Integrating Our Life: Overview & Focus on Our Fathers


Adding the Four Immeasurables to the Meditation

In our last session we tried the exercise with a focus on our mothers. Any questions about the meditation, about the process and so on?

Can we say that the meditation on the four immeasurables is linked to this practice we just made about our mothers?

Well, they are not completely unrelated, but the emphasis is totally different. With the four immeasurables, we direct love and compassion to others. Here, we’re not really directing feelings toward others. Instead, the exercise is more closely connected with remembering the kindness of motherly love, the kindness that we have received from our mothers. It’s not that the object is different. We’re still focusing on others, like our mother or father or friends, or whatever. The focal object is the same, but the way that our mind relates to them is different: with the four immeasurables we are directing toward that object a feeling of love and compassion, etc. In the case of the exercise we’re doing, we are appreciating the beneficial things that we’ve received from them. The object is the same, but what the mind is doing with the object is different.

This illustrates very well why Tsongkhapa emphasizes that if we want to generate a certain positive state of mind through familiarity, the main thing that we need to know are these two points: what are we focused on, and how does the mind relate to it. So, here’s a good example that we have the same focal object, but a different way of relating to it. We can also have the other case, in which the object changes, but the way the mind relates to it is the same, as in doing the same exercise that we just did but focusing on our father rather than on our mother.

Overview of the Entire Training

Could you please clarify the steps.

Yes. We need to familiarize ourselves with the steps because what we have left in the course is to now apply the same method to different focal objects. There’s a whole long list of objects that we need to consider. Let me just list these things so that you have some idea of the scope of this practice.

For each of these focal objects, 

  • We bring to mind a picture of the person or an image representing the item. 
  • If necessary, we recall the shortcomings or negative qualities of this person or item. We see that they’ve arisen due to causes and circumstances, and we decide that there is no benefit that comes from dwelling and complaining about these faults. Then, without denying these faults or shortcomings, we put aside any further consideration of them. 
  • Next, we recall the good qualities of the person or thing, and what good qualities we’ve gained from our interaction. We focus on these facts with firm conviction. 
  • Then, we recognize the benefits we’ve derived from the person or item in terms of what we’ve learned. Then we focus on these facts with deep appreciation and respect. 
  • And then we try to feel inspired to develop them further. 

So, this is the way in which we relate to the object, and now we apply this to many different objects.

The first group would be family members – mother, father, brothers and sisters, and other close family members from childhood. That could include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on. What we focus on here is our childhood and our early development.

Next, we focus on our native country, and then region, then culture, and then the religion that we were born into, if any. This is especially important and relevant for anyone who leaves their native religion and turns to Buddhism, for example. Very often, people have the tendency to look back at their native religion and only see the negative things about it, and that can create a lot of emotional trouble, actually, at a very deep level. So, it’s very important to recognize the positive things we have gained from that native religion.

Here, I need to bring in something very helpful that we don’t find in the Buddhist teachings, which comes from one scheme of psychology called “contextual therapy.” It has to do with the whole issue of loyalty. What’s been found, at least clinically, is that there’s a great need in us, as human beings, to be loyal to something, like our background. What often happens is that we have “misplaced loyalty.” We only focus on the negative aspects of our background – our native religion, for instance – and we reject them, but unconsciously what happens is that we are still loyal to those negative aspects. So, if the native religion was very closed-minded and sectarian, and we rejected it, in a way we just mimic those same qualities, often unconsciously. In other words, we become very closed-minded and sectarian about the new religion that we’ve taken. 

Where it’s found more clinically would be when parents always say, “You’re no good; you’re a loser,” and, “You’ll never accomplish anything.” In order to be loyal to that, the child in fact acts that out and becomes a criminal or a drug addict, or something like that; because if they are loyal to what the parents called them, they unconsciously feel they are accepted by the parents for that. It works on a psychological level in that way. So, the therapeutic approach for this is to get the person to be able to acknowledge the positive things about their background, so that instead of being loyal to the negative aspects, they can be loyal to the positive aspects.

This insight from contextual therapy has also shaped the formation of this type of exercise. It’s not specifically a Buddhist teaching, but it fits very well into the Buddhist teachings in terms of the emphasis on remembering the kindness of our mothers, of motherly love. In the seven-part cause and effect bodhichitta meditation, the step in which we develop this appreciation of the love that we have received and wish to repay it, what are we doing? If we translate it into the terms of contextual therapy, we are acknowledging the love that we have received and we are going to be loyal to that and extend that love not just to our next generation, but to everybody. So, this insight into the loyalty issue is very consistent with the Buddhist teaching.

OK, the next focal object of the process is to consider all the major fields of study that we have learned. We learned many different things in school – music, sport, languages, the sciences, and so on. We review all the benefits that we’ve gained from this in order to try to integrate it all. If we learned a little bit of history or geography in high school, that has benefited us in terms of understanding the world. 

It might be more challenging to see the benefit that we’ve gained from high school algebra, but we need to think about that. We need to really examine: have I learned something from algebra? Maybe we see that when we factor an equation, we use a method we can carry over to real life to analyze situations and see the components that cause them. That’s a way of thinking that certainly could very well have benefited us. I think you get the idea. We could look back at high school algebra and say, “That was a complete waste of time; it was so boring. I hated it,” but that certainly doesn’t help to integrate it into our lives as part of our education. But, if we look at it like, “Well, I did learn from that a certain way of analyzing situations. I’m not denying that maybe it was boring at the time and I hated it; but nevertheless I learned something from it. So I’m happy I learned it.”

The next area to focus on is our teachers, for both spiritual and non-spiritual topics, who have significantly contributed to our development. This is also suggested in the Buddhist teachings, that when we are thinking in terms of our spiritual teachers, we also consider the teacher who taught us how to read. If we hadn’t been taught how to read, then we wouldn’t be able to read, obviously. We use reading a lot in our spiritual study and everyday life, so the person who taught us how to read has contributed greatly to our whole development.

Then, we look at our partners, and our children and grandchildren, if we have them. We can also extend it to all the various partners that we’ve had along the way to being who we’re with now. If we’re divorced, we can focus on the marriage partner or partners that we’ve had. Earlier on, we looked back at the family members who influenced us as a child, but now, it is those who influence us while we’re adults.

After this, the next step is not just to consider our girlfriends and boyfriends that we’ve had romantic relations with, but also all our close friends, both past and present, focusing especially on everyone who’s loved us.

Then, the next step is to think about the significant phases of our life, including influences from health and economic factors, and from the different places that we’ve lived and traveled. For example, in different times of our life, we might have lived in different places or even if in the same city, in different apartments or houses. And we might have had phases in our life where we had not very much money and other phases in our life when we’ve had plenty of money, or phases in our life where we’ve faced a major sickness, or other phases of our life where we’ve been very healthy. So, we look at these different phases and see what beneficial things we have learned from those different experiences. I think that here we can include things like belonging to some sort of social club or fitness club, or having some sort of hobby like photography or whatever. We also need to include the different jobs that we’ve had, in terms of our employment.

If we have a little bit of insight into this, we can take this a step further and also take into consideration situations from previous lives that we can infer based on patterns in our present life. All of this fits into or is harmonious with the Buddhist teachings of rejoicing. We rejoice in the positive things that we have done in the past, which have resulted in the good qualities that we have now. Whether we’re talking about education, or we’re talking about constructive things we did in a previous lifetime that caused our presently having a precious human rebirth, all of those are objects that we focus on with rejoicing, we’re happy about them, in our Buddhist practice. This is quite similar to that. And if we have studied and are aware of things like astrology or numerology, we can also bring that in as well. The various benefits that we’ve received from the natal position of our Venus or Mars or the Moon and so on, the various aspects in our astrological chart or any number combinations of our different names.

So, these are the various fields in which we apply this methodology for step one of the exercise of the process. This is like in Developing Balanced Sensitivity: each of the exercises could take several months to work through, because each exercise has a very large number of steps.

Step two of this process looks at how we actually integrate all of these things together. At first we need to acknowledge and gather all the pieces. Once we have done step one quite thoroughly, we don’t have to do that over and over again. Once we’ve gathered all that information about the positive things that we’ve received from all these other sources, and we develop a strong sense of appreciation for them, then what we really need to repeat over and over again is the process of putting them all together. We need to put them all together into an integrated whole in terms of how the way that we are now has arisen dependently on these positive factors, not just the negative factors. 

I’ll outline that in the next session, the process by which we integrate all of this. But this gives you a general overview of this process that we’re dealing with here. It’s a very broad extensive process, but one that I’m becoming more and more firmly convinced can be very beneficial, as a working basis for both “Dharma Lite” and “Real Thing” Dharma – working just for this lifetime or for future lives, liberation and enlightenment.

Dealing with Having Been Abused

When involving ourselves in this process, at the beginning we acknowledge the shortcomings of the person or the situation, and we have the firm intention not to dwell on them and not to complain about them, but just acknowledge them and then go to the appreciation of the positive things. What happens if those negative things haunt us and they come back to us even if we really don’t want that, and they become a hindrance in our practice? What should we do?

I assume that what you’re referring to here is a situation in which the various methods for quieting the mind are not effective enough for us – the methods of letting go, or seeing that these thoughts about them are like clouds in the sky, or letting things settle down like waves in the ocean, there are many different ways to quiet down. But if these don’t work, then what do we do? This is your question. And so we can think of examples in which this might be the case.

Let’s say we were physically or sexually abused by a parent or grandparent or someone. Keep in mind that I am not a therapist so I don’t have clinical experience, but as far as I understand, in that type of situation what probably would be best, especially from a Buddhist point of view, would be to temporarily put consideration of this person aside and work on all these other aspects in terms of the benefits that we’ve received from other people, the love, the kindness that we’ve received. Because, often, if someone has been abused, what has been drummed into them is that: “I’m no good; somehow, I deserved to be abused.” If they can reinforce all the benefits and kindness that they’ve received from others, then that can perhaps counter those feelings and give a little bit of strength to their self-image. Then, they have the strength to face in their minds this person who abused them, accept the unfairness of their having been abused, but then to go beyond that and be able to acknowledge the positive qualities of this person as well. When we gain a more positive feeling of strength and self-image, then often we also gain the strength to deal with our traumatic past experiences.

Also, someone who has been abused usually doesn’t trust anybody. And so if they can learn to appreciate all the kindness and love and benefits they’ve received from others, that helps to counter this feeling that, “I can’t trust anybody.” Another thing we see sometimes with people who have been abused is that they identify so strongly with having been the victim that then they pretty much demand from others that they recompense them. In other words, “You have to give me more and more and more because poor me, I was the victim. So, parents, buy me a new house, indulge me, and so on.” This is very destructive and so, if we can realize that we have received a great deal of benefit from others, not on the basis of having been a victim, but just in general, that also might help to break this syndrome of: “I’m the victim, therefore, I deserve to be treated specially.”

I think sometimes, when we analyze how we might deal with a very extreme situation, it gives us a little bit of perspective on how to deal with less dramatic situations that we ourselves might have experienced. For instance, our business partner cheated us in business, or my previous wife or husband cheated on me in the marriage. I mean, in general, these things are less grave than having been sexually or physically abused.

The Importance of Equanimity

Now, let’s apply this whole process toward our father. We did it toward our mother; let’s apply it to our father.

I think that it is particularly important to work with both mother and father, because, especially as we grew up – unless of course our parents were divorced and we only had contact with one of them, or we were raised by a single parent, or one passed away or something like that – they are usually the strongest influences that we had. So it’s important to have a balanced view of what we gained from them. 

If we were raised by a single parent and the other parent didn’t do much for us, or if one of our parents passed away when we were young, we can try to see what we’ve learned from that. What benefit did we gain from the experience? For instance, it might have caused us to take a little bit more responsibility in our life, if one of our parents died when we were a young teenager and we had to grow up more quickly. Although this process is fairly easy to do with someone with whom we’ve generally had a very positive and good relationship, it is far more beneficial to try to do this with someone that we’ve had a difficult relationship with.

But, going back to the previous question, if there is somebody that is too difficult to work with, skip that person until you get a little bit stronger in this practice. Then you can come back to them. I think that underlies the importance that’s placed in all the love, compassion and bodhichitta meditations in Buddhism. The foundation for these meditations is equanimity. Unless we can clear our mind of attraction, repulsion – repulsion here being hatred of this person that we had the difficult relationship with – and indifference, unless we have that foundation of equanimity, we’re not going to be able to direct love and compassion in the full Mahayana way, which is directing it equally to everybody. 

Furthermore, it underlines the significance of the fact that before trying to practice on the advance scope of motivation, we need to practice the earlier scopes. If we look at the scheme of the lam-rim before this advanced level of Mahayana, we have the intermediate scope, in which we are working on overcoming – at least to a certain extent – our disturbing emotions: attachment, desire, greed, hostility, and so on. Unless we have a basis in that, it’s going to be very hard to accomplish this first step in the advanced level practices of equanimity. It won’t work if we just say to ourselves, “Attachment, repulsion and indifference be gone!” We have to take quite seriously the fact that these are graded stages and there are steps and there’s a purpose for that. Buddhist practice is not just made like that for no reason.

Focus on Our Father

OK, so let’s work with our father.

First, we need to establish the mental and emotional container for the exercise, which is the quiet mind and the caring heart. 

  • Firstly, we quiet down. The simplest method, as we explained before, is to just sort of letting go. 
  • Then we bring in the caring attitude: “I’m a human being, like everybody else. I have feelings, like everybody else. I want to be happy; I don’t want to be unhappy. I care about that, and so I want to take care of myself and try to bring myself more happiness. It’s not that I have to earn it, or deserve it, or be given permission to be happy. It’s just the natural direction to go in, like a plant growing toward the sun.”
  • Then we think of our fathers. If we can picture him in our minds; that’s very good. If not, don’t worry about it. 
  • Try to recall his shortcomings and negative qualities and try to understand how they have arisen due to causes and circumstances in terms of his past and the times in which he grew up, and so on.
  • Now, decide that there is no benefit in dwelling on these faults, and, without denying them, put them aside. 

If we feel that it’s helpful at this point to forgive our father for his faults, fine; forgiveness comes from a different conceptual framework from the Buddhist one, but no harm. Forgiveness has more to do with our own feelings; the shortcomings of the father are just a fact, it’s just neutral. From the Buddhist point of view, rather than forgiveness, what we need for overcoming resentment and holding a grudge is understanding.

  • Then, we recall the good qualities of our father, and what good qualities we might have gained from our interaction with him. Here, we have to think not only of the good qualities I might have already learned from him, but also what good qualities I could learn from him, whether or not he’s alive now. 
  • We focus on the facts of these good qualities, what we’ve learned, with firm conviction that it’s true.
  • Then, we recognize the benefits that we’ve derived from our fathers in terms of what we’ve learned, what we’ve gained, and we try to focus on that with deep appreciation and respect. 
  • We try to feel inspired to develop these qualities further. Inspired by his example, we feel uplifted, brightened, energized. If you like, you can imagine yellow light coming from your father, from his heart, and entering your own heart and filling you with the inspiration and strength to develop these qualities. It’s like his gift to us.
  • Now our mother joins him, and we recall all her good qualities and what we’ve learned from that, and yellow light comes from her as well, to us, and fills us with inspiration to develop those further. It is her gift to us as well. 
  • With the combination of these two lights, feel uplifted and brightened to develop these things more and more. 
  • Feel that, filled with light, we shine with this light, and are able to inspire everyone else to develop these qualities as well.
  • We let that sink in. Then we slowly return to our usual state of mind. 
  • Again, we think that whatever understanding, whatever positive force we’ve gained from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for being able truly to help others as fully as possible.

Just one last comment here for those who might be familiar with certain types of tantra meditations in Buddhism. Perhaps you’ve noticed we’re following the exact same structure here as in when we work with a Buddha-figure, like Chenrezig, and we’re filled with compassion, and then we shine with that compassion and send it out to everyone. Here, we’re working with the more ordinary sources of these qualities that we’re received from various people and various aspects of our life. For most of us, this will probably be far more accessible then working with the idealized form of it in the aspect of a Buddha-figure. So it could be a stepping stone to that type of practice.

Tomorrow, we’ll work with some of these other categories of objects from which we’ve received benefit and which have good qualities. But for your own practice, it would be good to expand what we’ve done here with other family members that have influenced you since you’ve grown up. In the end, we imagine our whole family around us, everybody sending yellow light to us, and feel the integrated whole of all the wonderful things that we have benefited from, from our family. This is really our heritage.