How to be with your pet during the death process: Tibetan Buddhist practices

cat at sunset cropped

As animal lovers, the loss of our pet is something we dread.  My wife and I have gone through this very recently, with the death of our much-loved cat, Mambo.  Tibetan Buddhist insights and practices can do a lot, however, to transform the way we experience this event – and, far more importantly, how our pet experiences it.

A major shift occurs when we view what is happening from the perspective of our pet’s spiritual journey, rather than from our own understandable wish to cling to our beloved friend forever.  As animal lovers it is a joy, as well as our responsibility, to help our pets onto a happy mental trajectory in life.  And, given the importance of death as a time of transition, one of the greatest blessings we can give them is a peaceful and positive death.

BEFORE DEATH

When our pets are in good health, the best thing we can do for them is to help them avoid creating negative karma.  It is difficult to give generic advice about how, for example, to curb a cat’s instinctive predatory behaviour except by making sure the cat is well fed, content and, if necessary, entertained.  It is up to us to get to know our animal companions as well as we’re able and help however we can.

If you have a leaning towards Buddhism, it’s also very useful to create a positive association in your pet’s mind between Buddhist images/statues/mantras and a state of well-being.  Murmuring mantras to your purring cat as you stroke her is an example of this – Om mani padme hum is one such mantra.  Or if you are inclined to Tara practice – Om tare tuttare ture soha.

If you meditate regularly, there’s a good chance that your pet will want to join you.  Let them.  There’s plenty of research showing that animals’ perceptive abilities are, in certain respects, far more sensitive than humans’.  If they are able to associate the practice of meditation with a positive state of being, so much the better.

From a Buddhist perspective, whether we are human or animal, we are constantly creating the causes for future effects, positive or negative.  The more we are able to help our pet create imprints for a disposition towards enlightened actions, the better.

THE DEATH PROCESS

When we are losing someone we love, whether human or animal, it is important to ‘get over ourselves’ and focus on the wellbeing of the one who is dying.  If we really love them, we should be trying to put aside our own feelings of grief and loss and do all we can to help them have a painless, peaceful and even positive death experience.

Pain management – This is a priority.  Whatever palliative care we’re able to provide via the vet or otherwise, we should try to keep our pet out of as much physical discomfort as possible.

No wailing – We may be heartbroken about losing our close companions, but it’s important not to upset them.  Animals also know what is happening to them.  Dogs break away from the pack.  Cats go off to hide under the house.  There is nothing positive from their perspective if the people on whom they are completely dependent start behaving unpredictably.  It’s much better to focus on what’s best for our pet, not on our own feelings of attachment.

I have heard animal communicators say that it’s important to communicate from your heart that, sad as you are, your friend is free to move on and you will be alright.  This is not a Buddhist teaching, but it certainly supports the view that the needs of our dying companion should be uppermost at this difficult time.

Peaceful and positive – If we are able to provide those last few cuddles, whisper those last few mantras, sit for those last meditations, this is what we can do to help give our pet a peaceful death.  Provide positive imprints.  Help prepare them in the best possible way for the inevitable.

Euthanasia – In a short blog it’s not possible to debate all the considerations of euthanasia.  I doubt that readers of this blog are among the group of people who would choose to euthanize a pet that can still enjoy a good quality of life.  We don’t want our pet to suffer, but nor should we be in a hurry to short-cut the process.  Dying is natural.  It has its time and place.  We need to give our pet time to come to terms with what is happening to him/her.  Some Buddhists take the view that euthanasia may only postpone the suffering which a being has the karma to experience.  My personal opinion is that we should only look to euthanasia when all other options have been exhausted, when there is only one outcome to which our friend is heading, when all our goodbyes have been said and when, if we were to change places, we would seek this for ourselves.

AFTER DEATH

The Buddhist view is that subtle consciousness can remain in a bardo or intermediary state, between death and rebirth, for a period lasting from moments until up to seven weeks.

After the death of loved one, we are encouraged to continue focusing on the well-being of that loved one in the bardo state, rather than on our own sense of loss.  You don’t need to be a therapist to see how attending to the well-being of others supports much greater equanimity than by focusing on our own bereavement.  There are also a few very practical things we can do.

Make offerings – While it is not possible for karma or virtue to be removed or donated by a third party, it is possible to influence those with whom we have a strong karmic connection.  Like our beloved pet.  By making an offering of any kind, such as feeding birds, giving to charity, or donating blood, and self-consciously offering the merit of such actions to the benefit of our recently-deceased pet, our actions can have a positive impact on their experience of the bardo realms.

For example, we may repeat the affirmation in our mind:

By this act of generosity/love/compassion/kindness

May NAME OF PET enjoy positive conditions,

High rebirth, happiness and peace,

May he/she meet the perfect teacher,

And quickly attain perfect enlightenment

For the benefit of all living beings without exception.

We can continue to make offerings throughout the seven week period, in particular on every weekly anniversary of their death, when the greatest shifts in the bardo state occur.

Dharma practice – For Buddhists, the greatest of offerings are not material, but Dharma practice.  We can also dedicate our meditation, sadhanas or whatever spiritual practice we engage in, as a direct cause for our pet to enjoy positive conditions and ultimate enlightenment.

Not forgetting – In the bardo realms, free of physical constraint, it is said that our subtle consciousness/energy is capable of moving anywhere very rapidly and perceiving anything – a form of clairvoyance.  This includes the ability to return to where we lived.  For this reason, for seven weeks after the death of a loved one, it is considered helpful to show that they are not forgotten.  In the case of our cat, Mambo, we have left out his dry biscuits and water bowl, his favourite brush, and his litter tray.  It is no inconvenience to us, and on the off-chance he should make a visit, he will see everything the way he was used to.

After seven weeks, all bardo beings have moved onto their next experience of reality.  From a practical point of view, this means we can clear away our pet’s things.  From an emotional point of view, it brings to an end a natural period of mourning.  Our pet has moved on, and so must we.

Summary

Tibetan Buddhism gives us practical tools to help us manage the death of a loved one, whether human or animal.  Much of the unhappiness surrounding death arises from our quite natural sense of loss.  But we do have a choice.  By focusing on our loved one’s consciousness as it moves from one realm of experience to the next, we are able to cope with the death of our pet with greater compassion, wisdom, purpose and equanimity.

I will be writing more about animal consciousness and connecting with our pets, from a Buddhist perspective, in future months.  If you’d like to receive these blogs, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

You will find other insights, including those about the death process in:

US art of purring

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1401943276/ref=s9_psimh_gw_p14_d5_i4?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=1D34DGHENE4JM3YM154W&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=1970559082&pf_rd_i=desktop

The beautiful photo above of a silhouetted cat at sunset courtesy of: http://n-scapephotography.deviantart.com/art/Sunset-Cat-Silhouette-293810999

Photo below: Mambo in one of his favourite spots: Pappa’s office wingchair!

Please ‘Share’ this blog via the social media buttons if you know people – and their pets – who would benefit from it.

 

By sharing the Dharma in this blog

May Mambo enjoy positive conditions,

High rebirth, happiness and peace,

May he meet the perfect teacher,

And quickly attain perfect enlightenment

For the benefit of all living beings without exception.

Mambo on wingchair 440

Does meditating slow ageing? What science says.

monk reading text with cat - Le Chat

Many factors that affect the ageing process.  But a growing body of scientific research shows how the very gentle practice of meditation can have a powerful impact.

A few highlights:

Biological age 12 years less than chronological age

One of the earliest studies was conducted by Dr Robert Keith Wallace, whose findings were published in the International Journal of Neuroscience in 1982.   Dr Wallace explored the impact of Transcendental Meditation practice on a number of biological markers of ageing.  These included measuring DHEA levels in people’s blood.  DHEA is the only hormone known to decrease directly with age.  It helps protect us from heart disease, helps fight bacteria and viruses and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties – critical in the prevention of many illnesses including arthritis, osteoporosis and certain cancers.

Dr Wallace found that people who had been practising meditation for more than 5 years, had  biological markers 12 years younger than their chronological age.  In other words, a 55 year old meditator had DHEA levels and other markers of a 43 year old.

Separate studies conducted by Dr Vincent Giampapa also show how meditation can dramatically increase levels of melatonin, serotonin and DHEA when people start to meditate, at the same time as reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (http://www.project-meditation.org/community/learn-how-you-can-benefit-project-meditation/26-longevity-beneficial-hormones-released-during-meditation.html)

Telomerase activity 33% higher

A research team led by Dr Clifford Saron of the University of California Davis Centre for Mind and Brain explored the multiple impacts of meditation during a three month retreat in 2007 guided by meditation teacher and author B Alan Wallace.  This was called the Shamatha Project.  Among the many intriguing findings was the impact of meditation on telomerase.

Telomerase is an enzyme that can rebuild and lengthen telomeres, the sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that tend to get shorter every time a cell divides. When telomeres drop below a critical length, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies, so telomere length is an indicator of cell longevity.

The Shamatha Project showed that telomerase activity was about 33% higher in the white blood cells of the meditators who took part in the retreat than in control groups.  As Dr Saron observed: ‘Meditation may improve a person’s psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote longevity in those cells.  Activities that increase a person’s sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology.’ (http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/labs/Saron/lab-news/The%20Shamatha%20Project.pdf)

 

Meditation slows genetic ageing and enhances genetic repair

Separate work undertaken by a team led by Australian Nobel Prize-winning researcher Elizabeth Blackburn has shown that meditation may slow genetic ageing and enhance genetic repair.  A summary of this work published in 2011 says that ‘some forms of meditation may have salutary effects of telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.’ (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3057175/)

Summary

Meditation is not only psychologically beneficial.  Beneath the threshold of our awareness it creates profound and highly beneficial changes in our physical functioning.  These changes include the hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes our bodies produce.  While research in this field is still relatively new, and scientists can’t yet make  any definitive statements, the evidence so far shows a variety of inter-related ways in which meditation reduces stress, slows ageing and promotes a longer – and more contented – life.

If you’d like to receive more blogs on this and related subjects, please click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right hand of your screen now!

You’ll find a lot more about the multiple impacts of meditation on body and mind in my latest book:

Australia, UK and Kindle edition:

Chocolate front cover

http://www.amazon.com/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-ebook/dp/B00J4ZNOHI/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416540553&sr=1-1&keywords=why+mindfulness+is+better+than+chocolate 

USA and Canada:

 

US cover

http://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/spring-2015/mindfulness-is-better-than-chocolate/

 

The wonderful photo used to illustrate this story is from: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Le-Chat-Photographe/144937935616553?fref=ts

Create more space in your life without changing what you do

 

One of the most stress-inducing ideas, when we’re crazy busy, is the one that we just don’t have time to relax.  We’d love to push back for a while.  In fact, we’re desperate for it.  But we put the idea out of our mind because we’ve still got a pile of work to get through, and there just isn’t any opportunity for downtime.

Except that there is.

The good news is that to create a sense of space in your life you don’t always have to change what you do.  What you can change is how you do it.

The true cause of stress is to be found within the self-talk or rumination that runs through our mind.  Neuro-scientists call this ‘narrative’ mode.  It includes all those heart-pounding, stomach-churning thoughts about deadlines, demands, and problems involving such things as relationship, financial, health, legal or other matters.

There is another mode called ‘direct,’ which is when we pay direct attention to what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching.  We are in direct mode when we are, for example, listening very attentively to music, or completely focused on the person we’re with.

When we spend time in direct mode, we are, by necessity, not in narrative mode.  And the more time we spend in direct mode, the less play-time available for negative cognition.  This has the effect of diminishing the impact of unhappy thoughts, as well as providing our minds with the raw material for more positive cognition.  In short, whatever is stressing us out seems less overwhelming.  We achieve a more balanced perspective.

There are very real benefits from learning to spend more time in direct mode, and less absorbed in negative self-talk.  But how can you create as many direct mode opportunities in your day without changing your schedule?  Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Showering/bathing – Instead of a whole lot of random rumination, achieving nothing except a feeling of stress, try to shower or bath mindfully.  The sensation of water on the skin and scalp, the scent of soap, the warm feeling on your body from the hot water – practice focusing on these instead of slipping into negative cognition.

Commuting/driving – You may have to spend part of your commute attending to work messages.  But do you really need to check social media updates, play online games or listen to the radio?  Try some quiet time instead.  If you commute, get a free guided meditation download by signing up on the Home page of my website and spend 10 minutes focusing on your breath.  If you drive, try to focus simply on driving and breathing.  Even a two minute period on public transport can be an opportunity for a two minute meditate.  (My CDs, Cool Calm and Commuted and Mindfulness for Manic Motorists are designed for precisely these occasions).

Drinking coffee – Perhaps you regularly buy a barista-made coffee?  If so, how about drinking it mindfully?  Really savour every mouthful of the coffee, the mixture of tastes – nuttiness, creaminess, richness, toastiness.  Take a forensic interest.

Washing dishes/ironing clothes/routine chores – Most of us have to do a whole pile of routine chores, which we usually conduct on autopilot while spending our time thinking about something else.  How about focusing on the task in hand?  Treating what we do as a meditative experience – an opportunity to focus on the detail of this moment, here and now?

These are just a few ideas.  But you get the picture.  By reframing everyday activities – even toilet breaks – as opportunities for mindfulness, we can significantly alter the balance of narrative vs direct mode.  Without changing what we do, by changing the way we do it, we have the capacity to change the soundtrack in our minds and to create the subjective experience of greater space, peace and well-being.

If you’d like to receive more blogs on this and related subjects, please click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right hand of your screen now!

I have written a lot more about the nature of mind in my latest book:

Australia, UK and Kindle edition:

Chocolate front cover

http://www.amazon.com/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-ebook/dp/B00J4ZNOHI/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416540553&sr=1-1&keywords=why+mindfulness+is+better+than+chocolate 

USA and Canada:

 

US cover

http://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/spring-2015/mindfulness-is-better-than-chocolate/

Are Buddhists non-theists or atheists – and what’s the difference?

HHDL in St Stephen's Cathedral

Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, meaning that it does not involve a belief in God.  The focus of Buddhism is on the nature of mind.  What concerns Buddhists is an understanding of how consciousness works, not only in theory but more importantly in practise.  Our goal is to take charge of our own mental continuum, both for our own benefit as well as for the benefit of those around us.  We are offered not only a comprehensive tool box of techniques to help achieve this, but also a living tradition of more advanced meditators who provide living evidence that we all possess the innate potential of subtle consciousness, the nature of which is a boundlessness and radiance beyond anything that most people ever suspect.

Buddhists don’t invoke God in any of this.  Does that make us atheists?  In my view – and I should stress that this blog is necessarily personal – the answer to that question depends on two things.  The first is your definition of atheism.

If you define atheism as the absence of a belief that God exists, then you might say that such a definition equates to the non-theism of Buddhism.

But atheism can go way beyond the absence of a belief.  Some atheists don’t merely lack a belief in God.  They have a strong, emotional investment in the belief that God does not exist.  To me, these atheists seem every bit as intolerant of alternative views as religious fundamentalists – not to mention as evangelical in their determination to convert others to their own point of view.  It is not good enough for them to believe that God does not exist.  They want to impose their beliefs on everyone else.  Buddhism is definitely not on the same page as this version of atheism.

The second, much more interesting matter, is how you define God.  If you have, as your starting point, a notion of God as the uncle in the attic, then there is little common ground.  If, on the other hand, your starting point is that there can be only one ultimate reality, that the nature of this reality is beyond concept, that, over the past few thousand years different cultures have pointed to this non-conceptual reality in a variety of ways, and that ultimately we are all on the same journey, as Albert Einstein put it, ‘to attain liberation from the self’, then this is somewhere that different traditions can perhaps find some common ground.

Which perhaps goes some way to explaining how one of the first members of the Tibetan Buddhist group I belong to, was a Christian monk!

I’ve chosen as an image to accompany this post, a photo of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, in 2012.  The Dalai Lama has always urged people to stay with the tradition of their own culture, and to use Buddhism, not to become Buddhists, but to become better Christians, Muslims, atheists or whoever-they-are.

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Do animals have souls that go to heaven? The Buddhist view.

muse reading book cropped

Late last year there was quite a stir when it was reported that Pope Francis had told a young boy that animals have souls which go to heaven.  The story grabbed the headlines because it was the opposite of the previous Papal position.  Within 24 hours the story had been repeated so often that it was an assumed fact – until denied by senior Vatican observers.
According to the authoritative Catholic Herald, Pope Francis never said any such thing.

I was brought up as a Presbyterian and the ambiguity of the Christian view of animals was a cause of concern to me.  My parents and kindly church minister assured me that the souls of my dearly-loved pets would be looked after by God when they died.  These assurances could not be backed up with scriptural reference, however, and I always suspected a fudge.  I would have been more reassured by a definitive, Biblical quote, ideally from Jesus himself or, at a pinch, St Paul.

One of the many attractions of Buddhism to me is its common sense approach to this subject.  For starters, there is no notion of a soul.  Instead, Buddhism talks about mind or consciousness.  As conscious beings, we are aware that animals are conscious too.  The Tibetan Buddhist phrase for sentient beings is “sem chen” or “mind haver.”  Whether a being is a cat, human or cockroach, it has mind.

All sentient beings share three self-evident qualities.  The first is that the most precious thing in the world to us is our own life.  We are fearful of whatever threatens it and will go to any lengths to preserve it.  When my wife removed a snail from the step of the gym she attends, early one morning before the doors were opened, one of her fellow class goers wrinkled her nose in disgust.  ‘The snail’s life is as important to the snail as your life is to you,’ she explained to her fellow cyclist.  The latter clearly thought she was mad.  But several months later she confessed to my wife that she’d given a lot of thought to what she had said and couldn’t fault the logic.  She no longer put down snail bait around her roses, she added – now she removed snails and dropped them over the garden wall!

The second quality we all share is that we wish for happiness and constantly seek out what we see as the sources of happiness.  Interestingly, even these are very similar whether human or non-human.  Readers familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will note that most lower-order needs – food, shelter, security, social – are identical whether human, pig or bird.

The third quality is that we all wish to avoid suffering – and again, notions of suffering are more similar across human and non-human “sem chens” than many people ever consider.  In most cases, people actively avoid considering them so as not to confront the cognitive dissonance involved, say, in eating bacon given our understanding of the proven intelligence and sensitivity of pigs.

While the mental capacity of human beings is unique and, for this reason, Buddhists sometimes refer to the human form as being like a vase containing a great treasure, nevertheless, at the most basic level, we all possess consciousness.  What happens to this when we die?

Whether human or other beings, the end result of the death process is that very subtle consciousness moves onto new experiences propelled by the conditioning of previous ones.  As pet lovers we have the opportunity, even the responsibility, to help our pets have conditions where they can avoid harmful behaviour, and have their mental continuum imprinted with positive, peaceful experiences.   A very useful practice is to murmur mantras to your pet when he or she is relaxed and peaceful, thereby creating an association between the mantra and a positive state of being.  Repeating this mantra at the time of the pet’s death may hopefully help him or her die in a more positive way.

Buddhists sometimes use the phrase ‘mother sentient beings.’  This is to make explicit the notion that, since beginningless time we have had any number of relationships with every other living being, including them having been our mother.  Realising this simple notion revolutionises our attitude to animals.

In summary, the Buddhist view is that animals have minds; they seek happiness and the avoidance of suffering; and it is their subtle consciousness propelled by conditioning that has brought them to their current experience of reality – just like us.  They may have been our mother, lover or best friend in a previous lifetime.  If they share their lives with us, as pets do, there is an extremely strong connection between us.  Their capacity for self-development in this lifetime is limited, but we have the power to help them, in particular to imprint their mental continuum with the causes for future exposure to virtue and positive influences.  What a privilege and a joy!

If you’d like to receive more blogs on this and related subjects, please click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right hand of your screen now!

I have written a lot more about the nature of mind in my latest book:

Australia, UK and Kindle edition:

Chocolate front cover

http://www.amazon.com/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-ebook/dp/B00J4ZNOHI/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416540553&sr=1-1&keywords=why+mindfulness+is+better+than+chocolate 

USA and Canada:

 

US cover

http://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/spring-2015/mindfulness-is-better-than-chocolate/

 

(Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Otty – human companion to the delightful Muse!)

Why my new book is NOT called ‘Mindfulness is Better than Sex’

US cover

Book titles can be challenging for an author.  In a noisy world where everyone is competing for people’s attention, how do you distill the essence of a 300 page book into a title and strapline of just a few words?  And do so in a way that makes a reader want to pick the book up or click for more?

I am well aware that store shelves are heaving with books on mindfulness and meditation.  At first glance they may seem to cover the same ground.  But as a mindfulness teacher, I realised that none of them provided a lucid account not only of the stress management benefits of meditation, but also of the many other physical and psychological benefits.  An explanation of why mindfulness, coupled with cognitive behaviour training can profoundly shift our inner narrative from a negative to a positive trajectory.  And most important of all, an account of what exactly mind is, and the nuts and bolts of how we can experience our own true nature.

Grappling with a way to package together these diverse themes, I came up with all kinds of possible titles.  The problem was, they took themselves too seriously.  And there are plenty of worthy but dull titles out there already.

Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate suddenly bubbled up in my mind, appealing mainly because it is playful and provocative  (“Oh no it isn’t!” I could hear people protest immediately.  “What nonsense is this?  I have to read more …”)

Some weeks after coming up with the title I was at the gym where, over the years, I have discovered many parallels between mind training and physical training, duly shared in the book.  No doubt it was an excess of endorphins after a particularly vigorous workout which saw me return home and share my latest brainwave:

‘I’ve had a new idea for the title,’ I told my wife, who was working on her laptop.  ‘Mindfulness is Better than Sex.’

She looked at me with that expression of patient indulgence that women use when their partners present them with a particularly ludicrous idea.  (Or am I the only one?)

‘I thought,’ she said after a while, ‘that your readers are mostly middle-aged women?’

‘They are.’ I agreed.

‘Well then,’ she shrugged, as though the answer was obvious.  ‘You’re much better off sticking with chocolate.’

As it happened, when researching the book further I discovered a separate, scientific basis for my wife’s argument.  I didn’t tell her about it – of course – but it’s there in the book if you choose to read it.

I’m especially thrilled that the US edition of the book was published just last week.   Yes, it’s in-store and online right now! The covers for both English language print editions are shown below.  And you can find audio editions in all the usual formats if you prefer listening to reading.

In future weeks I will be blogging about a number of different themes from the book.  They are subjects I get really excited about like how is it that mindfulness can make you happy, and what exactly is the nature of mind.  I’ll also be throwing in a few curve balls like – do animals have souls?  If all this sounds like it’s up your street, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now.

 

Australia, UK and Kindle edition:

Chocolate front cover

http://www.amazon.com/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-ebook/dp/B00J4ZNOHI/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416540553&sr=1-1&keywords=why+mindfulness+is+better+than+chocolate 

USA and Canada:

 

US cover

http://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/spring-2015/mindfulness-is-better-than-chocolate/

 

 

 

 

 

The bardo states and achieving positive rebirth

 kariba sunrise

In the past few weeks I’ve been blogging about the death process according to Tibetan Buddhism.  I have been very encouraged by the number of readers showing an interest in what I believe is such an important subject.  To complete the brief overview, this blog is about the Tibetan Buddhist approach to after-death bardo states and rebirth.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll take the previous blogs as read.  If you haven’t seen them yet, you’ll find links at the end of this blog.

