There are three emotional states that we need to develop as our motivation for refuge, for going in this safe direction. They are usually called fear, belief or confidence and compassion. The main issue is learning how to put them together in a way that they mean something and make sense to us.
In our previous discussion, we saw that the fear we are looking to use to motivate our safe direction is our being horrified at the idea of continuing in these negative patterns. Getting into fights and arguments, people not trusting us, not wanting to be with us, rejecting or ignoring us, being cut off from others, being lonely and depressed − are we afraid of those things happening? Are they things that we really don’t want to happen? Do we think, “I’d be horrified if those things continued for the rest of my life!” This type of worry is the first part of the emotion that we want to generate here. If this is happening, we are horrified that it is going to continue; we think that this would be awful. And we’re horrified at the idea that we’re just repeating it, over and over again. Is that really what we want to be − a bitter old man or woman that nobody wants to be with, and whenever anybody comes to see us, all we do is complain? As a result, everybody can’t wait to get away from us, and we become lonely, all by ourselves. Is that the direction we want to go in our lives? There’s no need to think about the hells − this idea is horrifying enough!
There are two types of fear. First, there is the fear that makes us feel that it’s hopeless. We inflate a “helpless me,” and what we fear, and the fear itself, we make into something solid, permanent. “There’s nothing I can do, poor me, it’s hopeless.” There’s no flexibility when we do this. That’s not the type of fear we are talking about here, as it just paralyzes us. What we want, instead, is knowing; we need to develop confidence that there’s a way to avoid the things that horrify us.
Just on a very simple level: when we feel like acting destructively, there’s a space between when we feel like doing it − for example, when we feel like yelling at somebody − and when we compulsively do it. If we can slow down, then we can use our discriminating awareness and decide: “Am I really going to yell, even though I feel like yelling, or not?” It’s not inevitable that we’re going to yell just because we feel like yelling. If we have this pattern of always losing our temper, well, there is a space between when we feel like being angry, and when it manifests in action that is affecting what we do and say. So, there’s hope!
Confidence Based on Reason
It’s not, however, that we’re helpless. We have the ability to change the way that we respond to things. That’s this second aspect of the state of mind that we use with refuge − confidence that it’s possible to change. We don’t have to continue these horrible patterns that we have. And we are confident of this based on reason, like with the example of the neuroplasticity of the brain. It’s not predetermined that we’re automatically, always, going to act in a certain way. We can reprogram ourselves; debug the program of how the mind works and then reboot our minds.
As we have discussed, the fact that our destructive behavior, disturbing emotions, compulsive constructive behavior and disturbing attitudes center around our preoccupation with ourselves, as well as recur uncontrollably, over and over again, this indicates that the habits for these are very deeply embedded. They are strongly reinforced neural pathways in our brain, which are like mental pathways indicating the way that our minds work. Further, we know from learning about the neuroplasticity of the brain − like the example where we become paralyzed in our right side and we can learn to use our left side − that because of the flexibility of the brain, it’s possible to forge new neural pathways and new pathways of thinking.
This is something to think about − that it is possible to change the way that we think, to form new pathways and new habits. Have we ever done this in our lives? Is this something that we can do? And if we were to do it, to somehow override and eventually obliterate the negative habits and negative pathways, would it make us happier?
What’s underlying the way toward this new way of thinking is confidence and the belief that it is possible to be flexible, to change our habits. This conviction is incredibly important − to be convinced that it is possible to do this. This is the second state of mind that we need to develop as the motivating cause for putting a safe direction in our lives. When we have the attitude of, “Well, I can never change, that’s the way I am,” it locks us in to very unhappy patterns.
Consider the following example: we use our right hand normally to write, but we have a stroke and become paralyzed on our right-hand side. If it’s possible, which it definitely is, for our brain to be rewired for us to be able to write with our left hand, is it also possible to rewire our way of responding to things, from getting angry and losing our temper, to having patience and understanding? That’s an important question. If it’s possible to have that flexibility and rewiring on that physical level, we need to develop the confidence that it’s possible to have it in terms of other behavior, our emotions and so on. This is the second aspect of refuge − confidence that it’s possible to go in this positive direction.
So, we come to the conclusion that it is possible to change, to grow, to do things in new and better ways. We do this all the time anyway. When our computer and cell phone software get updated, we might have some resistance at first, but we learn how to use them, don’t we? We’re never too old to learn and adapt to something new. Actually, it’s fun and exciting to do something new and different, isn’t it? There’s really no need to be frightened.
Furthermore, the fact that we can’t perceive the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything, especially in terms of cause and effect, indicates that our minds are limited. We don’t see what the results of anything that we do will be in the long term, such as our giving some piece of advice to somebody, which indicates that our minds are limited. What is responsible for this limitation is that our minds tend to compartmentalize everything and everyone. We can’t see the whole picture. We only consider a small part of the picture, a small number of variables; for example, we think if we do this, that is going to happen. We don’t realize that so many other factors affect what is going to happen.
However, if our minds aren’t so tight − just looking at a small part of the picture, like looking through a periscope from a submarine − we can open up more and more and start to see the larger picture. It’s like when we have a problem, and we want to find a solution. We might just look at the problem itself and just say, “Well, that’s going to solve it,” but we’re only, for example, looking at two steps. Instead, we need to ask, “Well, if I use this solution, will it create more problems?” We have to look further than the first step of the solution.
For example, our child is going to school, and we say, “You should do this, and you should dress like that” and so on. Well, we don’t think of how their schoolmates might react to that, and how it might create even more problems for our child. So, if we can think bigger, and we are capable of that, we’ll see a larger picture so that we are able to understand and advise a bit better. Again, we need to become convinced that we can open our minds, that our minds are capable of thinking in a wider, more holistic way, considering more and more variables. We still need to ask, however, if this would make us happier. Are we capable of this? Would it be something beneficial to try to do?
To give a good example: we have a lot of work to do, so we think, “Well, if I work 12 hours a day, I’ll get that work done.” However, we don’t think further, that if we work those 12 hours a day and never take a break, we’re going to get burnt out. It will create more problems, and not really solve the problem of having this large amount of work. This short-sighted thinking is what I’m talking about.
Considering these points, then, we can gain a little bit of confidence that if we were to be more flexible in our thinking and in our way of behaving, then we’d be able to improve the quality of our lives. This would be a direction that we would like to go in, and it is possible to go in it.
So, that’s the first type of confidence; namely, confidence based on reason that it is possible to change the negative patterns that horrify us. It is possible to be more open-minded.
The second type of confidence that’s explained in Buddhism is called “clear-headed confidence.” It is the type of confidence in our ability to change that clears our heads. It clears our minds of feeling frustrated, annoyed, or resentful of this new tactic of having to refrain from acting out what we feel like doing or saying, based on our negative patterns. For instance, we feel like yelling at someone and saying something really nasty. However, we’re confident that we can shut up and not say it, because if we say something, we’re going to get angry, and we are going to get into a big argument and discussion; it’s going to be a very ugly scene. So, we don’t always have to say what we feel like saying. Now, we could feel very frustrated and annoyed and resentful in terms of: “I’m just bottling it inside. I really want to say it,” this type of thing. This is a disturbing state of mind. However, if we’re confident that it is possible and reasonable to refrain from saying these nasty things, and we are horrified at the consequences of not refraining, then we don’t resentment or frustration at having to refrain from saying it. This clear-headed aspect of confidence, of belief, is important to develop.
The third type of confidence is the confidence with which we aspire to be able to avoid acting out and making ugly scenes. We see, using an example, that, if I yell and say nasty things to you in response to what you said, it’s going to make a big ugly scene. I’m horrified at that; we’ve had enough ugly scenes. It gets us nowhere; it makes us both unhappy, and I’m confident that it is possible to refrain, and I’m not frustrated by that because I know this is what’s best. This aspiring confidence develops from the confidence based on reason and the confidence of clear-headedness and moves us in the direction of having these be ingrained in us and spontaneous. Basically, it’s to see that being horrified and having confidence go together. Then, we feel that this is the direction that we want to go in − to work on ourselves so that we don’t just automatically respond in a negative way, like a dog that’s poked, and then we just growl.
Let’s apply being horrified and having confidence to some relevant examples in our own lives. For example, we might analyze, “I’m in the pattern of whenever somebody comes to see me, I just complain all the time about how horrible everything is, how horrible the world is, how horrible my life is, and so on, and nobody really wants to be with me. The result is that I’m lonely and depressed. I’m horrified at that; I don’t want that to continue. So, when I’m with somebody, and that impulse comes up – that feeling to start complaining − I will not act it out.”
We decide that this is what we’re going to start working on doing, and we’re confident that if we do this, it’s going to really improve our relations with people. We recognize that nobody wants to hear our complaints. That’s the direction we want or aspire to go in − to stop complaining all the time, as it really doesn’t help. It just makes things worse and drives other people away. If we do this in a proper way, we are clear-headed and don’t feel frustrated − you know, “me, me, me, I have to say my complaints because they are so important.”
Remember, if something is bothering us, there is nothing wrong in explaining it to somebody. There is a big difference between explaining what is bothering us and complaining with the attitude of “poor me.” Quite a big difference. Please analyze like this in terms of your own experience.
Then, we combine confidence with compassion, the third cause for putting a safe direction in our lives. We’ll use the example of complaining with this “poor me” attitude. If we consider what will happen if we continue acting like that, we become horrified at our behavior. It just drives people away, and then we become lonely and depressed. We really don’t want that to happen. Instead, we become confident that it is possible to overcome this; we can make new habits. For instance, if something’s bothering us, we can just explain it without this “poor me” attitude. The compassion aspect is that we don’t want to dump all our garbage on others, in terms of complaining and throwing all our complaints at them, which just drives them away. So, we have compassion for others, that we don’t want to pollute their heads with all of our junk. As I’ve said, the three go together: fear, confidence and compassion. Then, we really want to go in this direction of working on ourselves to forge better habits.
This is what refuge is all about − putting this positive, safe direction in our lives. Working to prevent and avoid more and more unhappiness and problems. We take it step by step, all the way to the ultimate step of going in the direction of working to become a Buddha. Even just taking a few steps in that direction would be incredibly worthwhile. And if we were to do that, it would really make a significant change in our life. It’s that change in our life that refuge is all about. It gives us meaning, a sense of purpose.
As I said previously, without this foundation of a very firm refuge, this safe direction in life, then when we have the aspiration, “Oh, I want to do advanced tantra, I want to do Kalachakra, or I want to practice dzogchen,” we need to recognize there’s no foundation on which to build that practice. What are we doing it for? Why? It has to have a solid foundation. Then, everything will have a stable basis. It’s part of the whole picture of going in a safe direction. We’re doing this practice in order to avoid suffering and be of more help to others, on a real and sincere level. Not just, “blah, blah, blah” words. These are the questions to ask ourselves when we are so excited to do these advanced practices. “Do I really take refuge properly?”
It’s interesting, when we look at ngondro, the preliminary practices − you know, these nasty things that we have to repeat a hundred thousand times − if we do them prematurely, with no meaning behind them, just reciting a verse and doing prostrations, they have very little effect.
What are we really doing when we practice ngondro, these 100,000 repetitions of sets of preliminary, preparatory practices, which always include taking refuge? We are making new neural pathways by actually generating the correct, sincere states of mind of going in this direction, putting this direction in our lives. This means really understanding each ngondro practice: what the state of mind is that we need to generate and what its purpose is. And then, when we have really having worked on how to generate these states of mind, generating them while reciting a verse or prostrating and so on a hundred thousand times. When we do this with concentration and mindfulness, that starts to build up new neural pathways. That’s the whole purpose of ngondro. It’s quite scientific, the approach to it. And of course, a hundred thousand isn’t sufficient to override beginningless negative pathways, so we need to continue throughout our course of practice. And remember, every practice that we do throughout the entire path has to begin with refuge. We have to make sure it’s not just, “blah, blah, blah.”
That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls Buddhist practice a science of mind. We’re re-wiring our minds to develop more beneficial habits in a very scientific way. That means repeating our practices over and over. This is what we do in daily meditation: we repeat over and over again. It’s also what we do with ngondro: repeat. We are building up new patterns, new habits and new neural pathways − not just in meditation, but also in daily life.
Of course, each of us has different responsibilities in life. There are different things that we have to take care of. Not all of us can devote 100% of our time to this, obviously. Nonetheless, it’s the direction we want to go in, and we do what we can.
I think we have a lot to think about. Please, reflect on all of this, and we’ll continue in the next session.