Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

How I Became a Buddhist and What It Really Means

Natural Bridges, Santa Cruz

Natural Bridges, Santa Cruz

Editor’s Note:  I wrote this post for my readers who – in my recent reader survey – said they’re curious about Buddhism.  But really, it’s about the peace, compassion, and wisdom we all so deserve.

When I was in my mid-twenties, my housemate went to see a psychic.  Suprisingly, the psychic began speaking about me, the young woman who drank and smoked too much.  She predicted I would either meet a spiritual teacher or cross over in my early thirties.  That means die, in case it’s not clear.

I found this strange and spooky and largely put it out of mind.  I wasn’t spiritually inclined at the time so the possibility of becoming so seemed unlikely.  I started to drink less, but not because of the prediction.  Alcohol soothed my frazzled emotions and helped me to relax.  But I knew it wasn’t healthy or helpful on the long run.  It would be a long time before I gave up smoking, but I continued to breathe and walk on this earth, nevertheless.

At the time, I lived by the sea in Santa Cruz, California, magnet to surfers, valley girls, tourists and alternative lifestyle seekers.  The town and surrounding areas hosted a panoply of spiritual culture from WICCA covens to the Mt. Madonna Center, where the main yoga teacher had been silent for more than 20 years and communicated by writing on a small chalkboard he wore around his neck.  (He’s brilliant, by the way.)

I never gave a second thought to any of this as I was busy running a non-profit that helped battered women.

Then, suddenly in my early thirties, as predicted but still unexpected, I fell into Buddhism.  A brand new housemate was fired up about meditation and Buddhism.  She took me to talks and sittings held in a remodeled garage.  But, I found the atmosphere of this particular group too stiff. Buddhism, I concluded, was not for me.

Or so I thought. Soon after, I was lured to another talk given by a different teacher. I felt deeply moved by his words and the special ambiance created by the power of his presence.  Since I was between jobs, I went for a weekend seminar too and then a ten-day retreat held at the end of a long and bumpy dirt road.

Although I had to stay in a tent and got a rip roaring case of poison oak, by the end of the retreat, there was no question:  I was fully hooked on Buddhism.

Buddhism captured me because:

  1. It made so much sense to my mind and heart.  Even though I didn’t understand everything and I thought all the Tibetan mumbo jumbo didn’t concern me, the truth of the teachings spoke so clearly to both my conceptual and non-conceptual mind.
  2. I probably had a karmic connection from a past life that had come to fruition bringing me squarely into the heart of Buddhism.  But, a karmic connection won’t necessarily keep you there unless you create new karma by applying yourself in study and practice.

Since then, I’ve attended hundreds of talks, seminars, and retreats on the teachings and practices of Buddhism, include a three-year study and practice retreat.  Of course, I’m still a beginner and have much to learn. Until the three-year retreat, you would usually find me busy working.  Remember, I was a workaholic.  But, I made up for the lost practice time once on the extended retreat and have continued a daily practice since then.

The Many Colors of Buddhism

Buddha Shakyamuni

Buddha Shakyamuni

By the way, I’m not trying to sell you on Buddhism.  But, if you’re curious about Buddhism, it may help to know that it comes in many different shapes, sizes, and colors.  There’s the black and white simplicity of Zen, the vivid orange and red of Tibetan Buddhism, and the saffron colored robes seen in Southeast Asia.  Different hues exist even within a single tradition.

There are peaceful monks, learned scholars, wild, unconventional teachers, householders, and cave dwelling yogis.

It is said that Shayamuni Buddha gave 84,000 different teachings and taught in different ways according to the minds and capacities of different individuals.  His teachings are divided into three main categories (known as “vehicles”), which respectively emphasize peace, love and compassion, and skillful means for developing wisdom.

As you can see, there isn’t just “one” Buddhism.  Although there are a few core principles that run the gamut of traditions, the language and approaches vary dramatically.  That doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all thanks to lineage.  The authentic teachings are carefully passed down from one teacher to the next.  But, of course, ultimately you need to realize the teachings within your own mind.

The Essence of Buddhism

The teachings of the Buddha are vast, indeed. Just the words of the Buddha alone fill 100 volumes and the commentaries by great Indian scholars fill more than 200. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when you consider all the Buddhist teachings that have been spoken and written since then.

At the same time, the Buddhist teachings can be encapsulated in a few words.  For example, The Buddha summarized his teachings in these four lines:

“Commit not a single unwholesome action.
Cultivate a wealth of virtue.
To tame this mind of ours.
This is the teaching of all the buddhas.”

-the Dhammapada

An entire book could be written about this verse.  But simply said, it means to refrain from harm, to cultivate love, compassion, and beneficial actions, and to purify your own mind and heart from its patterns of negativity.

Meditation is the method used to transform the mind and there are several different forms of meditation.  For example, there’s the basic meditation of mindfulness, contemplative meditation, practices of loving kindness and compassion,  and, in some traditions, deity practices that involve visualization and mantra and both the investigation of mind as well as resting in the nature of mind once it’s been introduced.

It all depends on the approach of your tradition.  You may be drawn to the simplicity of sitting or love the complexity and symbolism of rituals.

I’d like to mention one other simple explanation of Buddhism:  The action of Buddhism is non-harming and the view (core principle) is interdependence.  It’s important to realize that Buddhism isn’t just about understanding your own mind, but it also addresses the nature of reality.  Its most fundamental tenet proposes that everything is impermanent, empty of inherent existence, and comes about due to cause and effect.  Therefore, what we think, say, and do has an effect for better or for worse.

To sum up, Buddhism can be described in two words: compassion and wisdom.  But then again, each of those words and the associated practices could be explained in volumes.

Why It Matters:  Putting An End to Suffering

In essence, Buddhism is about transforming negative emotions, cultivating positive qualities, remaining present in the moment, and seeing reality as it is rather than through the projections of your ordinary mind.

“If we know this, (if we are wise) we can see than any happiness or any suffering, depends entirely on the mind and how it perceives.  So we will seek to find happiness and well-being within our own mind, and nowhere else.  We know that since all the causes of happiness are already here, complete within us, it doesn’t depend on anything outside of us.” – the 3rd Dodrupchen Rinpoche

When you lack the capacity to work with your own mind and emotions, you suffer.  Thoughts and emotions easily sweep you away making you feel distressed and uncomfortable in your own self.  At the same time, you’re more likely to cause suffering for others because you are reacting from habitual, self-focused patterns.  And, that’s how the world becomes a turbulent mess.

Blue Sky

Connect with the sky not the clouds.

Instead of identifying with transitory thoughts and emotions, you could switch your allegiance and begin to rest in the essence of mind (pure awareness).  This is what we learn to do in meditation and why it is so powerful.  From this spacious perspective, thoughts and emotions are just clouds sweeping through a vast, open sky.  They can’t really harm you if you don’t go along for the ride.  Learning to take your emotions less seriously is the beginning of true freedom.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to believe in the core principles of Buddhism.  I’m not bent on converting anyone to Buddhism. I would, however, love to convert the whole world to peace, compassion, and wisdom.  Then, we would see heaven on earth.

Resources

These days, it can be difficult to distinguish between an authentic teacher and someone who claims to be self-realized.  And, there are plenty of people who say you don’t need a spiritual teacher at all.  Just listen to your inner voice!   That might be a big mistake though, because ego can be very cunning.

I place my trust in lineage: The fact that a teacher has learned from a bonafide teacher who in turn learned from another.

For those who are curious about Buddhism, I’ve compiled a list of resources you can explore that features a selection of teachers who are part of an authentic lineage.  They’re slanted toward Tibetan Buddhism because that’s my thing.

Video, Audio, and Articles

Books on Meditation, Compassion, and Wisdom

That’s the story of my love affair with Buddhism.  To this day, the practice and teachings open my mind and soften my heart.  I feel so blessed!

How do you cultivate peace, compassion, and wisdom in your life?

