Have felt worse

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Waking Up

Ven Amy Miller

I heard the Venerable Amy Miller teach this week. She was talking about “Transforming Negative Emotions: Coping with Anxiety and Depression.” I really liked what she had to say about starting your day positively and thought it would be useful to anyone whether they were facing anxiety and/or depression or not.

She suggested four ways to set your mind off well early in the morning. Firstly, think about and be grateful for your life. Look at all the good things that are in it: you have a house, a comfortable bed, when you turn the tap water comes out and it is clean water free of diseases, there is food you can buy and you don’t have to dodge bombs and bullets on the day to the shop or market. Additionally, you have friends who support you, you live in an area with available health care. All these things (and you can probably think of many more) mean you have a fortunate life.

Then look at yourself. Think about your good qualities and abilities. Personally as I am British my culturally engrained modesty kicks in here, but she makes a good point. We all have things we contribute and do that make the world better for others. Maybe it is the skills you bring to your job that help others have an easier and more happy daily life or the care you give members of your family; young or old. These first two points are similar to a line of thinking and meditation in Buddhism called your “precious human rebirth”. Being grateful for all this, or even at first just aware of it, helps make the most of what we have and be happier in our own life and environment.

Thirdly she suggested we consider that we might die today. Now I am sure the first two suggestions make clear logical sense to all, whereas this one may seem at best odd and maybe even nuts to anyone not familiar with Buddhist philosophy. In the West and certainly here in the UK talk of and thoughts about death are avoided, shunned and left ignored. But if you can consider the fragility of your life in the first minutes of the day it lets you see how precious and wonderful it can be. By considering that this could be your final few hours on the planet you can make your day more purposeful and joyful. You can choose to live it with more awareness for how special and  invaluable it is. If you do this then you’ll not only be happier yourself but you will spread some of that joy around the people you connect with. Looking at the impermanence of our lives helps us live them more positively.

Finally she talked about setting a motivation of benefiting all people you meet during the day. This aim gives your time purpose and meaning and helps make yourself and others be happier. And if we were all able to that every day ….

If any of this strikes a chord with you Venerable Amy’s website with more talks, ideas for meditations (and without my misinterpretations) is here http://amymiller.com 

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Why isn’t my meditation working?

Firstly I bet you it is. May not in the way the amount or with the speed you want, but it will almost certainly be having a positive effect. So don’t worry.*

How long do you meditate a day? A week? How long each day are you NOT on your cushion? As Lama Zopa Rinpoche once said about our days, “30 minutes meditation and 23 and a half hours ego”. And unless you give up your job or go on a retreat this ratio is unlikely to alter much let’s be honest. So there are two options; 1) improve the quality of your meditation, which I am not skilled enough to write much on apart for the basics, which I already clumsily covered here or 2) Make your 23 and half hours become a support for your daily meditation.

Firstly, to be able to practice well it is necessary to have enough of life’s necessities not to have to worry about getting or having them. But also it is important not to have too much, or rather not to be too attached and involved with it all. To help concentration in meditation it is important to be content with life and possessions and not to have too much attachment to them. This will both lessen distraction in meditation and allow more  time for it to happen.

Secondly, a busy life will lead to a busy mind and a lot of conceptual thought arising. Personally, my job and family life means my days are packed and in the evenings I am worn out. Therefore I have found that a routine of morning practice before I leave for work can help lessen all that mind traffic. Also I like to have had breakfast before I settle down so that i am not worrying about my stomach!

Buddhist teaching also mentions leading an ethical life aids meditation. this of course is harder to change quickly. But to reflect on the motivation behind actions and words during the day greatly helps meditation by lessening strong emotions. This is best left for another day, but Lama Zopa Rinpoche wrote wonderfully about this here if you want to read more about that.

Finally, I was lucky enough to hear Venerable Robina Courtin talk earlier this year. (She has an excellent website full of good stuff and links here ) I got the chance to ask her a question I said,  “I had been meditating for years and felt I was getting nowhere.” She replied:

  1. If we notice bad things we are doing or saying or thinking, this is positive and is progress
  2. We all have deep seated attachment so if our mind is calmer or concentrating better or more compassionate or wiser we then think, “Why aren’t I doing even better?” we are never satisfied
  3. So don’t worry, we are doing okay 🙂


*But beware: Whereas many religious and spiritual traditions including Buddhism emphasise the importance of concentration, in Buddhism concentration is only a tool, not the end itself. Concentration on its own, without compassion and wisdom is just another reason to be reborn in Samsara.

The majority of the ideas for this were gained from Geshe Tashi Tsering’s excellent book “Emptiness” and especially chapter 2

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Last days

Many Buddhists at some time will meditate on death. Tell that to a Westerner and their reaction is normally to screw up their face and say something like “gross” or “ewwww”. But there are many benefits to looking at it in this way. One of these is that it makes you think more about what you have right here, right now; a reminder of the preciousness of it all. Like a wake up call “Look around, ain’t this just great”.

Pretending that things won’t end when they obviously all do is just an unhelpful and, let’s face it, ignorant avoidance of reality. What is happening now is valuable simply because this is the only time it will ever happen like this. If you don’t reflect on the temporary nature of all that you have you will overlook its worth and beauty and be less likely to make the most of each opportunity.

Like all teachers across the country, I woke up this morning knowing that this week I go back to school. I am not asking for any sympathy after I’ve just had 5 and a half weeks holiday, but it is easy to slip into a low feeling as the end approaches. I didn’t do all those wonderful things I’d planned: I still haven’t tidied up that corner of the garden or read that long Russian novel or skipped through the sand dunes by the beach or whatever. But I cannot change that. It is done. The holiday is ending. The best and only ‘faithful-to -reality’ action to take is celebrate what I’ve got, make the most of what is left and enjoy it.

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Dukkha Dukkha everywhere (but don’t worry)

I am writing this on World Mental Health Day……… At the week end I hoovered and dusted the lounge. I am not someone who takes very easily to housework: in fact I should make clear from the start, that I dust very rarely indeed. I am a prone to laziness where i can grab it in my day. Not surprisingly therefore, I was very pleased with how the room looked at the end. But this satisfaction was short lived and, on reflection, had the seeds of discontent sown in it from the outset.

Firstly, straight after lunch an iPad, some colouring pens, a hair bobble or two and a DVD case had already been left across the floor and sofa by my children. I was angry because I had had hoped this tidiness would last. I had seen it as an achievement, a thing on its own and existant. There was a tidy room I had created. Since it is there, I felt it would remain so. Now I know that is stupid and if I had stopped for even half a second to reflect on that or if you had asked me “How long will your lounge remain like this?” I would have immediately admitted and seen it could not last. But intellectually understanding and fully knowing are different things. I have what Buddha would call ignorance. The tidying was done within the context of my ignorance and so there was  suffering. I couldn’t escape from that.

Secondly, my wife made no comment or words of gratitude for my cleaning (probably because she was so shocked I had actually done some!) This made me angry. you can see that I didn’t do the tidying just as an act to do because it would make others happier or as it would be a good thing to do; I cleaned partly for my own benefit, to feed my ego and to feel good about myself. So again the tidying was done within the context of my ignorance (this time in the form of pride and a desire for praise). So dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction) was unavoidable from the moment I plugged in that hoover.

But in Buddha’s first teaching he taught the FOUR Noble Truths: there is suffering and there is a cause of suffering were the first two. If he had stopped there then Buddhism would be a dire belief system and to be honest the best thing would be to fill our sensory pleasures all day long. But he didn’t, for the 3rd and 4th Noble Truths are that there is an end to suffering and the method for that is the Noble 8-fold path. The more we can see the interconnectedness of all things and care for other peoples’ happiness, the more we will find true happiness ourselves.

So Buddhism is not in the end a sad and gloomy religion but a happy and positive one. I believe that on World Mental Health Day that is something worth investigating further.

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Unexpected Recognition

After a small health scare earlier this year, I decided that being fat and 49 was not a good enough investment for my future and have started to run. I don’t go far and I have had to find a flattish place to be able to do it as hills are a bit beyond me. At the weekend I did two laps of the park. As I struggled around the first one I passed 3 guys crashed out on the grass. It was about 10 am. They had a couple of beers left. I guess they were on their way back from the Solstice celebrations up the road at Stonehenge. I ran around them careful not to wake them up, but annoyed they were in my way.

On the second lap they were still there. One was sitting up. As I passed them he called out “Coming around for more? Well done mate”. Now I find this running hard. I don’t go fast and I am proud that I can now manage 2km without stopping: I am no Mo Farah. So I felt bloody great that he had noticed me (obviously not asleep as I thought) and commented and encouraged.

Alas a third lap is beyond my ability, so I didn’t get to see him to say thank you.

But I can let you know one thing: , unplanned, off the cuff praise to strangers has a wonderful, wonderful affect on the person receiving the accolade. For me,  just someone being aware of the effort I was putting in lifted my spirits.

So if you are wondering just how you could make tomorrow a little bit better, surprise someone with some unexpected recognition.

Right now I am planning how often I could do this in my lessons. How will it make my pupils feel? 🙂

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When work feels pointless ….

I grew up in a commuter town and when I was 11-18 years old walked passed the train station on my way to school. There on the platform stood a few hundred besuited men (and a sprinkling of women) all holding suitcases waiting for the train to London. As a teenager that was everything I didn’t want to become. To me these people seemed to hand in their happiness in order to have their well paid job.

Of course if work was fun and enriching and fulfilling then they wouldn’t have to pay us to do it. But if you are ONLY there for your own benefit – to earn money to get a promotion, to gain status –  then such a narrow view will smother any value your work might have.

I worry that in my profession, teaching, we are drifting away from what makes the job valuable. Performance targets for individuals, departments and whole schools means our worth is continually analysed and judged by what grades our pupils are achieving. We are forced to constantly check how each child’s progress against a set of targets. Then, at the end of the year we are judged on that. Consequently teachers have allowed themselves to narrow their outlook on what constitutes the core of their job. In the staff room you can hear phrases like “Last year I got 85% A* to C’s in my class” or “I got all level 2b’s and above in my group” This language is all wrong. This perception of the job is all wrong. We did not get those grades or levels, we did not sit the exam or write those sentences in that assessment. The children did.


By accepting this accountability as a measure of us personally, by seeing our job as a means to gauge our own worth, teachers are devaluing themselves and their work. It becomes less of what Buddhists would call “Right Livelihood” and more a self centred pursuit. We all know that the real joy in teaching is when we see someone in our class understand a key concept or break through a barrier that was holding back their learning. The reason this is a joy is because the teacher has cherished the child’s well being and not because the performance target is now one ticked box closer.

All the positive parts to this short post were taken from what HH The Karmapa said on this topic. (click here for a link to the book) His advice about when work feels pointless and where to find the “real worth lies” in your job is

“Giving rise to a single moment of cherishing others can bring us much deeper satisfaction than making money. Our own positive qualities can be rich sources of joy for us. Even if we have just one altruistic thought,this is a cause to be deeply happy. We have ample resources for happiness in the bounty of our own mind.”


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Johnny Cash: Feeling Bad and Feeling Good

When Johnny Cash sang the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” he let you know what pain was.

You can find the lyrics here

When He sings “will the circle be unbroken” (with June Carter, Pops Staples and Carleen Anderson) he let you know what hope there is.

That pain he felt: that is temporary.

That joy he felt: that is temporary

Buddha talked about the the differences between how an uninstructed worldling and an instructed noble disciple (guess which one I am!) deals with and reacts to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He called them the 8 worldly concerns or conditions. He put them into four pairs; gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. This brief explanation of his can be read here, but the bottom line is the worldling gets engrossed by the ups and downs, by becoming attracted to or repelled from each of the pairs and so perpetuates their life. Whilst the noble disciple sees the eight as ephemeral and is not caught up in elation and dejection.

I read a Sharon Salzberg quote recently shared by @mindfuleveryday which put it more succinctly still ““We long for permanence but everything in the known universe is transient. That’s a fact but one we fight.”

At the moment I am going through a tough time at work:I thought I was good, but I have not being doing so well recently. So the trick I need (but find it SO hard) to learn is to see the loss, blame and disrepute happening to me as insubstantial, temporary and not existing from its own side. Then I shan’t run away from it and I shall be able to accept and deal with it better. I am nowhere near being able to do that, but at least thanks to this teaching I know what I should be aiming for.