Using Buddhist Methods to Help Us in Daily Life
This evening we’re going to be speaking about how to use the Buddhist methods for helping us in daily life. When we talk about the Buddhist methods or the Buddhist teachings, the word for that is, in Sanskrit, the “Dharma.”
And if we look to see what does the word “Dharma” actually mean, it means something that holds us back, and so it’s talking about something that holds us back or prevents us from suffering – from having problems.
Now Buddhism has a lot to say about problems and how to deal with them. Actually when Buddha taught, the first thing that he taught was what’s known as the four noble truths. And what that means is there are four truths or four true facts that anyone who is highly realized, who can understand reality, would see or understand are true. So these four are what are truly problems that we all face; and then what are the true causes of them; what would it be like if there was a true stopping of them so that we didn’t have these problems anymore; and the way of understanding, the way of acting and so on, that would bring about that stopping of all our problems – the ending of all our problems.
So all Buddha’s teachings are intended to help us to overcome difficulties in life. And the approach is one which is actually very rational and down to earth. It’s saying that whatever problems we have come from causes. So we have to look very honestly and deeply into ourselves to see what are the difficulties that we’re facing, which for many of us is not a very easy process. It’s quite painful actually to look to see what are the difficult areas in our life. A lot of people are in denial, we say. They’re not even willing to admit that they have problems, for instance, in an unhealthy relationship – but, nevertheless, they experience unhappiness. So one can’t just leave it at the level of “I’m unhappy.” One has to look a little bit deeper at what the problem is.
And then we have to look to see what are the causes. Problems don’t just exist by themselves, coming out of nowhere; there has to be a cause. And of course there are many levels of factors that are involved in bringing about some unsatisfactory situation. For instance, in a relationship there can be personality conflicts, there can be additional complicating factors from the economy – not enough money – there can be problems with the children, or problems with other relatives. There can be all sorts of causes that are contributing to the problem. But Buddha said that we have to go deeper and deeper and deeper to find what is the deepest cause of the problem. And the deepest cause of our problems is our confusion about reality.
We have unhappiness, we have pain, and that of course is coming from some sort of cause. For instance, we could be acting in a very disturbing way – with a lot of anger, for example. And of course nobody is happy while being angry, are they? And so one has to recognize that anger here is causing our unhappiness. You have to somehow get rid of the anger. Or worrying, for example. Worrying is a very unpleasant state of mind. Nobody’s happy while they are worrying, are they? A great Indian master said that in a difficult situation in which you can do something to change it, why worry? Just change it. Worrying isn’t going to help. And if there’s nothing you can do to change it, why worry? That also isn’t going to help. So we have confusion about that, and then we continue to worry. There’s no benefit from worrying is the point here.
Then also we have another level of problems, which is the problem of never being satisfied. We experience times of being happy, of course; but unfortunately they don’t last forever, and we always want more; it’s never satisfying. Our favorite food, we’re not satisfied with only eating it once – are we? – we want to eat it again and again. And if we eat too much of it at one time, then the happiness that we had at the beginning changes into a stomachache. And so we’re a little bit confused about this type of happiness, because rather just than enjoying it for what it is – that it’s not going to last and it’s never going to satisfy, so enjoy it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone, fine – we hang onto it, and when we lose that happiness then we feel very unhappy.
It’s like being with a dear friend, a loved one – that sometimes they leave. And so we just enjoy the time that we’re with them. And when they leave – of course they’re going to leave. There’s a very beautiful image that sometimes we use, that somebody wonderful that we love so much comes into our life, and it’s like a wild bird that comes to our window. When the wild bird comes to our window, we can enjoy the beauty of the company of this bird, but after a while the bird is going to fly away, of course – it’s free. And if we’re very gentle, maybe the bird come back; but if we catch the bird and put it in a cage, the bird is going to be very unhappy and maybe might even die. So, likewise, people come into our lives like this beautiful wild bird, and the best thing to do is to just enjoy the time that they’re with us. When they go away for whatever reason, for whatever length of time – well, of course; it happens. And if we’re relaxed and calm about that, and don’t make demands – “Don’t ever leave me. I can’t live without you,” this type of thing – then they’re likely to come back. If not, our grasping and making demands on them are just going to chase them away.
