The Challenges and Rewards of Learning to Meditate at 83 Years of Age

The Challenges and Rewards of Learning to Meditate at 83 Years of Age

never too late 3

Today we have a guest blog written by Jacqi Sein who is a close friend of ours. Jacqi is 83 years of age and started to learn meditation a few years ago following the death of her husband. The theme of Jacqi’s post is the challenges and rewards of learning to meditate at 83 years of age.

I was born in 1931 in Victoria, Australia, on newly-settled land. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on top of a farm-gate, accompanied by some older children. The gate led into a paddock or enclosed patch of land that was used for holding cows and their new-born calves. In the paddock was a man driving an old T-model Ford truck – he was trying to catch his cow. She evaded him again and again, running in circles around the paddock. When he failed to catch her he started to lose his temper and he began to drive the truck faster. She ran until exhausted, but he kept on, driving her along by crashing into her backside when she slowed. Eventually she staggered and fell, covered in blood, foam, froth and dirt, and died an agonizing death. I watched.

Everyone went home to tea, but I sat on the gate in a misery of pity until someone came to find me. I never forgot the experience and a few years later, when I could read properly, I found a book in the school-library called The Youngest Disciple by Edward Thompson (published in 1938). It told the story of the Lord Buddha walking through the countryside with his disciples, practising compassion and kindness to man and beast alike, and teaching the Four Noble Truths of Suffering.

The First Truth stated that all life is suffering. Birth, sickness, pain, grief, loss, and death – these are all forms of suffering. To have what one does not want is suffering and not to have what one wants is suffering. The Second Truth refers to the causes of suffering. Craving, desire, attachment, the never-ending clutching after riches and pleasure – these are all the roots of suffering. The Third Truth refers to the end or cessation of suffering. If greed, craving and desire are annihilated, then the mind can finally find peace and stillness. Lastly, the Fourth Noble Truth teaches the path that leads to the end of suffering – the Noble Eightfold Path – which includes Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths made a great impression on me.

I took to heart the teachings that this book revealed to me, and as I grew up I developed an interest in Buddhist practice and also in Buddhist art and architecture. When I was twenty years of age I came to live in London, England. Here I met and married a young Burmese diplomat who was a practising Theravadan Buddhist. We had a daughter together and lived happily in England for the next 60 years.

It wasn’t until my husband died a few years ago (following many years’ illness) that I was in need of a Buddhist monk to officiate at my husband’s funeral. After making some enquiries, I was fortunate enough to find not one but two Buddhist monks living and teaching in the area. They could not only take care of the deceased but could also tend to the living. In addition to fulfilling an inconceivable number of roles and touching, on a daily basis, countless peoples’ lives with a never-ending torrent of compassionate and selfless acts, the two monks were giving bi-weekly meditation classes and lectures on Mahayana Buddhism, to which they invited me.

Although I had read numerous books on Buddhism and had been exposed to Buddhist culture through my husband, I decided to start at the very beginning. I was amazed at just how many books on Buddhism there are these days. This is very different from when I was young where there was only a handful of authors to choose from. However, something I have learned recently is that although books are useful, there is nothing as beneficial as having resident teachers, such as the two monks I met, who are always on hand to help explain things from their own experience.

A New Family

Over the course of the last few years I have gradually immersed myself in Sangha living. The Sangha is a group of people who live together, in order to practise the Buddha’s teachings. Spending time with the Sangha very quickly exposes one’s bad habits that have been acquired over a long, fully-lived life. These may need to be modified or even eliminated for the sake of the other Sangha members who are moving quietly and mindfully through their day. Noise can be distracting for others, as can slamming doors, clattering plates in the sink, humming a tune, or whistling mindlessly. Therefore, for people like me that are a bit hard-of-hearing, having an understanding Sangha is helpful, but one also needs to constantly remind oneself (and be reminded) to slow down and go gently.

The Sangha is a new spiritual family, a source of strength and calmness in a new and very fast-paced world. One needs to be able to graciously accept admonishment, which should not be seen as a personal criticism. Gentle censure of one’s actions can be a joy, especially if it is accepted in the right spirit – it helps not to argue back or make excuses (something that I am particularly good at). It also shows that others have confidence in one’s efforts to become a useful, acceptable member of the community. Thus, one must not allow failure in any task to affect one’s determination, and self-discouragement should be avoided.

If we consider the Sangha as a microcosm, and society in general as a macrocosm, then we can see that everything we think and do affects everything around us. A small number of practitioners living gently and in awareness creates an epicenter of peace and insight that begins to spread out into the community. There are lots of old-age people living in the wider community and it is important that they are also introduced to and nourished by this practice of happiness. In fact, one of the central messages of Sangha living is that everybody has something to offer. Age is not seen as a problem or a handicap. One does one’s best with the abilities and experience at one’s disposal. Everyone is able to offer something to somebody else. Everybody is everybody else’s teacher and everybody has a role.

Putting Up with Aches and Pains

When it comes to learning to meditate at eighty-three years of age, the first challenge is putting up with physical discomforts. One attempts to sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor but very soon, amidst creaks of protesting joints, the dreaded cramp sets in. The next thing that happens is that the back begins to ache and before long concentration is completely lost. Therefore, unlike myself who can be as stubborn as a mule, the best thing to do is to take on-board the teacher’s advice and sit in a chair. I find that if I make an effort to sit in a chair and keep a straight-back, relaxed but poised, then things work just fine. One sits calmly, mindfully breathing, and enters the world of stillness and inner reflection.

The dimming of faculties with age may make the task more difficult, but for me, time no longer holds any limit or threat. With compliance and a growing understanding, and love of one’s chosen path, it is not too difficult to acquire a sense of absolute freedom of the mind and spirit. This clarity of mind and purpose helps to intensify things that previously went unnoticed. For example, in the shopping-centre, one becomes aware of people endlessly rushing and pushing, frantic to get on with the business of acquiring more and more ‘things’. I must have done it myself in the not-too-distant past, but now I try to refrain from rushing and from buying things I don’t really need. I try to proceed through the day mindfully and gently. It isn’t easy, old habits die slowly, but we maintain vision and dedication to the task. At the close of the day, one should feel that it has passed profitably, with structure and purpose. Seeing one’s improvements clearly as well as areas still to be improved can bring joy, comfort and calm.

Thinking about the Future

I would say that choosing to commit to a spiritual and meditative way of life whilst in one’s eighties is not an easy thing to do. It causes all kinds of challenges – physical, mental, spiritual, and domestic. I suspect that some people think I’m losing my marbles and have difficulties in understanding why I am so passionate about learning to live and breathe the Buddha’s teachings when I am already well into old age. However, to even make a small amount of progress with meditation or have any chance of developing spiritual awareness, one needs absolute dedication to the task at hand. One also needs the support of a Sangha of like-minded people who are able to help and give comfort to each other on the path to ultimate spiritual freedom. To those who say that I am too old, that I haven’t time left for all this, I say yes I have, and I also say that I “hold infinity in the palm of my hand”.

Should Mindfulness be taught to Improve Military and Business Effectiveness?

Should Mindfulness be taught to Improve Military and Business Effectiveness?

military

During one of our recent talks on mindfulness, we were asked whether we feel it is ethically and morally correct for mindfulness to be taught for the purposes of improving military or business effectiveness. Given that mindfulness was originally taught as a means of fostering peace and spiritual awakening, some people are of the view that it is inappropriate for businesses and the military to teach mindfulness to their employees in order to give them a strategic advantage over the competition. This seems to be quite a hot topic at the moment – especially because projects investigating the applications of mindfulness in military and business settings are already underway. Consequently, we have decided to dedicate this entire post to providing our view on this issue.

In the Buddhist teachings, mindfulness occurs as just one aspect (the seventh aspect) of a fundamental teaching known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Although the Noble Eightfold Path (obviously) consists of eight different elements, these elements do not function as standalone entities. In other words, it is not the case that one starts at the first practice of the Noble Eightfold Path (known as ‘right view’) and concludes one’s training in this practice before moving onto the second practice (known as ‘right intention’.). Rather, although the Noble Eightfold Path has eight different elements, it is in fact just one path and just one practice. This means that whenever one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is present and functioning correctly, then all of the other aspects are also present and functioning correctly. For example, without, ‘right view’, ‘right intention’, ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, ‘right livelihood’, ‘right effort’, and ‘right concentration’, there cannot be ‘right mindfulness’.