People who have prepared well for their death are able to use it as an opportunity to break free of the endless cycle of birth, ageing, death and rebirth.  Experiencing the most subtle states of consciousness, they are able to identify with the boundless nature of their own primordial mind, rather than suffering from existential self-grasping.

Many of us are not like that.  Even in our most subtle state, such is the strength of our habitual clinging to a me, myself and I, that we continue to do so, thereby unknowingly directing our consciousness towards embodiment.  The process we go through, sometimes known as a bardo state, can see our subtle consciousness have all manner of experiences, lasting from just  a few moments to up to 49 days.

Just as there is no ‘standard’ experience of life, there is also no standard experience of the bardo.  But as Tulku Thondop says in  Peaceful Death Joyful Rebirth – a book I’d highly recommend if you’d like to explore this subject further – ‘If the awareness of peace, joy, and openness has become part of our mental character while we were alive, then in the bardo all our mental states and the phenomena around us will arise as positive appearances and experiences.’

The opposite is also true.  Whether our experience of bardo is like a pleasant dream or a hideous nightmare is entirely dependent on our mental conditioning.  Without the physical anchor of our body, our consciousness is capable of traversing all manner of experiences with the same levels of intensity we have when dreaming.  It’s important to note that our experiences, positive or negative, are a projection of our own minds, just as they are when we dream.

In the bardo seeking self-existence, our conditioning propels us towards beings and places with whom we share a strong connection.  I sometimes hear people confidently say that we all consciously choose to be born in a particular place, or choose to go through certain experiences/relationships in any particular lifetime.  This is not the view of Buddhism.  It certainly doesn’t explain why the majority of beings choose to be born as insects, fish and other animals, whose opportunity for personal growth – and, one imagines, happiness – is limited.

The Buddhist view is that the force of conditioning is what propels us into future lives, and also what predisposes us to be drawn to our future parents. At some point we make a connection, entering a fertilised egg, thereby setting the parameters of the next lifetime’s experience of reality.

As Westerners, when we first encounter Buddhist teachings on death, they can seem weird and/or daunting.  I guess the basic questions we all need to answer for ourselves are: what is the nature of consciousness and where does it come from?

The Buddhist view that subtle consciousness has an energetic quality is something that resonates with me personally.  While energy may change form, it is never destroyed.  It also makes sense to me that that causality applies to our experience of reality.  Looking around at people who represent extreme cases of misery or optimism, it’s easy to see how one’s world view is shaped far more by what goes on in one’s mind than by anything external to it.

What we take from all this is that even if we are unable to free ourselves from our own, self-grasping instincts when we abide in clear light at the end of this lifetime, if we strive to live in a positive, altruistic way, we are creating the causes for future positive experiences.  Whether we find inspiration in Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or Richard Dawkins – or none of the above – a life of generosity, ethics, patience and mind-training can only yield the sweetest fruits.

Buddha once summarised his own teachings as ‘Abandon harmfulness.  Cultivate goodness.  Subdue your mind.’  One thing that excites me about the increasing weight of contemporary research on wellbeing is that these same principles also underpin the basis of happiness and fulfilment in this life.  So if there are some aspects of the Buddhist view of death and rebirth you can’t get your head around, or disagree with, then no problem.  If you believe that consciousness is purely a brain function, that’s okay too.  Seeking well-being and inner peace in this lifetime by leading a positive and wholesome life, you are also optimising your future experiences of reality.

Now there’s a happy coincidence!

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Links to blog on:

How we die: http://davidmichie.com/blog/2014/12/16/how-we-die-a-brief-explanation-of-the-tibetan-buddhist-view/

Life after death: http://davidmichie.com/blog/2014/12/23/life-after-death-the-tibetan-buddhist-view/

You’ll find an extensive explanation of the nature of mind in my new book Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate, out now in print, ebook and audio formats around the world:

IN USA AND CANADA

US cover

http://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/spring-2015/mindfulness-is-better-than-chocolate/

IN AUSTRALIA AND UK

Chocolate front cover

To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to: http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130

 

 

 

 

A meditation for this precious New Year

 meditating monk

 

Happy New Year!  You and I, dear reader, are among the top 0.0000001% of the world’s population.

How can I make such an extraordinary pronouncement?

The population to which I refer is that of all sentient beings – not just humans.  To be born as one of only 7 billion humans on a planet of numberless billions of other life forms, with far less capacity for personal growth or happiness, is extraordinary.

Among the tiny proportion of people, if you are reading this on your own computer, you are among only 4 out of every 100 humans.  Materially you may think you’re fairly normal, but taking a broader view of the world’s population, you are probably among the more affluent fraction of the top few percent.

That’s just the start.  What about your education, formal or informal?  Your IQ and emotional intelligence (EQ) – the ability to delay gratification?  Your ability to access information about wisdom traditions which, until even 10 years ago, were unavailable without the most strenuous effort?

More importantly, the fact that you have an interest in understanding the nature of consciousness and optimising it, transports you to a preposterously tiny fraction of a fraction of one percent.  Seeking to illustrate this very point, Buddha once used the analogy of a blind, crippled turtle that rises to the surface of the ocean every hundred years and just happens to stick its head through a wooden yoke that’s floating on it.

That’s you.  And me.

What can we take from this analysis at the start of 2015?  Plenty.  But an obvious implication is to make the most of this precious life.  We are among a very, very rare, privileged few.  This opportunity is fleeting and may be over before we imagine.  How can we use it to best effect, both for ourselves and for others?

Let me offer the following meditation for the New Year:

Adopt a meditation posture and settle the mind with breath-based meditation for a few minutes.

Having calmed the mind to some extent, ask yourself this: ‘What is my highest purpose in this life?’

Observe what arises in your mind.  If you become distracted, return your focus to the question.

After 5 or 10 minutes, ask yourself: ‘What resources do I need from the outside world to make this happen?’  Visualise breathing in these resources, and intend that you have access to them.

After 5 or 10 minutes, ask yourself: ‘What resources do I need from myself to make this happen?’  Visualise breathing in these resources, and intend that you have access to them.

After 5 or 10 minutes end your meditation thinking:

May I achieve my highest purpose

Quickly, easily and completely,

Not only for my own sake,

But for the sake of all living beings without exception.

 

May all beings have happiness and the true causes of happiness,

May all beings be free from suffering and the true causes of suffering,

May all beings enjoy vibrant good health and abundance, and

May all beings find their highest purpose and be an inspiration to others.

 

(Photo source: http://hdw.eweb4.com/wallpapers/6264/)

Three questions to help set priorities in the year ahead

3 questions to ask

At this time of year, many of us step back from our usual routine, and take time to reconnect with family and friends from our past.  We also, quite naturally, contemplate the year/s ahead.  Whether you are a formal goal-setter, or prefer to reflect on your purpose in a less structured way, I hope you find the following three questions helpful.

They are not my own questions.  They come from George Kinder, father of the life planning movement.  And they really resonate with me:

  1. If you had all the money in the world, how would you change your life?
  2. If you knew you had only 5 – 10 years to live, how would you change your life?
  3. If you were told you had only 24 hours to live, what would you have missed?

Each of these questions in turn prompts other questions.  For example, if I had all the money in the world I would have a schedule based on what I want to do, rather than what I feel I have to do.  I would want to do more regular yoga classes. But could I re-arrange my life so that I could do that now ..?

I hope these questions bring a richness to your reflections.

For more on George Kinder, go to: http://www.kinderinstitute.com/george.htm

For more of my blogs, click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

 

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