So when we’re confused about the nature of our ordinary happiness and pleasures in life, then of course we have problems with it. We can’t even enjoy the happy times that we have because we’re worried and afraid that we’re going to lose it. Like the image of a dog with a bowl of food, and it’s eating it, but also looking around and growling to make sure that nobody comes and takes it. Sometimes we’re like that, aren’t we, rather than just enjoying what we have – and when it’s finished, it’s finished. But of course this is not as simple as it sounds – maybe it doesn’t even sound simple – but it requires training, getting used to a different way of viewing things in life.
But Buddha said that it is possible to stop forever these problems that we have; and the way to do that is to get rid of the causes – so a very rational, very logical approach. If you get rid of the fuel, there will be no more fire. And it is possible, Buddha said, to get rid of these problems in a way in which they’re never going to come back again. So we don’t want to be satisfied with just temporary freedom from these problems. Right? It’s like going to sleep: when you’re asleep you don’t have the problem of the difficult relationship. So that’s not the solution, because when you wake up it’s still there. It’s like you go on a holiday somewhere, but you have to come home, and when you come home the problems are still there. So a holiday is not the best solution, the deepest-lasting solution. And also Buddha wasn’t saying just shut up and accept your problems and live with it, because that also is not a very good solution, is it? Because then we feel rather helpless: there’s nothing we can do, so we give up and don’t even try. But it’s very important to try to overcome them. At least we feel that, if we haven’t made a great deal of progress, at least we’ve tried.
But if we really want to achieve a true stopping of these problems, a true ending of them, then there’s the fourth fact that Buddha said, which was that we have to follow some sort of method, get some sort of correct understanding to get rid of the deepest cause, which is our confusion. And to get a good understanding is not enough if we can’t remember it all the time, so we need to develop concentration. And for the concentration, to be able to remember and stay focused with that understanding, we need discipline, self-discipline.
So the general Buddhist methods that we use to prevent our problems are to follow some course of discipline, and concentration, and correct understanding (sometimes that’s called wisdom). And what’s added to that, of course, is that one of the biggest causes of our problems is our selfishness. And a lot of our selfishness is based on confusion about reality, because somehow we seem to think that we are the only one who exists in this world. And even if we acknowledge that others do exist, we are clearly the most important one in the universe, the center of our universe. And, because of that, we think, “I always have to have my way. I always have to get what I want,” and if I don’t then I’m very unhappy. But that’s a very confused view of reality because there’s everybody else and there’s nothing special about me in that sense. We’re all the same, in the sense that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, and everybody wants to get what they want, and nobody wants to not get what they want. And somehow we have to live together, because we do live together. So also added to the way in which to overcome problems or prevent problems, then, we need to add love and compassion, consideration for others, and altruism. Just as we would like others to help us, likewise they would like us to help them.
And of course not everybody is a saint or a bodhisattva, that’s very true. Everybody is confused to some level or another; and because of being confused, then we act under the influence of disturbing emotions. For instance, if I think that I’m the center of the universe, I’m the most important one, then the feeling that accompanies that is one of feeling insecure. Right? When you’re confused, you’re insecure and you think, “Well, I should be the most important, but people aren’t always treating me like that,” so there’s insecurity there.
So what are the strategies that we use when we’re insecure? Strategies that we use to try to make ourselves more secure. And one of them is that “if I can just get enough things around me, somehow that’s going to make me feel secure.” So, “if I could just get enough money or enough attention or enough love, somehow that’s going to make me happy.” But then, as we saw, the nature of this type of happiness is that we never have enough, we’re never satisfied, and we always want more. Think about it. It makes sense. Do we really want our loved one to just say “I love you” once? If they just say that once, then that’s enough? They never have to say it again to us? We never feel secure with that. We always want to hear it again and again and again, don’t we? And we never reach the point where we say, “Well, you don’t have to tell me that anymore. I know that.” So, when we talk about being greedy, it’s not just greedy for material things and money. We’re also greedy for love and, especially, most of us are greedy for attention. We see that with little children. So that’s one mechanism: If we can just get enough around us, that will make me secure. And it never works.
The next mechanism is anger and repulsion: “If I could just get certain things away that I feel are threatening me, that will make me feel secure.” But we never feel safe, we always feel threatened, and we’re always on guard in case somebody does something that we don’t like – and then we get angry and chase them away. Sometimes that can be very, very self-defeating. I’m thinking of the example of a relationship and the other person, we feel, is not paying enough attention to us, not giving us enough time, so we yell at them. We get angry. “You should pay more attention to me! You should spend more time with me!” and so on. What’s the result of that? Usually they go even further away. Or they do us a big favor and stay with us for a little while, but you can feel that they’re not comfortable with that. How could we possibly think that getting angry with someone is going to make them like us more? Really absurd, isn’t it? So, many of these mechanisms that we use in the hope of it making us more secure actually just makes things worse.
Another mechanism that we use is putting up the walls. It’s based on naivety, thinking that if we don’t deal with the problem somehow either it doesn’t exist or it will go away by itself. “I don’t want to hear about that” – this type of attitude, and you put up the wall. But that state of naivety, of course, also doesn’t work. The problem isn’t going to go away just by our ignoring it and not acknowledging it.
So, based on these disturbing emotions, what happens is that we act in all sorts of destructive ways. We yell. We can even hit somebody. We could, if I feel “Oh poor me. I don’t have anything” – you might steal, thinking that somehow is going to help me. Or I’m thinking of the example when I lived in India for many, many years. And India is the land of insects, lots and lots and lots of insects, every kind that you could imagine, and you can’t kill them all. There’s no way that you can win. And so the only solution for it is to learn to live with them. If you don’t like the various things in the room, and so on, you sleep in a mosquito net. You have a net around you and you’re in your protected space. But it is a peaceful solution, rather than going on a safari and going and hunting all the mosquitoes in your room – and you’re up all night because there’s always going to be more. There’s always space underneath the door, or there’s always the windows don’t close properly; always going to be more. But that destructive behavior comes in: “I’ve got to get rid of them!”
And so there are many different forms of destructive behavior. Lying, using harsh language, etc., etc., adultery, rape – all these things are there. And so when we act destructively, basically it produces unhappiness – unhappiness not only for others, but especially unhappiness for ourselves. If you think about it, Buddhism speaks very strongly about not killing. Right? Now the point here is that if you get in the habit of anything that you don’t like, you kill – like with mosquitoes, for example – then that’s your first, automatic response, isn’t it? So we might not kill. But the point is that anything that we don’t like, we snap out in a very violent way – it could be verbally, it could be physically, it could be emotionally – rather than learning to deal with it with a calm state of mind.
Sometimes, of course, you might have to kill. For instance, there could be insects that are eating the crops; there could be insects with disease, etc. Buddhism is not fanatic. But one has to not be naive about it. One tries to do it without anger and hatred. “I hate these malaria mosquitoes!” Without that hatred. And one has to also not be naive about the negative consequences that will follow. Just a simple example: If we use insecticides all over our vegetables and fruit – well, we also eat that and it can cause disease. So there are negative side effects. The point here, coming back to our original jumping-off point here, is that our methods are discipline, concentration, and understanding, supplemented by love and compassion.
So how do we apply these preventive measures in life to avoid problems? First level, the first thing we do, is apply ethical self-discipline, which is to avoid acting destructively. Acting destructively is acting under the influence of these disturbing emotions – anger, greed, attachment, jealously, naivety, etc. And that means that when we feel like acting destructively, we decide very clearly that” “No, I don’t want to act that way.”
When I feel like yelling at you for some mistake that you made, I know that if I yell at you it’s just going to make the situation worse. I may have to correct you, or have to deal with whatever mistake was made, but yelling is just going to make it worse. Right? Especially calling you bad names and all sorts of things; that’s certainly not going to help the situation. So the ethical self-discipline is to notice as soon as possible, even before we act destructively, that I’m about to act like that. There’s that impulse to act like that, and we discriminate, “This is not going to be helpful at all,” and we hold ourselves back from that.
