Saturday, March 28, 2020

A sticky virus

Just like the rest of the world, my life in the last few weeks has been turned around by the virus. What stunned me was how sticky the thoughts about the virus are (quite "viral" in fact). I do a lot of research into sticky thinking--thoughts that keep creeping into our minds that make it really difficult to focus. We have shown that when people are distracted by thoughts that they find difficult to let go of leads to substantial drops in task performance and increases in the variability of response times. More recently, we also showed that such "sticky thinking" was associated with reduced pupil responses to incoming stimuli. In essence, we think this means that your mind decouples from the environment. So, no wonder that a lot of people find it difficult to concentrate in this time of covid-19.

Another way I "unstick" myself is through dancing. Here you can see me in India.

Quite fittingly, these days I am working with the slogan from the #lojongchallenge that says: "If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained." This is the perfect time to test how we practice when being distracted. In a way, the current situation with all its uncertainty is probably not unlike what is called the "bardo" in Tibetan Buddhism. The bardo is the period between dying and the subsequent rebirth--it is a period where nothing is certain and everything can change. And such situations tend to evoke a lot of anxiety--a very "effective" sticky thought. Of course this can be quite adaptive, because in uncertain situations there can be danger, and then you need to be alert about that. However, if there is nothing you can do in such a situation, then this sticky thinking does not really help and leads to a lot of stress and anxiety. For this reason, I find that in the last weeks, practices of loving kindness and compassion are helpful. They lead me to focus not on myself, but on other people, and get me out of the stickiness. Moreover, they give me energy by making me feel that I can do something useful for the world in this uncertain situation. And such practices can be very simple: repeating silently "may you be happy, may you be safe, may you live with ease" is all that is needed for loving kindness. See this page for some nice examples and further explanation. Because if we can practice loving kindness and compassion in this situation, then we are not only well-trained, but probably a lot more resilient as well.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Contemplating sustainable happiness in Vienna

I decided to contemplate the next slogan--"always maintain only a joyful mind" during a trip to Vienna. Now you might say: that is really easy: Vienna is a gorgeous city, so it's no challenge to be happy. This is certainly true. However, it was not that trivial. I went there for work: to discuss the future of Mind and Life Europe. Mind and Life is an organization that grew out of a series of dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists. So how does work relate to maintaining a joyful mind?

Let's first unpack the slogan. Maintaining only a joyful mind does not mean that you always need to be smiling and ignore all the sadness and difficulty that is abound in life. It does mean that you do not completely wallow in feeling sorry for yourself. After all, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, when there is something to solve a problem, do it, and when there is nothing you can do, it does not help to feel sad about it either. So this attitude of maintaining a joyful mind is the mind that considers everything as workable. Usually this attitude makes even difficult things easier. I got to practise this today on my flight back from Vienna. The flight was kept on an indefinite hold because of stormy weather in Amsterdam. Thankfully enough, my mind actually was quite OK throughout it all. It's not actually that bad to hang out at the airport if you just focus on the moment (and happily plough through the infinite amount of work that is always present). And as I am writing this, I am sitting on the plane, which now has gotten a delayed departure time after all.

Nevertheless, the more important dimension of maintaining a joyful mind became clear to me over the course of the meeting. We were reflecting on what makes Mind and Life events so special. I felt that a crucial ingredient is that it connects us to a dimension of life that we find deeply meaningful. While eating a Sachertorte, which we also did during the meeting, is lovely, this pleasure is only very temporary. In contrast, when you are engaging into work that puts into practice your deepest human values (which for a Buddhist practitioner is mostly cultivating compassion for all living beings, as well as wisdom), this feels very gratifying. When my academic work aligns with these values, in which wisdom may be operationalized as simply learning more about the nature of the human mind, and compassion as doing research that matters and brings benefit to beings, or teaching that gives insight and knowledge to others, then I feel happy for a much longer time. Moreover, by breaking down the boundaries between work and spiritual practice, there is less of a feeling of stress because work becomes just another way to engage in spiritual practice, rather than a competitor for our time. In this way, I think figuring out a way to align one's work to true human values is a way to "always maintain a joyful mind", and also a recipe against burnout.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Finding your own vision for yourself

I like this image because it shows one quality that I find very important  to cultivate: caring for others. (this was  holding a little baby goat on the way to Ladakh)
In this blog I will discuss my facorite Lojong slogan, which is "of all witnesses, rely on the principal one." This refers to not going by other's judgments of you, but sticking to your own compass. It is obviously critical to do this, because otherwise it is the recipe for unhappiness. People will never always like you, especially when you are trying to go against some societal conventions or have some controversial ideas.

One reason I like this slogan a lot is that I really have to work a lot on this one. I tend to be a people-pleaser, and find it challenging to ignore what people think of me. One example is a class I have been teaching, which consists of very critical and quite negative and judgmental students. I noticed I started to worry more and more about what they were thinking and get really scared of doing something wrong. (I read the student evaluations last week, and while they were commenting that the course was not well organized, and that the book was crap, they also wrote that I was knowledgeable and sweet).

Mountains always remind me to keep an overarching vision
Interestingly, this past week I read an amazing alternative perspective of one person nominated as a Teacher of the Year at my university, who said: I really appreciate it when students take the time to tell me I am doing something wrong. Because when you know you do something wrong, you can learn, otherwise you can never change. And as long as you know you have done your best, that is all you can do.

A last point to keep in mind in relying on the principal witness is that it is very important to define your own vision for yourself, and your own goals. Alessia Lugoboni did a very nice video on this, in which she talked about how we often get stuck in life because we don't think enough about why we do what we do. It is important to not just go with everything that happens and get lost in the crazy rat race of daily nitty gritty, but always have an overarching vision about where you want to go. I wrote down several goals at the start of this year, and it is very inspiring to keep reviewing these every few weeks to see how I am doing. Only then can you be slowly change and develop according to whatever vision you have for yourself--not when you are relying on the small-mindedness of what other people think of you. With Tibetan new year around the corner, this is another chance for me to go back to my goals. Do you want to join me?

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Reflections on the new year and self-importance

Sometimes it is good to go back to the essence, and interestingly, the next slogan in the #lojongchallenge does just that: slogan 19 says that "All Dharma agrees at one point, and that one point is to reduce self-importance." Dharma refers to the Buddhist teachings. In other words: the whole point of the Buddhist teachings is to reduce our sense of self-importance.

I think this is such an important slogan because it helps us to keep checking whether we are still on the path, or whether instead we have succumbed to spiritual materialism, in which we use the spiritual path only to be more successful and more praised. I think that many cases where spiritual masters go off may be linked to forgetting this slogan. Of course it also is really difficult to keep reducing your self-importance if people constantly treat you as being very important, very wise and very amazing. It is all the more amazing that there are still some spiritual teachers keep a very low sense of self-importance, in which they treat even the most simple people with the utmost respect. I find that particularly inspiring because I know for myself how attractive it is to feel yourself better than others.

One particular way in which we tend to assert our self-importance is through social media. While I do not think social media are unequivocally bad, one thing they tend to be very effective at is creating groups that amplify there extremeness, and thereby become more and more polarized. If we don't feel better than others ourselves, we may still feel our group is better than the others--whether it be a political, religious, social or some other group. My aim for 2020 is to refrain from feeling myself better than others and instead to cultivate enough self-confidence that I do not need to be better than others.

Finally, this slogan also has an environmental interpretation. I think 2019 has been the year in which the world woke up to the reality of climate change and the need to do something to deal with that. If you consider yourself a bit less important, and the world and environment a bit more important, then it may be easier to undergo the minor discomforts of eating less meat, using more bicycles and public transportation, buying less, using less water and electricity... A good blog with practical advice is this one. Happy new year!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Reflections on dying and new beginnings

The 18th slogan of Lojong is about death, and it says "On how to die, the Mahayana teaches these five strengths. It matters how you act." On the one hand many things can be said about death, on the other hand, basically the idea is that you also need the five strengths, just like you need them during life. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche mentions that although five strengths apply equally, the order in which they are applied differs. For example, he says we should start with "seeds of virtue" when coming closer to death, because filling our mind with actions that benefit others may help us to have a peaceful death. And for Buddhists, having a peaceful death is one of the most important things.

Yet, here I want to focus more on death itself, which showed up quite distinctly in my life in the past weeks. First, a good friend's wife, who was maybe just about my age, passed away, just after their honeymoon. I cannot imagine how cruel life is! This also hit home because it shows how death can come at any moment, even when you are relatively young like myself. This feeling of the closeness of death became more acute during my journey to India, because there always death is relatively close. Especially when you are on a crazy taxi journey through the Himalaya, as I did...

This closeness of death is considered to be quite a good thing, because it reminds you of what is really important in life. I noticed how I started to get very wrapped up in my work, and did not have time to think about anything else. Now seeing a person so close to me very suddenly pass away made me think about what I really want to do with my life. Am I really meeting every person in my life as if it is our last encounter? Am I really trying to cultivate awareness in my mind knowing in the back of my mind that this is my last chance to train my mind? Probably not. So it is good to take this really seriously.

A few days after this devastating news, death came around once again. This time, my Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche suddenly passed away. He had been in the hospital and undergoing chemo, but still the news was very sudden. Because of the recently uncovered evidence of abuse at the hands of Sogyal Rinpoche, I felt quite conflicted. Despite the fact that these abuses cannot be denied, at the same time he was really able to communicate the dharma (Buddhist teachings) very effectively in a way that at least I could very much understand. He was also able to motivate people (myself included) to do amazing things such as building temples, doing 3-4 hours of practice every day and more. Whenever I think about Sogyal Rinpoche, I feel sadness that this is over, and that there will never be any more new teachings. On the other hand, in the mind, he is still very much there, and closer than ever before. Now is the time to really make use of all these thousands of teachings he gave and actually put them into practice. Now is also an opening to start anew--to learn from the mistakes made in the past that allowed the abuse to happen, and develop a form of Buddhism in which there is no place for such abuses. That would be such a wonderful legacy! While sudden bouts of sadness and crying still strike, I let those be, and console myself in the knowledge that in every death there is a new beginning...

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Little happy seeds during a crazy journey

The next slogan in Lojong is another very comprehensive one that pretty much subsumes the whole Buddhist path: "Practice the five strengths, The condensed heart instructions." What are the five strengths? They are determination, familiarization, seeds of virtue, reproach and aspiration. Determination refers to being very steadfast in your vow to practise training your mind. Sometimes we can be a bit cowardly and say: "well, I'll work with my mind tomorrow, when I am not so tired." But that does not work--then it will never happen. I notice how this excuse has started to creep in my practice recently: to feel like waiting with practising more until I am less busy. That will probably take many years so better start practising now.

The second strength is familiarization: nothing is easy until you get used to it. Now we are so used to worrying about all our hopes and fears--hoping for fame, fear of insignificance, hoping for praise, fear of blame, and so on, that that is very easy for us. And it makes us often very tense. I did not notice this, until a few days ago I started my vacation by taking a road trip from Manali to Leh. This is a pretty "bone-shaking" journey, so once we finally arrived in Leh at 22:30 after being in the car from 5 am, and having crossed passes with heights of 5300m, I noticed my jaw was completely clenched. This was probably especially due to the last few hours where I was seriously worried about whether we were even going to make it to Leh! In the last few days I have been working on consciously unclenching my jaw, and I notice the difference it makes to my meditation!

The third strength is my favorite one: "seeds of virtue." This refers to never letting go of any opportunity to do something positive, even if it is very small. Sometimes I can be very ambitious, but what I find encouraging about this strength is the focus on just keeping it small. You don't have to make it very special: even just smiling at someone can make a difference in their day. I have been following the daily compassion program from the free app from Being Bodhi, and this very much makes you familiar with that. During the crazy (but beautiful!) ride from Manali to Leh, also thinking about this and just spending some time wishing well in my mind helped me to come out at the other end.

The fourth strength is reproach: catching ourselves and acknowledging it when we do something wrong, but also not getting stuck in that. Just learning from the mistake and owning it. The fifth strength is aspiration: this is a more traditional part of the Buddhist religion, which has aspiration prayers. I personally often have trouble connecting to these prayers, but one beautiful way to consider the meaning of these prayers is that we often with our lack of wisdom do not really know what to pray for, and these prayers are help from the buddhas in what to ask for so it is really beneficial. Anyway, for now I think I will just simply stick with cultivating seeds of virtue, one little bit at a time...

Monday, August 05, 2019

Touching deeply into the suffering of the past (and the present)

The 16th slogan of Lojong is "whatever you meet unexpectedly, join with meditation." In this slogan, we are encouraged to bring whatever we meet onto the path, instead of getting swepped away by our thoughts and emotions. This is a particularly powerful practice when strong emotions overpower us. A recent context in which I could try this was when I was visiting the House of Terror museum in Budapest. The museum describes the horrendous effects of first Nazi occupation and later communist rule in Hungary.

The museum starts with showing videos of soldiers during D-day, gunshots of people being killed in a very haunting soundscape. It continues with more haunting soundscapes, describing life during Nazi rule, experiences of the Jews being sent to concentration camps and locked up in ghettos. Then after the defeat of the Nazis, the dictatorship continued with the communists, who took over the same space for their secret police as the headquarters of the Nazis on the street in Budapest where the museum is housed. Now different people were being arrested and jailed, but the story was similar. Especially scary to me were the videos of people cheering for the rulers and little kids being expected to express their allegiance. I found this so scary because these were the masses that were groomed to cooperate with the atrocities of the regime. There were video interviews with prisoners who had sat in this very complex. Then we were taken into an elevator to the basement where the cells were. In a chilling audio story, we were told about how prisoners were hanged. By that time, my friend and I could barely bear the suffering anymore--so much suffering... And why? We rushed through the cells to the exit because it was just too much. This was the time in which I sorely needed my practice. In an attempt to make sense of all the violence, I tried to connect mentally to the victims that we saw, and to send them loving kindness--to at least mentally ease their suffering. In some sense this felt silly and senseless, but maybe in another sense, it was at least bringing some goodness to this place. Because I believe that this is the only antidote to violence and hatred: love and compassion. Sometimes i also tried to breathe in their suffering, as in the practice of Tonglen, and to breathe out my happiness and well-being in return, so it would ease the suffering. Finally, I also tried to visualize the Buddha of purification, Vajrasattva, and imagined all the suffering would purify the karma of those beings so that at least they would be spared more suffering in the future. This was a very real place where I could bring the practice in my daily life. In fact, for me it was the only way to touch my heart to the suffering that I witnessed.

While both my friend and I left the museum visibly shaken, it was also a very good experience. It was a very powerful reminder that we need to really avoid these situations in the future and our own lives. It is important to cultivate kindness and positivity so the violence has less of a soil to grow from. So the practice of lojong and compasssion is crucial! But also, we must speak out against intolerance and hatred, and campaign for good education and critical thinking to avoid people being taken over by totalitarian regimes. Because whatever flavour it is, this is where this violence can flourish and spread. May we be able to eradicate the pain and suffering of the world, because the House of Terror is only a reminder of what is going on in so many places even to this day...