Saturday, February 25, 2012

What Makes You Happy? Is That A Frivolous Question?

6"x6" slightly out of focus abstract
What makes you happy? Does that seem like a superficial and self indulgent question? Aren't there more important things in life than being happy? Isn't the world filled with war and poverty and suffering? How can we be happy when these things afflict so many?

The Dalai Lama says that the "purpose of life is to be happy." And who am I to contradict the Dalai Lama? Maybe, like a friend of mine, you believe that the Dalai Lama is just spoon feeding Westerners. She is one of those people who believe that there is too much suffering in our personal lives and in the world to make happiness a real pursuit. She believes it's frivolous. Me, I'm not so sure that's true.

There is of course compassion and moral behaviour and service as things to point ourselves at, but why should those exclude our happiness? Okay try this.  Sit down for a couple of minutes and make a list of the things that make you happy. You could do this right now?  What's on your list? I have cats and granola with cacoa powder and listening to Dharma talks, reading Mary Oliver, a good laugh, visiting with friends, sunshine and a bunch more, lots of small things.

Happiness does arise in all of us but as Rick Hanson points out in his book "Buddha's Brain" "the mind is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones" so our minds are not naturally inclined toward happiness. Perhaps the Dalai Lama is pointing us in the direction of mind training when he says "the purpose of life is to be happy." We need to continually point ourselves in the direction of sunshine.

Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, in their book "How We Choose To Be Happy" suggest that looking at our lists  of "what makes us happy" might even make us feel happy.  They suggest that we ask ourselves at various times during the day, "what would make me happy right now?" We might not always be able to have what we think will make us happy at the moment but it can help us orient ourselves towards the cultivation of happiness.

Including happiness as an active choice in our lives can give us more energy to do the things we feel are as important as happiness. Perhaps we can be compassionate, of service and offer kindness to others while pursuing our own happiness?  Perhaps these things are themselves sources of happiness?

And we haven't even defined "happiness" here!  What do you think about happiness? What role does it play in your life?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Buddhist View on Personality Types

tiny abstract 6"x6"
I've been listening to some Dharma talks from Noah Levine's site, Against The Stream. He's refreshing (even his 4 letter words seem to fit!), he's kind, he's crystal clear,  and he's honest. In a number of cases he adds a twist on the Dharma that I haven't heard before. Last night I listened to a talk on the personality types according to Buddhist thought. If you've ever wondered whether your dominant character was greed, hate or delusion, he makes it pretty clear. " Can't figure out which one you are?" he asks, "probably means you're a delusion type."

And he reminds us not to get down on ourselves (let's face it, none of these are desirable personality characteristics). You've just been waiting for someone to tell you your a greed type, right? But it's just how we came into this world, in one of these 3 little costumes, although we all have healthy doses of our non-dominant characteristics.  But it's about how we relate to our greed, hate or delusion.  We don't need to see them as who we are, they're simply thought patterns, preponderances to seeing things in a certain way. If we are a greed type we're apt to find ourselves "wanting" or "needing" what we see as desirable, that will be our immediate reaction to things. Want to go to every event that's on this weekend? That would be the greed calling. As an aversive (hate) type, I'm the one likely to walk into a room and not like the paint colour or find that the rug isn't what I'd pick. As I listened to Levine's talk I could see where I get into trouble with my painting; always judging, judging, never quite getting it right. Note to self: come back as a delusion type next time round.

Levine thinks we're not changing our dominant personality type in this lifetime  (as a hate type I'm wanting to get rid of mine and I'm doubting his position on this!) But it makes me wonder about the brain research around our ability to build new neural pathways and lessen the pull of old ones.  What do you think and which personality type am I hearing this from??

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Okay, I know I'm a bit late weighing in on this topic but I was inspired by the wonderful post over at 108 Zen Books. I have a slightly jaundiced view of holidays that have been hijacked as consumer opportunities, celebrations that have morphed in to shopping festivals. Note to self: this is a rant free post.

But I want to offer this little link to a piece Gil Fronsdal wrote on love.  He talks about the different kinds of love. Valentine's Day has become a celebration of romantic love, a complex subject but Gil reminds us of the richness and diversity of love.

"The Buddhist tradition encourages people to develop four different forms of love, called the four Brahmaviharas: loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and, finally, an emotion that we don’t generally equate with love, equanimity (upekkha). These are all forms of love because they all include a warm, tender, sympathetic attitude of the heart toward oneself or others.

Buddhism teaches that a variety of attitudes may be confused as love. One is sensual desire. Another is affection that is entangled with craving and the need for reciprocity. The Buddha never encouraged the cultivation of such affection; in fact, he often considered it a hindrance to spiritual maturity. However, if we abandon such affections too quickly, we may overlook situations when affection consists of a combination of craving and one of the four helpful forms of love. One of the joys of spiritual practice is learning to distinguish unhelpful grasping and neediness from an underlying love that needs nothing beyond itself. What should be abandoned is craving, not love. When letting go of craving is too difficult, then a person may practice developing one of the four forms of love to the point that any need to be loved naturally loses its power in the glow of love flowing from us."

 Wishing you a day where you take the time to bring love into awareness and recognize the many places it manifests in your life and the new ways you can bring it into being in this world. Tossing imaginary flowers and chocolate in your general direction!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Our Background Attitude

Shadow of prayer flags on the car dashboard

The paper prayer flags hanging from the car mirror
The above photos are a couple of my "contemplative photography" attempts. It was a great opportunity to practice "just seeing" on our ferry trip last weekend. My trip to the big city including lots of opportunity to fill my eyes with colour and texture and shape and fill my heart with visits with dear friends, a little trip to the theatre to fill the art well and a trip to the artstore for some coloured inks.

Today I am back home and back to routine which includes my morning sit. Before we sit in the morning we've been playing one of Gil Frosdhal's "Practice Notes".  They're only 2 or 3 minutes long and it's kind of a nice orientation for the sit and for the day.  This morning we played the one on looking at your background attitude.  When we sat a week's retreat with Gil in the summer this was one of the revealing things for me, to look at my back ground attitude.  It gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of the fear that swims around tadpole like, just below the surface.  Today when I looked I could see my desire to perfection, to get things done right, even (eek) to have the right attitude!

So here's Gil's invitation to examine our background attitude. You might find surprising things on this mini-excavation.
Mini Alter I made for a friend

Matchbox Alter I made for friends going on a trip (little scroll is the Scripture of Great Wisdom (Heart Sutra))

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Perception, Conception and Impatience

I've been reading "The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing The World With Fresh Eyes" by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. I'd say it's an eye opener, but that would be such a cheap bit of foolishness that you would  fall to the ground groaning. And you might hurt yourself and possibly require chiropractic care and then I'd feel terrible and, and... That small blathering was brought to you by "conceptual" thought and had nothing to do with "perception" which is what Karr and Wood are encouraging us to practice in this book; to see directly, without the musings of the thinking mind.

But they are wholly more sensible than I am so I'll let them explain the difference between conception and perception (an important distinction in creating art and our everyday lives ): "Visual images appear when consciousness connects with the eye. Mental images appear when consciousness connects with the conceptual (thinking) mind....Usually perception and conception are blended, which makes it hard to distinguish the two....The usual sequence of perception is that in the first moment, there is direct sensory experience. In the second moment, a concept and label arise, superimposed on the direct perception." The book is delicious (without ketchup) and reads like pure dharma slathered liberally with insights about artistic vision.

What came up for me as I read the first couple of chapters and tried out some of the practices was the awareness of my own subtle forms of impatience (not to be confused with the less subtle ones, which to use a Basil Fawlty turn of phrase, are bleeding obvious). And it wasn't really what I'd expected to explore while reading about perception and conception. I thought I'd just get down to the work of actually "seeing". But suddenly it was everywhere (my impatience), just the way I'm in a hurry to get to the next delicious sentence, or the way I want to jump up and try being contemplative (I know, I know, that's ridiculous).  But I could just see this urge to get going, what might masquerade as enthusiasm, actually is a form impatience. I could feel the impatience in my body, the edginess of it; in my held breath, the tenseness of face and neck muscles. I could feel how much energy this thief of impatience was stealing from me.

As I went about my week, it was like I carried a flashlight that focused it's brilliant beam on my impatience. It shone on my speech and attitude when I interacted with others.  I could feel a grasping, wanting quality in conversations, wanting the conversation to go a certain way. There was a subtle lack of space and openness for things to simply develop.  I wanted the same thing from others that I demanded of myself.  I wanted things to progress easily in the direction that seemed good to me. Impatience had me leaning into the future, hankering after results.

When I went to my studio space to paint impatience kept me from just being with the canvas, the paint, the partially finished painting.  As I oriented myself toward awareness and patience and simply sat for a bit with a painting in progress I sensed its delicateness and vulnerability. I sensed a subtle violence in my impatience, a self centredness.  I could see my usual impatient wanting;  wanting a piece to be finished,  wanting it to be a certain way, wanting it to be easy. It was all laid out before me like a little lesson plan on impatience. I sat a while longer and simply looked. I didn't need to like or dislike. I saw whiteness, patches of green and grey. I let them sink in. I let them just be.

When I took an afternoon walk I could sense that same tenderness, an openness as I looked at the tree branches silhouetted in the bright light along the shore. I could walk quietly and just look.  I reminded myself of my intention to be aware, to remember to just see. I didn't need anything to be beautiful or depressing or make me happy. The landscape and I could coexist in stillness and peace. There was pattern and shape and greenness and light.

And so it seems perception holds the hand of patience. And together they offer us an opportunity to walk through this world with an open heart and open eyes. I invite you to take your eyes for a walk through the world with the intention to "just see". You will find a rich and vivid world of detail waiting for you.