Now we’re not saying here that you keep the anger inside, and it eats away at you, and you just hold it and hold it until you explode. That’s not the method. And if that does happen – that it just builds up inside and we haven’t been able to deal with it – well, don’t release it on the other person. And punching a wall, all that’s going to do is hurt your hand; so that’s stupid. So you release it in some other type of way. Right?
Participant: Punch a pillow.
Alex: Punch a pillow. Or wash all the floors in your house – that sort of mother’s wisdom method of dealing with anger and frustration, and actually it does help you dissipate the energy of that frustrated anger.
But if we become more and more accustomed to this way of behaving, that we restrain ourselves from acting destructively when we feel like it, what we’re using here is our – what’s called “discriminating awareness.” We discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And, on the basis of that, we can remain calm and not just keep the anger inside. So the main thing that we are cultivating here is – the term which is usually translated as “mindfulness”; that means “to remember.” It’s like the mental glue to hold onto the discipline – what I want to do, how I want to be in life, how I want to act in my life – to hold onto that and don’t forget it. That’s mindfulness. It’s the same word as “to actively remember.”
So what we try to do is to be more awake. The word “Buddha” actually means someone who’s totally awake. So we try to be awake to what are the emotions that I’m feeling, what are the urges that are coming up in my mind to act like this or to act like that, and not just be a slave to these things but realize that, with understanding, I can choose how I act. If I’m in a bad mood, it can change; I can do something to change it. And sometimes the solution for being in a bad mood is fairly simple. It’s called – one of the simplest ones is to “put the cranky baby to bed.” We’re feeling like a baby that has been up too long and is – “Wahhhhh” – crying all the time, and so on. And often when we’re in a bad mood, we’re like that. Lie down, take a nap, go to sleep. When we wake up it’s usually much better.
Or if you’re having a disagreement with somebody and it’s reaching a very intense state; well, you know that in this situation the other person is no longer really listening to you and you’re not really listening to them. Better to end the conversation: “Let’s get back on this later when we’ve both calmed down,” and go for a walk, or something like that, to calm down.
These are very simple methods. Buddhism actually teaches much deeper-acting methods than that, but this is a start. And we need to start with applying methods that we’re able to apply. But the principle is the important thing, and the principle is to look what is the cause of the problem and to do something to overcome the problem. Don’t just be the victim to the problem. In a sense, take control over what’s happening in your life.
Now if we can develop the mindfulness to hold on to our understanding about what’s helpful and what’s harmful in our behavior, if we’re able to pay attention to what’s going on and remember how I want to act and then correct it if we’re not acting that way – if we can do that with how we’re acting with our body, how we’re speaking, then we’ve developed the strength to be able to do that with our minds, with what we’re thinking.
So when we start to have this train of thought of worry, or train of thought of “Poor me. Nobody loves me,” etc., etc., these sort of things, we say, “Come on! I don’t want to go on this…” We call it, in English, this “trip” of self-pity, of worry, and so on. “This is just going to make me unhappy.” And we bring our attention back to something more positive. There are many more positive things we can do with our body, with our mind, than just sitting and worrying. Many more positive things we can think about rather than thinking about how terrible everything could be, like when we’re worrying. Because, you see, what we’re trying to develop here is concentration, so when our attention wanders off we bring it back.
So, for instance, when we’re speaking with somebody and our mind starts to wander off about – it doesn’t have to be worry, it could be about “Oh, when are they going to stop talking?” “What am I going to have for supper?” it could be about anything – but we stop paying attention to the other person. Or we’re making comments in our mind, “Oh, how stupid, what they just said!” We bring our attention back and just focus on listening to them.
And so this is a very practical application of concentration, but it requires discipline. And we develop that discipline in terms of, first, our physical and verbal behavior. And when you develop this skill, this skill of bringing your attention back, correcting any deviations, then you can apply that in all sorts of situations. It’s really very, very helpful. For instance, you start to become mindful of how you’re holding your body. If your shoulders are tense and up at attention, and your neck is tense, and so on – if you’re mindful and you notice that, then you just put your shoulders back down and just relax them. It’s just a matter of paying attention, remembering, and doing something about it. Or when you start to become very excited and it’s totally inappropriate in the situation, and you’re starting to speak more and more loudly and aggressively toward someone, then you notice it and you just change it. You just calm down, like putting your shoulders back down, but you do that on an energy level, an emotional level.
This is the whole secret of how you apply these Dharma methods in life. Just remember them and have the discipline enough to just do it – just apply it. And you do it not because you want to be good, or you want to please your teacher or something like that. You do it because you want to avoid problems – difficulties – because you know if you don’t do anything about it you’re just going to make yourself miserable, and that’s not fun, is it? So one applies the discipline to the mental area in terms of concentration – in terms of dealing with our feelings, even. Dealing with feelings of course is more delicate, much more difficult. But, as I said, if you’re getting overly excited, you can calm down.
Now once you develop the tool of concentration, at least to some level, then what you really want to be able to keep concentrated on is correct understanding of what’s going on. Now we have all sorts of, as I said, confusion about reality – about how we exist, about how others exist, about how the world exists – and, because of that confusion, we have all sorts of projections of what really is unreality. Right? We can project that “I’m no good. I’m a loser,” or we could project “I’m the most wonderful thing in the world.” We can project “Poor me. Nobody loves me.” But if we really analyzed everybody in our life, that means that my mother never loved me, my dog never loved me – nobody ever loved me. This is hardly going to be the case.
So we’re projecting this fantasy. And we believe that it’s true; that’s the horrible thing. We believe that I can come late, or not show up for an appointment, and it doesn’t matter: you don’t have feelings. Right? And then we’re very inconsiderate of others. But everybody has feelings, just as I have feelings. Nobody wants to be ignored. Nobody likes it if they have an appointment and the other person doesn’t call, or show up, or is late. Nobody likes that. So what we need to do is to use our concentration to cut through these projections and stop projecting all this garbage, because that’s really what is the deepest cause of our problems. “I’m the center of the universe. I should always have my way. I’m the most important one.” That obviously is a projection of fantasy. Nobody is the most important one. But, on the basis of believing that, we are selfish. So, if we want to overcome selfishness, we have to deconstruct that projection; stop projecting it. And even if it feels as though I’m the center of the universe and I’m the only one that exists – because when I close my eyes there’s this voice in my head, and I don’t see anybody else so it seems as though I’m the only one that’s existing – then we have to remember this is an illusion. It’s not like that, it only seems like that. And don’t believe it.
So, this is the true path, Buddha said, for achieving a true stopping of our problems, to stay with that understanding all the time. If we had that correct understanding all the time, we wouldn’t have any confusion. And if we didn’t have any confusion, we wouldn’t have anger, we wouldn’t have attachment, greed, etc. And if we didn’t have any of those, these disturbing emotions, then we wouldn’t act destructively. And if we didn’t act destructively, we wouldn’t bring about all sorts of problems for others and ourselves.
So that’s the basic Buddhist method for how we deal with difficulties in life. If we want to have happier relationships, then recognize: “I’m a human being, you’re a human being, same feelings, etc. Everybody has strong points; everybody has weak points. I have them, so do you. Nobody is Prince or Princess Charming on the white horse” – if you have that image in your stories – we’re always looking for the perfect partner, the one on the white horse, and that’s a fairy tale. It doesn’t exist, but we’re projecting it. And so we think that this one is going to the prince or princess, and when they’re not like that we get angry with them, and then sometimes we reject them. And then the next one we project being the prince or princess. And we never find the prince or princess, because there’s no such thing. So, if we want to have healthy relationships, then we need to accept the reality. The reality is, as I said, everybody has good points, everybody has weak points, and we need to learn to somehow live together, and nobody is the center of the universe.
And then the general teachings that you find in any religion or any humanistic philosophy, which is be kind, be considerate, be loving, etc., be patient, be generous, be forgiving. Every religion and every humanistic philosophy teaches the same, and so does Buddhism.
