Category Archives: problem-solving

Skeleton Woman

So I’ve been talking with clients recently about the book Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I’ve been reading it with a friend, and there is a chapter on a myth/story/concept she calls “Skeleton Woman.”

The story goes there is a fisherman who is fishing when he catches something. He hauls it up, and finds a skeleton on the end of his line. Frightened, he runs. But, of course, the skeleton is attached to his fishing line, so as he runs away (holding the fishing pole) he looks back and the skeleton is “chasing” him. Eventually, he stops and looks at the skeleton and realizes what is happening. So he untangles the skeleton from the line and goes on his way, unhindered by his previously hidden skeletal burden.

So it’s a great psychological metaphor; we all have things that we’ve buried or repressed that we don’t want to look at. And by burying or repressing it, ironically, instead of helping ourselves we just give the skeletons in our closets more power to frighten us. So what should we do?

In Tibetan Buddhism there is a powerful tool called the Eight Verses for Training the Mind. (Or the Eight Verses for Training the Heart, the Tibetan word is lojong (blo sbyong), which means literally means practicing or training the mind. But Tibetans (at least historically) think that the heart is the seat of the mind–which is not a crazy idea, once you realize the mind is not the brain. Anyway…) The first verse goes:

With a determination to achieve the highest aim
For the benefit of all sentient beings
Which surpasses even the wish-fulfilling gem,
May I hold them dear at all times.

How do the other people we meet in our lives function as surpassing an Aladdin’s lamp? (The wish-fulfilling jewel is the same concept; a jewel that grants wishes.) Because we’re so limited in our thinking that we don’t even know what we should wish for. And the story of the skeleton woman proves that this is true. Because we’re not aware of all the things that are limiting us. I’ll give you an example.

Say there’s a person at work that irritates you. They always do that thing that you hate. So what do you do? Well, you avoid them, you complain to your friends about them, and maybe even get angry at them or treat them badly. All in order to protect your ego. So how does that work out? Well, first you’re unhappy, then you want to change jobs, maybe you get a bad review or even fired for fighting with this person. It’s a no-win situation, because even if you manage to get rid of the other person somehow, what will happen next? Someone else will start to irritate you.

Because that person, in the way that they irritate you, is your skeleton woman. They are only reminding you of something that you don’t like about yourself. So if you untangle that, figure out why that person bothers you so much, you will untangle the skeleton from your line and stop dragging them around with you. This is the only way to get free.

But would we wish these irritating people on ourselves? If I gave your a genie lamp with 3 wishes, would your first wish be, “I hope to meet a person who irritates me so that I can grow and become a better person.” Would you? If you wouldn’t, I fearlessly predict that you will meet many people in your life who irritate you.

But instead, open your heart and mind to the possibility that all the people you meet are trying to give you a perfect gift; the gift to grow in love and understanding and appreciation for life and what it has to offer, more fully and completely. If you can do this, I fearlessly predict that you will meet few people who irritate you, and you learn to experience life with the full love and joy that comes from being able to be present with others.

Pure Seeds – Q&A

So I received a nice email about my last post that included some questions. So I thought to answer them here, so that everyone can also read them. (Hopefully, perhaps, generating more discussion?)

1) When doing a good deed with an understanding of emptiness, you argue that there are two causal chains: first, the good deed itself, second, the recognition of emptiness while doing the deed. The first, you say, results in having a good experience in return. The second will result in “thinking about emptiness again.” However, Je Tsongkhapa says that all karmic deeds ripen as an experienced result and a tendency to repeat that action again. In this case, the good deed itself will ripen both as a good experience as well as the tendency to do the good deed again. If so, in what way is emptiness necessary in creating the upward spiral? You might say that doing the deed with an understanding of emptiness creates a more powerful karmic seed causing the deed to ripen sooner, making an upward spiral more possible, but this seems like a slightly different point than you’re making.

Je Tsongkapa, if you don’t know, is the founder of the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. So what he says is a big deal. But in fact Je Tsongkapa is getting this from the Buddha; the text we usually refer to for this kind of information is called the Abhidharma Kosha (Treasure House of Higher Knowledge), which is a compilation of knowledge taught by the Buddha and compiled by Master Vasubhandu.

Master Vasubhandu writes in his book that there can be four results from any given mental seed you plant: a similar result, a habit, the environmental result, and the projecting result. For example, if I give away some money then I will receive some money in the future (similar result), I will give money away again (the habit result), I will see other people giving money away (the environmental result), and in the future I will see something big happen (the projecting result). So here we’re talking about the habit result: if you do something once, you plant a seed to do it again.

So this is a good question, but not the same as what I was talking about. The thing to get clear on, as is so often the case understanding seeds, is the time gap. There is no necessary relationship between the amount of time it takes each of these four results to come back. In fact, these four results, if they occur, must almost necessarily not occur at the same time, because the projecting result must come later.

Let’s discuss an example. Let’s say I want to pay off my student loans. So I write a check for my student loan payment. What seeds have I planted? I gave something away, so something will come back to me (money, probably). And I created a habit to pay my student loan bill. Where will this get me?

By itself, possibly not very far. I had a friend who borrowed $60k to go to school (this is back in the mid-’90s). I was complaining about my student loan debt ($23k) and how hard it was for me to make payments at that time. (This was just out of school, I was making $26k a year). He had a job similar to mine, at a similar income level, and told me that his payments weren’t even keeping up with the interest–he was making monthly loan payments and his principal was increasing.

So how would planting good seeds get him out of this? By itself, it might not. He gave money away, but it’s not enough. And he has the habit to give, but this won’t fix his problem, if his principal is increasing with each payment he makes.

But what if every time he gave away money he thought about the emptiness of what he was doing? It’s true that by improving his motivation (step #2 of the four steps) he will plant a more powerful seed that will come back stronger and faster. But what I was arguing was that when he gets the similar result (money coming back), because he thought about emptiness, he will replant the seed that produced that result as well.

So maybe the easiest way to understand what I was describing is that not only will the resultant habit potentially be starting an upward spiral, but, by thinking about emptiness, then the similar result will be as well.

Overcoming Obstacles

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, then you know one of my favorite things to do is pick on business magazines. They’re such wonderful sources of misinformation and deluded, illogical points of view. One of my teachers loved to make fun of the Wall Street Journal, who one week describes someone who benefitted from investing aggressively and then the next week tells us about someone who made a fortune being cautious. The truth is, and they’ll admit it if they’re honest, they have no idea why things work.

This one I found from my other favorite source of misinformation: the inflight magazine. The June issue offers a “business lesson” from former long-distance runner Joe De Sena’s book Spartan Up! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life:

How do you overcome obstacles? “Whether you’re running 100 miles or running a business—and I would argue that running a business is a lot harder than running 100 miles—it’s all about being in the right frame of mind. Often, it’s not a matter of if things are going to get ugly; it’s a matter of when. The way I get through those pain points is by treating every situation as a learning opportunity and reminding myself that it could always be worse. If you keep things in perspective and leave your ego out of it, then it just becomes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

This is such a mix of interesting ideas were pure new-agey philosophy; I love it. Let’s see if we can apply a bit of logic, shall we?

Okay, in some ways I agree running a business is “a lot harder than running 100 miles.” But let’s admit it, he’s pandering to his audience. How many of us have every run 100 miles? I’m thinking a lot fewer than have run businesses. A quick google search tells me 67,000 triathletes entered competitions in 2013; roughly 20% of those people failed to finish, giving us a final number of 53,600. A cursory check for the number of business owners in the US tells me 12% of Americans own businesses less than three years old. The population clock has us at 318 million, so 12% times 318,323,818 Americans gives me a low figure of 38,198,858 business owners. Okay, maybe running a business isn’t more difficult than running 100 miles. (Then again, by year four 50% of businesses have failed, so maybe he’s not kidding.)

But I digress. Let’s look at the main point of his statement. If we just put one foot in front of the other, we can get through our “pain points” by staying in the “right frame of mind”: treat every situation as a learning opportunity and remind ourselves it could always be worse.

I like it; I have, like Bobby Knight, an avoiding-mistakes-is-a-key-to-success kind of mind. But does it pan out logically? Let’s try a syllogism:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I remind myself it could always be worse.

True or false? I don’t know; let’s run the tests. Test #1: Is it true that in business things could always be worse? Probably. Unless you’ve already lost your business and been given 150 years in prison. But even then, somehow it could possibly get worse. I love Shakespeare; Edgar in King Lear says “And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/So long as we can say “This is the worst” (4.1). Okay, let’s say it passes test #1.

Test #2: if I remind myself that things can always get worse, then I must reach business success. Again, tell it to Bernard Madoff. (And for the sake of completion, we should always run test #3: if I do not reach business success, it’s because I did not remind myself that it could always be worse.) As you’ve probably noticed, most of these kinds of syllogisms will fail tests #2 and #3. (You can start to see a pattern…)

Okay, let’s try another one:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I treat every situation as a learning opportunity.

Again, I like it. But to be logical, it has to pass the tests. Test #1: is there a connection between business success and seeing every situation as a learning opportunity? I think this is true. If you try to learn something, then no situation is a total loss. I love Thomas Edison’s famous quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” From that perspective, it’s difficult to truly fail, because each failure is a new data point. So let’s try test #2: if I treat every situation as a learning opportunity, I must reach business success. I like it; I want to say yes, but again, I hope Bernard Madoff learned his lesson, but it’s difficult to see how that lesson is going to produce business success for him. Hopefully he is still seeing every new situation in prison as a learning opportunity.

Anyway, I hope you can see how putting these kinds of statements into a logical syllogism reveals how ludicrous they are. The only way to logically be successful is to create the real cause for that success. But don’t believe me, run the tests.

Be a Scientist

So I was issued a challenge of sorts on Facebook:

So, don’t facts like these fly in the face of karma & Diamond Cutter principles? I anxiously await your apologetics.

This was in reference to an article online about how poor people are more ethical than rich people. The challenge is, if the idea of planting mental seeds to reach your goals is true, wouldn’t that necessitate that studies would find it worked the other way around? If the laws of seeds are true, then what goes around comes around, and rich unethical people should have problems and the meek should inherit the earth.

That’s true, but there are several problems. The first, which I wrote about on my logic blog, is that there are a lot of generalizations and stereotypes at play in this article. But that’s a bit besides the point; the point is here that the easiest answer has to do with the way seeds work.

In traditional Tibetan Buddhism the answer to the question, “When will a seed ripen?” is this life, next life, or lifetimes after that (phyi ma). This is an unsatisfactory answer to the western mind, so let’s use an analogy. I love fresh grapefruit juice. So when I squeeze my last grapefruit, I take a seed out of the pulp, and I go in my backyard, and I plant it, and I get grapefruit. Right?

Sure, but it might take twelves years or more. So mental seeds are the same, except they can take even longer. As in, lifetimes from now longer. So… one answer to “why do the wicked prosper?” is that wicked people weren’t always wicked; no one has never not done anything nice. So, if for example, Mr. Mean Rich Guy did something nice for someone in his past life and that seed ripens now, he’s rich. He might cheat on his taxes, not care about other people, and focus on himself, but still be rich. At least until the seed he planted in his past life to be rich wears out. Which actually happens quite often.

What about the other side, the poor people who don’t cheat as much, care more about other people, and who don’t focus on themselves? We could give the same answer (the time gap); no seed in the past to produce wealth. They might be more generous now, but if they weren’t in the past, it could be lifetimes before the seeds of being generous catch up to them. But we can go deeper with this question.

I’ve worked with people who have told me that planting seeds doesn’t work; they tried giving money, or visiting the old lady, and nothing happened. So what’s going on?

There’s a lot of stories I could tell, but my favorite is about exaggerating. I had a friend who was frequently exaggerating. Not a big deal, but it was causing us problems (basically a Peter and the wolf scenario). So I decided to plant a seed to fix it. I tried to stop exaggerating myself; I kept it in my six-times book and checked. Anytime I caught myself exaggerating, I immediately did the four powers. I trained my mind to the point that I couldn’t exaggerate: I was down to see my brother for Christmas, and his kids (my nephews) asked me to tell them a story. They wanted a story of how my brother had done something “interesting” when he was a kid. And, as a story-teller, sometimes you bend the facts a bit to make the story more interesting. Instead, I started the “story” off this way: “Okay kids, here are the facts.” I said that. To my ten-year old nephews, because I don’t want to exaggerate.

But nothing changed. My friend was still telling fish stories himself. So, seeds don’t work. That’s one conclusion. The other might be, as I reasoned, that exaggerating wasn’t the seed that was causing me to see my friend exaggerate. I thought about it; what else could it be?

I had worked with some friends trying to figure it out, and one of my friends said, “What does it make you feel like when you see him exaggerate?” I thought about it, and, to me, it felt like pride. So, I decided to check pride in my book. Within a week, my friend stopped exaggerating, and was asking me what was true, in public. I have recordings; you can listen to them.

So the point is, the workings of seeds are deeply hidden phenomena (shin tu lkog gyur). So it’s difficult to know what seeds we need to plant to get the result we want. So sometimes we have to be like a scientist; run an experiment.

This also assumes, of course, that you’re using the four steps and know how to do the four powers practice. If so, it’s been my experience that you can create a situation that you’re after (within reason, bigger changes require bigger seeds and more time) using a mental seed planting practice.

Karmic Management

So this blog will be my reflections on planting mental seeds; how it works, my experiences with it, thoughts, and reflections. Maybe a tip or two.

Also, since I wrote a logic book, there might be some logic in here. Mostly I’ll post logic-oriented posts to my logic blog, and try to post things here that are problem-solving oriented, particularly business problems, but I’m sure it will include other problems as well.

So subscribe if you like, post comments if you’re able, ask questions if you want answers (well, an answer anyway). But let me know what you’re like to see here or what you think might benefit others.


Eric Brinkman