Thus, if a person in the military is taught mindfulness correctly, then they are also being directly or indirectly instructed in practices intended to cultivate ethical awareness (i.e., ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, ‘right livelihood’), a compassionate and spiritual outlook (i.e., ‘right intention’), and wisdom (i.e., ‘right view’). Accordingly, people in the military or in business that practice mindfulness correctly will also be learning how to become more responsible, wiser, and compassionate world citizens. Therefore, we don’t really need to worry about whether such people will “miss-use” the mindfulness teachings. In actual fact, many accomplished Buddhist practitioners believe that the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness are so potent and effective that anybody that practices them correctly can’t help but become a better human being.

Of course, there is a strong possibility that people in the military or in business could be taught to practice “mindfulness” outside of the above system of ethical and spiritual values. However, we also don’t particularly need to concern ourselves about this because in such situations it is no longer mindfulness that is being taught. In other words, one can’t really raise a grievance that an organisation is misusing mindfulness if in fact what they are teaching isn’t mindfulness.

Apologies if you were expecting a lengthier discourse but we don’t think there is much else to discuss on this topic.

 

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.

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Khyentse D. (2007). The heart of compassion: the thirty-seven verses on the practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

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, DOI: 10.1037/a0035859.

A Guided Meditation on Loving-kindness and Compassion

A Guided Meditation on Loving-kindness and Compassion

present moment 3

In a recent post, we focussed on the practices of loving-kindness and compassion and discussed their role within Buddhism and within spiritual practice more generally. Following on from this post and further to several emails we have received requesting more information on these practices, here we provide a short introductory meditation on loving-kindness and compassion. This meditation is adapted from a guided meditation that we included in an article entitled ‘The psychotherapeutic applications of loving-kindness and compassion meditation’ that was recently accepted for publication in Thresholds (a journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy). The first part of this meditation focusses on establishing equanimity, calm, and meditative awareness, and the second part provides a gentle introduction to the practices of loving-kindness and compassion. There are many ways to practice this meditation, but our suggestion is that you adopt a suitable meditation posture, and then spend one or two minutes on each of the ten exercises.

An introductory meditation on loving-kindness and compassion

 

  1. Breathing in, I am fully aware I breathe in; Breathing out, I am fully aware I breathe out.
  2. Breathing in, I am aware whether my breath is deep or shallow, short or long; Breathing out, I allow my breath to follow its natural course.
  3. Breathing in, I am aware of the space and time that exists between my in-breath and out-breath, and between my out-breath and in-breath; Breathing out, I relax into this space and time.
  4. Breathing in, there is nowhere else I need to be; Breathing out, I am already home.
  5. Breathing in, I am here; Breathing out, I am now.
  6. Breathing in, I enjoy breathing in; Breathing out, I enjoy breathing out and I smile gently to myself.
  7. Breathing in, I am aware of the suffering that is present inside of me; Breathing out, I allow any difficult feelings to calm and relax.
  8. Breathing in, I cultivate feelings of joy and happiness; Breathing out, I bathe in those feelings of joy and happiness.
  9. Breathing in, I am aware that other people also suffer; Breathing out, I radiate feelings of joy and happiness to others.
  10. Breathing in, I return to simply following my breathing; Breathing out, I enjoy the experience of simply being.

 

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Hutcherson CA, Seppala EM, Gross JJ. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion 8: 720-724.

Khyentse D. (2007). The heart of compassion: the thirty-seven verses on the practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Mascaro JS, Rilling JK, Negi LT, et al. (2012). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. DOI:10.1093/scan/nss095.

Shamay-Tsoory SG. (2011) The neural bases for empathy. Neuroscientist 17: 18-24.

Shonin E, Van Gordon W, Griffiths, MD. (2014). The psychotherapeutic applications of loving-kindness and compassion meditation. Thresholds: Journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Spring Issue, In Press.

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

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

lit flame

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

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

Key Areas of Confusion in Western Psychology

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

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

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

 

Mindfulness: A Traditional Buddhist Perspective

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

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

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

A Different Approach to Defining Mindfulness

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

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

 

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

The Absorbing Mind

The Absorbing Mind

mind 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds. Summer Issue, 14-18.

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

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

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

Tips for using Mindfulness in Psychotherapy Contexts

Tips for using Mindfulness in Psychotherapy Contexts

psychotherapy 2

Recently, we were joined by our friend and academic colleague Professor Mark Griffiths in writing a paper on ‘Meditation as Medication: Are Attitudes Changing?’ (the paper is currently in press with the British Journal of General Practice).1 The paper discusses how, amongst both patients and clinicians, the prospect of using mindfulness and meditation as a mainstream medical intervention is becoming increasingly acceptable. Over the last 12 months or so, in addition to mainstream research journals such as the above, we have also published (or had accepted for publication) a series of articles in more practitioner-based and/or professional journals where we offer suggestions on how best to use and teach mindfulness (and other meditative techniques) within medical and/or mental health settings. Examples are articles published in Corrections Today (a journal of the American Correctional Association),2 Thresholds (a journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), 3 Addiction Today (a practitioner-focused journal focusing on addiction recovery), 4 Education Today (the nationwide journal of the School and Student Health Education Unit), 5 and the quarterly publication of the National Council on Problem Gambling.6

Based on a synthesis of the recommendations outlined in the abovementioned professional/practitioner journals, and based on insights from our own and others’ research and practice of meditation, today’s post outlines what we consider to be helpful strategies for the effective use of mindfulness techniques within client-therapist settings:

1. Therapist-led practice: Findings from our own empirical research into Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) indicate that clients and patients place tremendous importance on the extent to which the therapist’s own thoughts, words, and actions are infused with mindful awareness.7 A therapist who is ‘well-soaked’ in meditation naturally exerts a reassuring presence that helps clients to relax and connect with their own capacity for spiritual awareness. As we discussed in our posts on ‘Teaching Mindfulness to Children and ‘Predicting your Enlightenment, if a meditation teacher (or a therapist) is going to instruct others on how to practise mindfulness correctly, then it is essential that they do so from an experiential standpoint. Furthermore, clinicians and psychotherapists are particularly at-risk for compassion fatigue – a type of secondary traumatic stress caused by working with clients who have an illness of a distressing nature or who have directly experienced a traumatic event.3 Therapist mindfulness practice has been shown to exert a protective influence over compassion fatigue and therefore helps to improve the therapeutic experience for client and therapist alike.8

2. Insight-led practice: This point is closely related to the above point on therapist-led practice and refers to the importance of psychotherapists appreciating that there are many ‘activating agents’ that are essential for the development of ‘right mindfulness’. As outlined in our most recent post on ‘Exactly what is the Present Moment?’, an example of such an activating agent is cultivating insight into the ‘impermanent’, ‘non-self’, and ‘empty’ nature of reality. A firmly embedded understanding by therapists of the principles that underlie effective mindfulness practice (i.e., non-self, emptiness, impermanence, etc.) is likely to enhance therapeutic outcomes in the long term. Indeed, according to psychotherapists Maura Sills and Judy Lown, greater therapeutic connection and transformation can take place as client and therapist begin to acquaint themselves with the non-self construct and work in an “open and empty ground state”.9 Similarly, as Professor Seth Segall of Yale University School of Medicine acknowledges a firm understanding of non-self can improve therapeutic core conditions because “the more the therapist understands anatta [non-self], the less likelihood that the therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist”.10

3. Deep listening: As with all psychotherapy modalities, the therapist’s ability to listen deeply to what the client is saying, as well as to what they are not saying, is a vital part of the therapeutic process. However, in the context of mindfulness-based therapy, the practice of deep listening takes on a slightly different meaning compared with the more conventional therapeutic modes. When the mindfulness practitioner (or therapist) listens deeply to another person, believe it or not, the emphasis is actually placed more on listening to oneself rather than the client. Let’s clarify what is meant by this statement. Normally, any kind of discussion with another person triggers various kinds of emotional and cognitive responses. The way we interpret the words of others, and the types of thoughts and feelings that are engendered by those words, is heavily influenced by our own conditioning and beliefs. In other words, it is through the lens of the conditioned mind that we experience ourselves and others. So as meditation practitioners, the reason why we make an effort to listen to our own mental chatter during dialogue with others, is to try to limit the extent to which our own conditioning might colour our interpretation of what the other person is actually saying. As we referred to in a short vajragiti (a type of spontaneous spiritual song or poem) called Simply Being with Nothing to Be, the best way to listen deeply to ourselves in this manner is by being fully present with ourselves. When we are fully present with ourselves and are perfectly content with where and who we are, when we are happy to simply experience the present moment without trying to modify it, the pain that has built up inside the other person begins to talk to us. This happens naturally and without us having to look too hard. We can see all of the person’s suffering, we can smile gently at it, and that person’s pain knows that it now has a friend and is no longer alone. Their suffering has exposed itself to us, and because we are not lost or caught-up in our own thoughts or ego-attachments, a true communion of compassion and loving-kindness can now occur.

4. Life integration: Although it is undoubtedly beneficial for a client to meet with the therapist once or twice a week, it goes without saying that emphasis should be placed on empowering the client to introduce mindfulness into all aspects of their lives. Many clients find a CD of guided meditations and written resources about mindfulness practice to be useful props in this respect. Another factor that can make a big difference to the success of the therapy is working with the client to establish a routine of mindfulness practice. Our personal preference is to do this on a case by case basis (i.e., rather than prescribing a blanket-amount of formal meditation practice time for all people). When working with patients or meditation practitioners as part of our research or monastic work, we generally encourage people to try to adopt a dynamic meditation routine. In this manner, people are dissuaded from drawing divisions between meditation during formal sitting settings and meditation during everyday activities.11 As referred to in our post on ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners’, the purpose of this is to reduce the likelihood of dependency on the need for formal meditation sessions.

5. Meditative anchors: Integral to effective mindfulness training, particularly at the beginning stages, is the use of meditative anchors.3 A good example of a meditative anchor is observing the breath. Full-awareness of the in-breath and out-breath helps clients ‘tie their mind’ to the present moment and to subdue ruminating thought processes. Where clients have noticeably low levels of concentration, then teaching them to count their breath can be quite helpful. However, when using breath awareness as a meditative anchor, it is important to discourage clients or patients from forcing their breathing. In other words, the breath should be allowed to follow its natural course and to calm and deepen of its own accord (i.e., as a regular consequence of it being mindfully observed).3

6. Mindfulness reminders: In addition to meditative anchors, the maintenance of mindfulness during everyday activities appears to be facilitated by the use of mindfulness reminders. An example of a mindfulness reminder is an hour chime (e.g., from a wrist-watch or wall clock), which, upon sounding, can be used as a trigger by the client to gently return their awareness to the present moment and to the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath (and to the space and time between each in-breath and out-breath).3 Some clients seem to prefer a less sensory reminder such as a simple acronym. For example, in the aforementioned eight-week Meditation Awareness Training program, clients are taught to use the following SOS technique to facilitate recovery of meditative concentration by ‘sending out an SOS’ at the point when intrusive thoughts arise:

 

The three-step SOS technique3,4

 1. Stop

2. Observe the breath

3. Step back and watch the mind

 

7. Meditative posture: Although the focus of mindfulness practice should be directed towards its maintenance during everyday activities, formal daily seated-meditation sessions are an essential aspect of mindfulness training. As part of seated meditation practice, a good physical posture helps to facilitate the cultivation of a good mental posture. The most important aspect of the meditation posture is stability which can be achieved whether sitting up-right on a chair or on a meditation cushion. The analogy used in Meditation Awareness Training for the appropriate meditation posture is that of a mountain. A mountain has a definite presence, it is upright and stable yet at the same time it is without tension and does not have to strain to maintain its posture – it is relaxed, content, and deeply-rooted in the earth.3

8. Psychoeducation: In most psychotherapeutic approaches, a degree of psychoeducation regarding the mechanisms of action and projected hurdles to recovery is generally regarded as a means of augmenting client-therapist trust and therapeutic alliance. Mindfulness-based therapy is no exception to this, and clients generally welcome advance notice of the difficulties they are likely to encounter as their meditative training progresses. One such difficulty, particularly in the beginning stages, is the feeling by patients or clients that their mind is becoming more discursive than before. However, rather than an actual reduction in levels of mindfulness, our own research into meditation has shown that such feelings generally result from a greater awareness by clients of the “wild” nature of their cognitive and emotional processes that had hitherto remained unnoticed.7 Particularly within the context of mindfulness-based therapy, psychoeducation should be regarded as a two-way process. In other words, in working with the client to discuss and explore different dimensions of their mindfulness practice, a co-produced form of understanding or wisdom often emerges. This is something that both the client and therapist can benefit from and is consistent with the Buddhist technique known as ‘Dharma sharing’.

Although the above points are not exhaustive, we believe that when they are implemented as part of a therapeutic relationship based on trust, patience, loving-kindness, and compassion, they will help to add authenticity to the transmission that takes place between client and therapist.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

References

  1. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice. In Press.
  2. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending. Corrections Today, In Press.
  3. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds. Summer Issue, 14-18.
  4. 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.
  5. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). The health benefits of mindfulness-based interventions for children and adolescents. Education and Health, 30, 94-97.
  6. 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.
  7. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health. DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  8. Christoper, J.C., & Maris, J.A. (2010). Integrating mindfulness as self-care into counselling and psychotherapy training. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 10, 144-125.
  9. Sills, M., & Lown, J. (2008). The field of subliminal mind and the nature of being. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 10, 10: 71-80.

10. Segall, S.R. (2003). Psychotherapy practice as Buddhist practice. In S. R. Segall (Ed.), Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp. 165-178). New York: State University of New York Press.

11. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness. DOI: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.

Exactly what is the Present Moment?

Exactly what is the Present Moment?

impermanence

The practice of mindfulness is fundamentally concerned with becoming more aware of the present moment. Mindfulness techniques such as observing the breath, walking meditation, working meditation, eating meditation, scanning the body, mindful writing, deep listening, mindfully cradling our thoughts and feelings, and observing mind with mind, are all methods of cultivating an awareness of the ‘here and now’. In effect, these techniques are a type of ‘meditative anchor’ that help to slow the mind down and provide a reference point for maintaining an unbroken flow of awareness throughout the day. As we discussed in our post on ‘Mindwithness’, the word mindfulness, which is a translation of the Pali word sati, essentially means ‘to remember’ (i.e., ‘to remember’ to be aware of the present moment). However, believe it or not, from the Buddhist perspective, the whole point of remembering to become aware of the present moment is so that we can remember to let go of it.

Having made great efforts to follow the meditation instructor’s teachings and strive to be aware of the present moment, to now hear that we should ultimately be aiming to let go of the present moment might seem a little confusing or even alarming. However, if we take a moment to investigate what actually constitutes the present moment and whether it actually exists, then these words may start to take on more meaning.

In a recent paper we published in Thresholds, we argued that if a person wants to become proficient in the practice of mindfulness, then they need to “have some grounded realisation of the true and absolute mode in which the present moment exists”. Most teachings on mindfulness explain that the present moment is the moment of time that exists between the past and future, and since the future never arrives and the past is history, then the only place where we can truly experience life is the present moment. From the conventional or relative perspective, this statement is perfectly true. As we discussed in our post on Life is a Precious Happening, if, like most people, we allow the mind to constantly ruminate about the past or fantasise about the future, then before we know it our lives will have slipped us by in a blur of unawareness.

However, from the absolute perspective, the above affirmation of an identifiable and intrinsically-existing present moment is untenable. Imagine you decide to take a trip to the countryside and have a picnic in your favourite tree-lined spot next to a river. From the time of your arrival until the time you pick up your picnic basket and start to make your way home, we’re sure it won’t come as a surprise to you to hear that you have not been sitting in a static environment. At any given instant when you found yourself gazing at the river, you were observing a dynamic and continuously flowing phenomenon. Thus, between any given instant of time and the next, the river undergoes change. However, not only does the river change between two separate instances of time, but it also changes within the same instant of time. The reason for this is because time is a relative concept, it is a man-made construct that human-beings employ to try to add structure and order to their world.

The truth is, any given moment of time can be continuously divided into ever smaller instants – and this process of division can continue ad infinitum. For example, a second can be divided by 1000 to form a millisecond, and a millisecond can be further divided to form a microsecond (one millionth of a second). However, the microsecond can be divided to form an attosecond (one quintillionth of a second), and the attosecond can be divided to form a yoctosecond (one septillionth of a second). But even the yoctosecond can be divided again and again. Scientists call the shortest physically meaningful moment of time a Planck. The Planck is an indescribably fleeting moment of time. It is 5.4×10-44 seconds to be exact – which is even quicker than the time it takes the novice monks to arrive in the dining hall after they hear the gong sound to announce that it’s meal time. Although it’s difficult to imagine the brevity of a Planck, the fact is that the Planck could also be divided into infinitely smaller and smaller units of time.

So returning to the river analogy, not even for the most miniscule moment of time could we say that the river ever stands still. It’s not just rivers that are subject to this continuous process of change, but every single phenomenon that we encounter. In many respects, we could actually view the present moment and all that it contains as one enormous flowing river. A graceful and swirling flood of interwoven mind and matter that continuously flows yet never actually goes anywhere. Now then, as we discussed in our post about the practice of impermanence, here is where an opportunity to make a small intuitive leap arises. If there is never a point in time when the river stands still, how can a thing that doesn’t ever become static undergo any change? Change implies that something changes from one state or position to another. But since phenomena never truly come to rest in a fixed state, then it is illogical to assert that such a transient and ‘permanently unfixed’ entity can undergo change. That which never is cannot be said to change between one moment of time and next.

This method of investigating the present moment stems from a certain system of Buddhist philosophy and is perhaps a little mind-boggling. So don’t worry if you feel you’re getting left behind. There are many other keys that can be used to help you catch a glimpse of reality. Essentially, what we are trying to get at is quite simple:  the present moment is just a concept. It doesn’t exist in the manner in which we have accustomed ourselves to believing. The present relies for its existence on the notions of past and future. But earlier in this post we already discussed that the future is a fantasy that never actually arrives (because it is always the present), and the past exists as nothing other than a memory – it has no substance. So if there is no future and no past, then how can it be said that there is a present?

It’s not the case that these ideas are just crazy theories hatched-out by peculiar Buddhist teachers living thousands of years ago. In fact, in recent years, there have been some break-through scientific discoveries that have begun to verify the validity of such theories. For example, for a number of decades now, quantum theorists have posited that at the sub-atomic level, there can never be absolute certainty that a particle exists at a given position in time or space. This effectively implies that it is possible for sub-atomic particles to exist in multiple places simultaneously and to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time. However, until recently, there was no observable scientific proof for this theory. This changed in 2010 when a team of physicists, led by Professor Andrew Cleland of the University of California Santa Barbara, published in the journal Nature the results of an experiment that demonstrated that a tiny metal paddle made of semi-conductor material (just visible to the human eye) can simultaneously vibrate in two different energy states. In kinetic terms, this is equivalent to being in two different places at the same time.

Another interesting area of quantum mechanics that seems to add validity to a number of long-standing Buddhist principles regarding the nature of reality is that of String Theory. String Theory, a topic frequently discussed by physicists such as Professor Stephen Hawking, basically asserts that reality has multiple dimensions to it. This is very similar to models taught in certain systems of Buddhist cosmology that assert that there are multiple world systems and world dimensions in addition to our own. Although String Theory is still quite limited from the Buddhist perspective (because it restricts the number of concurrently-existing dimensions to just eleven), it is a major leap forward in terms of establishing a common ground between modern science and Buddhist thought. So the next time you collect your mind and bring it to rest in the present moment, perhaps you should ask yourself exactly in which present moment you are currently dwelling.

Perhaps in years to come discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics will narrow the gap between Buddhism and science even further. Perhaps scientists will discover that a single universe can contain an infinite number of multi-dimensional universes and that infinite expanses of time can exist within a single second. Rather than thinking about existence as something that began at the time of the big-bang, perhaps scientists will start to view the birth and death of our universe as just a small blip in a beginningless and eternally enduring cycle of formation and dissolution. Just a single phase of expansion and contraction within the realm of unconditioned truth (Sanskrit: dharmadatu). This would help to transcend the limiting notion of there being a fixed beginning and a definite end. Without a beginning and an end, the whole construct of time falls apart. Then, instead of concepts such as past and future or beginning and end, perhaps we would have to use other words to describe existence such as ‘isness’, ‘thatness’, or ‘suchness’.

You may find the idea of simultaneously existing present moments or simultaneously existing dimensions to be a bit far-fetched. But it’s actually not that difficult to imagine and there are plenty of more accessible examples that we can use to help us do so. For instance, there are approximately seven billion people currently living on this planet. Each person is completely different and experiences the present moment in a unique manner. So that’s seven billion different present moments that are simultaneously happening right here and now. It’s an inexpressibly greater number if you consider all of the present moments experienced by other sentient life forms such as animals and insects.

The whole point of what we have been discussing so far is to introduce the idea that the present moment may not exist exactly how we think it does, or that it may not exist at all. If we can adopt a slightly less rigid view of things then we have a much greater chance of being able to transcend limiting concepts such as the present moment. Please don’t misunderstand what is being said here, we’re not advising that people should stop practising mindfulness and become content with living a life of corpse-like unawareness. That’s definitely not what is needed. Rather, what we’re suggesting is that in order to truly taste and embrace the essence of the present moment, we have to relinquish any kind of attachment to it. Mindfulness helps to bring the mind into the present moment, but that’s only half the work. Having allowed the mind to settle into an awareness of the here and now, we then need to make a small intuitive leap and pierce through the present moment to taste the underlying fabric of reality itself. As we discussed in our post on the Top Ten Mistakes Made by Meditation Practitioners, it’s not the case that we should make extreme efforts or strain ourselves in order to do this. Rather, just by relaxing the mind and being open to the possibility of a reality beyond our current manner of perceiving, we already begin to dispel some of the mental obscurations that prevent this self-existing truth from emerging.

So when you observe your breath during meditation practice, rather than just follow the breath in and out, you might like to try observing the space and time between the in-breath and the out-breath (and between the out-breath and the in-breath). As you allow the mind to come to rest in its natural state and begin to let go of the normal conceptual mode of perceiving things, you may begin to notice that the space and time between your in-breath and out-breath starts to expand exponentially. With a single breath in and out you can experience an entire lifetime, your view can extend beyond the limits of space and time. The boundary between you the observer and the present moment that is being observed can start to disintegrate. Perceiver and perceived can merge as one. Perhaps we could say that this is the difference between ‘being in’ the present moment and simply ‘being’ the present moment. Be alive by living in the present moment, but liberate yourself completely by letting go of it.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Gyatso, T. (XIV Dalai Lama) (1985, 1989). Hopkins, Jeffrey, ed. Kalachakra Tantra: Rite of Initiation for the Stage of Generation, a Commentary on the text of Kay-drup-ge-lek-bel-sang-bo by Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and the Text Itself . London: Wisdom Publications

Lieu, R., & Hillman, L.W. (2003). The phase coherence of light from extragalactic sources: Direct evidence against first-order planck-scale fluctuations in time and space. The Astrophysical Journal, 585, L77-L80.

Hawking, S. (2005). A Briefer History of Time. Reinbek (Germany): Rowohlt

Hawking, S. & Mlodinow, L., (2011). The Grand Design. London: Bantam

Hawking, S. (Ed). (2011). The dreams that stuff is made of: The most astounding papers of quantum physics – and how they shook the scientific world. Philadelphia: Running Press

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

Penrose, R. (2006). The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. London: Vintage.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds. Summer Issue, 14-18.

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.