I’ve been asked to speak this evening about renunciation – the determination to be free from our problems – and particularly how we can understand that in the context of the stress of living in a large city, like here in Moscow. But I think when you start to analyze that topic, that you find that most of the problems that we face in the modern world are not restricted to just living in a big city.
Over-Stimulation as a Source of Stress
Of course in a big city we have things like pollution, and traffic, and so on, which you might not find in a village, but these are not the only factors that contribute to our stress. When we look more deeply, we find problems that most people in the modern world are facing, regardless of where they live, and I think it’s attributable to the fact that we have more and more things available, more and more choices, more information, more TV stations, more movies to choose from, more products to choose from. Most people carry mobile phones, and so you have emails coming in, constant messages, chats, these sort of things and so there’s the stress of feeling that we have to look at everything, we have to answer instantly, because other people expect that we’re going to answer immediately. And although these things have certain benefits in terms of keeping us connected with others when it’s important to be connected, but sometimes it’s just too much; it’s constant and we become very insecure because if you think about it, the mentality behind it is that “I don’t want to miss something. It might be important. I don’t want to be left out.”
And so we feel compelled to always check what’s going on, but of course it never makes us feel secure, because there’s always something new happening, and a new message, and a new chat coming in. If we choose to watch something, let’s say on YouTube, or on TV – I don’t know how many stations you have available here in Moscow, but in Europe and America, there are hundreds of them, and so you don’t feel comfortable watching something because you think “well, maybe there’s something better”, and so there’s always that compulsion to look, to see “well, maybe there’s something better that I’m missing.”
Searching for Approval and Acceptance in Our Virtual Worlds
I think these sorts of things really increase our stress, no matter where we live; in a big city or a village, especially in our modern world. We want to belong to some sort of a society, some sort of group of friends; so we want “likes” on our Facebook page for everything that we post, so that we feel somehow that we’re accepted and acknowledged, but we’re not calm about that. We’re never satisfied with the number of likes we get, we always want more, or “did they really mean it?” They’re just pressing a button, or maybe a machine is pressing a button (you can pay to have a lot of likes). And we feel excited with anticipation, when our phone indicates that we’ve received a message; maybe it will be something special.
And we have this excitement of anticipation when we go to our Facebook page and see “did we get some more likes?” Or we become like, how I often describe myself, as being a news junkie, and I’m always looking at the news, to see if something new, something interesting is happening, because I don’t want to miss anything.
Of course if we analyze that issue more deeply, what we find is underlying it, is a feeling of “I’m so important, that I have to know everything that’s going on. And everybody has to like me.” We could do quite an in-depth analysis from a Buddhist point of view on why do I feel that I’m so important, and I have to know everything, and I have to be so acknowledged. Why are we so self-preoccupied, but I don’t want to go in depth in that direction this evening.
Escaping from the Reality of Our Situation
On the other hand, we often feel overwhelmed with the situation around us, and we try to escape by looking at our mobile device, or listening to music while on the metro, or while we’re walking around. We always have the earphones in, with the iPod, which is a very interesting contradiction if you think about it. On the one hand we want to be accepted into a social group, but on the other hand when we’re actually in society, we shut everybody out by playing a game on our phone, or listening to really, really loud music.
What does that spell? That spells loneliness, doesn’t it? We want that social recognition; we’re lonely, because we never feel that we’re really accepted, but on the other hand, we shut ourselves out by escaping into our virtual world, which is also very lonely, isn’t it?
We feel compulsively that we need to be entertained; there can’t be a moment of just nothing happening. That again is a contradiction, because on the one hand we yearn for peace and quiet, but on the other hand we’re afraid of the vacuum, the absence of information or the absence of music.
We want to escape somehow from the stress of the external world, either on the Metro or whatever, so we escape to our little virtual world of the phone, the internet, but even there we’re looking for approval of friends and so on, and we never feel secure. That’s something that we really need to think about: is retreating into our mobile device really the solution to our problem with stress? Whether we live in a big city or anywhere, is that the solution?
Recognizing Negative Habitual Routines, and Developing the Determination to Be Free
What we need to do is to recognize the unhappiness that we experience when we’re stuck in these habitual routines, and identify the sources. Why are we stuck in these habits?
