False Spiritual Economy: Why an “I Want it All and I Want it Now” Attitude doesn’t Promote Spiritual Growth

False Spiritual Economy: Why an “I Want it All and I Want it Now” Attitude doesn’t Promote Spiritual Growth

oneness 1

It is fair to say that in contemporary society there is a growing demand amongst consumers for instant gratification and for products and services that can be accessed 24-hours a day. This appears to be the case across numerous sectors of society including (but not limited to) business, education, retail, tourism, health, and recreation. Some examples that come to mind are the: (i) investor looking for a quick-win return on their outlay, (ii) patient demanding a same-day diagnosis and medicine for their latest ailment, (iii) fast-food restaurant goer, (iv) all-inclusive package holiday-maker that can have food, drink, and entertainment any time of day and without having to leave the confines of their hotel, (v) student or professional undertaking an accelerated program of studies or training in order to be awarded the qualification/certificate in the shortest time possible, and (vi) individual using an online dating agency in order to be instantly matched with the “perfect partner”. In addition to the sectors and examples mentioned above, this trend towards wanting immediate reward also appears to be occurring in the spirituality and religion marketplace. For example, one only has to conduct a search on the internet or look at the spiritualty section of a bookshop and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of individuals purporting to be spiritual teachers and promising a quick-fix for alleviating suffering. In this post, we examine the benefits and risks of the ‘I want it all, I want it now’ mentality as they relate to the spiritual (and high-street) consumer, and discuss whether it is possible to embody the essence of the Buddha’s teachings whilst living in a “fast-food” society.

 

I Want it All, and I Want it Now

When we wish a change from listening to classical music, we sometimes like to listen to music by the rock band Queen. Any readers of this post that also like the music of Queen may recognise the words used in the above subheading from the band’s song ‘I Want it All’ that featured on their 1989 album ‘The Miracle. We are not sure about the exact sentiments that Queen were attempting to convey with these words, but they accurately capture the essence of the consumer trend that we referred to above. We would like to be clear at this point that we are not asserting that ‘wanting it all’ and ‘wanting it now’ is necessary a bad thing. Indeed, when talking about the materialistic world, there are certainly circumstances where the quick-win option represents the most rational way to proceed and makes the various tasks and challenges that we have to cope with in life much more manageable. For example, there is absolutely no sense in waiting for days, months, or years for an equivalent product or service that can be installed or delivered the same day. Likewise, if an investor can buy stock or currency on Monday and sell it on Friday for £100,000s profit, then this is obviously much less strenuous than working 40-hours a week for years-on-end in order to make the same amount of money. It could be argued that there are benefits (e.g., personal growth, increase in resilience and coping skills, etc.) associated with having to work hard or wait a long time for a reward, but the appeal of being able to instantly ‘have it all’ cannot be denied.

Although there are occasions in everyday life where the ‘I want it all and I want it now’ approach represents an acceptable if not skilful way to proceed, unfortunately, there are rarely ever any instances where this approach results in a meaningful reward when it comes to spiritual practice. This is certainly not to say that some spiritual paths are not more expedient than others, but the rate at which a person progresses spirituality is generally a function of how much effort they are willing to make (as well as other factors such as (i) the skill of their teacher, (ii) their underlying propensity for spiritual growth [i.e., their “karmic history”], and (iii) the environmental and materialistic conditions in which they find themselves). Therefore, in general, if a person wishes to spiritually progress at rate x, then they have to make the equivalent amount of effort. However, if they wish to progress at the faster rate of y, then they have to operate a little bit more outside of their comfort zone and up their efforts accordingly. As we discussed in our post on ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners’, it is important to remember that upping one’s effort in the context of spiritual practice doesn’t mean taking things to extremes, but means being more willing to surrender one’s ego.

Consequently, given that the old adage you get out what you put in certainly applies to spiritual practice, any technique or person promising rapid spiritual progress and/or insights needs to be approached with caution. The reason for us making this assertion relates closely to the content of our recent post on suffering where we referred to the fact that the average person has become so adept at acting selfishly and has amassed so much negativity, they must first learn how to become fully aware of and work with their suffering before they can transmute it. In other words, most people are so entrenched in their own self-created suffering that they are oblivious to its severity, and it is only when they start to practice meditation and/or become more spiritually aware they begin to fully appreciate the extent of their suffering.

In previous posts we have made reference to the Law of Causality that governs the behaviour of all phenomena and is a fundamental principle of both Buddhist philosophy and modern science. Like everything else, suffering is the effect of a cause. According to Buddhist theory, the causes of suffering are unwholesome mental states – particularly greed/desire (i.e., attachment), hatred (i.e., aversion), and harbouring deluded views more generally. Based on the Law of Causality, Buddhism asserts that if a person wishes their suffering to go away, then they have to undo or remove the causes that first made that suffering appear. This is nothing more than common sense, and since those causes (i.e., greed, hatred, delusion) have been “practised” and present for a long period of time (innumerable lifetimes according to the Buddhist view), then it is also common sense that removing those causes is not something that can be done overnight. The Buddha taught that the only way to remove the underlying causes of suffering is to practise and cultivate their opposites (i.e., non-attachment, non-aversion, and wisdom) by embracing an authentic spiritual path and by eventually uprooting even the slightest belief in an inherently-existing self.

 

I Already Have it All, and I Already Have it Now

In the above discussion, we have made it clear that the ‘I want it all and I want it now’ attitude is not compatible with lasting spiritual growth. However, only the slightest shift in attitude is required in order to find ourselves in a position where we can embrace the very essence of the Buddha’s teachings, whilst at the same time fully savour – to an indescribable extent – all that life has to offer (including “fast-food” products and services). The way to do this is not to want or desire to have it all, but to perfect the practice of understanding that we already have it all. Wanting it all creates a separation between ourselves and the ‘all’ that we are striving to acquire. In the context of Buddhist practice, for as long as we see spiritual liberation as a goal – we will never achieve it. We have previously discussed this principle using the example of the wave that needlessly suffers because it believes it is separate from the ocean. However, as soon as the wave gets over itself and relaxes into its natural state, it once again becomes the entire ocean. In other words, it is when we stop wanting it all, and stop wanting it now, that it becomes possible to find ourselves in the fortunate position of actually having it all, and having it now.

This shift in attitude and realisation that we already have everything we need may appear to contradict the foregoing discussion relating to the fact that suffering is causal and that there is no easy or quick means of “undoing” or transforming suffering. However, there is no contradiction here because by perfecting the practice of not wanting to be somewhere else, have something else, do something else, or be someone else, we are left with no alternative other than to just simple be. The practice and art of simply being just so happens to constitute a very expedient path for uprooting the causes of suffering. The reason for this is because when we practice simply being and savour, but don’t cling to, every single drop of experience that flows through our consciousness, we actually move beyond the realm and confines of causality. In this mode of perceiving, spiritual growth can happen very fast and in some cases even at lightning speed. The reason it can happen so quickly is because we are absolutely unattached to the idea of making spiritual progress or of becoming enlightened.

By practising simply being, we create the causes and satisfy the conditions for giving rise to the profound spiritual realisation that causality is an implausible construct. As we have already outlined, modern science and (the preparatory stages of) Buddhist practice are based on the assumption that the entire universe (or multiverse if you prefer) is governed by the law of cause and effect. However, let us consider for a moment exactly what is meant and implied by this law. The law of causality asserts that any given phenomenon manifests in reliance upon a single or multiple causes. Despite this, in truth, no single cause produces a given effect. In fact, it is actually impossible to quantify the exact number and types of causes that give rise to a particular outcome. For example, it might be argued that the cause of a person having to rush to the toilet to urinate was them drinking a large volume of water. But you cannot leave it there because an infinite number of other causes also play their part. Assuming the water came in a glass, then the existence of the glass may not be discounted as a factor that facilitated the subsequent occurrence of the individual dashing to the loo. The same applies to the existence of the clouds and rain that produced the water, the oceans and rivers that produced the clouds, and the ‘pee’ from countless other individuals that played a small but significant part in helping to fill up the oceans. Likewise, the existence of the water processing factory and its employees must also be taken into account. Other contributing factors include (for example) the fact that the toilet-going individual had a body (they wouldn’t have been able to drink water without one), their parents that brought them into the world, the grandparents that created their parents, and so forth. In fact, believe it or not, every single atom that exists in the entire universe, and every single instant of time that has unfolded since even before the universe existed, are in some way causal factors in the act of the individual dashing to the bathroom.

Since all of the causes that give rise to a particular effect can never be fully quantified, the plausibility of causality must be called into question. In other words, phenomena are interconnected to the extent that they cannot be separated into discrete entities. In essence, there is only oneness and everything is ultimately of the same taste. Phenomena arise from oneness, they are the nature of oneness, and they dissolve back into oneness. The law of causality begins to break down when cause and effect happen to be one and the same thing, because essentially there is no longer a causal relationship. Therefore, since oneness gives rise to oneness, how can it be said that phenomena manifest in reliance on causes?

