All the Joy the World Contains

September 15, 2017

ntbtp_800px-Shantideva“All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come from wanting pleasure for oneself.” ~Shantideva

I recently posted this quote from the 8th-century Indian Buddhist monk and scholar, Shantideva, on Facebook. I received some comments and questions in response that helped me realize that these words, when taken out of context, might send the absolute wrong message — the myth that the most important (and spiritual) thing we can do is to sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of others’. This couldn’t be further from the truth of the teachings of the Buddha, so I wanted to unpack this quote a little bit in order to clarify things.

First of all, self-care and love are healthy (and necessary!) And the Buddha recommended in no uncertain terms that we include ourselves in our circle of self-care and love. The root of that particular teaching are these words from the Pali canon (translation by Bhikkhu Thanissaro): “Searching all directions with one’s awareness, one finds no one dearer than oneself. In the same way, others are dear to themselves. So one should not hurt others if one loves oneself.” (Basically, the truth that everyone suffers and wants freedom from that suffering just like we do, and when we remember this about our common humanity it is easier to practice love and compassion for everyone, without exception.)

In Lovingkindness practice, for example — especially in the West where we are notorious for having entrenched self-hatred and self-judgment and a lack of capacity for self-compassion — it’s usually recommended that we cultivate kindness and friendship for ourselves as the first step before venturing out to cultivate same for others. Self-care creates the foundation for other-care. Nowhere in the Buddhist teachings, to my knowledge, is there an advocation of sacrificing for others at the expense of self (insert oxygen mask analogy here) unless one is already spiritually strong enough to handle said sacrifice.

“Pleasure” (in the quote) is very different from “love and self care”. I believe Shantideva was getting at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths: that clinging and craving are at the root of all suffering, and that pleasure-seeking often has misery as its close-following companion. Shantideva’s words alert us to the truth that when we are not able to find a way to be satisfied with the way things are and we pull and push to move the externalities around ’til we’re comfortable, we may achieve relief for a moment or a day or even longer, but these machinations do not ultimately lead to sustainable and long-term happiness and peace because everything necessarily changes.

So seeking after pleasure as an antidote for our deep dissatisfaction will always fail us in the end. “True happiness” (as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it) can only come from within, and from the realization and acceptance of the impermanent nature of reality, and from developing equanimity and compassion and clarity and insight and other qualities that help us relax into the moment, into what is actually happening.

The Buddha taught, in most basic terms, the cause (clinging/craving) and end (eightfold path, which includes meditation along with ethical living) of suffering. In Shantideva’s quote, as I understand it, “pleasure” is meant to refer to the kind of pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance that is associated with clinging and craving — when we want to obtain that which we do not currently have (stuff, people, feelings, mind states) and want to push away that which we do not want (stuff, people, feelings, mind states) in order to feel better or avoid feeling bad. It’s this desire+aversion dance that causes us to suffer when we don’t get our way, and when we can’t be ok with things the way they are.

Obviously, sometimes we do need to change things in our environment (job, relationship, furniture arrangement, etc). But we also need to develop enough discernment to figure out when it’s appropriate to change things (because they’re not supporting our highest good rather than because we need a fix), and learn to live with the parts of life that are not going to be “solved” by any sort of external shift (insert Serenity Prayer here). Within that process, developing the ability to “calmly abide” no matter what’s going on is key to our happiness and sense of true and long-lasting well-being.

A few more words about the pleasure-misery connection. In our personal lives, pleasure-seeking has the potential to keeps us from meeting our issues head-on and working with them in ways that might take more work but could lead to true healing in the end. I’m sure if we look closely and honestly at our own personal lives, each one of us can come up with examples of situations where our clinging and craving and desire for the short-term fix (rather than a commitment to the effort and sometimes renunciation necessary for long-term healing) have caused harm to self or other. So there is one form of pleasure-induced “misery”.

And there’s also a darker and more insidious and rampant result of pleasure-seeking, a direct and overwhelming cost to ourselves, our community, our planetary home. The misery people and animals and plants and Earth are experiencing in war-torn regions and as a result of the hurricanes and droughts and fires and increasingly rampant climate disasters is a direct result of human beings’ addiction to fossil fuels and the pleasures offered by its byproducts. In the big picture, the current climate chaos is a result of the developed world’s manic seeking of short-term pleasure, instant gratification, and the illusion of safety and comfort promised by consumerism and consumption.

In general, the suffering of the poor and downtrodden of the world, the animals and our beautiful planet Earth can be linked to the greed, hatred and delusion driving attempts by humans to fill coffers and hearts and hours with power, money, control and other things that bring pleasure in the moment but long-term strife in the grand scheme. Our comfort in the West literally relies on the discomfort and often destruction of people and ecosystems in developing nations that are at the receiving end of our insatiable greed for more, more, more — all in vain attempts to fill holes that cannot be filled that way. Our Pleasure == Their Misery.

We desperately NEED everyone to wake up right now. And practicing love and compassion and tenderness for oneself is a huge part of that — actually inseparable from that, since we’re all interconnected and interdependent, and loving me means loving you! It’s the truth of inter-being…we all inter-are. And then we direct this love and compassion outward, to all beings, in every direction. It’s something we can, and must, do. When you can’t figure out what to do about the state of things, at least do this.

To listen to the Dharma talk which inspired me to post the quote in the first place, go here. (Jill Shepherd: Anatta, Not-Self, and the Five Aggregates Subject to Clinging).

Now, go forth, with love for yourself and all beings!


Earth Day 2014: The Morning After

April 23, 2014

It is an uncommonly peaceful morning. I’m sitting in my sunny living room which is clean for once, walls joyfully papered with the marker-and-crayon musings of my own children and those from JAMcamp. My glowy-green matcha is the perfect temperature and especially yummy. I hear seagulls singing while they fly and little birds chirping on the wire. A mellow incense fills the air — a gift from a long-lost college friendship recently restored. This is a rare calm and happy moment, and I am appreciating it.

But despite appearances, all is not right with the world.

motherearthtree_cropEarth Day received a lot of press yesterday. Many scary and earnest emails and articles made their way around the internet, pairing the ways in which we are in climate-change-related dire straits with recommendations for doing our part to clean up the mess. It feels good to see the most important topic of our time finally discussed in a wider way and with the urgency required. It is heart-breaking to open up to the reality it describes. It is terrifying not to really understand how we as individuals can help turn this ship, the ice berg now so close we can taste it. We are humans, parents and citizens of the most resource-intensive country in the world. We care, but we also contribute. We don’t want our children to suffer. We don’t want anyone’s children to suffer. We don’t know what to do.

The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“concluding four years of intense scientific collaboration by hundreds of authors from around the world”) finds that “the world has only about 15 years left in which to begin to bend the emissions curve downward. Otherwise, the costs of last-minute fixes will be overwhelming.” Yet, as the New York Times states, “However compelling the science, global warming has not generated the kind of public anxiety and bottom-up demand for change that helped win the big fights for cleaner air and water in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

We are being silent. We are being small. We are not really talking about it. Biking more and replacing our lightbulbs and signing petitions against Keystone XL are all important, and we should all absolutely be doing all of that. But something more drastic and immediate and powerful is additionally required, certainly from our governments and corporations, but also from us, individually.

Of all the analyses I’ve read, the Buddhist view and approach is the only one that gives me any real satisfaction; the only one that truly gets at the ROOT of what’s going on, how we got here, and how we can move through it; the only one that describes a path that feels possible, holistic and sensible; the only one that tells the whole truth. If you have a few minutes, read this article by One Earth Sangha in its entirety, and see if you agree: “The Earth as Witness: International Dharma Teachers’ Statement on Climate Change”. Here is an excerpt:

“The Dharma (body of teachings from the Buddha) informs us…that craving, aversion, and delusion within the human mind are the root causes of vast human suffering. Just as these mental factors have throughout history led to the oppression, abuse, and exploitation of indigenous peoples and others outside the halls of wealth and power, craving, aversion, and delusion are also the root causes of climate change. Climate change is perhaps humanity’s greatest teacher yet about how these mental forces, when unchecked in ourselves and our institutions, cause harm to other people and the living environment. Led by industrialized nations, the desire for evermore material wealth and power has resulted in the reckless destruction of land and water, excessive use of fossil fuels, massive amounts of solid and toxic waste, and other practices that are disrupting the Earth’s climate. However, by acknowledging and addressing these internal mental drivers, we can begin to resolve the external causes of climate change.”

The statement goes on to discuss the importance of engaging in ethical conduct which honors all life and helps to restore the Earth’s ecosystems. This includes making healthy and loving choices when it comes to our own consumption and behaviors, and also speaking truth to power and standing up to those interests that block the path to putting the same forces of love and peace in motion on a more global level. It requires ENGAGING, both in our own process, and in the processes at work in the world that threaten to destroy our planet and its inhabitants.

The statement also reminds us of the path and practice of mindfulness, which will make all else possible, and without which, I increasingly believe, we are lost. When we regularly employ some form of mindfulness practice, we are strengthening our ability to pay attention, to rest in kind awareness, and to gain understanding and insight. We begin to SEE the greed, hatred and delusion in our own being. We begin to notice when our thoughts, words and actions may cause harm to another, while simultaneously growing our capacity to choose a more ethical approach. And we get deeply in touch with the lack of separation between ourselves and each other, and between humans and the earth. When we are in connection with the truth of interdependence, it becomes much more difficult to stay asleep, wear the veil, and just say, “Whatever.” Apathy and denial become more painful than the alternative. And we awaken.