Then to develop the determination to be free of this unhappiness, based on knowing the methods to rid ourselves of its sources, and being confident that they work. But its not that we just want to remove this unhappiness and then become like a zombie and feel nothing, going around the city like the walking dead. Happiness isn’t just the absence of unhappiness; it’s something in addition to a neutral, calm feeling. We’re not aiming to be unfeeling, that’s not the point either.
We need to recognize, then, that external objects and situations aren’t really the source of the unhappiness, suffering and stress that we experience. If they were, then everybody would experience it the same way.
And the problem isn’t the internet, and it isn’t our mobile devices. When used properly, they can be extremely helpful in our lives, of course. The problem is our attitudes toward them, and the emotions that they bring up, and reinforce, and how we actually handle this wonderful world of the internet, and how we handle our situations in life.
We have many, many self-destructive habits, and all of them are brought on by some disturbing state of mind, whether it’s insecurity, fear of not being accepted, of being left out, compulsiveness, these type of things. But the strategies that we try to adopt to overcome them, by escaping into social media, etc, just makes us more stressed; it’s a feedback loop. It just makes the anxiety of “are people going to like me?” and so on even stronger.
And it becomes even worse when we think of teenagers, and bullying on the internet. It’s not just that you get likes and everybody sees how many likes you have, but if you get bullying – “don’t likes” – type of thing, then everybody sees that as well. This is horrible, isn’t it.
People post pictures on social media, pictures of themselves having a good time, don’t they? They don’t post pictures of having a bad time. So you see all your friends having a great time, and poor me, I’m sitting here in my room looking at my phone, by myself. That’s not a very happy state of mind, is it?
We need to have some realistic attitude about what’s going on with all this social media, and so on. We have to realize that having an awful lot of likes on your Facebook page is not going to make you feel secure, it doesn’t have that ability. It’s just the opposite. We’re naive, we think that it is going to make a big difference, and it brings longing desire for wanting more likes – greed, we never have enough – and the insecurity of continually checking to see if there are more.
I admit that I have that with my website; I’m constantly looking at the statistics to see how many people looked at it today. It’s the same thing. Or every day checking the currency exchange rate, to see how much you’ve lost today. We never have peace of mind (laughter). Or we think naively that we can escape into the virtual world of a computer game, and somehow our problems will go away. It’s not very different from drinking a lot of vodka, is it, and thinking that it will go away.
If we evaluate this syndrome, we see that it’s very self-destructive, and our ways of trying to deal with the pressure and stress of life, just produces more problems.
The Need for Discriminating Awareness to Effectively Handle Our Situation
To deal with these syndromes, we need discriminating awareness of the situations we are in. For instance, a demanding job: we have to deal with it; that’s reality. We have to accept that reality. And reality is that we can only do as best as we can. If we accept that reality, it helps us to stop projecting onto our job that this is a horrible torture, and onto ourselves that “I’m not good enough.”
The problem is that we think we have to be perfect, and unless we’re a Buddha, nobody’s perfect. And even if our boss thinks that we should be perfect, and pressures us to be perfect, the reality is that that’s impossible. And because it’s impossible, then why are we banging our heads against the wall and feeling guilty, that we’re not able to do something which is impossible?
So we just do the best that we can, prioritize, and accept the reality of the situation. And then we try to keep concentration; being mindful of the reality of the situation that we face, without over-estimating it – “this is impossible” – or underestimating it, “I can just escape into my phone, and play and surf, to escape it”.
You have to deal with it. You have to deal with work. If we under-estimate it, then we think that it’s something that I don’t have to actually deal with. It’s like for instance, when you have some task that you have to do at work, and you don’t really feel like doing it, what do you do? Do you have the discipline to actually just do it or do you instantly start surfing, or instantly have this urge to look at your phone, and see “well, maybe there’s a new message, maybe somebody’s posted something more interesting”. That’s under-estimating the reality of the fact that you have to do this task. All this is involved with this determination to be free. Trying to recognize what it is, that’s really causing us the problem.
How do we deal with this?