What this means in the context of the current discussion is that the approach we advocated earlier of not ‘wanting it all and wanting it now’ and of realising that one already ‘has it all’ does not just reflect the ramblings of two Buddhist monks that are also psychologists, but it actually represents the fundamental truth of reality. Whenever you breathe in, you breathe in the entirety of space and time. You are the very fabric of the universe, you are the primordial purity and essence of existence, you are everything.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama, & Berzin, A. (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Norbu, C. & Clemente, A. (1999). The Supreme Source. The Fundamental Tantra of the Dzogchen Semde. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Rājvudhācāriya. (2010). Citta is Buddha. Bangkok: Chuanpin.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, 5, 345-347.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

Trungpa, C. (2004). The collected works of Chogyam Trungpa: Volume 8. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Tsong-Kha-pa. (2004). The great treatise on the stages of the path to enlightenment. (J. W. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & The Lamrim Chenmo Translation committee, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

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

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.

The Absorbing Mind

The Absorbing Mind

mind 2

“Meditation has helped to open my eyes, to open my ears, and to open my heart. When I find myself listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, or to Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony for Double Orchestra, now I can really feel what the composers were trying to say. I can experience what they were feeling. I can hear their thoughts. The music is alive and I am alive with it. Each note rings clear. I can truly taste [their] brilliance.” (Quote from the interview transcript of a senior manager who participated in a recent randomized controlled trial that we conducted examining the effects of meditation on work-related wellbeing and job performance.)

 

More and more countries are making it a legal requirement for cigarette packets to display a health warning. The warnings usually contain words to the effect that “Smoking can seriously damage your health”. People are becoming increasingly aware that our health is directly influenced by the types of food and non-food substances that we inhale or ingest. The idea behind placing warnings on cigarette packets, and behind including detailed nutritional information on the labels of food packaging, is to help consumers make a health-informed decision about what products they buy. If there is reliable evidence that certain products can have a beneficial or adverse effect on a person’s health, then without taking things too far, it makes sense that people should be able to access this information at the point of sale.

Interestingly, however, similar types of warnings and/or “nutritional information” are not currently displayed on the vast majority of magazines, newspapers, books, television shows, films, and computer games that are readily available for purchase from big-name supermarkets, high street stores, and online retailers. We would argue that when (for example) people read a magazine, watch a television show, or play a computer game, they are effectively “ingesting” these products into their system. When we mentally consume such products, and subject to how much intelligence we apply when so doing, we are basically allowing the newspaper journalist or the film maker to pour a part of their mind into ours. Depending upon that writer’s intentions and on their levels of spiritual awareness, this may or may not be a good thing.

When guiding a specific form of meditation, we sometimes ask people to visualize themselves as a body made of rainbow light, and to then see themselves seated at the centre of all universes. As the meditation progresses, we invite people to visualize and experience this rainbow body as being connected by golden threads to all sentient beings. One of the reasons for suggesting that people make this practice, is to try and help them appreciate just how connected we are with all other sentient beings, and how each and every one of our thoughts, words, and actions influences those beings. It might be difficult to comprehend or accept that every single one of our thoughts, words, and deeds directly touches every single life form and phenomenon throughout the entire ‘multidimensional multiverse’. However, even if this is difficult to accept, most people don’t have any difficulty in understanding that the words they utter can directly affect the behaviour and wellbeing of others. For example, in our post entitled ‘Forgive them Father’, we discussed how just a few venomous whispers by some of the high priests was all it took for the people to work themselves into a state of anger and rage and consent to the public crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

As each second goes by, an unimaginable variety of stimuli and phenomena, including the thoughts, words, and intentions of others, are constantly bombarding and being absorbed by our minds. Given the extent to which these “ingestible products” can influence our wellbeing, we wonder how people in (for example) the newspaper industry would react if it became a legal requirement for certain newspapers to print the following statement on their front page: “Warning: Reading this can Seriously Damage your Health”. Perhaps then, people might be more selective about the type of materials they read, and perhaps the newspapers would take greater care not to use words that water the seeds of fear, hatred, and ignorance in people’s hearts and minds.

It seems fairly obvious that other peoples’ written and spoken words can directly affect our mood and wellbeing, and there is plenty of evidence from clinical and neuroimaging studies that supports this view. However, there is also evidence indicating that our state of wellbeing is also influenced by more subtle factors such as the passive ambient rhythm or energy of the environment in which we find ourselves. A good example of this relates to a research project that our team is currently planning where we will be exploring the relationship between meditation and nature (we are joined in this project by Professor Carol Morris of Nottingham University who is a Human Geographer and an expert in how human beings interact with their physical environment). Research conducted in this study area (generally referred to as the study of Ecopsychology), indicates that certain “natural” and/or man-made environments are much more conducive to wellbeing than others. This accords well with the Buddhist view that the mind has the capacity to absorb its external physical and social environment. Although we personally feel that psychology still has a lot of progress to make in order to fully appreciate the strength of the connection between mind and environment, it seems that a growing number of psychologists would agree that our general levels of wellbeing are heavily influenced not only by psychosocial factors, but also by the physical environment that we are exposed to.

