The Meditation of Life

The Meditation of Life

Without exception, everything that has happened in your life, every choice you have made, has brought you to where you are now. And where are you now? You are reading this blog post. Depending on your frame of mind, you will engage with the words in this post to a greater or lesser extent. This blog post, as well as every other experience and encounter you have ever had, will be a causal factor in terms of bringing you into contact with all of your future experiences. The process of accumulating experiences that each influence who we are and what we do, is called life. Perhaps we can think of life as a big snowball rolling down a hill. The snowball grows and accumulates snow as it rolls, and this accumulation – as well as the gradient and texture of the terrain – keeps causing the snowball’s weight, size, shape, velocity, and direction, to change.

If a person was to stop the snowball and look at it, they might only see a big ball of snow that they want to play with or take photographs of. Alternatively, if they have sufficient insight, they might see the snowball as the product of the journey it has undertaken. In this case, when they look at the snowball, they will see how it has grown, the choices it has made, the terrain and landscape it has passed through, and the different bumps and jumps it encountered along the way. The same applies when we look at ourselves and other people. If we have sufficient skill and insight, when we meet somebody we can glean understanding into the journey they have undertaken. We can see how they have grown, what motivates them, what scars they have accumulated, and whether they live only for themselves or for the betterment of humanity. Furthermore, based on the trajectory of their choices and journey thus far, we might be able to estimate the direction that they will go in next.

The difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that when the skilled meditator looks at a person, situation, or object, they see the whole story. They see that a person or object is comprised of its past, present, and future. If we can understand the trajectory that a person is travelling on, it means we are better able to decide what intervention, if any, might be possible to help shift that trajectory into one that will bring them wisdom and happiness.

Another difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that the skilled meditator doesn’t actually practise meditation. To practise meditation implies that a person tries to be mindful or regularly sits in meditation in order to cultivate mental tranquillity or clarity. However, the truth is that whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, we are all partaking in a meditation. This mediation is called life. Life brings us into contact with new experiences each moment of every day. These experiences are pregnant with wisdom. They are our teacher, if we want them to be. This applies to seemingly boring situations just as much as it does to circumstances that appear to be out of the ordinary or that we find challenging.

In other words, we don’t need to strain ourselves in meditation to look for spiritual insights because they are all around us. Everything we do, every sound we hear, every person we meet, are opportunities to grow and encounter spiritual insight. All we have to do is open our eyes, heart, and mind. Don’t you see that you have been meditating since before the moment you were born? As soon as we realise we are partaking in a meditation, we start to wake up and see how each moment of our lives connects to, and influences, the next. Moreover, we encounter the complex web of the universe and begin to see how each moment of our lives connects to each moment of the life of every other living and non-living entity.

Meditation isn’t about sitting with our legs crossed and working ourselves into a state of calm. Rather, it is the art of fully experiencing every aspect of normal daily living and using it as the raw material to foster spiritual awakening. Meditation is both joyful and painful. There is nothing mystical about meditation. It is the process of allowing life to be our teacher. Eating a piece of toast is our teacher. Getting drenched by the rain is our teacher. Missing the bus is our teacher. Being cheated out of money is our teacher. Making love is our teacher. Taking a dump is our teacher. The death of a loved one is our teacher. Winning is our teacher. Losing is our teacher. Getting old is our teacher. Meditation is being awake to what is unfolding in front of us and having the courage to embrace life as the training ground for cultivating our full potential for love and wisdom.

Dr Edo Shonin & Dr William Van Gordon

Before Time Goes By

Before Time Goes By

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Clicca qui per l’Italiano

Growing and play

Adventure each day

The joys of childhood

But time goes by

Education and training

Ignorance waning

The value of knowledge

But time goes by

Courtship and romance

Love’s heart-warming dance

 The beauty of youth

But time goes by

A family to raise

Hungry mouths that gaze

The duty of parenthood

But time goes by

Making a living

No time for giving

The demands of work

But time goes by

Beliefs to fight for

Ideas to deplore

The folly of the pious

But time goes by

Growing reputation

Seeking acclamation

The lure of power

But time goes by

Wealth amassing

Owning and outclassing

The pleasure of possessing

But time goes by

Winning on Sunday

Losing on Monday

The uncertainty of life

But time goes by

Pain and sickness

Loss of mental quickness

The loneliness of old age

But time goes by

Fear of dying

Lament and crying

The inevitability of death

But time goes by

Oh when will you sever

Your pointless endeavour

And relinquish your plans

Before time goes by

Oh when will you pacify

Your clinging to ‘I’

And embrace compassion

Before time goes by

Oh when will you console

Your restless soul

And know lasting peace

Before time goes by

Oh when will you heed

Your teacher’s plead

And enter the Way

Before time goes by

Oh when will you find

Your innermost mind

And dwell in emptiness

Before time goes by

Oh when will you be bestowed

Your rightful deathless abode

And return to home

Before time goes by

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Prima che il tempo passa

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Crescere e giocherellare

Le avventure giornaliere

Le gioie dell’infanzia

Ma il tempo passa

Educazione e allenamento

L’ignoranza in declino

Il valore della sapienza

Ma il tempo passa

Il corteggiamento e la passione

La danza di amore che scalda il cuore

 La bellezza della gioventù

Ma il tempo passa

Una famiglia da allevare

Bocche affamate che non fanno altro che guardare

Il dovere della paternità

Ma il tempo passa

La necessità di fare soldi

Non c’è tempo per essere generosi

Le esigenze del lavoro

Ma il tempo passa

Lottare per le cradenze morale

Idee da deplorare

La follia delle persone pie

Ma il tempo passa

Una crescente reputazione

Alla ricerca di acclamazione

Il richiamo di potere

Ma il tempo passa

Ammassare benessere

A padroneggiare e il desiderio di surclassare

Il piacere di possedere

Ma il tempo passa

Vincere la Domenica

Perdere il Lunedi

L’incertezza della vita

Ma il tempo passa

Il dolore e la malattia

Perdita della prontezza mentale

La solitudine della vecchiaia

Ma il tempo passa

La paura di morire

I lamenti e il piangere

L’inevitabilità della morte

Ma il tempo passa

Oh quando reciderete

Il vostro sforzo pleonastico

E rinunciare ai vostri piani

Prima che il tempo passa

Oh quando riuscirete a pacificare

il vostro attaccamento a un ‘sé’

E abbracciare la compassione

Prima che il tempo passa

Oh quando vi consolate

Il vostro anima inquieta

E conoscete una pace duratura

Prima che il tempo passa

Oh quando farete attenzione

all’appello del vostro insegnante

E intraprendere la Via Giusta

Prima che il tempo passa

Oh quando troverete

La vostra mente più profonda

E dimorate nel vuoto

Prima che il tempo passa

Oh quando si sarà elargito

La vostra dimora immortale legittimo

E tornate a casa

Prima che il tempo passa

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

 

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

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Some time ago, we uploaded a post that featured a vajragiti that we wrote called Hearken to the Dharma. A vajragiti is a type of spiritual song or poem. The Sanskrit word vajra means ‘diamond’ or ‘indestructible’ and the word giti means song. Some of our vajragitis have been spoken or written spontaneously, while others have been written at the request of a particular person or for a particular occasion. Since the post was published, we have received several enquiries as to what some of the terms means. Today’s post provides information on the meaning of these terms, and on the theme of the vajragiti more generally.

Hearken to the Dharma’ is a four-verse vajragiti written in the style of the spiritual songs of certain yogic traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. In essence, it refers to the view of certain systems of Buddhist thought that we are currently in an era in which the Buddhist (and spiritual teachings more generally) are degenerating. More specifically, it refers to the fact that not all individuals who are currently teaching mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism have the ‘right intention’. When people with a selfish intent and who are without authentic spiritual realisation choose to teach meditation or Buddhism, it can result in negative consequences.

It could be argued that by writing a spiritual song such as the below, we are being judgemental. However, we wouldn’t agree with this because it is not judgemental to call a spade a spade. If things aren’t right, sometimes we need to speak up and raise awareness about the issue.

In the below vajragiti, the term ‘two accumulations’ refers to the Buddhist view that spiritual practitioners need to accumulate both spiritual merit and wisdom. Spiritual merit is accumulated by engaging in acts of generosity, patience, loving-kindness and compassion. Wisdom is accumulated by practising meditation, especially insight meditation. Spiritual merit and wisdom are necessary if we want to overcome the tendency of making our lives all about the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and the ‘I’. Living a life that is always centred upon the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘I’ is what is meant by the term ‘self-grasping’.

True renunciation’ means that we are no longer interested in mundane pursuits such as accumulating wealth or status. It means that we are aware that death is a reality that we will have to face, sooner or later. When we cultivate true spiritual renunciation, it is a liberating experience. However, it is important to remember that spiritual renunciation doesn’t mean that we turn our back on the world. Rather, it means that because we are free of selfish intentions, we can fully taste, enjoy and engage with the world.

In some Buddhist sutras, the Dharma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Law’. Therefore, the term ‘Law Holder’ means an authentic spiritual practitioner – somebody who has transcended the ego and given rise to a high level of spiritual awakening. A Law Holder could be a fully enlightened Buddha, or it could be somebody who is well on the way to attaining Buddhahood. A person who holds the Law of Dharma embodies and emanates spiritual awareness. They are not necessarily a Buddhist scholar.

In the context referred to in the vajragiti, our use of the term ‘Mara’ invokes the connotations that this term has with the notion of the Devil in Christianity. However, the term ‘Mara’ has several different meanings in Buddhism, which include negativity in its broadest sense. The ‘lower realms’ refer to realms of existence in which there are high levels of ignorance and suffering. The animal world is an example of a lower realm (i.e. when compared with the human realm), but Buddhism asserts that there are realms of existence that are lower than the animal realm (e.g. the hell realms).

The terms ‘View’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Action’ in the final verse refer to the three components that comprise an authentic Buddhist spiritual path. For example, in the Noble Eightfold Path referred to previously on this blog, each of the eight individual components of the path are understood to be primarily concerned with the cultivation of either: (i) wisdom or a ‘view’ that transcends the notion of self and other, (ii) meditation, or (iii) ethical ‘action’. If each of these three aspects (i.e. wisdom/view, ethics/action and meditation) are present, then a particular Buddhist path can be considered whole and complete. The three path elements of wisdom, ethics and meditation are known in Sanskrit as ‘trishiksha’, which means the ‘three trainings’.

The term ‘three doors’ refers to the three ‘doors’ through which we interact with the world: (i) body (i.e. actions), (ii) speech (i.e. words), and (iii) mind (i.e. thoughts). Finally, the term ‘Mind as all’ refers to a view amongst certain Buddhist schools that existence unfolds within the expanse of mind. According to this view, waking reality is no more ‘real’ than what we experience while dreaming.

Hearken to the Dharma

All you great teachers and meditators,
Who mistake self-grasping and pride for the two accumulations,
In whom true renunciation and devotion never arise,
You, pleasure seekers, hearken to the Dharma that keeps death in mind.

Proudly claiming to be great Buddhists,
Judging others as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
Spreading doubt and disparaging the Law Holders,
You, Dharma destroyers, hearken to the Dharma beyond all concepts.

Practicing sophistry you deceive the foolish,
Competing for renown like Mara princes,
Dragging your followers to the miserable realms,
You, evil doers, hearken to the Dharma of karmic cause and effect.

For View you delight in ‘self’ and ‘other’,
For Meditation you indulge in scheming thoughts,
For Action you mindlessly vomit through your three doors,
You, delusion revellers, hearken to the Dharma that knows Mind as all.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Do You Know Who I Am?

Do You Know Who I Am?

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I am not interested in where you have been or what you have done.

I care not who you are, but I care deeply how you are.

If you are happy – truly happy – then so am I.

Do you know who I am?

.

You could be rich or poor, young or old, educated or uneducated, a man or woman.

You could be successful or unsuccessful, of high status or low status, a sinner or saint.

All of these things are irrelevant to me.

Do you know who I am?

.

I care not what religion you belong to.

I also do not care if you abstain from religion altogether.

What I represent transcends the beliefs, rituals, and concepts of any religion.

Do you know who I am?

.

In so far as I have an objective, it is to help you to help yourself.

In this regard, I prefer to be gentle and kind with you.

But I can also be incredibly firm and unyielding if it will benefit you.

Do you know who I am?

.

I am flexible and can be whoever you need me to be to help you.

But you must always strive to be who I am, I cannot be who you are.

This is a matter about which I am completely inflexible.

Do you know who I am?

.

I feel happy when I see kindness in others.

I feel sad when I see cruelty in others.

But I am not attached to any of my feelings.

Do you know who I am?

.

I see praise and criticism as the same thing.

Because I know myself, it matters not what others say or think about me.

My happiness is completely unconditional.

Do you know who I am?

.

The faithless and cowardly see me a charlatan.

They perceive everything through the lens of ignorance, fear, and selfishness.

But the pure in heart are drawn to me and are nourished by my presence.

Do you know who I am?

.

I have walked with kings and beggars, lived in poverty and luxury.

But these things make no difference to me.

Whatever my circumstances, I always live simply and am content.

Do you know who I am?

.

There are some with undisciplined minds that pretend to be me.

Interested only in being seen to do the right thing, they deceive their followers.

In my presence such impostors become angry, confused, and full of fear.

Do you know who I am?

.

Most people only start to think of me when they are dying.

But by waiting until then it is difficult for me to help them.

I have always taught that the right time to get to know me is right now.

Do you know who I am?

.

Some people try to know me by looking outside of themselves.

They label me, box me with concepts, and worship me.

But I can never be known in this way.

Do you know who I am?

.

I exist within you and within all things.

Look deeply inside of yourself and you will see me there.

You can be me if you really want to.

Do you know who I am?

.

To me, life and death are one and the same.

I am never really born and I never really die.

You can be like this too if you want to.

Do you know who I am?

.

At all times I am sustained by a spring of deep calm and joy.

I do not attach myself to anything and my mind is completely unobstructed.

I soar freely and gracefully beyond the limits of space and time.

Do you know who I am?

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

sentient beings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life: A Near Death Experience

Life: A Near Death Experience

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“Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past is history. The future yet to come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells unshaken and free in heart. We must be diligent today, as death may strike tomorrow, for there is no bargaining with the lord of death” – The Buddha, 500 BCE (sutra 131, Majjhima Nikaya)

In the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and psychologist and medic Raymond Moody played a pivotal role in bringing the phenomenon of near death experience (NDE) to the attention of both the general public and the wider scientific community. The scientific study of NDEs – especially prior to the 1990s – met with a certain amount of scepticism amongst psychologists and medical professionals. However, in recent years, the psychological and medical community have become more open to the possibility that the NDE is a bone fide phenomenon that falls within the range of possible human experience. The NDE is typically associated with a particular set or pattern of experiences that may occur when a person is close to dying (e.g., due to illness), when they believe they are close to dying (i.e., life-threatening situations), or when they find themselves in the period between clinical death and resuscitation.1-3 NDEs often involve one or a combination of the following features: an out of body experience, the experience of moving through a tunnel, communicating with a being of light, observing a celestial landscape, meeting with deceased persons, and/or a life review.1-3 Rather than the traditional approach of viewing NDEs as a phenomenon explicitly associated with death or the imminent threat thereof, here we adopt a slightly different slant and consider whether there is scope to consider human existence and life-more-generally as a near death experience.

According to the US Central Intelligence Agency4, the world mortality rate for 2013 is 7.9 deaths per 1000 people per year (i.e., 0.79%). Based on these figures, an average of 107 people die each minute. This means that if you are somebody that normally goes to bed at 11pm and sleeps for eight hours, by the time you wake up at 7am the next morning over 50,000 people have died. Death is a very common occurrence. There exist no scientifically-verifiable instances of any sentient being – human or otherwise – being able to defeat death. The most common cause of death is illness (especially illness in old age). Other reasonably common causes of death include accident, suicide, and homicide. Less common causes of death are occurrences such as spontaneous human combustion and death by lightning strike (although these could arguably be classed as accidental).

The human body is a beautiful and wondrous entity – but invincibility is not one of its strengths. A small pin prick, contact with a hot pan, a finger trapped in a door – these are just a few examples of how the smallest mishap can cause tremendous discomfort and pain. In fact, there only has to be the slightest imbalance in the external environment and the human body starts to rapidly shut-down. Environmental conditions such as being too hot, being too cold, a shortage of water, or a lack of food can all quickly lead to death. Even such minor things as eating a mouthful of spoiled food, catching a common flu bug, or slipping on ice can lead to death. In fact, at any one time, the only thing that separates us from death is a single breath in or out. It seems that the human being operates a ‘just in time’ survival system which means that the slightest delay in taking in air, water, or food can be fatal. From the moment we are born, every single second that passes by brings us closer to our death. Even being young provides no assurance of life as death can occur at any age. Indeed, some people die while still in the womb, some in infancy, and some in adolescence. Some people die in the prime of adulthood and some in old age. Life is like the sand moving through an hour-glass – some people start with more sand than others but it runs out just the same.

To help explain this in a slightly different way, the Buddhist teachings use the analogy of a prisoner being led to their execution – every step they take draws them closer to death.5 We are born, we live, and we will die. All phenomena are transient occurrences and are subject to decay and dissolution. Absolutely nothing escapes the cycle of impermanence. The human body is impermanent, friends and family are impermanent, the planet we live on is impermanent, and even the universe will ultimately cease to be. This is what the Buddha said about the fleeting nature of existence: “This existence of ours is as transient as autumn leaves. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”

In general, there is a tendency for people to be complacent about death and to assume that it is something that will never happen to them. However, such complacency quickly disappears when people find themselves at death’s door. At this time, it is not uncommon for people to experience overpowering feelings of regret, anger, and fear. Indeed, at death, people often manifest a fierce clinging and attachment towards their family, friends, possessions, reputation, and life achievements. However, when the last few grains of sand are about to slip through the hour glass – these things count for absolutely nothing and cannot be carried forward. We have to leave life in exactly the same manner that we entered it – all alone.

You might think that it is inappropriate to discuss the reality of death in as direct and open a manner as we are here. However, in our humble opinion, the sooner a person starts to fully accept that at some uncertain point they will certainly die, the sooner they can begin to prepare themselves for death rather than waiting until it is too late. In a paper that was recently accepted for publication in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,6 we discussed how accepting the impermanent nature of life can actually be a very rewarding process. In fact, the academic literature indicates that impermanence awareness can actually buffer against mental illness. It has also been suggested that an increased acceptance and internalisation of impermanence can assist with post-traumatic growth.7,8

The Buddhist teachings explain that a wise person 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.5 This awareness of impermanence is believed to help a person prioritise what is important in life.6 Findings from our own research indicate that cultivating a deep-rooted understanding of impermanence can bring great joy and can be spiritually enriching.9,10 By allowing the realisation of impermanence to infuse our being, we can gradually learn not to hold onto things too tightly. This means that when the people and things we love are present, we can truly cherish them, but when they dissolve we can let go of them more freely. A useful thing to remember is that every time we do something, we do it for the first and last time. A moment of time never repeats itself. The recognition of this can help to invest the things we do and say with great meaning. We no longer have to sleep-walk through life – we no longer have to be walking corpses. Based on the consensus definition, near death experiences are not particularly common and typically involve what some people might describe as ‘mystical’ experiences. However, given that life is incredibly fragile and using slightly different defining criteria, we believe that every single sentient being is essentially currently partaking in a near death experience. We would like to finish this post with a brief reflection on death entitled ‘A Bubble in the Wind’:

A Bubble in the Wind

“Life is like a bubble carried by the wind. Some bubbles burst sooner, others later. Some burst of their own accord, others by accident. Some are deliberately burst. However, one way or another, all bubbles burst. The difference between the realised spiritual practitioner and the everyday person, is that the practitioner recognises they are not only the bubble, but are also the wind that gently carries it along. That wind has no point of origin and is without destination. It blows freely wherever it likes. How wonderful!”

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

References

  1. Ring, K. (1980). Life at death. A scientific investigation of the near death experience. New York: Coward, Mc Cann and Geoghenan.
  2. Lommel, P.V., Wees, R.V., & Meyers, V., et al. (2001). Near death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358: 2039-45.
  3. Moody, R.A. (1975). Life after Life. New York: Bantam Books.
  4. Central Intelligence Agency. (2013). The World Fact Book. Available from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html (Accessed, 15th January 2014).
  5. Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  6. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integrations. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.
  7. Kumar, S. M. (2005). Grieving mindfully: A compassionate and spiritual guide to coping with loss. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  8. Wada, K., & Park, J. (2009). Integrating Buddhist psychology into grief counseling. Death Studies, 33, 657-683.
  9. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013a). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health, DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  10. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A Case Study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, in press.

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