Does Mindfulness Work?

Does Mindfulness Work?

Future 4

We were recently invited to write a paper for the British Medical Journal that discusses the treatment efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions. The paper has just been published and is entitled ‘Does Mindfulness Work?’. It can be accessed (for free) here: http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h6919.full?ijkey=Q3IuzuNeBFUkrZP&keytype=ref

We wrote the paper with our friend and colleague Prof Mark Griffiths and the full reference is as follows: Shonin, E, Van Gordon, W, & Griffiths, MD. (2015). Does Mindfulness Work? British Medical Journal, 351: h6919. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6919

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Suffering Exists

suffering exists

The Pali word for suffering is Dukkha and is translated as dissatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction. In our most recent post entitled “How to become enlightened in 30 days”, we made reference to the Buddha’s teaching that ‘suffering exists’. We have since received a number of emails asking us to elucidate on this point further. Today’s post is therefore a brief introduction to the Buddhist teachings on suffering.

‘Suffering exists’ represents the first of what are commonly known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’ (Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni). The Four Noble Truths was the subject of the first discourse given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The teaching was given to the five ascetics (the Buddha’s former companions) whilst the Buddha was residing in the Deer Park in Isipatana (now called Sarnath). The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is that: (i) suffering exists, (ii) there is a cause to suffering, (iii) there is cessation of suffering, and (iv) there is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

Although there are (obviously) four components to the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, each of the noble truths contains the ‘truth’ of each of the other three components. For example, if we assert that suffering exists, then because of the law of causality, it is automatically implied that suffering has a cause (i.e., the second truth). The same applies to the third noble truth – if we assert that there is cessation of suffering (or Nirvana if you prefer), then it is likewise implied that Nirvana also has a cause (which is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering – the fourth noble truth).

Similarly, because suffering (and every other mentally designated concept) exists only as a relative notion, when we assert that suffering exists, the notion of non-suffering (i.e., Nirvana) is produced by default. The same applies to examples such as ‘here and there’, ‘this and that’, ‘high and low’, and ‘hot and cold’. ‘Over here’ exists in dependence on ‘over there’. If we take away ‘over here’, then we also take away ‘over there’. If there is suffering, there is also Nirvana. If there is no suffering, there is no Nirvana.

Thus, although we are not suggesting that this should be done, because all noble truths are implicit within each individual noble truth, we could actually condense the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths down to just ‘suffering exists’.

Suffering Exists

This first noble truth of suffering exists contains three principal categories of suffering: (a) the suffering of suffering, (b) the suffering of change, and (c) all-pervasive suffering.

a)    The suffering of suffering

The suffering of suffering is the most obvious category of suffering and refers to discomforts such as poverty, hunger, disease, injury, and so forth. This human body is extremely fragile and even a small bump or cut can give rise to unbearable pain. This is suffering in its grossest aspect and even animals recognise this form of suffering. The majority of people have a tangible fear of this type of suffering and experience discomfort even at the thought of it! We are acutely aware of and sensitive to this first category of suffering – suffering definitely exists!

b)    The suffering of change

Unlike the suffering of suffering, people tend to be less aware of the suffering of change. Despite this, the general tendency seems to be that people make a conscious effort to underpin their whole life with this form of suffering. Few people are truly satisfied with their lot – people always desire more, something bigger, something better, or something different. For example, imagine that we start saving our pennies to buy our first little car. We’re young, money is tight, and car insurance is super expensive. However, we really need something to get us from A to B. We frequently comment to ourselves: “if only I had a little car, it would make all the difference”. Eventually we do a good job of convincing ourselves that life cannot function without the car and voila, we do it – our first and very own motor vehicle:

car

However, as we get a little older, we are influenced by our peers and before we know it, our beautiful little car isn’t so beautiful any more. We ‘need’ something better and we make excuses to justify this ‘need’. Then, before we know what’s happening, we’ve done it again – out with the old and in with the new:

car 2

Gosh, this is better, wait till my friends see this” we think to ourselves. However, once again, it doesn’t take too long before our mind starts telling us that we ‘need’ something even more comfortable. After all, we now have an ‘important’ job and must make the ‘right’ impression! Once again, we manage to convince ourselves to visit the car dealership and hey presto, we’ve done it again:

car 3

Wow, I’ve really done it this time – now people will understand who and what I am – this is really going to change my life – people can’t ignore me now”! However before long, the mind gets to work and begins to nag again: “Hey, this isn’t you after all – it’s not the image that suits you best. Perhaps it was at one time, but now people will think that you’re unimaginative and boring”. You resist for as long as you can but eventually the mind gets its own way: “People really are looking at me as though I am dull, stuffy, and boring – I really ‘need’ to change this car”:

car 5

Aaah – this is definitely me! At least for now”!

We play out this scenario with almost every aspect of our lives. Dominated by the conditioned mind, our desires, thoughts, and feelings get the better of us each and every time.

 

a)    All-pervasive suffering

All-pervasive suffering acts as the basis for the previous two types of suffering and is the root of all suffering. In general, people are totally unaware of this form of suffering. All-pervasive suffering comprises two basic elements: attachment and aversion.  Attachment and aversion govern all of our choices and decisions and arise because of a deeply-rooted belief that the ‘self’ or ‘I’ exist autonomously. With obstinate determination, people believe that the ‘self’ is fixed, unchanging, real, and unending. It is the ‘I’ that becomes attached to phenomena and it is the ‘I’ that has aversion toward phenomena. We, as human beings, cling to this ‘I’ and the reality that the ‘I’ creates. The ever present ‘I’ is inevitably followed by ‘me’ and ‘mine’! So we could say that the root of all suffering is the deluded mind – a mind that insists that the ‘self’ is real and independent. We discussed this in our recent post entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners” (see the section entitled ‘Ontological Addiction’), and we will visit it again in forthcoming posts.

 

The wisdom of suffering

In order to progress on the spiritual path, we need to become deeply aware of both the existence and nature of suffering. This, in part, is the wisdom that we referred to in our post entitled “Meditation: A Three-fold Approach”. We should aim to see suffering in every aspect of human existence including birth (because birth gives rise to sickness, old age, and death). This is not an extreme attitude whereby a person becomes infatuated with suffering. Rather, it’s the case that if we want to let go of something, we first need to become aware of it. Becoming aware of our suffering means that we can begin to objectify it. We can begin to loosen up and even start to foster an appreciation and sense of humour towards the suffering that we experience. Without suffering (attachment and aversion), we could never attain liberation. Thus, although the spiritual practitioner certainly doesn’t go out of their way to experience suffering, they do their best to take it onto the path and use it to propel them forward.

 

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

pulling wool

If you had dedicated yourself to spiritual practice for many decades and had reached a level of realisation that meant you were only one month away from attaining full enlightenment, then it would definitely be possible to attain enlightenment in only 30 days. However, for ordinary people like you and us, we’re sorry to disappoint, but the prospect of reaching enlightenment in just 30 days is not very realistic. In fact, enticements and promises like the title of this post are indicative of what has become the spiritual market place of modern times. To different extents and via both subtle and blatant means, religious organisations and so-called spiritual gurus often go to great lengths to tender for our undivided loyalty and blind adherence to whatever dogma they might be broadcasting.

The problem with promising people quick and easy routes to salvation, a deity that can absolve them of all their sins, or even instant enlightenment, is that such promises can never be upheld. An approach like this plays on people’s basic insecurity and effectively denies them the opportunity to shoulder their responsibility to practise and cultivate spiritual awareness for themselves. The truth is, since the very beginning, we have become so enslaved to the ego-mind, so self-addicted, that there are now countless layers of thick-set ignorance that need to be removed before we can eliminate all of our suffering. Nobody other than ourselves can do this for us. The problem is ours alone and it will remain a problem until we decide to do something about it.

According to HH XIV Dalai Lama, we should have reservations about anything offering the best, the quickest, the easiest, and the cheapest way to spiritual fulfilment. Rather than pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes and offering them an easy way out, we personally believe that a truthful approach is required. Only when we are willing to see and accept the scale of the mess we have created for ourselves – the huge pile of faeces that we have each deposited on our own doorstep – can we begin to take steps in order to rectify the situation. This is what the Buddha was asking us to become aware of when he taught the First Noble Truth: ‘suffering exists’.i

closed mind 4Before we engage in any kind of advanced meditative practice, we need to become established in the practice of observing the mind in all of its facets (i.e., mindfulness) so that we can more fully appreciate the extent and nature of our own suffering. However, in these modern times, most people are so immersed in their own suffering, that they are totally ignorant of just how unruly and narrow their own minds have become. Perhaps this is why there is the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’. However, in reality, ignorance is far from a state of bliss. Ignorance causes people to act in increasingly unskilful ways. Ultimately, ignorance causes the mind to continue to implode upon itself – becoming ever narrower and narrower. Just as there is no limit to how much the mind can expand, there is also no limit as to how much it can contract. Narrow minds tend to live life as though taking part in a soap opera or game show. Narrow minds not only harm the individual but also society as a whole. Just look at how many wars and conflicts have been caused by narrow and self-absorbed minds.

Taking the above into account and from a certain perspective, it could actually be argued that the increasing number of people who experience psychological problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression are actually in a fortunate situation. People in this situation cannot continue to pretend that the soap opera or game show they are currently living is a wise and skilful way in which to conduct their lives. Something is not quite right. Ego’s game doesn’t quite work. Maybe anxiety and depression and other such chronic psychological illnesses are a way of telling ourselves that we need to stop, breathe, slow down, and change the way in which we live. Perhaps that small voice within us, that has been suffocated for so long, is finally beginning to waken up and is crying out for spiritual nourishment. In a recent blog entitled ‘The Biopsychosocialspiritual Model of Mental Illness’, we discussed how spiritual factors play a vital role in our overall levels of psychological wellbeing. From this standpoint, feelings such as stress, sadness, discontent, and anger could actually be an opportunity in disguise – maybe they are the “divine sign” that we have been waiting for all along. They could become our greatest teachers – the raw material that we work with and transform as we progress along the spiritual path.

If we listen to this inner voice and gradually turn the mind towards spiritual practice, then we can steadily begin to progress towards enlightenment. As we discussed in our recent blog entitled ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners’, the important thing is not to make enlightenment into a goal. If we try too hard to attain enlightenment then we will never get anywhere. It will always remain a concept or an idea – something that exists out there somewhere and from which we are always separate. Therefore, the trick is just to take things one breath, one moment, and one step at a time. Try to be patient and consistent in your practice and take a long-term approach. Then, before you know it, you might find yourself in a position where you can predict your own enlightenment and where enlightenment is not as far away as you think! Perhaps you will see that it has been there all along – right here and right now.

tasting the fruit 3

i Within Buddhist philosophy, we find four basic forms of ‘suffering’: birth, sickness, old age, and death. We find also three principal categories of suffering: (i) the suffering of suffering, (ii) the suffering of change, and (iii) all-pervasive suffering (which forms the basis for the previous two). This latter category comprises attachment and aversion to things – especially to the ‘self’.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon