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

Accurately Predict Your Future using a 10-Minute Buddhist Meditation Technique

Accurately Predict Your Future using a 10-Minute Buddhist Meditation Technique

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Regular readers of our blog will know that we advocate a very down-to-earth approach to Buddhist practice and are not great supporters of any spiritual approach promising quick-win results or mystical experiences. It may therefore come as a surprise that in today’s post we provide instructions on a 10-minute Buddhist meditation technique that, if correctly practiced, we guarantee will enable a person to predict certain events in their future with 100% accuracy.

However, a word of caution before you read on. Before practicing the 10-minute meditation technique that we outline below, readers should know that for individuals in the past who have taken this practise to heart, it has completely changed their entire outlook on life. In fact, based on the accounts of previous practitioners of this meditation approach, there is a very strong possibility that if you practice it regularly not only will you be able predict with clarity the ultimate outcome of certain events and situations pertaining to both yours and others’ lives, but it will instil in you a firm desire to awaken spiritually and to regard the cultivation of lasting happiness as more important than all other aspects of your life. Therefore, if you are somebody that does not want to know the truth about your future and/or who is completely satisfied and fulfilled by your life as it is, then we suggest you do not attempt to practice the technique we describe. However, if you are somebody who thinks that it might be time for a change in how you live your life and who would like to know what fate the future holds, then feel free to read on.

The Buddhist meditation technique to which we are referring is divided into 2 separate phases – each of 5 minutes duration. The first phase simply involves collecting and calming the mind in order to prepare it for the second phase (which is where the procedure for predicting the future is carried out). Although phase 1 is effectively ‘inactive’ from the point of view of being able to see the future, it is important to know that the meditation undertaken in phase 2 simply won’t work if phase 1 is not completed properly.

All that is required for phase 1 is to rest one’s awareness on the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath. We use the words ‘rest one’s awareness’ quite deliberately because it is important to differentiate between (i) meditation that engages a one-pointed focus on its object (which in this case is the breath), and (ii) meditation that uses the meditative object more as an anchor or reference point for the mind. The type of meditation that we are referring to and the type of meditation that is required during phase 1 is the second of the abovementioned meditative formats (i.e., where the breath is used as a meditative anchor). What this means in practice is that although the breath should be the main object of concentration, one’s attentional focus should not be so narrow that it prevents other sensory and psychological experiences from entering into the attentional sphere.  In other words, one uses the breath to steady the mind in the present moment, not to shut-out the present moment.

Having followed the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath for about five minutes, the mind should have begun to establish at least a small degree of meditative calm and spiritual presence. This should be adequate preparation for commencing phase 2 of the meditation. In phase 2, the objective is to keep observing the breath as in phase 1, but to now begin contemplating and tuning-in to a particular truth or law of existence.  The truth or law of existence that we are referring to is that of impermanence. As we discussed in our post on Exactly what is the Present Moment’, everything that exists is in a constant state of flux. Without exception, phenomena are born, they live, and they die. Nothing – absolutely nothing – endures indefinitely. Due to the fact that all things ultimately cease to be, animate and inanimate phenomena are flowing in a stream of continuous transience and this stream culminates in their complete dissolution.

Rather than engage in excessive mental activity, what we should be aiming to do during phase 2 of the meditation is to simply relax into and observe impermanence. In other words, impermanence is a truth – it is all around us. Therefore, if we sit in meditation and contemplate or mentally envisage what is implied by the term impermanence, then we are already separating ourselves from the impermanence that is happening all around (and within) us. We don’t need to think about impermanence, we just need to tune into it. We do this by observing it, breathing it, and becoming it.

When we perform phase 2 of the meditation correctly and begin to abide in unison with impermanence – this is the stage where we begin to see with absolute clarity the future that lies ahead of us. By meditatively resting our awareness on the truth of impermanence, we will see clearly that in the future it is inevitable that we will meet with our death. At the point of experiencing this profound insight, if we are intelligent, we will put off whatever task or event was next on our ‘to do list’ in order to reflect upon its implications. What we should have observed during phase 2 of the meditation is something that we already knew but probably chose to ignore – at some uncertain point it is certain that we are going to die. Allowing this knowledge to penetrate and infuse our being should cast every single thing we do in life in a totally different light. Everything we are sweating blood for – career, wealth, status, good looks, possessions – will amount to absolutely nothing. These things simply cannot endure. No matter how hard we try or how determined we are, none of our efforts to get ahead can actually bear any long-term fruit. As we discussed in our post on ‘Life: A Near Death Experience’, these endeavours are, in effect, completely meaningless.

After reading the introduction to this post, perhaps some readers were hoping the 10-minute meditation we described would help them to predict things such as whether they will be rich, who they will marry, or what position they will rise to in their career. However, in our opinion, the ability to predict such trivialities pales in significance to the value of the spiritual vision that arises from seeing and accepting the truth of impermanence. The reason for this is because, by taking to heart the message of impermanence and the looming nature of our death, there is a chance that we will not completely squander this life and dedicate ourselves to evolving spiritually.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

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.

A Breath of Fresh Air

A Breath of Fresh Air

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Clicca qui per l’Italiano

Are you breathing? Are you alive? Are you being? These may seem like strange questions but read them again and look at what they are asking. Are you truly aware that you are breathing and are you truly aware that you are living? Are you fully aware of your in-breath and your out-breath? Whether that breath is long or short, deep or shallow, rough or smooth? Are you aware of the point where breath enters the body at the tips of the nostrils? Are you aware of the empty space that exists between the in-breath and out-breath? Does the breath roll-in gently of its own accord or are you forcing it? Does your out-breath cease when you breathe in, or does it continue indefinitely throughout space and time? Is your in-breath your in-breath or is it made up of other peoples’ out-breath? Can you see your breath in the eyes of the person you dislike, or in the tears of the elderly person who is completely alone and neglected by society?

Let’s leave the breath for a moment and take a look at our thoughts, words, and actions during the day. Are you fully aware of all that you experience during the day? Or does the day simply happen – it begins with getting up in the morning and before we know it the sun has set and we’re falling back to sleep. The day has gone by – never to return again – another day of our lives has expired. Perhaps on Sunday you wash the car but I ask you – are you actually washing the car or are you thinking about the football match you’ll be watching on the television when you go inside? Alternatively, are you thinking about tomorrow – Monday – back to work – the same old grind of unawareness. The days pass, the weeks pass, we can’t wait for our holidays and they pass too. The years pass, and we get old and die.

Life is an extraordinarily rare and fragile gift. If we are fortunate, it may last for 100 years. Each and every moment contained within those 100 years is profoundly unique. Nobody else will experience that moment and it will never arise again. It was born, it lived, and it died – gone forever. If we are not fully aware of all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in each and every moment then we have to conclude that we are not fully alive. The person who chooses not to be fully aware of their life is no better than a walking corpse – would you agree?

We are born with an in-breath, we leave this world with an out-breath. That which happens in between is the preciousness of life. Be aware of it. Breathe it moment by moment. Enjoy it. Live it. It is yours to live.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Una boccata d’aria fresca

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Stai respirando? Sei vivo? Siete presenti nel qui e ora? Questi possono sembrare strane domande ma leggere di nuovo e guardare a ciò che stanno chiedendo. Siete veramente consapevoli che state respirando e seite veramente consapevole che siete in vita? Siete consapevoli del vostro inspirazione e la vostra espirazione sia che il respiro è lungo o corto, profondo o superficiale, ruvida o liscia? Siete a conoscenza del punto in cui il respiro entra nel corpo alle punte delle narici? Siete a conoscenza dello spazio vuoto che esiste tra l’inspirazione e l’espirazione? Permettete il respiro di muoversi delicatamente e spontaneamente oppure lo stai forzando? Il Vostro espirazione si ferma quando prendette un ispirazione o lo fatte continuare all’infinito nello spazio e nel tempo? La vostra ispirazione è veramente la vostra oppure è  fatta dall’ espirazione altrui? Riesci vedere il tuo respiro negli occhi della persona che non ti piacce o nelle lacrime della persona anziana che è completamente da solo e trascurato dalla società?

Lasciamo il respiro per un attimo e diamo un’occhiata ai nostri pensieri, parole e azioni durante il giorno. Sei totalmente consapevole di tutto ciò che si verificano e sperimenti durante il giorno? Oppure il giorno semplicemente accade senza che lo sapiamo – si comincia con alzarsi al mattino e prima di sapere che sa che il sole è tramontato e ci ritiriamo per dormire. La giornata è passato – non tornará mai più – un altro giorno della nostra vita è scaduto e finita. Forse la domenica si lava l’auto, ma vi chiedo – stai davvero lavando la macchina o stai pensando alla partita di calcio che potresti guardare alla televisione quando si va dentro casa piu tardi? In alternativa, state pensando di domani – lunedì – tornate al lavoro – la stessa macinatura vecchia di inconsapevolezza. I giorni passano, le settimane passano, non vediamo l’ora per le nostre vacanze e essi passano anche. Gli anni passano, e noi invecchiano e moriamo.

La vita è un dono straordinariamente raro e fragile. Se siamo fortunati, la vita può durare per 100 anni. Ogni momento contenuta all’interno di quei 100 anni è profondamente unico e originale. Nessun altro sperimenterà quel momento e non potrà mai risorgere. Nasce, si vive, e morì – andato per sempre. Se non siamo pienamente consapevoli di tutto ciò che vediamo, sentiamo, odoriamo, gustiamo e tocchiamo in ogni momento quindi dobbiamo concludere che non siamo affatto vivi. La persona che sceglie di non essere pienamente consapevoli della loro vita non è meglio di un cadavere ambulante – siete d’accordo?

Siamo nati con un in-respiro, lasciamo questo mondo con una espirazione. Ciò che accade in mezzo è la preziosità della vita. Essere a conoscenza di esso. Respirate momento per momento. Godetela. Viverla. É il vostro da vivere. 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon