Does Mindfulness Work?

Does Mindfulness Work?

Future 4

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

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

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Loneliness: A Problem or an Opportunity

Loneliness: A Problem or an Opportunity

all beings 4

Loneliness, especially in Western psychological contexts, is generally associated with depression or low mood states and is regarded as a negative quality. Today’s post examines the construct and feeling of loneliness from several different perspectives, and discusses whether loneliness need always be regarded as a negative experience.

It’s probably fair to say that most people experience different degrees of loneliness at some point in their lives. This could be a short-lived sensation of loneliness that lasts for only a few minutes whilst waiting all alone at an old and run-down train station, or it could be a more chronic and deep-seated form of loneliness that lasts for many years following a relationship breakup or the death of a loved one. Although these two different types of loneliness affect people in very different ways, from the Buddhist perspective, the underlying causes are actually not too dissimilar.

According to Buddhist philosophy, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Searching for Happiness’, any kind of psychological pain, distress, or confusion, arises due to us developing very entrenched and mistaken views about exactly who and what we think we are. In other words, because we continuously reinforce our sense of self and become highly involved with our self-preservation, we construct and then harbour various ideas about what we think will make us happy. Generally speaking, unless we have chosen to fully immerse ourselves in (authentic) spiritual practice, then these ideas and plans are often governed by mundane and worldly aspirations, and only lead to further suffering.

Within the psychological literature, loneliness (and related negative mood states) are frequently associated with a feeling of total voidness – a big black hole that threatens to swallow people up into everlasting oblivion. Accordingly, most people believe that to avoid feeling lonely and to keep this voidness at bay, they need to spend most of their time in the company of a partner, family, and friends, and to surround themselves with other forms of company such as wealth, a successful career, and perhaps pastimes such as writing on a blog, working out at the gym, or playing computer games. However, when these ‘anti-loneliness strategies’ breakdown or become too boring, then people invariably revert to more extreme measures in order to avoid the feeling of emptiness and being all alone. Examples of such extreme (and maladaptive) behavioural strategies might be the excessive use of alcohol or drugs, becoming addicted to work, excessive use of the mobile phone, self-harming, going on a religious trip, diving head-first into the latest health trend, jumping into relationships, going on shopping sprees, or having meaningless one-night-stands. Needless to say, all of the above behaviours are not a solution to loneliness, but generally tend to keep us eternally distracted in order to avoid having to confront loneliness at its source.

Thus, loneliness, in whatever form it arises, ultimately represents a rejecting of the present moment, and a desire to be somewhere else or with someone else. Feeling lonely means that we are not satisfied with the present moment and that we want to modify it in order to live in some fantasised future, or in the ungraspable past. This is a little bit like the astronaut who goes into space to try to find new planets and life forms, whilst not appreciating the beauty and diversity of life on this planet. So to overcome loneliness, rather than the astronaut who explores external space, we should really be aiming to become a ‘psychonaut’ who explores the internal space of our own mind. You would probably be really surprised at the number of Western psychologists that we meet who have never earnestly begun to explore their own minds, yet who on a daily basis offer advice to others about how to overcome mental health problems or other issues of a psychological nature.

Our mission as a psychonaut is to be courageous enough to explore the seemingly empty voidness that exists within our own being. You see, it is in the very heart of this voidness, or the very heart of the feeling of loneliness, where we can encounter and then be bathed by the company of our own spiritual awareness. By finding and then awakening the spiritual presence that lies dormant within each and every one of us, our whole perspective on life begins to change. When we start to truly find and make friends with ourselves, the desire to fill our life with meaningless activities and superficial interpersonal transactions naturally starts to disintegrate. We begin to find that everything we ever needed and everything we ever wanted is right there inside of us. We begin to feel absolutely grounded, unequivocally alive, and continuously nourished by the company of our own spiritual presence. This friendship that we start to make with ourselves is completely unconditional, and when we have cultivated that friendship a little bit more, then we find that profound peace is available on demand. At this point, we can start to see other people and phenomena exactly as they are. We no longer allow the changing moods of others to influence our happiness, and we are just as content with being alone as we are when in the company of others.

Thus, with meditative practice, we can begin to understand that it is within emptiness or voidness where we can find total fullness and contentment. As human beings, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Do We Really Exist?’ we are essentially empty of an inherent existence. For example, the human being comprises the elements of wind, water, fire, earth, and space. If we examine our existence deeply, we find the wind, trees, rain, clouds, ocean, sun, minerals, plants, animals, and so on. We find all of these things but we do not find anything that we can call an independently existing self. This is the same as saying that we are empty of an inherent ‘I’. However, it is for this very reason – our being empty of an intrinsic self – that we can also say and realise that we are full of absolutely all things.

It doesn’t matter whether we read the teachings of the early sutras, or the essence tantric writings by the likes of Longchempa – all of the Buddhist teachings emphasise the importance of not relying for our happiness on the company of family, partners, and friends. You see, it might be difficult to accept, but the truth is that every single one of us comes into this world all alone, and we leave this world all alone. At the time of death, family, friends, and partners mean absolutely nothing. Just like waking from a dream, the memory of such people rapidly begins to disintegrate. The only thing we can take with us at death is the spiritual awareness that we have managed to cultivate whilst we were alive. In this manner, spiritual realisation is really the only reliable friendship that we have the possibility of cultivating.  So cultivate that friendship now, my dears. Make the choice of being born into the family of noble beings whose friendship is pure and unconditional, and that outlasts even time itself.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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

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

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.

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.

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

pulling wool

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

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

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

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

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

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

tasting the fruit 3

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

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon