Do You Really Know Yourself?

Do You Really Know Yourself?

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The words ‘know thyself’ appear frequently in the work of the Greek philosopher Plato and have been used by writers and philosophers for thousands of years. But what does it mean to know oneself, why is it important, and how can a person acquire such knowledge?

We suspect that some people would be uncomfortable, or even offended, by the suggestion that they don’t know themselves. We spend 24 hours a day in our own company and while it can sometimes be difficult to interpret other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, we can’t use this excuse when it comes to ourselves. We have direct access to our inner psychological world and in theory, we are in an ideal position to cultivate an in-depth understanding of who we are.

However, the truth is that many people are not aware of the events unfolding in their mind. At any one moment, a vast number of psychological processes are happening inside them, but at best, they are only partially aware of a small number of these. Consequently, their behaviours are the automated product of a complex – and sometimes competing – assortment of impulses, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and memories. Rather than consciously allowing these psychological processes to influence their choices, they are effectively ‘processed’ by them. Instead of collaborating with the mind and using it as a tool, they find themselves ‘lived’ by the mind.

Changing this habit is easier said than done but there are some remits of human endeavour that may be able to assist us. In particular, we can look to modern science in order to gain insight into how we can develop a better understanding of ourselves. In order to acquire knowledge about a given phenomenon, scientists engage in the process of observation. This observation takes on many forms. It can involve observing phenomena in their natural state or it can involve observing how phenomena behave under a given set of experimental conditions. However, either way, careful observation is a crucial part of scientific enquiry and if we adopt the same principle in order to gain insight into ourselves, it is likely that our journey of ‘inner scientific enquiry’ will bear fruit.

By stepping back and observing our inner psychological world, a number of ‘truths’ about ourselves become apparent. Firstly, given that it is possible – particularly when using meditation – to observe our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, we must conclude that we are something more than these psychological processes. Secondly, we must also conclude that there exists a part of us that can ‘consciously observe’ our own mind. As we continue to engage in the process of inner observation, this ‘conscious observer’ part of us steadily grows, such that it becomes easier to maintain concentration and observe ourselves for longer periods of time.

A third truth that we may come to understand about ourselves is that the closer we observe, the harder it becomes to establish exactly who and what we are. The reason for this is that we don’t exist as standalone or isolated entities. We exist in reliance upon all other phenomena in the universe. We breathe in the out-breath of every other living being. When we drink a glass of water, we are effectively drinking rivers, clouds, and oceans. Our visit to the bathroom produces food for the plants and trees. Being embraced by a loved one can change a bad day into a good one, and a single heartfelt smile can completely change another person’s life.

In order to truly know ourselves, we have to fundamentally change our ideas of who we think we are and of how we think we exist. In effect, in order to find ourselves, we have to let go of ourselves.  When we stop thinking in terms of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’, we start to see the world differently. We start to experience that the boundaries between ourselves and other phenomena become blurred. It becomes difficult to determine where the ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins. We adopt a much looser definition of ‘self’ yet somewhat paradoxically, we start to understand more about who and what we are.

Letting go of self really means that we are embracing the universe. The universe has existed for billions of years and it contains lots of knowledge. It contains the knowledge of creation, existence, and dissolution. We are an indispensable part of the universe and it relies upon us just as much as we rely upon it. By exploring the inner universe of our mind, we can weaken – or even remove completely – the boundary that we think exists between our inner psychological world and the external physical world. In other words, our practice of inner scientific enquiry and observation can, in time, cause our inner and outer worlds to collide. When this happens, we find ourselves flooded with the knowledge of the universe and the universe becomes flooded with the knowledge of our mind.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Mindfulness for Treating Addiction: A Clinician’s Guide

Mindfulness for Treating Addiction: A Clinician’s Guide

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An aspect of our scientific work relating to mindfulness involves investigating its applications for treating addiction. In this respect, we have a longstanding collaboration with Dr. Mark Griffiths who is Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University (UK) and is internationally recognised for his work in this field of study. Today’s post draws upon findings from our research using Meditation Awareness Training and provides ten recommendations on the psychotherapeutic use of mindfulness in addiction treatment contexts. These recommendations are primarily intended for mental health professionals, but individuals with addiction problems may also find them of interest. Although we have principally based our recommendations on insights gained from using mindfulness and meditation for treating behavioural addictions (e.g., gambling disorder, workaholism, sex addiction), we have also consulted the literature concerning the use of mindfulness for treating chemical addictions (e.g., substance- and alcohol-use disorders). Therefore, whilst we acknowledge that there are important differences between behavioural and chemical addictions (e.g., the physical signs of drug addiction are typically absent in behavioural addiction), we envisage that the following recommendations will be applicable to both addiction categories.

  1. Undertake a Thorough Assessment: Careful evaluation of the client’s history (e.g., clinical history, social history, education history, religious history, employment history, etc.) and presenting problems will come high on the list of any competent mental health clinician. However, we have chosen to include ‘thorough assessment’ as one of our specific recommendations because there appears to be a belief amongst a minority of mental health professionals that mindfulness is a one-stop cure for all mental health issues. As discussed in one of our peer-reviewed papers that was recently published in the British Medical Journal, the only psychopathologies for which the empirical evidence is robust enough to support the wide scale utilisation of mindfulness are specific forms of depression and anxiety. In other words, mindfulness is not a suitable treatment for every individual presenting for treatment. For example, we recommend that clinicians exercise additional caution (including taking into account their own experience with using mindfulness) before introducing mindfulness to clients whose addiction problem occurs in conjunction with psychotic features.
  2. Build Strong Meditative Foundations: Mindfulness is a practice to develop throughout one’s lifetime. It is a marathon and not a sprint. If an individual is to derive lasting benefit from mindfulness, it is essential that they establish strong meditative foundations. If we want to become aware of the subtle aspects of mind, we first need to become aware of the gross aspects of mind. And before we can do that, we need a method of calming, collecting and focussing the mind. This is why breath awareness is a vital feature of meditative development. Using the breath as a concentration anchor provides the client with a reference point – a place of safety to which they can return whenever their mind starts to run away with itself. The mental cravings that underlie addiction can be powerful and consuming, and without strong meditative foundations, it is unlikely that the client will be able to regulate these cravings as well as the withdrawal symptoms that they are likely to encounter during later treatment phases. Another important foundation of mindfulness is awareness of the body. At the early stages of treatment, clients should be taught how to sit with awareness, eat with awareness, walk with awareness and talk with awareness. Clients should be encouraged to adopt mindfulness as a way of life and not just a technique to apply when they are feeling low or susceptible to addiction-related urges.
  3. Make use of Psycho-education: In addiction treatment contexts, we suggest that psycho-education should be utilised at the early stages of treatment and should focus on two key areas: (i) educating clients in the science concerning the aetiology and symptom course of their particular addiction, and (ii) explaining the principles of mindfulness and a meditation-based recovery model. For a comprehensive and insightful academic resource that clinicians can draw upon in this respect, we recommend the chapter on mindfulness and addiction by Dr. Sean Dae Houlihan and Dr. Judson Brewer that features in our recent edited Springer volume on Mindfulness and Buddhist-Derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction (see further reading list below).
  4. Teach ‘Urge Surfing’: The term ‘urge surfing’ has been used in the scientific literature to refer to the process of mindfully observing the mental urges associated with addiction. The idea is that the client, having established themselves in awareness of breathing, takes craving as the object of meditation. They follow their breath and observe how craving dominates their cognitive-affective processes. The process of observing mental craving helps to objectify it and creates ‘mental space’ whereby instead of feeding the craving (i.e., by emotionally and conceptually adding to it), craving is allowed to exist ‘as it is’. It may appear as though urge surfing is concerned with controlling craving, but that’s not the case. Rather, the technique involves allowing craving to come and go such that it can progress through its natural cycle of birth, life and dissolution. When we teach this technique, we inform clients that if craving is manifest in the mind, that’s OK. We also inform them that if craving is not manifest, that’s OK too.
  5. Make use of Bliss Substitution: Substitution techniques are sometimes used in the treatment of both behavioural and chemical addictions. For example, studies have shown that some individuals with gambling disorder respond well to gradually substituting their gambling activity for recreational activities such as singing, learning computer skills, communication workshops, dance and music. Our own studies have shown that the substitution principle can also work well in the case of addiction treatments following a meditation-based recovery model. One of the key drivers of addiction is the mood modification (e.g., ‘feeling high’) that results from engaging with a particular substance or behaviour. Meditation may be particularly suitable as an addiction substitution technique because specific forms of meditation can induce blissful feelings. Effectively, the client learns to replace the ‘buzz’ or ‘high’ associated with a ‘negative addiction’ with the bliss and peace of meditation (i.e., a positive form of addiction). Eventually, clients should be encouraged to relinquish any dependency on meditation, but in the early stages of treating addiction, it can be a useful therapeutic technique.
  6. Employ Meditation Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy is a method employed by various modalities of psychotherapy, and it can also be used as part of mindfulness therapy for individuals suffering from addiction. It is all very well teaching the client how to practise mindfulness from the safety of the psychotherapist’s consulting room, but at some point it is probable that they will encounter the stimuli that have previously caused strong mental urges to arise. Consequently, we encourage the psychotherapist to accompany (i.e., where it is safe and realistic to do so) the client in ‘real-world settings’ that are likely to induce relapse. For example, if the client is addicted to off-line gambling, consider accompanying them to a casino in order to demonstrate that it is possible for them to remain meditatively composed whilst surrounded by the object of their addiction. Meditation exposure therapy isn’t suitable for every client (or indeed for every mental health clinician), but where applicable, we generally recommend that it is used towards the end of the treatment course.
  7. Undermine the Value of the Addictive Object: This technique involves guiding the client to think about the ‘true nature’ of the object of their addiction. More specifically, it involves introducing the client – albeit at an elementary level – to the concepts of impermanence, interconnectedness and emptiness. Again, the clinician will have to assess on a case-by-case basis whether this technique is appropriate, but we have personally found it to be effective in addiction treatment contexts. By fostering meditative awareness of impermanence and the empty nature of all phenomena, the client can gradually begin to question and then undermine the intrinsic value that they have assigned to the object of their addition. For example, an individual suffering from sex addiction can use specific meditative techniques in order to better understand that (i) the individual components that comprise the human body are not particularly desirable in and of themselves (e.g., nails, hair, mucus, faeces, urine, pus, vomit, blood, sinew, skin, bone, teeth, flesh, sweat, etc.), (ii) the inevitable destiny of the body is that of ageing, illness and decay, and (iii) the body exists as a composite entity but does not exist intrinsically. If the client looks deeply using meditation, they can learn to see that in beauty and life, there is foulness and decay (and vice-versa). They can also learn to see that there is ‘other’ in ‘self’ and ‘self’ in ‘other’, and that when they practice kindness and respect towards themselves, they practise kindness and respect towards the entire world.
  8. Schedule Follow-up Sessions: Most of the available treatments that use mindfulness generally adhere to an eight-week treatment course. However, in the traditional Buddhist setting, a person would normally be required to engage in day-to-day mindfulness practice over a period of many years before being deemed to have gained a reasonable grounding in the practice. Consequently, it is important to schedule booster sessions and to meet with the client at regular (e.g., monthly) intervals following the initial programme of treatment. Ideally, clients should also be encouraged to make contact with mindfulness groups that are facilitated by competent teachers.
  9. Lead by Example: As discussed in a previous post where we offered guidelines on the general use of mindfulness in psychotherapy (i.e., not specific to treating addiction), it is important that the mental health clinician emanates a presence of meditative calm and awareness. This has to be natural and as indicated above, it can only arise after consistent daily practice over a period of many years. If the clinician merely ‘acts’ at being mindful, the client is likely (whether consciously or subconsciously) to pick up on this and it will inevitably act as an obstacle to recovery.
  10. Be Inspired: Mindfulness has been practised by spiritual traditions for thousands of years. When a clinician engages with the practice in a sincere manner, and when they wholeheartedly wish to help the client overcome their suffering, that clinician is bestowed with the blessings and wisdom of this ancient spiritual lineage. They become what is known in Buddhism as a Bodhisattva – a rare and beautiful being that conduct acts of kindness in order to alleviate the suffering of others. Skilled mental health professionals perform an invaluable role to society. They are inspired individuals who in turn help to inspire the clients they work with.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Alavi, S. S., Ferdosi, M., Jannatifard, F., et al. (2012). Behavioral addiction versus substance addiction: Correspondence of psychiatric and psychological views. International Journal of Preventative Medicine, 3, 290-294.

Appel, J., & Kim-Appel, D. (2009). Mindfulness: Implications for substance abuse and addiction. International Journal of Mental Health Addiction, 7, 506-512.

Griffiths, M. D., (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M. D., Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). Mindfulness as a treatment for gambling disorder. Journal of Gambling and Commercial Gaming Research, 1, 1-6.

Houlihan, S. D., & Brewer, J. A. (2015). The emerging science of mindfulness as a treatment for addiction. In: E. Y. Shonin, W. Van Gordon and M. D. Griffiths (eds.), Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived approaches in mental health and addiction (pp. 191-210). New York: Springer.

Iskender, M., & Akin, A. (2011). Compassion and internet addiction. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 10, 215-221.

Jackson, A. C., Francis, K. L., Byrne, G., et al. (2013). Leisure substitution and problem gambling: report of a proof of concept group intervention. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 11, 64–74.

Rosenberg, K. P., Carnes, P. J., & O’Connor, S. (2014). Evaluation and treatment of sex addiction. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 40, 77-91.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A Case Study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 10, 193-195.

Shonn, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for the treatment of co-occurring schizophrenia with pathological gambling: A case study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 181-196.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioral addiction. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5, e122. DOI: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000e122.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness and the social media. Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism, 2014, 4: 5, DOI: 10.4172/2165-7912.1000194.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation for the treatment of addictive behaviours: Sending out an SOS. Addiction Today, March, 18-19.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of the National Council on Problem Gambling, 16, 17-18

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Witkiewitz, K, Marlatt, G. A., & Walker, D. (2005). Mindfulness-based relapse prevention for alcohol and substance use disorders. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19, 211-228.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective

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Clicca qui per Italiano

In recent decades there have been major advances in scientific understanding of the human brain. To a large extent these advances have been driven by new neuroimaging technologies that have provided neuroscientists with increasingly refined images or maps of the brain. One specific arm of neuroscientific research has made use of these neuroimaging techniques in order to try to identify the neurological seat of the self or consciousness. Today’s post briefly highlights some of the key findings of this research and discusses them in relation to core Buddhist principles concerning the manner in which the self is believed to exist.

Neuroimaging studies exploring how and where the brain processes information concerning the self have identified associations between certain self-related cognitive processes and the activation of specific areas in the brain. For example, self-referential memories (i.e., memories concerning the self) are associated with increased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. A further example is the role played by the left cerebral hemisphere in the regulation of self-recognition (i.e., an individual’s ability to recognize itself in, for example, a reflection or visual image).

The ability to distinguish between self and other is a key aspect of adaptive psychosocial functioning and it therefore makes logical sense that there exist areas within the brain that play a role in processing information concerning the “self”. However, despite the fact that neuroimaging studies have provided some valuable data in terms of brain areas that correspond to self-referential processes, the activation of such brain areas does not equate to the location of consciousness or the nucleus of an inherently existing self. Rather, neuron activation in these brain areas simply demonstrates that most individuals have a pronounced sense of self.

According to the Buddhist teachings, there is an ocean of difference between individuals having a sense of self and there actually being a self that inherently exists. Buddhism accepts that a sense of self is essential if society is to function effectively. For example, most elucidations of the practices of loving-kindness and compassion – two core aspects of the Buddhist teachings – are based on the assumption that there is both a giver (i.e., self) and a receiver (i.e., other). If the historical Buddha didn’t have a sense of self that allowed him to identify that his level of spiritual insight was in some way different than most of his followers, then it is reasonable to assume that he would not have felt the need to expound a path to overcome suffering and ignorance.

However, although beings at the stage of enlightenment have a sense of self (and understand fully that this sense of self is necessary if they are to effectively function in the world), they are also fully aware that the “self” is an illusion. The reason why Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion relates to the principle of emptiness which asserts that beings (and all phenomena) exist only as interdependent and mentally designated constructs. For example, a flower manifests in dependence upon the water and air in the atmosphere, heat of the sun, seed from which it grew, nutrients in the soil, insects and animals that died and decomposed in order to produce those nutrients, and so forth. Consequently, the flower does not exist in isolation of all other phenomena and it is empty of an independent and inherently existing self. Thus, as we discussed in our Zen-style post on Dream or Reality, phenomena certainly appear to be real but the manner in which they are perceived does not actually equate to the manner in which they truly exist.

Enlightened and unenlightened beings both have a sense of self, but a key difference between these two types of being is that the latter is caught up in the belief that they inherently exist. As we discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self, due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed “self” incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive. As part of our academic work we have termed this condition ontological addiction and have defined it as “the 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”.

The idea that at the ultimate level there is no such thing as a self that intrinsically exists may be a difficult notion to digest. However, scientific experiments have recently been conducted that appear to add credence to the validity of emptiness. For example, a study published in the journal Nature in 2010 demonstrated that a minute metal blade of semi-conductor material can be made to simultaneously vibrate in two different energy states. This is the kinetic equivalent of matter being in two different places at the same time and it demonstrates that at the sub-atomic level, particles (and any property of self that they might possess) can never be absolutely located in time and space (i.e., they exist nowhere and everywhere at the same time).

Using neuroimaging techniques in order to explore where and how we regulate self-referential processes is important for advancing scientific understanding about the human brain. However, from the Buddhist perspective, consciousness and self are absent of intrinsic existence and they abide just as much within the brain as they do outside of it. Therefore, according to Buddhist theory, attempts by some scientists to identify the specific location of self or consciousness in the brain might be considered a somewhat futile endeavour.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

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

La sede del Sé e della coscienza nel cervello: una prospettiva buddista

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Negli ultimi decenni ci sono stati grandi progressi nella comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Per la maggior parte questi progressi sono stati guidati dalle nuove tecnologie di neuroimaging che hanno fornito ai neuroscienziati immagini o mappe sempre più raffinate del cervello. Un ramo specifico della ricerca neuroscientifica ha fatto uso di queste tecniche di neuroimaging per cercare di identificare la sede neurologico del sé o della coscienza. Il post di oggi, in breve, mette in evidenza alcuni dei principali risultati di questa ricerca e li discute in relazione ai principi buddisti fondamentali, riguardante il modo in cui si crede che il sé esista.

Gli studi di neuroimaging, esplorando dove e come il cervello elabora le informazioni riguardanti il sé, hanno identificato associazioni tra determinati processi cognitivi sé-correlati e l’attivazione di specifiche aree del cervello. Ad esempio, le memorie autoreferenziali (cioè, i ricordi riguardanti il sé) sono associati a una maggiore attivazione della corteccia prefrontale mediale. Un altro esempio è il ruolo svolto dall’emisfero cerebrale sinistro nella regolazione dell’auto-riconoscimento (cioè, la capacità dell’individuo di riconoscersi, ad esempio, in una riflessione o immagine visiva).

La capacità di distinguere tra sé e l’altro è un aspetto fondamentale del funzionamento psicosociale adattivo e ha quindi senso logico che esistano aree all’interno del cervello che svolgono un ruolo nell’elaborazione delle informazioni concernenti il “sé”. Tuttavia, nonostante il fatto che gli studi di neuroimaging abbiano fornito alcuni dati importanti in termini di aree cerebrali che corrispondono a processi auto-referenziali, l’attivazione di tali aree cerebrali non equivale alla posizione di coscienza o al nucleo di un sé inerentemente esistente. Piuttosto, l’attivazione dei neuroni in queste aree del cervello dimostra semplicemente che la maggior parte degli individui ha un pronunciato senso di sé.

Secondo gli insegnamenti buddisti, c’è un oceano di differenza tra individui che hanno un senso di sé e il concetto di un sé inerentemente esistente. Il buddismo accetta che un senso del sé è essenziale se la società deve funzionare efficacemente. Ad esempio, la maggior parte delle delucidazioni delle pratiche di amorevole gentilezza e compassione – due aspetti fondamentali degli insegnamenti buddisti – si basano sul presupposto che c’è sia un donatore (cioè, il sé) sia un ricevitore (cioè, l’altro). Se il Buddha storico non avesse avuto un senso di sé che gli avesse permesso di identificare che il suo livello di intuizione spirituale era in qualche modo diverso dalla maggior parte dei suoi seguaci, è ragionevole supporre che non avrebbe sentito la necessità di esporre un percorso per superare la sofferenza e l’ignoranza.

Tuttavia, anche se gli esseri nella fase di illuminazione hanno un senso di sé (e comprendono appieno che questo senso di sé è necessario per poter funzionare efficacemente nel mondo), sono anche pienamente consapevoli che il “sé” è un’illusione. La ragione perché il buddismo insegna che il sé è un’illusione riguarda il principio del vuoto, che afferma che gli esseri (e tutti i fenomeni) esistono soltanto come costrutti che sono interdipendenti e mentalmente designati. Ad esempio, un fiore si manifesta nella dipendenza da acqua e aria, dall’atmosfera, dal calore del sole, dal seme da cui è cresciuto, dalle sostanze nutrienti nel terreno, dagli insetti e gli animali che morirono e si decomposero al fine di produrre tali sostanze nutritive e così via. Di conseguenza, il fiore non esiste isolato da tutti gli altri fenomeni, ed è privo di un sé indipendente e intrinsecamente esistente. Così, come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post di stile Zen il Sogno o la Realtà, I fenomeni certamente sembrano essere reali, ma il modo in cui sono percepiti in realtà non equivale al modo in cui esistono veramente.

Sia gli esseri illuminati sia quelli non illuminati hanno un senso del sé, ma una differenza fondamentale tra questi due tipi di essere è che questi ultimi sono presi dalla convinzione che essi esistono intrinsecamente. Come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post sulla decostruzione del sé, a causa di una convinzione saldamente incorporata (ma scientificamente e logicamente non plausibile) che il sé è un’entità inerente e indipendentemente esistente, il Buddismo afferma che gli stati mentali affliggenti nascono come conseguenza dell ‘”io” figurative, desiderando incessantemente degli oggetti che ritiene di essere attraenti o provando avversione verso gli oggetti che ritiene  essere poco attraenti. Nel nostro lavoro accademico abbiamo defenito questa condizione dipendenza ontologico, per precisare è “la mancanza di volontà di rinunciare a una credenza erronea e radicata in un ‘sé’ inerentemente esistente o ‘io’ e la ‘funzionalità ridotta’ che nasce da questa convinzione “.

L’idea che al livello ultimo non esiste una cosa come un sé che esiste intrinsecamente può essere un concetto difficile da digerire. Tuttavia, di recente sono stati condotti esperimenti scientifici che sembrano aggiungere credibilità alla validità del concetto del vuoto. Ad esempio, uno studio pubblicato sulla rivista Nature nel 2010 ha dimostrato che una lama di metallo molto piccola di materiale semi-conduttore può essere fatta vibrare contemporaneamente in due differenti stati di energia. Questo è l’equivalente cinetico della materia simultaneamente esistente in due posti diversi e dimostra che a livello sub-atomico, le particelle (e qualsiasi proprietà di sé che essi potrebbero possedere) non possono mai essere localizzato nello spazio o nel tempo (cioè, esistono da nessuna parte e ovunque nello stesso momento).

Utilizzare le tecniche di neuroimaging per esplorare dove e come si regolano processi autoreferenziali è importante per far progredire la comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Tuttavia, dal punto di vista buddista, la coscienza e il sé sono assenti di esistenza intrinseca ed è altrettanto corretto affermare che risiedono sia all’interno del cervello che fuori del cervello. Pertanto, secondo la teoria buddista, i tentativi da parte di alcuni scienziati di identificare la posizione specifica di sé o della coscienza nel cervello potrebbe essere considerato un tentativo un po’ inutile.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Ulteriore lettura

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

The Heart of Buddhism: Liberation through Emptiness

The Heart of Buddhism: Liberation through Emptiness

Emptiness

As we have discussed in a number of posts on this blog, emptiness (Pāli: suññatā, Sanskrit: śūnyatā) is a fundamental Buddhist teaching that refers to the fact that phenomena do not intrinsically exist. This empty characteristic of phenomena relates as much to animate objects such as a flower, a car, or the human body, as it does to inanimate constructs such as the mind, space, or the present moment. In essence, emptiness means that nothing exists as a discrete entity and in separation from everything else. For example, a flower in the garden manifests in reliance upon numerous causes and conditions, without which, it would not exist. Amongst countless others, these causes and conditions include the water in the earth and atmosphere, nutrients in the soil, respiratory gases carried by the wind, heat of the sun, and so forth. Therefore, at the simplest level, it can be said that interconnectedness is an important principle of emptiness. Phenomena do not exist in isolation of each other and by logical default, they are empty of an independent and inherently existing self. However, for the same reasons that phenomena are empty of an intrinsic self, they also are “full” of everything else that exists. Therefore, as we have previously discussed on this blog, the term emptiness could actually be replaced with the term fullness. In emptiness there is fullness, and vice-a-versa.

Investigating emptiness through the lens of interconnectedness is a perfectly acceptable means of becoming familiar with emptiness, but as demonstrated in our post on Dream or Reality, other lines of reasoning can (and ideally should) be followed. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of relying on interconnectedness to internalize the principle of emptiness is that interconnectedness still implies that phenomena inherently exist (otherwise it would not be possible for them to be connected to each other). Therefore, although interconnectedness can help to give rise to a basic understanding of emptiness, it is nevertheless based on a dualistic manner of perceiving and constructing the world. In Buddhism, even the slightest inclination towards perceiving reality dualistically (i.e., in subject-object terms) is understood to reinforce an individual’s belief in the inherent existence of phenomena, and to constitute a departure from the direct path to spiritual awakening.

The Heart Sutra (Sanskrit: Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra) is a key Māhāyana Buddhist teaching on emptiness that emphasizes the importance of not being bound by dualistic modes of thinking and perceiving.  As shown in the Heart Sutra below, it is by immersing themselves in emptiness (referred to in the Sutra as the perfection of wisdom [Sanskrit: prajna paramita]), that the bodhisattvas and all Buddhas of the past, present, and future are able to break free of the tendency to perceive things dualistically and thus permanently liberate themselves from suffering:

[Note: The Heart Sutra refers to the “five aggregates” of (i) form, (ii) feelings, (iii) perceptions, (iv) mental formations, and (v) consciousness. The five aggregates are understood in Buddhism to represent the different components that come together and give us the impression that we exist as a definite “self”.]

The Heart Sutra

“The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara,

whilst immersed in the perfection of wisdom,

perceived that the five aggregates are empty,

and overcame all suffering and anguish.

 

Listen Shariputra,

form is identical to emptiness,

and emptiness is identical to form.

Form is of the nature of emptiness,

and emptiness is of the nature of form.

The same applies to feelings,

perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

 

Listen Shariputra,

all phenomena are sealed with emptiness.

They do not arise or dissolve,

are neither impure nor pure,

they neither increase nor decrease.

 

Thus, in emptiness, there is no form, feelings,

perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness.

There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind.

No sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or object of mind.

No eye consciousness and so forth until no mind consciousness.

 

There is no ignorance and no cessation of it,

and so forth until no old age and death.

However, there is also no cessation of old age and death.

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,

no cessation of suffering, and no path.

There is no insight and there is nothing to attain.

 

The Bodhisattvas who immerse themselves,

in the perfection of wisdom,

overcome all mental obstacles,

and therefore they overcome all fear.

They are forever parted from deluded views,

and thus awake to Nirvana.

 

All Buddhas of the three times,

attain unsurpassed perfect enlightenment,

by immersing themselves in the perfection of wisdom.

 

Therefore know that the perfection of wisdom is:

the great transcendent mantra,

the great bright mantra,

the highest mantra,

the unsurpassed mantra,

and the truth that eradicates all suffering.

 

Thus, the perfection of wisdom mantra should be proclaimed as follows:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha”

 

At a future point, we aim to provide a full commentary on the above version of the Heart Sutra. However, for the time being, the most important message to take from the Heart Sutra is arguably the statement: “form is identical to emptiness and emptiness is identical to form”. In no uncertain terms, these spiritually profound words explain that emptiness is not a mystical state of mind or an alternative non-worldly dimension, but constitutes the very nature and fabric of the reality in which we currently find ourselves (i.e., the present moment). According to Buddhist thought, when an individual awakens to this fundamental truth—that has always been right in front of their eyes—they move beyond the concept of this and that, of existence and non-existence, and they encounter their indestructible Buddha nature.

Please note: This post adapts and summarises a section of the following (forthcoming) book chapter: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Singh, N. N., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Mindfulness of Emptiness and the Emptiness of Mindfulness. In: Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer. [In Press]

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2004). Dzogchen: Heart essence of the Great Perfection. New York: Snow Lion.

Gampopa. (1998). The jewel ornament of liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Michalon, M. (2001). “Selflessness” in the service of the ego: Contributions, limitations and dangers of Buddhist psychology for Western psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 55, 202-218.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The heart of the Buddha’s teaching: Transforming suffering into peace, joy and liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

Shonin, E. & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Using mindfulness and insight to transform loneliness. Mindfulness, 5, 771-773.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Urgyen, T. (2000). As It Is. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, DOI 10.1007/s12671-014-0379-y.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

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.

The Scientific Study of Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path: Dividing the Whole into Many

The Scientific Study of Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path:

Dividing the Whole into Many

eight steps

The Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes referred to as the “eight steps to freedom”. This tends to give the impression of a graded approach to liberation – we begin at white belt and then progress through the various colours until we reach black belt. However, this is decidedly not the case with the Noble Eightfold Path. As the Mahãcattãrisaka Sutra (The Great Forty Sutra, Majjhima Nikãya, 117) explains, each of the eight factors that comprise the Noble Eightfold Path (i.e., right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) are the individual parts that make up the whole. They are like the single strands that collectively make up a mountaineer’s rope – the rope is at its strongest when all of these fundamental strands are present and closely interwoven.

Rope strength

However, in certain scientific and medical contexts, the intricate and complex process of meditation has been dissected into the individual practices of  ‘mindfulness’, ‘concentrative meditation’, ‘insight meditation’, ‘self-compassion’, ‘compassion’, ‘loving kindness’, and so forth. Consequently, a growing number of scholars (including ourselves) have expressed concerns in the academic literature that by isolating these elements from one another, we may be taking unnecessary risks. Indeed, if we start to remove strands from a rope or work with only a single rope strand, there is a danger that the rope will snap. In this week’s post, we briefly attempt to highlight the deeply interconnected and interwoven nature of the Noble Eightfold Path, and of Buddhist meditation more generally.

Right view(Sanskrit: samyag-drsti / Pali: sammā-ditthi) essentially refers to the ability to see and understand the absolute nature of reality. Seeing that both we and reality are empty of inherent existence liberates us from suffering. However, in order to develop this clarity of vision, we first need to be able to give rise to a particular form of concentration. In this case we don’t just mean the ability to keep our attention placed on a particular task or object. Right concentration (samyak-samādhi / sammā-samādhi) refers to the meditative state whereby we have completely encompassed all mental activity within a single state of meditative calm. It means that we have effectively tranquilised the mind and in this state, we are profoundly aware of everything that is happening both internally and externally. The only problem with right concentration is that because this state is so blissful, we can forget that the blissful experience is also empty of inherent existence. Thus, although right concentration is a prerequisite for cultivating right view, we need the wisdom of right view to help us transcend any attachment and ignorance that remains when we are dwelling in right concentration.

Wisdom 5

If we want to develop meditative concentration, then we need to know when the mind is succumbing to attachment or aversion. If we are attempting to engulf the mind in tranquillity but we become attached to a particular thought or object, then this will interfere with our concentration and it may well cause us to lose awareness altogether. Consequently, we need to watch over the concentrating mind to ensure that it is in fact still in a state of meditative concentration. This is where mindfulness comes in. Right mindfulness (samyak-smrti / sammā-sati) allows the mind to remain fully concentrated in the here and now. If the mind becomes too excited or too drowsy and begins to drift out of its state of concentration, mindfulness observes that this is happening, so that we gently loosen or tighten our concentration as required.

mind 2

As you can imagine, until we reach a certain level of awakening, constantly being mindful of the mind requires a lot of determination. So right effort(samyag-vyāyāma / sammā-vāyāma) is needed to continuously remind ourselves to be mindful. However, it is not just with regard to right mindfulness where we require right effort – right effort essentially underlies and fuels every other element of the Noble Eightfold Path. For example, right effort is required to cultivate right speech (samyag-vāc / sammā-vācā), right action (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta), right livelihood (samyag-ājīva / sammā-ājīva) and so forth. Likewise, an active and focussed effort is required to cultivate right view and to see all phenomena exactly as they are – empty of intrinsic existence. Thus, as with every other aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path, right effort cannot be treated in isolation.

Right speech, right action and right livelihood are basically concerned with our ethical conduct. Everything we think, say and do in this present moment will create the next present moment – not just for ourselves but also for others. In other words, before we open our mouths we should stop and ask ourselves “is what I am about to say going to cause me or anybody else harm”? If we are not very nice to other people or to ourselves, then this is actually going to cause us a lot of worry and a lot of bother. We are constantly going to be involved in internal and external squabbles. If we get caught up in things it is extremely difficult for the mind to relax and find peace. It becomes difficult to establish right effort and, therefore, it becomes difficult to establish right mindfulness. Without maintaining mindfulness of our mental processes, it is impossible to rest in meditative concentration and – in turn – cultivating right view and meditative wisdom becomes a very distant prospect.

Ethics

Thus, it is absolutely essential for effective spiritual and meditative development that we infuse all of our actions with gentleness, awareness, and compassion. This is where right intention (samyak-samkalpa/sammā sankappa) comes in. Right intention means that we live our whole life with the primary goal of helping ourselves and others to develop spiritually. Right intention should permeate each of the other seven aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. For example, when we are practicing mindfulness, we should be practicing with others’ long-term wellbeing in mind. Some people have told us that they practice mindfulness in order to overcome a medical problem or to get ahead in their career. However, this doesn’t embody the meaning of right intention and so actually, these individuals are not practicing mindfulness at all.

Because we allow right intention to completely pervade our being, everything else falls nicely into place. By having the right intention, the spiritual path becomes very enjoyable and progress happens automatically. As we discussed in our recent post on the ‘Top Ten Mistakes Made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners’, it is because people don’t have the right intention that their spiritual practice fails to bear fruit. Some people sit in meditation for hours each day and/or they diligently study the teachings for many decades. But right intention is something that comes from within – it can be learned but it is actually quite intuitive. You either really want to evolve spiritually or you don’t. You’re either willing to subdue your ego or you’re not. It is quite simple. In a nutshell, right intention means that due to knowing all phenomena are impermanent and our time here is limited, we are ready to work hard in order to leave suffering behind.

To summarise, each aspect of the meditative journey is intrinsically connected to every other aspect. We need to practice all of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path at the start of our journey, and we need to practice them all at the end. If we only focus on one component of the path, things will be unbalanced. We will end up like one of those people who only works on their biceps when they go to the gymnasium – they end up with huge arms stuck onto a matchstick body. If we dissect the individual elements of the spiritual path and we treat them as isolated units, then we are basically misconstruing the Buddha’s instructions of how to practice and apply the teachings. By getting caught up in categorising and analysing things – it is a sign that we are becoming attached to the teachings. No doubt some people find this very interesting, but it basically means that we are moving things from the spiritual to the academic plane. At this point, the practice is no longer going to be of any long-term benefit. The Buddha explained that the Buddhist teachings are rather like a raft or a boat that we can build and use in order to cross the ocean or a wide and turbulent river. We are born on one shore of this turbulent river (life) and in order to get to the other shore, we build ourselves a boat. When built, we set sail with joyful effort, great diligence, and equanimity. However, when we arrive on the other shore, we don’t lift the boat onto our shoulders and carry it around with us. We let go of the raft, we let go of the teachings.

 Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Bodhi, B. (Ed.). (2009). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (4th ed.). (Bhikkhu Bodhi, & Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Trans.) Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.

Buddharakkhita (Trans.). (1966). Dhammapada: A Practical Guide to Right Living. Bangalore: Maha Bodhi Society.

Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.

Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-127.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners. The Buddhist Voice, 1(5), 22-24.

Suzuki, D. T. (1983). Manual of Zen Buddhism. London: Rider.

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

sentient beings

The question of whether God exists is arguably one of the most debated questions of all time. Nonetheless, given that it is common knowledge that Buddhism does not assert the existence of a supreme being or creator, it may seem strange that we have decided to write a post that explores this question from the Buddhist perspective. Indeed, we suspect that many people – including many Buddhists – would automatically assume that the “official” Buddhist response to this question would be a straight forward “no”. However, here we argue that depending upon how the term God is defined, there may actually be grounds for accepting the existence of God within the Buddhist system of thought.

The Oxford English dictionary defines God as: “(in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being”. As a religion or philosophical system, Buddhism does not reject anything that can be established as “true” by either robust scientific investigation or flawless logical reasoning. In other words, if it could be scientifically or logically proven that God exists, then Buddhism would also accept the existence of God. However, based on the above Oxford English dictionary definition, there is currently no robust scientific proof affirming the existence of a supreme creator.

In fact, not only is there an absence of verifiable evidence supporting the existence of a creator being, both modern science and logical reasoning actually indicate the non-existence of such an entity. For example, the laws of thermodynamics forbid the existence of perpetual motion – motion that exists independent of any energy input. Since, by their nature, phenomena are in a constant state of flux and change (i.e., a form of motion), this means that it is impossible for phenomena to exist autonomous of any input. In other words, phenomena (and therefore beings) do not exist as isolated occurrences but manifest in dependence on their causes and components. For this exact reason – the fact that phenomena are composite and do not exist of their own accord – they cannot endure indefinitely and are subject to impermanence. “Impermanence” here, refers to both the ultimate “death” of phenomena when they cease to manifest, and to the fact that phenomena do not remain static between two instances of time (please see our post on Exactly what is the Present Moment?).

Therefore, if an “eternal” God-being existed, this would mean that they were not subject to the laws of impermanence and causality and that they existed in complete independence of the universe and reality they had created. However, since established definitions of God assert that they “rule” the universe and are its “moral authority”, then this automatically rebuts any assertion that God exists in isolation of the universe that they are purported to have created. Thus, it is logically and scientifically implausible to assert that a God exists that created and interacts with the universe, but that such interaction takes place outside of the law of causality (because “interaction” implies that God’s choices and actions must result in some kind of effect).

Accordingly, Buddhism is unable to accept the existence of a creator being that exists in an anti-septic corner of the universe and has dominion over it. However, if the definition of God is modified such that God becomes more of a principle rather than a person, then there may be scope for accepting the existence of “God” within the Buddhist system of thought. To explain this further, we have decided to separate out each of the key components of the abovementioned Oxford English dictionary definition of God and provide an alternative interpretation of these terms:

  1. Supreme being: According to the Buddhist teachings, the capacity for enlightenment exists within every sentient being. This enlightenment capacity or “God nature” never goes away – it is indestructible. However, most people can be likened to a wave on the ocean that forgets that it is also part of the ocean. In wanting to express its creative potential the wave gets caught up in itself. It starts to think it is completely independent of all other waves, and of the ocean more generally. The wave becomes more and more concerned with itself and with its own preservation. It wants to become bigger and better than the other waves and it wants to live forever. However, as the wave continues to develop and feed its “ego”, it becomes increasingly ignorant of its impermanent and interdependent nature. The more the wave gets involved with itself, the more ignorant it becomes. The only thing that the wave can experience at this point is suffering because the wave has developed impossible ideas about itself – it is going to be let down.Although the wave has become very selfish and ignorant, never once does it actually separate from the ocean. All the wave has to do is deconstruct some of its false ideas so that it is able to awaken to the fact that it is part of the ocean. In fact, when the wave “wakes up” or becomes enlightened in this way, it doesn’t just realise that it is connected to the ocean, but it actually becomes the ocean. Now the wave is everywhere all at once, and it knows each single drop of the ocean in intimate detail. The wave doesn’t have to go to great lengths to learn about the ocean, it knows about the ocean without trying. Now that the wave knows that it is both the wave and the ocean, it is a supreme being – it has defeated death. This supreme being has infinite and unconditional compassion for all of the other “potential supreme beings” who choose to suffer and remain ignorant of their true nature. The newly-awakened supreme being does their best to bring these ignorant beings to the understanding that they do not have to search outside of themselves to find God.
  2. Source of all moral authority: From the Buddhist perspective, there is an infallible and all-pervasive law or principle that is the source of all moral authority. What we are referring to here is known as karmic law. Karma has absolutely nothing to do with being judged for our “sins”. Rather, karma (which actually means “action”) basically refers to the law of cause and effect – it asserts that there are both short and long-term consequences to each and every one of our thoughts, words, and actions. This is common sense.The more a person “practises” a particular type of mind-set (e.g., greed, anger, hatred, etc.), the more that person will be inclined to continue engaging such a mind-set in the future. According to the Buddhist teachings, dominant thought patterns and emotions leave an imprint upon the mind. In turn, this imprint influences not only the way we see the world, but also the way the world sees us. For example, a person full of anger and hatred is likely to provoke certain (mostly negative) responses from other people, and they are also likely not to notice life-opportunities that require a balanced, patient, and open perspective. Thus, an angry person may frequently encounter what they perceive to be adversities and may feel they are having a difficult time of things. But the cause of such adversity is nobody and nothing other than themselves – a supreme being has nothing to do with it.

    Furthermore, due to the imprint left on the mind by such a person’s propensity for anger, the Buddhist teachings assert that this anger will cause them to be attracted to certain (unfavourable) conditions when taking rebirth. Again, there isn’t a supreme being involved here – it’s just that the angry person has conditioned themselves to see things in a certain way. Exactly the same principles apply for positive emotions (e.g., love, generosity, patience, compassion, etc.) but these tend to lead to more favourable outcomes (e.g., if you are a kind person then people are invariably kind in return). Thus, it is the human being that asserts moral authority over their thoughts, words and actions – we are our own judge, jury, and executioner or saviour.

  3. Creator and ruler of the universe: As human beings, and whether we like it or not, we are creators. Every single one of our thoughts, words, and deeds has an influence on the world around us. Our past endeavours have created the world as we know it today, and today, we are creating the world that we will live in tomorrow. If we want to create a house, we build it. If we want to create new life, we have sex. If we want to create death and destruction, we wage war. If we want to create heaven on earth, we put aside greed and selfishness and cultivate peace, love, and compassion. Human beings are inherently creative. We create our world and then we live in it and rule it.Phenomena – the outcome of our creative work – exist in dependence of our ability to perceive them. If there is no perceiving mind, there can be no perceived phenomena. The entire universe only exists because there are minds that are able to perceive it. We will discuss this further in a future post but the Buddhist teachings assert that for as long as mind remains confused and continues to perceive itself as an independent entity, universes materialise in order to provide a seat for the mind. In essence, Buddhism asserts that mind creates matter and is inseparable from it. Mind itself is the creator of reality and mind’s creativity is self-existing – it happens all by itself.

In summary, if the definition of God is modified such that rather than an all-powerful universal ruler, God is thought of more as a principle – the principle of all-pervasive and self-existing wisdom that is the indestructible nature of reality and of every single sentient being – then it seems that there is scope for accepting the existence of God within Buddhism. Perhaps this is the definition of God that is conveyed in the Christian Gospel of Thomas where Christ is recorded as saying “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In fact, as we discussed in our post When Buddha and Christ Met for Tea, perhaps the Buddha’s and Christ’s teachings were essentially the same. As a final thought, it is important to highlight that although Buddhism does not accept or believe in the existence of an all-powerful creator being, it does accept and respect those people and religions that advocate such a belief. Ultimately, we suspect that each individual has their own unique understanding or experience of what constitutes “God” and each of these constructions are undoubtedly meaningful in their own right.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.

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

Tsong-kha-pa. (2000). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. (J. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & T. L. Committee, Trans.) Canada: Snow Lion.

Loneliness: A Problem or an Opportunity

Loneliness: A Problem or an Opportunity

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Loneliness, especially in Western psychological contexts, is generally associated with depression or low mood states and is regarded as a negative quality. Today’s post examines the construct and feeling of loneliness from several different perspectives, and discusses whether loneliness need always be regarded as a negative experience.

It’s probably fair to say that most people experience different degrees of loneliness at some point in their lives. This could be a short-lived sensation of loneliness that lasts for only a few minutes whilst waiting all alone at an old and run-down train station, or it could be a more chronic and deep-seated form of loneliness that lasts for many years following a relationship breakup or the death of a loved one. Although these two different types of loneliness affect people in very different ways, from the Buddhist perspective, the underlying causes are actually not too dissimilar.

According to Buddhist philosophy, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Searching for Happiness’, any kind of psychological pain, distress, or confusion, arises due to us developing very entrenched and mistaken views about exactly who and what we think we are. In other words, because we continuously reinforce our sense of self and become highly involved with our self-preservation, we construct and then harbour various ideas about what we think will make us happy. Generally speaking, unless we have chosen to fully immerse ourselves in (authentic) spiritual practice, then these ideas and plans are often governed by mundane and worldly aspirations, and only lead to further suffering.

Within the psychological literature, loneliness (and related negative mood states) are frequently associated with a feeling of total voidness – a big black hole that threatens to swallow people up into everlasting oblivion. Accordingly, most people believe that to avoid feeling lonely and to keep this voidness at bay, they need to spend most of their time in the company of a partner, family, and friends, and to surround themselves with other forms of company such as wealth, a successful career, and perhaps pastimes such as writing on a blog, working out at the gym, or playing computer games. However, when these ‘anti-loneliness strategies’ breakdown or become too boring, then people invariably revert to more extreme measures in order to avoid the feeling of emptiness and being all alone. Examples of such extreme (and maladaptive) behavioural strategies might be the excessive use of alcohol or drugs, becoming addicted to work, excessive use of the mobile phone, self-harming, going on a religious trip, diving head-first into the latest health trend, jumping into relationships, going on shopping sprees, or having meaningless one-night-stands. Needless to say, all of the above behaviours are not a solution to loneliness, but generally tend to keep us eternally distracted in order to avoid having to confront loneliness at its source.

Thus, loneliness, in whatever form it arises, ultimately represents a rejecting of the present moment, and a desire to be somewhere else or with someone else. Feeling lonely means that we are not satisfied with the present moment and that we want to modify it in order to live in some fantasised future, or in the ungraspable past. This is a little bit like the astronaut who goes into space to try to find new planets and life forms, whilst not appreciating the beauty and diversity of life on this planet. So to overcome loneliness, rather than the astronaut who explores external space, we should really be aiming to become a ‘psychonaut’ who explores the internal space of our own mind. You would probably be really surprised at the number of Western psychologists that we meet who have never earnestly begun to explore their own minds, yet who on a daily basis offer advice to others about how to overcome mental health problems or other issues of a psychological nature.

Our mission as a psychonaut is to be courageous enough to explore the seemingly empty voidness that exists within our own being. You see, it is in the very heart of this voidness, or the very heart of the feeling of loneliness, where we can encounter and then be bathed by the company of our own spiritual awareness. By finding and then awakening the spiritual presence that lies dormant within each and every one of us, our whole perspective on life begins to change. When we start to truly find and make friends with ourselves, the desire to fill our life with meaningless activities and superficial interpersonal transactions naturally starts to disintegrate. We begin to find that everything we ever needed and everything we ever wanted is right there inside of us. We begin to feel absolutely grounded, unequivocally alive, and continuously nourished by the company of our own spiritual presence. This friendship that we start to make with ourselves is completely unconditional, and when we have cultivated that friendship a little bit more, then we find that profound peace is available on demand. At this point, we can start to see other people and phenomena exactly as they are. We no longer allow the changing moods of others to influence our happiness, and we are just as content with being alone as we are when in the company of others.

Thus, with meditative practice, we can begin to understand that it is within emptiness or voidness where we can find total fullness and contentment. As human beings, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Do We Really Exist?’ we are essentially empty of an inherent existence. For example, the human being comprises the elements of wind, water, fire, earth, and space. If we examine our existence deeply, we find the wind, trees, rain, clouds, ocean, sun, minerals, plants, animals, and so on. We find all of these things but we do not find anything that we can call an independently existing self. This is the same as saying that we are empty of an inherent ‘I’. However, it is for this very reason – our being empty of an intrinsic self – that we can also say and realise that we are full of absolutely all things.

It doesn’t matter whether we read the teachings of the early sutras, or the essence tantric writings by the likes of Longchempa – all of the Buddhist teachings emphasise the importance of not relying for our happiness on the company of family, partners, and friends. You see, it might be difficult to accept, but the truth is that every single one of us comes into this world all alone, and we leave this world all alone. At the time of death, family, friends, and partners mean absolutely nothing. Just like waking from a dream, the memory of such people rapidly begins to disintegrate. The only thing we can take with us at death is the spiritual awareness that we have managed to cultivate whilst we were alive. In this manner, spiritual realisation is really the only reliable friendship that we have the possibility of cultivating.  So cultivate that friendship now, my dears. Make the choice of being born into the family of noble beings whose friendship is pure and unconditional, and that outlasts even time itself.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.

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

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). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.

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.

The Absorbing Mind

The Absorbing Mind

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“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.

The Practice of Impermanence: Learning how to be Alive

impermanence

The Practice of Impermanence: Learning how to be Alive

 In our most recent blog entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners”, at fourth place was the mistake of “Forgetting about death”. This section provoked some interesting comments and questions which we would now like to briefly address.

Not forgetting about death means to remember that all phenomena are impermanent. All things are in a constant state of flux. Moment by moment all things change. We were born, we live, and we will die. Absolutely nothing escapes the cycle of impermanence.

The Buddha said:

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn leaves. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”

According to the Buddhist view, the law of impermanence represents one of the three ‘marks of existence’ (Pali: tilakkhana): (i) impermanence (anicca), (ii) suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and (iii) non-self (anattā).

As human beings, we have the tendency to ignore the fact that we have a limited time to walk upon the shoulders of this earth. Rather than simply experiencing the moment, we tend to superimpose our last moment onto this moment. That is to say, we cling on to whatever experience conditioned us yesterday, and we experience the ‘now’ through that conditioning. In this manner we prevent ourselves from experiencing the present moment exactly as it is.

Therefore, as meditation practitioners, we should aim to remember that whatever we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this moment will never happen again – this ‘happening’ has gone by and if we were not aware of it, then we have missed it. So try not to sleep-walk through life. Give yourself a pinch to remind yourself that you are awake and life is happening now.

We are born with an in-breath, we leave this world with an out-breath. That which lies in between is this very precious thing called life, and this life can exist only because of the law of impermanence. In fact, it is actually thanks to impermanence that any phenomenon can come into existence.

Basically, impermanence has three aspects: (i) an outer aspect, (ii) an inner aspect, and (iii) a hidden aspect. These three aspects of impermanence constitute a temporal doorway to intuiting emptiness. This is different from the concept of interconnectedness which is a spatial doorway to intuiting emptiness. We shall discuss interconnectedness in a future post.

 

Outer Aspect

 impermanence practice 3 winter

The outer aspect of impermanence is its most obvious form. The fact that a phenomenon that existed at one point of time, does not exist at a future point in time implies that its nature is impermanent. Take the universe for example: the universe was born some 13.7 billion years ago and from it emerged our sun and the other planets in our solar system. They, in this moment of time, are all ‘existing’, but one day they will die. That which becomes has to dissolve, all that is born must die, all that is accumulated will be dispersed, and all meetings must end in separation – this is the nature of things, this is the law of impermanence.

We can, if we wish, easily recognise this outer aspect of impermanence in our daily lives. We can witness impermanence in our relationships – former friends become our enemies and people we previously didn’t get along with can become our close friends. One moment a person is happy but the next day the bubble bursts and they feel low again. The seasons come and go, as do the years, months, weeks, days, hours, and so forth. Impermanence is all around us.

 

Inner Aspect

 boddhi leaf

In order to best describe the inner aspect of impermanence, We have chosen a quote by Pema Chodron:

That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—are always changing, moment to moment.”

This is slightly different than the first aspect of impermanence in which we were basically saying that things which currently are, will ultimately not be. Here however, we are extending this logic a little further and are now saying that because phenomena ultimately cease to exist, they must be subject to an ongoing process of change that eventually leads to their dissolution.

You might think that the mountain is solid, has always been there, and will always be there. However, as any geologist or physical geographer will tell you, this is actually untrue. The mountain is changing all of the time. Furthermore,  every time you look at the mountain you and your perspective have also changed. So essentially, the mountain that you saw in the first instance can no longer be said to exist. Likewise, the ‘I’ that first apprehended the mountain no longer exists. If you try to impose your first experience of seeing the mountain onto the present moment, then effectively you are not experiencing the mountain as it is now. In exactly the same manner, this truth can be applied to your life in all of its aspects.

 

Hidden Aspect

 impermanence

The hidden aspect of impermanence is the most subtle aspect and, conceptually speaking, is perhaps a little more complex. Although it is called the ‘hidden aspect’ of impermanence, it is in fact in plain view of everyone but only few people have their eyes open enough in order to be aware of it.

This aspect of impermanence is probably best explained by a verse from a short doha (a kind of spiritual song) that we wrote:

Recognise that all phenomena are composite and therefore impermanent.

Yet if all phenomena are momentarily transient,

then what exists to undergo change?

And so recognise too the contradiction of impermanence!”

 

Tips on how to practise impermanence

Use impermanence as an antidote to ‘mental poisons’ and ‘mundane concerns’ by reflecting upon the following:

1)    Greed: No amount of wealth can be used to barter our way out of death. Whatever we have accumulated, we will have to leave behind.

2)    Power: Not even the General of the strongest army can overpower the process of death.

3)    Fame: No amount of followers or reputation can protect us at the end of our life. It doesn’t matter who you think you are – death has no interest.

4)    Desire: All phenomena, no matter how beautiful and attractive, are subject to the process of decay (change) and death.

5)    Anger: Where this involves another party, try viewing both angry parties 100 years from now – is there really any point to anger?

6)    Procrastination: Try not to put off until tomorrow because tomorrow may never arrive.

Integrate impermanence into your meditation/contemplation by reflecting upon the following:

1)    As suggested in our post entitled ‘Life is a Precious Happening’, contemplate the preciousness of this life and all that happens in it. Each life on this earth is extraordinarily fragile and unique. The beat of a heart is all that separates life and death. So do not squander this precious gift of life.

2)    In a similar manner, contemplate all of the conditions that were necessary in order for this life to come in to existence. Things exist only as a result of the complex interplay of innumerable causes and conditions. We exist in dependence upon the sun, stars, moons, planets, and every other living being upon this planet. Without any one of these ‘happenings’ this life now would simply not be.

3)    Understand that the past is a memory never to occur again. The future is a fantasy that never actually happens. All that exists within the scope of experience is to be found in the here and now. However, as referred to above, if the past is only a memory and does not exist, and the future is only a fantasy which will never arrive, then does the here and now actually exist?

4)    Try to recognise that impermanence flows through all phenomena. Begin by looking at your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, the words you have spoken, and the words you have chosen not to speak. Observe how they too are transient in nature – especially if you choose not to cling onto them.

5)    Contemplate the uncertainty of life and the inevitability of death. Death is part of the process of change. Just as birth gives rise to death, death gives rise to birth. This is the cycle of existence.

Practising impermanence correctly will certainly bring great joy and is a very liberating experience. By allowing the realisation of impermanence to infuse our being, we will gradually learn not to hold onto things too tightly. This means that when the things we love are present we can cherish them even more, but when they dissolve we can let go of them more freely. Just remember, every time we do something, that will be the last time we do it. The recognition of this will invest the things we do and say with great meaning and joy. We no longer have to sleep-walk through life – we are no longer walking corpses. If we become proficient at this practice, in time, we might come to realise what we call the ‘permanence of impermanence’. This is when impermanence becomes a place where we can always be. We have liberated ourselves by learning to completely let go so that the recognition of impermanence becomes a permanent way of perceiving reality. Now we are truly learning how to be alive!

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

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