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

Image Credit:  Natural Bridges – Moonx

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24 Comments

  1. What an amazing, rich post, Sandra–one to return to again and again. And I loved getting a glimpse of the younger you in it. I cultivate peace, compassion and wisdom in my life through my own spiritual tradition. I discovered Unity when I attended a local church a few years ago and I knew I’d come home. Since then, like you, I’ve studied (Unity offers a ton of classes) and done my best to put the teachings into action. Thanks for sharing your path.

    • Hi Charlotte,

      I love Unity! I went there for awhile and really enjoyed the ambiance and offerings so much. I’m so happy you’re on a nourishing spiritual path. I’m glad you enjoyed the past and feel like it’s very rich.

  2. Jean Sampson

    Hi Sandra. Thank you for this very interesting and intriguing post! Although I will never probably call myself a Buddhist, I do completely agree with the principles of how to live one’s life. I have learned a lot of these principles from books and on-line friends (like you) , but I think the main lesson that I have learned in life is to not take emotions too seriously. Yes, they can sometimes point us in directions that we might need to make a change, but, really, letting emotions run one’s life is asking for an unstable life, one that may be ecstatic one minute, then miserable and tragic the next. Having lived in the place of letting emotions be the rudder of my life and then finding a new way to, first process and then let go of emotions, I can say that I would never willingly go back to the first approach to living. So maybe I am a fringe-dwelling closet Buddhist 🙂 ?
    Anyway, I really enjoyed learning a little more about YOUR journey to becoming who you are now.

    • Dear Jean,

      You’ve learned such a core life lesson about working with emotions. I can see it’s changed your life dramatically and feel so much better for it. I’m so happy for you. You certainly have one element of the Buddhist path down pat! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Hi Sandra,
    This is a fantastic post about your wonderful transition and a blissful journey into spiritualism! Only truly awakened souls can undertake this and lord Himself guides you into such a venture. Thanks for sharing it…it was a calming and humbling experience.

    • Thank you, Balroop! Yes, I agree, we do need to wake up a bit to follow a spiritual path thought I’m far from truly awakened. I’m just trying to walk my path with love and awareness and to keep allowing it to unfold. Thanks for your sweet words.

  4. Sandra what a beautiful tribute to you and your love of Buddhism. I resonate with so much of what you say. This says it all for me:
    “So we will seek to find happiness and well-being within our own mind, and nowhere else. We know that since all the causes of happiness are already here, complete within us, it doesn’t depend on anything outside of us.”
    Big yes from me on your beautiful article.

    • Thank you, dear Elle. This quote sums it up for me to. It’s all about working with our own mind and ultimately that’s how the world will change to. Thanks for your words of appreciation.

  5. Hello Sandra,

    I enjoyed reading your post. Although I have not declared myself to be one (part of the reason is because I have not done any in-depth study), I am inclined to Buddhism. I have benefitted a lot from the wisdom of Buddhist teachings as well as meditation. Buddhism taught me to reflect and instead of solely relying on the books, to use my own physical experiences for making a conscious decision.

    It is great that you have the desire to bring more peace, compassion and wisdom to the world! I wish you much love and success!

    Blessings,
    Evelyn

    • Hello Evelyn,

      I’m so happy you’ve found benefit from your exposure to Buddhist wisdom and the practice of meditation. Reflection is so critical; I’ve heard it called “the lost zone of contemplation.” Contemplation is the way we see if the teaching actually fit for us and make them our own. Otherwise, it can remain intellectual. Thank you for bringing in this stream of thought to the discussion.

      Thanks for your sweet words. I know you have a very kind heart and are bringing peace, compassion and wisdom to the world in your special way. May goodness continue to unfold for you!

  6. Hi Sandra,

    I love getting an encapsulated view of your spiritual journey! Congrats on finding your path and thank you for relating its essential elements.

    I like your summation: In essence, Buddhism is about transforming negative emotions, cultivating positive qualities, remaining present in the moment, and seeing reality as it is rather than through the projections of your ordinary mind.

    Oh, if we could all reach for such qualities! The world would definitely be a more peaceful place.

    All the best!

    • Hi Beth,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this view of my spiritual journey! Yes, the world would be so wonderful if we all aspired to and trained in embodying these qualities. Warmest wishes to you.

  7. thank you for sharing this post, Sandra, and your Buddhism journey. And for tying in the very entertaining and true story of the psychic that predicted your meeting with the spiritual teacher. good thing her alternative prediction didn’t happen 🙂

    If you’re saying (and as Beth points out), Buddhism is about transforming negative emotions, cultivating positive qualities, remaining present in the moment, and seeing reality as it is rather than through the projections of your ordinary mind, then we all need a little more Buddhism in our lives.

    Over the years, I’ve been drawn to Buddhists teachings, meditation and simplicity and clarity of the religion. I haven’t adopted it as a religion but find many powerful practices and guidance that have shaped my life.

    So glad to see the life-changing experiences it has on you, Sandra.

    • Dear Vishnu,

      Yes! I’m so happy the psychic’s alternative prediction didn’t happen. It’s such a precious human life when you encounter such profound teachings. And, I agree, we could all do with more of these qualities in our life. I’m glad you found clarity and resonance in some of the teachings and meditation of Buddhism too. Stay well my friend!

  8. I did not know all this! You are far advanced compared to me so I am following your lead. I leanrt so much about you in this post and loved it all. What a journey.

    • Surprise! I have studied and practice to a certain degree, but it doesn’t mean I’m advanced.:) Sometimes, someone new to the teachings has a natural affinity and can understand things quite readily. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sharing this way helps, I think, to make our connection deeper. I appreciate how open you are on your blog. I’ve loved some of your youthful, wild travel stories!

  9. Eileen

    Thank you for sharing your journey.

  10. I’m with Elle on the quote. Thank you for sharing your story and I have dipped in to Buddhism about 15 years ago after many years of yoga practice while i still smoked and drank too much alcohol 🙂
    I am often reminded of the Dali Lama’s advice ” practice the traditional that you come from” and recently I have been drawn back to prayer and reading from my christian upbringing, sprinkled with my own spirituality. eclectic Des calls it. I have often thought that if I lived in LA I would go to agape.
    Thanks for sharing another part of you life and journey
    namaste xx

    • Dear Suzie,

      It seems like our paths have intertwined at times! That’s so fascinating that you are returning a bit to your Christian roots. I felt an affinity for the saints when I was a child and I was just talking to a friend who has such a strong connection to one of the Christian mystics though she follows a Buddhist path. Goodness manifest in different forms!

      Much love and appreciation to you, Suzie.

  11. Thanks for sharing this, Sandra. I live too far from a teacher to properly pursue Buddhism myself, but I was able to do an immersion semester in Soto Zen in my senior year of college as part of my theology credits. I’ve practiced zazen ever since, and it’s often been the only thing that’s gotten me through the ups and downs of my life, including pain management.

    Like you, I find it just makes sense.

    • How wonderful, Meg! I’m inspired by your regular practice of zazen. Your story illustrates so perfectly how meditation practice can bring us more equanimity with which to face the ups and downs of life. Thanks for sharing your story.

  12. Hi Sandra
    Your spiritual journey is actually very inspiring.
    I am not a Buddhist,but yes I am considerably involved in the spiritual feild myself and so i am able to appreciate your single minded dedication to the elevation of your consciousness.
    I also want to add that its my observation over the years,that almost all religions and spiritual disciplines across the world send out only one message :that is to be happy,peaceful,and bring peace and happiness to the cosmos.And it can happen only through your own self,when you commit to entering your own self and discovering your truth within.
    Thanks
    Mona

  13. Dear Sandra, thank you for your words full of wisdom. I’m a yoga teacher in the Netherlands. Next week we leave with http://www.happyreiziger.nl for a yoga retreat in Dordogne, France. You inspired me to teach the principles of meditation and mindfulness in a pure and simple way. Thanks! xx Mo

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