Read the Prologue and Chapter One of ‘The Power of Meow’

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Prologue

I am ashamed to have to begin this book with a confession. A revelation so embarrassing I’d much rather not be making it. Living with the Dalai Lama, surrounded by monks at Namgyal Monastery, and constantly encountering the most revered meditation masters in Tibetan Buddhism, one would assume that among my many admirable qualities I am an accomplished meditator.

Alas, dear reader, I am not!

I may be gorgeous beyond words, with my mesmerizing blue eyes, charcoal face, and sumptuous cream coat. I may be a global celebrity whose well-being is a subject of frequent inquiry by luminaries as diverse as the occupants of the Oval Office, Buckingham Palace, and the more rarefied enclaves of the Hollywood Hills.

But a natural meditator? If only!

I have tried, on several occasions. But no sooner have I settled my mind on the sensation of my breath than I find myself thinking about Mrs. Trinci’s diced chicken liver. Or the discomfort in my hind legs. Or, somehow, both of those subjects mixed up at the same time.

There is a general belief that we cats are mindful creatures, who constantly “live in the moment.” While it’s true that we can focus our minds with great intensity, especially when our hunting instincts are aroused, it is equally true that we spend much of our time thinking. We give little outward show of this. But how many of your own thoughts are visible? And if they were, would you have any friends left, pray tell?!

If you ever doubted that your feline companion has her own inner life, just watch what happens when she falls asleep and loses conscious control of her physical being. Inevitably you will notice a twitching of limbs, a quivering of the jaw, sometimes perhaps a snuffling noise or a meow. What are these, if not the involuntary accompaniment to the imagined drama playing out in her mind? Cats may indeed be capable of great mindfulness. But we are thinking beings, too.

In my own case, unfortunately, a being who thinks rather too much.

For exactly this reason I had come around to believing that even though meditation is useful, transformational, a practice to which I should definitely apply myself, it wasn’t something I was going to do—at least not just yet. Maybe next year, when the Namgyal monks went on retreat. That would be a good time to make a concerted effort. Or perhaps during the dark winter months when most beings feel a natural inclination to withdraw from the world, to go inward. There seemed to be plenty of ideal occasions to restart my meditation practice.

Just none of them happened to be today.

The world is full of meditators who have lapsed, dabbled, or read a dozen books on the subject but don’t regularly meditate. I, dear reader, have until recently considered myself one of them. But something happened to change me. And I have come to discover that, for most meditators, the same is true. Some event, some trigger, propels you in a direction you may have been contemplating, but to which you were never fully committed.

Very few people are born meditators. Others learn to become great meditators. Most of us, however, have meditation thrust upon us. In sharing my story with you, I am doing so not because I think it’s very special—I am distinctly special, of course; that matter is beyond dispute. What I’m talking about here is the story of how I came to meditation. The reason I share it is because I feel it may be one you can relate to. One you understand. You may even see a teensy-weensy bit of yourself in me—how lovely for you!

So how is it that I came not only to comprehend but to experience what I call “the power of meow”?

Settle yourself in a favorite chair or sofa, dear reader. Ensure a ready supply of your favorite beverages and snacks. Turn off that irksome phone, or better yet, leave it in another room entirely. Beckon your own beloved feline to join you.

Are you ready? Quite comfortable?

Very good, then. Let’s begin.

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

It all began through casual curiosity. A stray dog had taken to sleeping part of the night on the doormat of our building. On my way out one morning, I paused to take in the pungent odor left in its wake, trying to place the breed. On my way back inside, I paused again.

A short while later I was resting on the windowsill of the Dalai Lama’s first-floor room. This was my all-time favorite spot, not least because it offered the ideal vantage point from which to achieve maximum surveillance with minimum effort. Simply being in the same room as His Holiness is the most wonderful sensation you can ever have. Whether you call it his presence, his energy, or his love, when you are near him, you can’t help being touched by a sense of profound and abiding well-being. The heartfelt reassurance that, whatever else is going on, beneath the surface, all is well.

That particular morning I had no sooner settled on the sill, eager to be absorbed into the field of benevolence surrounding the Dalai Lama, than I suddenly felt my skin crawl. In an instant I twisted my head around and began a frenzy of licking. But the itching only got worse! I scratched and gnawed, even biting the skin of my stomach and back. I had never felt anything like this. It was as though my whole body was under siege from an army of invisible assailants!

His Holiness looked up with concern from his desk.

Moments later, the itching stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Had it all been something in my imagination? Some perverse quirk of karma originating from who knew where?

Later that same day, following my return home from another outside visit, I came under attack again. The pain was so unexpected and intense that I leaped down from my perch on the filing cabinet in the executive assistants’ office, landing unsteadily on the floor. I twisted into another spasm of furious back-licking and biting. A hundred tiny attackers seemed suddenly upon me, crawling all over my skin, nipping me with red-hot fangs. Their assault was comprehensive—I could think of nothing except how to chase them off me, whatever they were.

Tenzin, the Dalai Lama’s right-hand man on all secular diplomatic matters, peered over the side of his desk. Midway through writing an e-mail to a prominent Scandinavian ’80s pop icon, he regarded me with surprise.

“HHC?’’ Ever punctilious, he referred to me using my official title, His Holiness’s Cat. “This isn’t like you!”

Indeed it was not. Nor were the further bouts of prickling, scouring, and writhing that continued for the rest of that day and all through the night. I felt like I was losing my mind.

His Holiness summoned his assistant first thing the following morning. “Tenzin, our little Snow Lion is in trouble.”

The Dalai Lama’s personal term of endearment for me usually filled my heart with gladness. Not on this occasion. As though on cue I doubled back, attacking the upper part of my tail in a tumult of savage gnawing.

“She was doing that yesterday, too,” observed Tenzin. The two of them stood, watching me for a few moments before they met each other’s eyes. They reached the same diagnosis in unison: “Fleas!”

Tenzin immediately sent out for a flea collar, which he clearly intended to attach to my neck. Not only would this get rid of the cause of my unhappiness, he assured me, it would also prevent fleas for the foreseeable future.

I was struggling, trying to come to terms with what had happened. Fleas? Me?! Was the Dalai Lama’s cat not immune to such a common and squalid vexation? And could there be any deeper humiliation than having been infected by a stray dog, of all things?

Initially I resisted Tenzin’s efforts, not wishing to parade my infested status in public, but with a firm grip and reassuring tone he fixed the collar around my neck. Next he quarantined me in the first-aid room while the Dalai Lama was out, supervising an important monastic exam. During his absence, Tenzin oversaw a top-to-bottom spring clean of His Holiness’s office and all the corridors I ever used.

Word of the stray dog came to light, and, when the doormat was studied, it was shown to be so heavily infested that it had to go. It was soon replaced with a handsome new coir mat with short bristles and a red-colored border. The security detail was put on notice to be alert for the stray dog and told that if it reappeared it was to be taken to the monastery until a permanent home could be found.

It seemed the whole flea incident had come to an end.

*

But life is more complicated than that. Even though I was soon thankfully rid of fleas, such had been their impact that, at odd times of the day and night and for no apparent reason, I’d imagine them upon me. I’d be sitting at the window, absorbed in tranquil contemplation, when suddenly my skin would crawl. Or I’d settle down to meditate and, from nowhere at all, the idea of them would burst into my mind. I’d find myself twitching and scratching at a half dozen imagined pests scrambling in different directions beneath my fur. Even if I managed to hold off reacting physically, my mind would become a tumult of distraction. In occasional moments of peace I’d try to reassure myself that my traumatic past was behind me, but I couldn’t ignore the truth of my own experience: I may no longer be infested, but I still suffered from fleas.

It was at this very same time that something else happened that sent shock waves through the whole community. I was there at the time, an inside observer. What I would never have guessed was the direct impact it was about to have on my life, or the way that I would be drawn inevitably into being a participant. In particular, it made me aware that cats are not alone in suffering from fleas.

*

The incident happened during one of the VIP meals occasionally hosted by the Dalai Lama. A high-powered delegation from the Vatican was visiting for lunch. Downstairs in the kitchen, Mrs. Trinci, the Dalai Lama’s VIP chef, had spared no efforts in making sure that His Holiness’s guests would be dazzled. For the past three days she had been hard at it, fussing and fretting over every last detail. Being Italian herself, it was as though she wanted to prove that whatever gastronomic heights might be scaled in the finest restaurants of Rome could be equaled, if not surpassed, here in the Himalayas.

After the pasta dishes had been cleared away, there followed a delightful interlude while His Holiness communicated with his guests—not only with words but also through his mere presence. I observe the effect that the Dalai Lama has on visitors every day of my life, and still I never tire of it. Today it was the Vatican visitors’ turn to enjoy basking in the sense of abiding well-being. As they did, I remained on the first-floor windowsill, waiting for my own lunchtime treat with mounting anticipation.

Of all the people at Namgyal Monastery, had I been asked who was my favorite—apart from His Holiness, of course—I would have had no trouble in naming Mrs. Trinci. Effusive, flamboyant, a commanding presence in the kitchen, from the very first time she’d caught sight of me, Mrs. Trinci declared that I was the Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived. I need only appear in the kitchen for her to swoop me up, place me like the most delicate piece of Ming porcelain on the countertop, and produce some succulent morsel for my delectation. As I devoured a saucer of diced chicken liver with noisy relish, she would watch me through her amber, mascara-lashed eyes, murmuring sweet nothings in my ear.

Even when I was out of sight, I was not out of mind. Mrs. Trinci could be preparing a most elaborate meal for visitors from as far afield as the White House, Prague Castle, or Palácio da Alvorada, but she would never fail to remember me. Along with the mouth-watering treasures of the dessert cart, she always made sure that a bowl of lactose-free milk, or perhaps—as a very rare treat—a tablespoon of clotted cream was provided for yours truly.

That particular day saw a procession of panna cotta, tiramisu, and tortes to the dining table. Accompanied, as usual, by smiles of appreciation from His Holiness’s guests. The waiters served each of the guests. After dessert, one by one they withdrew, leaving only the head waiter, Dawa. I looked over to the dessert cart, but my usual small, white ramekin was nowhere to be seen.

Surely I hadn’t been forgotten? Was such a thing even possible?

I wasn’t the only one who noticed. As I sat, bereft of my usual indulgence, His Holiness glanced up from an involved discussion about St. Francis of Assisi and looked directly from Dawa to me to the dessert cart. There was no need for him to say anything. Moments later Dawa was opening the door and whispering urgent instructions.

But my attention was quickly distracted by something else: the distant wailing of an ambulance. It seemed to be heading directly toward us.

Ears pointing forward, I tuned in to the approaching sound. There was no question—it was coming up the hill. As the white vehicle with flashing lights appeared at the entrance to Namgyal, I rose to my feet.

As did Tenzin. With conversation around the table becoming impossible on account of the siren, he excused himself and stepped over to the window. For a few moments, the two of us watched together. The ambulance entered the gates and drove slowly across the courtyard. Groups of monks and small bands of tourists scattered out of the way, staring at the clamorous apparition. The siren intensified even more as the vehicle drew closer, rising to an almost unbearable level. Then there was sudden quiet as the ambulance drove around to the front of the building and disappeared from view.

An eerie silence followed. Around the dining table there were raised eyebrows and expressions of concern. Several of the Vatican delegates crossed themselves while glancing upward. Tenzin returned to his seat, and conversation slowly resumed.

Watching the courtyard below fill with the usual mix of red-robed monks, umbrella-wielding tourist guides, and couriers in their high-visibility vests, for a short while I forgot about that lunchtime’s inexplicable omission—until Dawa arrived with my usual ramekin, which he placed on the sill with an elaborate bow.

*

A short time later the Vatican envoys were bidding His Holiness farewell. There was talk of future contact being made via Skype, and then they began making their way outside in a swirl of cassocks. For a few moments the Dalai Lama stood alone, his hands folded at his heart, murmuring mantras under his breath. It was something I’d observed him do on several occasions before. Intuition told me that something significant was afoot.

Only moments later, Tenzin returned quickly down the corridor.

“I’m sorry to tell Your Holiness, but Mrs. Trinci seems to have suffered a heart attack.”

I looked up—had I heard correctly?

Compassion filled not only His Holiness’s face but the whole room. It was as though his concern could not be contained; it seemed to flow outward, touching every living being in Namgyal and far beyond.

“The ambulance came quickly,” Tenzin continued. “She is being taken to the hospital. I’ll let you know as soon as I have more news.”

The Dalai Lama nodded. “Thank you,” he said softly. “May she make a full and speedy recovery.”

Tenzin, too, brought his palms to his heart before turning to go.

*

The days that followed were unusually somber. Word of Mrs. Trinci’s heart attack spread through Namgyal and beyond. Although she wasn’t a daily presence at Namgyal, she was one of its most colorful members of staff, as well known for her volcanic temperament as for her generous heart. There were few at Namgyal who hadn’t sampled her superlative cooking—even if it was only one of the delicious cookies she baked regularly for the monks.

The first official news from the hospital confirmed the diagnosis of a heart attack. Tests were under way to determine the extent of the damage. For a while there was no further information at all about what was happening at the hospital. Then, a few days later, Mrs. Trinci’s daughter, Serena, phoned to update His Holiness. He was in the middle of reciting mantras, so he put the phone on speaker as he continued to move mala beads between his fingers.

Serena had grown up in McLeod Ganj and had been a sous chef in the downstairs kitchen from the time she’d been able to slice a carrot. Because her mother had been widowed at an early age, His Holiness had occupied a fatherly position in her life, doting on her when she was a little girl and offering paternal love and reassurance as she grew up.

Even though she’d spent most of her adult life in Europe studying as a chef and working in several famous restaurants, Serena retained a special connection to the Dalai Lama. As she did to me. From the moment we met, Serena and I were the very closest of friends. She explained that her mother had been discharged from the hospital. The heart attack caused no major damage. There was no need for surgery, nor was Mrs. Trinci in any pain. But she was suffering from high blood pressure, and from now on, she needed to take medicine every day. In addition, the doctor had strongly advised her to find a complementary method to help manage her stress: meditation.

His Holiness immediately volunteered to be her teacher—an offer that delighted Serena. “Personal instruction by the Dalai Lama!” she exclaimed.

“And of course you are welcome to join her,” His Holiness added. When the Dalai Lama made such offers, they were never casually intended. “If we suffer from stress, if we lack peace of mind, meditation becomes more important. For all of us.”

On a nearby armchair, I was following the conversation with interest.

“Pain is inevitable,” the Dalai Lama continued. “Suffering is optional. We will all have to endure trauma and challenges. What matters is how we move forward afterward. Do we keep carrying the trauma and its causes in our mind? Or can we find a way to let go of them, to end our own suffering?”

The conversation was starting to have a personal
relevance.

“This is where mindfulness can help us.”

As I turned to observe His Holiness, I discovered that he was looking directly at me.

*

I expected Mrs. Trinci and Serena to appear in His Holiness’s rooms within days. But a whole week went by, followed by another, and still there was no visit. There seemed to be some kind of obstacle. Surely Serena wouldn’t have forgotten? And what possible reason could Mrs. Trinci have for not seizing this opportunity? My own Post-Traumatic Flea Disorder was nowhere near as threatening as a heart attack, but it was still the cause of deep mental agitation, a gnawing concern that I was eager to hear the Dalai Lama explain.

As it happened, I had to wait more than a month before, late one afternoon, Mrs. Trinci and Serena appeared at the main gates to Namgyal. A short while later, the two of them were ushered into His Holiness’s chamber. Ordinarily, his visitors would be seated demurely on one of the chairs opposite him, but these were no ordinary visitors. They were family. Catching sight of me on the sill, Mrs. Trinci immediately came over to where I was sitting.

“Oh, little dolce mio!” she exclaimed.

I got up, stretching my front paws out ahead of me with a luxuriant quiver, then arching my back appreciatively as she stroked my neck.

“But what is this?”

“Flea collar,” said His Holiness.

Mamma mia, my poor little treasure!” she said as she bent down, nuzzling my head with her face. “How you have suffered! And how I have missed you!”

“She has missed you, too.” His Holiness was standing by his chair, observing this all with a smile. “And all the special treats from downstairs,” he added with a chuckle.

“Don’t worry, she gets plenty of those at the café,” came Serena’s droll voice from next to him. Serena was co-manager of the Himalaya Book Café, one of my favorite haunts, conveniently located less than ten minutes away.

Once the three of them settled into their chairs, I made my way toward them, eager not to miss out on anything.

“Tell me, my dear,” His Holiness said as he reached over and took Mrs. Trinci’s hand in his own, as was his custom no matter who was visiting. He gazed deeply into her eyes. “How are you?”

Finding herself in his compassionate presence suddenly became too much for Mrs. Trinci. Overwhelmed, she dissolved into tears and had to retrieve a handkerchief from her purse. Through sobs, she explained how much of a shock the heart attack had been. How desperately she had just wanted things to go back to normal. But her doctor told her there could be no such thing. There had to be a new normal. She needed to make changes to her life if she was to manage her high blood pressure and to avoid future heart problems.

From the carpet I studied Mrs. Trinci’s face closely. I don’t know whether it was that she wasn’t wearing her customary mascara or that she was bereft of her signature bracelets, which would clang emphatically whenever she moved her arms. But it seemed to me that something had changed. Something about her energy was less vital. That unquestioning invincibility about her presence had gone. For the first time that I could ever remember, Mrs. Trinci looked vulnerable. Walking over to her chair, I hopped up and settled beside her, offering reassurance in the form of a gentle purr.

“The doctor said I should take up meditation. I am very grateful to you for offering to show me how,” she said, reaching over to stroke me.

“Yes, I remember saying this to Serena,” replied His Holiness. “When was that?”

Mrs. Trinci turned to Serena. “Ten days ago?”

“A month.”

“One month,” confirmed the Dalai Lama in a thoughtful tone.

There was no need for him to say anything else. As twilight deepened, an unasked question became so loud, so self-evident, that Mrs. Trinci felt compelled to answer it. “I . . . I didn’t come to see you earlier because, well”—she was shaking her head sadly—“I’m not sure I can meditate.”

Perhaps she had expected His Holiness to chastise her. It was hard to tell from her tone if she was embarrassed or despairing. But the Dalai Lama glowed with amusement, as though what she said had to be a joke. In that moment, whatever tension had been present in the room seemed to shimmer away. First Mrs. Trinci and then Serena picked up on the Dalai Lama’s mirth, and they both got caught up in the hilarity of what Mrs. Trinci had just said.

“Tell me,” said His Holiness, eyes still twinkling with amusement, “why do you think you can’t meditate?”

“Because I have tried!” Mrs. Trinci’s voice rose. “Several times.”

“And?”

“My mind.” She met his gaze. “It’s out of control.”

“Very good!” He brought his hands together, chuckling at her observation. “Had you ever noticed this before?”

“No.” It didn’t take her long to ponder the question. “Not really. I’d never tried to focus like that.”

“Then you have already made the first, most important discovery,” said the Dalai Lama. “It is only when we acknowledge we have a problem that we can do something about it. You now have first-hand understanding of how out of control the mind is. You see, my dear,” he said, regarding her closely, “when we are suffering from stress, it isn’t only because of our circumstances. Generally, we think everything is about what’s outside of us. The externals. We think that if I didn’t have this problem, if I wasn’t in this situation, then, no stress. But there are other people in even more challenging situations who are thriving. The stress isn’t coming from ‘out there.’ Mainly it is coming from our mind.”

The Dalai Lama leaned forward in his seat. He was including all of us in what he was saying—not only Mrs. Trinci. “When we practice meditation, we begin to monitor our mind. And when we pay much closer attention, we can start to manage it.”

“But is there really any hope for me?” Mrs. Trinci asked. “When my mind is so crazy?”

His Holiness regarded her solemnly. “When we begin trying to meditate, most of each session we are thinking about everything except the chosen object of meditation. This is the same for everyone. Normal.”

I had never heard the Dalai Lama speak so directly to a beginner before. But what he said came as a massive relief. I wasn’t the only one! It seemed that Mrs. Trinci and I had an important thing in common—apart from our love of gourmet cuisine. We both suffered from fleas. We might want to enjoy meditative calm, but no sooner would we begin a session than there’d be a scurrying, an agitation. Our contemplation would be abruptly overturned. Unwanted thoughts would intrude into our concentration, utterly destroying our peace of mind. Cats evidently weren’t alone in this. When it came to meditation, it seemed, humans were flea-infested, too.

“It is the same for all of us,” continued the Dalai Lama. “All of us have to start somewhere. Where you start is unimportant. What matters is where you finish.”

There was a pause as we contemplated this. Then Mrs. Trinci spoke, her voice softly apologetic. “So you are willing to teach me how to meditate, even though my mind is so bad?”

“Of course!” His Holiness’s face lit up. “This is why we are here.”

The Dalai Lama seemed to be referring not only to the fact that we were gathered in his room; he seemed also to be hinting at a greater purpose, an underlying connection.

“You have always been so generous, cooking wonderful food for our visitors,” the Dalai Lama said as he brought his palms to his heart and bowed to Mrs. Trinci. “Perhaps in some small way I can repay your kindness.” His expression turned suddenly serious. “But you must never say ‘my mind is so bad,’ because this is mistaken thinking. You may experience great agitation. Much distraction. But this is temporary. Thoughts arise, abide, and pass. They are not permanent. Like clouds, no matter how completely they fill the sky or how long they seem to stay there, they, too, will pass. And when they do, even in brief moments after the end of one thought and before the next one begins, you can catch a glimpse of your mind. You can see it for what it is. Your mind, my mind, all our minds have the same qualities—perfect clarity, lucidity, boundlessness, serenity . . .”

As he spoke, Mrs. Trinci began to well up. His Holiness was communicating, and not only with words. He also conveyed the meaning of what he said in such a way that the feeling of it became wonderfully palpable.

Looking over at her daughter, Mrs. Trinci noticed that Serena’s eyes also began to fill.

“As you abide with mind,” he continued, “more and more you will also come to discover that your own primordial nature is one of pure, great love and pure, great compassion. All begins with abiding in this moment, here and now.”

For a while we sat in silence. An early-evening breeze rippled through the open window—air that was fresh from the mountains and steeped in pine. It seemed to carry the promise of something new.

Then the Dalai Lama said, “I would like to give you all a challenge. I would like you to meditate for ten minutes every day, for a period of six weeks. At the end of the period, we can all review whether meditation holds some value. If so”—he nodded—“if there is some change, then we carry on.” He shrugged. “If not, we can say ‘I tried.’ Does this seem fair?”

“Only ten minutes?” Serena raised her eyebrows.

“To begin with, yes. You may be surprised how much change we can experience with only a short period of focused attention each day.”

Serena was nodding, accepting His Holiness’s challenge. She glanced over at her mother, who, after initial hesitation, began nodding, too.

On the chair, I felt the full gazes of the Dalai Lama, Serena, and Mrs. Trinci upon me.

Responding to the attention, I looked up. And meowed.

All three of them laughed.

“The power of meow?” suggested Serena as Mrs. Trinci stroked me.

“Exactly,” said His Holiness, chuckling. “It is the pathway to well-being and to discovering our own true nature.”

*

That night, the Dalai Lama attended a session in the temple. By the time he returned the moon had risen, casting the courtyard in ethereal silver.

I always love how the moon transforms a familiar scene into something quite magical. If daylight belongs to the dogs, then we cats are creatures of the night. We are the feline yin to the canine yang. Denizens of a time of mystery and wonder. For my own part, I enjoyed nothing more than sitting in nocturnal reverie beneath the brooding Himalayas, their icy peaks coolly gleaming in the starlight.

That particular evening, I noticed a curiously beguiling new scent carried on the breeze. It wasn’t a fragrance I had ever detected before, and there was something powerfully compelling about it. My nostrils flared. I had no doubt that its origin was a flower or plant of some kind. But where was it coming from exactly? And why had I never noticed it before? As I lifted my face to the wind, I knew it was a mystery that deserved further investigation.

But not just yet. Just then, His Holiness returned to the room. Seeing me sitting in the darkness, I think he, too, sensed something of the magic of that moment. Instead of turning on the light, he came over to where I sat looking out the open window to the brightly lit temple. He eased himself down next to me, and for a few moments the two of us became watchful observers.

Snatches of conversation rose from the courtyard as monks made their way from the temple back to their residence, where orange squares of light flickered to life. A cooling breeze stirred, bringing with it ribbons of night jasmine—along with that enchanting new scent. Over at the temple, the lights were being turned off one by one. First the roof and the auspicious symbols that decorated it suddenly fell into darkness. Then the steps leading up to the entrance and the intricately colored doorway became instantly monochrome.

For a moment, all that remained lit was a solitary gold lotus flower—the Buddhist symbol of transcendence, renunciation, and hope—on the front of the temple. It floated on the unseen surface of an ocean of shadow.

“A good reminder, my little Snow Lion,” murmured the Dalai Lama. “Lotus plants grow in poor conditions. Their roots are in the mud, sometimes dirty swamps. But they rise above that. Their flowers are very beautiful. Sometimes when we have problems we, too, can use our difficulties to create something we may not even have considered before. We can turn our suffering into the cause of extraordinary growth.”

Like so much else of what His Holiness said, his words could be understood in different ways. I knew he was making not only a general observation but offering a deeply personal message—one that referred not only to my own recent challenges but to Mrs. Trinci’s, too. And, more important, to the fresh direction in which they could propel us. Instead of believing my infestation to be a cause of nothing but biting misery, I was beginning to see that it seemed it could become fuel for personal growth.

If you’d like to read more, you can get/order the book from your local bookstore, or through amazon or another online retailer.  Here are some helpful links:

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Suffer from mental fleas when you meditate? 5 points to encourage you from The Dalai Lama’s Cat.

scratching cat

In my new book, The Power of Meow, the Dalai Lama’s Cat begins with an embarrassing confession:

Living with the Dalai Lama, surrounded by monks at Namgyal Monastery, and constantly encountering the most revered meditation masters in Tibetan Buddhism, one would assume that among my many admirable qualities I am an accomplished meditator.

Alas, dear reader, I am not!

I may be gorgeous beyond words, with my mesmerizing blue eyes, charcoal face, and sumptuous cream coat. I may be a global celebrity whose well-being is a subject of frequent inquiry by luminaries as diverse as the occupants of the Oval Office, Buckingham Palace, and the more rarefied enclaves of the Hollywood Hills.

But a natural meditator? If only!”

His Holiness’s Cat (HHC) is fully aware of the many life-enhancing benefits of meditating.  She lives with one of its greatest living masters – indeed, she curls up right next to him each morning when he meditates.  But when she tries to meditate herself, she discovers that she suffers from mental fleas. No sooner has she focused her attention on her breath than she is beset by a dozen irksome, scurrying thoughts, nipping at her mind and distracting her attention.

Sound familiar?

The revelation that our minds are completely out of control, and that we all suffer from mental fleas, is one of the most sobering discoveries we make when we begin to meditate.  It’s also one of the main reasons so many people give up, believing that their hyper-active mind uniquely disqualifies them from the ability to meditate.  But it is exactly because we’re so agitated that we stand to get so much from the practice of meditation – if only we would persist.

So what words of comfort and encouragement might HHC share with fellow sufferers of mental fleas?  You’ll have to read the book for the full story, but here are five points to get you started:

  1. It is completely normal to have an agitated mind.  So normal, in fact, that the first two of the nine stages of meditative concentration, a yardstick established for over 2,500 years, describes this as the typical experience of all beings when we begin meditating.  What matters is not where you start, however, but where you end up.
  2. If you keep on meditating properly, your concentration must improve.  There is no other alternative.  In just the same way that training the body has observable, repeatable and measurable effects, so too the mind.
  3. Even though your concentration may be poor, simply showing up on the meditation cushion has profoundly positive effects on both body and mind.  The growing weight of clinical research shows how our hormonal output shifts, our brain waves alter, our stress levels fall away and psychological markers are improved even when it feels like our mind is going all over the place.  In fact, it’s not unusual to feel your concentration is deteriorating in the early days, not because it is, but because your awareness is becoming clearer.  If so – well done and keep on going!
  4. Meditation practice is a bit like running a well-diversified farm.  The trees in your orchard (meditative concentration) will take years to bear fruit.  But your seasonal vegetables will bring more obvious, short term results.  What are these metaphorical vegetables?  You may find the things that used to drive you crazy, drive you less crazy.  You may have some ‘aha’ experiences when insights about your personal or professional life suddenly bubble up in your consciousness.  You may find yourself deriving more pleasure from simple, everyday experiences.
  5. Even if most of the time, most of your sessions are flea-ridden, if you keep on at it, one fine day you’ll have a moment’s peace when your mind is focused, the sense of division between observer and observed dissolves away and you catch a glimpse of what is possible.  Congratulations, dear reader – you have just experienced The Power of Meow!

For more blogs on similar and related subjects, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

And don’t forget to enter the 25 book giveaway of my new book ‘The Dalai Lama’s Cat and The Power of Meow‘ below!

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(Image of scratching cat courtesy of: http://pets.webmd.com/cats/ss/slideshow-skin-problems-in-cats)

Pets as partners on our spiritual journey – Buddhist wisdom

child and cat

Buddhism is well-known as a tradition of inner transformation.  But great practitioners down the ages have also emphasized that freeing ourselves from suffering depends on others.  Progress in our inner development goes hand and hand with our outward behaviour.  It is no coincidence that of the six perfections taught by Buddha, we practise the first three – generosity, ethics and patience – mainly in relation to others, and the latter three – joyous perseverance, concentration and wisdom – mainly in relation to ourselves.

Ensuring coherence between outer and inner behaviour is an important, challenging and ongoing part of our journey of transformation.  To illustrate with an extreme example, it is unlikely that a bad-tempered, tight-fisted, love-cheat would enjoy a state of boundless radiance and benevolence when sitting to meditate!  It is also true that a meditator familiar with such a state would be less likely to risk sabotaging it by behaving in a way inconsistent with what he has discovered to be his own true nature.

The avoidance of harmful behaviour is one part of ensuring coherence.  But so too is doing good.  In Buddhism, virtue is presented as having an energetic quality.  It is a means by which we propel inner growth, including the gradual development of meditative concentration.  If we wish to experience the most profound states of well-being ourselves, it helps to first give happiness to others.

Which others?  Lamas often emphasize the importance of starting with those closest to us.  The beings for whom we already feel some genuine affection.  For many of us, this includes our pets.

Just because a being is a dog, cat or parrot makes him or her no less valid a recipient of our love and compassion than a human.  This is how pets can be more than our cherished companions – we may see them as partners on a journey of transformation, because they provide us with countless opportunities on a daily basis to practice generosity, ethics and patience.

It is useful to recognise these opportunities for what they are.  Instead of automatically opening the can of dog food, it is helpful to think: ‘By this act of generosity, may I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.’  Stroking our cat’s tummy, we may reflect: ‘By this act of love, may I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.’  Such practices feel contrived to begin with, but they utilise skilful psychology: the more familiar we become with this motivation, the more it becomes a natural and spontaneous part of our thinking, beginning to transform more and more of our everyday behaviour into transcendental action.  There’s no need to make a song and a dance about it.  We should aim to be “undercover Buddhists” working on inner growth all the while appearing to be engaged in ordinary activities.

The Buddhist view of causation, or karma, suggests that the fact that a pet is part of your life is no coincidence.  Causes created in this or a previous lifetime have drawn you back together.  How wonderful that, as a human, you now have the power to help the being who is currently your pet – and not only by taking care of their worldly needs.  By exposing the mind of your pet to images of Buddhas, by enabling them to witness the regular practice of meditation, and by repeating mantras, which resonate with a profound and timeless power, you can help create the causes for very positive future effects in their mind-stream.  There are a number of case studies from Tibet of animals becoming reborn as people who went onto achieve great realisations as a result of hearing mantras recited in their presence.  My own Vajra Acharya, Geshe Thubten Loden often recited mantras outside, so that the birds could hear them.

Pets not only provide us with a wealth of opportunity to fuel our inner growth through the practices of generosity, ethics and patience.  We can also help them.  In this way, they can be our close and special partners on our spiritual journey.

For more blogs on similar and related subjects, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

And don’t forget to enter the 25 book giveaway of my new book ‘The Dalai Lama’s Cat and The Power of Meow’!

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Win one of 25 FREE copies of ‘The Dalai Lama’s Cat and The Power of Meow’!

Meow US cover medium

To celebrate the launch of third book in The Dalai Lama’s Cat series, I am delighted to announce a 25 book give-away of ‘The Power of Meow‘!

My publishers at Hay House are kindly offering 5 free books in each of the following territories:

  • USA and Canada
  • UK
  • Australia and New Zealand
  • India
  • South Africa

To enter the give-away, simply sign up to my blog, where I share regular articles and updates of interest to Dalai Lama’s Cat readers. You’ll find the link to do this below.  Winners will be announced on 15th June – publication day!

Good luck and sincere thanks for all your support for the previous two Dalai Lama’s Cat books!

(  )~ prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
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Clive James and how death is the greatest meditation

boat at sunset

I have always been a big fan of Clive James’s work (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clive_James) and was saddened to hear some time ago that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  True to form, Clive has not allowed this diagnoses to stop his ongoing and amusing flow of insights, and in yesterday’s Sunday Times (UK) there was a major article about how his most recent book, a volume of poetry, was also turning out to be among his best received (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/newsreview/article1547894.ece)

The reality of his impending death is the subject of many of the new poems, and Clive writes with typically self-deprecating humour about how ‘Perhaps the sole virtue of my book is that its constituent poems have the same attraction as a man playing a piano at the edge of a tall cliff.’

Of course, this isn’t true.  The poems have a tremendous power because they resonate so strongly about a subject that most of us don’t treat with the importance it is due: the reality of our own death.

Buddha used to teach that death was the greatest meditation.  When we truly face up to the fact that we will die, and perhaps a lot sooner than we would like, we not only appreciate every moment of our life more.  We also recognise what really matters and review our priorities accordingly.

One of Clive’s poems, published in the Sunday Times, reveals exactly this, and I’d like to share it here.

 

Leçons de Ténèbres by Clive James

 

But are they lessons, all these things I learn

Through being so far gone in my decline?

The wages of experience I earn

Would service well a younger life than mine,

I should have been more kind.  It is my fate

To find this out, but find it out too late.

 

The mirror holds the ruins of my face

Roughly together, thus reminding me

I should have played it straight in every case,

Not just when forced to.  Far too casually

I broke faith when it suited me, and here

I am alone, and now the end is near.

 

All of my life I put my labour first.

I made my mark, but left no time between

The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,

With no life, there was nothing I could mean.

But now I have slowed down, I breathe the air

As if there were not much more of it there.

 

And write these poems, which are funeral songs

That have been taught to me by vanished time:

Not only to enumerate my wrongs

But to pay homage to the late sublime

That comes with seeing how the years have brought

A fitting end, if not the one I sought.

 

I find this both a deeply moving poem, and one which illuminates important insights in the most powerful way.  Clive says he only found out too late that he should have been kinder, behaved more ethically and been less fixated on work, lessons that would ‘service well a younger life than mine.’  These are in complete accord with Buddha’s teachings, and quite probably the teachings of other spiritual traditions – and how wonderfully expressed!

I just wanted to share this poem with you – I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

And thank you, Clive James, for your wisdom, your humour and your life.

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

David Michie reads the Prologue of ‘The Power of Meow’

Meow US cover medium

Feel like a quick taster of The Dalai Lama’s Cat and The Power of Meow?

