Exactly what is the Present Moment?

Exactly what is the Present Moment?

impermanence

The practice of mindfulness is fundamentally concerned with becoming more aware of the present moment. Mindfulness techniques such as observing the breath, walking meditation, working meditation, eating meditation, scanning the body, mindful writing, deep listening, mindfully cradling our thoughts and feelings, and observing mind with mind, are all methods of cultivating an awareness of the ‘here and now’. In effect, these techniques are a type of ‘meditative anchor’ that help to slow the mind down and provide a reference point for maintaining an unbroken flow of awareness throughout the day. As we discussed in our post on ‘Mindwithness’, the word mindfulness, which is a translation of the Pali word sati, essentially means ‘to remember’ (i.e., ‘to remember’ to be aware of the present moment). However, believe it or not, from the Buddhist perspective, the whole point of remembering to become aware of the present moment is so that we can remember to let go of it.

Having made great efforts to follow the meditation instructor’s teachings and strive to be aware of the present moment, to now hear that we should ultimately be aiming to let go of the present moment might seem a little confusing or even alarming. However, if we take a moment to investigate what actually constitutes the present moment and whether it actually exists, then these words may start to take on more meaning.

In a recent paper we published in Thresholds, we argued that if a person wants to become proficient in the practice of mindfulness, then they need to “have some grounded realisation of the true and absolute mode in which the present moment exists”. Most teachings on mindfulness explain that the present moment is the moment of time that exists between the past and future, and since the future never arrives and the past is history, then the only place where we can truly experience life is the present moment. From the conventional or relative perspective, this statement is perfectly true. As we discussed in our post on Life is a Precious Happening, if, like most people, we allow the mind to constantly ruminate about the past or fantasise about the future, then before we know it our lives will have slipped us by in a blur of unawareness.

However, from the absolute perspective, the above affirmation of an identifiable and intrinsically-existing present moment is untenable. Imagine you decide to take a trip to the countryside and have a picnic in your favourite tree-lined spot next to a river. From the time of your arrival until the time you pick up your picnic basket and start to make your way home, we’re sure it won’t come as a surprise to you to hear that you have not been sitting in a static environment. At any given instant when you found yourself gazing at the river, you were observing a dynamic and continuously flowing phenomenon. Thus, between any given instant of time and the next, the river undergoes change. However, not only does the river change between two separate instances of time, but it also changes within the same instant of time. The reason for this is because time is a relative concept, it is a man-made construct that human-beings employ to try to add structure and order to their world.

The truth is, any given moment of time can be continuously divided into ever smaller instants – and this process of division can continue ad infinitum. For example, a second can be divided by 1000 to form a millisecond, and a millisecond can be further divided to form a microsecond (one millionth of a second). However, the microsecond can be divided to form an attosecond (one quintillionth of a second), and the attosecond can be divided to form a yoctosecond (one septillionth of a second). But even the yoctosecond can be divided again and again. Scientists call the shortest physically meaningful moment of time a Planck. The Planck is an indescribably fleeting moment of time. It is 5.4×10-44 seconds to be exact – which is even quicker than the time it takes the novice monks to arrive in the dining hall after they hear the gong sound to announce that it’s meal time. Although it’s difficult to imagine the brevity of a Planck, the fact is that the Planck could also be divided into infinitely smaller and smaller units of time.

So returning to the river analogy, not even for the most miniscule moment of time could we say that the river ever stands still. It’s not just rivers that are subject to this continuous process of change, but every single phenomenon that we encounter. In many respects, we could actually view the present moment and all that it contains as one enormous flowing river. A graceful and swirling flood of interwoven mind and matter that continuously flows yet never actually goes anywhere. Now then, as we discussed in our post about the practice of impermanence, here is where an opportunity to make a small intuitive leap arises. If there is never a point in time when the river stands still, how can a thing that doesn’t ever become static undergo any change? Change implies that something changes from one state or position to another. But since phenomena never truly come to rest in a fixed state, then it is illogical to assert that such a transient and ‘permanently unfixed’ entity can undergo change. That which never is cannot be said to change between one moment of time and next.

This method of investigating the present moment stems from a certain system of Buddhist philosophy and is perhaps a little mind-boggling. So don’t worry if you feel you’re getting left behind. There are many other keys that can be used to help you catch a glimpse of reality. Essentially, what we are trying to get at is quite simple:  the present moment is just a concept. It doesn’t exist in the manner in which we have accustomed ourselves to believing. The present relies for its existence on the notions of past and future. But earlier in this post we already discussed that the future is a fantasy that never actually arrives (because it is always the present), and the past exists as nothing other than a memory – it has no substance. So if there is no future and no past, then how can it be said that there is a present?

It’s not the case that these ideas are just crazy theories hatched-out by peculiar Buddhist teachers living thousands of years ago. In fact, in recent years, there have been some break-through scientific discoveries that have begun to verify the validity of such theories. For example, for a number of decades now, quantum theorists have posited that at the sub-atomic level, there can never be absolute certainty that a particle exists at a given position in time or space. This effectively implies that it is possible for sub-atomic particles to exist in multiple places simultaneously and to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time. However, until recently, there was no observable scientific proof for this theory. This changed in 2010 when a team of physicists, led by Professor Andrew Cleland of the University of California Santa Barbara, published in the journal Nature the results of an experiment that demonstrated that a tiny metal paddle made of semi-conductor material (just visible to the human eye) can simultaneously vibrate in two different energy states. In kinetic terms, this is equivalent to being in two different places at the same time.

Another interesting area of quantum mechanics that seems to add validity to a number of long-standing Buddhist principles regarding the nature of reality is that of String Theory. String Theory, a topic frequently discussed by physicists such as Professor Stephen Hawking, basically asserts that reality has multiple dimensions to it. This is very similar to models taught in certain systems of Buddhist cosmology that assert that there are multiple world systems and world dimensions in addition to our own. Although String Theory is still quite limited from the Buddhist perspective (because it restricts the number of concurrently-existing dimensions to just eleven), it is a major leap forward in terms of establishing a common ground between modern science and Buddhist thought. So the next time you collect your mind and bring it to rest in the present moment, perhaps you should ask yourself exactly in which present moment you are currently dwelling.

Perhaps in years to come discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics will narrow the gap between Buddhism and science even further. Perhaps scientists will discover that a single universe can contain an infinite number of multi-dimensional universes and that infinite expanses of time can exist within a single second. Rather than thinking about existence as something that began at the time of the big-bang, perhaps scientists will start to view the birth and death of our universe as just a small blip in a beginningless and eternally enduring cycle of formation and dissolution. Just a single phase of expansion and contraction within the realm of unconditioned truth (Sanskrit: dharmadatu). This would help to transcend the limiting notion of there being a fixed beginning and a definite end. Without a beginning and an end, the whole construct of time falls apart. Then, instead of concepts such as past and future or beginning and end, perhaps we would have to use other words to describe existence such as ‘isness’, ‘thatness’, or ‘suchness’.

You may find the idea of simultaneously existing present moments or simultaneously existing dimensions to be a bit far-fetched. But it’s actually not that difficult to imagine and there are plenty of more accessible examples that we can use to help us do so. For instance, there are approximately seven billion people currently living on this planet. Each person is completely different and experiences the present moment in a unique manner. So that’s seven billion different present moments that are simultaneously happening right here and now. It’s an inexpressibly greater number if you consider all of the present moments experienced by other sentient life forms such as animals and insects.

The whole point of what we have been discussing so far is to introduce the idea that the present moment may not exist exactly how we think it does, or that it may not exist at all. If we can adopt a slightly less rigid view of things then we have a much greater chance of being able to transcend limiting concepts such as the present moment. Please don’t misunderstand what is being said here, we’re not advising that people should stop practising mindfulness and become content with living a life of corpse-like unawareness. That’s definitely not what is needed. Rather, what we’re suggesting is that in order to truly taste and embrace the essence of the present moment, we have to relinquish any kind of attachment to it. Mindfulness helps to bring the mind into the present moment, but that’s only half the work. Having allowed the mind to settle into an awareness of the here and now, we then need to make a small intuitive leap and pierce through the present moment to taste the underlying fabric of reality itself. As we discussed in our post on the Top Ten Mistakes Made by Meditation Practitioners, it’s not the case that we should make extreme efforts or strain ourselves in order to do this. Rather, just by relaxing the mind and being open to the possibility of a reality beyond our current manner of perceiving, we already begin to dispel some of the mental obscurations that prevent this self-existing truth from emerging.

So when you observe your breath during meditation practice, rather than just follow the breath in and out, you might like to try observing the space and time between the in-breath and the out-breath (and between the out-breath and the in-breath). As you allow the mind to come to rest in its natural state and begin to let go of the normal conceptual mode of perceiving things, you may begin to notice that the space and time between your in-breath and out-breath starts to expand exponentially. With a single breath in and out you can experience an entire lifetime, your view can extend beyond the limits of space and time. The boundary between you the observer and the present moment that is being observed can start to disintegrate. Perceiver and perceived can merge as one. Perhaps we could say that this is the difference between ‘being in’ the present moment and simply ‘being’ the present moment. Be alive by living in the present moment, but liberate yourself completely by letting go of it.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Gyatso, T. (XIV Dalai Lama) (1985, 1989). Hopkins, Jeffrey, ed. Kalachakra Tantra: Rite of Initiation for the Stage of Generation, a Commentary on the text of Kay-drup-ge-lek-bel-sang-bo by Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and the Text Itself . London: Wisdom Publications

Lieu, R., & Hillman, L.W. (2003). The phase coherence of light from extragalactic sources: Direct evidence against first-order planck-scale fluctuations in time and space. The Astrophysical Journal, 585, L77-L80.

Hawking, S. (2005). A Briefer History of Time. Reinbek (Germany): Rowohlt

Hawking, S. & Mlodinow, L., (2011). The Grand Design. London: Bantam

Hawking, S. (Ed). (2011). The dreams that stuff is made of: The most astounding papers of quantum physics – and how they shook the scientific world. Philadelphia: Running Press

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

Penrose, R. (2006). The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. London: Vintage.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds. Summer Issue, 14-18.

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.

Do We Really Exist

Do We Really Exist?

dream

A truly fascinating question, don’t you think? In order to investigate this question effectively, we need to plunge into and explore some slightly taxing concepts.

When we want to examine the question of whether or not things truly exist, we can do so from either a relative or an absolute perspective. Answering this question from a relative perspective is a fairly uncomplicated procedure: if we accept that other things exist then in relation to those things we can conclude that we definitely exist. However, when we examine this question from an absolute perspective, things are not quite so straight forward.

When investigating this question in absolute terms, we need to remember that our existence is dependent on many factors, is caused by many factors, and is defined by many factors. According to the Buddhist view of emptiness based on the Madhyamaka system of philosophical reasoning, any given apprehended object relies for its existence on: (i) our mental designation of it, (ii) the conditions that caused it to be produced, and (iii) its attributes and component parts. However, the Madhyamaka treatises go on to explain that objects are neither equivalent to any of these individual causes or components, nor to their sum total, nor do they truly exist apart from these causes and components.

In other words, no matter how hard we try to find an object that inherently exists, we will never be able to do so. The reason why phenomena appear far more “real” and concrete than they actually are is due to the process of mental reification. We tend to make things real – including how we construct and create the ‘self’ or ‘I’.

In our most recent post entitled ‘Suffering Exists’, we used the example of a motor car to explain how people suffer due to constantly wanting to change or better their situation. Let’s now use the example of a motor car in a slightly different way in order to try and understand more about this idea of “non-self”. The example that we have formulated is based on a dialogue between a meditation teacher and their (somewhat haughty) student.

An Example: Looking for the Car

bugatti-veyron-super-sports-480

Meditation Teacher: Does this car inherently exist?

Student: Yes, of course.

Meditation Teacher: How does it exist?

Student: It exists because it is comprised of car parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, I see. So is this the car?

car chasis 2

Student: No, of course not, that’s just the chassis.

Meditation Teacher: Well what about this?

CAR AXLE-ILLUSTRATION

Student: No, don’t be ridiculous, that’s just the wheels and one of the axles. An individual car component cannot be all of the mutually exclusive parts that make up the car. One thing cannot be another thing.

Meditation Teacher: So the car doesn’t exist in any of its component parts?

Student: Of course not.

Meditation Teacher: Does it exist outside of its component parts?

Student: No, that’s even sillier. The car doesn’t exist in any one of its individual component parts nor does it exist outside of its component parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, so how does the car exist?

Student: The car exists as the sum of its component parts.

Meditation teacher: Ah, I see. But you have already said that a component part can’t be two things at once. Are you now saying that the chassis can be both a chassis and a car?

Student: No, that would be illogical.

Meditation Teacher: So you’re saying that when the wheels, chassis, axles, and all the other car components are put together they stop being those components and become a new single entity?

Student: No, that wouldn’t make sense either – the component parts still exist in the car. The word “car” is used to designate the collection of individual components that collectively form a car.

Meditation Teacher: Right, so you are saying that the car is just label?

Student: Well, I guess so.

Meditation Teacher: How can a car be just a label?

Student: I don’t know.

Meditation Teacher: You still haven’t shown me where I can find a car that inherently exists. Where is the car?

Student: I’m not sure, I’m confused.

Meditation Teacher: Enjoy being confused.

Student: I’m going out to get some fresh air.

Meditation teacher: Ok, but don’t take too long. We’re going to test drive a new car later and I’ve been looking forward to it all day.

We can apply the same line of reasoning employed in the above example of the motor car to ourselves as human beings. We are made up of blood, flesh, bone, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. We are made up of molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks. We are made up of our parents and their parents, and of the wind, water, earth, and sun. Although without any of these things we do not exist, an inherently existing self may not be found within these causes and components whether in singular or in sum. Therefore, when, in Buddhist philosophy, we speak of ‘non-self’ (Pali: anattā), the ‘self’ that we are denying is an independent and intrinsically existing self.

Deconstructing the ‘Self’

mansion

However old we are, we have had that much time since birth in order to create the construct of ‘I’. In fact, we don’t limit ourselves with just one ‘I’, but tend to be a different I for each different aspect of our lives. We have an ‘I’ that we use when we are with the family, another for friends, and yet another when we are at work.  It’s as if we have built a mansion with many rooms where each room comes with the label ‘I’. A useful practice is to take a moment to discover how many rooms make up our mansion and what materials have been used to construct and arrange each of these rooms. What beliefs, motivations, habits, and perceptions have influenced the creation of each of your different ‘I’s’?

Unfortunately, most people live out their entire lives in this mansion – stuck in a boring and cyclic pattern of moving from one room to the next and limiting themselves to being the same cluster of ‘I’s’ that everyone expects them to be. People have a tendency to get stuck in their own identity, and to forget that outside of their mansion there is a whole world to explore. As we discussed in our post entitled “The Practice of Impermanence: Learning How to be Alive”, the problem with getting stuck like this is that we cause ourselves a great deal of suffering because we are not open to change.

self deception

Were you able to witness with clarity and honesty all of the different construction materials that you have used over the course of your lifetime?

prison

What exactly is this mansion that we have constructed? Did the thought cross your mind that instead of a mansion perhaps we have constructed a prison? Is it possible that we have limited and imprisoned ourselves with our concepts, words, judgements, feelings, perceptions, and so forth? Maybe we are our own jailors guarding a prison of our own construction.

If that’s the case, then we need to think about how we can escape from this prison. The good news is that we’re not stuck. If we have the power to create a prison for the mind then we also have the power to dismantle it. With perseverance and hard work, we can definitely dismantle the limited construct of ‘I’ that we have created.  For many people, this can be a somewhat daunting prospect so it is advisable to take things one step at a time. As we become familiar with the fact that we (body, mind, spirit) are not a constant, we begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of allowing things to change. It is then that we can begin to demolish the old ‘I’ and prepare the ground for the new build:

demolition

Everything that we uncover during the demolition process made us what we are today. In fact, some of this ‘stuff’ such as ideas, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts will be useful and can be put to one side for recycling in the new build. However, some of the things that we uncover will be of zero or even negative value and it is therefore advisable to dispose of them completely. When the old mansion is completely demolished and we have a clear and clean plot, we can start to build a new ‘I’ that is dynamic, has a vast and panoramic view, is up-to-date, and in a constant state of flux:

meditation house

As we mature in the practice and become more familiar and comfortable with change, letting go of the old to make way for the new becomes easier and easier. We begin to dynamically flow with impermanence and this new found space and freedom causes the mind to remain in tranquillity. It is here that we can start to enjoy the empty nature of phenomena – allowing the old to dissolve and the new to become.

meditation house 3

In seeing, there is just seeing. No seer and nothing seen. In hearing there is just hearing. No hearer and nothing heard.”

(The Bahiya Sutta)

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

Common Mistakes Made by Meditation Practitioners

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The Top Ten Mistakes Made by Meditation Practitioners

Based upon an extensive review of the research and classical literature, and based upon observations from our own research and practise of meditation, the following are what we consider to be the top ten mistakes made by meditation practitioners:

Tenth place – 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 (because such people cannot be classed as meditators), we decided to include this as a meditation pitfall because there seems to be a significant number of people who are interested in practicing meditation but who never actually get round to doing so. For example, a recent nationally representative survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of British adults would like to practice meditation, but only 26% currently do so.1 Obviously, despite our best intentions and no matter how many meditation books we might read, if we never actually get around to practising meditation, then the fruits of meditation practice will never develop.

Ninth place – Giving-up once started: Although data exists that reports on the year-by-year changes in the number of people following one particular religion or another, we haven’t been able to identify any reliable data that provides estimates on the number of people who adopt a routine of meditation and then give-up at some later point. However, based on the many 1000s of meditation practitioners with whom we have personally crossed paths, it is unfortunately very common for people to begin practising meditation enthusiastically, but then give-up as soon as they encounter a minor difficulty. A reason why many people don’t stick at their meditation practice is because they have unrealistic expectations about what meditation entails. Meditation is not a quick-fix solution. Lasting spiritual growth requires a life-time’s worth of continuous practise. Thinking that meditation can immediately solve all of one’s problems or change one’s 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 and spiritual awareness will gradually begin to soften the conditioned mind and cause rays of insight to slowly break through. When correctly practiced, meditation is 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 should be the hardest work we ever do, but it should also be a lot of fun!

Eighth place – Not finding a teacher: As discussed in our previous post entitled Authentic Spiritual Lineage, a realised spiritual guide appears to be an essential requirement for effective meditative and spiritual development. Many people underestimate the importance of this point, and misunderstand the role of the spiritual guide more generally. 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 might be likened to a skilful surgeon who carefully cuts away infected or damaged tissue. This can sometimes be a painful process, but it is necessary if we want to make a full recovery. In a qualitative piece of research we conducted which was published in the Journal of Religion and Health,2 findings demonstrated 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 non-awareness, self-centredness, and thought rumination, a skilful guide is required to help undo this deep-rooted conditioning.

Seventh place – Finding a teacher who is unsuitable: Worse than not finding a spiritual guide, is following one who is inappropriately qualified. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that followers of such teachers are (presumably) unaware that their guide is unsuitable. Thus, people can spend many years practising ineffective meditation techniques and in achieving nothing other than bolstering the ego (and bank account) of their chosen guide. Meditation teachers who offer palm readings in exchange for money or who (try to) predict lottery numbers (as per some Buddhist monks we met during our most recent visit to Thailand) are quite easy to identify as frauds. But things 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, or is a “recognised” reincarnate lama (known in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as a ‘Tulku’). With such credentials, it becomes very difficult for people to discern whether or not they are being led astray. We wrote about the many problems caused by non-authentic spiritual teachers in a short spiritual poem that was published in a previous blog entitled: ‘Hearken to the Dharma’.

To perform the role effectively, the spiritual teacher must be highly skilled in understanding and guiding people’s minds. According to Tsong-kha-pa, a 15th century Tibetan Buddhist saint, a suitable spiritual guide is one who is “thoroughly pacified”, “serene” and “disciplined”.3 So as spiritual 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 come in a variety of shapes and sizes and may not always fit what we deem to be the ‘perfect mould’. A good question to ask ourselves is: ‘Do I feel better 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.

Sixth place – Trying too hard: Trying too hard to make progress spiritually and/or meditatively can often lead to extreme behaviours. Extreme behaviours cause things to become unbalanced and invariably give rise to unhealthy consequences. For example, there is evidence to suggest that over-intensive meditation practise can actually induce psychotic episodes – including in people who do not have a history of psychiatric illness.4,5 There are numerous volumes of Buddhist writings that advocate a ‘middle-way philosophy’ (i.e., the middle-way between extremes). We can apply a middle-way philosophy not only to our meditation practice, but to how we live our lives more generally. We’re not going to write much more about this here as we will be exploring the middle-way approach more thoroughly in a forthcoming blog.

Fifth place – Not trying hard enough: A bigger mistake than trying too hard to make progress spiritually, is not trying hard enough. This mistake relates closely to the earlier pitfall about giving-up our meditation practice as soon as we encounter difficulties. Just as conditions such as the sun, rain, and nutrients are required for a seed to grow into a blossoming flower, meditative development requires us to make ‘right effort’ at all times. An excuse people often make is that they don’t have time to practise meditation. They try to cram in and find time for their practice amongst all of the other activities of their lives. This creates a certain stressful attitude towards meditation and practise can easily start to become a chore. Therefore, the trick is to not create a separation between your meditation practise and the rest of your life. When you sit and write at the computer at work, tidy-up at home, play with your children, and even when you go to the toilet, do so in meditative awareness. Try to take what you experience now as the path. Real meditators are those who can practise ‘on the job’. Stop battling with yourself – let go and allow your mind to encompass the entire present moment. Cultivate a mind that is open and accepting – as vast as space. Wherever you find yourself, each time you make the effort to become aware for a brief moment, know that we’re doing the same and are practising with you. Meditate now, my dear.

Fourth place – Forgetting about death: A primary reason why many people’s spiritual practice goes astray is because they forget about death. Death is the spiritual practitioner’s best friend. From the moment you are born, every single second of your life brings you closer to death. You can’t hide from death and you can’t predict when you will die. At any time, you are only separated from death by a single breath in or out. Most people are complacent about death and continue immersing themselves in totally meaningless activities. But believe us – you won’t be complacent about death when it’s happening to you. At this time, if you haven’t made your human rebirth into a precious one (i.e., by infusing your life with spiritual development), then at the time of death you will be totally confused and tormented by regret and fear. Your family, friends, possessions, and reputation will count for absolutely nothing at this time. Your life will have been wasted and you will be leaving an island of jewels (i.e., the human rebirth) empty handed. So there really isn’t any time to delay your spiritual practice because all you can take with you when you die is that which you have accomplished spiritually – everyone and everything else must stay behind. A good practitioner is one 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. One of our favourite Buddhist quotes about this subject was written by Shantideva – an eighth-century Indian Buddhist Saint:

“By depending upon this boat-like human being, you can cross the great ocean of suffering. In the future such a vessel will be hard to find – this is no time to sleep, you fools!”

Third place – Doubt: Doubt is one of the main reasons why people do not make progress in their spiritual and/or meditative practice. If death can be said to be 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 the sacred bond that supports them. 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. The real challenge is how we respond to and deal with doubt when it arises. In our recent blog entitled ‘Forgive them Father’, we discussed how doubt is not really about people becoming suspicious of the teachings or the teacher, but is more to do with people becoming suspicious of themselves and their own experiences. Rather than a blind conviction in the teachings, the antidote to doubt is logical reasoning and reflection from a centred and stable mind-state.

The thing to do when doubts arise is to make the practise that we advise for people who receive training as part of their participation in an intervention we developed called Meditation Awareness Training.6 In Meditation Awareness Training, at the point when difficult or destructive emotions arise, course participants are taught to send out an SOS: 1. Stop, 2. Observe the breath, 3. Step back and watch the mind. A technique such as this allows us to examine situations clearly and without the influence of emotion. Give yourself plenty of time to examine your doubts. There is no need to do it all at once. Take a few deep breaths and centre yourself in the present moment – make good use of your doubts and use them as a means of becoming a stronger practitioner. Reason things through but most importantly, rely on your own experiences. In short, if you are confused then enjoy being confused!

Second place – Meditative dependency: In certain circumstances, it seems that meditation might actually be addictive. Professor Mark Griffiths (one of the world’s leading experts in the study of addictive behaviours) recently wrote about this on his addictive/extreme behaviours blog. According to Dr. Griffiths, the concept of meditation being addictive “is theoretically feasible but we need to carry out the empirical research”. Thus, although there are some accounts in the scientific literature of people feeling that they have become addicted to meditation,7 considerably more research is required to explore this possibility further. In a paper we recently published in the Journal of Behavioural Addiction,8 we hypothesised that meditation could actually be used as a ‘substitution technique’ for people in recovery from maladaptive behavioural addictions such as problem gambling. In the example we gave, becoming dependant on meditation would probably constitute what is known as a ‘positive’ form of addiction.

In the Buddhist classical literature, there are cautionary notes regarding becoming overly attached to meditative bliss. In fact, people can confuse meditative bliss (Sanskrit: prīti) with being enlightened and it can become a major obstacle to further spiritual progress. We personally know of one or two individuals who, after many years of practice, have become proficient at cultivating profound blissful meditative states (by exclusively practising a technique known as shamatha meditation). However, these same individuals appear to dwell in such states with a total disregard for the countless number of people who are deeply in need of their support. The idea is not to use meditation as a means of escaping from the world and its problems, but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.

First place – Ontological addiction: First place on our list of the top ten mistakes made by meditation practitioners goes to ontological addiction. Ontological addiction is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”.8 According to ontological addiction theory (a theory that we have been working on for over 12 months as part of our work with Prof Mark Griffiths), the root cause that underlies all forms of suffering and psychological distress is the harbouring of an erroneous view regarding the true mode of existence of the ‘self’. In general, people see themselves as an inherently existent and separate entity. This view acts as a lens through which they live the whole of their lives. Every single thought, word, and action has the self as its referent and serves to reify the belief in an independently existing ‘I’.

However, under analysis (whether scientific or meditative), a self (or for that matter any other phenomenon) that intrinsically exists cannot be found. Thus, we have the concept of non-self. If we look deeply, we will see that we are empty of a self, but are full of all things. The dualistic outlook that separates self from other is a fabrication of the deluded mind. Being addicted to ourselves causes us to act in ways that not only harm others, but that also harm ourselves. This is much like a piece of fruit on a branch of the tree that begins to see itself as separate from the tree. The same piece of fruit might decide that the trunk of the tree is blocking its view of the countryside, and therefore ask for the trunk to be cut down. Obviously, this is not in the fruit’s long term interests. The truth is that even when in the fruit bowl on our kitchen table, the fruit and the tree are never separate. When you take a bite and taste the fruit, looking deeply, you will see that you are tasting the whole tree, and for that matter, the whole universe.

Ontological addiction is another way of saying that we are ego junkies. When, after many years of meditation practice, we eventually begin to experience some of the fruits of meditation that we have read or heard so much about, it is easy to start to think we are becoming proficient in meditation. In fact, many advanced meditators do a good job in uprooting large portions of their ego-clinging, only to become attached to the idea that they are somebody who has defeated the ego. However, this is unfortunately just another example of ontological addiction and represents the ego deceiving us once again. What we should be aiming to do is to completely let go of the notion of ‘being a meditator’ until there no longer remains any separation between meditation sessions and daily life. If a person is in any way caught up in regarding themselves as a ‘meditation practitioner’, then we’re sorry to say this, but they’ve totally missed the point.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

 

References

  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2010). Mindfulness Report. London: Author.
  2. 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. DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  3. 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.
  4. Sethi, S, Subhash, C. (2003). Relationship of meditation and psychosis: case studies. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 37, 382.
  5. Yorston, G. (2001). Mania precipitated by meditation: A case report and literature review. Mental Health. Religion and Culture, 4, 209-213.
  6. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness. DOI: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.
  7. Shapiro, D. H. (1992). Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 32, 62-67.
  8. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior. DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.01.002.

Meditation Research: The Top Ten

Meditation Research: The Top Ten

getting ahead

Based upon an extensive and comprehensive review of the literature, and based upon findings from our own research, the following is what we consider to be some key findings and/or emerging insights from the scientific study of meditation.

1.When correctly practiced, meditation can improve physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing.

2. Poorly administered meditation training can lead to deleterious health consequences.

3. In general, people (including many academicians) have a poor understanding of what constitutes meditation practice.

4. In general, people have a poor understanding of what constitutes authentic spiritual practice. For example, spiritual practice is often confused with religious practice (which may or may not be spiritually inclined).

5. There is a tendency for people to search outside of themselves for spiritual happiness (i.e., to believe that ‘liberation’ can only be granted by some kind of enlightened being or divine entity). However, the evidence suggests that people experience the greatest gains in spiritual and psychological wellbeing when they start to look ‘inside’ and take accountability for their own spiritual growth.

6. Most people have difficulty in understanding that they inherently don’t exist. In other words, they ‘cling’ to the idea of an independent and intrinsically existing ‘self’ or ‘I’. This ‘addiction to self’, which we term ‘ontological addiction’ (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2013), appears to play an integral role in the maintenance of psychological distress and spiritual bewilderment.

7. Simply letting the mind rest in the present moment, whilst anchoring ones concentration on the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath, appears to calm the mind and reduce psychological and autonomic arousal.

8. It seems that spiritual practice comes low-down on people’s priorities with most people placing greater importance on material pursuits (e.g., career, wealth, reputation, etc.).

9. In consequence, most people are unprepared for death and generally meet it with a great deal of fear and regret. Furthermore, although there is a superficial understanding that death is inevitable, it seems that most people are self-deceived due to the construction of a deeply-held and maladaptive belief that death will never happen to them.

10. ‘Spiritual addiction’ (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2013) appears to be a multifaceted and valid construct in which ego-clinging plays an important aetiological role.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon