Questions and Answers
So let’s start our session with some questions if you have some.
Question: I wonder if this statement is right or not. Every perception that we have that we perceive by our six senses, along with the mental factors – urge, discrimination, and so forth – these are our karma, our past accumulated karma. So perceptions which I perceive by my six senses – this is karma or not?
Alex: Well, actually no. With karma what we’re talking about is simply the urge. Now, the urge will accompany sense perception or mental thinking, but the urge is a mental factor that accompanies it, and that’s the karma. There are several theories and different presentations of karma in Buddhism, but according to the least complicated one, karma is always this mental urge.
So we have mental karma, and we have physical and verbal karma. The mental karma will come first usually. So from the various actions that are brought on by karma, we have various tendencies and positive and negative forces and so on, and they ripen into something. So what do they ripen into? They ripen into feeling like doing something, wishing to do something. Then what can follow from that feeling like doing something would be the mental urge to think to do it.
So for instance if we’re talking about some destructive type of behavior, like yelling at somebody, scolding somebody: In some situation, I feel like scolding. This person just said something or did something, and I don’t like it, so I feel like scolding. That ripens from previous tendencies to act like that, to respond like that. Then we would have the urge to think to do that. Very often we’ll have a train of thought which says, “I’m going to yell at this person. When I see them next time, I’m going to scold them.” So we think to do it. And there can be accompanying that an intention and some sort of either positive or negative emotion. The intention and this emotion – those together we call motivation.
So the intention is to yell at the person. That’s what I’m going to do. And the urge is to think to do that. And the motivating emotion, the causal motivation, could be, for instance, “I want to help correct them. They’re making mistakes, and I really care about them,” and so there’s a compassionate aspect here. So that’s our intention to scold. That’s called an urging impulse.
Then there’s an urged impulse. This would be the physical or the verbal karma. And this would be the urge, when we are in the situation with the person, that actually brings us into speaking strongly to them. So that was urged by this urging karma and the action that followed it, which was thinking.
At the time when we thought to yell at the person, to scold the person, the intention was to scold, and the motivation perhaps was compassion. So that was called the causal motivation. When we’re actually in the situation and have the urge that actually gets us into saying something, the intention again is to scold the person, but now, because of the situation, the emotion behind it could be anger. That often is the case, that we had a so-called good motivation to start with, but in the actual situation we became angry. So that’s called the contemporaneous motivation. It’s contemporaneous, meaning it’s at the same time when we’re actually engaging in the action.
And the urge and the intention and the accompanying emotion – all of that is going to continue because we need something that drives us to continue scolding the person, which now has become yelling at them. And eventually something is going to have to change there – the urge to stop yelling, to finish, and the motivation why we would stop yelling. So it’s a continuing process.
And when we speak about the aftermath of that and the karmic result of all of that, we can see that because the motivation and the actual urge are separate factors here, they can have different results. So because we are yelling harsh words and so on at the person, that could have one result. But if, let’s say, the motivation was compassion, that would have a different type of result.
But you can see with this example that the motivation to think to do it and the motivation with which you actually do it could be quite different. That is something that is quite important to understand concerning what we mean by motivation when we use that in Buddhism. “Set your motivation before a teaching.” Well, that means both an intention and some accompanying emotion. So the intention is to reach enlightenment to help others. That’s the intention. And the emotion behind it is compassion. So the combination of that is what we call motivation in Buddhism. Often we think in the West that motivation is just the emotional aspect.
With this explanation, karma is not the action. Karma is the mental factor, the urge, that brings us into the action. And the action itself is the pathway that the urge leads to, the sequence of behavior that it leads to. And what we perceive at the time in which all of this is happening – that’s not karma.
But I think I figured out what you were trying to ask, after all of that. We use the word karma in a very loose sense in the West, and so we would say that it’s your karma that you saw this or you met with an accident or whatever. I think this is what you are asking. Finally I figured it out. It’s after lunch, and it’s very hot, so I’m a little bit slow, I’m sorry. In the West we use this word karma loosely. We also call the result of karma karma.
So now is our experience, is our perception, the result of karma? For instance, I see you and listen to you asking a question. The fact that you walked into the room and asked me a question – that’s not the result of my karma. I’m not responsible for that. You’re responsible for that. That may sound funny, but a lot of people misconceive karma like that. “I was hit by a car, so it was my karma that you hit me with your car.” It’s not like that. But what the karma ripens into is my experience of seeing you. So it’s how I experience seeing you walking into the room and asking a question. That’s from my karma. But your actual walking into the room and asking a question is the result of your karma.
But don’t overexaggerate karma as the cause of what happens. That’s only one factor involved. There’s also the cause that somebody organized this course, that somebody built this building, somebody flew the airplane that brought me here, somebody invented the airplane. There are many, many causes. In the Buddhist analysis actually there’s twenty different types of causes that are involved in what happens.
The Three Criteria for a Valid Mental Label
Question: When a mental hologram arises in my mind when I see a person or a situation, how do I discriminate whether it corresponds to reality?
Alex: Okay. So the question is: How do we discriminate when the appearance is arising, a mental hologram is arising, that it corresponds to or refers to reality? According to the great Indian Buddhist master Chandrakirti, there are three criteria that have to be satisfied in order to establish that a perception is valid.
1. There Needs to Be a Convention
So what is a convention? For instance, with human beings there’s the convention that when they’re happy they smile. With dogs there’s the convention that when they’re happy they wag their tails. Humans don’t wag their tails. That’s a silly example, but there are general conventions and specific, individual conventions. This is why when we talked about these ways in which our mental activity works, one of them is putting things together into a pattern and seeing that they equally fit into a pattern. So there are certain patterns that are conventions.
- So there are general conventions. As I said, there’s smiling. It can also be a frown – the face is wrinkled up when you’re worried about something or there’s something wrong. So there’s a certain expression, a more general one, and that could even be specific to a culture.
- And then there can be specific ones. When somebody is upset, we have to know the person. With this person the convention might be that they talk a lot. The other person’s convention could be that they don’t say anything; they’re very quiet and withdrawn. So it has to validly fit into a convention that’s appropriate.
Now, this is very tricky because we could fit a certain behavioral pattern of somebody into the wrong convention and interpret it incorrectly. Let’s say my convention of somebody loving me, and how they show that they love me, could be that they are frequently saying to me, “I love you” and embracing me, giving me physical affection. But that might not be their convention of how they express and show love. It could be that they really take care of you and so on, but they’re not physical. So because they don’t show me physical affection and they don’t say, “I love you” all the time, the appearance to me – the hologram – is that they don’t love me. But that’s wrong because we’re fitting it into the wrong convention.
So what we need to learn is – to use the analogy that one psychologist has coined – to accept payment in a different currency. So we want to be paid in lats, and the other person is paying in euros. So you have to learn to accept the other currency, that it’s equivalent.
2. It Is Not Contradicted by a Mind That Validly Sees Conventional Truth
I thought I heard you say something, and I thought that you said something really nasty or whatever, but I didn’t hear correctly. When I asked somebody else who heard it to please repeat what you said, actually you said something different. I heard incorrectly. So it was contradicted by a mind, or somebody, that validly heard what was said. That’s why it’s very important when something strange goes on that we ask for more information or ask them to repeat to make sure that this was what took place and that we didn’t mishear or we weren’t looking or whatever.
We wanted our friend to turn off the oven, but they turned off the oven when we were looking away. And so then we accuse them of not turning it off, because we didn’t see them. This type of thing.
3. It Is Not Contradicted by a Mind That Validly Sees Deepest Truth
Of course there are many, many levels of that. But if we look on a very simple level, then you say something nasty to me, or you don’t show up for a date or an appointment, and then I totally lose sight of everything in our relationship and the whole history and everything, and I just take that and make that concrete as: “You don’t love me anymore. The relationship is finished,” and so on. Well, this is contradicted by seeing the deepest truth, which is that this is just one small incident in a whole relationship and not to explode it and inflate it into the whole thing.
Any other questions?
Participant: The question is about general conventions. If everyone that’s in a certain group changes that convention, that means that then we can change reality. For example, we can milk a drawing of a cow, and so forth.
Alex: Well, no. I don’t think that that’s the case. If everybody thinks that you can milk a drawing of a cow, that doesn’t mean that everybody can.
But what would be a change of convention? Like in earlier times, let’s say when I was a child, and you met a friend, you maybe would shake hands, but very often you wouldn’t, particularly in the United States. But then there was a whole generation that was raised in a way in which their parents for the most part – of course there were exceptions – didn’t show very much affection, physical affection. Their parents lived in this generation of the economic depression before the world war and then the Second World War, and they were affected by that. And then the children, my generation, reacted in the opposite way and said, “Oh, this is terrible,” and we like physical affection. And so later on, the convention changed that when you met a friend, you hugged.
So here’s a change of convention, and it’s understood in very different ways. The hug would be understood very differently back when I was a child, and the handshake is understood very differently now. So there’s a change of convention. If somebody just shakes my hand – well, they’re not really a friend; they’re just an acquaintance now. And at the time when people just shook hands or didn’t do anything, if you gave a hug it would be interpreted as some sort of sexual advance. There are obviously many examples of that fashion. What’s cool – that changes all the time, doesn’t it?
It’s not cool for us to continue questions. We will continue with the exercises.
Exercises for Adjusting the Ten Innate Mental Factors
Now, one exercise that we can do is adjusting our mental factors to see that we can. We are going to work with each of these ten mental factors here, and what we are going to see is that different mental factors will change the strength of other mental factors.
We’ll start with urges. So we’re just looking around the room, and we might perchance see this sweater, but it’s not terribly interesting or relevant to anything. So do that, please.
There’s no particular reason to look at the sweater, except maybe curiosity. “Why did he put the sweater up there when it’s so hot and we’re sweating?” But imagine that it is very cold in this room – it’s winter, the room isn’t heated, and you are feeling cold – then there’s a lot of interest in that sweater. And so, because of the circumstance, the urge will come up to really look at it with interest, won’t it? If you imagine being cold, it looks pretty good.
Then distinguishing. We can distinguish many things when we look around the room. But again, if we’re interested, we would distinguish that sweater from the background. And if we’re concerned about fashion, we might be really: “I can’t see the neck. I wonder what kind of neck it has. Does it have a V neck? Does it have a high neck?” We want to distinguish that, don’t we?
Participant: It’s secret information.
Alex: Secret information, right. And we can also distinguish the sleeves from the main part of the sweater.
You see, what we confirm from this, from that urge, is that if we are motivated by caring concern so that we care about something or somebody, then we can generate the urge to look at how they’re doing. Just as when it was cold we had the urge to look at the sweater. If we really care about another person when they call us on the phone, we won’t be talking for the entire time about ourselves, but we will have the urge to ask them, “How are you doing? What’s happening with you?”
Do you ever have people who call you and they only talk about themselves, and they never ask how you’re doing or show any interest in you? Not very nice, is it? So that urge to ask the other person, “How are you doing?” – we can actually generate that if we care. “I take you seriously. You’re a human being, so you have feelings too. Something’s been happening in your life too, so I’m interested.” Let that sink in.
It’s very interesting. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was teaching in Toulouse, France, a little more than a week ago, and he explained the difference in the direction and flow of your energy between what we call in Sanskrit shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind, sometimes called calm abiding. And vipashyana (or in Pali it’s vipassana) is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. It’s the same object of focus:
- When you focus on it with trying to achieve vipashyana, then the energy is expansive; it’s going out, trying to see all the details in an analytical type of way. So for instance here in our example, we are thinking about this issue of an urge. And with a proper motivation we can generate an urge to ask somebody how they’re doing, let’s say. So we’re looking at all these details, all these different facets of it, and maybe other examples and so on. So the energy is expanding; it’s going out. So we could be focusing on one thing, which is the urge to ask somebody how they’re doing. All right? The vipashyana way of looking at it – well, because of motivation, because of this, how they feel, they’re a human being… So that’s extensive.
- Now, shamatha focusing on that same object – the urge to ask somebody how they’re doing – the energy is closing in; it’s getting more and more focused. So rather than going out, the energy is coming in. So I sometimes describe that as “let it sink in,” this decision: “Well, yeah, I can do that.” So the energy is not looking at all the details but getting really focused down on this one thing.
The object is the same, but the way in which the mind is engaging with it is either in an expansive way or in a focusing way, going out or coming in.
That’s really great. In all my years of studying and practicing Dharma, I never heard such a clear, excellent explanation of really how you do these two types of meditation, what’s going on with your energy. Very, very, helpful.
Okay, so let this sink in. Focusing. We’re coming down into one point, that: “Hey, if there’s a proper motivation, I can affect what urge comes up – the urge to ask you how you’re doing.” And then what follows from that is to focus on the decision: “I’m going to try to do that,” if we can remember to do that when I call somebody or they call me. They call me and ask me how I’m doing, and okay, you can tell them a little bit, but don’t go on for fifteen minutes about yourself. After a little while, the trick that I do is say, “Well, enough about me already. How are you doing?” and then you have a little bit about you, a little bit about me, and it’s an actual communication, sensitive to each other. While we’re talking about me, me, me, me, me, then because of the concern about the other person – remember our caring concern – then the urge will come up to ask them, “How are you doing?”
And then distinguishing. As we saw, we could be distinguishing something with the sweater because we’re interested. So likewise, if we’re interested, we could choose to distinguish the expression on somebody’s face. Usually we don’t even pay attention to that, but if we’re really interested in how they’re doing, then you distinguish: They’re not looking so well today. Or just the way that they’re dressed – obviously something is wrong there. But you have to distinguish that, and you can choose to do that, and we can. You see, everything interconnects here. You distinguish things because you consider them important.
So, for instance, this person didn’t comb their hair. If that’s their normal convention, to comb their hair… A lot of people these days never comb their hair. Where I come from in Germany nobody combs their hair, but here everybody looks as though you comb your hair. Don’t consider it too important. Take it into consideration. But if you put too much importance on it and then fit it into the wrong convention – well, this person is really in a bad mood, so they didn’t comb their hair – well, it could fit into the convention that they were very busy and they didn’t have time to comb their hair. So how you interpret what you distinguish is very important. So don’t make a big deal out of it, but observe it, distinguish.
Then the next one is attention. So we look around the room and see that certain things will catch our attention so that we engage in focusing on them. And other things don’t catch our attention; we don’t pay attention to them. Some people pay tremendous attention to what other people are wearing. Some people couldn’t care less about what you’re wearing, and they never pay attention. So again what do you consider important? What you care about affects what you pay attention to. So if we change what we consider important, what’s relevant to us, then we can change what we pay attention to.
So an example. Let’s say we are allergic to cat hair and we want to put on the sweater, so we would pay really very close attention to the sweater to distinguish whether or not there’s any cat hair on the sweater. Why would we do that? Because we’re allergic to cat hair. So interest, the way that you pay attention, the kind of attention you pay… Now you pay really close attention: “Oh, I see cat hair on it.” So please try that. And you see in yourself that if you pay attention to that just normally and then you pay attention to that because: “Oh, there’s cat hair on it,” it’s a whole different way of paying attention, isn’t it? “Is there a cat hair on it? Maybe it’s on the other side.”So now we’d have an intention to look on the other side. If we didn’t care whether there’s cat hair on the other side, why would we ever think to want to look at the other side of this? No way.
So similarly we could pay attention to – if somebody was sick, let’s say – how they’re walking now. Are they walking steady? Are they still unsteady on their feet? You would pay attention to different things. That would change, and you could change that purposely.
Or pay attention to how much I’m eating and how quickly I’m eating. Let’s say if we have some sort of problem with eating too much and eating too quickly. If you eat too quickly, then you don’t get the signal from your brain that you’re full; you’ve gone beyond that point before actually the brain sends the message that you’re full. So how often do we pay attention to how quickly we’re eating? For most of us, not very often.
That’s actually a big sensitivity issue, I find. Did you ever eat with somebody who eats really, really slowly – the person that picks up the fork, plays with the food, takes a little bit of it, and then they start to talk and they put the fork down, and in between bites they always put the fork down. And you’re going crazy because you want to leave. “Finish eating already!”
Or it could be the other way. You’re with somebody and they just gobble their food down like a dog, and you feel really weird that it’s taking you longer. So again you have to pay attention to how you’re eating, and the other person: Are they busy? Do they want a nice leisurely lunch that’s going to take two or three hours, or do they need to get back to work or whatever? And then if you really can’t eat quickly, to be sensitive enough to say, “You don’t have to wait until I finish. I eat slowly.” So let them choose. That’s being sensitive. And again it comes down to the caring attitude and quieting your mind of thinking of just your conversation. But you care, so you pay attention. You distinguish. They’re looking at their watch, and it’s clear from their body language that they really need to go already. So pay attention to that; distinguish it. And we can do that.
Contacting Awareness and Feeling Some Level of Happiness or Unhappiness
Then in terms of contacting awareness. Well, contacting awareness, remember, distinguishes experiencing this object as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And again that is affected by many other variables, isn’t it? If we consider something as something that I like, then it’s pleasant to have contact with it. We smell our favorite food being prepared, and then we like it, so we have pleasant contacting awareness with that because we have a habit of liking it, so it’s pleasant. And if we pay attention to something that we don’t care for, then it’s unpleasant.
Let’s say we’re a vegetarian and you pass by a butcher’s shop with all these pieces of meat hanging. And because I don’t care for meat, and maybe I have some strong thoughts about that, then it’s very unpleasant to see that meat hanging in the butcher’s shop, isn’t it?
So again this is something that can change.
Okay, we look at the sweater. So consciously look at the sweater as your favorite item of clothing that your loved one has knitted specially for you. And so when we look at it with that attitude, then of course it’s very nice to see it, and we feel happy seeing it. It reminds us of our loved one that knitted it for us. Even if it’s hot and we have no intention of wearing it now, still it’s nice to see that. “Hey, my mother knitted that for me.” Especially if your mother has passed away already, as in the case of myself. I have a scarf that my mother knitted for me, and it always gives me great pleasure to see the scarf, to wear the scarf. It reminds me of my mother.
That fits in very much with this Buddhist training of recognizing everybody as having been your mother. And whether it’s your mother or father or best friend, that’s irrelevant actually. The point is that whenever we see anybody, it’s pleasant. “It’s really nice to see you. Hey, it’s nice to see you.” This you notice with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. No matter who he meets, it’s such a pleasure to him. He’s so happy to meet anybody, to see anybody. That comes from this type of training. Then your contacting awareness with anybody that you meet, including the fly that comes into your room, is really nice: “Hi!”
So if we’re trained in seeing that we’re related to everybody, that everybody in some way has been kind to us, everybody is equal, everybody wants to be happy, and so on – there’s so many different ways to train in Buddhism – then whenever we have contacting awareness with anyone, it’s pleasant, it’s nice, and then you feel happy. So even if somebody that usually is such a pain – this person is always bothering me and annoying me and so on – rather than having that type of response, an automatic feeling of: “Ugh, he’s always really unpleasant. Not you again,” it’s nice. And we can say, “It’s nice to see you, nice that you called, but I’m busy now. Let’s call another time.” And even if it’s somebody that’s very challenging to be with: “Oh, how nice. My teacher of patience has come.”
This is actually very profound, that with a change of attitude we can actually affect how we experience things in life. Is it nice or not very nice? Is it pleasant or is it unpleasant? We can actually change that.
I’ll give you an extreme example from my own experience. I used to have a chronic itch, and it’s very funny – when I start to talk about it, I get the itch again. But I used to have a terrible chronic itch on my head, and nobody could figure out what was causing it. But in any case, one’s attitude toward it is very, very important. Because normally an itch you would consider: “This is terrible. This is suffering,” and you have to destroy it by scratching it, which of course only makes the itch worse if it’s a chronic type of itch. But when I was able to do it, which wasn’t always, but when I was able to do it, if I could regard it as pleasure… Because that actually is what it is. It’s not pain. It’s just super intense pleasure. It’s too much, and so you have to destroy it. But if you can relax enough and just find: “Oh, this is a nice sensation,” then you can deal with it. So this is a change in the attitude. It affects very much how we experience things. As I say, it’s very weird because whenever I talk about it, my head itches.
There are so many factors that we can change. It’s really quite amazing. As you get older, you have aches and pains. Your joints hurt, your back hurts, or whatever. And again, if you pay attention to it and make it into some really horrible thing, you’re miserable. So the thing that one has to train oneself to do is: “Okay, my hip hurts. So what?” and you don’t really pay attention to it. Then you could focus on something else in your experience which is happening, and it can be pleasant, and you can enjoy it, even though your hip hurts. That’s what we call “learning to live with it.” Very, very important lesson to learn, because most of us will have aches and pains at different points in our life, particularly as you get older. Our older friend in the back of the room agrees. So that’s how we deal with that.
So as an example, we can look at the sweater as a nuisance. “This is a nuisance. It leaves fuzz on my shirt when I wear it.” And so when that’s our consideration, that I really don’t like wearing this sweater because it always leaves fuzz on my shirt when I wear it, then it’s unpleasant to see it. Let’s say you have a few sweaters in your drawer, and this one: “Oh, I don’t really want to wear that one.” So it’s different, isn’t it, how we consider it.
