Dream or Reality?

Dream or Reality?

dream

In our recent post entitled ‘Do We Really Exist?’ we included a dialogue between a meditation teacher and their student as a means of elucidating some of the subtleties of Buddhist thought regarding the true and absolute nature of mind and reality. Using a similar style of teacher-student dialogue (this time between a university professor and their student), today’s post is set in the not-too-distant future and explores some of these concepts further.

 

Student: Professor?

Professor: Yes.

Student: Pinch me.

Professor: What are you talking about?

Student: It’s just that we’ve been testing the Shared Dream Inducer so frequently that I can’t remember if I set the time on the Dream Termination Device.

Professor: I hope you’re joking.

Student: No seriously, I know you’ve told me so many times but I just can’t remember.

Professor: You mean …

Student: Yes, there’s no way of knowing whether we’re currently in a shared dream or in waking reality. If it turns out we’re dreaming, the SDI could keep us here indefinitely.

Professor: How shall we remedy this situation?

Student: We could just activate the SDI and try to enter a dream via the brain-computer interface – if it allows entry then at least we’ll know whether we’re awake or dreaming.

Professor: That’s way too risky. If we’re already dreaming we could end up getting stuck in a nested dream.

Student: Ok, I have another idea. In a dream, everything is the product of the mind. Things appear real to the dreamer yet everything is an illusion.

Professor: Agreed. But what is your point?

Student: So all we have to do is choose some objects around us and work out if they truly exist. If they’re real then we’re awake, otherwise we’re dreaming.

Professor: Interesting idea. Here, you can start with my fountain pen.

Student: Well, the pen certainly writes when I put it to paper. Yes, I think it’s real. I think we’re awake.

Professor: So your criteria for existence is based on the function that an object performs?

Student: Yes, of course.

Professor: I see. Go ahead and take away all of the components of the pen so that you’re left with nothing other than the nib. Does the nib still write?

Student: Yes, it still works.

Professor: But the nib isn’t the pen?

Student: Ah, good point. It appears my original premise was wrong. The nib is just a single pen component and cannot be all of the individual parts that comprise the pen. One thing cannot be another thing.

Professor: So is the pen real?

Student: Well, having just taken the pen apart and seen that all of its component parts are present, I would still conclude that it is real. I still think we’re awake.

Professor: So you’re saying that the pen exists as the sum of its component parts?

Student: Yes, that’s right.

Professor: Ah, I see. But you’ve already said that a component part can’t be two things at once. Yet now you seem to be saying that when the nib, cartridge, lid, and other pen components are put together they stop being those components and become a new single entity?

Student: No, that is illogical. The component parts still exist in the pen but the word “pen” is used to designate the collection of individual components that collectively form a pen.

Professor: Right, so you’re saying that the pen is just label?

Student: Well, I guess so.

Professor: If the pen is just a label then it doesn’t inherently exist. So are you now saying that we’re currently dreaming?

Student: I’m a bit confused. Irrespective of whether we are awake or dreaming, although things certainly appear, there is no logical basis upon which it can be said they truly exist.

Professor: Yes, that is correct. Therefore, your idea of investigating whether or not things are real doesn’t get us any closer to working out whether we are currently dreaming or awake. Have you got any better ideas?

Student: If we’re currently shared dreaming, it means the SDI is keeping some of our brainwave frequencies in perfect synchrony. We could try to disrupt them and wake ourselves up by inducing an electric shock.

Professor: If you want to stick your finger in the electric socket then go right ahead, but I’m certainly not joining you. Any more ideas?

Student: Hmm. Well I don’t ever remember bursting into laughter during a dream. So why don’t I tell you a funny joke and if it makes you laugh then that means we’re not dreaming?

Professor: I’m not convinced about this suggestion. For example, I don’t think it concurs with findings from the field of orienology. However, go ahead and tell your joke.

Student: What did the professor who always gave examples say when asked how many eggs they’d like for breakfast?

Professor: I don’t know.

Student: Four eggs ample.

Professor: I thought you were going to make me laugh.

Student: Very funny.

Professor: Well if you haven’t got any more sensible ideas then I have a suggestion. Let’s just stop, breathe, and do nothing.

Student: I don’t understand.

Professor: I built a failsafe into the SDI so that even if the DTD isn’t activated, the dream automatically terminates after eight hours.

Student: What! Couldn’t you have told me that an hour ago?

Professor: Well, haven’t you learnt something?

Student: You’re right, I’ve actually learnt rather a lot. The dream occurs within the expanse of mind and in a dream, there is the impression of coming and going, yet nothing really moves. Whilst dreaming, there is also near and far, but there is actually no distance. In a dream, although things appear, they are illusory and cannot be said to truly exist. However, objects perceived by the waking-state consciousness are also devoid of intrinsic existence. So are you saying that waking reality also unfolds within the expanse of mind?

Professor: You’ll have to work that out for yourself.

Student: But we still haven’t determined whether we’re currently dreaming or awake?

Professor: Does it really matter? Can’t you just relax and enjoy each moment of whichever reality you are currently in?

Student: Yes, I think I can.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

lit flame

It seems that nearly every academic paper concerning mindfulness includes a statement to the effect that ‘there is currently a lack of consensus amongst Western psychologists in terms of how to define mindfulness’. However, we’re not sure whether disagreement amongst psychologists regarding an appropriate definition for mindfulness is as prevalent as the academic literature might suggest. In other words, perhaps people are of the opinion that there is a lot of disagreement about mindfulness amongst Western psychologists only because everybody keeps saying that there is. Indeed, it could be argued that since it is only during the last few decades that mindfulness has been introduced into Western psychological settings, a certain number of ‘teething’ issues are to be expected and that, in terms of what constitutes some of the basic attributes of mindfulness practice, there is actually a decent level of concordance amongst psychologists. Examples of some of the things that Western psychologists generally seem to agree on in relation to mindfulness practice are that mindfulness: (i) is fundamentally concerned with becoming more aware of the present moment, (ii) can be practiced during everyday activities and not just when seated in meditation, (iii) is cultivated more easily by using concentrative anchors such as observing the breath, (iv) is a practice that requires deliberate effort, and (v) is concerned with observing both sensory and mental processes.

Our personal view is that too much emphasis is placed by Western psychologists on areas where there is disagreement rather than working with the aspects of mindfulness practice that have already been theoretically or empirically established. We also believe that too much emphasis is placed by academicians on attempting to devise and disseminate an ‘absolute’ or ‘all-encompassing’ definition of mindfulness. That is not to say that there are certain aspects of Western psychological definitions of mindfulness that wouldn’t benefit from additional clarification, but this doesn’t need to be made into too big a deal or detract from the insights and progress that have already been made. In today’s post, we briefly outline some of the key aspects of mindfulness practice where there is currently disagreement amongst Western psychologists. Following this, we propose a definition of mindfulness that (in our view) embodies a traditional Buddhist perspective on mindfulness and that may help to inform the ongoing scientific debate amongst Western psychologists in terms of how best to define the mindfulness construct.

Key Areas of Confusion in Western Psychology

1. Non-judgemental awareness: Arguably, the most popular definition of mindfulness employed in the Western psychological literature is the one proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn who defines mindfulness as the process of “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. In the context of this definition, some people believe that the use of the term ‘non-judgemental’ is appropriate because it implies that mindfulness involves the acceptance (i.e., rather than the rejecting or ignoring) of present-moment sensory and cognitive-affective experiences. However, others believe that the term ‘non-judgemental’ is unsatisfactory and/or too ambiguous because it could imply that the mindfulness practitioner is essentially indifferent and doesn’t seek to discern which cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses are conducive to ethically wholesome conduct.

2. Insight generation: In the Western psychological literature, ‘vipassana meditation’ and ‘insight meditation’ are often regarded as being the same as ‘mindfulness meditation’. However, this portrayal of vipassana meditation (and insight meditation) is not consistent with the traditional Buddhist perspective. According to the classical Buddhist literature, vipassana meditation (which means ‘superior seeing’) involves the use of penetrative investigation in order to intuit (for example) the ‘non-self’, ‘non-dual’, and ‘empty’ nature of reality (please see our posts on ‘Do We Really Exist?’ and ‘Exactly What is the Present Moment?’). Thus, although mindfulness meditation is certainly insight-generating in the sense that it leads to an intimate awareness of the mind, ‘mindfulness meditation’ is not ‘insight meditation’ as per the traditional Buddhist understanding. Therefore, there is debate amongst psychologists as to the role of insight in mindfulness meditation.

3. Context for practice: Mindfulness is traditionally practiced in the context of spiritual development. Indeed, within Buddhism, mindfulness is practiced in conjunction with numerous other spiritual practices and is just one aspect (the seventh aspect) of a key Buddhist teaching known as the Noble Eightfold Path. As we discussed in our post on ‘Meditation: A Threefold Approach’, the successful establishment of mindfulness relies upon a deep-seated understanding of the three Buddhist root principles of: (i) wisdom, (ii) meditation, and (iii) ethics (collectively known as ‘the three trainings’ – Sanksrit: trishiksha). In Buddhist practice, these three elements interact to form a cohesive whole, and there isn’t a single Buddhist practice that is not encompassed by the trishiksha principle. Therefore, there is debate in the Western psychological literature relating to whether or not mindfulness needs to be practiced within the context of spiritual development.

 

Mindfulness: A Traditional Buddhist Perspective

Needless to say, within Buddhism, there are different views about what constitutes mindfulness practice. That said, and as inferred in our post ‘When Buddha and Christ met for Tea’, we personally believe that there is actually no contradiction in the teachings from any of the different cycles of Buddhist transmission (known as the various ‘Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma’). Accordingly, in terms of a traditional Buddhist depiction, we would define mindfulness as ‘the full, direct, and active awareness of experienced phenomena that is spiritual in aspect and that is maintained from one moment to the next’.

The intended meaning of each of the words in this definition is as follows:

  • Full awareness’ means that mindfulness is all-embracing – nothing is left out and everything is accepted. This is the passive aspect of mindfulness.
  • Direct awareness’ means that there is no gap or delay between the experienced phenomena and our awareness of it. This is the insight aspect of mindful awareness. However, this doesn’t mean that mindfulness is the same as (the traditional Buddhist depiction of) insight meditation or vipassana meditation. Insight can definitely arise during mindfulness meditation but we are not actively trying to induce it as with vipassana meditation practice. Depending on a person’s level of experience, ‘direct awareness’ means doing ones best during mindfulness practice to remember that there is ‘self in other’ and ‘other in self’, or, in the case of very experienced practitioners, it means directly perceiving that this is so.
  • Active awareness’ is discerning and means that the mindfulness practitioner should not only observe the present moment but should also participate in it. Active awareness allows us to determine how to act skilfully in a given situation as well as how to create and shape the present moment. It also allows us to discern the ‘nutritional value’ of our various experiences and which environmental stimuli should be allowed to penetrate and nurture our being (please see our recent post on ‘The Absorbing Mind’). Active awareness is (obviously) the active aspect of mindfulness.
  • Experienced phenomena’ means that we should be natural and not over-exert ourselves in our practice of mindfulness. It means that we take ‘experience now’ as the path. This includes both the ‘external’ phenomena and the ‘internal’ phenomena (sometimes called noumena) that enter our field of awareness. This is the effortless or spontaneous aspect of mindfulness.
  • Spiritual in aspect’ means that the primary intention for practicing mindfulness is to effect spiritual awakening in oneself and in others. This is the compassionate aspect of mindfulness.
  • Sustained from one moment to the next’ means that the practitioner tries to maintain an unbroken flow of awareness throughout the day (and even during sleep if they are experienced enough). This is the enduring aspect of mindfulness.

A Different Approach to Defining Mindfulness

Our hope from introducing the above definition, is to try and give a small amount of ‘food for thought’ to certain aspects of the ongoing debate amongst academicians regarding the formulation of a suitable definition for mindfulness. If you like this definition then please don’t get too worked-up about it. Equally, if you think it is an unsatisfactory definition then please try not to become too upset. It’s just a definition and it would be far better if you practiced and experienced what mindfulness is for yourself. That way, it wouldn’t really matter how other people defined it. In fact, we believe that it’s unlikely that an ‘absolute’ definition of mindfulness will ever be developed because as a spiritual phenomenon, certain dimensions of the mindfulness construct will always be difficult to express in words and can only be fully understood by those individuals who can tap into them on the experiential rather than the academic level. Furthermore, it should also be kept in mind that people will have different understandings depending upon why they are interested in mindfulness and on their level of meditative experience. In this sense, we believe that one of the most insightful and pragmatic approaches to reconciling aspects of the ‘mindfulness definition debate’ is the one taken by Professor Nirbhay Singh (a leading mindfulness expert) and his team. According to Professor Singh and colleagues, “the definition of mindfulness will vary depending on whether one is interested in mindfulness from a social psychological, clinical, or spiritual context, or from the perspective of a researcher, clinician, or a practitioner, and their various combinations”.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

 

  1. Bodhi, B. (Ed.). (2009). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (4th ed.). (Bhikkhu Bodhi, & Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Trans.) Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications. (see the satipattana sutra [sutra no. 10] and the anapanasati sutra [sutra no. 118])
  2. Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.
  3. Dalai Lama, & Berzin, A. (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  4. Dorjee, D. (2010). Kinds and dimensions of mindfulness: Why it is important to distinguish them. Mindfulness, 1, 152-160.
  5. Gethin, R. (2011). On some definitions of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 263-279.
  6. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
  7. Kang, C., & Whittingham, K. (2010). Mindfulness: A dialogue between Buddhism and clinical psychology. Mindfulness, 1, 161-173.
  8. Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.
  9. Rosch, E. (2007). More than mindfulness: when you have a tiger by the tail, let it eat you. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 258-264.
  10. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Wahler, R. G., Winton, A. S., & Singh, J. (2008). Mindfulness approaches in cognitive behavior therapy. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36, 1-8.
  11. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013d). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 194, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194.
  12. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.

Searching for Happiness

Searching for Happiness

right view 2

It is probably fair to say that most people want to be happy. Indeed, the 1776 US Declaration of Independence refers to happiness as an ‘unalienable right’. However, given the rising prevalence of mental illness, and given the amount of general unrest, conflict, and suffering in society, it’s also fair to say that, on the whole, human beings aren’t very good at cultivating happiness. In today’s post, we draw upon insights from the classical and research literature, and from our own practice and study of wellbeing, to examine the subject of how to nurture lasting happiness.

Before we take a look at how to cultivate happiness, it may be useful to reflect upon what it actually means to be truly happy. Aristotle believed that happiness is a function of self-sufficiency and intelligent enquiry, whilst others emphasise the importance of social status, wealth, career performance, and somatic health. Although the World Health Organization doesn’t provide a specific definition of happiness, it defines mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. The Dalai Lama provides a different perspective and describes happiness as a condition determined by one’s state of mind as opposed to external conditions, and even argues that too much desire for happiness can be the very cause of suffering. Thus, there are numerous different takes on what it means to be happy, with each perspective placing different degrees of emphasis on material, psychological, and spiritual factors.

From the Buddhist perspective, and as indicated by the Dalai Lama’s abovementioned description of happiness, true happiness refers to a state that is completely unconditional and that remains untainted by changing circumstances. This not only includes circumstances such as poverty and sickness, but also circumstances such as death. In other words, true happiness transcends even the passing of time. Any other type of happiness is subject to external conditions (e.g., wealth, status, health, intelligence, creative output), but since these conditions do not endure with time, then neither can a happiness that is built upon them.

An interesting quality of happiness is that it relies for its existence upon the presence of suffering. Suffering provides us with the raw material we need in order to cultivate happiness. There is a saying in the Buddhist texts that there is nothing like a bit of suffering to spur a person on to enlightenment. Therefore, the real problem it is not suffering itself, but that most people don’t know how to relate to their suffering, or how to bring it onto the spiritual path. When we understand exactly what suffering is and why it manifests, then we are already half way towards transforming it into enduring happiness.

In a recent paper we published with Prof Mark Griffiths in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions, we introduced the concept of ‘ontological addiction’. Ontological Addiction Theory is basically a means of operationalizing a spiritual model of mental illness and asserts that ontological addiction is the root cause of unhappiness. Ontological addiction is defined as “an unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”. To put things in a slightly different way, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Suffering Exists’, due to failing to recognise that we do not intrinsically exist, we become attached to perceiving ourselves as a definite and substantial entity. We begin to see the world through the lens of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’. By doing this, we create what is known as a ‘dualistic outlook’. This means that we start to create separations between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Then, depending upon whether we deem that other person or thing to be of value to us, we either start to desire it (known as attachment), or try to repel it (known as aversion). A dualistic outlook separates the whole into many, and places the interests of the self above all other things. Putting things very simply, ontological addiction makes people behave very selfishly, and this selfish behaviour only serves to strengthen the intensity of their ontological addiction.

The greater the severity of ontological addiction, the further a person finds themselves from seeing reality ‘as it is’. In turn, the further away a person is from accurately perceiving reality, the more ignorant they become. Generally speaking, the more a person allows ontological addiction to establish itself, the more concrete, fixed, and uncompromising things appear. Although the empirical study of ontological addiction is still at an early stage, it is probably safe to speculate that as the severity of ontological addiction increases, the more a person’s choices and behaviours are driven by primitive instinct rather than by clear intuition. A person who allows primitive instinct to govern their behaviour is likely to have little control over mental and biological urges. Accordingly, a person with severe ontological addiction disorder would be somebody who does nothing more with their life other than eat, defecate, sleep, fornicate, make money, find somewhere to live, scheme and squabble, try to outcompete others, indulge and entertain themselves, and engage in meaningless chatter. In this sense, perhaps we can say that the more a person allows ontological addiction (and therefore ignorance) to take hold, the more animalistic they become (although some animals might find it highly offensive to be placed in the same category as human beings afflicted with the more persistent and severe form of ontological addiction disorder).

As we have already indicated, ignorance is symptomatic of ontological addiction and so it can be expected that the person with ontological addiction disorder will frequently engage in irrational, foolish, wasteful, and self-injurious behaviour. Examples of the types of ignorance-induced behaviours and attitudes exhibited by people with ontological addiction disorder are as follows: (i) spending all of their time trying to amass wealth and reputation, when they know that death is a certainty, (ii) not taking time to prepare for death (i.e., by practicing spiritual development) when they know that the time of death cannot be foreseen, (iii) limiting their construal of ‘family’ to mean only those people to whom they are emotionally attached or biologically related, (iv) allowing their future wellbeing to be dictated by the tides of karma rather than understanding that enduring happiness amounts to nothing other than a simple choice, (v) insisting on looking for happiness outside of themselves, (vi) continuing to blindly adhere to certain religious systems and protocols despite the fact such behaviour never truly brings them any happiness, (vii) after spending an infinite number of lifetimes in the lower realms, returning empty handed after they have had the good fortune to be born as a human being, (viii) not devoting their life to spiritual teachings and choosing to remain alone after they have met a Law Holder, (ix) continuing to act carelessly towards their brothers, sisters, and natural environment such that they foster negativity in the world that they then have to live in, and (x) going to great lengths to please their “friends” and upset their “enemies” only to change their mind at a future point in life and decide that some of their “friends” have now become their enemies and some of their “enemies” are now their “friends”.

The best way to think of ontological addiction is as an addiction to self. According to Buddhist philosophy, it is this addiction to oneself that drives cyclic existence and that keeps a person locked within samsara (i.e., the unending round of birth, sickness, old age, and death). As soon as a person stops being addicted to themselves (i.e., as soon as they recover from ontological addiction), then they break the samsaric cycle and are no longer compelled to take rebirth (but can choose to do so if they wish to).

So the obvious question that we should ask next is how do we stop being addicted to the belief that we inherently exist? This is basically the same as asking how do we cultivate true and enduring happiness? We will address this question by outlining what we believe to be ten important steps for cultivating lasting happiness. Each step provides a link to a previous post that discusses that subject in more detail. Although these steps are intended to be sequential in order, please try to bear in mind that one shouldn’t ever stop trying to develop ones proficiency in the previous stages.

  1. Accept Suffering: Accept that we are in a state of suffering and ignorance, and come to a full understanding of the nature of this suffering.
  2. Make a Choice: Accepting and understanding suffering helps us make the choice to embrace the spiritual path.
  3. Find an Authentic Spiritual Guide: Having wholeheartedly made the choice to live life through the lens of spiritual practice, it is inevitable that we will cross paths with and recognise an authentic spiritual guide. We should then be resolute in putting that guide’s teachings into practice.
  4. Renounce Attachment: The authentic spiritual guide helps us to renounce attachment to worldly concerns (e.g., chasing after wealth, fame, etc.) and to become aware of the certainty of death.
  5. Observe Ethical Conduct: Renouncing worldly concerns helps us to observe good ethical conduct (and vice versa).
  6. Cultivate mindfulness and meditative concentration: Observing good ethical conduct prevents the mind from being overly distracted. This is necessary if we want to cultivate mindfulness and meditative concentration.
  7. Cultivate Meditative Wisdom: Mindfulness and meditative concentration are prerequisites for cultivating meditative wisdom.
  8. Intuit Reality ‘As It Is’: Meditative wisdom helps us to intuit reality ‘as it is’.
  9. Let go of Being Addicted to Self: Maintaining an accurate and all-pervasive view of reality allows us to let go of our addiction to self and to embrace primordially-pure perception, unconditional peace, and deathless abiding.
  10. Liberate the Beings: Breaching the citadel of primordial wisdom means that loving-kindness, compassion, and skilful means arise spontaneously. This equips us to enter the Worlds and liberate the suffering beings.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bentall., R. (1992). A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder. Journal of Medical Ethics, 18, 94-98.

Dalai Lama & Cuttler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

Segal, S. (Ed). 2003. Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. New York: State University of New York Press.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013a). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.

Sogyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.

Trungpa, C. (2003). The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa: Volume Four. Boston: Shambala.

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