Arouse confidence in the principle of cause and effect from the depths of your heart.
- PATRUL RINPOCHE,
The Words of My Perfect Teacher,
translated by the Padmakara Translation Group
A really good scientific experiment produces as many questions as it does answers. And one of the big questions generated by the study of trained meditators has been whether their ability to direct their minds results from factors like similar genetic makeup, shared cultural and environmental backgrounds, or similarities in the way they were trained. In other words, can ordinary people, who weren’t taught from childhood in the specialized environment of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, benefit from practicing any of the techniques of Buddhist meditation?
Because the clinical research involving Buddhist meditation masters is still in its infancy, it may be a long time before we can answer such questions with real assurance. It can be said, however, that the Buddha taught hundreds, probably thousands, of ordinary people - farmers, shepherds, kings, businessmen, soldiers, beggars, and even common criminals - how to direct their minds in ways that would create the kinds of subtle changes in their physiology that would allow them to override their biological and environmental conditioning and achieve a lasting state of happiness. If what he’d taught hadn’t been effective, no one would know his name, there would be no tradition known as Buddhism, and you wouldn’t be holding this book in your hands.
ACCEPTING YOUR POTENTIAL
Whatever is the cause that hinds is the path that liberates.
- THE NINTH GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
You don’t need to have been a particularly nice person to be able to start the “inside job” of being happy. One of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist masters of all time was a murderer. Now he’s considered a saint, and paintings of him always show him with a hand cupped to his ear, listening to the prayers of ordinary people.
His name was Milarepa. The only child of a wealthy couple, he was born sometime in the tenth century C.E. When his father died unexpectedly, his uncle took control of the family’s wealth and forced Milarepa and his mother to live in poverty, a change in circumstance that wasn’t accepted very enthusiastically by either of them. None of their other relatives spoke up for them; it was simply the fate of widows and children of that time to accept the decisions made by the men of the family.
As the story goes, when Milarepa came of age, his mother sent him to study with a sorcerer, so that he could learn some dark spell to take revenge on his relatives. Fueled both by his anger and by a desire to please his mother, Milarepa mastered the art of dark magic, and on the day of his cousin’s wedding he cast a spell that caused his uncle’s house to collapse, killing thirty-five of his family members in one blow.
Whether Milarepa actually used magic or some other means to kill his family can be debated. The fact remains that he killed his relatives and was afterward filled with a terrible feeling of guilt and remorse. If telling a single lie to one person can keep you awake at night, imagine how murdering thirty-five members of your own family would make you feel.
To atone for his crime, Milarepa left his home to devote his life to the welfare of others. He traveled to southern Tibet to study under a man named Marpa, who’d made three separate trips to India to collect the essence of the Buddha’s teachings in order to bring it back to Tibet. In most respects, Marpa was an ordinary person - a “house-holder” in Buddhist terms, which meant that he had a wife and children, owned a farm, and was occupied by the daily concerns of running his business and coping with his family. But he was also devoted to the Dharma, and his devotion gave him great courage. Walking across the Himalayas from Tibet to India isn’t an easy task, and most people who try it die in the attempt. His timing was extraordinary, though, because not long after his final journey, India was conquered by invaders and all the Buddhist libraries and monasteries were destroyed, while most of the monks and teachers who’d perpetuated the Buddha’s training were killed.
Marpa had passed all the knowledge he’d brought back from India to his eldest son, Dharma Dode. But Dharma Dode was killed in a riding accident, and even as he was recovering from his loss, Marpa sought an heir to the teachings he’d received in India. He took one look at Milarepa and saw in him a man who had what it took not only to master the details of the teachings, but also to grasp the very essence of them and pass it on to the next generation. Why? Because Milarepa’s heart was completely broken over what he’d done, and the depth of his remorse was so great that he was willing to go to any lengths to make amends.
Through experience alone Milarepa had come to recognize one of the most basic of the Buddha’s teachings: Everything you think, everything you say, and everything you do is reflected back to you as your own experience. If you cause someone pain, you experience pain ten times worse. If you promote others’ happiness and well-being, you experience the same happiness ten times over. If your own mind is calm, then the people around you will experience a similar degree of calmness.
This understanding has been around for a long time, and has been expressed in different ways by different cultures. Even Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle acknowledges an intimate connection between inner experience and physical manifestation. The really exciting development for our time is that modern technology has begun to enable researchers to demonstrate the principle in action. Today’s researchers are starting to provide objective evidence that learning to calm the mind and developing a more compassionate attitude produces higher levels of personal pleasure, and can actually change the structure and function of the brain in ways that ensure that happiness remains constant over time.
In order to test the effects of Buddhist meditation practice on ordinary individuals, Richard Davidson and his colleagues designed a study involving employees at a Midwestern corporation.’ His goal was to determine whether the techniques could help offset the psychological and physical effects of workplace stress. He invited employees at the corporation to sign up for a course in meditation, and after performing some initial blood work and EEG tests, randomly divided the participants into two groups: one that would immediately be trained and a control group that would receive the training after the effects on the first group had been thoroughly studied.
The training in meditation was given over a period of ten weeks by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center.
Continuing to evaluate the subjects of the study for several months after they’d completed their meditation training, Davidson and his team found that within three or four months after the training ended, EEG tests began to show a gradual and significant increase in electrical activity in the left prefrontal lobe area, the region of the brain associated with positive emotions. During the same three- or four-month period, the subjects of the study themselves began reporting experiences of reduced stress, greater calmness, and a more general sense of well-being.
But an even more interesting result was about to be discovered.
HAPPY MIND, HEALTHY BODY
A human being’s exceptional physical, verbal, and mental endowment provides the unique ability to pursue a constructive course of action.
- JAMGON KONGTRUL, The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson
There’s been very little disagreement between Buddhists and modern scientists that a person’s state of mind has some effect on the body. To use an everyday example, if you’ve had a fight with someone during the day or received a notice in the mail that your electricity is about to be shut off because you haven’t paid your bill, chances are you won’t be able to sleep well when you go to bed. Or if you’re about to make a business presentation or talk to your boss about a problem you’re having, your muscles might tense up, you might feel sick to your stomach, or you might suddenly develop a pounding headache.
Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of scientific evidence to support the connection between a person’s state of mind and his or her physical experience. Richard Davidson’s study of corporate employees had been carefully designed so that the end of the meditation training would coincide with the annual flu shots provided by their company. After resampling the blood work of the subjects involved in the study, he found that the people who’d received meditation training showed a significantly higher level of influenza antibodies than those who hadn’t been trained. In other words, people who’d demonstrated a measurable shift in left prefrontal lobe activity also showed an enhancement in their immune systems.
Results of this kind represent a huge advance in modern science. Many of the scientists I’ve talked to have long suspected that there is a connection between the mind and the body. But prior to this study, evidence of the connection had not yet been so clearly indicated.
During its long and remarkable history, science has focused almost exclusively on looking at what goes wrong with the mind and body rather than at what goes right. But there’s been a slight shift in the wind recently, and now it appears that many people in the modern scientific community are being offered the chance to look more closely at the anatomy and physiology of happy, healthy human beings.
Within the past several years, a number of projects have demonstrated very strong links between positive mental states and a reduction in the risk or intensity of various physical illnesses. For example, Dr. Laura D. Kubzansky, Assistant Professor, Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, initiated a study that followed the medical histories of about 1,300 men over a period of ten years. The subjects of the study were primarily military veterans, who had access to a level of medical care that many people don’t enjoy, so their medical histories were fairly complete and easy to track over such a long period. Because “happiness” and “unhappiness” are somewhat broad terms, for the purposes of the study Dr. Kubzansky focused on specific manifestations of these emotions: namely, optimism and pessimism. These characteristics are defined by a standardized personality test that equates optimism with the belief that your future will be satisfying because you can exercise some control over the outcome of important events, and pessimism with the belief that whatever problems you’re experiencing are unavoidable because you have no control over your destiny.