Understanding How Actions Influence Our Hormonal Responses
We start with self-discipline, and begin with small things, and we can understand how the way that we’re dealing with our stress is working, even from a scientific point of view, if we look in terms of hormones. It gives us a whole different insight, and gives us quite a scientific basis to what Buddhism is talking about.
Cortisol and Dopamine Hormones
You feel stressed, so what is happening on a hormonal level is that our cortisol level is increased. Cortisol is the stress hormone, so we seek some relief. What is our strategy, that we think is going to give us happiness so that we get rid of this cortisol going in our body. We think, I’ll smoke a cigarette, that’ll help; or we’ll surf the internet, check the social media, for something interesting to relieve this stress. What happens is that we have the excitement and happiness of anticipation that this is going to make us feel better, so our dopamine level increases. Dopamine is the hormone of anticipation of a reward; it’s what an animal feels when it goes on a chase after another animal; there’s this anticipation. It’s easy to recognize when you go to meet a loved one, something like that. The dopamine is very raised with the anticipation of how wonderful it would be. When you’re actually with the person, it might not turn out to be so nice at all, but it’s the anticipation that raises your level of happiness based on this dopamine; this hormone.
We’re very biological beings. But after the cigarette, or checking the internet, it doesn't satisfy, so our stress returns. So it’s not a terribly good strategy.
So we need to discriminate the disadvantages of believing our misconception that the cigarette will solve the problem. Or finding something interesting in the news, or something interesting on my Facebook page, is going to solve my stress problem.
And we see when we understand the disadvantages of thinking that this is the best strategy to follow, then we can develop the determination to be free of this type of habit; the habit doesn’t work.
Refraining from Following Negative Habitual Responses
So we stop taking refuge in cigarettes. And cigarette smoking is a whole other area, in terms of: is there any benefit of cigarette smoking? No, there isn’t. But in terms of internet usage, and social media usage, and checking our messages all the time, well, we need to regulate it, not have it open all the time. In other words, stop using it as our refuge. Stop using it as our escape. Use it for its beneficial purposes, not for a purpose that it can’t possibly fulfill.
And of course that’s very very difficult, when we are bored, when we face something that we don’t particularly like to do, at work or at home, there’s this compulsive drive to look at your phone, isn’t it. But just as we need to go on a food diet, to get rid of physical obesity, we need to go on an information diet, to get rid of mental obesity. We need to try to restrict our intake of information, messages, music, etc just like we restrict the intake of our food.
Now, refraining from our old self-destructive habits at first is going to increase our cortisol level of stress. Because the old habits are very, very strong. So, just as we have terrible withdrawal symptoms when you give up cigarettes, or when you give up alcohol or drugs – cortisol stress hormone – similarly when you give up and take a break from internet, or social messages, or music, likewise, there’s withdrawal stress. It’s like detox; people have described having detoxification from music, especially when they’re addicted to always having the earphones in with the iPod, and for quite a while afterwards, you’re constantly singing music in your head. It takes a long time for that to quiet down. I think that’s a very good image; being obese with music in your head.. whooph, you know, there it is.
You can’t function because you can’t think of anything, because there’s all this music going on. Especially when it’s the same line of music repeating over and over again, drive you crazy. But if we persevere with that, that stress level of withdrawal will eventually die down, and we will experience a peaceful calmness of mind. And then, we are in a better position to replace our negative habits with positive ones.
Here we have very nice Buddhist methods which are not necessarily restricted to Buddhists: like realizing that we are part of all humanity, and we’re all inter-related, our welfare depends on everybody else, and this is a much more stable way of getting that satisfaction of our need to feel connected and bonded with others, which being part of an internet social network doesn’t really do.
There’s a hormone for that, oxytocin. And oxytocin is the bonding hormone that you have; mothers with babies, and so on. It’s this hormone within us that drives that need to bond with each other, to feel part of some group. This can get satisfied in a positive way, like feeling we are a part of humanity, we’re all equal, everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy – this type of thing, which is much more stable than trying to satisfy it by being part of a social media group, which then depends on likes.
I bring in this information about hormones for a specific reason. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is often saying that we need to be 21st Century Buddhists, and this means having a bridge between Buddhist teachings, and science, to demonstrate that there are so many things within the Buddhist teachings which are harmonious with science, and so he has these Mind and Life conferences very frequently to meet with scientists, to see where are the things that are understood in common, and how can both sides help each other in getting a more complete picture of life.
If we understand that, on just a very physical biological level, that we feel happy, we feel better, based on certain hormones within our bodies, then we can analyze what are the strategies that we’re using now to try to satisfy them, and if they don’t work, find other strategies that can take advantage of them in a positive, non-self-destructive way.
Dopamine, the Anticipation Hormone, and Setting Constructive Goals
We were talking about dopamine, this anticipation of a reward, type of hormone. It makes you feel very excited, like a lion chasing after an antelope to eat it. So we have some destructive ways that don’t work, to try to take advantage of that dopamine syndrome, like the anticipation of more likes on our Facebook page – it doesn’t work.
Or we could have neutral ways of trying to satisfy it. I have a friend who’s a weightlifter. And so he anticipates that now he can lift 180 kilos, and he anticipates being able to lift 200 kilos. He's very excited, makes him very happy in anticipation of a reward. But even then, say he can lift 200 kilograms – as a Buddhist, very cynically, we would say, is that going to get you a better rebirth?
But if we take advantage of that dopamine syndrome to work, let’s say, toward attaining shamatha, perfect concentration, or attaining patience, overcoming our anger, and so on, here it becomes very exciting. Instead of feeling frustrated; “I’m not good enough, I’m not able to take it,” you can start to work with it in terms of “Here’s a challenge, I’m really happy to try to meet this challenge.”
We have to try to do this without – you have this in meditation instructions – without expectations or disappointments. It’s when you expect that you’re going to get instant results, that of course you’re disappointed. So without expectations, but you’re working toward a goal. And working toward a goal, especially if it’s a meaningful goal, is something which is a source of happiness. That happiness we would feel has a biological basis to it, so it’s perfectly consistent with the scientific method: 21st-century Buddhism. In other words, we can explain, in a way that scientists can accept, how and why the Buddhist methods are effective. That’s the purpose.
The Three Higher Trainings: Self-Discipline, Concentration and Discriminating Awareness
In short, we need to develop the determination to be free, what we call in Buddhism renunciation. Then to free ourselves of our old negative habits, we need to train ourselves in self-discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness; the so-called three trainings: to discriminate what’s helpful, what’s harmful, what works, what doesn’t work, stay focused with concentration on that, and the discipline to modify our behavior accordingly.
The Hindrance to Self-Discipline: Regret
These three need to work harmoniously together, but to develop them properly, we need to rid ourselves of the factors that hinder them. Regret hinders our self-discipline. For example, we regret that we didn’t check the internet, or instantly answer the message or the email. Such regret harms our self-discipline to only check it at certain hours in the day.
The helpful strategy is to turn off the notification alarm – “you’ve got mail” – or indicator on our computer or mobile device, and only check at fixed periods of the day. Only answer important ones as soon as we read them, so we need self-discipline, to leave for later, answering later, the questions that can wait until we’re less busy, or leave it for a certain time of the day that you regularly set aside for answering messages.
I must confess that I’m quite guilty of this, and so I’ve adopted a strategy to try to deal with the flow of emails that come in. I don’t do social media, and I don’t get these messages, but I get at least thirty or more emails a day. What I do, instead of instantly answering so I never get anything done, is that, like this.. I check: those that are really important I answer, but the rest I flag. And I know that in the evening, when my mind isn’t so clear to be able to write or do more important things, then I’ll answer them. So you set aside a certain time. Otherwise, you’re out of control.
Hindrances to Concentration: Sleepiness, Mental Dullness, and Flightiness
Sleepiness, mental dullness and flightiness hinder our concentration. With any of them, we lose our mindfulness of the fact that refraining from constantly checking our messages will make life less complicated. To stay focused on that, remember that, that’s what mindfulness means.
Try to remember, my life will be much less stressful, much less pressured, if I accept the fact that most of these messages I’m going to answer in the evening, let’s say. Or anytime, whatever the time is that we set that we’re going to deal with them. What hinders that, you’re sleepy, you’re tired, and so you forget. And it’s easier to go into your Facebook page. Or you’re feeling dull, and rather than getting up and having a drink of water or something like that, you go into the internet. Or flightiness, my mind is wandering all over the place, and this is happening; that’s happening, and just without thinking, you answer the message. You go read it. “I don’t want to miss something”.
Hindrances to Discriminating Awareness: Indecisive Wavering and Doubt
Lastly, indecisive wavering hinders our discriminating awareness. We waver back and forth about checking our messages at only fixed times – “was this the right decision?” – being uncertain of ourselves. Doubt.
Such doubts arise because it’s difficult and stressful to refrain from checking. To deal with these doubts we need to remind ourselves of the advantages of changing our habits; it will make my life less fragmented if I can just stay with one thing and take care of things in a proper order, a proper structure. Otherwise it’s chaos, and chaos is stressful.
Equanimity and Compassion
There are other strategies that we can also adopt to make our lives happier. For example, how do we handle being on a crowded metro. The more that we focus just on ourselves, and wanting to protect ourselves, and escape into our mobile phone, the more closed we feel. I’m not talking about calmly using the time on the metro, since it takes a long time to get anywhere, to read a book. I’m talking about when you escape into the mobile, or into your music, or a game. The more we focus on ourselves and wanting to protect ourselves, and escape into the mobile phone, the more closed we feel, so our energy is squeezed, and we feel more tense. We’re not relaxed, because we feel threatened by danger, especially here in Moscow where the metros are so incredibly crowded. In Berlin it’s not so crowded.
Even if we became absorbed by the game we’re playing on our mobile, or the loud music we’re hearing on our iPod, we’ve put the wall around us, we don’t want to be disturbed, so we’re defensive. It’s a very unpleasant experience, actually, even though we’re trying to be entertained. We’re not calm.
On the other hand, if we view ourselves as part of the entire crowd of people on the metro, and develop concern and compassion for everyone in the same situation as we are, our minds and hearts are open. We can of course be alert to danger, but without the paranoia of focusing just on ourselves. We want everybody to be safe. We don’t try to drown out everybody else with music or escape from everybody into a game. That just isolates ourselves. We don’t want to isolate ourselves.
Feeling an Openness to Everybody
What is much more helpful is to feel openness to everybody, but being open, that’s also very delicate. If you grasp to a solid me, that’s inside, now I’ve opened up, now I’m vulnerable, I’m going to be hurt. It can’t be done on that type of basis. Opening up to thinking of everybody, on the one hand it satisfies this animal instinct of being part of the herd. You feel safer when you’re part of the herd, rather than isolating yourself from the herd. So on an animal level it works. But we have to be careful also about deconstructing this solid me that’s inside now with the walls down.. “now everybody’s going to attack me”.
It’s a delicate operation but one which is very helpful if you can do it. To do this we need to combine self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness.
Taking Effective Breaks from Intensive Work
There are many other strategies that we can adopt to try to deal with stress in our lives, very simple ones even. Like if we need a break from intensive work, rather than surfing on the internet, stand up, have a drink of water, look out the window – something like that. In other words, less stimulation rather than more stimulation. The stress is coming from over-stimulation. You don’t want to solve it by bringing in even more stimulation. Less is better.
With this determination to be free, applying these three trainings: self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness, we’ll be able to minimize the stress that we find in our daily lives, and the self-destructive habits that we have. We’ll be in a much calmer mind to be able to deal with the pressures of work, family, economic situation and so on. And it will be especially effective in dealing with our modern situation in which we have so much available to us in terms of internet, social media, music, etc. It doesn’t mean that we need to give up the internet, throw away our mobile devices, never listen to music again; it doesn’t mean that. But to develop a better strategy, better habits of how to use them in a healthy and beneficial way. Thank you.
The problem is that in the modern life, we have to react to things. For instance, if we check the news, we don’t just check out of self-preoccupation, but also we want to know what we should do, how to react to things. For instance the rate, sometimes they show online how it is changing and we might need to react to that. Or somebody might send you a message that a person is sick and needs help. Or our colleagues can write to us and they want to ask us something, and if we don’t check, we don’t get it. Or for instance the weather report. If we don’t check the weather report in the morning, and we go out, it might get cold, we didn’t know about that, and we might get sick. In all these cases we become less efficient and we might waste our time or health or else.
That’s why I said we need to develop a healthy strategy, an intelligent strategy how we use the internet. If we’re physically obese and we go on a diet, that doesn’t mean that we stop eating altogether. We restrict the food that we eat. Similarly, if we have information obesity, we restrict what we look at and just look at what is necessary, what is helpful, and other things, as I said, the strategy of, at least in my email program, you can flag something so you know to look at it later; deal with it later.
But this strategy implies that in any case, we receive all the information and then we choose what we answer, what we don’t answer, but still we read all our messages, and we read all the news, and so on.
Again, you have to adopt different strategies. There’s quite a difference between checking the weather report when you get up in the morning and checking how many likes you got overnight. You don’t have to check how many likes you got. And your messages that you get, some of it is advertising, some of it is from people that are not so important in terms of your work and so on; certain things you can deal with later. You know within your own address book, what is important and what’s less important. I have a friend who likes to take pictures of his breakfast that he prepares and send it to people. I certainly don’t have to look at that.
He knows that you don’t check?
I will look at it later, but I certainly won’t interrupt my work to look at it.
Other religions also provide us methods to have this sense of hormonal “feeling well.” What is the difference between them and Buddhism, then?
It’s true that other religions certainly provide this, in terms of “Jesus loves me” and “God loves me” and so on – being accepted and working towards goals. These are definitely there, that’s true. The methods that I was talking about are not terribly specific to Buddhism, they are found without any needed religious context; they’re just general strategies that are helpful for anybody. There’s nothing exclusively Buddhist in what I was saying.
When we ask what is exclusively Buddhist, is its view of reality on a very subtle level. And what these conversations with the scientists are revealing is that even that is not so unique, because this view of reality is quite consistent with the view of the quantum universe. If you take quantum theory to its logical conclusion in terms of the structure of the universe, you get the Buddhist teachings on voidness, and dependent arising.
What are we to do if we are actually prepared to see somebody in person and we are going to meet this person, but when we actually meet the person, he is just looking at his mobile phone and doesn’t pay much attention to us. In this situation is it okay to say expressly to this person, that it’s not proper, because we are having a real meeting?
Personally, I think so. I think it is appropriate to tell the person “Hello! I am here!” There’s a certain thing called mobile phone etiquette that is very important, especially if you’re a parent and you have teenage children, to establish the discipline of no texting and no talking on the phone while at the dinner table. Yes, you say it’s not allowed, and you make them put the phone away. I have a friend who teaches at an American university, and she makes her students leave their cellphones on a desk during the lecture. They’re not allowed to have it in their seat. I think that’s totally appropriate. What’s very interesting is that every – I forget whether it’s 45 minutes or an hour, because it’s a three hour seminar – she has to give people a telephone break. Not that they have to go to the toilet, but they’re so uptight about not checking their phones, that they need to rush and pick up their phones and look at it during the break. It’s very interesting, sociologically.
This is really a chronic addiction that people have to their phones, and something that often you have to help people to develop some sort of social discipline. I think it’s appropriate, if it’s done in a polite way. Again, there’s a different between is there some sort of disaster that they have to know about, or is it just chatting about something very unimportant. And let’s be realistic, how often do we get telephone calls of disasters? And if we meet somebody, and we’re waiting for a phone call to hear that our child got home safely, or something like that, you tell the person. Be polite: “I’m expecting a call. I’m waiting for a confirmation that my child got home safely,” then they understand, everything is clear.
While riding on the metro, the subway, I always listen to music, but I do it not in order to have more stimulation, but in order actually to decrease the amount of negative stimulation. That's because around me are the people who talk about something and sometimes I don’t want to listen to that, there is a lot of negativity in these talks. Also there is advertising in the metro, that says something that you always know by heart. So in order to close from all this negative stimulators, I just listen to the music. Am I escaping? Or am I changing negative and very intense stimulators into less intense and less destructive ones.
It’s a very interesting question. The first thing that comes to my mind is the Indian answer, which maybe is not the most appropriate answer: when you’re on an overnight video coach in India, a bus that has the video, it is on all night long. It’s the same movie over and over again, at top volume. If you ask the driver, “Can you please make it lower” or anything, the Indian response is “Don’t listen to it”.
