Pink tennis shoe stuck to gum on road

How to Get Unstuck

What does it mean to say that we are in samsara? It basically means we are continuously stuck going around and around in our usual pattern. We get stuck in our habits. And the more we repeat these habits, the stronger that pattern becomes. Whether we’re engaged in good habits or bad habits, the process is the same.

When we keep doing, saying, and thinking the same things day after day, we are continually reinforcing our habitual tendencies. That’s a technique used by someone trying to brainwash you, isn’t it? Repeating, repeating, repeating.

Then what happens? We start to believe it. Someone told me there’s a book by a fascist author who said that if you tell one lie and then another lie to support it, then another lie to support that one, at some point the lie becomes real. People start to believe that lie is real, including you yourself.

That sums up the reality of samsara: we are constantly telling lies to ourselves. We tell ourselves lies, one after another, until at some point we begin to believe in that cycle of lies and it becomes our reality. The sense of continuity of that cycle of lies is what we call samsara.

That’s why Buddha taught about samsara, the relative reality, as being false. We are constantly believing whatever our emotions are telling us. Each time we follow our anger, for example, and act on that emotion, it gets reinforced and becomes stronger. The more often you repeat the habit, the stronger it becomes. And the stronger it becomes, the harder it is to get out of it.

Samsara is a little bit like a mafia organization. Once you get deep inside the mafia it’s very hard to leave. Like you see in the movies, just when you thought you got out, samsara pulls you back in. Like in The Sopranos or the Godfather movies.

Dharma teachings are not the problem

Sometimes we fail on the path and then we blame the dharma: “These dharma teachings just aren’t working!” But it’s not that the dharma is failing you. The Buddha’s wisdom teachings are completely genuine. We only fail when we don’t apply that wisdom and skillfully integrate it into our lives. The teachings of the Buddha are so beautiful and we love them, but often we have a hard time knowing how these teachings need to be applied in every experience we encounter.

For example, we love it when the Buddhist teachings talk about how our thoughts are self-liberated. That’s so great to hear, isn’t it? We love hearing the teachings on the kleshas, how the very power of emotions can actually transform us. Such wonderful teachings. When we hear them, we feel that we really want to do that, don’t we? When we hear the life stories of the great masters –– from Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa all the way down to my guru, Khenpo Rinpoche –– we’re so inspired. We love these teachings and we really want to do what these great masters did. We want to self-liberate our thoughts, our emotions. It’s so exciting.

We want realization. We want liberation. But how can we do this if we have no thoughts? How can we work with the energy of emotions and realize their great bliss wisdom, if we have no emotions? That’s going to be a big problem.

Fortunately, there’s good news: we have lots of thoughts and so many emotions. We don’t have to remain stuck in our painful habits. We can get unstuck. But to do that, we need to remember to apply these teachings at the very moment when we’re having those thoughts and emotions. Without them, we have a big problem. How will we apply these teachings? If you have emotions coming up and you don’t apply the dharma in that moment when you’re getting upset, then what are the teachings for? Don’t just collect the dharma teachings; apply them at every opportunity.

Recognizing opportunities to get unstuck

Say you want to practice generosity. One of my students in Texas where I have taught every year for 26 years told me that he was very inspired when I talked about how we must practice GoKind, generosity, and help people who are homeless. So one year when it was really cold in Texas, he bought a bunch of jackets from Costco. He went to places where you find homeless people living, under highways, but when he offered the jackets, they didn’t want them!

So when somebody needs generosity, that’s our opportunity. When you really want to do an act of generosity, but there’s nobody who needs or wants your help, how will you do it? The same is true if you want to develop discipline or patience. When there’s a really strong temptation to shout at someone, that’s the time you must stop. Otherwise how do you practice discipline?

If there’s nobody irritating you, how do you practice patience?

There’s a story of one lama in Tibet who went into solitary retreat. After he came out people asked, “How is your practice” And he said, “Oh, it was really successful, very good practice. I perfected the practice of patience.” And then they said, “How can you practice patience if there’s nobody but you in your retreat?” Then he got really mad. So there you go.

To practice patience, you need people to irritate you. For example, when your partner says something that irritates you, that’s your chance. There is no better time to practice patience. So you don’t need to go someplace special to develop patience. There are plenty of opportunities right at home: with your kids, with your parents, with your partner.

It’s no different if you want to practice diligence, or exertion. If you don’t feel lazy, how will you practice diligence? If you recognize the opportunity, then even though you’re lazy, you’re already diligent. If you weren’t feeling this sense of resistance to sit and meditate, how would you ever practice diligence? So when you feel a resistance to sit and meditate, that’s your chance to activate your diligence. When you feel kind of lazy, like couch potato, that’s the best opportunity. That’s when diligence should kick in.

So when you see homeless or somebody else in need, and you think, “Oh, maybe tomorrow I will help,” that’s lazy. That’s the time for diligence to come in. That’s the best time to do whatever you can to help the person.

When I was living in Nepal there was this carpenter next to the monastery. We called him Mr. Tomorrow. Whatever work you gave him, if it wasn’t finished at the agreed-upon time and you went to check with him, he would say, “Tomorrow.” So our practice becomes like that: “Practice tomorrow.”

If your mind is not getting distracted, if you are not becoming mindless, then when do you practice meditation? If you avoid sitting to meditate because your mind gets too distracted, when will you ever meditate? Even before you sit on the cushion, if your mind is not distracted, why do you need to sit?

You don’t need samadhi if your mind is not distracted. In that case you already have samadhi. Shamatha, calm abiding practice, is only for those whose minds are not able to sit! Buddhas don’t need shamatha, they already have samadhi. Shamatha is for us.

In the same way, if we don’t have strong ego clinging, if we don’t have a strongly selfish mind, why do we need meditation on emptiness? So ask yourself, “Do I have ego clinging?” Strong ego? Good news! That is your meditation opportunity right there. If you didn’t have any ego clinging, then emptiness meditation would be useless, redundant.

Scanning for Opportunities: An Exercise

1. First thing in the morning, when you wake up, scan ahead to the typical experiences of your day. Anticipate when you are likely to have opportunities to practice.

2. Say that you often see a homeless person on your way to work, or that someone at work often demands your attention at an inconvenient time. As you imagine these encounters, look at your mind.

3. What thoughts do you usually have at these times? What are the thoughts that take you away from the simple opportunity to give, or to listen?

4. Imagine yourself having that practice opportunity today. Imagine that you have the chance to turn your mind toward openness and generosity, toward greater patience and kindness. Imagine the joy you will feel when you take that opportunity.

5. Decide, “Today is the day. I will seize the opportunity to practice. Today I will do it!”


Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche originally presented these teachings to the Nalandabodhi Sangha of Hong Kong in January 2020.