Does Mindfulness Work?

Does Mindfulness Work?

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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

For mindful teaching of mindfulness – The Psychologist

This letter was written by colleagues in response to my recent interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn. The letter has just been published in The Psychologist. For mindful teaching of mindfulness – The Psychologist.

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

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The five precepts (Pāli: pañca-sīlāni) provide a basic code for living a life that is in-keeping with Buddhist ethical ideals. They are recited by lay and monastic Buddhist practitioners all over the world and a great deal has been written about their literal meaning. In today’s post, we offer an interpretation of the five precepts that focuses on their hidden meaning.

First Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing (Pānātipātā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden meaning of the first precept is that we should not kill the Buddha within. Whenever we chase after mundane goals such as wealth and status, this is killing the Buddha within. Our time on this earth is limited and sooner or later we will encounter death. At the point of death, all of our various life encounters and accomplishments mean absolutely nothing. They have no more significance than the fading memories of a dream and no matter how hard we try, nothing from this life can be taken into the next. The only exception to this is the spiritual insight that we manage to accrue on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, if we don’t use this precious human rebirth to nourish and develop ourselves spiritually, we suffocate the Buddha within.

When we are with someone who is talking with us, confiding in us, and our mind is thinking about either what we want to say or what we could be doing instead of being with that person, then we are killing the Buddha within that person and we kill the Buddha within ourselves. When we do not listen to the bird that is singing for us then we kill the Buddha within ourselves as well as the Buddha in the bird. That bird spent many lifetimes training to sing that song so that we could hear it and we spent many lifetimes training so that we could listen to what the bird has to say. The bird sang, we couldn’t care, the moment passed and we were not aware. We are as good as dead alongside the Buddha within.

Second Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given (Adinnādānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the second precept is that we should not steal from ourselves the opportunity to attain enlightenment in this lifetime. The second precept also means that we should not steal this opportunity from others. The opportunity to attain enlightenment is the birth-right of every living being in the universe. We steal away this opportunity from ourselves each time we practice mindless, selfish, and unskilful ways. We steal away this opportunity from others when we do not act with kindness, awareness, and gentleness in their presence.

When people set themselves up as ‘Buddhist’ teachers without having dedicated their lives to spiritual practice (or in some cases after having taken part in just one or two meditation retreats facilitated by people who have no real spiritual experience), they are putting their own spiritual lives in jeopardy. More concerning however, is that they are stealing the spiritual breath of others. They are stealing other people’s opportunity to attain enlightenment. People come to them obviously in need of spiritual nourishment and all they get is the unfortunate experience of being robbed – both spiritually and materially.

Third Precept: I undertake the training rule to avoid lustful conduct (Kāmesumicchācāra veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost aspect of the third precept is that we should not lust after being a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’. Because of wanting to be somebody, people are unable to be themselves. The more we want to be someone, the more difficult it becomes to just simply be. Wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’ causes us to develop a big ego which acts as an obstacle to spiritual growth. When we let go of the idea that we inherently exist, we cease to separate ourselves from the energy and dance of Dharmata that is all around us. Phenomena do not exist as discrete entities. They exist as one. When the universe breathes in, all of the phenomena that it contains breathe in with it. When the universe breathes out, all of the matter and space that it contains also breathes out. When we stop wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’, we are able to relax into and once again abide in unison with the energy of all that is.

Forth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech (Musāvādā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the fourth precept means that we should not utter false speech by giving Dharma teachings on subjects that we have not fully and directly realised ourselves. It seems that the number of so called Dharma and meditation teachers is rapidly increasing. More and more people are writing books about the Buddhist teachings (including mindfulness), and more and more people are offering meditation retreats and courses. Whenever we try to instruct others in spiritual teachings that we ourselves have not fully realised, we lie to them and we also lie to ourselves. This false speech serves to water down the Dharma, bolster our egos, and distance us (and those listening to us) from the possibility of cultivating true meditative calm and insight.

The same applies when we utter words such as “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”. If during our day-to-day existence, we are only concerned with the petty affairs of our lives and getting ahead in the world, then these words are untrue. If we wish to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we have to stop thinking that the world revolves around us. We have to stop living a soap opera. We have to make our entire life a spiritual practice and not just engage in (what we deem to be) Buddhist practice when it is convenient to us or when we are going through a particularly difficult time.

Fifth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from ingesting intoxicants (Surāmerayamajjapamādatthānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost meaning of the fifth precept is that we should not fill up and intoxicate our own mind or other people’s minds with concepts, clever ideas, and wrong views. Too many people have their minds full-up. If our minds are too full then there is no room for wholesome thoughts to grow and flourish. In a full mind there is no space for simply being, and there is no emptiness to nurture and refresh our being. Having our minds full-up all of the time becomes very stressful and tiring not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we interact.

Some people that practice Buddhism fill up their minds with the idea that they are a Theravada Buddhist, a Mahayana Buddhist, or a Vajrayana Buddhist. However, a Theravada Buddhist who is caught up in the idea of being a Theravada Buddhist is not, in truth, a Theravada Buddhist. The same applies to Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners who foolishly attach themselves to the name and label of their particular Buddhist practice modality.  In Theravada Buddhism there are strong Mahayana and Vajrayana elements, and in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism there are strong Theravada elements.

In our work as Buddhist monks, we meet lots of people that proudly introduce themselves as (for example) a vegetarian, vegan, spiritual teacher, meditator, or philanthropist. If people want to be a vegetarian or a vegan that’s great – good for them. But if they over-identify with the idea of being a vegetarian and/or believe that it somehow makes them a more spiritual or virtuous person, then they have allowed their life choices to intoxicate their mind. We abstain from intoxicating the mind with concepts and wrong views when we observe but do not attach ourselves to thoughts and feelings. When we allow thoughts, feelings, and other mental processes to roll freely through the mind and not to stick to it, the mind becomes completely immune to all forms of intoxicant.

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

Can a Person Attain Enlightenment Just by Practicing Mindfulness?

Can a Person Attain Enlightenment Just by Practicing Mindfulness?

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The answer to the question of whether a person can attain enlightenment by only practicing mindfulness (obviously) depends on what definition of mindfulness and enlightenment one chooses to work with.

Let’s start by establishing what is actually meant in Buddhism by the term “enlightenment”. As part of our role as Buddhist monks and Psychologists (that specialise in researching Buddhist meditation), we come across a lot of Buddhist and non-Buddhist meditation teachers who are only too pleased to inform us that they have attained enlightenment. In our opinion, there are many reasons why these individuals decide to inform us (and others) that they are enlightened. Some of the most obvious reasons (in ascending order of “believability”) are that these people:

  •  Are in fact enlightened beings and like to tell other all about their hidden qualities.
  • Believe that enlightenment simply means having a superior intellect compared to other people around them.
  • Have had – or believe they have had – some kind of genuine spiritual experience.
  • Know full well that they are not enlightened but claim to be so in order to get an ego-kick or because they think it will help their career or reputation.

If it is accepted that (for example) enlightenment means simply being more intelligent than the average person or having given rise to genuine spiritual experiences, then it is certainly possible that exclusively practising mindfulness (i.e., rather than combining it with other spiritual and meditative practices) could lead to enlightenment. However, in our opinion, none of the meditation teachers we have met who informed us that they are enlightened, were, in fact, enlightened. Based on a synthesis of the Buddhist commentaries and canonical texts, we recently explicated enlightenment as a state in which all gross and subtle forms of suffering have completely ceased and in which the following “competencies” are present: (i) omniscience, (ii) deathlessness, (iii) dwelling in emptiness, (iv) unconditional blissful abiding, (v) freedom to take rebirth in any realm according to the needs of beings, (vi) great compassion (Sanskrit: maha karuna), and (vii) command over animate and inanimate phenomena.

Now that we have (hopefully) provided a clearer picture of what constitutes a Buddhist interpretation of enlightenment, and before we provide our opinion on whether mindfulness alone can lead to enlightenment, let’s move on now to briefly examine what is meant in Buddhism by the term “mindfulness”. Providing an absolute definition of the Buddhist depiction of mindfulness is not an easy task because Buddhist traditions do not necessarily interpret and practice mindfulness in the same way. In terms of the foundational (i.e., Theravada) Buddhist vehicle which is what might be regarded as constituting a more ‘exoteric’ approach to Buddhist practice, mindfulness – which is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path – is principally understood to play an important role in regulating meditative concentration. In this more exoteric interpretation, mindfulness is generally practised as a means of ensuring that concentration remains positioned on a specific meditative object (which can also include the present moment).

Based upon how mindfulness is interpreted in exoteric Buddhist contexts, there do not exist strong grounds for arguing that the exclusive practice of mindfulness can lead to enlightenment. The primary reason for this is because mindfulness – according to the traditional Buddhist model – is just one component of the “right path” to enlightenment. The other components of this path are the remaining seven aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path (for a more detailed discussion of the Noble Eightfold Path see our post on the Scientific Study of the Noble Eightfold Path).

Although we have just argued that it is improbable that enlightenment could be reached just by practising mindfulness, if we make a slight adjustment to what is meant by the term mindfulness by adopting a more esoteric definition, then our opinion on this matter changes accordingly. A more esoteric definition of mindfulness, using the words of Dudjom Rinpoche, is the “simple recollection of the recognition of your own nature”. We would argue that exclusively practising mindfulness in a manner consistent with this more esoteric definition could actually lead to enlightenment.

There is a great deal of synergy between the abovementioned exoteric and esoteric Buddhist delineations of mindfulness because both of these approaches effectively view mindfulness as a faculty that regulates meditative concentration. The main difference between the two models is that in the exoteric approach something external and separate from the individual is taken as the object of meditative concentration, while in the esoteric approach the individual’s inherent enlightened nature becomes the main focus of meditation. Both of these methods constitute completely valid approaches and – as far as we see it – there isn’t any contradiction between them.

Although we are using the terms “exoteric” and “esoteric, it should be remembered that esoteric Buddhist practices will never bear fruit unless a person has first internalised and mastered the exoteric Buddhist teachings. Likewise, even very basic or seemingly exoteric practices such as simply observing the breath can become extremely potent and esoteric if they are practised in the right way.

Mindfulness plays an essential role in helping us progress along the path to enlightenment. As we grow in spiritual insight and awareness, our understanding of both mindfulness and enlightenment should also evolve. As we discussed in a recent (and free to download) article that we wrote called The Lineage of Mindfulness, it is important to allow our understanding of mindfulness and enlightenment to constantly change. Indeed, if we become attached or try to hold onto what we think constitutes mindfulness or enlightenment, then we distance ourselves from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. It is likewise very important that we avoid becoming attached to the idea of “attaining” enlightenment because for as long as enlightenment is seen as a future goal, it will remain exactly that.

 

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

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

Dudjom Rinpoche. (2005). Wisdom Nectar: Dudjom Rinpoche’s Heart Advice. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

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

Nyanaponika Thera. (1983). The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. London: Rider.

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

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2025). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer. [In Press]

Can Meditation Improve Work-related Stress and Job Performance?

Can Meditation Improve Work-related Stress and Job Performance?

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Along with some research colleagues, we recently conducted a randomised controlled trial to investigate the effects of meditation on work related-wellbeing and job performance in office managers. In today’s post, we provide a brief overview of some of the main findings of our study and discuss whether meditation/mindfulness has a role in the workplace setting. The full findings of the study have recently been published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (IJMHA) – see below for the full reference.

According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), work-related stress accounts for 40% of all work-related illness and approximately 20% of British adults are stressed as a result of their work. The HSE also estimates that between mid-2011 and mid-2012, 10.4 million working days were lost in Great Britain due to work-related stress, which in conjunction with other work-related mental health issues, costs the British economy billions of pounds every year. Work related stress can have serious negative consequences for both employees and the organisations they work for. Some examples are mental illness, somatic illness, work-related injury, mortality, reduced productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism (where people turn up for work when they are not really well enough to do so), high staff turn-over, unsafe driving, and employee compensation claims.

Due to its potential to improve both work-related wellbeing and job performance, employers and employees are becoming increasingly interested in meditation. However, despite the growth of interest into the applications of meditation in the workplace, there still remains a paucity of methodologically-robust studies. To overcome this problem, we conducted a randomised controlled trial whereby office managers (152 in total) received either an eight-week meditation intervention (known as Meditation Awareness Training – ‘MAT’ for short) or a control intervention (that did not involve any meditation).

In order to be included in the study, participants had to be in full-time employment (working more than 30 hours per week) and have management responsibility for at least one salaried direct report (excluding secretaries or personal assistants). They also had to report to a line manager and meet various other eligibility criteria (e.g., be office-based for at least 50% of working hours, over 18 years of age, not undergoing psychotherapy or meditation training, etc.).

As we have discussed in other posts on this blog, the MAT intervention that managers received is an eight-week secular intervention that follows a more traditional and comprehensive approach to meditation. Existent mindfulness-based therapies tend to teach mindfulness ‘out of context’ and in isolation of the factors that are traditionally deemed to underlie effective mindfulness training (e.g., right intention, right effort, right livelihood, right view etc. – see our recent post on the Scientific Study of the Noble Eightfold Path for a discussion of how all of these practices link together and support each other). Although mindfulness is an integral component of MAT, it is not the exclusive focus. Indeed, in addition to mindfulness, MAT incorporates meditation techniques that are specifically intended to engender: (i) citizenship, (ii) perceptive clarity, (iii) ethical and compassionate awareness, (iv) meditative insight (e.g., into subtle concepts such as non-self and impermanence), (v) patience, (vi) generosity (e.g., of one’s time and energy), and (vii) perspective. These practices are taught via seminars and/or workshops and are integrated into a graded-series of guided meditations. Participants attend eight x 90-minute workshops and receive a CD of guided meditations to facilitate daily self-practice. Weekly sessions comprise three distinct phases: (i) a taught/presentation component (approximately 35 minutes), (ii) a facilitated group-discussion component (approximately 25 minutes), and (iii) a guided meditation and/or mindfulness exercise (approximately 20 minutes). A short break (5-10 minutes) is always scheduled immediately prior to the guided meditation. On a four-weekly basis, each participant is invited to attend a one-to-one support session (of 50-minute duration) with the program facilitator. The support sessions provide an opportunity to discuss individual progress or problems with the meditation training.

Following completion of the eight-week MAT intervention, and compared to non-meditating control group participants, managers that received MAT demonstrated significant and sizeable improvements in levels of (i) work-related stress (HSE Management Standards Work-Related Stress Indicator Tool [HSE, n.d.]), (ii) job satisfaction (Abridged Job in General Scale [Russel et al., 2004], (iii)  psychological distress (Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale [Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995]), and (iv) employer-rated job performance (Role-Based Performance Scale [Welbourne, Johnson, & Erez, 1998]):

As we discussed in our published IJMHA paper, these findings have a number of important implications for the ongoing integration of meditative approaches into workplace settings. Existing psychological models of work-related stress tend to be based on an ‘exposure-environmental’ model of work stress. In other words, work-related stress is deemed to be a function of the extent to which employees are exposed to sub-optimal working conditions (e.g., inadequate support systems, inflexible working hours, conflicting demands, overly-taxing and/or unrealistic deadlines, low-work autonomy, etc.). In effect, this manner of conceptualising work-related stress emphasizes the importance of the employee’s ‘external’ work environment (i.e., as opposed to their ‘internal’ psychological environment). However, in our study, although the intervention exclusively involved training participants in how to practice meditation and did not make any changes to their external working conditions, the meditating managers began to derive much more satisfaction from their work and began to see the workplace as a more enjoyable place to be. Thus, findings from our study indicate that rather than make changes to the external work environment, a more effective means of reducing work-related stress (and improving job performance) might be to focus on changing employee’s ‘internal’ (i.e., psychological) environment.

Of course, we are not saying that organisations should not seek to improve the working conditions that they provide for their employees. However, by using meditation to facilitate a perceptual-shift in how they respond and relate to sensory and psychological stimuli, it seems that employees are better able to objectify their cognitive processes and to apprehend them as passing phenomena. This manner of transferring the locus of control for stress from external work conditions to internal attentional resources can be analogized as the difference between covering the entire outdoors with leather (i.e., in order to make walking outside more comfortable), versus simply adorning the feet with a leather sole. We conclude that certain meditation-based interventions might be cost-effective approaches for improving work-related stress (and job performance) due to them not actually requiring any (‘externally-orientated’) modifications to human resource management systems and practices.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Allen, T. D., & Kiburz, K. M. (2012). Trait mindfulness and work-family balance among working parents: The mediating effects of vitality and sleep quality. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 80, 372-379.

Dane, E. (2010). Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37, 997-1018.

Griffiths, M. D., & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 1, 87-95.

Health and Safety Executive. (2007). Managing the causes of work-related stress. A step-by-step approach using Management European Approaches to work-related stress. Nottingham (UK): Author.

Health and Safety Executive. (2008). Improving health and work: Changing lives. Available from: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/hwwb-improving-health-and-work-changing-lives.pdf. (Accessed 24th December 2013).

Health and Safety Executive. (2012). Stress and psychological disorders. Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/index.htm. (Accessed 24th December 2013).

Karanika-Murray, M., & Weyman, A. K. (2013). Optimising workplace interventions for health and wellbeing: A commentary on the limitations of the public health perspective within the workplace health arena. International Journal of Workplace Health Management, 6, 104-117.

Manocha, R., Black, D., Sarris, J., & Stough, C. (2011). A randomised controlled trial of meditation for work stress, anxiety and depressed mood in full-time workers. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, DOI:10.1155/2011/960583.

Malarkey, W. B., Jarjoura, D., & Klatt, M. (2013). Workplace based mindfulness practice and inflammation: A randomized trial. Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, 27, 145-154.

Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. (2007). Mental health at work: Developing the business case. London: Author.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Dunn, T., Singh, N., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Meditation Awareness Training for work-related wellbeing and job performance: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-014-9513-2.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Managers’ experiences of Meditation Awareness Training. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0334-y.

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

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Work-related mental health and job performance: Can mindfulness help? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 129-137.

Warneke, E., Quinn, S., Ogden, K., Towle, N., & Nelson, M. R. (2011). A randomized controlled trial of the effects of mindfulness practice on medical student stress levels. Medical Education, 45, 381-388.

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.

Should Mindfulness be Taught to the Military?

Should Mindfulness be Taught to the Military?

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A few months ago, we wrote a post on whether mindfulness should be used in military (and business) settings?  As we mentioned in our earlier post, the issue of using mindfulness in military settings is a reasonably hot topic at the moment because although some people – including ourselves – believe that there is no reason why mindfulness should not be taught to military or business personnel, others are of the view that because mindfulness was originally taught as a means of fostering peace and spiritual awakening, it is inappropriate to teach mindfulness to the armed forces. Since writing the above post, we have received a few emails/comments from people disagreeing with or requesting additional clarification on some of the arguments that we made. Thus, in today’s post, we revisit this topic and provide five reasons why – in our opinion – teaching mindfulness to military personnel is in keeping with Buddhist values and ideals.

  1. The Dharma is for everybody: The Buddhist teachings (known as the Dharma) – which include teachings on mindfulness – are universal in their application. It does not matter if a person is rich or poor, good or bad, famous or obscure, young or old, male or female, or if they purport not to have an interest in matters of a spiritual nature – the Dharma is available for everybody to benefit from. Indeed, it is not for anybody – not even the Buddha – to decide which people should be denied the spiritual teachings and which people should receive them. Each person must make that choice on an individual basis and, really and truly, the only way they can make an informed decision about whether a particular form of spiritual practice is right for them, is if they have the opportunity to try it first. Therefore, introducing military personnel to the mindfulness teachings brings people working in military settings into contact with the Dharma and gives them the opportunity to make an informed decision as to whether mindfulness is a practice they would like to integrate into their lives. This is a good thing.
  2. The Dharma is 100% effective for transforming suffering: The Buddhist teachings are 100% effective for uprooting the causes of suffering and for cultivating wisdom. Indeed, ithas been said by Buddhist teachers of the past that if just one word of the Buddha’s wisdom is correctly put into practice, then lasting benefit will ensue. In other words, if the Buddhist teachings – in whatever form they mayappear – are correctly taught and correctly practiced, then there is only one outcome for the practitioner – an increase in wisdom, compassion, and awareness. In the event that such qualities do not begin to manifest in theindividual, this means that either the teachings are not being taught correctly, or they are not being practiced in the right way.Thus, if a person is not being taught correctly or is not practising the Dharma properly, then no meaningful benefit will arise from their practice and they cannot be called authentic Dharma or authentic mindfulness practitioners. Therefore, as we discussed in our original post on mindfulness and the military, we don’t need to be worried about people potentially misusing the insight or abilities they accrue when practicing the Buddhist teachings – it simply can’t happen. Perhaps a better way of understanding this principle is to think of the Buddhist teachings – including the mindfulness teachings – as having a natural protection or defence mechanism. If a person comes into contact with the Dharma who is not ready to receive the teachings or who intends to use them for selfish or negative purposes, their wrong intention will prevent the teachings from taking root within their being. In fact, all that they will receive will be a theoretical and superficial account of the teachings – and even this won’t be properly understood. Of course, one might argue that with this newly-accumulated theoretical knowledge military personnel may play a part in passing on wrong information or a watered-down version of the Buddhist teachings from one person to another. However, given that there are a lot of (so-called) Buddhist and mindfulness teachers already doing this, then we don’t see why the military should be targeted for criticism over and above anybody else.
  3. Wise and compassionate military leaders are better than mindless ones: In one of the sets of feedback that we received on our original post on this subject, a person commented that “My take is that they [people in the military] should resign and renounce their military affiliations.” Although there is nothing greater we would like than to live in a world where there is no need for countries to have armed forces, unfortunately, this is not the world wecurrently live in. Indeed, if a country decided to disband its armed forces, then because of peoples’ greed and ignorance, thelikelyhood is that the country in question would be subject to invasion from other armed forces, attacks from terrorist groups, and/or a greater amount of civil unrest and rioting. Therefore, if we are going to teach the Dharma, then we have to do so in a way that is realistic, up-to-date, and relevant to the world that we live in. To propose that anybody in the military who wants to live an ethically and morally wholesome life (which in most countries probably includes the overwhelming majority of military personnel) simply resigns their post is not a realistic suggestion and would jeopardise the safety and wellbeing of countless people across the globe.Therefore, a much more pragmatic solution is to have soldiers and military leaders that practice spiritual development and who execute their role with wisdom and loving-kindness for all beings. In fact, if all military personnel who aspire to live a good life and to be good world citizens were to resign from the military, then we think there would be much more conflict and acts of military brutality than there already are. To explain this idea in a different way, we would like to share with you a discussion we had this morning with a young Sri Lankan man who has been assigned by the community we are staying with at the moment to use a sling shot to keep the crows away from washing and feeding in the clean water. We noticed the young man was looking very sad and so we decided to ask him what was upsetting him. He responded by saying that he was upset because the job he had been assigned meant that he could not uphold his Buddhist vows because he was constantly firing stones at the passing crows. We asked the young man how many crows he had actually hit since he took up his post. He said that to his knowledge, he hadn’t actually hit a single crow because he always aims for roof tops or for a branch of a tree so that the birds fly away when they hear the noise. We then asked the man if everybody assigned to do this task does the same thing as him or if some people actually try to hit the birds. The young man responded by explaining that there are some young men in the village who take great pleasure in hitting the crows and who even have competitions with each other to see who can hit or kill the most birds in one day. After hearing this we suggested to the young man that he was actually conducting his role with great compassion and wisdom because on the one hand, he was performing his job effectively by protecting the water from dirt and disease, but at the same time he was preventing other people from causing harm to sentient beings. On hearing this the young man gave the most beautiful smile and happiness returned to his face.In a world where there is lots of greed, negativity and extreme views, it seems that some kind of armed force is essential for acting as a deterrent and for maintaining a relative amount of peace and wellbeing. However, it is definitely possible for military leaders to apply wisdom and compassion in the way in which they conduct their roles and to do their best to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts. For such military leaders, the use of weaponry would be kept to an absolute minimum and weaponry would be used only after all other options had been exhausted. You see, it is all very well saying that under no circumstances must a person take another person’s life, but from time to time situations arise that mean such an approach is not realistic. One obvious example would be eliminating the threat caused by a terrorist who was about to set off a bomb in order to cause harm to hundreds of people. In our opinion, if there was no way to capture and disarm the terrorist without causing them harm, then in the interests of preserving life, it would be acceptable and in keeping with Buddhist values to take defensive action in order to eliminate the threat to many others. The difference is that the mindful or Buddhist practitioner would do so with the greatest amount of love and compassion for the terrorist and would understand that it is ignorance that has led them to such extremist behaviour.
  4. Military personnel often make good Dharma practitioners: Some of the most sincere mindfulness/Dharma practitioners that we have come across have been people with a military background. We are not 100% sure why some people with a military background take very well to the practice of mindfulness but we believe individuals that have completed military service in hostile areas seem to better understand just how harsh and unpredictable life can be. The process of having first-hand experience of death and suffering can sometimes jolt a person out of selfishness and of taking everything for granted. Indeed, here in the West, most people enjoy a privileged lifestyle and do not have to worry about finding food, shelter, or medicine. Despite this, many people in developed countries take their situation for granted and spend all of their time complaining about things or being bigoted and passing judgement on others. Depending on the person and on where they have completed active service, working in the armed forces can sometimes shake a person out of this selfish attitude and cause them to become disillusioned with the soap opera that a large number of civilians choose to adopt as their way of life.
  5. Research supports the use of mindfulness for military personnel: The use of mindfulness in military settings is supported by two different areas of mindfulness research (see further reading list below for examples of studies). The first area is research demonstrating that mindfulness actually helps people to become more compassionate (both for themselves and for others) and to grow in spiritual insight. The second area is research that has been specifically conducted with military personnel and demonstrates that mindfulness both prevents and helps individuals recover from psychological distress.

We hope the above helps to clarify why we cautiously advocate the responsible integration of mindfulness into military settings. However, we appreciate that this is quite a sensitive topic and that not everybody will share our view.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Le, T. N. (2014). Mindfulness-Based Adventure Camp for military youth. Journal of Extension, 52, Article No. 2FEA5.

Rice, V., Boykin, G., Jeter, A., Villarreal, J., Overby, C., & Alfred, P. (2013). The Relationship between mindfulness and resiliency among active duty service members and military veterans. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 57, 11387-1391.

Stanley, E.A., Schaldach, J. M., Kiyonaga, A., & Jha, A. P. (2011).  Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training: A case study of a high-stress predeployment military cohort. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 18, 566-576.

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, 53, 849-863.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Managers’ experiences of Meditation Awareness Training. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0334-y.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation in psychotherapy. Thresholds: Quarterly Journal of the Association for Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counselling (A Journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), Spring Issue, 9-12.

Trousselard, M., Steiler, D., Claverie, D., & Canini, F. (2012). Relationship between mindfulness and psychological adjustment in soldiers according to their confrontation with repeated deployments and stressors. Psychology, 3, 100-115.

Williams, M. J., McManus, F., Muse, K., & Williams, J. M. (2011). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for severe health anxiety (hypochondriasis): An interpretative phenomenological analysis of patients’ experiences. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 50, 379-97.

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

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

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

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

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

The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

This week’s post is an article that we recently published in The Buddhist Voice: The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners. We wrote this paper with our friend and colleague Prof Mark Griffiths and the full citation is as follows: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners. Buddhist Voice, 1(5), 22-24.

tasting the fruit 3

The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

There are many excellent Buddhist texts that focus on how we should practice meditation – but it’s not always easy to come across material that specifically points out where meditation can go wrong. Based on a review of both the scientific and Buddhist literature, and on observations from our own research and practice of meditation, this article considers what we believe to be the top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners:

1. Not starting to meditate: Although not taking up the practice of meditation can’t really be said to be a mistake made by people who meditate, we decided to include this because there are clearly people that are interested in practicing meditation but never actually get round to doing so. For example, a recent survey by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of British adults would like to practice meditation, but only a quarter actually do so. Despite our best intentions and no matter how many meditation books we might read, if we never actually get around to practicing meditation, then the fruits of meditation practice will never develop.

2. Giving-up once started: As with many things in life, it is not uncommon for people to begin practicing meditation enthusiastically, but then give up as soon as they encounter a minor difficulty. One reason why many Buddhists don’t keep up their meditation practice is because they have unrealistic expectations as to what meditation entails. Meditation is not a quick-fix solution. Long-lasting spiritual growth requires perseverance and a great deal of practice. Thinking that meditation can immediately solve all of our problems or change our life overnight is a mistake. However, just as all effects follow a cause, the day-in day-out infusing of all aspects of our life with meditative awareness gradually begins to soften the conditioned mind and – over time – allows rays of tranquillity and insight to slowly break through. When correctly practiced, meditation can be extremely hard work and requires us to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. However, meditation also requires us to thoroughly enjoy life, no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Meditation isn’t easy, but it can – and should – be fun!

3. Not finding a teacher: An accomplished spiritual guide is necessary for effective meditative and spiritual development. Many people underestimate  the importance of this point, and misunderstand the role of the spiritual guide more generally. From the Buddhist perspective, the role of the spiritual guide is not so much about transmitting extensive volumes of teachings, but more about removing obstacles that cloud the mind and prevent its true nature from shining through. In other words, the teacher’s role is about removing confusion from the mind rather than cluttering it up with more concepts and theories. The spiritual guide has been likened to a skilful surgeon that carefully cuts away infected or damaged tissue. This can be a painful process, but it is necessary to make a full recovery. In a research paper that we recently published in the Journal of Religion and Health, we showed that meditation practitioners made better progress where they felt they were guided by an experienced meditation teacher. Given that most people’s minds have had many years to become highly accomplished in the practices of mindlessness and self-centredness, a skilful guide is required to help undo this deep-rooted conditioning.

4. Finding an unsuitable teacher: Worse than not finding a spiritual guide, is following one who is inappropriately skilled and qualified. People can spend many years practicing ineffective meditation techniques and achieve little more than bolstering the ego (and bank account) of their chosen guide. Meditation teachers who offer palm readings in exchange for money and/or that (try to) predict lottery numbers are quite easy to identify as frauds. But things can get a little trickier when, for example, a teacher without authentic spiritual realization happens to be a holder of an established lineage, has extensive scholarly training, and/or is a ‘recognised’ reincarnate lama. With such credentials, it can be very difficult for people to discern whether or not they are being led astray. To perform the role effectively, the spiritual teacher must be highly skilled in understanding and guiding people’s minds. According to the 15th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Tsong-kha-pa, a suitable spiritual guide is one who is “thoroughly pacified”, “serene” and “disciplined”. So as Buddhist practitioners, we should ask lots of questions and take time to get to know our prospective meditation teacher. However, at the same time, we should avoid having too many preconceived ideas and should try not to listen to other people’s opinions. Realized spiritual guides can take various guises and may not always fit what we deem to be the ‘perfect mould’. A good question to ask ourselves is:  ‘Do I feel enriched physically, mentally, and spiritually when in this person’s presence’? Try to allow your intuitive mind to answer this question rather than taking an overly-analytical approach.

5. Trying too hard: Trying too hard to make progress meditatively and/or spiritually can often lead to extreme behaviors. Extreme behaviors can cause life to become unbalanced and invariably give rise to unhealthy consequences. We discussed this in a recent issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in which we highlighted the scientific evidence showing that over-intensive meditation practice can actually induce psychotic episodes. Therefore, what we should really be aiming to do is to implement the Buddhist teachings of adopting a ‘middle-way philosophy’ towards our meditation practice (i.e., between too-little and too-much meditation). An approach of ‘short sessions, many times’ is generally preferred by Buddhist teachers – but the most important thing is to adopt a meditation routine that works for the individual.

6. Not trying hard enough: Meditative development requires us to make the ‘right effort’ at all times. Sometimes people try to cram in their meditation practice with all of the other activities of their lives and then make the excuse that they don’t have time to practice. However, this approach often leads to a stressful attitude towards meditation and for some people the practice may quickly start to become a chore. Therefore, the trick is to not create a separation between your meditation practice and the rest of your life. In fact, it’s when you blow out your candles and stand up from your meditation cushion (or chair) that the practice really begins. While sitting at the computer, cooking the dinner, doing the weekly food shop, or even when going to the toilet, do your best to do so meditatively. Real meditators are those that can practice ‘on the job’. Try not to battle with yourself – make the present moment your home and simply bring your awareness to whatever you are doing.

7. Forgetting about death: One of the main reasons why people’s meditative practice goes astray is because they forget about death. We only have to look in the mirror to be reminded that from the moment we are born, every single day of our lives that goes by brings us closer to our death. We can’t hide from death nor can we predict when we will die. In fact, at any one time, the only thing that separates us from death is a single breath in or out. In general, people are complacent about death and continue to immerse themselves in totally meaningless activities. However, such complacency quickly disappears when people find themselves at death’s door. The Buddhist teachings explain that if  we haven’t made our human rebirth into a precious one (i.e., by infusing our life with spiritual awareness), then at the time of death we will be totally confused and tormented by regret and fear. At this time, family, friends, possessions, and reputation count for absolutely nothing. Our life will have been wasted and we will be leaving an island of jewels (i.e., the human rebirth) empty handed. So there really isn’t any time to delay our spiritual practice because all we can take with us when we die is that which we have accomplished spiritually – everyone and everything else must stay behind. So a good Buddhist practitioner is someone who, in every single breath and every single heartbeat, is deeply aware of the uncertainty of the time of death as well as its inevitability. From this perspective, perhaps death might even be thought of as the meditation practitioner’s best friend.

8. Letting doubt overrun the mind: If death is arguably the meditation practitioner’s best friend, then doubt is probably their worst enemy. Having met a suitable spiritual guide, doubt is what causes people to begin to find ‘faults’ in their teacher’s character and break their sacred connection to the Buddha-Dhamma. Unfortunately, just as a branch withers and dries up when it falls from the tree, the same happens when the connection with the spiritual teachings is severed. It’s not that doubt should be feared or run away from because it is a necessary part of spiritual growth. However, what we need to do is to know how to deal with doubt when it arises. In general, the reason why doubt arises has less to do with people becoming suspicious of the teachings or teacher, and more to do with them becoming suspicious of themselves and their own experiences. So when doubts arise, take a few deep breaths and centre yourself in the present moment. Give yourself plenty of time to examine your doubts and use them as a means of becoming a stronger practitioner. Rather than a blind conviction in the teachings or teacher, the best antidote to doubt is logical reasoning and reflection from a centred and stable mind-state. Actively reason things through but most importantly, rely on your own experiences. In short, if you are confused, then enjoy being confused!

9. Becoming dependent on meditation: In papers that we recently published in the British Journal of General Practice and the Journal of Behavioural Addictions, we referred to the risk of people actually becoming addicted to meditation. This is consistent with the Buddhist classical literature that contains cautionary notes regarding practitioners becoming overly attached to meditative bliss. Indeed, it seems that some people can even confuse meditative bliss (Sanskrit: prīti) with the state of enlightenment. Getting ‘stuck’ in states of meditative bliss (e.g., by exclusively practicing shamatha meditation) is a bit like taking painkillers when what’s really needed is an appendicitis. In other words, meditative bliss helps to calm the mind but it dosn’t remove mental afflictions at their roots – that’s why a combined approach of shamatha with vipashyana meditation is generally preferred. Also, the idea is not to use meditation to escape from the world and its problems, but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.

10. Being a ‘meditation practitioner’: When, after many years of meditation practice, we eventually begin to experience some of the fruits of meditation that we have worked so hard for, it’s easy to start to think we have become a highly-accomplished meditation practitioner. We might think that there is no longer any clinging to a sense of self, and that we have finally conquered the ego. Indeed, it’s unfortunately not uncommon for meditation practitioners to do a good job in uprooting large portions of their ego-clinging, only to become attached to the idea that they are somebody that has defeated the ego. Of course, this situation is simply another example of the ego reclaiming its territory and of us deceiving ourselves once again. Therefore, from the outset, what we should be aiming to do is to completely let go of the concept of ‘being a meditator’ and even of ‘being a good Buddhist’. In fact, if a person is in any way caught up in regarding themselves as a ‘meditation practitioner’, then they’ve’ve totally missed the point!