I’m thinking of examples: You’ve gained weight over the years, and the clothes that you have, whether it’s a shirt or a jacket or something like that that used to fit you – you’d see it, and it was very pleasant to see it, you’d like it, your favorite shirt or jacket; but now it doesn’t fit you anymore, the way that you experience seeing it is very different, isn’t it? So everything is a variable there.
So again this contacting awareness can change, since it’s something which is a variable. It can be very pleasant, and we’re happy to see somebody. But we also distinguish that they are upset, and so that’s not very nice, to see that they’re upset, so we’re not very happy to see that they’re upset. So there’s a mixture here. What are we happy about? What are we unhappy about? And in this interaction, because we’re actually happy to see our friend (it’s a pleasant contact to see them), then the fact that it’s not very nice to see that they’re upset and we’re not very happy about that – we don’t let that override the fact that it’s nice to see them. Because if it becomes too strong and we put too much importance to it, then: “Oh, I don’t want to hear about your problems. I have enough problems myself,” and then it’s no longer nice to be with them. So again the priority and importance that we put on these things is very, very crucial here so that we can remain sensitive to the person. So you listen to their problems, and you try to deal with their being upset, and it’s nice to be able to help this person because it’s nice to be with them.
Think about that from your own experience. Are you able to maintain some sort of balance? You’re with somebody, and you really like this person, it’s nice to be with them, but they’re really upset. They have a problem, and it’s not very nice. And do we let that dislike and sadness of their problem take over, and now it’s annoying and not nice to be with them at all, and we, in a sense, emotionally if not actually physically reject them?
Think about that for a moment from your own experience. It’s not that easy to balance, is it? We get annoyed with the person when we’re annoyed with the mood that they’re in. Those are quite different, aren’t they, the person and the mood? And when it’s our own child, then it becomes even more interesting. If we really care about somebody, it’s nice to be with them. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter what kind of mood you’re in, what kind of problem you might be having or I might be having. It’s nice to be with you. If we can distinguish that, that they’re a friend or whatever, then it allows us to be with somebody no matter what is going on. Then you can have a really firm type of friendship.
Interest, Mindfulness, and Concentration
Okay, interest. When we look around the room, there are some things that naturally interest us more than others do. And so when we see something of interest, then our attention effortlessly engages with it, mindfulness effortlessly holds onto it, and with concentration that attention remains fixed on the object because it’s interesting. And remember we find interest in something when we are focusing on good qualities. Those good qualities could be that it’s entertaining, it’s amusing, it is instructive. It’s nice to be with the person, so that’s a good quality. A good quality can be that I could be of help to you. That’s also a good quality. Then there’s more interest. How can I help you?
So that interest factor means rather than always focusing on and looking for bad qualities that we don’t like, we look for good qualities that are admirable and so on. That’s very important. It doesn’t mean that we deny that there are any bad qualities or weaknesses in somebody. But to just focus on it and criticize, and so on, makes for a very unpleasant experience, doesn’t it? You’re not happy while you’re criticizing or complaining. But when we’re focusing on positive qualities, good qualities, then it’s very nice. It’s pleasant to be with the person. It’s not pleasant when we’re just criticizing. Does that make sense?
What about somebody that likes to complain all the time? I’m sure you know some people where that’s their only mode of communication, is to complain about anything – the weather, their house, their friends, themselves, you. Are they happy? No, they’re not happy complaining. Why do they complain? Do they like complaining?
Participant: They like it
Alex: Do they?What do they like?
Participant: Well, they expect to get attention, I think.
Alex: Right. So they like the attention that they get from complaining, but the actual activity of complaining is an expression of dissatisfaction. If you can understand that when you’re with somebody that complains all of the time, it’s a little bit more tolerable, because you can see that basically they’re very lonely, usually, and they want attention, and then you can somehow steer the conversation away from complaining. So what are we doing here? We’re changing what we’re distinguishing. Rather than distinguishing all these words of their complaint – and that’s really quite unpleasant to listen to – you distinguish their loneliness and their need for attention which is behind that, and then you address that rather than address all their complaints. But again balance. Balance is very important.
I’m thinking of, let’s say, an old person that is very lonely, and you go to see them or you call them, and it’s all complaints, but really it’s an expression of loneliness. Now, you have to give them time to complain a little bit. You don’t just say, “Shut up!” or interrupt them after the first sentence and: “Let’s go for a walk” or “It’s so nice to be with you” or whatever and completely dominate the direction of the interchange – from the complaining and then to: “Let’s go for a walk,” for example. You need to be sensitive to their need to complain. So again what are we changing here? This is the important point of this whole weekend, that we can shift what we’re interested in.
