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.

To Enlightenment and Beyond

To Enlightenment and Beyond

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Click here for Italian readers – Clicca qui per i lettori italiani

Most Buddhist practice systems assert that there are various stages on the path to enlightenment. Perhaps the most well-documented example is the Ten Bodhisattva Bhūmis which in Mahayana Buddhism, are understood to reflect ten stages of spiritual awakening – culminating in Buddhahood – that a Bodhisattva (a highly compassionate spiritual being) progresses through. Another  perhaps less known  example is the Four Vidyadhara Levels in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A vidyadhara (which means ‘awareness holder’) is believed to progress through the following four stages: 1. matured vidyadhara, 2. vidyadhara with power over life, 3. mahamudra vidyadhara, and 4. spontaneously accomplished vidyadhara. In Theravada Buddhism, various states of spiritual awakening are likewise recognised, including the state of ‘Arahant’, which is generally understood to correspond to a level of spiritual awakening in which the cycle of samsara (the perpetuating round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth) has been broken, but that is still below the level of a Buddha. In order to arrive at the state of Arahant, Theravada Buddhism (and other early Buddhist schools) assert that the spiritual practitioner progresses through stages of ‘stream-enterer’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘once-returner’ (Sakadagami), and ‘non-returner’ (Anāgāmi).

Although there are numerous systems of thought in Buddhism regarding levels of spiritual awakening, all Buddhist schools appear to accept that there is a state of ‘full’ Buddhahood, which is unsurpassable. The Sanskrit term is ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ (Pāli: anuttarā sammā sambodhi), which literally means ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. There are specific references to the state of ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ in the Buddhist canonical literature (such as in the Astasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra of the Prajñāpāramitā collection), but the term is mostly employed to teach the principle that even when an individual attains a high level of spiritual realisation, there are invariably still subtle levels of ignorance that must be transcended. The state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ is understood to be a state that does not require any deliberate effort or ‘practice’ on the part of the spiritual practitioner.

Our take on the various levels of spiritual awakening and the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ differs from that of many Buddhist scholars and teachers. We accept that there are different levels of spiritual awakening, but labelling these states is not as easy as most people think. Each spiritual practitioner is an individual, and their spiritual journey is unique. Therefore, although there are some common ‘signposts’ that spiritual practitioners may encounter, it is difficult (and unwise) to assign a label to a person’s level of spiritual awakening. Indeed, for the diligent spiritual practitioner, spiritual development happens (or should happen) every moment of every day. Consequently, an individual’s level of realisation in the morning, is unlikely to be the same as the evening.

Our view differs from consensus opinion even more when it comes to the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. We accept that there is a state of Buddhahood, in which all forms of suffering are transcended, and in which spiritual awareness is self-sustaining (i.e., it does not require deliberate effort). We also accept that arriving at Buddhahood, a spiritual being penetrates fully, and abides as, the underlying ‘fabric’ of the universe. However, we don’t accept that there is such a thing as an ‘absolute’ level of spiritual awakening. If the state of Buddhahood reflects the upper limit of spiritual awareness, then logic dictates that there must also be a lower limit of spiritual awareness – a state of absolute spiritual ignorance. Based upon an observation of the life forms around us, it seems improbable that there is a lower limit to ignorance. Taking hatred amongst human beings as an example, it can consume a person’s mind to such an extent that they will harm and kill other humans, only to hate themselves and others more intensely. Perhaps this is what Einstein was referring to when he said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe”.

When a person becomes a ‘stream enterer’ that we referred to earlier, they become a child of the Buddhas, and enter a completely new world. They leave behind a life of living a soap opera and their – as well as other people’s – existence, takes on new meaning. When a person enters the stream that leads to liberation, their ‘wisdom eye’ is opened, compassion takes root in their being, and they begin to emanate spiritual presence. However, a similar thing happens when that same ‘stream enterer’eventually attains Buddhahood. They are born into a completely new way of being and perceiving. In fact, the Sanskrit root of the word Buddha is ‘Budh’, which literally means, ‘to wake up’ or ‘to be awakened’ to a new way of seeing.

When a being awakens to Buddhahood, it is not the case that their spiritual journey has finished. Rather, it has just begun. A Buddha has an inconceivable amount of wisdom and compassion at their disposition, but they have to learn how to apply that wisdom, how to grow with it, and how to transcend it. Buddhahood is a dynamic state; a Buddha is continuously evolving. Therefore, there are young Buddhas, mature Buddhas, and ancient Buddhas. There are Buddhas who are learning how to harness and mould the energy of the universe, and how to best apply it in order to help suffering beings. There are also Buddhas who are primordial, who are ‘masters of reality’, and who ‘gave birth’ to other enlightened beings.

Try not to reduce spiritual development into a system of limits, levels, and labels. For as many Buddhas that exist, there are that many different levels of Buddhahood. How inspiring that there is no upper limit to the amount the mind can expand and awaken. How beautiful that the spiritual journey continues for eternity. How amazing that within every sentient being, there exists the potential to attain Buddhahood, and then go beyond.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Verso l’illuminazione e oltre

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La maggior parte dei sistemi di pratica buddista affermano l’esistenza di varie tappe del percorso verso l’illuminazione. Forse l’esempio meglio documentato è quello dei Dieci Bodhisattva bhumi, che nel buddismo Mahayana riflettono le dieci fasi di risveglio spirituale, che culminano nella Buddità, attraverso cui un Bodhisattva (un essere spirituale altamente compassionevole) progredisce. Un altro esempio – forse meno conosciuto – è quello dei Quattro Livelli di Vidyadhara nella tradizione Nyingma del Buddismo Tibetano. Si ritiene che un Vidyadhara (che significa ‘detentore di consapevolezza’) progredisce attraverso le seguenti quattro fasi: 1. Vidyadhara maturato, 2. Vidyadhara con potere sulla vita, 3. Vidyadhara di mahamudra, e 4. Vidyadhara che è spontaneamente compiuto. Nel Buddismo Theravada, si ritrovano similmente vari stati di risveglio spirituale, compreso lo stato di ‘Arahant’, con cui generalmente si intende un livello di risveglio spirituale in cui il ciclo del samsara (il ciclo perpetuo di nascita, sofferenza, morte e rinascita) è stato interrotto, ma che è ancora al di sotto del livello di un Buddha. Al fine di raggiungere lo stato di Arahant, il Buddhismo Theravada (e altre scuole buddiste dello stesso periodo storico) affermano che il praticante spirituale progredisce attraverso le fasi di ‘colui che entra nella corrente’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘colui che ritorna una sola volta’ (Sakadagami) e ‘Anāgāmin’ (colui che non-ritorna).

Anche se ci sono numerosi sistemi di pensiero nel Buddismo per quanto riguarda i livelli di risveglio spirituale, tutte le scuole buddiste sembrano accettare il fatto che vi sia uno stato di Buddità ‘assoluta’, che è insuperabile. Il termine Sanscrito è ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ (Pali: anuttara Samma sambodhi), che letteralmente significa ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Ci sono riferimenti specifici allo stato di ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ nella letteratura canonica buddista (come nel Astasāhasrikā Prajnaparamita Sutra della collezione di Prajñāpāramitā), ma il termine viene impiegato principalmente per insegnare il principio che, anche quando un individuo raggiunge un alto livello di realizzazione spirituale, ci sono inevitabilmente ancora sottili livelli di ignoranza che devono essere trascesi. Lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è inteso come uno stato che non richiede alcuno sforzo intenzionale o ‘pratica’ da parte del praticante spirituale.

Il nostro punto di vista sui vari livelli di risveglio spirituale e sullo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è diverso da quello di molti studiosi e insegnanti buddisti. Accettiamo che ci siano diversi livelli di risveglio spirituale, ma l’etichettatura di questi Stati non è così facile come molti pensano. Ogni praticante spirituale è un individuo, e il suo cammino spirituale è unico. Pertanto, anche se ci sono alcuni ‘segnali’ comuni che i praticanti spirituali possono incontrare, è difficile (e non è saggio) assegnare un’etichetta al livello di risveglio spirituale di una persona. Infatti, per il praticante spirituale diligente, lo sviluppo spirituale avviene (o dovrebbe avvenire) ogni momento di ogni giorno. Di conseguenza, sarà improbabile che il livello di realizzazione di un individuo al mattino sarà come quello della sera.

Il nostro punto di vista differisce ancora di più dall’opinione diffusa per quanto riguarda lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Accettiamo che ci sia uno stato di Buddità, in cui tutte le forme di sofferenza sono trascese e nella quale la consapevolezza spirituale è autosufficiente (cioè, non richiede sforzo intenzionale). Accettiamo anche che, arrivando allo stato di Buddità, un essere spirituale penetra completamente – e rimane o resta come – la ‘matrice’ alla base dell’universo. Tuttavia, non accettiamo che ci sia qualcosa come un ‘assoluto’ livello di risveglio spirituale. Se lo stato di Buddità riflette il limite superiore di consapevolezza spirituale, allora la logica impone che ci debba essere anche un limite inferiore di consapevolezza spirituale – uno stato di ignoranza spirituale assoluta. Tuttavia, sulla base dell’osservazione delle forme di vita intorno a noi, sembra improbabile che ci sia un limite inferiore per l’ignoranza. Prendiamo, per esempio, l’odio tra gli esseri umani, che può consumare la mente di una persona a tal punto da nuocere e uccidere altri esseri umani, solo per odiare più intensamente se stessa e gli altri. Forse questo è ciò a cui Einstein si riferiva quando ha detto: “due cose sono infinite: l’universo e la stupidità umana; riguardo l’universo ho ancora dei dubbi”.

Quando si diventa una persona, come quella a cui abbiamo fatto riferimento in precedenza, ‘colui che entra nella corrente’, si diventa un bambino dei Buddha e si entra in un mondo completamente nuovo. Si lascia alle spalle una vita vissuta da soap opera e la sua esistenza – così come l’esistenza delle altre persone, assume un nuovo significato. Quando una persona entra nella corrente che porta alla liberazione, si apre il suo ‘occhio della saggezza’, la compassione si radica nel suo essere e comincia a emanare una presenza spirituale. Una cosa simile accade quando un praticante spirituale raggiunge alla fine lo stato di Buddità. Nasce in lui un modo completamente nuovo di essere e percepire. Infatti, la radice sanscrita della parola Buddha è ‘Budh’, che significa letteralmente,  ‘svegliarsi’ o ‘essere risvegliato’ a un nuovo modo di vedere.

Quando un essere si risveglia alla Buddità, non significa che abbia terminato il suo cammino spirituale. Piuttosto, è appena iniziato. Un Buddha ha una quantità inimmaginabile di saggezza e compassione a sua disposizione, ma deve imparare ad applicare quella saggezza, come crescere con essa, e come trascenderla. Lo stato di Buddità è uno stato dinamico; un Buddha è in continua evoluzione. Di conseguenza, ci sono giovani Buddha, Buddha maturi e Buddha antichi. Ci sono Buddha che stanno imparando a sfruttare e plasmare l’energia dell’universo e come applicarla al meglio al fine di aiutare gli esseri che soffrono. Ci sono anche Buddha che sono primordiali, che sono ‘maestri della realtà’ e che ‘hanno fatto nascere’ altri esseri illuminati.

Cercate di non ridurre lo sviluppo spirituale in un sistema di limiti, livelli ed etichette. Così come esistono molti Buddha, ci sono numerosi diversi livelli di Buddità. Quanto è stimolante il fatto che non esista un limite superiore a quanto la mente possa espandersi e risvegliarsi. Quanto è bello che il cammino spirituale continui per l’eternità. Quanto è incredibile che all’interno di ogni essere senziente, esista la possibilità di raggiungere la Buddità, e poi andare oltre.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

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Some people are of the view that in order to enter the spiritual path one has to forget about the world and everything we know. However, rather than forgetting about or turning one’s back on the world, a true meditation practitioner is a person that completely surrenders themselves to, and becomes fully immersed in, the world. In order to surrender ourselves to the world we first have to abandon hope and fear. When we have hope, we leave ourselves exposed to suffering. We suffer when our hopes and expectations are not met. Wherever there is hope, there is also fear – the fear that our hopes will not be realised.

Many people think that in order to be happy they need hope. But this kind of happiness is very conditional and is reliant upon the presence of external factors. Relying for our happiness on external factors will never lead to lasting happiness because situations and phenomena are changing all of the time – there is no way we can control them all. By always hoping to be somewhere else, be someone else, or have something else, we effectively turn our back on the present moment and deep spiritual peace can never take root in the mind. This is not to say that we should not make efforts to improve our current situation, but we should do so in such a way that we do not allow the mind to intoxicate itself with hope that our efforts will bear fruit. In other words, if we wish to change or improve our current circumstances, we should do so with absolute focus to the task at hand but remain completely unattached to expecting that we are somehow going to gain something or get somewhere.

It is by engaging in, yet remaining completely unattached to, all that we experience that we create the correct conditions for gaining our first taste of unconditional fearlessness. When they have become adept at abandoning hope and desire, absolutely nothing can shake the meditation practitioner’s confidence. Without trying, they begin to emanate strength, courage, and contentedness. They remain centred and un-phased by any situation. People can’t help but notice the fearlessness that exudes from the person walking the path of meditation. However, because the meditator’s fearlessness stems from a place of calm, compassion, and non-attachment, people invariable feel reassured and safe in their presence.

Of course, there will always be some people who feel threatened and unsettled in the presence of a person that has wholeheartedly entered the path of meditation. However, rather than actually being afraid of the meditation practitioner, it is more the case that such people are afraid of themselves. Due to being free of hope and the idea of being somewhere else or being somebody else, the mind of an accomplished meditator is calm and completely clear. When others encounter this clear awareness, it acts as a mirror and reflects back upon them that which is prominent in their mind. Therefore, upon meeting a genuine meditation practitioner, some people are forced to face up to the fact they are living a meaningless soap opera and that they are effectively devoid of spiritual awareness. Understandably, this is a difficult pill to swallow but having it pointed out is a good thing because it gives people the opportunity to examine their life choices and to make changes where appropriate. However, it is often the case that people don’t want to admit that there is no substance to the self they have worked so hard to create. They become angry at themselves and at what is reflected in the meditation practitioner’s mind.

As referred to above, the quality of fearlessness that arises naturally as part of walking the path of meditation stems from a place of wisdom, compassion, and having abandoned all hopes. Consequently, it has absolutely nothing to do with being macho or deliberately trying to be courageous. These types of fearlessness are very much reliant on the presence of a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, and an ‘I’. The fearlessness that exudes from the authentic meditation practitioner is what is left after the ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’ are removed from the equation. For this reason, the fearlessness that the meditator experiences is completely devoid of aggression and is without a personal agenda.

An important source of the authentic meditation practitioner’s fearlessness is absolute commitment to the path that they are walking. They do not make a distinction between spiritual practice and time at work or time with the family. Whatever they are doing and wherever they find themselves, they strive to perfect each breath, moment, and activity of their lives. This unremitting commitment to their chosen path provides them with access to an immense resource of spiritual energy. It is the energy of the present moment that flows through and connects all phenomena. By tapping into and nourishing themselves in this energy, the authentic meditation practitioner is able to respond with fearlessness and take whatever happens in their stride. Everything that they encounter forms part of their practice. It doesn’t matter if they are seen as a national hero or if the whole country despises and rises against them – a person that has truly entered the path of meditation has absolute confidence in what they are doing. This is a beautiful and invigorating way to live.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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

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

Khyentse, D. (2007). The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Nanamoli Bhikkhu. (1979). The Path of Purification: Visuddhi Magga. Kandy (Sri Lanka): Buddhist Publication Society.

Santideva. (1997). A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. (V. A. Wallace, & A. B. Wallace, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Tsong-Kha-pa. (2004). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Vol. 1). (J. W. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & The Lamrim Chenmo Translation committee, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Trungpa, C. (2002). Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala.

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.