When we visit a Buddhist monastery or a meditation practice centre, it is really easy to tell how diligently people are practicing. If people are practicing well, then almost immediately upon entering and before even meeting anybody, one is engulfed by an air of awareness, deep calm, and gentleness. However, where monasteries or practice centres exist just for making money or where they have forgotten about the Buddhadharma, then all you encounter is a stale smell of mindlessness and selfishness. Have you ever wondered what type of atmosphere and subtle ambient rhythm is present in your own home? Is it an environment that is conducive to spiritual growth? Are people considerate and are they gentle with one another? Do the people who live there think before they speak? Do they avoid petty bickering and forcing their opinions onto each other? Do they move through the house with joy and awareness? Are things sensibly orderly and is there a good level of basic cleanliness? Have you created a living environment where you can be happy?

Fortunately, although we are continuously exposed to other people’s minds, and to the background “energy” of any given environment, there are strategies that we can use to help buffer and regulate how these stimuli affect us. One of the best strategies that we know of is to cultivate mindfulness. We definitely shouldn’t become complacent and have the view that because we are mindfulness practitioners, it doesn’t matter what type of materials we read, who we spend our time with, or that we are above having to keep our home environment clean and tidy. However, cultivating mindfulness means that we become increasingly more aware of the various different “products” that we are continuously mentally (and physically) ingesting. Although we can’t (and shouldn’t try to) block certain stimuli from entering our field of awareness, what we can do is make an assessment of their “nutritional value”. By being fully aware of what we consume with our minds, we essentially empower ourselves to make a choice as to which words and products we allow to penetrate and nourish our being, and which stimuli should be allowed to simply pass us by. As we discussed in our post titled ‘Do we really exist?’, this means that relative to the normal person who does not practice awareness, the meditation practitioner is somebody who is fully in control of their spiritual development and the ‘self’ that they are creating.

From the meditation practitioner’s perspective, it’s not just with respect to incoming words and stimuli where we need to apply awareness, but also with respect to the type of products and stimuli that we send in other peoples’ direction.  Indeed, given the extent to which our thoughts, words, and actions can influence other peoples’ minds and wellbeing, it is important that we ensure our speech, writing, and general behaviour is infused with wisdom and awareness. In this respect, it is useful to remember that the human being is a creator. The difference between the everyday person and the realized being is that the latter is fully aware of their inherent creative potency. The realized being is like a master artist who uses the tools of insight, compassion, and skilful means to create a dynamic masterpiece of interwoven mind and matter upon the canvas of all-pervasive emptiness.

Each of our thoughts, words, and actions dictate who we are now and who we will be in the future. Those same thoughts, words, and deeds also influence who others will be in the future. Therefore, the next time you write something or create a product for other peoples’ minds, perhaps you might like to consider how your “mental food” will affect the wellbeing of the consumers. It should be reasonably easy to tell where somebody is writing with awareness because their words should be easily absorbed and should be alive with wisdom. Such words should effortlessly fly off the page and talk to you directly. Reading mindful words should leave us feeling spiritually nourished, calmer, and with a clearer perspective. Mindful words should help us to stop and be, to let go a little, and to feel bathed and refreshed by that person’s compassion and awareness. Mindful words should help us to remember that we were born, that we are currently living, but that in the future we will die. Upon reading words written in awareness, we should, if we really want to, be able to just unwind, take a few conscious breaths in and out, and start to allow the mind to relax into its natural state. Perhaps we could say that words written with mindfulness provide us with all five of our ‘spiritual five a day’.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Howell, A.J., Dopko, R.L, Passmore, H., & Buro, K. (2011). Nature connectedness: associations with well-being and mindfulness. Personality and Individual differences, 51, 166-171.

Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.

Ross, C.A. (Ed.). (2012). Words for Wellbeing. Penrith, UK: Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

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. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds. Summer Issue, 14-18.

Voigt, C., Brown, G., & Howat, G. (2011). Wellness tourists: in search of transformation. Tourism Review, 66, 16-30.

Wolsko, C., & Lindberg, K. (2013). Experiencing connection with nature: The matrix of psychological well-being, mindfulness, and outdoor recreation. Ecopsychology, 5, 80-91.

Acknowledgment: This post was used as a platform for developing themes, insights, and elucidations to be included in an expanded article written for the Mindfulness in Practice section of the journal Mindfulness.