Being Too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue

Being Too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue

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Student: Are you busy?

Teacher: Why?

S: May I talk with you for a short while?

T: Yes.

S: I’ve been practising meditation for over ten years. I’ve studied the scriptures and received teachings from great meditation masters. I’ve written a book on meditation and I’ve even been awarded a PhD in Buddhist Studies. I’ve completed a three-year long retreat and practised advanced Mahāmudrā techniques. This was all before I came to practice with you, and I’ve followed your teachings for over 18 months now.

T: (remains silent)

S: It’s just that I feel ready to become a teacher myself. I feel I’m ready to leave and start teaching others.

T: (remains silent)

S: I want to know if I have your blessing to leave and teach?

T: You can leave whenever you want.

S: But do I have your blessing?

T: Why do you want to teach?

S: I want to help others. I want to tell them what I know and ease their suffering.

T: So, you came to me only to seek my approval for you to teach?

S: No, of course not. I came to follow your teachings. I came to learn from you.

T: But you haven’t followed my teachings. You haven’t learned a thing.

S: What do you mean?

T: You’ve wasted your time here.

S: But I’ve been so focussed on learning all there is to know.

T: That’s why you haven’t learned anything. Your head is full of useless information. You wish to learn only so you can impress yourself and others with how much you know. However, although you might be able to recite entire scriptures, you haven’t grasped their inner meaning.

S: What’s your point.

T: My point is that you’ve missed the point.

S: Your talking in riddles.

T: It’s not only during the last 18 months that you’ve wasted your time. You say that you’ve been practising meditation for ten years, but you don’t have ten years’ meditation experience. You have one years’ experience ten times. You haven’t continued to grow and to learn. This isn’t the same as having ten years’ experience.

S: Well, you’re not holding back with your words. In fact, I’m offended by what you’ve said.

T: You need to start from the beginning. You need to let go of what you think you know and relearn the foundation practices.

S: And how long will that take? When, in your so-called wise opinion, will I be ready to become a teacher in my own right?

T: When you no longer have the desire to become a teacher?

S: That doesn’t make sense. Why do you always talk in riddles?

T: It’s not a riddle.

S: You’re saying that I should abandon my wish to help others by teaching them the path. Isn’t this what you have been teaching us to do all along?

T: I am saying that you should abandon your ego.

S: But wanting to help others is an act of selflessness. How can there be ego involved?

T: You’re full of ego. You’re full of shit. Your words carry no weight because you don’t have the experience to back them up. When I talk about people corrupting the teachings, I’m talking about people like you. Your entire approach to Buddhist practice is governed by your ego. You’re a selfish egoistic pig, and in terms of spiritual progress, you’re worse off than somebody that hasn’t encountered the teachings. Your problem is that you’re ‘too Buddhist’.

S: How rude of you to say these things. I completely disagree with everything you have said.

T: To become a teacher, you must let go of the idea of being a teacher. A teacher simply teaches. They teach with each breath they take. They teach by the way they walk and by the way the sit down. They teach through their being, not through their words. A true Spiritual teacher has no interest in gathering followers. They are just as happy teaching a butterfly or a dog, as they are a gathering of 10,000 people. In fact, they humbly accept the butterfly or dog as their teacher. A true teacher doesn’t label themselves as a ‘teacher’.

S: In my opinion, a ‘true teacher’ doesn’t speak to people in the manner that you have just done. You tell us to show kindness to one another, yet you’re not following your own advice. Perhaps it’s you who hasn’t grasped the inner meaning of the teachings.

T: (remains silent)

S: You think you’re some kind of enlightened Zen master that can go around talking in riddles and being rude to people. People have feelings you know. In fact, you’re right, I did come here to seek your approval. If I want to teach, I require the approval of an established teacher. However, I don’t want your approval anymore. I no longer wish to be affiliated with you. I’ll find a teacher who can see my true qualities.

T: Do you see my point now?

S: What do you mean?

T: Look at how easily your ego flares up. Look at how red and tense your face is. You’re offended. You’re angry. Your ego is raging. In your book, you stated that “a person who has transcended their ego can’t be offended”. Are these not your words?

S: It’s true that I said that.

T: You also said that “people should see themselves as if looking in a mirror”. Can you see yourself now?

S: (puts head down and remains silent)

T: I’m asking you a question. Can you see yourself now?

S: (starts to cry)

T: I keep telling people that they need to make a choice. A choice between walking an authentic spiritual path or remaining in ignorance. These aren’t just words. This isn’t a game. I’m not talking about working towards a professional or academic qualification. You can’t pay lip service to spiritual practice. You must live it and breathe it. You must completely abandon yourself to the path. You can’t practice meditation to make a career out of it. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

S: I think you might be right. I’ve been wasting my time.

T: At least you see it now. This makes you more fortunate than most people in your position.

S: Having a partial knowledge of the teachings has done me more harm than good. I wish I had met you sooner.

T: You weren’t ready to meet me before now. You met me when you were supposed to.

S: How do I turn the situation around?

T: Take a step back and breathe. Breathe and know that you are breathing. Be and know that you are being. Let go of wanting to be a teacher. Let go of being a Buddhist. Sit at the centre of the universe and observe your mind as it engages with the world.

S: (laughs)

T: Why did you laugh?

