Monday, September 23, 2013

How to transform our minds to deal with challenging situations

Have you ever experienced a difficult situation in your life that triggered some negative emotions like anger, jealousy, depression, fear and so on? If you haven't then congratulations, you are already enlightened and have nothing to worry about. The rest of us, unfortunately, still need to learn how to transform our minds to deal with challenging situations that trigger these disturbing emotions in us.

The secret to learn how to deal with these challenging situations lies in our own mind. All the great masters from the different traditions of the East have said this before countless of times: happiness is our own creation, it is our own mind that creates heaven or hell for us by the way that we perceive the world in which we live.

So the answer is to learn to transform our minds, to transform the way in which we see the world around us, to transform the way in which we relate to every person that passes through our lives, to transform the way in which we see the problems that we face in our lives.

I recently had the opportunity to learn some practical teachings from the Buddhist tradition specifically designed to bring this transformation to our minds. These teachings come from a text called "The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation" which I learned about last July while I was at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu for a course called "Mind Training - Cutting the Root of Disturbing Emotions."

Mind Training - The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation

These "Eight Verses of Thought Transformation" offers and easy way to remember different mental attitudes and some specific Buddhist techniques that we can use in our daily lives, and specially whenever we are confronted with a challenging situation so we can transform any negative response or disturbing emotion into a more positive and constructive one cultivating in this way virtues like compassion, patience, tolerance and so on.

Now I must warn you, this text might seem to be quite radical and perhaps even unrealistic so I suggest you read it with an open mind and with the thought that one of the purposes of this text is to purify the ego, the identification with the body and mind, so any negative reactions that you might experience to what is written in this text might be just a sign of the ego trying to reassure itself.

It's also important to keep in mind that this text is a sort of summary of extensive Buddhist teachings so to get a better understanding of the meaning of each verse I suggest you read the commentary given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama which is available online for free at or you could try to get his book "Transforming the Mind", but just to make it easier for you I've included a short explanation after each verse.

The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation

1. Determined to obtain the greatest possible benefit for all sentient beings, who are more precious than a wish fulfilling jewel, I shall hold them most dear at all times.

A "wish fulfilling jewel" is considered the most valuable object that we could think of because it can grant us whatever wishes we might have, yet every single sentient being (including insects or animals) are even more valuable, what would our lives be without the help or service of others? By having this thought in mind and seeing every being as dear we can develop the motivation to work on ourselves to be able to bring happiness to others and to avoid causing them any harm.

2. When in company of others, I shall always consider myself the lowest of all, and from the depths of my heart hold others dear and supreme.

It's not about developing low self esteem, the purpose of this verse is to eradicate the ego consciousness and cultivate humbleness. With a sense of superiority it's very difficult to learn anything from others but if we remain humble and open by considering others as supreme we could learn so much from every single interaction that we might have with any being.

3. Vigilant, the moment a delusion appears in my mind, endangering myself and others, I shall confront it and avert it without delay.

In summary this is the practice of mindfulness. We need to stay alert of our mental states so as soon as a negative emotion appears in our minds we can transform it using the teachings from the other verses, rather than being swayed by it causing pain to ourselves and others.

4. Whenever I see beings who are wicked in nature and overwhelmed by violent negative actions and suffering, I shall hold such rare ones dear, as if I had found a precious treasure.

Hitler is probably the most common example used in every Buddhist retreat to understand this verse. Who could ever see a person like Hitler as dear or as a precious treasure? That might sound like a radical thought but if we could see the incredible future suffering that such a person is creating for himself/herself because of the negative karma created by his actions we might learn to experience what real compassion is, and that's a great opportunity for our self growth.

5. When, out of envy, others mistreat me with abuse, insults or the like, I shall accept defeat and offer the victory to others.

This does not means to allow others to step on us, it just challenges our initial response in such situations like attacking back or replying with anger and hatred which only creates more conflicts and animosity.

6. When someone who I have benefit and in whom I have great hopes gives me terrible harm, I shall regard that person as my holy guru.

What can be more disappointing than being betrayed or hurt by somebody that you trust, like a friend or a family member? Our normal "human" response would be to never talk with that person again but if we instead consider them as teachers we could develop valuable virtues like patience and tolerance, and at the same time still feel love and compassion for them instead of excluding them from our lives.

7. In short, both directly and indirectly, do I offer every happiness and benefit to all my mothers. I shall secretly take upon myself all their harmful actions and suffering.

This verse refers to a specific Buddhist practice called tonglen where we visualize ourselves taking the suffering of others on each inhalation and giving them back love, joy and peace on each exhalation. This practice will totally freak out the ego so the easiest way is to start it is to practice it on yourself or on somebody dear to you. A detailed explanation of this practice is included in the book "Ego, Attachment and Liberation" by Lama Yeshe.

8. Undefiled by the stains of superstitions of the eight worldly concerns, may I, by perceiving all phenomena as illusory, be released from the bondage of attachment.

According to the Buddhist tradition everything that we see in the world around us is empty of inherent existence. This means that things exist as an illusion because everything is impermanent, in a constant state of change and its existence is subject to certain causes and conditions. By meditating on this concept of "emptiness" attachment can be removed since there is nothing really substantial in things to what we can get attached to. To understand more about emptiness you can read the book "How Things Exist: Teachings on Emptiness" by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

I think these Eight Verses of Thought Transformation are a simple and practical teaching to learn how to transform our minds to deal with challenging situations that could trigger in us any disturbing emotions like hatred, anger, jealousy and so on. It might not be so easy to put them in practice but that doesn't mean that they don't work, just give it a try, think about any difficult situation in your life and try to change your perception of the situation with these verses. You can share your experience in the comment section below.

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