So my recommendation for “Earth Day 2014”, for whatever it’s worth, is to meditate. Every day. For even 1 minute. Sit in your body. Relax your shoulders and your belly. Find your breath. Come into this moment. Drop the worries and stress and fixing and planning and remembering and regretting and blaming and judging. Stay with the breath. Listen to the breath as if your life depended on it, because it just might. Do this for a few moments every day. This practice plants seeds. They begin to sprout. More practice waters them. They grow stronger and taller and sweeter. They are made of love and kindness and joy and healing. This is the garden our earth needs.

Do this alone, and do it with your children. As the Dalai Lama famously said, “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world in one generation.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. But it certainly cannot hurt to introduce our children to a practice that at its core nurtures compassion, kindness, mindfulness, awareness, and the reminder that we are all one. And it is certainly beneficial to teach our children how to tune in to themselves, so they have the opportunity to learn first-hand that true and lasting happiness comes from within, rather from something or someone external.

And what to do about the fear? The bottomless, overwhelming, vibrating anxiety and terror that can come up when we really dive into the truth of what we are doing to the planet, and what this might mean for ourselves, for our children, for all children, for all beings. Meditate with that, too. Sit with the fear. Feel it in your body. Name it. Acknowledge it. See it. Hear it. Embrace it. It is beautiful. It is an echo of your true self speaking out, screaming that something is out of balance. Stay with it. Love it. Heed its message. Certainly, this way, you will have a better chance of moving through this difficult emotion to whatever’s on the other side (ethical action? acceptance? equanimity? love? insight?) than if you avoid, resist, push down, shut out, numb, medicate, or otherwise block it. It is better to face the truth, no matter how painful. For in the space created by the willingness to see things for what they truly are, we receive the healing.

And the final teaching in this moment — perhaps always — is the reminder of impermanence. We can meditate every day, we can drive less, we can be kind, we can buy organic, we can buy less, we can engage in political action, we can remember the breath. And this will all help — certainly it will help us be happier people, and maybe it will even help the world turn into love. But it is also just a FACT that everything changes. We will age. We will get sick. We will die. We will lose the people and things we love. And our unwillingness to accept these fundamental truths of existence is often the greatest source of our suffering. So put energy and time and intention into planting seeds of love and kindness within and without. And then let go of any attachment to outcome. This, too, is mindfulness. Purposefully being present for what is actually happening, in the present moment, without judgement, without the need to manipulate or control, without expectation. Sitting with discomfort and not running away. If there ever was a time to get good at this, that time is now.

We are literally, in this moment, on the brink, at the edge, under the gun, hanging in the balance. What will we choose to do about it? All may not be right with the world, but neither is all lost. We have our bodies, we have our breath, we have this moment, we have our love. Let’s put them to good use.

In the interest of providing support so this work doesn’t feel so isolated and lonely, I have created a FaceBook page called We Are The Ones where we can find each other and relate around these intentions. If you would like to join me in a commitment to start or continue a regular daily meditation practice, for the sake of our own sanity, and for the future of the planet, please visit me there. I will be posting daily, sharing quotes, resources, tips, observations, and opportunities to meditate in community, both virtually and in person. We can celebrate and support each others’ practices with our virtual Sangha (community), and embody our intention to meditate daily for the benefit of ourselves, all beings, and the planet.

SOTM_TheReminderAnd I will leave you with a song. It’s from the lullaby half of our double album Party Like a Twinkle Star, and is called The Reminder. You can download it for free, or just listen. It is a love song to our children, the earth, the universe, each other, ourselves. No separation, no beginning, no end. I bow to the light within you, for it is the same light that is within me.

I love you. See you on the cushion.

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The Reminder (lyrics)

you are the sky
you are the mountain
you are the water
you are the fountain
you are the moonlit meadow moss
under my toes

you are the bloom
you are the butterfly
you are the sundown
you are the morning light
you are the proof
that something inside of us knows

you are the moon
you are tides turning
you are the galaxies
you are stars twirling
you are the road
everything comes, then it goes

you are the nugget
right at the heart of things
you are this moment
empty of everything
you are the song
that rises up
and forever grows
on and on and on and on and on…

you are the wind
you are falling leaves
you are the soul that shines
you are the heart that grieves
you are the raindrop
you are the ocean
you are the magic words
you are the potion
you are the message
speaking through everything
you are the sage who smiles
you are the child who sings
on and on and on and on and on…