In the metro, you don’t have to listen to what everybody is saying. It’s a matter of attention. What are you focusing on? If your attention is on all the people, and seeing, let’s say, the expressions on their faces, and if maybe they’re not very happy, then having the wish for them, with compassion, may they be free of their unhappiness, may they be happy, then your attention is not focused on what they are saying; you’re not looking at the advertising. Your attention is on something else.
If we’re not capable of doing that, then okay, music. But music shouldn’t be an excuse to then ignore the people. It’s a perfect opportunity for practicing compassion.
Think about the principle of tonglen, this quite advanced Buddhist practice of taking and giving. What you would try to do in this situation is rather than push out, and put the walls around what the other people are talking about, you accept it, so you’re open, and you accept that they’re talking about something trivial or something negative, and then you send out to them loving wishes that whatever is upsetting them, may they get over that. They can be more involved in more meaningful positive things. So it’s a great opportunity for tonglen practice.
Very often, when we first have the determination to be free, at some point it decreases, and maybe because of laziness, or other things, we don’t feel this any more, and what to do if it happens, to restore it.
The main advice that’s usually given is to remind ourselves of the disadvantages of whatever it is we’re determined to be free of; whatever suffering situation there is, and the benefits of being free of it. And to remind ourselves what is the methods to be free of it, and reaffirm the confidence that not only does the method work, but we’re capable of doing it. All of those are a very important part of this determination to be free. In other words, reminding ourselves that “I can be free of it if I work hard enough.” Otherwise you just feel discouraged and then you don’t do anything, you give up.
If we do meditation practice, it makes us more stable, and this is something that we achieve. But if when we take medications to make us more stable, this is something that we get basically without effort, and it doesn’t change us. Of course if a person is sick, there is a necessity to take medication. But what if someone takes something in daily life just in order to improve one’s state, to reduce stress and other negative influences on the mind?
I think that we need to be realistic about the Buddhist methods. Buddhist methods are effective for people who have already reached a certain level of maturity and stability. If you are seriously disturbed, emotionally, mentally, you’re not capable of applying the Buddhist methods yet. You need to get to some sort of stability, and medication can be very helpful – whether it’s tranquilizers, whether it’s anti-depressants, whatever it is. You need something to help you. Just to say, "well, just meditate," such persons are not capable yet. But once you become more stable, then of course you have to overcome addiction to the medication. When you’re more stable, you’re in a state of mind in which you can actually apply meditation practices. Before that you’re too disturbed; so no concentration.
In Burma, there were three people who were imprisoned for hanging a restaurant advertisement with an image of the Buddha wearing headphones. How would you comment on this from the Buddhist point of view.
Devadatta, the Buddha’s jealous cousin, was always trying to harm him, but Buddha of course could not be harmed, and he certainly didn’t get upset about it. So Buddha would not be offended about having a photo with headphones on. But, for followers of Buddhism, or followers of any religion, when people are disrespectful to their main figure, this is very offensive. And there’s no reason to offend people; it’s very rude. To throw them in prison, or a really very heavy fine, is perhaps not appropriate at all. However, they need to not do that. Freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily mean the freedom to offend people; especially when you know that it’s going to inflame a population. Now it depends of course, who decides what’s offensive or not, and that could be abused. But when it comes to the field of religion, like doing something disrespectful for Jesus or for Mohammed or for Buddha, it’s quite clear that this is inappropriate. How would Christians react to an advertisement of Jesus on the cross wearing headphones listening to his iPod as an advertisement for a new iPod? I don’t think strong Christian believers would appreciate that.
We can either strive to achieve worldly goals, or spiritual goals. I have found that there can be two extremes. One is to concentrate more on worldly goals, but in this case it is endless, and you fulfill one goal, and then there is another goal. The other extreme that I can see in the Buddhist communities for instance, they try to attain spiritual goals, but they forget about worldly goals. Are there methods, or ways, to solve this issue and find the balance?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says 50/50. We have to see what the realities of our life is, what our responsibilities are: our financial situation, do we have dependents? So be realistic.