The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective


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In recent decades there have been major advances in scientific understanding of the human brain. To a large extent these advances have been driven by new neuroimaging technologies that have provided neuroscientists with increasingly refined images or maps of the brain. One specific arm of neuroscientific research has made use of these neuroimaging techniques in order to try to identify the neurological seat of the self or consciousness. Today’s post briefly highlights some of the key findings of this research and discusses them in relation to core Buddhist principles concerning the manner in which the self is believed to exist.

Neuroimaging studies exploring how and where the brain processes information concerning the self have identified associations between certain self-related cognitive processes and the activation of specific areas in the brain. For example, self-referential memories (i.e., memories concerning the self) are associated with increased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. A further example is the role played by the left cerebral hemisphere in the regulation of self-recognition (i.e., an individual’s ability to recognize itself in, for example, a reflection or visual image).

The ability to distinguish between self and other is a key aspect of adaptive psychosocial functioning and it therefore makes logical sense that there exist areas within the brain that play a role in processing information concerning the “self”. However, despite the fact that neuroimaging studies have provided some valuable data in terms of brain areas that correspond to self-referential processes, the activation of such brain areas does not equate to the location of consciousness or the nucleus of an inherently existing self. Rather, neuron activation in these brain areas simply demonstrates that most individuals have a pronounced sense of self.

According to the Buddhist teachings, there is an ocean of difference between individuals having a sense of self and there actually being a self that inherently exists. Buddhism accepts that a sense of self is essential if society is to function effectively. For example, most elucidations of the practices of loving-kindness and compassion – two core aspects of the Buddhist teachings – are based on the assumption that there is both a giver (i.e., self) and a receiver (i.e., other). If the historical Buddha didn’t have a sense of self that allowed him to identify that his level of spiritual insight was in some way different than most of his followers, then it is reasonable to assume that he would not have felt the need to expound a path to overcome suffering and ignorance.

However, although beings at the stage of enlightenment have a sense of self (and understand fully that this sense of self is necessary if they are to effectively function in the world), they are also fully aware that the “self” is an illusion. The reason why Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion relates to the principle of emptiness which asserts that beings (and all phenomena) exist only as interdependent and mentally designated constructs. For example, a flower manifests in dependence upon the water and air in the atmosphere, heat of the sun, seed from which it grew, nutrients in the soil, insects and animals that died and decomposed in order to produce those nutrients, and so forth. Consequently, the flower does not exist in isolation of all other phenomena and it is empty of an independent and inherently existing self. Thus, as we discussed in our Zen-style post on Dream or Reality, phenomena certainly appear to be real but the manner in which they are perceived does not actually equate to the manner in which they truly exist.

Enlightened and unenlightened beings both have a sense of self, but a key difference between these two types of being is that the latter is caught up in the belief that they inherently exist. As we discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self, due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed “self” incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive. As part of our academic work we have termed this condition ontological addiction and have defined it 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”.

The idea that at the ultimate level there is no such thing as a self that intrinsically exists may be a difficult notion to digest. However, scientific experiments have recently been conducted that appear to add credence to the validity of emptiness. For example, a study published in the journal Nature in 2010 demonstrated that a minute metal blade of semi-conductor material can be made to simultaneously vibrate in two different energy states. This is the kinetic equivalent of matter being in two different places at the same time and it demonstrates that at the sub-atomic level, particles (and any property of self that they might possess) can never be absolutely located in time and space (i.e., they exist nowhere and everywhere at the same time).

Using neuroimaging techniques in order to explore where and how we regulate self-referential processes is important for advancing scientific understanding about the human brain. However, from the Buddhist perspective, consciousness and self are absent of intrinsic existence and they abide just as much within the brain as they do outside of it. Therefore, according to Buddhist theory, attempts by some scientists to identify the specific location of self or consciousness in the brain might be considered a somewhat futile endeavour.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

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

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

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

La sede del Sé e della coscienza nel cervello: una prospettiva buddista


Negli ultimi decenni ci sono stati grandi progressi nella comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Per la maggior parte questi progressi sono stati guidati dalle nuove tecnologie di neuroimaging che hanno fornito ai neuroscienziati immagini o mappe sempre più raffinate del cervello. Un ramo specifico della ricerca neuroscientifica ha fatto uso di queste tecniche di neuroimaging per cercare di identificare la sede neurologico del sé o della coscienza. Il post di oggi, in breve, mette in evidenza alcuni dei principali risultati di questa ricerca e li discute in relazione ai principi buddisti fondamentali, riguardante il modo in cui si crede che il sé esista.

Gli studi di neuroimaging, esplorando dove e come il cervello elabora le informazioni riguardanti il sé, hanno identificato associazioni tra determinati processi cognitivi sé-correlati e l’attivazione di specifiche aree del cervello. Ad esempio, le memorie autoreferenziali (cioè, i ricordi riguardanti il sé) sono associati a una maggiore attivazione della corteccia prefrontale mediale. Un altro esempio è il ruolo svolto dall’emisfero cerebrale sinistro nella regolazione dell’auto-riconoscimento (cioè, la capacità dell’individuo di riconoscersi, ad esempio, in una riflessione o immagine visiva).

La capacità di distinguere tra sé e l’altro è un aspetto fondamentale del funzionamento psicosociale adattivo e ha quindi senso logico che esistano aree all’interno del cervello che svolgono un ruolo nell’elaborazione delle informazioni concernenti il “sé”. Tuttavia, nonostante il fatto che gli studi di neuroimaging abbiano fornito alcuni dati importanti in termini di aree cerebrali che corrispondono a processi auto-referenziali, l’attivazione di tali aree cerebrali non equivale alla posizione di coscienza o al nucleo di un sé inerentemente esistente. Piuttosto, l’attivazione dei neuroni in queste aree del cervello dimostra semplicemente che la maggior parte degli individui ha un pronunciato senso di sé.

Secondo gli insegnamenti buddisti, c’è un oceano di differenza tra individui che hanno un senso di sé e il concetto di un sé inerentemente esistente. Il buddismo accetta che un senso del sé è essenziale se la società deve funzionare efficacemente. Ad esempio, la maggior parte delle delucidazioni delle pratiche di amorevole gentilezza e compassione – due aspetti fondamentali degli insegnamenti buddisti – si basano sul presupposto che c’è sia un donatore (cioè, il sé) sia un ricevitore (cioè, l’altro). Se il Buddha storico non avesse avuto un senso di sé che gli avesse permesso di identificare che il suo livello di intuizione spirituale era in qualche modo diverso dalla maggior parte dei suoi seguaci, è ragionevole supporre che non avrebbe sentito la necessità di esporre un percorso per superare la sofferenza e l’ignoranza.

Tuttavia, anche se gli esseri nella fase di illuminazione hanno un senso di sé (e comprendono appieno che questo senso di sé è necessario per poter funzionare efficacemente nel mondo), sono anche pienamente consapevoli che il “sé” è un’illusione. La ragione perché il buddismo insegna che il sé è un’illusione riguarda il principio del vuoto, che afferma che gli esseri (e tutti i fenomeni) esistono soltanto come costrutti che sono interdipendenti e mentalmente designati. Ad esempio, un fiore si manifesta nella dipendenza da acqua e aria, dall’atmosfera, dal calore del sole, dal seme da cui è cresciuto, dalle sostanze nutrienti nel terreno, dagli insetti e gli animali che morirono e si decomposero al fine di produrre tali sostanze nutritive e così via. Di conseguenza, il fiore non esiste isolato da tutti gli altri fenomeni, ed è privo di un sé indipendente e intrinsecamente esistente. Così, come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post di stile Zen il Sogno o la Realtà, I fenomeni certamente sembrano essere reali, ma il modo in cui sono percepiti in realtà non equivale al modo in cui esistono veramente.

Sia gli esseri illuminati sia quelli non illuminati hanno un senso del sé, ma una differenza fondamentale tra questi due tipi di essere è che questi ultimi sono presi dalla convinzione che essi esistono intrinsecamente. Come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post sulla decostruzione del sé, a causa di una convinzione saldamente incorporata (ma scientificamente e logicamente non plausibile) che il sé è un’entità inerente e indipendentemente esistente, il Buddismo afferma che gli stati mentali affliggenti nascono come conseguenza dell ‘”io” figurative, desiderando incessantemente degli oggetti che ritiene di essere attraenti o provando avversione verso gli oggetti che ritiene  essere poco attraenti. Nel nostro lavoro accademico abbiamo defenito questa condizione dipendenza ontologico, per precisare è “la mancanza di volontà di rinunciare a una credenza erronea e radicata in un ‘sé’ inerentemente esistente o ‘io’ e la ‘funzionalità ridotta’ che nasce da questa convinzione “.

L’idea che al livello ultimo non esiste una cosa come un sé che esiste intrinsecamente può essere un concetto difficile da digerire. Tuttavia, di recente sono stati condotti esperimenti scientifici che sembrano aggiungere credibilità alla validità del concetto del vuoto. Ad esempio, uno studio pubblicato sulla rivista Nature nel 2010 ha dimostrato che una lama di metallo molto piccola di materiale semi-conduttore può essere fatta vibrare contemporaneamente in due differenti stati di energia. Questo è l’equivalente cinetico della materia simultaneamente esistente in due posti diversi e dimostra che a livello sub-atomico, le particelle (e qualsiasi proprietà di sé che essi potrebbero possedere) non possono mai essere localizzato nello spazio o nel tempo (cioè, esistono da nessuna parte e ovunque nello stesso momento).

Utilizzare le tecniche di neuroimaging per esplorare dove e come si regolano processi autoreferenziali è importante per far progredire la comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Tuttavia, dal punto di vista buddista, la coscienza e il sé sono assenti di esistenza intrinseca ed è altrettanto corretto affermare che risiedono sia all’interno del cervello che fuori del cervello. Pertanto, secondo la teoria buddista, i tentativi da parte di alcuni scienziati di identificare la posizione specifica di sé o della coscienza nel cervello potrebbe essere considerato un tentativo un po’ inutile.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Ulteriore lettura

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

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

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Dream or reality? Philosophy Now, 104, 54.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

Deconstructing the Self: A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

Deconstructing the Self:

A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

(By Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths)

ego 5

Psychological approaches to treating mental illness or improving psychological wellbeing are invariably based on the explicit or implicit acceptance that there is an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ entity. In other words, irrespective of whether a cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, or humanistic psychotherapy model is employed, these approaches are ultimately concerned with changing how the ‘I’ relates to its thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and/or to its physical, social, and spiritual environment. Although each of these psychotherapeutic modalities have been shown to have utility for improving psychological health, there are inevitably limitations to their effectiveness and there will always be those individuals for whom they are incompatible. Given such limitations, research continuously attempts to identify and empirically validate more effective, acceptable and/or diverse treatment approaches. One such approach gaining momentum is the use of techniques that derive from Buddhist contemplative practice. Although mindfulness is arguably the most popular and empirically researched example, there is also growing interest into the psychotherapeutic applications of Buddhism’s ‘non-self’ ontological standpoint (in which ontology is basically the philosophical study of the nature or essence of being, existence, or reality).

Within Buddhism, the term ‘non-self’ refers to the realisation that the ‘self’ or the ‘I’ is absent of intrinsic existence (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2014a). On first inspection, this might seem to be a somewhat abstract concept but it is actually common sense and the principle of ‘non-self’ is universal in its application. For example, Buddhism teaches that the human body comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.) (Shonin et al., 2014a). This means that although the body exists in the relative sense, it does not exist in the absolute sense because the body cannot be isolated from all of its contributing causes. Just as a wave does not exist in separation from the ocean, the body does not exist in separation from all other phenomena. According to the Buddhist teachings, when looking at the body, we should also be able to see the trees, plants, animals, clouds, oceans, planets, and so forth (Shonin et al., 2014a). Thus, the body, and indeed the entire array of animate and inanimate phenomena that we know of, cannot be found to exist intrinsically or independently.

The Buddhist teachings go on to assert that suffering, including the entire spectrum of distressing emotions and psychopathologic states (including ‘addiction’), results from adhering to a false view about the ultimate manner in which the self (and reality more generally) exists. As a means of operationalising this notion within Western psychological and clinical domains, we recently introduced the concept of ‘ontological addiction’. Ontological addiction can effectively be considered a new category of addiction (i.e., in addition to what are typically called chemical addictions and behavioural addictions) and 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” (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2013, p.64). Due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed ‘self’ incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive (Shonin et al., 2014a).

In Buddhist terminology, this process is known as ‘attachment’ and it is deemed to be an undesirable quality that reinforces ontological addiction.  We have previously defined attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth” (Shonin et al., 2014a, p.4). Thus, attachment takes on a different meaning in Buddhism in relation to its construction in Western psychology where attachment (i.e., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over psychopathology.

Having understood from a Buddhist perspective that attachment (and harbouring an erroneous belief in an inherently existing self) is not advisable for adaptive psycho-spiritual functioning, Buddhism teaches that the next step towards recovery from ontological addiction is to embrace ‘non-self’ and begin deconstructing our mistaken belief regarding the existence of an ‘I’. Based on this Buddhist approach, a number of novel psychotherapeutic techniques have recently been developed that integrate meditative practices aimed at cultivating an understanding of the ‘non-self’ construct. For example, Buddhist Group Therapy (BGT) is a six-week program that has been shown to be effective for treating anxiety and depression (Rungreangkulkij, Wongtakee, & Thongyot, 2011). Another example is Meditation Awareness Training (MAT), an eight-week secular program that, in a number of separately published studies, has been shown to be an effective treatment for individuals with anxiety and depression, schizophrenia, pathological gambling, workaholism, work-related stress, and fibromyalgia (e.g., see reviews by Shonin et al., 2013, 2014a, 2014b).

From a mechanistic point of view, greater awareness of ‘non-self’ is believed to assist in gradually uprooting egoistic core beliefs and can complement therapeutic techniques that work at the surface level of behaviour and cognition (Chan, 2008). Furthermore, an understanding of non-self can enhance therapeutic core conditions because “the more the therapist understands non-self, the less likelihood that the therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist” (Segall, 2003, p.173).

For some, Buddhist concepts such as non-self may be difficult to conceptually grasp and reflect what might be seen as a paradigm shift when compared with well-established Western psychological beliefs regarding the ego and the self. As such, psychotherapists will carefully need to assess the suitability of utilising ‘non-self’ meditative techniques for their own clients. Although further empirical evaluation of these new approaches is required, preliminary findings indicate that techniques aimed at cultivating an awareness of the Buddhist ‘non-self’ construct may have applications in psychotherapy settings.

Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths


Chan, W. S. (2008). Psychological attachment, no-self and Chan Buddhist mind therapy. Contemporary Buddhism, 9, 253-264.

Rungreangkulkij, S., Wongtakee, W., & Thongyot, S. (2011). Buddhist Group Therapy for diabetes patients with depressive symptoms. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 25, 195-205.

Segall, S. R. (2003). Psychotherapy practice as Buddhist practice. In S. R. Segall (Ed.), Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp. 165-178). New York: State University of New York Press.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014a). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, doi: 10.1037/a0035859.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014b). Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioral addiction. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5, e122. doi: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000e122.

Searching for Happiness

Searching for Happiness

right view 2

It is probably fair to say that most people want to be happy. Indeed, the 1776 US Declaration of Independence refers to happiness as an ‘unalienable right’. However, given the rising prevalence of mental illness, and given the amount of general unrest, conflict, and suffering in society, it’s also fair to say that, on the whole, human beings aren’t very good at cultivating happiness. In today’s post, we draw upon insights from the classical and research literature, and from our own practice and study of wellbeing, to examine the subject of how to nurture lasting happiness.

Before we take a look at how to cultivate happiness, it may be useful to reflect upon what it actually means to be truly happy. Aristotle believed that happiness is a function of self-sufficiency and intelligent enquiry, whilst others emphasise the importance of social status, wealth, career performance, and somatic health. Although the World Health Organization doesn’t provide a specific definition of happiness, it defines mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. The Dalai Lama provides a different perspective and describes happiness as a condition determined by one’s state of mind as opposed to external conditions, and even argues that too much desire for happiness can be the very cause of suffering. Thus, there are numerous different takes on what it means to be happy, with each perspective placing different degrees of emphasis on material, psychological, and spiritual factors.

From the Buddhist perspective, and as indicated by the Dalai Lama’s abovementioned description of happiness, true happiness refers to a state that is completely unconditional and that remains untainted by changing circumstances. This not only includes circumstances such as poverty and sickness, but also circumstances such as death. In other words, true happiness transcends even the passing of time. Any other type of happiness is subject to external conditions (e.g., wealth, status, health, intelligence, creative output), but since these conditions do not endure with time, then neither can a happiness that is built upon them.

An interesting quality of happiness is that it relies for its existence upon the presence of suffering. Suffering provides us with the raw material we need in order to cultivate happiness. There is a saying in the Buddhist texts that there is nothing like a bit of suffering to spur a person on to enlightenment. Therefore, the real problem it is not suffering itself, but that most people don’t know how to relate to their suffering, or how to bring it onto the spiritual path. When we understand exactly what suffering is and why it manifests, then we are already half way towards transforming it into enduring happiness.

In a recent paper we published with Prof Mark Griffiths in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions, we introduced the concept of ‘ontological addiction’. Ontological Addiction Theory is basically a means of operationalizing a spiritual model of mental illness and asserts that ontological addiction is the root cause of unhappiness. Ontological addiction is defined as “an 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”. To put things in a slightly different way, and as we discussed in our post on ‘Suffering Exists’, due to failing to recognise that we do not intrinsically exist, we become attached to perceiving ourselves as a definite and substantial entity. We begin to see the world through the lens of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’. By doing this, we create what is known as a ‘dualistic outlook’. This means that we start to create separations between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Then, depending upon whether we deem that other person or thing to be of value to us, we either start to desire it (known as attachment), or try to repel it (known as aversion). A dualistic outlook separates the whole into many, and places the interests of the self above all other things. Putting things very simply, ontological addiction makes people behave very selfishly, and this selfish behaviour only serves to strengthen the intensity of their ontological addiction.

The greater the severity of ontological addiction, the further a person finds themselves from seeing reality ‘as it is’. In turn, the further away a person is from accurately perceiving reality, the more ignorant they become. Generally speaking, the more a person allows ontological addiction to establish itself, the more concrete, fixed, and uncompromising things appear. Although the empirical study of ontological addiction is still at an early stage, it is probably safe to speculate that as the severity of ontological addiction increases, the more a person’s choices and behaviours are driven by primitive instinct rather than by clear intuition. A person who allows primitive instinct to govern their behaviour is likely to have little control over mental and biological urges. Accordingly, a person with severe ontological addiction disorder would be somebody who does nothing more with their life other than eat, defecate, sleep, fornicate, make money, find somewhere to live, scheme and squabble, try to outcompete others, indulge and entertain themselves, and engage in meaningless chatter. In this sense, perhaps we can say that the more a person allows ontological addiction (and therefore ignorance) to take hold, the more animalistic they become (although some animals might find it highly offensive to be placed in the same category as human beings afflicted with the more persistent and severe form of ontological addiction disorder).

As we have already indicated, ignorance is symptomatic of ontological addiction and so it can be expected that the person with ontological addiction disorder will frequently engage in irrational, foolish, wasteful, and self-injurious behaviour. Examples of the types of ignorance-induced behaviours and attitudes exhibited by people with ontological addiction disorder are as follows: (i) spending all of their time trying to amass wealth and reputation, when they know that death is a certainty, (ii) not taking time to prepare for death (i.e., by practicing spiritual development) when they know that the time of death cannot be foreseen, (iii) limiting their construal of ‘family’ to mean only those people to whom they are emotionally attached or biologically related, (iv) allowing their future wellbeing to be dictated by the tides of karma rather than understanding that enduring happiness amounts to nothing other than a simple choice, (v) insisting on looking for happiness outside of themselves, (vi) continuing to blindly adhere to certain religious systems and protocols despite the fact such behaviour never truly brings them any happiness, (vii) after spending an infinite number of lifetimes in the lower realms, returning empty handed after they have had the good fortune to be born as a human being, (viii) not devoting their life to spiritual teachings and choosing to remain alone after they have met a Law Holder, (ix) continuing to act carelessly towards their brothers, sisters, and natural environment such that they foster negativity in the world that they then have to live in, and (x) going to great lengths to please their “friends” and upset their “enemies” only to change their mind at a future point in life and decide that some of their “friends” have now become their enemies and some of their “enemies” are now their “friends”.

The best way to think of ontological addiction is as an addiction to self. According to Buddhist philosophy, it is this addiction to oneself that drives cyclic existence and that keeps a person locked within samsara (i.e., the unending round of birth, sickness, old age, and death). As soon as a person stops being addicted to themselves (i.e., as soon as they recover from ontological addiction), then they break the samsaric cycle and are no longer compelled to take rebirth (but can choose to do so if they wish to).

So the obvious question that we should ask next is how do we stop being addicted to the belief that we inherently exist? This is basically the same as asking how do we cultivate true and enduring happiness? We will address this question by outlining what we believe to be ten important steps for cultivating lasting happiness. Each step provides a link to a previous post that discusses that subject in more detail. Although these steps are intended to be sequential in order, please try to bear in mind that one shouldn’t ever stop trying to develop ones proficiency in the previous stages.

  1. Accept Suffering: Accept that we are in a state of suffering and ignorance, and come to a full understanding of the nature of this suffering.
  2. Make a Choice: Accepting and understanding suffering helps us make the choice to embrace the spiritual path.
  3. Find an Authentic Spiritual Guide: Having wholeheartedly made the choice to live life through the lens of spiritual practice, it is inevitable that we will cross paths with and recognise an authentic spiritual guide. We should then be resolute in putting that guide’s teachings into practice.
  4. Renounce Attachment: The authentic spiritual guide helps us to renounce attachment to worldly concerns (e.g., chasing after wealth, fame, etc.) and to become aware of the certainty of death.
  5. Observe Ethical Conduct: Renouncing worldly concerns helps us to observe good ethical conduct (and vice versa).
  6. Cultivate mindfulness and meditative concentration: Observing good ethical conduct prevents the mind from being overly distracted. This is necessary if we want to cultivate mindfulness and meditative concentration.
  7. Cultivate Meditative Wisdom: Mindfulness and meditative concentration are prerequisites for cultivating meditative wisdom.
  8. Intuit Reality ‘As It Is’: Meditative wisdom helps us to intuit reality ‘as it is’.
  9. Let go of Being Addicted to Self: Maintaining an accurate and all-pervasive view of reality allows us to let go of our addiction to self and to embrace primordially-pure perception, unconditional peace, and deathless abiding.
  10. Liberate the Beings: Breaching the citadel of primordial wisdom means that loving-kindness, compassion, and skilful means arise spontaneously. This equips us to enter the Worlds and liberate the suffering beings.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bentall., R. (1992). A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder. Journal of Medical Ethics, 18, 94-98.

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

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

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

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

Sogyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.

Trungpa, C. (2003). The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa: Volume Four. Boston: Shambala.

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




  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.