Please click below for my 4 minute reading of the Prologue.

 

If you’d like to make sure you’re among the first to get your paws on the book, I highly recommend that you pre-order from your local bookstore, or through amazon or another online retailer.  Here are some helpful links:

USA: http://www.amazon.com/The-Dalai-Lamas-Power-Meow/dp/1401946240/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_z

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1781804079/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-3&pf_rd_r=19EP4G32J7VRPQZQ70ZY&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=455333147&pf_rd_i=468294

Australia: http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Power-of-Meow-David-Michie/9781781804070

NZ: http://www.fishpond.co.nz/Books/Power-of-Meow-David-Michie/9781781804070

And for a sneak peak of the Prologue and Chapter One, which I’ll be sharing in print form before publication, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

Global Launch of The Power of Meow!

 Meow US cover medium

I am thrilled to let you know about the global launch of The Dalai Lama’s Cat and The Power of Meow!

This is the third book by the Dalai Lama’s Cat.  Official publication date is 15th June, which means the books will start shipping from online retailers, and appear on bookstore shelves, in late May.

So what is The Power of Meow all about?

In future weeks I will be blogging more.  But for now I thought I’d share the back cover description with you:

“If you ever doubted that your feline companion has her own inner life, just watch what happens when she falls asleep, and loses conscious control of her physical being … a twitching of limbs, a quivering of the jaw, sometimes, perhaps, a snuffling noise or a meow.

… Cats may indeed be capable of great mindfulness, but we are thinking beings too.  In my own case, unfortunately, a being who thinks rather too much.”

In the latest installment of the Dalai Lama’s Cat series, His Holiness’s Cat (“HHC”) is on a mission: to think less, to experience more, to live in the moment. She soon learns the proper phrase for this, being mindful, or, a concept better known to her as the power of meow. What ensues is a journey to discover her own true nature, to gain a deeper understanding of her mind, and to experience life’s greatest joy, the here and now.

Throughout, there are encounters with familiar inhabitants of Dharamsala, as well as a whole new cast of characters: a senior exec from one of Silicon Valley’s most famous social media companies (hint: the name rhymes with “litter”), the Pope’s beloved dog (who shares a shockingly similar title: HHD, His Holiness’s Dog), and a public health inspector who threatens to have our poor narrator banned from the Himalaya Book Café.

In this follow-up to the Dalai Lama’s Cat and the Art of Purring, readers escape to the enchanting and exotic world of the Dalai Lama’s monastery in the Himalayas, and take a peek inside the mind of a delightfully imperfect creature on the path to enlightenment. By accompanying HHC on her journey, you will learn new ways to relate to your own mind: slowing down, finding peace, and abiding in the boundless radiance and benevolence that is your own true nature.

If you’d like to make sure you’re among the first to get your paws on the book, I highly recommend that you pre-order from your local bookstore, or through amazon or another online retailer.  Here are some helpful links:

USA: http://www.amazon.com/The-Dalai-Lamas-Power-Meow/dp/1401946240/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_z

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1781804079/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-3&pf_rd_r=19EP4G32J7VRPQZQ70ZY&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=455333147&pf_rd_i=468294

Australia: http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Power-of-Meow-David-Michie/9781781804070

NZ: http://www.fishpond.co.nz/Books/Power-of-Meow-David-Michie/9781781804070

Next week I will be posting a video of me reading the Prologue of The Power of Meow.

And for a sneak peak of the Prologue and Chapter One, which I’ll be sharing in print form before publication, please click the ‘Follow’ button on my blog MEOW!

 

How pets offer the gift of mindfulness

cat comforting human - arm

My office desk overlooks a street on which people in the neighbourhood walk their dogs every day.  In the past ten years I’ve noticed a trend that saddens me.  Instead of taking their dogs for a walk as they used to, these days many people are more likely to be hunched over their phones while holding the dog’s lead.

Sure they are going through the motions of taking the dog for a walk.  But it is Dog Walk Lite.  The dog is no longer the focus of their attention.  Sometimes the poor animal seems to be an irritating distraction.  One teenage girl, forever engrossed in her screen, was always tugging her ageing Border Collie’s leash whenever he wanted to stop and sniff at something he no doubt found as arresting as whatever had her glued to her screen.

As a society, I wonder if we are forgetting how to be present with our pets?  How to honour the fact that they are sentient beings too?  How, just like us, they may seek happiness, excitement, new things, novelty.  How, unlike us, much of the time their freedom of movement is constrained – for a dog, going for a walk may be his or her only opportunity to engage with the broader world that day.

In our homes, screens of one sort or another also distract us as never before.  We are allowing virtual interactions to rob us of real interactions with sentient beings whose world is wholly dependent on ours.  Beings with all too brief lifespans.

That teenage girl I mentioned has been walking the collies since she was quite young.  My wife and I know her family.  One of the collies died a few years ago.  Last month, having not seen her out for a while, I bumped into her father who said that the remaining dog had died.  I felt so sorry for the dog and the missed opportunities especially of those final, precious walks on earth.  I felt sorry for the girl, and what she’d missed out on too.

For if we let them, our pets can be the most delightful reminders to be present in this moment.  Here and now.  To let go of whatever thoughts are preoccupying us.  To focus our attention on our animal companion and, to whatever extent we are able, experience the world through them.  It’s hard not to smile when watching a dog bounding across an open space of parkland with self-evident joy.  Or to be touched by a sleepy cat purring appreciatively while being stroked.  The image at the top of this blog was posted by someone online after a relationship break-up: it felt to them like their cat had picked up on their mood and was offering comfort.  Why not be open to the love and compassion we can discover in each moment, whatever our species?

Neuro-scientists refer to ‘direct’ mode when we pay attention directly to our senses, as opposed to ‘narrative’ mode when we’re caught up in our own inner narrative or thoughts.  Unsurprisingly, there is a powerful and positive correlation between being in direct mode and being happy.

You might say that our pets not only provide us with opportunities to be mindful.  In so doing, they also offer us the gift of happiness.  The only question is, how open are we to receiving it?

Some tips for practising mindfulness with pets:

  1. When you take the dog for a walk, leave the phone at home – or if you have the discipline, in your pocket.
  2. Set aside at least two or three ten minute sessions each day as dedicated pet time, to spend stroking the tummies, scratching the necks or otherwise enjoying the company of whatever animals you share your life with.
  3. When preparing food for your pet, don’t do it on autopilot. Think ‘By this practice of generosity, may I be creating the direct cause for (NAME OF PET) to be well-nourished, healthy and happy and to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings’).
  4. Similarly, when cleaning up any pet mess, transform it into a positive experience through mindfulness. Think ‘By this practice of purification, may I be creating the direct cause for (NAME OF PET) to be healthy, happy and to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings’).
  5. Never take your pet’s presence for granted. His or her life is short.  Death may strike at any moment.  Show your pet love and appreciation each and every day.

 david talking to zuma after feeding feb 14

 (Talking to Zuma, the baby Kangaroo at http://www.pentlandalpacafarm.com.au/about_farm.html)

(Image of comfort cat from: http://www.reddit.com/r/aww/comments/1a314e/cat_trying_to_comfort_me_after_a_break_upat_least/)

I’ll be blogging more about mindfulness and Buddhist insights into our relationships with animals.  To receive future blogs, please click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right side of the screen now!

Please ‘Share’ this blog with anyone you feel may benefit from it.

For more on mindfulness:

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 edition:

 

US cover

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

Read the first chapter of ‘Buddhism for Busy People’ here!

 

 

cat on balcony city cropped

 

The first book I wrote about Buddhism was called Buddhism for Busy People. That was over ten years ago, when there weren’t many books providing an introduction to the key concepts in Tibetan Buddhism.  Buddhism for Busy People is also a very personal account, relating my own encounter with Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma), why they resonated and how they began to change my life.

I’m delighted to say that over ten years later the book is still in print and widely available, and I still get wonderful emails from readers who have discovered that the Dharma resonates with them too.  I thought it was about time I shared the first chapter here on my blog.  Enjoy!

 

Chapter One: What does it take to be happy?

What does it take to be happy?  Of every question in the world, this is the most universal.  It is also the great leveler because all of us – comfortably off or financially struggling, single or in a relationship, awkwardly overweight or elegantly slim – are equal in our desire to achieve true happiness.  Not the happiness we’ve all experienced which comes and goes depending on circumstance, but a happiness which endures, regardless of change.  A happiness we feel deep down inside.

By any objective standard, our efforts to attain this simple goal have met with decidedly mixed results.  As a society we now enjoy a level of affluence that would have left our grandparents breathless – but our medicine cabinets have never been so replete with sedatives, tranquillizers and antidepressants to cocoon us from our new, ‘improved’ reality.  We have at our disposal an unprecedented range of labour-saving technology – but nor have we ever had to work such long hours.  We are succeeding in the cosy notion of creating a global village – but never have we felt so under siege from international terrorism, volatile stock markets, viral infections and other threats.  And so the list of paradoxes continues.

On an individual basis our striving for happy, purposeful lives often doesn’t fare much better.  Money, relationships and fulfilment in work are the core ingredients of most people’s recipes of happiness, but if we were to send in the Happiness Auditors to check up on their effectiveness, could they really withstand close scrutiny?

Successive studies of lottery winners, for example, show that within months of multi-million dollar wins, happiness levels return pretty much to where they were before.  Amazingly adaptable creatures that we are, we adjust to new conditions so quickly that what was once fabulous, soon becomes the norm, and we’re back where we started in search of fresh excitement.  Even when we do achieve that much sought-after promotion, that big-ticket deal, that amazing breakthrough, all too often we are mystified to discover that we fail to experience the wonderful feelings we’d always thought we would.  ‘Is this all?’ we find ourselves wondering.

As for relationships we don’t have to look very far to recognize just how swiftly that first, giddying rush of romantic intensity matures into something very much more complicated.

Yet somehow we manage to convince ourselves that it’s not the recipe that’s at fault – it’s the ingredients we’re working with.  If only we were to land this particular job or contract, the difference would be life-changing.  That man or woman is just so right that life with them would transport us to a state of great bliss.  The fact that we once entertained similar thoughts about our now very-ex partner is not a subject we like to think about.  Or if we do we have an outstanding ability to convince ourselves that this time it will all be completely different!

A Practical Alternative

Having spent my adult life in corporate public relations, my own search for happiness has been a busy one.  On the career treadmill working crazy hours, juggling a dozen balls, experiencing the full spectrum of emotions from the pumping adrenalin of triumph to the desperate wish that the world would stop, I am all too familiar with the relentless striving to succeed.  The wearying knowledge that no matter how far you go, there is always so much further.

But it has also been my enormous good fortune to have encountered Tibetan Buddhism.  To have discovered a practical alternative.  This book explains how profound and lasting happiness can be achieved according to this ancient tradition.  It is also an unashamedly personal account of how Buddhist teachings have helped me infuse my day-to-day life with greater meaning and how they are transforming my understanding about what really counts.

Personal though this particular account may be, it is written with the certain knowledge that there is nothing at all unique about my experience.  Scratch out corporate public relations and replace it with any other form of busy-ness and the story for most of us is a variation on the same theme: too much to do, too little time to do it in, and an underlying recognition that despite our best endeavours, we don’t appear to be living life to our full potential.

It is also true that by integrating various practices into my life, I have benefited from results which are by no means unique either.  And still do, every single day.

If, like me, you have a tendency to take yourself altogether too seriously, beating yourself up when things don’t go according to plan;  if you feel your chances of happiness are undermined by circumstances beyond your control; if you would like to be a kinder, more generous person, but your heart has been cauterised by hurt and fear; if you would, quite simply, like to experience a sense of meaning beyond ‘another day, another dollar,’ you may well find in Buddhism, practices which are truly transforming.

Re-arranging not the externals, but the internals

What, you might ask, can a tradition developed in a remote oriental fiefdom two and a half thousand years ago possibly teach Western man in the twenty first century about happiness?

As it happens, one of the most amazing paradoxes of all is that the Tibetan Buddhist approach could have been developed with busy Westerners specifically in mind.  In the finest empirical form, it represents an approach to the human condition based on an unflinching analysis of the facts. It provides tried and tested practices set out in clearly defined steps to lead us from our current mental state to greater happiness and, ultimately, enlightenment.

As far as Buddhism is concerned, our attempts to re-arrange the externals of our lives – money, relationships, careers – can only ever result in temporary satisfaction.  The reason being that all such attempts don’t take into account the only constant in life: change.  Even if we do get things the way we want them, inevitably something will come along to upset our plans.

This doesn’t mean we should give up on happiness.  Instead, we should adopt a more effective strategy.  Such a strategy was eloquently stated by the Buddhist sage Shantideva:

 Where would I possibly find enough leather

With which to cover the surface of the earth?

But wearing leather just on the soles of my shoes

Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.

Instead of the impossible task of trying to control our whole environment, the Buddhist philosophy is to take control of the way we experience that environment – in our mind.  Our objective is to re-arrange not the externals, but the internals.  To identify our habitual, negative patterns of thinking, and replace them with more positive alternatives.  To change not the world, but the way we experience it.

‘Which is all very well,’ you may be thinking, ‘but if you had to live/work/sleep with the children/boss/husband I do, no amount of mental gymnastics is going to change things.’

So it may seem.  But even in the most difficult circumstances, change is possible.  It is for this very reason that one of the best recognised symbols of Buddhism is the lotus, a plant which, though rooted in the filth of the swamps, rises to the surface as a flower of the most extraordinary beauty.

A practice-based psychology

How is such transcendence achieved?  Not through hoping, or wishing, but by engaging in well-established practices which, for thousands of years, have been shown to deliver successful results.

‘What do Buddhists believe?’ is a question often asked.  Because belief lies at the heart of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the assumption is that Buddhism too is founded on belief and that Shakyamuni Buddha is the Buddhist equivalent of Jesus or Mohammed.

In fact, Buddhism works according to a completely different model.  Buddhists do not worship Buddha, but regard him instead as an example of what we can all achieve if we quite literally put our minds to it.  Buddhism suggests no ultimate divinity who will make things better, but instead provides us with the mental software we need to make things better for ourselves – and, of course, others.

The sub-title of this book ‘Finding happiness in an uncertain world’ refers to a deliberate process.  If we wish to learn the piano or improve our golf game, we know it isn’t good enough simply to own the right equipment.  We have to learn how to use it, step by step, practicing relevant techniques until we achieve a level of mastery.  So it is with our minds, where the effects of Buddhist practices are observable, repeatable and measurable.

 A Path of Happiness

Where does one begin finding out about this path which is both ancient and advanced, practical and transcendent, radical and profoundly reassuring?  Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have given 84,000 teachings during his lifetime, but it is our very good fortune that the essence of these were distilled by Atisha, one of the most important teachers who took Buddhism from India to Tibet.  Atisha’s instructions are known as Lam Rim, which translates approximately as ‘the Path to Enlightenment.’  Within Tibetan Buddhism there are a number of different schools, each with their own particular emphasis and terminology.  While some attach greater importance to Lam Rim as a text than others, the teachings contained within it are precious to them all.

This book provides an introduction to these core teachings.  It does not pretend to be a comprehensive explanation, which is already available in a number of different books, including the superlative volume by my own teacher, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden.  At this point it’s also important to say that, as the author, I am in no way claiming to be a ‘professional’ – that is, a teacher, lama or monk.  It is for that very reason that I hope this book may be useful to the busy people it is aimed at – because I am a busy person too.

In telling my own story as a very typical busy person, outlining the Lam Rim teachings and how they help me, it is my heartfelt wish that you will find in this book something you can relate to, something of value.  Perhaps some concepts or techniques will strike you as useful, while others may seem less so.  And that’s fine.  Buddhism is very much more ‘À La Carte’ than ‘Set Menu’.  Take those practices which work for you as an individual, where you are now, and leave the others to one side.

Because this is a personal account, it involves real people.  For that reason, in order not to compromise their privacy, I have changed some names.  But rest assured I have taken no fictional license with the Lam Rim.

Explaining Buddhist teachings, or the Dharma as they are collectively known, is rather like trying to describe a richly embroidered tapestry in terms of the separate threads from which it is woven.  The inter-relations are such that it’s difficult to unravel one thread without referring to others.  My hope is that whether you are completely new to Buddhism, or are already familiar with Lam Rim, you may find in the teachings I quote fresh sources of illumination.

Enlightenment can seem a far way off – most of us can only guess at what it means.  But Lam Rim is also the path to happiness, and that’s something we can understand better.  Not the short-lived, worldly happiness we have all felt, and lost, so many times throughout our lives, but an enduring and heart-felt serenity.  A sense of meaning which goes beyond narrow self-interest to encompass the well-being of all those around us.  An experience of our ultimate nature as pristine, boundless and beyond death.

For it is Buddha’s promise that, like the lotus, our destiny is a future radiance beyond anything we might presently conceive, as we rise above the swamp to achieve the supreme bliss of transcendence.

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(Source of the cat finding balance on a city balcony rail: http://www.hdwallpaperpc.com/show-wallpaper/cat_at_night_Night_balcony_window_city_light_photography_awesome_125748.html)

 

Buddhism for Busy People is available from most online retailers in print, electronic and audio formats.  These include from the following:

In Australia:

http://www.booktopia.com.au/buddhism-for-busy-people-david-michie/prod9781741752137.html

BBP - Oz cover

BBP audible

In USA and UK:

http://www.amazon.com/Buddhism-For-Busy-People-Happiness/dp/1559392983/ref=pd_sim_b_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=1ZH427SPWG9CET8WNXYJ

 

 

 

BBP audibleBBP US cover

The amazing thing most people never discover about themselves

Beautiful-Ocean2

I am often struck by what I think is one of life’s greatest paradoxes:  even though our entire experience of reality depends on our mind, most people have no idea what mind actually is.

Everything we perceive, think and feel arises only with mind’s participation.  That being the case, wouldn’t it be useful to have a good working knowledge of our minds?

There are reasons why some people may feel they can’t answer this question.  Those with religious convictions may believe that probing too deeply into the nature of mind is trespassing onto church ground.  ‘What is mind?’ becomes a matter of faith, rather than something to which there is a definitive answer.

Other people may think this question is the preserve of professionals.  Unless you have the right postgraduate degree in psychiatry or neuroscience, you can’t possibly answer it.

In the West, where our cultural focus has traditionally been on the objective nature of matter, it was not until the very recent past that mind was considered a valid subject of scientific enquiry.  In particular, only in the last 20 years have we developed technology sophisticated enough to measure changes in neural activity, and a broader quantum model that helps account for the nature of consciousness.

In the East, where the cultural focus was traditionally on the subjective nature of consciousness, the smartest minds were engaged in a rigorous process involving hundreds of thousands of hours of disciplined observation, analysis, and testing of hypotheses.  One of the great joys of being alive in the early twenty first century is witnessing the convergence of east and west, ancient and contemporary, outer and inner, in moving towards a holistic understanding of mind.

Can a definition of mind be usefully outlined in a short blog?  Of course not.  But it doesn’t have to be!  The truth is that conceptual explanations are of very limited value.  If I was to tell you that chocolate is sweet, that it comes in a variety of flavours, and that initially hard, it melts in your mouth, my description would be accurate enough.  But it wouldn’t even begin to convey the deliciousness of chocolate.  The best way to find out what chocolate is like is by experiencing it.

Ditto the mind.  The practices developed by meditation experts over millennia guide us to discover the true nature of mind, not as concept or idea, but as a non-conceptual reality.  This is the ultimate purpose of meditation.  Empowered to experience our own consciousness directly, many people find, in those first glimpses of the pure nature of mind, an extraordinary truth. We discover for ourselves that our mind is innately tranquil and radiant.  That it is infinite, with no beginning and no end. That far from being some existential void, it is imbued with the most profound, happiness-giving qualities.

We observe that the thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves and others, which pervade our mind for so much of the day, are mere cognitive activity – weather passing across the sky of mind.  It can be hugely liberating to experience the reality that we are not our thoughts and feelings.  Our ultimate nature goes way above and beyond them.

What’s more, we experience the paradox that even though we set out to explore our mind, the result is as much a feeling as it is a perception. An experience beyond concept and for which words are therefore wholly inadequate, but that may be hinted at using such terms as ‘oceanic,’ ‘peaceful’ and ‘benevolent.’  This isn’t some religious experience or ecstatic emotional high.  It’s described by meditators from all backgrounds, secular and religious.

So often meditation is sold as a tool for stress-busting, pain management, healing, an alternative to anti-depressants … so the list goes on.  Yes, it does all of these things.  In spades!  The reason it does is because it gently brings our body-mind continuum into a state of coherence.  In that state, the primordial nature of our own mind becomes apparent.

Even the briefest experience of mind is life-changing, because when we can free ourselves from the agitation or dullness that pervades our consciousness and encounter our own true nature, if only momentarily, we can never go back to believing ourselves to be nothing more than a bag of bones. We have experienced a dimension of being that transcends all our usual ideas of self.  We have come home.

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If you’d like to explore this further, you’ll find free guided downloads when you ‘Sign Up’ on the home page of this website: I recommend you listen to the introduction to mind watching mind meditation, then try out the guided meditation itself.

Enjoy!

I have written much more on this subject in my latest book, Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate:

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 edition:

 

US cover

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

(Photo source: http://www.toppicturespost.com/2014/11/25/beautiful-ocean-pictures/)

 

 

 

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