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

Letting Go

Letting Go

The following post is from a friend in Thailand. Roughly, the words translate as: ‘If you let go, time will heal’. This is sound advice. However, better still is not to hold on in the first place! This is the path of meditation.

Condivido il seguente post da un’amica in Thailandia. Grossomodo, le parole si traducono come: ‘Se si lascia andare le cose, con il tempo tutte le cose possano guarire’. Questo è un consiglio sano. Tuttavia, Forse è meglio non trattenere delle cose già dall’inizio! Questo è il percorso della meditazione.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon

Do You Really Know Yourself?

Do You Really Know Yourself?

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The words ‘know thyself’ appear frequently in the work of the Greek philosopher Plato and have been used by writers and philosophers for thousands of years. But what does it mean to know oneself, why is it important, and how can a person acquire such knowledge?

We suspect that some people would be uncomfortable, or even offended, by the suggestion that they don’t know themselves. We spend 24 hours a day in our own company and while it can sometimes be difficult to interpret other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, we can’t use this excuse when it comes to ourselves. We have direct access to our inner psychological world and in theory, we are in an ideal position to cultivate an in-depth understanding of who we are.

However, the truth is that many people are not aware of the events unfolding in their mind. At any one moment, a vast number of psychological processes are happening inside them, but at best, they are only partially aware of a small number of these. Consequently, their behaviours are the automated product of a complex – and sometimes competing – assortment of impulses, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and memories. Rather than consciously allowing these psychological processes to influence their choices, they are effectively ‘processed’ by them. Instead of collaborating with the mind and using it as a tool, they find themselves ‘lived’ by the mind.

Changing this habit is easier said than done but there are some remits of human endeavour that may be able to assist us. In particular, we can look to modern science in order to gain insight into how we can develop a better understanding of ourselves. In order to acquire knowledge about a given phenomenon, scientists engage in the process of observation. This observation takes on many forms. It can involve observing phenomena in their natural state or it can involve observing how phenomena behave under a given set of experimental conditions. However, either way, careful observation is a crucial part of scientific enquiry and if we adopt the same principle in order to gain insight into ourselves, it is likely that our journey of ‘inner scientific enquiry’ will bear fruit.

By stepping back and observing our inner psychological world, a number of ‘truths’ about ourselves become apparent. Firstly, given that it is possible – particularly when using meditation – to observe our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, we must conclude that we are something more than these psychological processes. Secondly, we must also conclude that there exists a part of us that can ‘consciously observe’ our own mind. As we continue to engage in the process of inner observation, this ‘conscious observer’ part of us steadily grows, such that it becomes easier to maintain concentration and observe ourselves for longer periods of time.

A third truth that we may come to understand about ourselves is that the closer we observe, the harder it becomes to establish exactly who and what we are. The reason for this is that we don’t exist as standalone or isolated entities. We exist in reliance upon all other phenomena in the universe. We breathe in the out-breath of every other living being. When we drink a glass of water, we are effectively drinking rivers, clouds, and oceans. Our visit to the bathroom produces food for the plants and trees. Being embraced by a loved one can change a bad day into a good one, and a single heartfelt smile can completely change another person’s life.

In order to truly know ourselves, we have to fundamentally change our ideas of who we think we are and of how we think we exist. In effect, in order to find ourselves, we have to let go of ourselves.  When we stop thinking in terms of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’, we start to see the world differently. We start to experience that the boundaries between ourselves and other phenomena become blurred. It becomes difficult to determine where the ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins. We adopt a much looser definition of ‘self’ yet somewhat paradoxically, we start to understand more about who and what we are.

Letting go of self really means that we are embracing the universe. The universe has existed for billions of years and it contains lots of knowledge. It contains the knowledge of creation, existence, and dissolution. We are an indispensable part of the universe and it relies upon us just as much as we rely upon it. By exploring the inner universe of our mind, we can weaken – or even remove completely – the boundary that we think exists between our inner psychological world and the external physical world. In other words, our practice of inner scientific enquiry and observation can, in time, cause our inner and outer worlds to collide. When this happens, we find ourselves flooded with the knowledge of the universe and the universe becomes flooded with the knowledge of our mind.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

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

Mindfulness for Pet Dogs

Mindfulness for Pet Dogs

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Unsurprisingly, a search of the academic literature reveals that there has been little (if any) scientific investigation into whether dogs can be taught mindfulness. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that teaching dogs mindfulness is taking things too far and that it is another example of how ancient mindfulness teachings are being misappropriated in modern society. However, based on personal experience, it’s our view that under certain conditions and to a certain extent, some dogs can learn to practise a form of mindfulness. In this post we present the cases of Vajra, Tara, and Zeus – three beautiful dogs with whom we are fortunate to have shared our lives – and share how they have each come to embody a form of mindfulness practice.

Vajra

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Vajra was a medium sized mixed-breed male dog who lived with us at a Buddhist monastery and retreat centre that we ran in North Wales. Vajra (pictured above) was fawn coloured and his weight as an adult was approximately 18kg. Vajra came to us as a puppy from a dog rescue centre. He grew up in the monastery and met new people on a day-to-day basis. The monastery followed a daily routine of meditation practice involving formal seated meditations in the morning and evenings as well as periods of silence, walking meditation, working meditation, study, and chanting. At various times throughout the day, the monastery bell would sound in order to invite people to a particular practice or to remind them to stop, breathe, and remember that they are alive.

When Vajra was two years old, of his own accord he would come and lie in the meditation hall during the formal meditation sessions. To begin with, he would often just go to sleep and he could sometimes be heard snoring when people were trying to meditate. However, from the time Vajra reached three years of age, rather than lay on his side and go to sleep during meditation, he would assume a squatting position whereby he was still effectively lying down, but was upright and sat directly over his front paws. When sat in this manner, Vajra would hold his head off the ground and in addition to remaining alert, he would stay still and as quiet as a mouse. We suppose this posture would be similar to that which professionally trained dogs assume when they are given the “platz” command.

As mentioned above, walking meditation was practised on a daily basis at the monastery and this involved participants walking very slowly, in single file, and remaining meditatively aware of all that they experienced during each moment of every step. When he was young, Vajra would ignore the people practising walking meditation and would use the practice as an opportunity to play, sniff, and run around. However, as he grew older, Vajra started to join in with the walking meditation; he would take his place in the line of participants and place one foot in front of the other in a slow and focussed manner.

Of course, it is impossible for us to know what was going through Vajra’s mind when he exhibited these behaviours and it could be that all along, he was thinking about what he would receive for dinner or was just unconsciously mimicking our behaviour. However, many of the visitors to the monastery commented on Vajra’s calm nature and we like to think that in his own way, Vajra had learned to practice a form of meditation.

Tara

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Tara (pictured above) is a toy Jack Russel Terrier. She weighs about 5kg in adulthood and came to us as a puppy. Like many Jack Russel Terriers, for the first few years of her life, Tara was somewhat naughty. Despite almost being small enough to sit in the palm of a person’s hand, it seemed Tara thought that she was a Rottweiler and she would even try to dominate dogs that were ten times her size. Also, Tara had a habit of climbing trees and getting stuck high up in the branches such that in order to bring her down, we had to perform acrobatic manoeuvres that easily exceeded our tree-climbing capabilities. It’s fair to say that Tara was hard-headed and despite understanding fully our commands, she would frequently test how far she could cross the line.

However, when Tara turned four years old, she began to settle down and assume a much calmer demeanour. The house that we lived in with Tara was visited by a large number of practicing Buddhists (as well as spiritual practitioners from non-Buddhist traditions). In the house, there was a chiming clock that was used as a mindfulness reminder. When the clock chimed to announce the turn of the hour, people in the house were invited to stop whatever they were doing in order to return to awareness of their breathing and awareness of their being. Each time she heard the clock chime, Tara would freeze her position and remain perfectly still and quiet. In fact, there reached a point when not only would Tara take a moment of pause when the clock chimed, but if – as was frequently the case – visitors ignored the chiming clock, Tara would bark at them to remind them to stop and be present. Therefore, in the house at that time a system of a ‘double mindfulness reminder’ was in place; Tara reminded people to remember to be mindful of the mindfulness reminder!

Zeus

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Zeus is approximately one-year-old and his current weight is 42kg. Zeus was abandoned when he was five months old and as a stray dog, he roamed the countryside and streets for about three months. Zeus has been with us for four months and we are informed by the vet and a dog breeding specialist that Zeus is an American Mastiff. It is expected that Zeus will reach a weight of 50-60kg. Zeus is highly protective of us and through training, we are attempting to temper some of his protective instincts. He is making exceptionally good progress and we think that although his time in the wild has been difficult, it has helped him to think for himself and perhaps even to understand something about the nature of suffering.

Zeus appears to really enjoy joining in with meditation and related forms of spiritual practice. For example, when we practice chanting, Zeus makes deep humming and groaning noises, and if he hears the gong sound to announce the start of a meditation session, he comes running in from the land and sits in a relaxed but attentive manner at our side. When Zeus is practising canine meditation in this manner, if somebody throws him a treat or ball to fetch, he remains completely undistracted and won’t retrieve it until after the meditation session has concluded. Zeus has adopted these behaviours of his own accord and several individuals have commented that Zeus sometimes appears to exude an air of wisdom and elegance.

Concluding Thoughts

We have shared our lives with other dogs in addition to Vajra, Tara, and Zues. For example, in addition to mixed-breed and cross-breed dogs, family members have included a Border Collie, German Shepard, and Rottweiler. All of these dogs have been beautiful companions in their own right but it is only Vajra, Tara, and Zeus in whom we feel there was some genuine form of meditative practice. We have always attempted to obedience train any dog that has lived with us and to do so in such a manner that the dog enjoys the training and feels loved and cared for. However, we have never specifically sought to teach mindfulness to a dog and have found that just by practising mindfulness ourselves, most dogs gradually assume a calmer demeanour but a minority of dogs actually go onto practice what appears to be a canine form of meditation.

It should be noted that the type of canine mindfulness we are referring to here is very different from the high level of concentration exhibited by a working dog that is following their handler’s commands. As we have discussed in previous posts, mindfulness is not simply about being alert or concentrating in a focussed manner. It is more about being aware of one’s being and about the nature and dance of the present moment. There is no doubt in our mind that being in an environment or family where people practice mindfulness is of benefit to dogs and that in turn, the dog’s calmer demeanour is of benefit to family members. However, in the absence of empirical research, it is difficult to know what factors predispose a dog to learning mindfulness and, just as with humans, it could be that some dogs are simply more spiritually inclined than others. Empirical research to investigate some of these knowledge gaps would be both welcomed and interesting.

 

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Carbonell, H. J., Waite, D., & Jackson-Grossblat, A. (2016). The therapeutic effects upon dog owners who interact with their dogs in a mindful way. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 56, 144-170.

Epstein, R. (1984). On mindfulness and our relation to animals. Between the Species. Available at: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1423&context=bts

Fox, M. (2007). Dog body, dog Mind: Exploring canine consciousness and total well-being. Lanham, Maryland: Lyons Press.

Henry, C. L., & Crowley, S. L. (2015). The psychological and physiological effects of using a therapy dog in mindfulness training. Anthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals, 28, 385-402.

Karen L. Dean (2005). Mindfulness meditation: Learning from dogis and mystical dogs. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 11, 319-321.

Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation

Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation

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We recently had a paper accepted for publication in the Mindfulness in Practice section of Mindfulness. The paper is entitled ‘Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation’. It can be downloaded (for free) by clicking here  The Universal Breath_Mindfulness 2016 EYS or by accessing the journal’s website directly: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-016-0570-4

The full reference is as follows:

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2016). Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-016-0570-4.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon