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Self-Transformation through Mind Training

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Dr. Alexander Berzin

When we face difficult situations and things go poorly in our lives, if we’re able to change our attitudes toward them, we’ll be able to transform these experiences into ones that will further our spiritual progress. The Tibetan tradition of “lojong,” mind training, offers a wide variety of beneficial attitudes we can train to develop that will enable us to better handle the challenges of life.

Mind training” refers to methods for changing the way in which we regard a person or situation. We need to be careful, however, about the term “mind training,” since it sounds as though it includes training in concentration and memory. That’s not really what it’s talking about. In the Tibetan term for mind training, blo-sbyong, the word blo is not just “mind.” The word has more of the connotation of an “attitude.” The wordtraining,” sbyong in Tibetan, has two meanings: “to cleanse,” so you cleanse away a negative attitude, and “to train,” which is to train in a more positive one. So, sometimes it is clearer to understand mind training to be “attitude training.”

The main negative attitude to cleanse away is our self-cherishing attitude, which includes being self-centered and selfish, thinking only of ourselves. The positive one to train in is the attitude of cherishing others, which includes thinking primarily of the welfare of others with love and compassion. The method used in all the mind training techniques fits well with Buddha’s general approach, known as the “four noble truths.”

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha taught on a very practical level how to overcome problems in our lives. In fact, everything he taught was aimed at this purpose. We all have many different levels and types of problems. Some are gross and hurt very much; they give us a lot of pain, either physical, mental, or both. Others are a bit subtler, but are very painful nevertheless. For example, we enjoy various things in life, but we’re frustrated, because they don’t fully satisfy us. They don’t last forever; they change. Things in our lives are never stable; they go up and down. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t; and what’s really unstable is how we feel. Sometimes we feel happy, sometimes unhappy; sometimes it seems as though we don’t feel anything, and we have no idea how we’re going to feel in the next moment. It doesn’t seem to be so dependent even on the people that we’re with, or what we’re doing – all of a sudden our mood changes.

We all have emotional problems as well, and they bring on different problems in life. What’s really frustrating is that they seem to repeat. We seem to be making more and more problems for ourselves, even though sometimes it appears as though they’re coming from others. But if we examine more closely and more honestly, we see that the source of a lot of our problems is ourselves and, specifically, our self-centered attitudes toward what happens in life.

Buddha saw all of this. He realized this in his own life; he saw this in lives of others. He saw that everybody was in the same predicament. On a gross level, we all have difficulties with just the normal occurrences of life -- being born, growing up, getting sick, growing old, and dying – as well as with our feelings uncontrollably always going up and down. But he said that the problems we have with these things arise from causes; they don’t just come from nowhere at all. They’re not coming from some external superpower that’s sending these to us – whether we call that external powerGod” or we make it more impersonal and call it destiny or fate. That’s not really the source of our problems.

The true source of our problems lies within, and when we say it lies within, it doesn’t mean that we’re inherently bad or guilty. Buddha wasn’t saying that you’re born bad, with sin; but rather Buddha said that the source of our problems is our confusion about reality. It’s not that we’re stupid, but it’s just that in our everyday experience things seem to us to exist in impossible ways that don’t correspond at all to reality. This is particularly the case in terms of how we view ourselves and others, which of course shapes our attitude toward them and us. Because of our self-centeredness and self-cherishing, it seems like we’re the most important person and we should always have things go the way we like, and what others experience doesn't matter at all. It's as if what others feel doesn't count and doesn't even exist. I think we can understand this in terms of how much of what we experience is based on our projections and unrealistic expectations, and not really on the actual situations that we encounter.

But Buddha said that it’s possible to end this situation, to stop having these problems in such a way that they never recur again. It’s not that we’re condemned to suffer these problems forever. It’s not that the only solution would be to drug ourselves or get drunk so that we can stop hurting and at least feel, for the moment, that we’ve escaped from our problems. And it’s not that we need to just sink into a deep meditative state of thinking nothing, and that would solve our problems. Such solutions are only temporary, and they don’t really rid us of our problems at all. If we want to get rid of our problems, we need to rid ourselves of the cause of those problems. We have to rid ourselves of our confusion. We need to replace confusion with correct understanding. We’re all the same in that everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to be unhappy, and no one has a greater right to happiness than anyone else. Moreover, we’re only one person and all others are countless. If we see this reality and change our attitudes accordingly, then slowly, slowly, as our understanding grows deeper and deeper, our emotional states will change as well.

Mind Training

Because we live so much of our lives in our fantasy world of projections, our confusion shapes the attitudes we have toward everything that we experience. With a self-cherishing attitude, we regard what happens to us in self-centered ways that create even more unhappiness and problems for us and for others. But with a change of attitude, our experience of life’s happenings changes dramatically.

For example, instead of regarding a delay in our flight at the airport as a personal disaster, we can see that the reality is simply that now we and everyone else for the flight have more time in the waiting area. We can then change the way we regard the situation and, with an attitude now concerned with how everyone else is dealing with the delay, we can see it as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger and, by being pleasant and not upset, help the person to calm down and not be distraught. Just as through physical exercise, we can train our bodies to become stronger and to have more endurance; likewise through meditation, we can train our minds and its attitudes also to become stronger and more positive and, without emotional upset, to have more endurance for potentially disturbing situations.

Gaining Emotional Strength

Sometimes we can understand what our problems are. We understand that we’re experiencing some particular type of emotional upset because our minds are tight and narrow, thinking only about ourselves, but it doesn’t seem to change our emotions. We feel that our understanding can’t really affect the way that we’re feeling. But the problem here is that the understanding isn’t really deep enough. Not only is it not deep enough, but also it hasn’t “sunk in” over a long enough period of time in order to make a change in our attitudes.

Let’s use the example again of physical health to illustrate this. Suppose we feel physically weak, tired and heavy all the time, so we start going to a gym or fitness club and begin exercising on a regular basis. Once we start an exercise program, it doesn’t instantly change the way that we physically feel. It takes quite a while, usually several months, before we start to feel the effect in terms of our health. The longer we do exercise, however, and it becomes a regular routine part of our lives, then after a while it really changes the way that we feel: we start to feel great. We feel better about ourselves and that helps us to feel better in terms of how we deal with others.

Something similar happens when we have some understanding of what’s going on inside our minds, our emotions, and our attitudes. The longer we have some understanding and the longer we keep reminding ourselves of it, the deeper our understanding becomes. Then although the emotional change will not be immediate, we will start to gain more emotional balance and strength as we transform our attitudes.

Levels of Motivation to Work on Ourselves

Going to the fitness club requires not only self-discipline, but also mindfulness, which means remembering to go and not forgetting. Underlying it all is what we call the “caring attitude” – we care about ourselves, we care about how we look, how we feel, etc. We take ourselves seriously and respect, in a sense, almost the “right” that we have to be happy and to feel good. The same thing is true here in terms of understanding ourselves, understanding how our emotional lives work. That too is dependent on caring about ourselves, and feeling that, yes, we do have a right to better emotional health as well.

This caring attitude about ourselves is very different from a self-cherishing attitude. With self-cherishing, we think only of ourselves and ignore the well-being of others. We don't care about how our attitudes and behavior affect the people we interact with or just merely encounter. With a caring attitude, on the other hand, we realize that our unhappiness and problems in life come from our self-centeredness and selfish attitude and, because we want to be happy, we care about ourselves to the point that we want to do something about this situation. We will work on ourselves to change our attitudes and behavior, and be careful in the future to try to put into practice what we are train to accomplish.

Now of course there are many levels of motivation for working on ourselves in this manner. When we analyze what we mean by motivation, we’re talking about what is our goal in working on ourselves, and what is the emotional force that drives us toward this goal. The Buddhist teachings outline several progressive levels of motivation as we advance on the path. We can be working simply to try to improve the quality of our life, because it’s not satisfactory now, and not only do we want it to stop continuing to be unsatisfactory, but it would be very good if it didn’t get worse. In fact, it would be great if it got better! We’re really dissatisfied and we’ve reached a point at which we’re fed up and want to do something about it.

We can also, on a more advanced level, think in terms of not just this lifetime, but also future lifetimes. We don’t want things to get worse in future lifetimes as well. We’re driven by the same emotional force as we are in wanting to improve things in this lifetime, we’re just looking at a longer period of time. We can have even an intermediate step between these two, which is thinking in terms of not wanting to have the various problems that we have in our family or in our ways in dealing with things carry on to future generations.

Beyond thinking of future lives, we could be motivated to want to get out of the whole unsatisfactory, frustrating cycle of rebirth completely. Or, moved by compassion, we could think in terms of helping everybody overcome all these levels of problems. If we’re doing that, we’re working then to become a Buddha.

To really be a person with these more advanced levels of motivation is going to require a tremendous amount of training. Nevertheless, at whatever level we’re at, we find many methods in the Buddha’s teachings that can be helpful. For example, even if we were thinking only in terms of this lifetime, we would be moved by not just thoughts of ourselves and overcoming our own problems, but also by compassion, thinking of others. In other words, we’re not aiming to overcome our problems simply because they give us trouble and are very painful for us, but also because they prevent us from being of best help to others. This is working on ourselves in the manner of mind training.

For example, suppose we’re an alcoholic. From one point of view, we could be motivated to try to overcome our dependency on alcohol because it’s so damaging to us, to our health, to everything about us in general. It makes us feel bad when we have a hangover in the morning. But we could also be even more strongly motivated if we think of our family. We would think how my drinking is preventing me from being a good parent, for example; how I’m so often acting in a crazy way because I’m drunk, and this is really damaging my family, my friends etc. When we realize that our family needs us, and the problem that we have of alcoholism is really preventing us from fulfilling that real need that they have, then it gives us more strength to try to overcome that dependency.

So even if we’re practicing these Buddhist methods in the context of trying to improve this lifetime, the motivation of love and compassion for others is very important. That’s emphasized in these mind training teachings for cherishing others: although we could apply many of these methods just for our own sake of feeling better, it’s certainly far superior to apply these methods so that we can be of better help to others.

The Eight Transitory Things in Life (The Eight Worldly Concerns)

In our lives we face various difficult situations. They may be difficult in the sense that they’re painful. They don’t need to be painful in a physical way; they can also be in a mental way. We can understand these difficult situations to be, for instance, facing situations that cause our disturbing emotions to arise strongly. These disturbing emotions could be, on the one hand, anger, but they could also be, on the other hand, strong attachment. We all know how uncomfortable we feel when our minds are filled with anger or hostility, or when they’re filled with great attachment and longing desire.

Some situations are particularly difficult and they’re enumerated in a Buddhist list of eight so-called “transitory things in life.” At times they’re translated as the the "eight worldly concerns" or the “eight worldly dharmas,” but they’re talking about things that happen to us in our lives that are transitory; they’re not stable, they pass. They occur in four pairs:

Receiving praise or criticism – if we receive praise, we get elated and attached to it; and when we’re criticized, we become all upset and angry.

Receiving good news or bad news – when we receive good news we get very excited, and of course we’re attached to that, we want it to last, which it never does. When we hear bad news we get very upset, and often depressed and angry.

Experiencing gains or losses – when we gain something, for instance someone gives us something, we’re all happy and excited, and think, “Oh, how wonderful.” Then, when we lose things, or people take them away from us, or they break, we get all upset. Gains and losses can also be in terms of people coming into our lives. We gain a friend, or we lose a loved one, or obviously it can also be financial.

Having things go well or go poorly – we get all excited and attached, or we get depressed and angry.

We become upset by these eight transitory occurrences because of our self-centeredness. We’re thinking only of ourselves and what happens to us and either we feel how wonderful I am or “poor me.” Applying Provisional Opponent Forces

Buddha taught many different methods for overcoming the disturbing emotions that usually arise in response to these eight transitory things in life. They each entail training ourselves to view what we’re experiencing with the more beneficial attitude of cherishing others. One method is to view a situation through the lens of a provisional opponent force. It’s not going to rid us of the disturbing emotions forever. It doesn’t go deeply enough, but it’s very helpful.

Love as an Opponent to Anger

Let’s say, for example, things are going poorly for us. We have somebody in our life that’s treating us in a very nasty, unpleasant way, and we’re always getting angry with this person. Thinking only of ourselves, we are obsessed with “I don't like how they are treating me.” What we would apply here as a provisional opponent for anger is love. Now, we’re not just saying here in a very simplistic way, “Well, don’t be angry with this person, love them.” Obviously that’s not possible for most of us to just change like that, but here’s a good example of using understanding in order to be able to change our emotional state and attitude based on cherishing the other.

This person is acting horribly toward us, and why are they acting that way? Something is bothering them. I’m sure you have people like this in your life who, for instance, are always complaining. Whenever they’re with you, all their conversation is complaining about this and about that. They’re always talking just about themselves, and being with them is a complete “downer” experience. If we analyze it, the person is acting like this obviously because they’re extremely unhappy. A productive way to change our attitude would be to think: “If this person could only be happy, then they would stop complaining all the time and giving me such a hard time.” The definition of love in Buddhism is the wish for the other person to be happy and to have the causes of happiness. So, if instead of wishing this other person would just go away and not bother us, we develop the wish that may they be happy, that whatever is bothering them go away, we will be less upset. Practicing in meditation to apply such a change of attitude is “mind training.”

Lessening Obsessive Sexual Attraction

Similarly, if we’re very attracted to somebody, we apply provisional opponents that make use of our imagination. Instead of being self-centered and thinking of the person only in terms of their external appearance, as if they were merely an object for me to consume for my pleasure, we can imagine what their insides look like – their stomach, intestines, brain and such things. Especially helpful is when we look at their face, to imagine the structure of the skeleton of their skull. And of course what we’re imagining is true, that is what’s underneath the skin of this person.

Another effective method is to imagine them as a baby and then to imagine what they will look like as a very old person. In this way, we can dampen our attachment, especially if it’s a sexual attraction, by realizing that what we see is just a surface appearance, and it’s certainly not going to last. Or if they had some horrible skin disease, or were covered with very heavy acne, would we still find them so attractive? The more we understand that in fact there are intestines and a skeleton inside this person, the more our attitude changes and our emotional upset quiets down. We become more stable.

We can then apply methods for developing a caring attitude toward them. Regarding this person that we feel such strong sexual attraction toward, we could see that when we have such strong attachment and attraction to a person, usually it’s focused just on their body. We lose sight of the fact that they’re a human being who wants to be happy, doesn’t want to be unhappy, and who doesn’t want to be treated as just a sexual object. This person has their own insecurities, their own emotional problems, their own family problems, and in this way such ways of viewing them are opponents to just seeing them as a sexual object. We actually see them as a real human being and start to develop sincere concern for their happiness and well-being.

Avoiding Repulsion or Indifference toward Beggars or Handicapped People

Applying a provisional opponent is also extremely effective when we see somebody whom we find rather ugly or repulsive. This is particularly helpful for when we encounter beggars and extremely poor people in very low positions in countries like here in Mexico, or in India where one would encounter such people more frequently than in other countries. We can also use it toward handicapped people, whether blind, deaf, or paralyzed, with whom we often feel very awkward and uncomfortable.

I remember in Berlin there was an exhibition once regarding handicapped persons. One section had a series of video interviews with people with palsy. Their limbs were uncontrollably twitching, their mouth was all to the side and their speech was slurred. These people were talking about their sexual lives, and relating that they in fact have the exact same types of emotions, the exact same types of sexual needs and wish for relationships as everyone else. They then described the types of loving relationships that they have. It was required for all the school children in the city to go to this exhibition, which I thought was wonderful, to show that these people were real people, just like everybody else. This is a very helpful way for overcoming our self-centered repulsion or indifference or just discomfort when being with such persons.

Another method is, when you see an older person begging on the street, to imagine “my mother” there, homeless and begging, or “my father.” Or if you see a young runaway also begging on the street, to think of “my son,” or “my daughter” being in that situation. This change of attitude, of how we regard the person, completely alters our emotional response.

I must admit that I’ve never done it, but I know of one Western Zen teacher in New York who has his students, if they want, go out on the street with absolutely no money or credit or debit cards on themselves or anything like that, and be homeless and beg for a week, just to experience what that was like.

These are very powerful “medicines” for overcoming our indifference to others in difficult situations. I’m just thinking how often, when we encounter people like this, we don’t even want to look at them. It makes us feel uncomfortable. Imagine being on the other side of that. There you are, struggling and nobody wants to even look at you or acknowledge your existence, or they chase you away as if you were a mosquito. Anyway, this is one method of applying opponent forces, but these are provisional, they don’t get to the root of the problem.

Applying the Deepest-Acting Opponent

A second mind training method is to apply an opponent that is not merely a provisional remedy, but one that actually goes to the root of the problem and removes it. This refers to applying a state of mind that is the mutually exclusive, exact opposite of a confused, mistaken one. This refers to an understanding of voidness (emptiness), namely that the mistaken way of regarding how a person or situation exists does not correspond at all to reality. In other words, underlying our attachment or anger is basically our confusion about how things exist.

This is not the occasion for a deep discussion of voidness, so let's keep things on a very basic level. Suppose, for example, you go to visit your sick grandparent or elderly parent in an old age nursing home. As you go down the hallway to their room, you pass by a shriveled old woman slumped in a wheel chair, mumbling to herself, dribbling and pecking at a towel in her lap. You see someone like that and feel very uncomfortable. You tend to think that she’s always been like that. And if, as you pass, she sticks out her hand and tries to grab yours or just touch you, you freak out. You’re thinking only of yourself.

We could apply here, of course, the provisional opponent force of remembering that this is a human being. She had a life, a family, a profession and was once young; she didn’t always look like this. She’s just grabbing out because she wants human contact. This would be effective, but we can use a deeper method. This would be to recognize that the way that I imagine she exists, just as she appears, old and decrepit, without ever having been anything else – this is impossible. Nobody can possibly exist like that, as if frozen in time in a still photograph. We would then focus on, “No such thing, that’s impossible.” This is a much stronger way of stopping our misconception, so that we can have a more realistic and compassionate attitude toward her.

Relaxing Disturbing Emotions to Reveal Underlying Deep Awareness

Another method is one used in an advanced type of meditation called “mahamudra,” namely “seeing the underlying deep awareness, into which the disturbing emotion automatically releases itself.” This method makes use of the basic mechanisms with which our minds perceive reality – “the way that our mind works,” to put that in simple language.

Let's look at an example. Suppose we have strong attraction and longing desire toward someone. If we can relax the tension in that emotional state, what we find underneath is what’s called “individualizing deep awareness.” In other words, all that really is going on in terms of our way of being aware of this person is that we’re specifying this person as an individual, as opposed to anybody else. That’s all that’s going on, actually, in terms of the basic structure of the mind. Then, we project onto that, “This person really is special.” We exaggerate certain qualities and then we experience attraction and longing desire, or attachment.

Longing desire is when you don’t have the object, you want to get it; and attachment is when you have it, you don’t want to let go. Both are obviously completely self-centered. If we relax the tight energy of the exaggeration and clinging in this state of mind, all that remains is the basic structure of what the mind is doing toward this object, which is just specifying it. That’s all.

That is a quite advanced, but very effective method if you can really use it, but it requires a bit of maturity not to get carried away by your emotions. You need to be able to see what’s going on underneath your emotional way of dealing with something and then cool down. The emotion just automatically releases itself, the more that we see the basic cognitive structure underlying it.

Changing Negative Circumstances into Positive Ones: How We View Others

The next method, changing situations that you think are not conducive for your practice into circumstances that are conducive, is the main one taught in the traditional mind training texts, specifically Eight Verses of Mind Training by Langri Tangpa. A verse from the great Indian master, Shantideva, in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, indicates this type of approach. He wrote,

VI.10) If it can be remedied, why get into a foul mood over something. And, if can’t be remedied, what help is it to get into a foul mood over it?

If you can do something to change the situation, why get upset about it? Just change it. And if you can’t do anything about it, why get upset? It’s not going to help. So, if we’re in a circumstance that seems to us very detrimental, very difficult, like criticism, or things going poorly, and we can’t actually change the situation, why get upset about it? Just change your attitude toward it.

There are many different manners of changing an adverse situation into a positive one. A certain number of ways of changing our attitude has to do with how we view others in a different way when they’re giving us trouble, and others have to do with how we view ourselves in these difficult situations. Let’s first look at the ones that deal with our attitudes toward others.

Viewing Troublesome People like a Wish-Granting Gem

One way of changing our attitude toward troublesome people is to view them “like a wish-granting gem.” For instance, we can think, “Here’s somebody that’s offering me a challenge; they’re offering me an opportunity to grow, to test how far I’ve developed. This is wonderful.” Or, “Here’s this person who has invited me for lunch, and they’re always complaining, and they’re completely depressing to be with, and this is wonderful! How great that this person has invited me, because now I have a chance to really practice patience and understanding.” So, they are like a wish-granting gem. “How wonderful my neighbor has asked me to baby-sit with the baby that I know is going to cry and scream the whole evening. This is great.”

Shantideva said this very nicely,

(VI.107) Therefore, I shall be delighted with an enemy who's popped up like a treasure in my house, without having had to be acquired with fatigue, since he becomes my aide for bodhisattva behavior.

What gives the most joy to a bodhisattva, someone dedicated to attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all others, is when somebody asks them to do something for them. If nobody is asking them to do anything, they feel very sad, they feel useless. I have a website and I get a lot of e-mails, asking questions, or to do things, and it’s very easy to get quite annoyed at the amount that comes in. But if I could really practice like this, I would be delighted. The more that comes in, the more opportunity I have to help people. If we’re praying in a Buddhist way, “May I be of benefit to all beings,” and then more and more beings actually come to us and ask us to help them, haven’t our prayers come true?

As Shantideva wrote,

(VII.64) Although people do actions for the sake of happiness, it's not clear that they'll become happy or not; but for (a bodhisattva) whose actions in fact bring happiness, how can he be happy without doing those actions?

Regarding Troublesome People like Our Sick Child

Another shift of attitude is to regard this person, who is giving us so much trouble and is so unpleasant to be with, like our sick child. When our child is sick, and is cranky and crying, they could give us a terrible time. But we basically still have a great deal of love for them, because we understand that they’re sick. Maybe they need to be put to bed, or whatever. And if our overtired child says, “I hate you and I don’t want to go to bed,” we don’t take it seriously, because they’re sick. So, like this, it’s a matter of just changing our attitude toward this person who is unpleasant to be with, regarding them as a sick child, rather then regarding them as an annoying pest. In this way, we are concerned only with them, and not with ourselves. Regarding Troublesome People as Our Teachers

A third way is to regard them as our teacher. There’s this famous story that, when Atisha went to Tibet, he brought an Indian cook with him. This Indian cook never followed instructions and was always arguing back. The Tibetans said to Atisha, “Why don’t you send him back to India? We can cook for you,” and Atisha said, “No, no! He’s not just my cook; he’s my teacher of patience.” So, if we have an annoying relative in our life, for example, that we have to deal with in any case, it’s very helpful to regard this person as our teacher of patience.

In fact, people can teach us many, many things. By acting badly, they can teach us not to act like that, for example. Even our dog can be our teacher. Did you ever notice how, if you take your dog around with you during the day, the dog is able to just lie down on the ground anywhere and relax, and even go to sleep, whereas we need, “Oh, it has to be a special bed, it has to be a special linen, and it has to be soft,” or “It has to be hard,” or this, or that. The dog doesn’t complain. The dog can just lie down anywhere. This is a great teaching. These are ways to view others differently, when they’re giving us trouble – see them as a wish-granting gem, or as our sick child, or as a teacher. Changing Negative Circumstances into Positive Ones: How We Regard Ourselves

Giving the Victory to Others

There are also methods of how we can view ourselves differently and change our attitude toward ourselves in these situations. The first one is “give the victory to others and accept the loss on yourself.” In other words, with a self-cherishing attitude, we tend to always think of ourselves as, “I have to win; I have to get my way and the other person has to give in”; whereas, if we accept the loss on ourselves, the argument is finished. For instance, just a simple example, you’re with your friend or partner and you have to decide which restaurant to go to? If your friend wants to go to one particular place and you insist on another, then you would just start to argue back and forth, back and forth. But ultimately, what difference does it make? If, you simply agree and say, “OK. Let’s go to your restaurant,” then the argument is finished. In other words, the argument is finished if we cherish the other person more than ourselves and give them the victory.

Now, we’re not talking about really drastic situations, in which the other person is suggesting something very negative and destructive, but when it really doesn’t make any deep difference, give the victory to the other. Of course there can be objections regarding this tactic, if you’re always giving in and the other person takes advantage of you, so obviously, you have to be sensitive when to use this method. But there are many situations, in which this is the best way of dealing with the problem.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. I live in one of the main restaurant districts of Berlin, on a busy corner. I live in an apartment building and on the ground floor there used to be a very quiet tavern, but then a new restaurant came there, a very popular Spanish restaurant. This restaurant is open from seven o’clock in the morning until three o’clock in the morning, seven days a week. When the weather is warm, they have tables outside on both sides of my building. People sit outside and drink beer or wine, and talk loudly and laugh until three o’clock in the morning. When they first opened the restaurant, with the outdoor tables right beneath my bedroom windows, I used to lie there at night, unable to fall asleep because of the noise. Frustrated, annoyed and thinking only of myself and not about their having a good time, I would have all sorts of fantasies. I pictured being in a medieval castle and having a big vat of boiling tar and pouring it down on the people. But I couldn’t just be the grouchy old man that’s always calling up and saying, “Tell the people to be quiet or I’m going to call the police!” This wouldn’t work.

So I decided the only way to deal with this problem was to give the victory to the others, and accept the loss on myself. Their enjoying the summer evening was more important than my being able to sleep in my bedroom. The only room in my house that doesn’t face the street is the kitchen. I have a very large kitchen with a raised platform for the breakfast area. There’s plenty of empty space there. So I sleep there in the warm months. I keep my mattress against the wall during the daytime and at night I lay it down on the floor and sleep there in the kitchen. It’s perfectly quiet and in fact it’s the coolest room in the house as well.

I’m very happy to sleep in the kitchen. I’ve given them the victory, and I don’t care how loud they are, because I don’t hear them. This is also very good in the days leading up to New Year, because Germans like firecrackers very much. It’s very, very loud from the street, but again, if I change my attitude about it and give them the victory by sleeping in the kitchen, no problem.

Negative Things That Happen to Me Are Burning Off My Negative Karma

A second method is to view negative things that are happening to us as “burning off my negative karma.” This doesn’t mean we accept it as a punishment, but we think that this difficult thing happening is burning off some negative karma in a smaller form and in doing so, this prevents it from ripening in some really more terrible thing in the future. A simple example: you’re caught in traffic and you can’t move for a long time. So, you think, “Great! This is burning off the karma to be paralyzed, where I really can’t move, for instance if I have a stroke later in life.” Like this, we rejoice in fact that these negative things are happening, because this is clearing the way for things to go much better in the future.

Traditional Buddhists believe in harmful spirits. If we accept their existence as well, then we can take this change of attitude even a step further and ask the harmful spirits, “Send me more harm. Do more.” I had a very nice experience of this recently. Starting in around the middle of July, for about two months everything was going wrong. Everything was breaking. I got an infection in some strange growth on my back and I couldn’t go to the fitness club for about two months, because eventually, when the infection cleared up, they had to cut the growth off. Then I got a terrible virus on my computer. It even destroyed a hard disk, so I was a month without my regular computer. Then the printer broke; and I had two video players, both of them broke. I’m a great fan of astrology – for some unexplained reason, the database of all the horoscopes that I have collected of people disappeared. I have no possibility of getting that information back. Then I broke my favorite cup that I always drink out of, and then -- in the middle of this -- I went to France for teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the airline lost my luggage.

This was the last thing that happened. When my luggage was lost, I just laughed; it was so totally ridiculous. Then I started thinking, “Take more, harmful spirits! What else are you going to cause to go wrong?” This made me feel much better. Rather than putting up the emotional walls to ward off interferences, I openly accepted them and even welcomed more.

A few years ago, I had an infection in my jawbone underneath a tooth in which I had previously had root canal done and had to have dental surgery to cut off a piece of the jawbone. Shortly after that trip to France, I went to the dentist and he gave me the delightful news that the infection had come back in the scar tissue, and I had to have a second dental surgery to cut it more out of the bone. I was able to transform this news into something positive with the attitude, “Great! This is burning off the obstacles for putting up the next language sections on my website.

According to the Buddhist teachings, the more positive the thing is that you’re trying to accomplish, the more obstacles there will be to try to prevent it from happening. So I looked at all these events as a wonderful situation that was burning off the obstacles, and so I asked the harmful spirits, “Bring on more obstacles; throw them at me!” In doing so, I wasn’t unhappy at all during this whole period of everything breaking and going wrong. So, if you can actually apply this method of mind training, it really does work. Instead of looking at a situation as being so difficult, horrible and depressing, you change your attitude and look at it as something wonderful.

Giving Happiness to Others and Taking On Their Sufferings (Tonglen)

The last method that I wanted to mention is probably the most advanced and difficult of them all. It’s the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. When you’re experiencing some difficult situation, like for instance a toothache, the method is to think, “May everyone’s toothaches leave them and ripen on me. By my taking everyone’s toothache on myself, may no one ever have to experience a toothache again.” By opening our minds and hearts to everyone and willingly accepting suffering, we overcome the tightness, fear and unhappiness of thinking only “poor me.” With tonglen, we go even further and think, “I will dissolve all of their pain and suffering, and then tapping in to the basic happiness of my mind, I will send that happiness out to them all.”

Now, you have to be very careful here not to adopt the pose of being the martyr, “I will suffer for you,” which, in a sense, is an aggrandizement of the ego. I must confess I’m not terribly good at this method. To do it sincerely requires a tremendous amount of courage, but I did try it recently.

I mentioned that I had to have the second surgery on my jaw, and you’re awake during the whole operation. It’s quite delightful! They slice open your entire gum on one side of your mouth, peel it down and then take something like an electric saw and go in and cut out a piece of the jaw bone and a little tip of the root of the tooth and some flesh around it. It really is almost medieval in the way they do it. The first time that I had it done, I really just found what they were doing very, very interesting. It was actually not so painful, because the anesthesia was quite good, although in the middle I had to have more. But the second time that I had it done, the infection was much greater, and when you have an infection the Novocain doesn’t actually work in that area, so it was extremely painful.

I tried the method that also is used in mahamudra – it’s just a sensation, no big deal. Whether you tickle your hand, or you pinch it, or scratch it, or cut it, it’s just a physical sensation, nothing more, so don’t make a big deal out of it. That worked to a certain extent, but then I remembered tonglen. This was the time when there was an especially large amount of persecution and torture going on in Tibet. I started thinking about the incredible pain that the people there were experiencing, and compared to that, what I was experiencing was nothing – it was minor. It would last for two minutes and then it would be finished.

So, rather then thinking, “Poor little me, I’m suffering,” I expanded my attitude to think of all these people in Tibet and thought, “The amount of suffering that they have is far greater than this little suffering that I have,” and so it put my suffering in a completely different perspective. Then I thought, “May all their suffering and pain be sucked into this pain in my jaw, and by me staying calm and happy through this, may I be able to give that peace of mind to them.”

Although I certainly didn’t do it 100% properly, it helped very, very much in dealing with the situation. If you do it properly, then you really want to feel their pain and have it aggravate your pain worse. Honestly speaking, it’s really very advanced to do that sincerely. You can say it in words, but it doesn’t mean anything. To actually really want that to happen is something else. But at least the feeling of sucking away their suffering, and having this suffering be sufficient for the suffering that they have – at least at that level, it’s possible to do.

One shouldn’t confuse it with the real thing, though. The real thing is much more radical, because the state of mind that you’re developing here, that you’re using here, is one of instead of fighting the pain, you’re voluntarily accepting it, with self-confidence that you can deal with it. If you’re doing this on this large scale of everybody’s suffering, then of course you have the self-confidence to accept and deal with your own pain, and not fight it, and not be freaked out by it. So, it is not a magical method; if you analyze what’s going on with it, it makes tremendous sense.


These, then, are some of the methods that are used in mind training, lojong, to overcome self-cherishing and have our primary concern be with others. Regardless of our level of motivation, such a change of attitude is very helpful. The self-transformation that comes about from this is the ability to think and sincerely feel, “No matter what adverse, difficult situations come up, I’m not going to think ‘poor me’ and let it harm me. I’m not going to let it depress me.” Instead, we develop the general attitude in life that “No matter what happens, I can transform it. I can use it to develop more concern for others. It’s not going to be a hindrance.” Having such an attitude gives you tremendous courage in life.