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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Using Buddhist Methods to Help Us in Daily Life > Using Buddhist Methods to Help Us in Daily Life

Using Buddhist Methods to Help Us in Daily Life

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, September 2010

edited transcript

This evening we’re going to be speaking about how to use Buddhist methods to help us in daily life. When we talk about the Buddhist methods or the Buddhist teachings, the word for that in Sanskrit is “Dharma.” If we look to see what the word “Dharma” actually means, it means “something that holds us back.” Dharma is something that holds us back or prevents us from suffering and having problems.

The Four Noble Truths

The first thing that Buddha taught was what is known as the “four noble truths.” What that means is there are four facts that anyone who is highly realized and who can understand reality would understand are true. These four are:

  • The true problems that we all face.
  • The true causes of them.
  • What it would be like if there were a true stopping of them so that we didn’t have these problems anymore.
  • The way of understanding, acting, and so on, that would bring about this stopping of all our problems.

Our True Problems

Buddhism has a lot to say about problems and how to deal with them. In fact, all of Buddha’s teachings are intended to help us overcome difficulties in life. The approach is actually very rational and down to earth. It’s saying that whatever problems we have, they all come from causes. So we have to look very honestly and deeply inside ourselves to see what the difficulties are that we are facing. For many of us, that’s not a very easy process. It’s quite painful actually to look to see what the difficult areas in our life are. A lot of people are in denial. They’re not willing to admit that they have problems – for instance, in an unhealthy relationship – but nevertheless they experience unhappiness. But we can’t just leave it at the level of “I’m unhappy.” We need to look deeper at what the problem actually is.

True Causes of Our Problems

Then we need to look to discover what the causes are of our problems. 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 an unsatisfactory situation. For instance, when there are personality conflicts in a relationship, there can be additional complicating factors from the economy – not enough money, etc. – problems with the children, or problems with other relatives. There can be all sorts of circumstances that are contributing to the problem. But Buddha said that we have to go deeper and deeper and deeper to find what the deepest cause of our problems is; and the deepest cause of our problems is our confusion about reality.

We have unhappiness, we have pain, and that of course comes from some sort of cause. For instance, we could be acting in a very disturbing way – with a lot of anger, for example. Nobody is happy while being angry, are they? So we need to recognize that anger here is causing our unhappiness and that we have to somehow get rid of the anger.

Our problem that’s making us unhappy could also be worrying all the time. Worrying is a very unpleasant state of mind. Nobody’s happy while they are worrying, are they? Shantideva, a great Indian Buddhist master, said that if you’re in a difficult situation where 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 the uselessness of worrying, and so we continue to worry. The point is that there’s no benefit from worrying.

Then also we have another level of problem, 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. We’re not satisfied with eating our favorite food only 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. Rather than just enjoying it for what it is and realizing that it’s not going to last and it’s never going to satisfy, we hang onto it; and when we lose that happiness, we feel very unhappy.

It’s like being with a dear friend or a loved one, and then they leave us. Of course they’re going to leave at some point, and so we need to enjoy the time that we’re with them. There’s a very beautiful image that sometimes we use. When somebody wonderful that we love so much comes into our life, 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, because it’s free. And if we’re very gentle, maybe the bird will come back. But if we catch the bird and put it in a cage, the bird is going to be very unhappy and might even die. Likewise, these people come into our lives like this beautiful wild bird, and the best thing to do is to enjoy the time that they’re with us. When they go away for whatever reason, for whatever length of time – well, it happens. 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.

When we’re confused about the nature of our ordinary happiness and pleasures in life, of course we have problems. We can’t even enjoy the happy times that we have, because we’re worried and afraid that we’re going to lose them. We’re like a dog with a bowl of food – the dog is eating the food, 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 accepting that 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.

True Stopping of Our Problems

Buddha said that it is possible to stop our problems forever, and the way to do that is to get rid of the causes. That’s 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.

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 to just shut up and accept your problems and live with them, 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. It’s very important to try to overcome our problems. Even if we don’t make a great deal of progress, at least we feel that we’ve tried.

Methods for Stopping Our Problems

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 taught, which was that we need to follow some sort of method and get some sort of correct understanding in order to get rid of the deepest cause, which is our confusion. But getting a good understanding is not enough if we can’t remember it all the time, so we need to develop concentration. But for the concentration to be able to remember and stay focused with that understanding, we need self-discipline. So the general Buddhist methods that we use to prevent our problems are to follow some course of discipline, concentration, and correct understanding (sometimes that’s called “wisdom”).

In addition, one of the biggest causes of our problems is our selfishness. 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. Even if we acknowledge that others do exist, we are clearly the most important one in the universe, the center of our universe. Because of that misconception, we think, “I always have to have my way. I always have to get what I want,” and if we don’t have our own way, then we’re very unhappy.

But that’s a very confused view of reality because 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; 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 we need to add love and compassion, consideration for others, and altruism to the ways to overcome problems or prevent problems. Just as we would like others to help us, likewise they would like us to help them.

Dealing with Disturbing Emotions

Of course not everybody is a saint or a bodhisattva, that’s very true. Everybody is confused to some level or another. Because of being confused, we act under the influence of disturbing emotions. For instance, if I think that I’m the center of the universe and I’m the most important one, then the feeling that accompanies that is insecurity, 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.

What are the strategies that we can use when we’re insecure – strategies to try to make ourselves feel more secure? One of them is that: “If I can just get enough things around me, somehow that’s going to make me feel secure. 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 most of us are especially greedy for attention. We see that with little children. So that’s one mechanism: if we can just get enough things around us, that will make us 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 self-defeating. I’m thinking of the example of a relationship in which 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 and shout, “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? Many of these mechanisms that we use in the hope of it making us more secure actually just make things worse.

Another mechanism that we use is to put up 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. If you feel, “Poor me, I don’t have anything,” you might steal, thinking that it’s somehow going to help you. Or I’m thinking of the example when I lived in India for many, many years. 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 could win. The only solution is to learn to live with them. If you don’t like the various insects being in your room, you sleep in a mosquito net – you have a net around you and you’re in your protected space. That’s a peaceful solution, rather than going on a safari and hunting all the mosquitoes in your room, and you’re up all night because there are always going to be more to kill. There’s always space underneath the door, or the windows don’t close properly – there are always going to be more. But that impulse for destructive behavior compulsively arises: “I’ve got to get rid of them!”

There are many different forms of destructive behavior. Lying, using harsh language, adultery, rape – all these things are there. And 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 into the habit of killing anything that you don’t like – like with mosquitoes, for example – then that’s your first, automatic response, isn’t it? And it’s not just about killing. If there’s something that we don’t like, we snap out at it 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 about being a fanatic. But you shouldn’t be naive about it. Try to do it without anger and hatred – “I hate these malaria mosquitoes!” And you shouldn’t 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, is that our methods are discipline, concentration, and correct understanding supplemented by love and compassion.

Ethical Self-Discipline

How do we apply these preventive measures to avoid problems in life? The first level, the first thing we do, is to 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, arrogance and so on. That means that when we feel like acting destructively, we decide very clearly, “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 yelling is just going to make the situation worse. I may have to correct you or deal with whatever mistake was made, but yelling is just going to make it worse, right? Especially calling you bad names and cursing at you – that’s certainly not going to help the situation. So ethical self-discipline is about noticing as soon as possible, even before we act destructively, that we’re about to act compulsively in a destructive way. There’s the impulse to act like that and we discriminate: “This is not going to be helpful at all,” and we hold ourselves back from acting out our impulse.

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 we haven’t been able to deal with it, and it just builds up inside – 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 doing strenuous housework or going for a long run or having a strong workout at the gym do help you dissipate the energy of that frustrated anger.

Mindfulness and Concentration

If we become more and more accustomed to this way of behaving, and we restrain ourselves from acting destructively when we feel like acting that way, what we’re using here is what’s called our “discriminating awareness (shes-rab).” 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 what’s usually translated as “mindfulness (dran-pa).” 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 not 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 is totally awake.” We try to be awake to what are the emotions that we’re feeling, what are the urges that are compulsively coming up in our minds to act like this or to act like that, and we try not to be a slave to these things, but realize that, with understanding, we can choose how we act. If I’m in a bad mood, it can change; I can do something to change it.

Sometimes the solution for being in a bad mood is fairly simple. One of the simplest methods 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. Often when we’re in a bad mood, we’re like that. So 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. It’s better to end the conversation – “Let’s get back to 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. We need to start with applying methods that we’re actually able to apply. But the principle is the important thing, and the principle is to look at what is the cause of the problem and to do something to overcome the problem. Don’t just be a 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 onto 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 we 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 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. There are 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 that we can bring our attention back when it wanders off.

For instance, when we’re speaking with somebody and our mind starts to wander off – it doesn’t have to be worry, it could be about: “When are they going to stop talking?” or “What am I going to have for supper?” it could be about anything – and we stop paying attention to the other person, or we’re making comments in our mind: “What they just said is stupid,” we bring our attention back and just focus on listening to them.

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. When you develop this skill, this skill of bringing your attention back and 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 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, 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 enough discipline 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 we need to apply our self-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.

Correct Understanding

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 a correct understanding of what’s going on. We have all sorts of 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 is actually unreal, right? We can project: “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 these fantasies and we believe that they’re true; that’s the horrible thing. We believe that we 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 shows up late. Nobody likes that. So what we need to do is to use our concentration to cut through these fantasies and stop projecting all this nonsense about, for instance, our inconsiderate behavior not hurting others, because that’s really 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 our fantasy is true, we are selfish. So if we want to overcome selfishness, we need to deconstruct that fantasy and stop projecting it. 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), we have to remember this is an illusion and try not to believe it: “It’s not like that. It only seems like that.”

To stay with that understanding all the time is the true path, Buddha said, for achieving a true stopping of our problems. 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 these disturbing emotions, 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. That’s the basic Buddhist method for how we deal with difficulties in life.

If we want to have happier relationships, we need to recognize:

  • I’m a human being. You’re a human being. We all have the 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.

Do you have that image in your stories? We’re always looking for the perfect partner, the one on the white horse, but that’s a fairy tale. It doesn’t exist, but we’re projecting it. Because of believing in that fairytale, we think that this one is going to be the prince or princess, and when they’re not like that we get angry with them, and sometimes we even reject them. And then we project onto the next potential partner we meet that he or she is the prince or princess. But 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.

The same principles apply in our relationships at work. If you’re kind to the people that are working with you in the office (or if you are employing others, you’re kind to your employees), the whole business runs more smoothly. If you’re working in a store and you’re kind and pleasant with the customers, 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. Therefore they’re an object of compassion rather than an object of hatred. If we view them as an object of compassion and we have patience with them, we don’t suffer emotionally when they cheat us, 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.

Can Non-Buddhists Use These Methods?

Now, do we have to follow a strict Buddhist spiritual path of meditation and rituals, and so on, 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 – being kind, being more mindful, not being naive, not projecting fantasy, and so on. These are general guidelines that anybody can follow.

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, and when our attention wanders, to bring it back. 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 cooking, when you’re doing anything. 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. 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 Buddhist ritual or formal Buddhist setting.

This, then, is the way we apply Dharma – preventive measures – to help us to avoid problems. What questions do you have?

Questions and Answers

Being Aware of What Is Happening Internally and Externally

Question: To avoid problems, do we just have to be concentrated all the time?

Alex: To avoid problems, do we need to be concentrated all the time? In a sense, yes. But that’s not the full picture. We could be very concentrated in yelling and hitting somebody, for example, so that’s not the full picture. We also need to be awake in the sense that we need to be aware of what’s going on internally – our thoughts, our feelings, etc. – and at the same time be aware and alert of what’s going on around us with other people. 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 you. 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 ourselves and not aware of others; or the other extreme, which is only paying attention to others and not to ourselves. 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 whomever, and they get so completely tired and exhausted that they just break down or they become resentful. It’s important to pay attention also to how we’re feeling and take care of our own 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.” Ideally when we say “no,” we need to give them some alternative, if we can. You give some suggestion of: “But maybe this other person can help you.”

In short, just be awake to everything that’s going on, externally and internally, and then apply correct understanding and love and compassion.

Dealing with Anger

Question: You spoke about sweeping the floor 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 can help, like washing all the floors – and I hinted that there were deeper methods, so could I indicate some of those for dealing with anger?

Well, going a little bit deeper, one level 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 called “target-like patience”: “If I didn’t put up the target, nobody would hit it.” For instance, I ask you to do something for me, and you do it incorrectly. The tendency is for me to get angry with you. Or you 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, what do you expect? Let’s say you ask a little two-year-old to bring you a cup of hot tea and they spill it. 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 to do something for me, it’s because I’m too lazy to do it myself – either too lazy, or I don’t have time, whatever it is. But the point is that if I’m asking somebody else to do it, I shouldn’t expect that they’re going to do it perfectly – or the way that I would do it, which might also not be correct in the end. I 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, I correct it. I 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 – just leave it and try not to repeat the mistake in the future.

A much deeper level of dealing with anger is to understand the reality of ourselves. 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?” With such thoughts, you start 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?

Buddhism has a great deal to say about how we exist and how everybody exists. We do exist, but we don’t exist in these impossible ways that we imagine we exist, for instance as a little “me” sitting in my head talking and that is author of that voice in my head. It seems as though there’s a little “me” inside that is talking, complaining: “What should I do now? Oh, I’ll do that,” and then you sort of move your body, as if the body were a machine. But that’s an illusion. You can’t find any little “me” inside us, can you? But nevertheless I do exist – I talk; I do things. So we have to do away with our belief in these projections, because it seems as if they corresponded to reality. It seems like that. There’s this voice going on, so there must be somebody talking inside there.

So Buddhism has a lot to offer in this whole area of what we would call “psychology.”

Working with Our Bodies

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 talking inside our heads – why does it appear?

Alex: 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. Our energies and our health in general are affected very much by our diet and our behavior – behavior like you go out in the cold and you don’t dress warmly enough, and you’re going to get sick. We’re talking about that kind of behavior. Or overworking – this type of behavior will make you sick.

We also try to maintain awareness of the state of our body. The quieter you become internally, the more alert you become not only to the condition of your mind but also to the condition of the energy in your body. When you notice that your energy is very nervous, for example – you can feel it with your pulse being very fast, and so on – there are very basic things that you can do, even just with adjusting your diet. For instance, we can stop drinking coffee and strong tea, and we can take heavier foods that are going to weigh down the energies, such as 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 sorts of things – can be very helpful. Those are also methods for developing concentration through mindfulness of your movement. The physical exercises that the Tibetans do are much subtler, 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.

The Source of the Voice in Our Heads

As for the source of the voice in our head, this involved the nature of the mind and that gets a little bit complicated. 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. What is happening in that activity is that there is the arising of some sort of mental hologram. For instance, when we see something, light hits the retina, triggers electric impulses and chemical reactions in the neurons, and as the result there arises 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. 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. 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 is separate from it who is watching it or controlling it and 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.

What is the source of this voice in our head? It’s just 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. A hologram of the sound of a voice is some form of communication, isn’t it? It’s a type of conceptualization that expresses or communicates a thought in the form of the mental sound of words. The interesting question is: 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 it who is 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 a 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?” and “What should I do now?” It’s what we’re worried about, this “me” at the control board.

When we realize that this “me” 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 we act. And that’s it. And don’t worry about: “What are they going to think of me?” That’s not as simple to do as it sounds.

Controlling Ourselves When Others Are Angry

Question: When another person is angry with us, how do we control ourselves?

Alex: Basically we 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? You try to calm the toddler down. Be gentle, like you would with a two-year-old. 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.

I think maybe we can end here. Thank you very much.