is very powerful motivator. You could keep a journal or scrapbook in which you put photographs of those people or your goal, or create a vision board that you hang on your bedroom wall. Look at these often to inspire you when your motivation is running low.
Recall and celebrate your gains.
Celebrate your successes. Taking the time to acknowledge your effort and discipline, and feeling proud of yourself is not vanity. Acknowledging our progress remind us of our abilities and our strengths, and helps create positive memories around these achievements, which is inspiring.
Be vigilant when you are out celebrating. If your goal is shedding a few pounds, be mindful not to harm your weight loss plan, or if it’s to work out or meditate in the morning, then don't stay out until 3 am.
Journal your successes and the changes you are noticing; read these entries often to keep them fresh in your mind and to increase your determination.
As with all new habits, it is normal to slip up. Try not to lose hope. Remind yourself that all habits take time to build.
If you are going to use energy, then use it wisely – not to beat yourself up, but to instead practice kindness towards yourself.
Remember every moment presents the opportunity to start anew.
All the very best. May you succeed in living your ideal life.
A new year is here. What a perfect time for reflecting on the year that has ended and on our goals for the New Year.
Reflection is revealing.
It shows our current situation, reminds us of our successes and struggles, reveals how well we’ve honored our values, and teaches us about ourselves. Knowing these vital starting points helps us plot our path towards greater happiness, purpose, and fulfillment.
Much like using Google Maps you have to plug in your current location in order to plot the route to your destination; recognizing your present condition helps you chart a course to your goals.
If we don’t examine our lives, we remain stuck. And we are doomed to repeat behaviors hoping they will produce different results. At dinner with friends not too long ago, one of the men said in a self-deriding manner that he knew his purchase of a motorcycle was going to make him happy. His sarcasm didn’t decrease the lurking hope that this time, this purchase was going to bring him happiness.
Self-reflection can be uncomfortable. However, the discomfort of our discoveries is minor when compared to the benefits of unearthing the path to happiness.
The benefits of reflection are:
5 Minute Self-Reflection Practice:
Remember, self-reflection is fueled by tenderness, and especially an attitude of discovery or willingness to learn about oneself. So be kind to yourself as you undertake this practice. (Be mindfully aware of how quickly a criticizing or judgmental attitude drains your strength and passion for discovery.)
Lie down or sit comfortably. Bring awareness to your body on your seat or bed. Then shift your attention to your breathing at the lower belly. Rest in this gentle rise and fall of your abdomen for a few breaths.
Begin by recalling a situation or experience. Try to avoid choosing a traumatic experience, but instead start with a positive/happy situation, or with an incident that just mildly irritated you.
Now replay the situation:
Give space for emotions, feelings and thoughts to arise. End the contemplation by becoming aware of your breathing and then the room.
To reinforce what you learned about yourself and to remind you of the value of contemplation, consider journaling your practice.
May your reflections guide you to happiness.
Before you speak, always ask yourself: “is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” --The Buddha
How does gossip differ from conversation? The distinction may seem too obvious to warrant deeper analysis. However, even if we are quite clear on the difference, it doesn’t hurt to clarify again what we already know. For e.g. a silver vase left untouched on a shelf for years on end will tarnish unless it’s polished again, so too does our understanding of things we already know. Therefore a re-view of what we know is essential to keeping our mind alert, open and bright. By doing this, understanding shifts from being merely intellectual to becoming experiential.
In our everyday interactions, we can easily slip from conversation to gossip without awareness. Gossiping’s most insidious danger is that it can so easily masquerade as normal everyday conversation.
Last weekend a friend came to visit. We are two women who are intensely curious about life, and we thoroughly enjoy debating and discussing religion, politics, literature and travel.Of course, we both also share common friends. After hours of chatting from Friday afternoon late into the evening, I awoke Saturday morning startled and ashamed to realize that we’d ended up gossiping about a friend.
Our socialized upbringing inculcates in us the protocol of following up a greeting with a query into a person’s health and life situation. We do this when we are face to face with someone, and if we share mutual acquaintances, friends or family then we also often ask after people who aren’t present.
And therein lies the danger. The seamless transition from curiosity and even perhaps healthy human interest in another person’s well-being can quickly devolve to tittle tattle. Gossip doesn't only happen in face to face interactions, but can also occur in social media and email settings.
