Dealing with Isolation

So many of us are having to work from home or self-isolate and we are starting to get overwhelmed by it all. That is no surprise because being confined in our homes for days on end can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. We start to over think and focus on the negative and forget the blessings. If you have an obsessive nature or are prone to anxiety attacks, this time can be particularly difficult for you. So, what can we do? Here are a few things you may like to try.

Keep to your routines

It may be tempting to stay in bed longer, go to sleep later, not wash and get dressed or eat at wrong times. All these things will eventually lead to a feeling of desperation, despair and it could even lead to depression. Try to stick to your normal routines where eating and sleeping are concerned. In other words, try to do what you usually do, but without going outside. It would be helpful to create a plan for each day and try to stick to it. As human beings, we crave a little structure – so coming up with a plan for each day will help pass the time and give you a sense of control.

Don’t overdo your devices

Doing a digital detox and limiting the amount of time spent on your phone or laptop can help reduce anxiety and prevent you from feeling negative.

I understand that stopping using your phone completely isn’t very practical, so set yourself time limits. Make a commitment each morning to only use your phone at certain times and for a set duration. Maybe, 30 minutes in the morning, again in the afternoon and then in the evening.

It is true to say that social media can be a great way to keep in contact with friends and family during self-isolation, but we must keep in mind that overuse is known to have a detrimental effect on mental wellbeing.

News overload

There is such a thing as being too well informed. News overload can cause a lot of anxiety and stress. As with social media, you should limit your exposure to it. Rolling news only unsettles us. So, limit your news updates to mornings and evenings.

Start a hobby

There may be something you have wanted to start doing for a long time. Now is the perfect time to start. You could learn cooking, painting, sewing, writing or podcasting. It will not only keep your mind occupied; it will also teach you how to be mindful. When we are focusing on something it prevents our minds from wandering off to dark places.

Do daily exercise

It is a well-known factthat exercising releases all-important endorphins which boosts our mood. There is no need to set up a home gym. You could do Tabata, Pilates or Zumba – there are many good videos on YouTube that will help you with this.    

Get some fresh air

You may be in isolation, but it doesn’t mean you have to shut out fresh air. If you have a private garden, then go outside each day. If you have a balcony, go and sit on that. If all you have is a window, then open it wide and go and sit next to it. Just feeling the sun on your face and breathing in fresh air will boost your mood and help you shake off mental health issues.

Time to meditate and be mindful  

Meditation and mindfulness are great ways to banish feelings of anxiety or restlessness. When we allow our thoughts to control us, they can take us into some deep, dark places, especially when we are having to isolate. So, meditation and mindfulness help us to take back control of our minds.

One reason to meditate is to stop the endless chitter chatter in your head, and to find the stillness and silence that lurks within. It will help you let go of those destructive thoughts that lead to anxiety and panic. In this guided meditation called ‘Allowing Your Thoughts to Flow,’ you will learn to see thoughts as just thoughts and so you don’t need to blindly follow everyone.

Mindfulness practices will also bring your mind back under your control through bringing awareness to whatever you are doing. The quickest and most simple way to bring yourself into the present moment is to watch your breath or your five senses. All you need to do is stop whatever you are doing, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Just become aware of it flowing in and out of your body. There is no need to judge or change the rhythm of your breath, just observe it. You could also focus on what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Again, do not judge, just observe. So, look around you at five things of different colour, touch four different textures, listen to three different sounds, become aware of two different smells and see if you can taste one thing in your mouth,  

Both these practices will bring you into the present moment and help you to stop fixating on the past or the future.  

All of these points may sound quite simple, but even the smallest of changes to your daily life can bring about substantial results when it comes to our mental health.

During this time of isolation, I am conducting live mindful meditation practices on The Buddhism Guide Facebook page, so go to their page and check out the timings. If we can’t connect personally, at least we can do it virtually.   

Please stay safe, stay healthy and stay informed.  

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

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Experiencing Gratitude

Most neuroscientists agree that the left-hand side of our brain is used to interpret the world. It does this through language, categorising and patterns. It is probably through this process that our fictional self is born. The left-brain groups things by some common feature and then treats it as one unit, such as our thoughts, emotions and bodies, which it puts together and labels it ‘self.’

Our right-hand side of the brain doesn’t see things in parts, like the left-brain does, it sees things as a whole and processes the world as a continuum. It doesn’t use language or patterns like the left-hand side, it is more intuitive. It is focused on the present moment and doesn’t split things into past and future, like the left-brain. During deep meditation or deep sleep, we move from our thinking mind into the non-thinking right-hand side. Remember this side sees things as a whole and this is possibly what the ancient masters meant by ‘oneness.’

A neuroscientist had a stroke and for a while lost the use of the whole of her left-hand brain. During this time, she felt enormous gratitude. This shows us that gratitude seems to be inherent and is also a feature of the right-hand brain.   

Why I am mentioning this is because I feel gratitude is more about experiencing the sensations and less about thinking. It is more about being thankful for reality and less about acceptance of it.

A few years back I did a guided meditation called ‘Experiencing Gratitude’ and at the time many people thought it was strange I was asking them to experience it, as they had been so used to expressing it. But I felt that more can be gained by non-verbally feeling gratitude and not merely thinking about it. Neuroscience these days seems to back up that claim.

In modern mindfulness practices we are encouraged to think of three things we are grateful for and that is obviously a good thing, especially if we are stressed or anxious. But once we have brought them to mind, I believe we should feel the sensations in our body and the warmth in our hearts, without judgement, labelling or categorising. In fact, without thinking at all, just feel. Of course, this is not an easy task, but beneficial things never are.

The best way to achieve this is for you to think of something you are grateful for. It may be a person, a place, your health, your life – it really doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, bring it to the forefront of your mind and sit with that thought for a moment. Now, stop thinking about whatever you are grateful for and start fully experiencing the gratitude. Ask yourself these questions, ‘How does this gratitude make you feel?’ and ‘What body sensations are tied up with this gratitude?’ Just sit with your experience of gratitude for a moment. Let yourself be engulfed by your feelings and body sensations. Truly experience what gratitude feels like. I believe this is how we should be working with gratitude.

The more you do this type of practice, the more you will be able to experience gratitude and not just think about it. Give it a try by visiting Buddhism Guide meditations page and listen to the Experiencing Gratitude guided meditation.   

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Don’t Do That!

We are usually told about things that will benefit us but Gampopa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher from the Kagyu school of Buddhism, taught ten things that are of no benefit to us.

  • No matter how much respect and honour are payed to your illusory body, it is certain that it is impermanent and will perish. Hence, such things are of no benefit.

It does matter if people show you lots of respect or shower you with honours, your body is impermanent and at the time of death that respect and honour will count for nothing. So, don’t let your ego and pride lead you down a wrong path. The kind and respectful things people say to you are just their perspective, so don’t believe the hype, because it is of no benefit to you.

  • No matter how much greed and stinginess we feel towards wealth and possessions, we will leave naked and empty-handed once we cross the threshold of death. Thus, such things are of no benefit.

A life spent accumulating vast amounts of wealth is going to be of no benefit at the time of death. You may have lots of money in the bank or in offshore accounts, but when you die that money will instantly belong to someone else. Surrounding yourself with lots of possessions you don’t really need is only going to clutter your life and mind. Instead, live a simple, contented life. So, don’t waste this life hording money or possessions, because neither are going to be of benefit to you when you die.  

  • No matter how much effort we put into building nice homes and mansions, we cross the threshold of death alone with our corpse being taken out the door. Hence, such things are of no benefit.

Spending all of your time, money and effort on building a big house is not going to benefit you when you die. You will not be able to take it with you. So, build a simple house that suits your needs and not your ego. You may like showing your beautiful, big home to others, but once you die the home is going to belong to someone else. So, there is no benefit of wasting your time and money on a luxury home.

Je Gampopa
  • No matter how many gifts you lovingly bestow upon your children and grand-children, there’s not even an instant of benefit at the time of death. Thus, such things are of no benefit.

It is always nice to give gifts to our children and grand-children but spoiling them with lavish gifts is of no benefit to them or you. You are not helping them by being over generous. You are just feeding their egos. Nobody is going to benefit from such acts at the time of death.

  • Since all of your children and grandchildren are impermanent, even if they keep the things given by you, it is certain they will be left behind. Thus, such things are of no benefit.

Even if you do spoil your children and grand-children, they will not be able to find any use for your gifts once they have died. This means your gifts are of no benefit.  

  • No matter how much love and care you have for friends and relatives, when you die you depart without anyone to accompany you. Hence, such things are of no benefit.

Getting attached to family and friends is not going to help you on your deathbed. In fact, they will disturb your mind be crying and telling you not to go, which is going to make your departure from this world extremely painful. When we go, we go alone, so don’t allow yourself to get attached to family and friends, because it is going to bring you more suffering at the time of death.

  • No matter how much one strives in working for the nobility and their subjects for the aims of this life, one will cross the threshold of death having been completely cut off from their land. Hence, such things are of no benefit.

You may spend your life accumulating land and property. What benefit will they be once you die? They will become someone else’s land and property. This means you have wasted your time and money on things that have no lasting benefit.

Novice monks learning the dharma
  • Even though one may have faithfully entered the gateway to dharma (Buddha’s teachings), if one does not practice according to the dharma, the dharma will become a cause for one to take rebirth in the lower realms. Thus, it would be without any benefit.

Instead of wasting this precious life on wealth, family, friends, property, etc., we should study the Buddha’s teachings. But if we only study them and don’t integrate them into our lives, what would be the benefit? It would mean you will have a lot of knowledge about Buddhism but would not have gained any wisdom.

  • No matter how much dharma you know, having trained your mind in study and contemplation, without putting it into practice there is no way to take such things with you at the time of death. Hence, it would be without any benefit.

If you have had many teachings on Buddhism and you have trained your mind to study and meditate, but you don’t actually use the practice in your daily life, why bother? Buddhism is not a belief system or a religion, it is a way of life. So, we need to study, meditate and then take what we have learned and use it to help ourselves and others. There really isn’t any benefit in being able to recite Buddha’s teaching from memory if you are not going to put them into practice. The world doesn’t need intellectual Buddhists, it needs practicing Buddhists.  

  • No matter how long you stay in the presence of a spiritual master, if you yourself do not believe what they are teaching, you won’t receive any of their qualities. Thus, it would be without any benefit.

We cannot just surrender to a teacher and think, ‘Job done.’ The teacher is there to guide, mentor and support you. They are not there is magically pass on blessings or do the work for you. It is your path and only you can walk it. Of course, at first, we have to have faith in the teacher and teachings, but once we have experienced for ourselves what the Buddha taught, we no long need faith. Remember, the teacher is there for us to learn from and not lean on. So, find a teacher, study Buddha’s teachings, meditate and implement them into your life, that is the way to benefit from the Buddha dharma.

The point Gampopa is making here is that we are all heading towards death and so we should not waste our time on unimportant things. By that I mean, things that are not going to help us at the time of death. Studying and implementing the Buddha dharma is one thing that can help us at that point. This is because it trains our mind to be peaceful, stable, open and compassionate. So, when we are on our deathbed our mind will be calm and able to let go without any regrets. I can’t think of anything worse than being scared to take your last breath because you didn’t want to leave behind your big house, luxury car and impressive bank account.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

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Strength of Mind

This blog was taken from my latest book ‘Open Awareness, Open Mind’ find it on Amazon and Kindle.

I think it’s true to say that we become distracted very easily and find it hard to stay focused for any length of time. The mind lurches from one thing to another at a rapid speed, and then we wonder why our mind is not at peace. How can it be, it’s exhausted! So, learning how to stay focused on a single object, thought, emotion, feeling, body sensation or experience is going to cut down on distractions and help strengthen our minds.

One of the best ways to achieve single-pointed awareness is through meditation. To achieve the most from meditation you also need to like, or have a positive attitude, about the practice. It’s a long-term process. It isn’t enough to do a 10-day meditation course and think job done. That is just the starting point. If we want to live peaceful, purposeful and fruitful lives we need to develop a mind of resilience and mettle. Without fortitude of mind we will never achieve peace.

To have strength of mind, four mental qualities need to be developed. These are purpose, persistence, sensitivity and analysis.

What’s your purpose?

When I first started meditating many thoughts would pop into my head and start to hamper my meditation practice. I would suddenly start busying myself with non-essential work just to delay meditating. It was easy to lose interest because I wasn’t seeing any immediate results. I even started to lack confidence because I thought I wasn’t doing it right. This was all happening because I hadn’t set clear goals or purpose for my practice. I just sat down and started meditating because I heard it was good for me.

So, the starting point to strengthening your mind is to understand why you are doing the practice, what you would like to achieve and how you will know when you have achieved it. All of these will give you a sense of purpose.

If you wish to succeed in meditation it is important to like the process. We need to allow it to capture our imagination and then it will become easier to get absorbed in it. We cannot just go through the motions and hope it magically leads us to where we want to be. We must have a purpose, an objective.

When we go to the gym our objective is to become fitter. When we go on a diet the purpose is to lose weight. When we learn a musical instrument, we do so because we wish to play it proficiently. My point here is that whenever we start something we should always have an anticipated outcome that guides our planned actions.

Meditation is a practice and as with all other practices, we need to be aware of how much attention we are paying to it, how closely we observe what we are doing, how effective we are being and how much our personal wellbeing is improving. By looking at these points your practice is going to improve.

Once you have made all these points clear in your mind, you will have your purpose and will be ready to move onto the next point.

Can you persist?

Even though we may have a clear purpose to practice, without persistence, success will evade you. To simply have a purpose is not enough, we need to take action. Otherwise, our purpose becomes ineffective and intellectual.

Single-pointed awareness can only be gained through a force of effort and persistence. When these are applied diligently and in a balanced way, only then can our awareness become single-pointed. When I say balance, I mean not too forceful and not too lax. Consider how a guitar string needs to be tuned for it to give a perfect note. If it is too loose or too tight you will not strike the right sound. Our persistence in the same way needs to be tuned.

We have to be willing to put in effort, even though the results may not be noticed immediately. It is no good just to do a meditation practice when we feel like it. I understand that it is not easy to sit when we are tired, or to sit through pain or even sit for extra minutes, but if we don’t, we are not going to progress on the path.

It is inevitable that there are going to be times when you can’t be bothered to do the practice, or you are too busy or too tired. These are the times we really need to stick with it and push through any obstacles we may have created in our mind. This is a key point to remember, these obstacles are all created by your mind. You are the one stopping yourself from meditating.

Are you sensitive?

The next strength is sensitivity. We need to be sensitive about what we are trying to gain from the meditation, what effort we are putting in and what progress we are making.

We also need to be sensitive to what state our mind is in when we come to meditation. Sometimes our mind is overactive and at other times underactive. When this happens, you need to strengthen the mind before you focus on your object of meditation. If you are overactive, you can slow your breathing down. You can also ensure you are breathing from your abdominal region and not your chest. When you are underactive, you can speed your breath up a little. You could even do some light stretching exercises to wake yourself up, such as yoga, mindful movement or Tai Chi.

Try to be fully aware and engaged with what you are doing and what results you are getting. Understand that you are not looking for future achievements or looking back over past experiences, you are being sensitive to what is happening right now, right in this moment.

When we are breathing, we need to be sensitive to each breath. When we are sitting, we need to be sensitive to how it feels to sit. When we look at our minds as though we are looking in a mirror, we need to be sensitive to our mental state. We have to be watchful of every aspect of the meditation.

Going through the motions is just not going to cut it. You have to make the practice your practice, and we do that by having a purpose, putting in effort and being sensitive to what is happening during the meditation.

So, how sensitive are you to your practice? Look at these following points. Are you sensitive to the effort you are putting in? Sensitive to your state of mind before, during and after meditation? Sensitive to the quality of your breath or any other object of meditation? Sensitive to what hindrances are stopping you from meditating? Give these questions some thought.

Do you analyse?

Analysing is another key to strengthen the mind. We need to clearly examine our tendency to fall into bad habits and wrong practices. It also involves learning to work with an imperfect mind and balancing our mental faculties.

We need to analyse our meditation practice and not just sit there and hope for the best. If the mind is in no mood to focus on your object of meditation, don’t give up, investigate other topics your mind may wish to focus on. Try something different, like focusing on a candle flame, chanting or focus on body sensations.  Explore new possibilities. If your new approach works, continue with it. If you notice it is not really working, be willing to stop doing it and try a fresh approach.

I learned this the hard way. I was given a practice and I ploughed on for over a year, even though it simply wasn’t working. I foolishly believed that my teacher knew better. We need to understand that we are all different and there isn’t one practice that suits everyone. We must analyse our practices until we find one that works for us. Now, I am not encouraging you to flit from one practice to another. Once you find a practice that works, stick with it, but until you find one that works it is fine to experiment with different meditation styles. Remember, we are not looking for the most popular practice or a practice that proclaims it will lead you to enlightenment. We are looking for a practice that works for us. A practice that will calm our minds and make our lives less crazy.

So, this is how we can strengthen our minds through various meditation practices. I hope you have understood that more than anything else, it’s what you bring to the meditation that determines the results you’ll get. This places the responsibility and the power with you.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Buddhism and the LGBT+ Community

Is being lesbian, gay or bisexual forbidden in Buddhism? Is it sexual misconduct? Let’s look at what Gautama Buddha and Tibetan Buddhism say.

Gautama Buddha stated in one of the five precepts that lay-people should refrain from sexual misconduct. He never really elaborated on this point, only to say that a man should not fool around with a woman that is married or betrothed. He did of course say in the Vinaya, which are the rules for monks and nuns, that they have to take a vow of celibacy, but no such rule was made for lay-people.

So, he left this precept sweet and simple. In some ways this is a good thing, as I don’t think holy men and religions should concern themselves with the sexual act. However, as it is not specific it does give others the chance to interpret it in a way that suits their world view and allows them to tag all of their prejudices onto it. So, here are my personal views on the subject.

I believe that Gautama Buddha taught the five precepts to steer us away from causing harm to ourselves and others. It should be noted here that the precepts are not commandments and are five things we should try to refrain from. If the sexual act is not going to cause harm it should be consensual, affectionate, loving and not breaking any marriage vow or commitment. It should also not be abusive, such as sex with an under-age person or rape, and this includes forcing your partner into having sex. So, I believe in this way a consenting, loving LGBT+ relationship isn’t in any way against Gautama Buddha’s teachings.

In Tibetan Buddhism it is viewed quite differently. In fact, Dalai Lama has come out (excuse the pun) and said that from a Buddhist point of view lesbian and gay sex is considered sexual misconduct. Now he is not deriving this view from the discourses of Gautama Buddha, but from a 15th century Tibetan scholar called Tsongkhapa. Here is a brief outline of Tsongkhapa’s medieval thinking:

  • He prohibits sex between two men, but not between two women.
  • He prohibits masturbation, oral and anal sex.
  • He does not allow sex for anyone during day light hours but allows men five orgasms during the night.
  • He allows men to pay for sex from prostitutes.
  • He gave a full list of what orifices and organs may and may not be used, and even what time and place people can have sex. 
    (It must be noted that Gautama Buddha never made these distinctions).

As you can see Tsongkhapa heavily weighed the odds in men’s favour – not surprising, as he was a man. In fact, it appears his list only seems to be aimed at men.

It would appear Tsongkhapa was trying to force lay-people to adhere to rules that were actually meant for monks and nuns. This way of thinking stems not from Buddhism but is a cultural bias.

It does seem that Tsongkhapa’s view is out of step with today’s society and so we have to go back to what Gautama Buddha meant by sexual misconduct. He wanted us to reflect on our acts and see if they bring harm or are helpful. So, in this context, I believe if we want to know if an act constitutes sexual misconduct or not, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Does the act cause harm or does it bring joy?
  • Is the act motivated by love and understanding?
  • Would you like it if someone did it to you?
  • Is there mutual consent?

If there is mutual consent between two adults, it is not abusive and is an expression of love, respect and loyalty, I believe it cannot be classified as sexual misconduct, irrespective of whether it is between a man and a woman, two men or two women.

As I stated earlier, I do not believe religions should get involved with people’s sexuality. We cannot choose our sexual orientation, as we cannot choose our race, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of their control. A recent study published in the journal Science found that there is no such thing as a single ‘Gay Gene.’ Instead, a person’s attraction to those of the same sex is shaped by a complex mix of genetic and environmental influences, similar to what is seen in most other human traits.

Sexuality is dynamic and there are a wide range of different sexualities – some say as many as seventeen. It certainly isn’t as clear cut as most religions would have us believe. They like to put us into neat little heterosexual boxes entitled men and women, but life is not like that. Take transexual people for instance, who experience a gender identity inconsistent with their assigned sex. They have an overwhelming desire to transition to the gender with which they identify and not the one they were assigned. They certainly do not fit into the heterosexual boxes, and neither do bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals or queers, and why should they just because some religion or religious person wants to control people’s sexuality.  

So, in answer to the two questions posed at the beginning of this piece, I believe no form of sexuality should be forbidden in Buddhism, and no one should be made to feel guilty for loving someone else. I also believe no form of sexuality should be regarded as sexual misconduct, as long as it is not causing harm and is loving and consensual.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

This is an update of a blog first posted in August 2014

Chasing Happiness

Searching for happiness seems to be one of the most important things in people’s lives today. Here in India, we’ve got the ‘Art of Happiness’ program, in Bhutan they’ve got their gross national happiness (more…)