Same thing in our relationships in our offices at work, business. If you’re kind to the people that are working with you in the office or, if you are employing others, if you’re kind to your employees, the whole business runs more smoothly. If you’re working in a store, if you’re kind and pleasant with the customers – again, the whole atmosphere is much more pleasant, isn’t it? And if one is honest in one’s dealings – don’t cheat others and so on – again, things go much, much better. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try to get a profit and make a living, but the point is not to be greedy about it.
And when others cheat us – because not everybody is going to act in this way – well, what do you expect? But, from the Buddhist point of view, we wouldn’t say that these are bad people; we would just say that they’re confused. They’re confused. They don’t understand that acting this way is just going to make more and more problems for them. Nobody’s going to like them. And, therefore, they’re an object of compassion rather than an object of hatred. And if we view them as an object of compassion and we have patience with them, then we don’t suffer when they cheat us – we don’t suffer emotionally – and then we try to be more careful with the next ones so that we don’t get cheated again. But what do you expect from people? A lot of people are like that. So that’s the reality. The projection is that everybody is honest. Everybody isn’t honest. It would be nice if everybody were honest, but not everybody is. So at least we could try to be honest.
Now do we have to follow a strict Buddhist spiritual path of meditation, and so on, and rituals, in order to apply these methods? Well, not really. We don’t have to follow a strict, standard spiritual path in order to apply all these things. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always speaks about secular ethics and human values. Right? Being kind, being more mindful, not being naive, not projecting fantasy, and so on. These are general things that anybody can follow. General guidelines. And when we speak about meditation, we’re just speaking about a method to familiarize ourselves with this way of thinking, by sitting down and trying to think like that. So, when our attention wanders, bring it back, for example. Well, you can do that while sitting in meditation and focusing on a Buddha or on your breath, but you can also do that when you’re reading a book, when you’re doing anything – bring your attention back – when you’re cooking. When you’re cooking, just keep focused on cooking, and when your mind goes off on some crazy thoughts, just bring it back to the cooking. It doesn’t have to be a formal Buddhist meditation practice.
So there are many, many ways in which we can familiarize ourselves with these more beneficial ways of thinking, ways of acting, and so on, without it having to involve any sort of ritual, Buddhist ritual, or formal Buddhist setting. So, in this way, we apply what we call in Buddhism “Dharma” – preventive measures, what is going to help us to avoid problems.
So what questions do you have?
Question: To avoid problems, just be concentrated all the time. This is the point?
Alex: To avoid problems, do we need to be concentrated all the time? In a sense, yes. But just to be concentrated – it’s not the full picture. We could be very concentrated in yelling and hitting somebody, for example, so that’s not the full picture. But we need to be awake. We need to be aware of what’s going on internally – my thoughts, my feelings, etc. And, at the same time, be aware and alert of what’s going on around us with other people. Right? When somebody comes home – a member of our family, or a loved one, or whatever – you see maybe they’re very, very tired. You have to be alert to that. That’s not the time to start a big discussion with them about something important – they’re tired. So you want to always stay alert, concentrated, focused on what’s happening around us. What’s the situation with other people, not just what’s the situation with me.
So we don’t go to an extreme of only being aware of myself and not aware of others, or the other extreme, which is only paying attention to others and not to myself. That’s also an extreme to avoid. There are many people who have this syndrome of not being able to say “no.” And so they’re always doing things for others, for their family, or for whatever, and they get so completely tired and exhausted that they just break down or they get resentful. But it’s important to pay attention also to how we’re feeling and take care of our needs as well. When we need to take a rest, we take a rest. When we need to say, “No, I’m sorry; I can’t do this. This is too much. I’m not able,” say “No.” I mean, ideally when we say “no,” we need to say also that… You give some suggestion of “But maybe this other person can help you.” Give them some alternative, if we can.
So just be awake to everything that’s going on, externally and internally, and then apply correct understanding and love and compassion.
Question: You spoke about sweeping all the floors as a method of dealing with anger or other destructive emotions, but you pointed out that Buddhism has a lot of deeper methods. Could you please give at least a hint toward where to look for these?
Alex: The question was that I spoke about some very superficial, temporary methods for dealing with anger – like when you have a lot of pent-up anger, heavy physical labor, like wash all the floors – and I hinted that there were deeper methods, so could I indicate some of those for dealing with anger?
Well, one level, going a little bit deeper, for dealing with anger when we’re angry with someone is to develop patience. Now how do we develop patience? There are many, many methods, but one method, for instance, is: “If I didn’t put up the target, nobody would hit it,” it’s called. For instance, I ask you to do something for me and you do it incorrectly, and the tendency is to get angry with them. Or they didn’t do it at all. So whose fault is it? It’s actually my fault, because I was too lazy to do it myself and I asked you to do it. So what do I expect? When you ask somebody to do something, let’s say if you ask a little two-year-old to bring you a cup of hot tea and they spill it, what do you expect? Of course they’re going to spill it. So the same thing – what do we expect when we ask somebody to do something for us?
So I realize it was my laziness that actually caused the problem. You don’t get angry with the other person. And I’m aware that when I ask you do something for me, it’s because I’m too lazy to do it myself – either too lazy, I don’t have time, whatever it is. But the point is that if I’m asking somebody else to do it, don’t expect that they’re going to do it perfectly the way that I would do it, which might also not be correct in the end. We make mistakes too. And if I do it myself and I make a mistake, there’s no reason to get angry with myself. I’m not perfect; nobody’s perfect, so of course I make mistakes. So you just accept the reality. I’m a human being; human beings make mistakes: I made a mistake. And if I can correct it, correct it. Don’t get angry with myself. There’s no point in getting angry with myself. Just correct it, if I can. If I can’t, that’s it.
A much deeper level of dealing with anger is to understand the reality of ourselves. Right? Now I’m speaking on a very simple level, but even on that simple level it’s helpful. I’m not the center of the universe. Why should I always have my way? Why? What’s so special about me that I should always have my way and nobody else has their way? So one starts to deconstruct this solid view of “me” as the most important thing in the universe. Solid “me.” Then of course you can deconstruct further and further and further. When you have this view of “me” being this solid thing here and that I always have to have my way, then of course you get angry when you don’t get your way. Right?
So Buddhism has a great deal to say in terms of how we exist, how everybody exists. We exist, but we don’t exist in these impossible ways that we imagine we exist. As in a little “me” sitting in my head talking, that’s the voice. It seems as though there’s a little me inside that is talking, complaining. “And what should I do now? Oh, I’ll do that,” and then you sort of move your body as if the body was a machine. But that’s an illusion. I mean you can’t find any little “me” inside us, can you? But, nevertheless, I exist – I talk; I do things. So one has to do away with these – initially – belief in these projections. Because it seems like that. It seems like that. There’s this voice going on, so there must be somebody inside there, talking.
So Buddhism has a lot to offer in this whole area of – I guess what we would call psychology.
Question: I have two questions. The first is: Maybe you could tell us something a little bit more about working with the body. You mentioned that we need to relax our body, but maybe we need to do some more things. And the second question is: What is the source of all these projections? For instance, this person inside our head that is talking. Why does it appear?
Alex: Well there are of course many disciplines that we can apply for physical health. There is Buddhist medicine, for example, that you find in the Tibetan tradition, which has a lot to do with balancing the energies in the body, which is affected very much by our diet and our behavior. Behavior like: you go out in the cold and you don’t dress warm enough, and you’re going to get sick. We’re talking about that kind of behavior. Or overworking. This type of thing will make you sick. And so one tries to have this awareness of the state of our body.
The more quiet you become internally, the more alert you become to not only the condition of your mind, but also the condition of the energy in your body. So when you notice that your energy is very nervous, for example – you can feel it with your pulse being very fast, and so on – then there are very basic things that one can do. Even just with diet, like stop drinking coffee and strong tea, and take heavier foods that are going to weigh down the energies – fatty food, cheese, or whatever. And stay warm; don’t be in a wind or where it’s drafty. And don’t be by these high-powered machines that go “Bzzzzrrrrr.” Like that. That will disturb the energy even more. Be in a calm situation. So there’s that level of practice.
The Tibetan tradition itself doesn’t emphasize physical exercises or that type of work with the body the way that you would have, let’s say, in Chinese or Japanese Buddhist traditions with martial arts. But certainly different types of martial arts – taiji, qigong, these sort of things – can be very helpful. I mean, those are also methods for developing concentration, aren’t they, and mindfulness of your movement, and so on. The physical exercises that the Tibetans do are much more subtle, having to do with working with the energy systems in a different way, not in a martial arts way. It’s a bit of a different way, more on the side of yoga. So that’s how you work with the body.
Participant: And about the source of this…
Alex: The source of the voice in our head? That’s just the way that it is.
When we talk about – this starts to get a little bit complicated – the mind… In Buddhism when we talk about mind, we’re not talking about some sort of thing. We’re talking about mental activity. And that mental activity is involved with thinking, with seeing, with feeling emotions. It’s very, very broad. And what is happening in that activity is that there is the arising of some sort of mental hologram. So, for instance, when we see things, there’s all sorts of light and so on and it hits the retina, then there’s the electric impulses and chemical things and neurons and so on, and as the result there’s some sort of mental hologram of what something looks like. But that’s really a mental hologram. It’s coming from all these chemicals and electric impulses.
But holograms aren’t just visual. These mental holograms could also be sound, like words. We don’t hear a whole sentence in one instant – you hear little pieces of it, one moment at a time – and yet there’s this mental hologram of the whole sentence and you understand what it means. So, likewise, there are mental holograms in the form of emotions, mental holograms in the form of thoughts, and also mental holograms in the form of verbalization – this voice. These things just arise, and the arising of them – there’s some cognition involved. So that is what seeing is, or thinking is, or feeling is. That is what it is. And that mental activity is going on without there being a “me” that’s separate from it, watching it or controlling it, making it happen. It just happens. So part of that mental hologram is thoughts of “me” – that voice is “me.” “Who’s thinking? I’m thinking. It’s not you that’s thinking; I’m thinking.” But it’s just part of this whole process of these holograms.
So what is the source of this voice in our head? I mean, it’s just the way that… one of the features of mental activity. It’s not necessarily how all mental activity works. The voice isn’t going on all the time and I doubt that the earthworm is thinking with a voice. The earthworm certainly has a brain, has a mind, sees things, does things.
Actually it starts to become very interesting when we think about it. What the hologram is, here, is some form of communication, isn’t it? We’re talking about this voice. It’s a form of conceptualization, of putting some sort of thought into words. So it becomes very interesting. Somebody who is deaf and dumb from birth and has absolutely no concept of sound, do they have a voice in their head or are they thinking in terms of sign language? That’s a very interesting question. I’ve never found the answer to that.
So whether it’s a voice, whether it’s sign language, whatever – or how the worm thinks – the illusion is that there’s a separate “me” behind that, talking, sitting at the control board, and information is coming in on the screen from the eyes, and they have this microphone and they’re talking, and then they press the button to make the arms and legs move. This is complete illusion. But it’s that type of “me” sitting at the control board that is the object of “Oh, what are people going to think of me?” “What should I do now?” It’s what we’re worried about, this “me” at the control board.
So, when we realize that this is like an illusion, then there’s nothing to be worried about. We talk, we act. Of course, it’s me: I’m talking, I’m acting. And if people don’t like it, they don’t like it. So what? Buddha didn’t please everybody. Not everybody liked the Buddha, so what do I expect for me? We just use understanding, love, compassion, and act. And that’s it. And don’t worry, “Oh, what are they going to think of me?” etc. Not as simple to do as it sounds.
Question: When another person is angry with us, how do we control ourselves?
Alex: Basically to see that they are like a small child. When the two-year-old gets angry with us when we say, “It’s time to go to bed,” and they say “I hate you. You’re horrible,” and then make a big, big fuss, do we get angry? Well, some people do get angry. But it’s just a two-year-old; what do you expect? So you try to calm them down; be gentle, like you would with a two-year-old. You think about it: how do you deal with a two-year-old like that? Usually, when a two-year-old is acting so horribly, if you pick them up and hold them and are affectionate with them, they calm down, don’t they? Yelling at them just makes them cry even more. So people are like that – big babies.
So I think maybe we can end here. Thank you very much.
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