Webster’s dictionary defines gossip as casual unconstrained conversation about someone else involving details that may be unconfirmed. We often think that gossip is only saying bad things about a person, sharing private information and lying about the person. But gossip is also speculating, wondering about, analyzing and judging someone else, and then sharing those mental cogitations and opinions with others.
Ironically even if we enjoy listening to gossip, we don’t like to be thought of or think of ourselves as gossip mongers. This is because it harms the speaker, the listener, and the subject of gossip. It makes the gossip monger a pariah and untrustworthy; it poisons the mind of the listener, and can destroy the reputation and good standing of the subject. The effect of gossip spreads quickly like one tiny drop of black dye in a bucket of clean water, it tints and taints all of the water.
So how do we undo this destructive habit?
The “I” word is paramount – Intention. Know your intention for speaking about someone else. Sometimes you really do need to solicit confidential advice from another person regarding someone you are concerned about. But you have to be absolutely clear on your intention for speaking about the other person. To check your motivation, ask yourself:
The second important step is to become alert and mindful during the conversation to catch when the discussion is slipping into the danger zone. So then you must:
Gossiping isn’t an easy habit to break. But it is a habit and as such it can be worked on. Even if we don’t totally eradicate the habit, our consistent effort to avoid it will be hugely beneficial. So the next time you sit down with a friend for a catch up - on the phone or in person - be mindful of your speech and aware of your intention.
Know that if you’ve formed a friendship around gossiping, then this change in your behavior could impact that relationship. It may leave you open to becoming the brunt of gossip. Here again, your motivation for changing this unhealthy habit will help you negotiate your path forward to happier and kinder way of living. When we are rejoicing and genuinely happy for someone's success and appreciative of their good qualities, then even though we may be speaking about the person, it isn't gossip.
May you always speak with awareness and kindness.
As long as a society protects…the vulnerable among them, [it] can be expected to prosper and not decline. --The Buddha
My 95 year old friend in South Africa was telling me about the bird lice infestation of her tiny apartment, and the bites and rashes she was suffering all over her face and chest. She’d found half a bird’s nest behind her wardrobe, and while trying to move the wardrobe, it fell apart because termites had eaten through it. Too afraid to sleep on her infested bed, she asked the manager of her old-age-home complex if she could sleep in one of the vacant flats while her place was being fumigated; the person said no. So she ended up sleeping, for a few nights, in a chair out in a cold corridor leading to her flat.
When I was speaking to her, she was sitting in the armchair in the midst of her devastated home: her clothes lying outside near her front door, and her other possessions strewn around her. She said to me in an exhausted voice: “I wish I could die”. This feisty intelligent woman wanted to report the incident to the local newspaper, but was also afraid to make a fuss because she could be kicked out of her home.
This heartbreaking struggle of the elderly to keep a home, survive, be seen and respected is occurring in California too. Here seniors have to choose between paying for rent, for medical expenses, or eating. Landlords force out lower-rent-paying seniors to get in higher paying renters, which unfortunately makes seniors destitute. What does the ill treatment of our most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the young, and ill within our society say about us?
Then this week the White House proposed an almost 20% tax cut for corporations. Budget proposals have already been announced to cut social service programs like “Meals on Wheels”, children’s school lunches, and women’s health services. Not to mention the devastating budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. This means money will be given back to businesses, and taken away from the neediest populations.
We are interdependent beings who live on one planet. The fate of one affects us all. If you suffer, I suffer. If the planet is ill, I’m ill.
Everything we do and, for that matter, all we buy is so we can be happy. Contrary to common belief, to become truly happy, we should think of others. This is counter intuitive but here’s how it works.
All beings want to be happy. No one wants to suffer and yet we all do.
When we think only of ourselves, we become unhappy. This doesn’t mean we should never think of ourselves, or always prioritize others needs over our own. Our responsibility is also to take care of our survival. But if we focus only on always fulfilling our own desires and wants over the needs of others, then we inadvertently increase our suffering.
Desire breeds more desire. We know how quickly the glow fades after a purchase of a new car, or handbag or after a delicious meal or fancy holiday. The happiness we gain from possessions and externally is by nature temporary: company shareholders always wanting bigger profits, children wanting more toys and games, parents wanting the latest gadgets and fashions and on it goes. When our desire for more, bigger and better overruns our willingness to share, aid and benefit the less fortunate, then we grow increasingly unhappy.
Our ego and its wishes become primary when we cherish ourselves. This mindset makes us greedy, competitive, possessive, and aggressive in our struggle to have the most, and remain the best. To maintain position, possessions and power, we lie, cheat, steal and so on. This drive increases our misery because we are constantly worried and agitated about losing what we have. Ironically, we set out trying to achieve whatever it is we think will make us happy, and inadvertently increase our suffering.
On the other hand, our sense of well-being, peace and joy increases when we help others. Reflect back on the times when you were most satisfied, pleased and happy. Most often it is when we did something nice for someone, or lifted up another person. Notice your feelings the next time you allow someone to go ahead of you in a queue, or you help a coworker on a project, or you cook a meal for your sick neighbor, or you give someone the benefit of the doubt. These concessions don’t diminish us. They reveal our innate compassion.
As social animals, compassion is in our nature. When our mind and heart expands, we naturally open up, connect and stretch beyond our comfort zone. We recognize the pain and feelings of our fellow beings because it is our shared human experience. At the end of the day, we are all struggling to rise above the pain of living in a world that is unsettling and challenging.
If we tap into our deepest self, we’ll reconnect with our natural empathy, kindness and compassion. After all, our shared experience is both pain and joy. Our willingness to honour this side of our nature will not only make a difference in someone’s life but will also bring us joy.
May your compassion bring you lasting peace and happiness.
The other day at Home Depot, two men got into a heated argument over who had broken the queue. One of the men, a giant over 6ft, stalked over to the shorter man, and looming over him challenged and swore him. The shorter man, visibly pale, but furious tried to act macho as he weakly parried insult for insult. I watched horror stricken, hoping they wouldn’t come to blows.
When I was in India a couple of months ago, I got into an argument with a few people who I thought were trying to cheat me. I related this incident to students in my meditation class. One student asked me if I felt good after angrily telling them off. I said no because I was embarrassed at having forgotten my training and losing my cool. And my ranting hadn’t changed the outcome.The futility of anger is clarified in this quote by the 8th Century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva:
“If something can be remedied, why get upset? If something can’t be remedied, why get upset?”
Venting my anger had only succeeded in making my body tremble, heart race, and left me feeling exhausted and impotent. I had wasted energy but had achieved nothing of benefit. I could tell my answer hadn’t satisfied her or many other students.
I’ve since thought more about her question. We assume that when we vent our anger we are at least not letting ourselves be taken advantage of and we are fighting back. These were certainly the thoughts and feelings flashing through me during my Indian altercation.
We are living in challenging times in a world and country that’s polarized, where distrust and distress are growing every day. With the daily onslaught to our civil and social rights and the loss of human life in racial attacks, there's good reason to be upset, but we should be careful not to vent our anger.
Anger isn’t bad, but it is unhealthy. Sometimes it is justified. The trouble with it though is that even if the anger is valid, becoming enraged is not a skillful response. Anger can make us feel powerful. And while it may occasionally get us what we want, as a long term strategy for dealing with frustration it isn’t effective. Anger is destructive to ourselves and others.
The Buddha said, “we will NOT BE punished FOR our anger but BY our anger.”
If we use lashing out, avenging, or swearing as a response in stressful times, we strengthen the habit. As the habit strengthens, our tolerance weakens, and it will take less and less to upset us. Then the time and space in which to process and decide how to act will drastically decrease. And so this spiral will tighten.
A mindful attitude can reduce the duration and level of our anger. Begin by:
Reigning in the anger habit is difficult. It will take time, so be patient with yourself. Know that you will forget and react in a habitual way. Practice self-forgiveness. And remember constant practice will bring about the desired change.
May you be free from anger’s destruction.
A couple of weeks ago my cousin’s leg had to be amputated. She had just turned 42. Thinking she was being admitted to have her toe removed, she was told her foot will have to be taken off instead. After that operation, she learned her leg had to be amputated. With my cousin in South Africa, and me in the U.S., I found worrying about her didn’t help. All it did, was leave me exhausted from lying awake imagining her fear and worry.
Worrying contrary to belief doesn’t prevent our worst imaginings from occurring or from some tragedy worsening. It does, however, increase our anxiety. We may be accustomed to worrying but may not know its definition: worrying is being deeply concerned about a problem or a situation where our thoughts are looping around “what’s going to happen?” These kinds of thoughts increase anxiety.