I mean, I remember one friend who complains all the time, and when I was with her she was complaining about the fact that she couldn’t find the right material for making new curtains for her window. I really have no interest whatsoever in her curtains, so there’s no way that I’m going to be interested in what material she’s able to get and what store will sell this material and what store doesn’t have it. But okay, so I’m not really interested in that, and it’s not terribly interesting to me. However, I could be interested in her, in her state of mind and in her happiness. Then you address that in the interchange. So you can change it from being a really torturous encounter with this person to something that’s a little bit more productive and not so bad.
So with the sweater, our friend the sweater here, we imagine that sweater suddenly becomes the height of fashion. And you look at the sweater, and then you’re really interested in it, because this is really fashionable and you want to be cool; you want to be in fashion. And if you’re really interested in it, your mindfulness stays fixed on it, keeps a hold on it, and your concentration stays there because you’re really interested in it. So with a change in our attitude, it becomes much easier to actually focus and concentrate on something. You have to find it interesting, which means to see some good quality in it. “If I buy that and wear that, I’ll be in fashion” – the propaganda that then everybody will like me.
Okay, then discrimination. When we look around the room, we automatically discriminate different things according to what we consider important, how we regard them. For some of us it might be very important that everything be neat and arranged properly. So we discriminate that that thangka, that scroll painting, is crooked on the wall, and then of course an intention would come up that I want to straighten it so that it’s perfectly vertical. Other people don’t care, and they wouldn’t even see it; they wouldn’t even distinguish it, let alone discriminate it as: “Hey, that’s not straight.”
So what do we discriminate as we look around the room? You might discriminate: “Are the flowers fresh or are they old?” for example. You might discriminate how many people are here in the room, if that’s important to you. If it’s not important to you, you would never think to count how many people are in the room. How many people are men, how many people are women? Do you really care? If you cared, if you were taking a survey, then you would not only distinguish that, but you would discriminate it; you’d count: one, two, three, four.
So what do you discriminate? It really indicates what you find important. It’s very interesting. What gives it away is what bothers you. If you look at the dishes after a meal, does it bother you whether or not they get washed immediately or they’re left there until the morning? In the children’s rooms, does it bother you that the toys are all over the floor or not (you don’t care)? What do you discriminate?
So with the sweater, imagine that we want to buy it. Now, because we want to buy it, then we would check and discriminate: “Is it the right size?” Before, we might not even have paid very much attention to how big it was, but now we want to discriminate: “Will that fit me or not?” And “What’s the price tag?” Sometimes you just walk through the store and you just look at things because that’s fun, but now if you really want to buy it, you need to check the price tag, so you discriminate. We could discriminate; take a look at it: “Will that fit me or not?” And it’s interesting actually. You don’t have to verbalize anything to discriminate like that – “Is it too big or too small?” – you just sort of know. If you don’t know, it brings us into the next one, intention: “I’ll try it on and see if it fits.”
[See, we need to recognize that everything that I’m talking about is what’s involved in our ordinary, everyday life.]Nothing exotic going on here. But because we can change the way that we are interacting with this sweater now we’re discriminating something about it, that confirms that if we are similarly motivated we can decide to look at someone’s expression with discrimination. I want to determine: Is this person in a good mood or in a bad mood? Are they busy, or are they not busy? Is this an appropriate time to speak to them about this topic or that topic, or is it inappropriate?
It’s very important to be able to discriminate the correct time for discussing something with somebody. Let’s say we have a problem in our relationship with each other, or I have a problem, or something like that. You don’t just talk about it at any time, because maybe the other person is tired or maybe they’re busy or they’re in a bad mood, or something like that, that would make the discussion unproductive. So you really need to then discriminate. You’re really motivated. Discriminate: “Well, what do they look like? Do they look tired?” Try to decide. It’s all part of sensitivity, to be sensitive to when is the right time to discuss something with somebody.
