#24 - Daily Practice: Reinterpreting A Buddhist Exercise
If you would like to practise this, you can listen to my 10 minute step-by-step exercise here.
I’ve often struggled with depression, anxieties, panic attacks, fear, repression, self deception, loneliness, social phobias and numbness, to name but a few, and I’m constantly longing to seek out methods to alleviate their impact and offer me some form of respite. Anything that can create distance between myself and the potential darkness lurking
patiently in my peripheral, I am open to.
There have been a good handful of things that have done this. Lots of lovely, frustrating, counter intuitive and simplistic things that have created space between me and that potential.
So, here’s one of those things that has proven to be very helpful in my life.
What it is, right, is a daily practise from this bloke called the Dalai Lama. Now, because it’s from that bloke who said it, it does mean it’s all fairly Buddhist. In fact, it’s quite a bit Buddhist… Basically, it’s pretty much very Buddhist.
I understand that Buddhist practises may feel quite alienating or distancing to some people. So let’s just say, instead of this coming from the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, it’s from Dale Lamb.
Yep, that’s right, good ol’ humble-cheeky-chappy-enlightened-cockney-geezer Dale Lamb.
Now Dale is not just one of your run of the mill, spiritually awakened, market vendor types - no, he has a lot of wisdom to impart. He talks about compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and how two punnet’s of strawberries are now only £1. People will often visit him down Whitechapel, sitting deep in mediation; still, centred and peaceful, with the exception of his naturally occurring cockney elbows, swinging wildly from side to side.
According to the sacred texts, Dale’s journey began when he started to fully understand the economical deprivation and destitution felt by the towns folk of East London. People were barely surviving on minimal dosh, living week to week off their pay checks, trying to feed their families with a pony, even ‘Hank Marvin’ to death. He couldn’t ‘Adam & Eve’ the sheer scale of the suffering that existed in the world and decided to hit the ‘frog and toad’ on a journey of self discovery. They say the moment he achieved enlightenment was whilst meditating under the Bow Bells, a now sacred space for devout cockneys and curious tourists to visit. That’s when he achieved Bow-dahood and became the Bow-da.
Now he spends his time spreading the cockney message across the globe - of suffering, acceptance, compassion and ‘avin a fuckin’ giggle son. So here is a brief introduction to one of Dale’s many daily practises, with the hope they might speak to you too.
1 - Motivation & Intention
We’ve all had those days where it feel like it’s all spiralling out of control. You can’t cope with the constant change in circumstances, emotions start to get the better of you, and everything feels beyond your reach.
If you set an intention, it can really help anchor you in something stronger than those moments. It sets you on a path that if you are pulled away from, you can bring yourself back to.
This isn’t about intentions of what to do today practically - mend the car, complete that essay, sell all the punnet’s of strawberries - rather emotionally. It’s internal, not external. To achieve a sense of peace and authenticity. To find a non violent, non abusive outlook on the day.
So, first thing in the morning (or whenever you remember) examine yourself - how are you feeling inside? Focus on your emotional state. If you’re struggling to feel what focus means, perhaps this will help:
If I said ‘place your focus on your hands’, what happens? Can you feel them? Any throbbing, or pulsing, or maybe a tingling? The knuckles, or palms, or finger tips? Maybe it feels like what Dale feels - the sensation of a pint of stout between your fingers? Now put your focus on your toes. Do you feel them too? Do you feel a physical sensation around them? Perhaps you feel the pressure from the floor. Now place your focus on your stomach. How does that feel? Maybe a little tight, or loose. Clenched or relaxed. Active or settled.
So using that same curiosity and attention, can you place your focus on your emotional state? Do you feel any pressure? A clenched jaw, tight shoulders, heavy breaths, a heavy heart? Is there any tension, or is it relaxed? Hot or cold? Is there pain, or is it pleasant? Where is it? Don’t resist against it, just feel it, let it be. See how these questions react with your emotions to help you see them clearer.
Once you find it, ask yourself what motivation or intention will compliment that feeling inside you?
If you’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed or stressed, maybe something calming: peace, forgiveness, kindness. Depressed? Perhaps vulnerability and sharing, or strength and resilience. If you’re clinching to something, maybe acceptance and letting go could help.
Just one or two words, nothing too complicated. Words that are meaningful. Kindness, “It’s okay to be different” or “Trust yourself”. Keep reminding yourself of these intentions through the day. Connect with them as often as you can.
At night, reexamine what you did that day. Did it help? Was it successful? Hard to keep remembering? Was it useless? Did you ignore it at all? Just a brief assessment to see if you can go into the next day a little more prepared.
Having something so simple to return to when you feel like your losing control can often be a crucial interception to recapture what you were starting to lose.
2 - “Attachment to superficial pleasure will only bring you more pain”
We all recognise that impulse. That sudden grip of want and need, the overwhelming flush of adrenaline coursing though us when we are confronted with something we desire. It’s part of our nature, exploited by our culture.
But perhaps something we can equally relate to is our emotional quality post impulse. That slump in mood, the varying degrees of guilt or shame or disgust, the tension in the mind and body, showing us that sometimes not quite right.
Don’t worry, it’s something we all recognise.
We live in an environment that keeps us constantly stimulated and agitated, driving us to be the best consumers we can be. Good customers are never satisfied.
The nature of this world is to keep you locked in this continuous cycle. You’re constantly being manipulated to attach yourself to superficial pleasures.
These can be the sort that are more instantly recognisable (alcohol, drugs, caffeine, pornography, gambling) or something less obviously destructive (food, gaming, shopping, sleep, work, social media) they can even be particularly engaging thought patterns - that fantasy of winning the lottery, escaping a zombie invasion from your work place, that frustrating argument where they just won’t accept your clear logic - vivid enough to pull you away.
Superficial pleasures can be anything. They are in everything.
All these examples are less about the habits themselves and more about our attachment to them. The specific objects or behaviours aren’t inherently insidious in themselves, but our relationship to them is what fosters that potential for damage.
This is where the pain comes in.
Each one of these actions holds the potential for suffering, dependent on our relationship to them. Are they devices for forgetting, or numbing? Feeling? Coping? Avoiding?
We understand that many carry physical consequences, but the stakes are much higher than that. We feel it in the presence of that horrid guilt, shame or panic. That discomfort in the pit of our belly, which causes us to disassociate from ourselves, shutting down that part of us just to cope. They all share a commonality of dissatisfaction, of not quite enough.
Dale Lamb had a similar conundrum. Everyday he would pop down the local cafe for pie, mash and jellied eels. It wasn’t until he began this journey that he realised the eels were simply a replacement for truly experiencing the realness of life. He finally understood the suffering, and forsook the eels, no matter how jellied they were.
Bow-dists have a concept called the Hungry Ghost. These are beings with tiny mouths, long, thin throats and huge empty bellies. Because of their restricted throats, these creatures can never consume enough to fill their gigantic stomachs. They are constantly craving and no matter what they try to devour, they will never be able to fill themselves this way.
I’ve noticed these impulses in myself to varying degrees when it comes to alcohol, caffeine, food, pornography, social media and shopping, and I try to create healthy relationships with all of these external stimuli.
The opportunity to address any of these wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t given myself the time to pause and assess, to ask myself: am I engaging in this action because of joy, or am I looking to heal, mask, or avoid some other undesirable trait?
When I reach for a slice of cake and that phrase enters my mind, I can take a quiet moment to understand what my intentions are. The consequences for me personally having a slice of cake isn’t the same as, for example, a diabetic, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. As a further example, the consequences of me looking at pornography are far higher than most people too. Many people have wonderful, healthy relationships with these, but taking the time to understand will help strengthen your relationship to it.
I repeat the phrase ‘attachment to superficial pleasure will only bring you more pain’ a few times in the morning and throughout the day, to familiarise myself to it and so it’s accessible when I need it.
3 - Cultivate an honest relationship with your suffering
We spend a lot of time and energy on not feeling unhappy. We feel that if we’re not happy,
something’s wrong. We’re doing something incorrectly and we need to fix it.
But this is impossible. It’s simply not doable. We have to experience to full spectrum of emotions available to us. They’re there for a reason.
We cannot simply be happy all the time. We shouldn’t be happy all the time.
So much energy goes on resisting, trying to mould our feelings back into place, forcing ourselves to shrug off those undesired states of mind.