Stress causes us to become anxious, and in small doses is considered normal even a healthy response. But worrying too much causes us to overreact to stress or any uncertainty, and that is detrimental to our overall health. We lose sleep, appetite, the ability to enjoy what happening in our lives, and the ability to be present.
I decided to redirect my energies to more beneficial practices instead. I chose to do two kinds of meditation for my cousin. These are compassion and loving kindness meditations. As our country and the world is in turmoil now, we can choose to do these meditations for all the people who are suffering fear, worry, sadness, anger, and disappointment in this uncertain time, as well.
Both these meditations can be challenging. They could bring up our own feelings of fear, anger and resistance. It is important to do ONLY what you are able to do. Go slowly. If you encounter a mental or emotional block to doing these practices for someone else, then make yourself the object of the meditation. Extend kindness and compassion towards yourself and consider all the people who may also feel as you do. Be gentle and mindful as you undertake these practices.
Loving Kindness Meditation (Mentally repeating good wishes for someone):
Tonglen (Taking and Sending Meditation):
This compassion meditation strongly awakens our ability to feel and take on the suffering and pain of others. It challenges our tendency to reactively avoid the unpleasant and only grasp the pleasant. The practice is to breathe in the suffering of another person, and send out relief and benefit to the person on an exhalation.
Do this meditation for the ill, a person in pain, and someone who is dying or dead. You can do it for yourself when you are in pain. Tonglen can be done in sitting practice or on the spot anywhere anytime.
Practice these techniques anytime you feel especially rigid in your thoughts, feelings or when worry is beginning to set in. Doing these practices empowers us to be a comfort and strength to the people and situations that need us.
May we be calm and centered to help those in need.
A student in my meditation class said that she strived to always be positive and struggled with thinking about life’s negativities. Her remark alluded to, what I suspect, is many people’s coping strategy in a world that is increasingly overrun by outspoken negativity and discord, and outlandish fear. But is it wise to willfully blinder our full view of life?
Without a doubt, an optimistic outlook is an extremely good habit to develop. Thinking positively and filling our hearts and minds with a cheerful attitude is beneficial to our overall well-being: we feel happier, calmer, and more peaceful. And if you ARE going to think, then it is certainly a wiser use of time to supplant rumination, recrimination, and resentment with thoughts of forgiveness, tolerance, and kindness.This is the aim of meditation practices.
Believing, however, that a positive mind state is achieved by avoiding life’s unpleasant or painful experiences is diametrically opposite to both life and meditation’s goals -- to awaken and cut through ignorance. In other words, in life and meditation we are training the mind to grow wise and skillful in dealing with life situations. Why then do we struggle to openly face all of life’s experiences?
Our unconscious habit is to shift away from discomfort and to gravitate towards comfort.
When I awoke this morning, the house temperature was around 58 degrees Fahrenheit or 12 degrees Celsius. I turned on the tap, and I felt ice cold water hit my cupped hands. Without a thought, I turned the handle towards the hot water side. We do these kinds of actions constantly throughout our day: if we are cold, we turn on the heat or add layers; if we are hungry, we immediately reach for a snack; if our body tightens up sitting in one position, we shift our weight; if we have an itch, we scratch it. This is not to say we should not enjoy life’s pleasures or make ourselves comfortable. The point is our tendency is to only want pleasant experiences and to avoid unpleasant ones.
We are constantly judging and challenging our experiences: thinking that a situation is wrong or shouldn’t be happening causes us to suffer and be stressed out. We try to prevent unwanted experiences from occurring by scheming, worrying, and resisting, but they occur nevertheless.
Life has good and bad experiences.
We can’t control what arises, but we can control how we think about it. We are empowered when we acknowledge the things we struggle with, because the willingness and ability to clearly see the issue at hand prepares us to deal with it. When we know, we can’t be broadsided. Moreover, it is only in actually forging through a challenge that we discover our resilience and strength.
A genuinely positive mindset is the result of being aware of life’s pain and being able to skillfully deal with it.
We train the mind to be optimistic and simultaneously clear-seeing:
Acknowledgement and acceptance of the good and bad in life cultivates mental and emotional stability and lessens our judgmental mindset. Experiencing life in all its complexity from a centered, open perspective is the wisest, most genuinely positive way to live a happy, peaceful life.
May you see clearly with a positive mind and heart.