And I hope that you’re appreciating that with all these sophisticated analyses and lists and stuff that you find in the Buddhist teachings, actually you’re talking about very practical things that we can use in our life in everyday situations; it’s just a matter of knowing how to apply it. If we’re Buddhist, if we have accepted this direction in our life, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, what does that mean? It means that we accept that whatever Buddha taught was for the benefit of people – benefit of all beings, I should say. So if this is our assumption, that whatever Buddha taught has to be of benefit to others, then if it’s not so obvious how it’s of benefit, you try to investigate, try to figure out. There has to be some practical application to this; otherwise why would the Buddha just give a list? There’s no reason. And often it’s not very obvious what the benefit is of this or that teaching. You have to look deeper and deeper, discuss with others, find out from other people’s experience, and so on.
Okay. The last mental factor in our list is intention. So based on what we discriminate, based on interest and so on, then the intention automatically comes up. I discriminate that the room is hot, and so the intention is to open the window. Or I discriminate that the flowers are withered, so the intention is to buy new ones. Or with our friend the sweater, I discriminate that it fits me, and I can afford it, and so then the intention is to buy it. So look at it with an intention to buy it. It’s just a mental factor, isn’t it?
So, like that, we’re in an interaction with somebody, we are interested in how they’re doing, we distinguish the expression on their face, we discriminate from that and from their tone of voice that they’re upset, and then we have the intention to speak kindly to them to try to help them: “Well, what’s bothering you?” and so on. So that intention comes up, and then we engage in one way or another with the person.
They might not say anything. This is very interesting. It could even be on the phone. They don’t really say anything, that something’s bothering them. But because you’re interested and because you really distinguish and discriminate that it doesn’t fit into the convention of everything being okay, and it seems to fit into the convention with this person that something’s bothering them – I can tell by the tone of voice, I can tell by the way that they’re expressing themselves – then even though that’s not the topic of conversation, you ask, “Hey, is something bothering you? You seem upset about something.” And then you confirm, and they say, “Well, yes” or “No.” Because maybe we were incorrect – it was a deceptive appearance – and they might say, “No, I’m not upset actually. I’m just really tired.” But then we’ve gotten further information, and then the conversation can go on influenced by that: “Well, I don’t want to take up too much of your time,” or whatever.
So, in short, if we are aware of all these mental factors and all these components that make up each moment of our experience, and we realize that it can all be adjusted, without this dualistic feeling of a me sitting in the head at a control panel – “I’m going to change this dial and that dial” – then as I said, we just do it. Just generate more interest in the sweater or more interest in what the other person is saying by focusing on some other aspect of what’s going on. Rather than the boring complaint, focus on another aspect – that they’re lonely. You just do it.
And best of course is to be able to do it without making verbal comments in our head: “Wow, this person’s really upset. I’d better speak more kindly.” You don’t have to comment like that. Just do it. Then it’s more what we would call spontaneous – it’s more natural; it flows much better. Because as soon as you start with this: “Wow, they’re upset. I’d better speak more kindly,” then this big me starts to pop up, and then I’m worried that they’re not going to like me if I say this, or maybe I’ll make a mistake, this and that, and we’re worried. That adds stress into the situation. Then it goes less smoothly.
Preparation for the Next Session
Okay. So that brings us to the end of our session. Tomorrow I’d like to introduce two exercises that we’ll try to fit in in the morning session. We won’t be able to do all the exercises of this particular training, but two can be indicative of what’s involved. For one I’ll put up some pictures from magazines that I cut out, and we can practice adjusting our mental factors while looking at these people. And for the other I would request you to bring a hand mirror if you have one, and we will do this looking at ourselves, at the expression on our face, and so on. And if you’re going to bring a hand mirror, bring one in which you can see your whole face, not one of these little ones where you can only see your nose.
And if you don’t have a mirror, that’s not a problem, because another exercise is to do it without a mirror – just to try to notice how do I feel, what’s going on in terms of my feelings, my mood and so on. A little bit more difficult than looking at yourself in the mirror because it’s more subtle, but if you don’t have a mirror you can do it like that. In fact the second one is much more relevant actually, because we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror that often. To be able to sometimes just check how I’m doing in the sense of sometimes we don’t really even notice or pay attention to the fact that I’m really tired or I’m really stressed, and it’s important to be aware of that, to distinguish that, and take some steps to deal with it before it becomes really critical. But in a balanced way, without being a hypochondriac, that I have to take my pulse every ten minutes or my blood pressure, like that.
So we end with the dedication. We think whatever understanding and whatever positive energy has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to develop balanced sensitivity and eventually liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Okay. Thank you very much.