It is in this resistance that we cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary pain and anguish. That constant grappling. Forever in conflict. A lot of excess hurt is retained. Being on continual watch is draining.
We don’t need to resist.
The next time an unwelcome feeling comes up - rage, jealousy, depression - understand that this is your body telling you something is wrong. Your body is the messenger (more on that later).
Then take the time to listen to it, non judgementally.
Don’t try to second guess it, post analysing, rationalising. Practise being non judgemental. If you can’t find space to not be judged in your own head, when will you ever? Have a genuine sense of curiosity about yourself, and don’t assume you already know. There’s always another layer.
Just simply hear it. Now is not the time to fix it, just to understand it.
Some good advice I heard once was imagining you’re inviting the feeling in for a cup of tea. Create a warming, open space for it to express how it feels. Sit opposite it and ask questions, giving it space to talk, just like you would a person in conversation. Have a real interest in what you’re being told.
All that’s happening is you’re being told a story and you’re listening.
This will help you identify repeated patterns in your life and be closer connected to how you live more authentically.
One tip I’ve been told is only a small semantic shift. Small, but useful. If, for example, I’m angry, instead of thinking “I’m angry”, think “I’m experiencing anger”. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s a reminder that we are not our emotions, we simply encounter passing feelings temporarily. These feelings will pass and new ones will emerge. None of them hold permanence.
As Dale himself said: ‘notice when it’s all gone Pete Tong.’
4 - We are all one
Our modern era celebrates its ability to connect, but division, separation and disconnection leaves many people in isolation, feeling different, misunderstood and alone. They feel no one can relate to them.
In reality, those things that separate us are superficial.
I mean superficial as in ‘nearer the surface’, rather than ‘shallow’. I’m not diminishing or underplaying their importance in our lives. Sexuality, race, socio-economic standing, mental health, trauma, religion, gender, sex, leave, remain. These are all significant attributes that have shaped and moulded the very fabric of our being. They must be respected, understood and fully expressed.
But we are not these labels. To purely define yourself as these headlines is to hide and deny that there is something deeper. A more truthful core.
Maybe this sounds a little too Buddhisty for some peoples liking, so here’s an example.
When we are feeling angry or frustrated, we can sometimes become judgemental to others. Perhaps we think they don’t know, or they brought it on themselves, or they’ve had one too many jellied eels. Do you ever notice, mixed in with that internal remark, any inner conflict? Is there ever a split moment after the thought when you sense a kind of that’s-not-fair response, or that’s a bit mean. Something inside of you reacts to the thought that occurred naturally. Often a feeling of I’m a bad person sets in.
This is an example of how our thoughts and feelings are not the essential us. The thought is the sound of the mechanism, excess noise, the baggage of conscious, the result of your conditioning, constantly processing and problem solving. This is not us.
There is the thought, then there is the reaction to the thought. The reaction is us. For you and for everyone else. Some are just better connected to that aspect of themselves than others.
There are universal traits that all humans share. That connection to the past, buried deep in our ancestry. Rooted in our DNA through the lineage of survival.
There are universally understood interpretations of grief, sorrow, laughter, tears, rage, happiness, stress, peace. Although they can express themselves infinitely - through environment, culture, emotional intelligence, life experience - we sense what it means to feel these things.
At its base root, there is the potential for suffering and the potential for joy. That is a universal human principle.
When we focus on our similarities, there is more space for kinder communication and broader understanding.
5 - Will you be of service? How?
‘Service’ can be a divisive word. Some people, as I did at first, picture a Victorian servants quarters, bustling with exploited, stressed and unappreciated staff, awaiting the next ring of the upstairs bell. It evokes certain class divides, which are deeply embedded in our culture.
But that’s not the spirit in which this is meant. The service being expressed here is given, not expected. It is offered out of kindness and empathy, not duty.
All the word means here is help. Will you help today?
The point of phrasing it as a question is to give you the opportunity to commit to it. It provides space for an answer. Allowing yourself to connect to why you’re asking it. Inhabit what it means to help. In that space, you reconnect with what it feels to truly care.
The answer really should always be yes.
The ‘how’ is an opportunity to reflect on your motivations and intentions. What’s your state of mind? What are your strengths today? What physical situations will you be in? Think these through and keep your answer brief and memorable.
I tend to keep mine broad rather than specific purely because not being able to achieve the defined task in the moment, for whatever reason - circumstance change, personal difficulty - can easily conjure up a sense of guilt. Your mental state (in that circumstance) might hinder you, preventing you from fully committing and altering the way in which you intended to offer it in the first place. If it comes from ‘having to’ rather than ‘wanting to’ then it’s inconsistent with the feeling first evoked when you asked the question.
If you feel you’re struggling and cannot commit to helping others today, remember that working on your own mental health is helping others. By focusing on yourself, you build a better platform in which to help from. It is not selfish to prioritise your own well being, it is essential. It’s how you will be best equipped to help. A reoccurring one for me is ‘I commit to living through my motivations and intentions for the day’.
Something brief, broad and memorable. To steer you on course whenever you start to waver.
6 - Positive attitude in the face of adversity
Ah bloody hell, not more pain! Yes, I’m afraid so.
There’s a lot beyond our control. We will all face hardships. That will happen. This doesn’t mean, however, that we are powerless.
A lot of energy is focused on purely solving the external or internal problem, to fix it straight away. Sometimes this is the approach that is needed, most of the time, it isn’t. We’re trying to force the problem away so we don’t have to deal with the stress. But some problems can’t be forced away. Some will return. Some will linger. Some level of suffering is inevitable, some suffering is necessary and even some pain can be very meaningful.
It’s a nuisance, a curse, a horrid and unfortunate happening. It’s not fair. Like a fly, continually landing on your face.
But you don’t always have to be taken away by the tide and pulled under by the currents; to be overcome by mounting pressures and forces. You don’t always have to be the victim.
We can shift our perspective to seeing adversity not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. Pain is an opportunity to find that resilience, to not be overrun by these phenomenons. Here’s the basic concept:
Pain carries a message. A message can be learnt from. To learn means there’s space to grow.
Firstly, pain carries a message. Any type of pain is a signal to/from your brain telling you somethings wrong. If you break your leg, your leg will hurt so you know not to put weight on it. The same applies internally. If you are currently struggling with depression, your brain is telling you something’s wrong. It wants to be healed and it’s letting you know something needs to be changed.
Negative emotions are the things we strive not to feel, but in reality the most effective way not to feel them is to accept their presence and understand why they are there in the first place. We mustn’t ignore them, we must understand them.
Secondly, a message can be learnt from. When we truly understand the message, we can start applying the antidote. The first step is awareness, and with that awareness we can take the appropriate action. We can take steps to stop repeating that negative message, or engaging with those people that way, or better connect with the consequences of our actions.
Finally, to learn means there’s space to grow. The more we can connect and apply these actions to our lives, the richer we will become for it. Any practise repeated will reinforce our day to day existence and repeated enough times, will become habit, whether it’s positive or negative.
All of those ‘bad’ habits are simply a series of pre-learnt, instinctual practises - coping mechanisms, meant to protect you in some way. They just carry their own set of negative consequences with them, and you don’t have to live with those negative consequences. Once you understand what the message is, you can start finding space to interrupt that practise.
Pain is the beginning of the journey toward growth. Without pain, there would be no growth. Like when you’re lifting weights, you have to create those micro tears in the muscle before it can repair itself stronger. It is your chance to practise resistance.
This also gives us space for gratitude.
Gratitude may seem a strange thing to bring up here, but I’m not asking anyone to be grateful for their pain. If you can ever find that in yourself then that’s a wonderful direction to investigate but that’s not what this is.
The gratitude can be in appreciating that whatever pain you’re feeling right now, whatever intense, horrific suffering you’re going through, it is the first step toward growth.
7 - Being in touch with your drives
It has been said before that all humans are running off of some kind of program, and it can either be a conscious one - a set of learnt principles and values that give your life meaning and purpose - or an unconscious one - the values of your cultural, society, family, class, which may not serve you effectively. Either way, you are running one of them. You can’t choose not to be, but you can choose what that pogromming is.
So when you are confronted by choices in life, what drives you? What forces guide you and compel you moment to moment?
Are you driven by those deep seated impulses, those naturally occurring, unchallenged, unquestioned thrusts of motive. Or are you aligning with the principles of this practise - grounded with a motivation & intention, aware of your attachments to superficial pleasures, having an authentic relationship with your suffering, and so on.
Being able to access this at any time can help you stay on course with this practise. Awareness is always the first step, and it’s the step that can allow you to access choice.
Dale Lamb offers a visual method to facilitate your understanding:
Hold out your right hand and imagine it points the way to your worst impulses - this hungry, greedy, egoic machine that will take what it wants, regardless of the painful consequences to itself and to others, all in the pursuit of temporary pleasure.
Now hold out your left hand. This points the way to the idea previously discussed of service - to understanding, helping, offering kindness and love, to yourself and to others.
When confronted with a challenging juncture, imagine that this posture is a fork in the road. Take a second to pause and think about what potential outcomes lie at the end of both paths.
You can at this point, offer understanding and recognition that both of these paths are different methods of searching for happiness. You can be thankful and grateful for both of these impulses but understand that if you chose the right path, you would effectively be harming yourself and others, whereas if you chose the left path, you would be of service to them both.
Remembering this throughout the day can act as a buffer when it comes to making decisions that could potentially derail your day.
8 - Gratitude
We tend to see gratitude as an emotion. For example, you get a muffin, you feel grateful for that muffin. But gratitude is not an emotion. It’s a practise. It’s something you can cultivate.
By actively engaging with gratitude, you exercise and increase your ability to feel it, and find it in smaller, but ever expanding places.
It’s a simple process: think about what you are grateful for.
What are your relationships like? Is there someone in your life? Does someone care for you? Do you care for someone? Family? Friends? Are you happy by yourself? Can you afford food? Do you have access to clean water? Do you have a space you are safe in, like a house? Are you in a position to pay for these essentials? If your not, are you in relatively good health? is your heart still beating? Are you still here? Do you have an opportunity to spread kindness? Do have the ability within yourself to feel kindness? There’s so much to be thankful for.
We focus so much on what we don’t have, on what we want but can’t have. We all have something to be grateful for. No matter what hardships you may be facing (remember, positive mental attitude in the face of adversity). No matter how hidden they may seem. Even just being alive, and that you’re trying. And if you don’t feel that? You wouldn’t have listened this far into the podcast if there wasn’t some flicker of interest.
Here’s a few things I say to myself:
I’m grateful for the weather, in whatever form it takes today. I’m grateful for the trees, without which I couldn’t breathe. I’m grateful to my dog, who teaches me to balance joy and fun with responsibility. I’m grateful for the pain, that keeps me returning to this practise.
A lot of what we see as truth is actually just opinion, just the way we choose to see things, governed by our self esteem. The reason I use the word ‘choose’ is because if this causes you more suffering, you can choose another option. It’s the job of the self esteem to tell you this is permanent. But that is also opinion. There are ways to foster a different relationship to this and one of them is through gratitude.
You have the opportunity draw your attention to these at any moment. An even though they may appear simultaneously alongside hardships, that doesn’t mean they aren’t also true.
You can feel pain and gratitude together.
So these aren't an exact replica from Dale Lamb’s book. These are my interpretations of what was written, what connected with me and what I understood to be beneficial. But Dale Lamb was never a purist. Something he’d always say, which is still as inspirational now as it was back then, was: “whatever works, works… you bloody muppet”.
Here’s a brief run down of these practises again. I’d recommend doing them first thing when you wake. They can take as much time as you need. They can be a 30 minute reflective mediation, or a 2 minute revision, read from a list you keep with your tea or coffee, for when you flick the kettle first thing in the morning:
1. Motivation & Intentions.
What will motivate you today?
2. “Attachment to superficial pleasure will only bring you more pain”.
Why are you engaging in this act? Is it for the right reasons? Connect to the consequences.
3. Cultivate an honest relationship with your suffering.
Listen to it, non judgementally.
4. We are all one.
We all have the potential for suffering and joy.
5. Will you be of service? How?
How will you help people today?
6. Positive attitude in the face of adversity.
Pain is the beginning of the path to growth. Try to foster gratitude for the opportunity to practise.
7. Be in touch with your drives.
Are you living in the conscious or subconscious program?
What are you grateful for today? Pain can live simultaneously with gratitude.
The Savage Balance Podcast is a weekly podcast offering a new story, essay, interview, thought or leftover scribble from the back of a napkin.