At the end of the study, Dr. Kubzansky found that after statistically adjusting for factors including age, gender, socioeconomic status, exercise, alcohol intake, and smoking, the incidence of some forms of heart disease among subjects identified as optimists was nearly 50 percent less than that of subjects identified as pessimists. “I’m an optimist,” Dr. Kubzansky said in a recent interview, “but I didn’t expect results like this.”
Another research study, led by Dr. Laura Smart Richman, Assistant Research Professor of Psychology, Duke University, looked at the physical effects of two other positive emotions associated with happiness: hopefulness and curiosity. Nearly 1,050 patients of a multi-practice clinic agreed to participate by responding to a questionnaire about their emotional states, physical behaviors, and other information such as income and educational level.
Dr. Richman and her team tracked the medical records of these patients over the course of two years. Again, after statistically adjusting for the contributing factors mentioned above, Dr. Richman found that higher levels of hope and curiosity were associated with a lower likelihood of either having or developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and respiratory tract infections. In the typically careful scientific language aimed at downplaying sensational claims, Dr. Richman’s study concluded that the results suggested that “positive emotion may play a protective role in the development of disease.”
THE BIOLOGY OF BLISS
The support is the supreme, precious human body.
The Jewel Ornament of Liberation,
translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche
The funny thing about the mind is that if you ask a question and then listen quietly, the answer usually appears. So I don’t doubt that the development of the technology capable of examining the mind’s effect on the body has something to do with modern scientists’ growing interest in studying the mind-body relationship. So far, the questions asked by scientists have been quite reasonably cautious, and the answers they’ve received have been provocative but not overwhelmingly conclusive. Because the scientific study of happiness and its attributes is still relatively young, we have to allow for some uncertainty. We have to give it the time to go through its growing pains.
Meanwhile, scientists have begun making connections that may be able to help provide objective explanations for the effectiveness of Buddhist training. For example, the blood samples Richard Davidson took from the subjects of his study showed that people who demonstrated the type of prefrontal lobe activity associated with positive emotion also evidenced lower levels of Cortisol, a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Because Cortisol tends to suppress the function of the immune system, some correlation can be made between feeling more or less confident, happy, and able to exert some control over one’s life, and having a stronger, healthier immune system. By contrast, a general sense of being unhappy, out of control, or dependent on external circumstances tends to produce higher levels of Cortisol, which in turn can weaken the immune system and make us more vulnerable to all sorts of physical diseases.
THE BENEFITS OF RECOGNIZING EMPTINESS
You yourself become a living teaching; you yourself become living dharma.
- CHOGYAM TRUNGPA, Illusion’s Game
Any of the meditation practices described in Part Two can help to alleviate the sense of being “out of control” through the patient observation of the thoughts, emotions, and sensations we experience in any given moment, from which comes a gradual recognition that they are not inherently real things. If every thought or feeling you experienced was an inherently real thing, your brain would probably be crushed by the sheer weight of their accumulation!
“Through practice,” a student of mine once said, “I’ve learned that feelings are not facts. They come and go depending on my own state of restlessness or calm at any given time. If they were facts, they wouldn’t change, regardless of my own situation.”
The same can be said of thoughts, perceptions, and physical sensations, all of which are, according to Buddhist teachings, momentary expressions of the infinite possibility of emptiness. They’re like people moving through an airport on their way to a different city. If you asked them their intentions, they’d tell you that they were “just passing through.”
So how can recognizing emptiness reduce the levels of stress that contribute to physical disease? Earlier we looked at the ways in which emptiness might be compared to our experiences in dreams, using the specific example of a car. The car we experience in a dream isn’t “real” in the conventional sense of being made up of various material parts assembled in a factory; nevertheless, as long as our dream lasts, our dream experience of driving around in the car seems very real. We enjoy “real” pleasure in driving the car and showing it off to our friends and neighbors, and experience “real” unhappiness if we get involved in an accident. But the car in the dream doesn’t truly exist, does it? It’s only because we’re caught up in the deep ignorance of dreaming that whatever we experience while driving the car appears real.
Yet, even in dreams, certain conventions reinforce our acceptance of the reality of dream experiences. For example, when we dream about a waterfall, in general the water falls downward. If we dream about fire, the flames reach upward. When our dreams turn into nightmares - for example, if we get involved in a car accident, find ourselves having to jump from a tall building and crash to the ground, or are compelled to walk through fire - the suffering we experience in the dream seems very real.
So let me ask a question that may be a little bit harder to answer than some of the others I’ve asked along the way: What method could you use to free yourself from that kind of suffering in the dream state without waking up?
I’ve asked this question many times in public teachings and received a number of different answers. Some of the responses are very funny, like the suggestion from one person who proposed hiring a clairvoyant housekeeper who would instinctively recognize your pain and step into the dream and guide you through the difficulties. I’m not sure how many clairvoyant housekeepers are available for hire, or whether their chances of being hired would improve by listing clairvoyance as a special skill on their résumés.
Other people have suggested that spending time meditating in the waking state will automatically improve one’s chances of having more pleasant dreams. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I’ve ever found this to be the case among the people I’ve met and spoken with around the world. Still others have suggested that if you dream about jumping off a building, you might suddenly be able to discover that you can fly. I don’t know how or why this could happen, but it seems a rather risky proposition.
Very rarely, someone will suggest that the best possible solution is to recognize in the dream that you’re merely dreaming. As far as I’ve learned, that is the best answer. If you can recognize while caught up in a dream that you’re only dreaming, you can do anything you like within the dream. You can jump off a tall building without being hurt. You can jump into a fire without being burned. You can walk on water without drowning. And if you’re driving your dream car and have an accident, you can escape unharmed.
The point, though, is that by training in recognizing the emptiness of all phenomena, you can accomplish amazing things in waking life. Most people go through waking life caught up in the same delusions of limitation and entrapment they experience in their dreams. But if you spend even a few minutes out of every day examining your thoughts and perceptions, you’ll gradually gain the confidence and awareness of recognizing that your everyday experience isn’t as solid or unalterable as you once thought it was. The neuronal gossip you once accepted as truth will gradually begin to shift, and the communication between your brain cells and the cells associated with your senses will change accordingly. Bear in mind that the change will almost always occur very slowly. You have to give yourself a chance to let the transformation take place in its own time, according to your own nature. If you try to rush the process, at best you’ll be disappointed; at worst, you could hurt yourself (for example, I wouldn’t advise trying to walk through fire after only a couple of days meditating on emptiness).
I can’t think of a better example of the patience and diligence required to really recognize your full potential, your Buddha nature, than the first in the series of Matrix movies, which many of you probably saw years before I did.
The movie impressed me not only because the conventional reality experienced by people caught up in the Matrix was eventually revealed as an illusion, but also because even with the benefit of all the equipment and training available to him, it still took the main character, Nero, a while to recognize that the personal limitations he’d accepted as real for most of his life were in fact only projections of his own mind. When he first had to confront these limitations, he was scared, and I could easily identify with his fear. Even though he had Morpheus as his guide and teacher, he still found it hard to believe in what he was truly capable of - just as I found it hard to believe in the truth of my own nature when it was first revealed to me by masters who’d actually demonstrated the full potential of their true nature. Only at the end of the movie, when Nero had to experience on his own that the lessons he’d been taught were true, was he able to stop bullets in midair, fly through space, and see things before they actually occurred.
Still, he had to learn these things in a gradual way. So don’t expect that after two or three days of meditation you’ll be able to walk on water or fly off buildings. More than likely, the first change you’ll notice is a greater degree of openness, confidence, and self-honesty, and an ability to recognize the thoughts and motivations of other people around you more quickly than you might previously have been able to do. That’s no small accomplishment; it’s the beginning of wisdom.
If you keep practicing, all the wonderful qualities of your true nature will gradually reveal themselves. You’ll recognize that your essential nature cannot be harmed or destroyed. You’ll learn to “read” the thoughts and motivations of others even before they understand them themselves. You’ll be able to look more clearly into the future and see the consequences of your own actions and the actions of people around you. And, perhaps most important of all, you’ll realize that in spite of your own fears, no matter what happens to your physical body, your true nature is essentially indestructible.