S: It’s just that in my book, I wrote that “people caught up in being a Buddhist have missed the point of Buddhism”. Its only now that I truly understand the meaning of my own words.

T: It seems that you have taught yourself something. Perhaps you’re already a teacher without knowing it.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

What are the Active Ingredients of Mindfulness-based Interventions?

What are the Active Ingredients of Mindfulness-based Interventions?

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Mindfulness-based interventions typically comprise numerous elements, including some or all of the following: guided mindfulness exercises, guided loving-kindness and compassion meditation exercises, group discussion, psycho-education (sometimes in the style of a university lecture), yoga, one-to-one discussion with the programme facilitator, a CD of guided meditations to encourage at-home practice, and a full or half-day silent group retreat. Given that each of the above techniques arguably have therapeutic utility in their own right, ascertaining why MBIs are effective is problematic because they have numerous ‘active ingredients’.

Not controlling for other active ingredients is a common limitation of MBI intervention studies. Indeed, although scientific evidence demonstrates that certain MBIs are equally or more effective than other treatments for improving specific health conditions, it is currently unclear whether it is mindfulness, or mindfulness in combination with other therapeutic techniques, that results in health benefits. One way to overcome this methodological limitation is to employ a purpose-designed ‘active’ control condition. This is a control intervention that mirrors the main intervention in terms of its design, but does not include any mindfulness techniques. By conducting a randomised controlled trial that compares the effectiveness of an MBI against a suitably formulated active control intervention, we can determine that superior outcomes in the MBI versus control group are caused by mindfulness.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter whether it is specifically mindfulness or other intervention components that make MBIs effective. If we are only interested in treatment outcomes and adhere to a ‘what works’ approach to alleviating illness symptoms, then establishing which intervention components are most effective becomes less important. However, from the point of view of advancing scientific understanding of how the human mind reacts to given psychotherapeutic techniques, it is useful to establish which ingredients are most active within a given intervention. Such knowledge can also help to inform the development of more effective and ‘therapeutically streamlined’ MBIs.

When designing an active control intervention for MBI efficacy studies, in addition to matching the design of the target and control interventions (i.e., minus the inclusion of mindfulness techniques), it is also important to match the ‘competency’ of the instructor or instructors delivering the two interventions. For example, a number of meditation intervention studies employing an active control condition have used an experienced clinician and meditation teacher to deliver the MBI, whilst leaving a relatively inexperienced student to administer the control intervention. Clearly, such an approach can introduce bias and weaken the strength of the evidence from MBI studies.

In order to overcome the above methodological limitation, in a recent randomised controlled trial that we conducted, the study was designed such that the same instructor delivered the MBI and comparison intervention. To control for potential bias on the part of the instructor, participants in each intervention condition were asked to rate the instructor’s levels of enthusiasm and preparation. Statistical tests were then performed to determine if there were significant differences between how participants from the intervention and control group rated the instructor’s performance.

We decided to control for an ‘instructor effect’ because in our opinion, the mindfulness instructor is one of the most active ingredients in MBIs. Part of our research has involved the development and empirical investigation of a ‘second-generation’ of MBI. Second-generation MBIs (such as Meditation Awareness Training) are designed slightly differently compared to ‘first-generation’ MBIs (such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy). More specifically, second generation MBIs are overtly spiritual in nature and teach a greater range of meditative techniques. Given that second-generation MBIs comprise different design elements compared to first-generation MBIs, it is reasonable to assume that these two types of MBIs will result in different outcomes. However, despite the design differences between first- and second-generation MBIs, it is our view that if a mindfulness teacher with authentic spiritual realisation was to administer a first-generation MBI, the outcomes would be very similar to them administering a second-generation MBI.

In other words, if the mindfulness teacher is genuinely rooted in the present moment, the specific design of the MBI becomes less important. As we discussed in our post on The Four Types of Psychologist, we would argue that the same principle applies to the majority of psychological therapies. If the clinician knows their own mind, has genuine compassion for the client, and is skilled in helping the client understand their problems, then the choice of therapy becomes less important.

Although preliminary findings (including from some of our own clinical case studies and qualitative studies) support the notion that the mindfulness teacher is one of the (if not the) most important ingredients of MBIs, there is clearly a need for further research investigating how the instructor influences outcomes. However, in the absence of extensive empirical investigation into this subject, we hypothesise that what participants of MBIs need most (and therefore respond best to), is the unconditional love and spiritual wisdom of a teacher who is without a personal agenda, and whose mind is saturated with meditative awareness.

 

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Baer, R., Smith, G., Hopkins, J., Krietemeyer, J., & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13, 27-45.

Chiesa, A. (2013). The difficulty of defining mindfulness: Current thought and critical issues. Mindfulness, 4, 255-268.

Chiesa, A., & Malinowski, P. (2011). Mindfulness-based approaches: Are they all the same? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67, 404-424.

MacCoon, D., Imel, Z., Rosenkranz, M., Sheftel, J., Weng, H., Sullivan, J., . . . Lutz, A. (2012). The validation of an active control intervention for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Behavior Research and Therapy, 50, 3-12.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Dunn, T., Singh, N. N., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Meditation Awareness Training for work-related wellbeing and job performance: A randomised controlled trial. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 806-823.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

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

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The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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