Questions and Answers
Let’s start our session with some questions.
I wonder if this statement is right or not: Every perception that we have through our six senses, along with the mental factors, is our karma, our past accumulated karma. Are perceptions which I perceive by way of my six senses karma or not?
Well, actually no. With karma what we’re talking about is simply the urge. The urge will accompany sense perception or mental thinking and draw the consciousness and accompanying mental factors to do something further with their object in the next moment. There are several theories and different presentations of karma in Buddhism, but according to the least complicated one, karma is always this mental urge.
We have mental, physical and verbal karma – in other words, urges that drive us to commit an action of body, speech or mind. From the various actions that are brought on by karma, we have, as their aftermath, various tendencies and positive and negative forces and so on, and they ripen into various things. What do they ripen into? For example, they ripen into what it is that we feel like doing and intend to do, and this is similar to what we have done before. Subsequently, what follows would be, together with the intention, the urge that draws us into doing it.
For instance, let’s look at a destructive type of behavior like scolding somebody. In this situation, what we feel like doing is scolding them. This person just said something or did something, and we think it was wrong and so we feel like scolding them. Scolding them as what we feel like doing is what ripens from previous tendencies to act and respond like that. What follows is the intention to actually scold this person or, often, it could be the intention to first think it over in order to decide to do it. If that is the case, then together with that intention we have the urge to think about scolding them. This is called an “inciting karmic urge,” or an inciting karmic impulse, because it can bring on afterwards another karmic urge to actually scold them – although, of course, we may change our mind and decide later not to do it.
Together with that intention would be an accompanying positive or negative emotion. The intention and this emotion together are what we call “motivators” or, simply, motivation. In this case, it’s the “causal motivation.” This causal motivation could be, for instance, that we want to correct them. They’re making mistakes, and we really care about them. So, there’s a compassionate aspect accompanying our intention to scold. We’ll then have a train of thought, brought on by the inciting karmic impulse, which says, “I’m going to scold this person. When I see them next time, I’m definitely going to scold them.”
Following that, when we see the person, with the intention to scold them, we would have what’s called an “urging karmic impulse.” This is the urge that draw us, in the next moment, into the verbal action of scolding them.
At the time when we thought to scold the person, the intention was to scold them, and the motivation perhaps was compassion. Compassion is what is called the causal motivation. However, when we’re actually in the situation and have the urge that actually gets us into saying something, again, the intention is to scold the person. However, because we’re in the heat of the situation, the emotion behind it could actually be anger. That often is the case. We had a so-called good motivation to start with, but in the actual situation, we become angry. That’s called the “contemporaneous motivation.” It’s contemporaneous, meaning it arises at the same time when we’re actually just about to engage in the action and then actually engage in it.
The urge, the intention, and the accompanying emotion are all going to continue because we need something that drives us to continue scolding the person. However, the scolding has become yelling at them. Eventually, something is going to have to change. There will be the urge to stop yelling, to finish, along with the motivation for why we will stop yelling. It’s a continuing process.
When we speak about the aftermath 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. Because we are yelling harsh words and so on at the person, that could have one result. Nevertheless, the causal motivation is compassion, and that will have a different type of result.
We can see with this example that the motivation to think to do it and the motivation with which we actually do it could be quite different. It is quite important to understand what we mean by motivation in Buddhism. We set our motivation before a teaching. That actually means both an intention and some accompanying emotion. The intention is to reach enlightenment to help others. The emotion behind it is compassion. This combination is what we call motivation in Buddhism. Often, we think in the West that motivation is just the emotional aspect.
To review briefly, with this explanation, karma is not the action. Karma is the mental factor of the urge that brings us into the action. The action itself is the sequence of behavior to which the urge leads. However, what we perceive at the time in which all of this is happening is not karma.
Nonetheless, perhaps what you were trying to ask involves something else. We use the word “karma” in a very loose sense in the West, and so we would say that it’s our karma that we saw this or that object or that we met with an accident or whatever. Perhaps this is what you are asking. So here in the West, we also call the result of karma by the same word “karma.”
Are our experiences and perceptions 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 is 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. They think that when someone is hit by a car, it is the person’s karma that causes someone to hit them with the car. It’s not like that. What the karma ripens into is it being you that I experience seeing walking into the room and asking a question. That’s from my karma. However, your walking into the room and asking a question, that is the result of your karma.
But let’s not over-exaggerate 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, and also that somebody invented the airplane. There are many, many causes. In the Buddhist analysis, there are actually twenty different types of causes that are involved in what happens.
The Three Criteria for a Valid Mental Label
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?
How do we discriminate when the appearance, 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 cognition is valid.
First Criterion: A Convention
The first one is that there needs to be a convention. 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. Basically, there are certain patterns that are conventions.
There are general conventions. As I said, there’s smiling. It can also be a frown, when the face is wrinkled up if we’re worried about something or there’s something wrong. So there are certain expressions, including more general ones, and some that could even be specific to a particular culture.
Additionally, there can be very 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. It has to validly fit into a convention that’s appropriate.
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 our convention of somebody loving us and how they demonstrate their love is to frequently say, “I love you” and embrace us and give physical affection. However, that might not be the other person’s convention of how they express and show love. It could be that they really take care of someone and so on, but they’re not physical. However, because they don’t show physical affection and they don’t say, “I love you” all the time, the appearance or the hologram is that they don’t love us. However, that’s wrong because we’re fitting their behavior into the wrong convention.
To use the analogy that one psychologist came up with, what we need to learn is to accept payment in different currencies. We want to be paid in Lats, and the other person is paying in Euros. We have to learn to accept the other currency and recognize that it’s equivalent.
Second Criterion: Not Contradicted by a Mind that Validly Sees Conventional Truth
Then, the second criterion is that the appearance is not contradicted by a mind that validly sees conventional truth. An example of this might be that we thought we heard someone say something really nasty or whatever, but we didn’t hear correctly. When we ask somebody else who heard it to please repeat what was said, it was actually something completely different. We heard incorrectly. Therefore, 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 someone to repeat what took place and confirm that we didn’t mishear, misunderstand, or weren’t looking. For instance, we wanted our friend to turn off the oven, and they turned it off when we weren’t looking. Then we accuse them of not turning it off because we didn’t see them do it.
Third Criterion: Not Contradicted by a Mind that Validly Sees Deepest Truth
The third criterion is that it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. There are many levels of that, but let’s look at this on a very simple level. Suppose someone says something nasty to us, or doesn’t show up for a date or an appointment, and then we totally lose sight of everything in our relationship and the whole history, and we just get upset and make that concrete as in, “You don’t love me anymore and we’re finished,” and so on. This is contradicted by seeing the deepest truth, that this is just one small incident in a whole relationship. It’s best not to explode and inflate it into the whole thing.
Any other questions?
My question is about general conventions. If everyone that’s in a certain group changes that convention, does that mean that then we can change reality? For example, we can milk a drawing of a cow, and so forth.
Well, no. I don’t think that that’s the case. Just because everybody thinks that we can milk a drawing of a cow, that doesn’t mean that everybody can.
However, what would be a change of convention? When I was a child meeting a friend, maybe we shook hands, but particularly in the United States, there was little physical contact. That entire generation was raised in the ways of their parents for the most part and didn’t show very much physical affection – of course, there were exceptions. Their parents lived in this generation of the economic depression before and then during the Second World War, and were affected by that. Then, my generation reacted in the opposite way and changed. We decided we like physical affection and so over time, the convention changed. When we met a friend, we hugged.
This change of convention can be understood in very different ways. The hug would be understood very differently when I was a child, and a handshake is understood very differently now. When somebody just shakes our hand now, they’re most likely just an acquaintance and not really a friend. At the time when people just shook hands or didn’t do anything, if we gave a hug it would be interpreted as a sort of sexual advance. There are obviously many similar examples. Things change all the time, don’t they?
Exercises for Adjusting the Ten Innate Mental Factors
There are exercises that we can do, and the first one shows us that it is possible to adjust our mental factors. We will work with each of these ten mental factors, and what we will discover is how different mental factors will change the strength of other mental factors.
We’ll start with urges. We’re just looking around the room, and we might perchance see this sweater that I’ve put in the middle of our circle, but it’s not terribly interesting or relevant to anything. Please do that.
There’s no particular reason to look at the sweater, except maybe curiosity. “Why did he put the sweater there when it’s so hot and we’re sweating?” Yet imagine that it is very cold in this room. It’s winter, the room isn’t heated, and we are feeling cold. Then, there’s a lot of interest in that sweater. Clearly, because of the circumstance, the urge will come up to really look at it with interest, won’t it? If we imagine being cold, it looks pretty good. What can be confirmed from this, from that urge, is that if we are motivated by caring concern, in that we care about something or somebody, then we can generate the urge to look at how they’re doing. This is just like 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. We will have the urge to ask them how they are doing and what has been happening to them.
Don’t we all have people who call us and they only talk about themselves? They never ask how we’re doing or show any interest in us? Not very nice, is it? We can actually generate that urge to ask the other person, “How are you doing?” if we care. We take others seriously. They’re human and have feelings too. Something’s been happening in their life too, so we’re 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 our energy between what we call in Sanskrit, shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind, sometimes referred to as calm abiding. Vipashyana, or vipassana in Pali, is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. In both states of mind, we would have the same object of focus.
When we focus on the object while trying to achieve vipashyana, the energy is expansive. It’s going out, trying to see all the details in an analytical type of way. For instance, in our example, we are thinking about this issue of an urge. We have learned that with a proper motivation we can generate an urge to ask somebody how they’re doing. We’re contemplating all these details, all these different facets of it, and maybe other examples and so on. In that way, the energy is going out and expanding. We could be focusing on one thing, which is the urge to ask somebody how they’re doing. The vipashyana way of looking at it includes all the aspects of the motivation, because they are human, they have feelings just like we do, there are things going on in their lives, and so on. That’s expansive.
Now, with shamatha we are focusing on that same object, in this case, the urge to ask somebody how they’re doing. The energy is closing in, and getting more and more focused. Rather than going out, the energy is coming in. I sometimes describe that as “let it sink in.” It’s an experience of settling with “I can do that.” The energy is directed to 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.
I find this to be really great. In all my years of studying and practicing Dharma, I have never heard such a clear, excellent explanation of really how we do these two types of meditation, and what’s going on with our energy. It’s very, very, helpful.
Okay, so let this sink in. We are focusing on the crucial point that with a proper motivation, we can affect what urge arises. It will be the urge to ask how someone is doing. What follows from that is to focus on the decision that we are going to try to do that. We can remember to do that when we call someone or someone calls us. When someone asks how we’re doing, we can tell them a little bit, but don’t go on for fifteen minutes. After a little while, we might say, “Well, enough about me already. How are you doing?” Then we have a little bit about the other person, a little bit about our self, and it’s an actual communication, sensitive to each other. While we’re talking about me, me, me, then because of the concern about the other person – remember our caring concern – the urge will come up to ask them, “How are you doing?”
With distinguishing, we can distinguish many things when we look around the room. Using our example of the sweater, again, if we were interested, we would distinguish that sweater from the background. And if we were concerned about fashion, we might be checking out the neckline to see if it had a V neck or high neck. We want to distinguish that, don’t we? Additionally, with interest in this, we can distinguish the sleeves from the main part of the sweater.
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 that person is doing, then we distinguish. They might not be looking so well today, for example. Or, just from the way that they’re dressed it’s obviously something is wrong. But, we have to distinguish that. We can choose to do that, and we can actually do it. Everything interconnects here. We distinguish things because we consider them important.
For instance, a person didn’t comb their hair. Their normal convention is to comb their hair, although a lot of people these days never comb their hair. Where I come from in Germany nobody combs their hair. They don’t consider it too important. However, here it seems as if everybody combs their hair. We might put too much importance on this observation of uncombed hair, and then fit it into the wrong convention. We might think that this person is really in a bad mood, so they didn’t comb their hair. It could also fit into the convention that they were very busy and they didn’t have time to comb their hair. Clearly, how we interpret what we distinguish is very important. Don’t make a big deal out of these details, but observe them, distinguish.
Then, the next factor to practice is attention. Let’s look around the room and notice that certain things will catch our attention and that we engage in focusing on them. Other things don’t catch our attention and 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 we’re wearing, and they never pay attention to that. Again, what do we consider important? What we care about affects what we pay attention to. Therefore, if we were to change what we consider important and relevant to us, then we can change what we pay attention to.
Let’s go back to the sweater as an example. Let’s say we are allergic to cat hair and we want to put on the sweater. 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? We would do it because we’re allergic to cat hair. There’s interest, and that way we pay attention, the kind of very close attention we give to see if there is cat hair on it.
Please try that and see for yourself how if we pay attention to the sweater just normally and then change and pay attention to it because 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.” Now we’d have an intention to look on the other side. Without our concern for cat hair, we wouldn’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?
Similarly, let’s say someone were sick, we could pay attention to how they’re walking. Are they walking steadily? Are they still shaky on their feet? We would pay attention to different things. That would change, and again we can change that purposely.
Another example is to pay attention to how much and how fast we’re eating. Let’s say we have a problem with eating too much and too quickly. If we eat too quickly, then we don’t get the signal from our brain when we’re full. We’ve gone beyond that point before the brain actually sends the message that we’re full. How often do we pay attention to how quickly we’re eating? For most of us, it’s not very often.
That’s actually a big sensitivity issue at times. Have you ever eaten 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 starts to talk and puts the fork down. In between every bite, they always put the fork down and we’re going crazy because we want to leave, thinking, “Finish eating already!”
However, it could be the other way. We’re with somebody and they just gobble their food down like a dog, and we feel really weird that it’s taking us longer. Again, we have to pay attention to how we’re eating. As for 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? After determining this, then if we really can’t eat quickly, be sensitive enough to say, “You don’t have to wait until I finish. I eat slowly.” Let others choose. That’s being sensitive. Once again, it comes down to the caring attitude and quieting our mind to be able to pay attention to more than just our conversation. We care, so we pay attention. We distinguish. Perhaps, the other person is looking at their watch and it’s clear from their body language that they really need to go already. Pay attention to that. Distinguish it. We can decide to do that and we can do it.
Contacting Awareness and Feeling Some Level of Happiness or Unhappiness
In terms of contacting awareness, remember this differentiates experiencing contact with an object as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is affected by many other variables, isn’t it? When we consider something as something that we like, then it’s pleasant to have contact with it. We smell our favorite food being prepared, and then we like it. Therefore, we have pleasant contacting awareness with that object because we have a habit of liking it, so it’s pleasant. When we pay attention to something that we don’t care for, then it’s unpleasant.
Let’s say we’re a vegetarian and we pass by a butcher’s shop with all these pieces of meat hanging. Because we don’t care for meat, and maybe have some strong thoughts about that, then it’s very unpleasant to see that meat hanging in the butcher’s shop, isn’t it?
Again, this is something that can change.
Let’s practice again in the way that we look at the sweater. Consciously look at the sweater as our favorite item of clothing that our loved one has knitted specially for us. 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.” This is especially true if our mother has already passed away, as in my case. I have a scarf that my mother knitted for me, and it always gives me great pleasure to see and wear the scarf.
This fits in well with the Buddhist training of recognizing everybody as having been our mother. Whether it’s our mother, father, or best friend is irrelevant actually. The point is that whenever we see anybody, it’s pleasant. “It’s really nice to see you.” We notice this quality with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. No matter whom he meets, it’s such a pleasure to him. He’s so happy to meet anybody, to see anybody. From this type of training, contacting awareness with anybody that we meet, including the fly that comes into our room, is really nice.
There are so many different ways to train in Buddhism such as seeing that we’re related to everybody, that everybody in some way has been kind to us, everybody is equal, that everybody wants to be happy, and so on. From this viewpoint, whenever we have contacting awareness with anyone, it’s pleasant, it’s nice, and then we feel happy. When a person is usually bothering us and annoying, rather than having an automatic feeling of: “Ugh, not you again,” instead, it’s nice. We can honestly say, “It’s nice that you called, but I’m busy now. Let’s talk another time.” Even with someone very challenging we can be happy that our teacher of patience has come.
This is actually very profound. A change of attitude 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 that when I start to talk about it, I actually get the itch again. This terrible chronic itch was on my head, and nobody could figure out what was causing it. However, in any case, one’s attitude toward it is very important because normally with an itch one would consider it terrible suffering. We would have to destroy it by scratching it, which, of course, only makes the itch worse if it’s a chronic type of itch. However, when I was able to do it, which wasn’t always, if I would regard it as pleasure, it helped. This is because actually it’s not pain. It’s a super intense pleasure. It’s too much, and so we have to destroy it. However, when I relaxed enough and just found a way to view it as a nice sensation, then I could deal with it. Clearly, this is a change in attitude. It affects very much how we experience things.
There are so many factors that we can change. It’s really quite amazing. As we get older, we have aches and pains. Our joints hurt, our back hurts, or whatever. Again, if we pay attention to it and make it into some really horrible thing, we’re miserable. The thing that we have to train ourselves to do is notice that when our hips hurt, for example, we can think, “So what?” We don’t have to really pay attention to it. We can focus on something else in our experience that is happening along with the hip pain, and it can be pleasant, and we can enjoy it, even though our hips hurt. That’s what we call “learning to live with it.” It’s a very important lesson to learn, because most of us will have aches and pains at different points in our life. Our older friend in the back of the room agrees. That’s how we deal with that.
Let’s return to our example of the sweater. Now, let’s focus on the sweater as a nuisance. It’s a nuisance because it leaves fuzz all over our shirt when we wear it. When that’s our consideration, that we really don’t like wearing this sweater because it always leaves fuzz on our shirt, then it’s unpleasant to see it. Let’s say we have a few sweaters in our drawer, and this one we avoid and really don’t want to wear. How we consider something makes a big difference.
I’m thinking of other examples: We’ve gained weight over the years, and the favorite clothes that we have, whether it’s a shirt or a jacket that used to fit us, now they don’t fit anymore. The way that we experience seeing it is very different, isn’t it? Therefore, everything is a variable there.
Again, this contacting awareness can change, since it’s something which is a variable. It can be very pleasant. For example, we’re happy to see somebody but we also distinguish that they are upset, and it’s not very nice to see that they’re upset. We’re not very happy to see that they’re upset. In this case, there’s a mixture of feelings. What are we happy about? What are we unhappy about? In this interaction, because we’re actually happy to see our friend and it’s pleasant to see them, although it’s not 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. If we were to focus too strongly on the unpleasantness of seeing our friend upset and we put too much importance on it, then this can deteriorate into not wanting to hear about their problems. It’s the feeling that we have enough of our own problems, and then it’s no longer nice to be with them. Obviously, the priority and importance that we put on these things is very crucial so that we can remain sensitive to the person. Accordingly, we listen to their problems, and we 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 our own experience. Are we able to maintain some sort of balance? We’re with somebody, and we 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. Do we let the dislike and sadness of their problem take over, and now it’s annoying and not nice to be with them at all? In a sense, we emotionally, if not actually physically, reject them. Think about that for a moment from our 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? When it’s our own child, then it becomes even more interesting. If we really cared 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 we’re in, what kind of problem either of us might be having, it’s still nice to be together. If we can distinguish that, then it allows us to be with somebody no matter what is going on. Then, we can have a really firm type of friendship.
Interest, Mindfulness and Concentration
When we look around the room, there are some things that naturally interest us more than others. 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. Remember, we find interest in something when we are focusing on good qualities. Those good qualities could be that it’s entertaining, amusing, or instructive. For example, it’s nice to be with a person, so that’s a good quality. A good quality can be that we could be of help to someone. Then, there’s more interest in how we can be of help.
That interest factor means rather than always looking for bad qualities and focusing on what we don’t like, we look for good qualities that are admirable. That’s very important. It doesn’t mean that we deny that there are any bad qualities or weaknesses in somebody. However, to just focus on them and criticize and so on makes for a very unpleasant experience, doesn’t it? We’re not happy while we’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 someone who likes to complain all the time? I’m sure we all know some people whose only mode of communication is to complain about the weather, their house, their friends, themselves, others, anything. Are they happy? No, they’re not happy complaining. Why do they complain? Do they like complaining?
They like it.
Do they? What do they like?
They expect to get attention, I think.
They like the attention that they get from complaining, but the actual activity of complaining is an expression of dissatisfaction. If we could understand that, then when we’re with somebody that complains all of the time, it’s a little bit more tolerable, because we could basically understand that they’re very lonely, usually, and they want attention. With that in mind, we might somehow steer the conversation away from complaining. What are we doing here? We’re changing what we’re distinguishing. Rather than distinguishing all the words of their complaint, quite unpleasant to listen to, we distinguish their loneliness and their need for attention. We address that rather than address all their complaints. However, again, balance is very important.
I’m thinking of the example of a very old and lonely person. We go to see them or call, and it’s all complaints, but really it’s an expression of loneliness. Now, we have to give them time to complain a little bit. We don’t just say, “Shut up!” or interrupt them after the first sentence and say, “Let’s go for a walk,” or whatever and completely dominate the direction of the interchange. We need to be sensitive to their need to complain. 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 remember one friend who complained 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 had no interest whatsoever in her curtains, so there was no way that I was going to be interested in what material she’d be able to get, or what store sold this material and what store didn’t have it. However, I could be interested in her, in her state of mind and in her happiness. Then, we address that in the interchange. So, we can change the interaction from being a really torturous encounter with this person to something that’s a little bit more productive and not so bad.
Once again, let’s work with our friend, the sweater. This time, we imagine that the sweater suddenly becomes the height of fashion. We look at the sweater, and then we’re really interested in it because this is really stylish and we want to be in fashion. If we were really interested in it, our mindfulness would stay fixed on it, keep a hold on it, and our concentration would stay there because we’re really interested in it. With a change in our attitude, it becomes much easier to actually focus and concentrate on something. We have to find it interesting, which means to see some good quality in it. With fashion, marketing wants us to buy it and wear it, and then be in fashion. The propaganda is that then everybody will like us.
Let’s work a bit with discrimination, specifically when it accompanies conceptual cognition. There, discriminating awareness adds certainty about the category that we distinguish as the appropriate category in which to fit what we discriminate with sense perception. When we look around the room, we automatically discriminate different things according to what we consider important. This is how we regard them. For some of us it might be very important that everything be neat and arranged properly. So we discriminate that the thangka, the scroll painting, is crooked on the wall, and then, of course, an intention would come up that we 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 crooked.
What do we discriminate as we look around the room? We might discriminate whether the flowers are fresh or old, for example. We might discriminate how many people are here in the room, if that’s important to us. When it’s not important to us, we would never think to count how many people are in the room. How many people are men, how many people are women? Do we really care? If we were to care, if we were taking a survey, then we would not only distinguish that, but also discriminate it and specifically count.
What does each of us discriminate? It really indicates what we find important. It’s very interesting. What gives it away is what bothers us. If we look at the dishes after a meal, does it bother us whether or not they get washed immediately or they’re left there until the morning? In the children’s rooms, does it bother us that the toys are all over the floor or not? What do we discriminate?
Working once again with the sweater, imagine that we want to buy it. Now, because we want to buy it, then we would check and discriminate if it the right size. Before wanting it, we might not even have paid very much attention to how big it was, but now we want to discriminate whether it will fit us or not. In addition, we discriminate, “What’s the price tag?” Sometimes, we just walk through the store and just look at things because that’s fun, but now we really want to buy it, and we need to check the price tag, so we discriminate. We could discriminate by looking at whether it will fit. It’s interesting how we essentially don’t have to verbalize anything to discriminate. We aren’t verbalizing, “Is it too big or too small?” We either just know that it will fit, or when we don’t know, it brings us into the next mental factor, intention. “I’ll try it on and see if it fits.”
We need to recognize that everything that we’re talking about is what’s involved in our ordinary, everyday life. Nothing exotic is going on. However, because we can change the way that we are interacting with this sweater – in this case, that we’re discriminating something about it – this confirms that if we are similarly motivated, we can decide to look at someone’s expression with discrimination. We want to determine: Is this person in a good or 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 or a personal problem. We don’t just talk about it at any time, because maybe the other person is tired, busy, in a bad mood, or there is something that would make the discussion unproductive. We really need to discriminate. “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.
With all these sophisticated analyses and lists and stuff that we find in the Buddhist teachings, actually we’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 them. If we’re Buddhist, and 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 all beings. If this were our assumption, then if the benefits of some teaching were not so obvious, we try to investigate and to figure it out. There has to be some practical application to this, otherwise, why would the Buddha just give a list? There’s no reason. Often it’s not very obvious what the benefit might be. We have to look deeper and deeper, discuss with others, find out from other people’s experiences, and so on.
Okay, let’s investigate the last mental factor in our list, intention. Based on what we discriminate, based on interest and so on, then the intention automatically comes up. We discriminate that the room is hot, and so the intention is to open the window. Or, we discriminate that the flowers are withered, so the intention is to buy new ones.
With our friend the sweater, we discriminate that it fits and we can afford it, and so then the intention is to buy it. Now, we look at the sweater with the intention to buy it. It’s just a mental factor, isn’t it?
Like that, when we’re in an interaction with somebody, we are interested in how they’re doing, so we pay closer attention. 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, perhaps asking, “What’s bothering you?” and so on. That intention comes up, and then an urge draws us into engaging 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 that something’s bothering them, but because we’re interested and because we really distinguish and discriminate that something doesn’t fit into the convention of everything being okay, and does fit into the convention with this person that something’s bothering them, then even though it’s not the topic of conversation, we ask, “Is something bothering you? You seem upset about something.” We can tell by the tone of voice or by the way that they’re expressing themselves. By asking, we confirm that this is or is not true. Maybe we were incorrect and it was a deceptive appearance. They might say, “No, I’m not upset actually. I’m just really tired.” However, then we’ve gotten further information, and then the conversation can go on influenced by that. We might simply suggest that we talk another time or whatever.
In short, if we are aware of all these mental factors and components that make up each moment of our experience and we realize that they can all be adjusted, without this dualistic feeling of a “me” sitting in the head at a control panel, 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, as we mentioned, focus on another aspect, that they’re lonely. We just do it.
Additionally, it’s best, of course, to be able to do this without making verbal comments in our head, like “Wow, this person’s really upset. I’d better speak more kindly.” We don’t have to comment like that. Just do it. Then it’s more spontaneous and natural. It flows more freely. This is because as soon as we start with this commentary of, “Wow, they’re upset. I’d better speak more kindly,” then this big “me” starts to pop up, and then perhaps we worry that they’re not going to like “me’’ if we say this, or maybe we’ll make a mistake, and so on. That adds stress into the situation. Then, it goes less smoothly.
Preparation for the Next Session
This brings us to the end of our session. In the next session, I’d like to introduce two exercises. 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. For the other, we can use a mirror if you have one, and we will do this looking at ourselves, at the expression on our face, and so on.
Without the mirror, there’s another exercise where we just to try to notice how we feel, what’s going on in terms of our feelings, our mood and so on. It’s a little bit more difficult than looking in the mirror because it’s more subtle, but if we don’t have a mirror, it can be done like that. In fact, this method 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 we’re doing is helpful. Often, we don’t really notice or pay attention to the fact that we’re tired or 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. However, this is in a balanced way, without being a hypochondriac. It’s not that we have to take our pulse or our blood pressure every ten minutes. It’s not like that.
For now, we end with the dedication. We think that whatever understanding and whatever positive energy has come from this discussion, 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.