Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

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Some time ago, we uploaded a post that featured a vajragiti that we wrote called Hearken to the Dharma. A vajragiti is a type of spiritual song or poem. The Sanskrit word vajra means ‘diamond’ or ‘indestructible’ and the word giti means song. Some of our vajragitis have been spoken or written spontaneously, while others have been written at the request of a particular person or for a particular occasion. Since the post was published, we have received several enquiries as to what some of the terms means. Today’s post provides information on the meaning of these terms, and on the theme of the vajragiti more generally.

Hearken to the Dharma’ is a four-verse vajragiti written in the style of the spiritual songs of certain yogic traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. In essence, it refers to the view of certain systems of Buddhist thought that we are currently in an era in which the Buddhist (and spiritual teachings more generally) are degenerating. More specifically, it refers to the fact that not all individuals who are currently teaching mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism have the ‘right intention’. When people with a selfish intent and who are without authentic spiritual realisation choose to teach meditation or Buddhism, it can result in negative consequences.

It could be argued that by writing a spiritual song such as the below, we are being judgemental. However, we wouldn’t agree with this because it is not judgemental to call a spade a spade. If things aren’t right, sometimes we need to speak up and raise awareness about the issue.

In the below vajragiti, the term ‘two accumulations’ refers to the Buddhist view that spiritual practitioners need to accumulate both spiritual merit and wisdom. Spiritual merit is accumulated by engaging in acts of generosity, patience, loving-kindness and compassion. Wisdom is accumulated by practising meditation, especially insight meditation. Spiritual merit and wisdom are necessary if we want to overcome the tendency of making our lives all about the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and the ‘I’. Living a life that is always centred upon the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘I’ is what is meant by the term ‘self-grasping’.

True renunciation’ means that we are no longer interested in mundane pursuits such as accumulating wealth or status. It means that we are aware that death is a reality that we will have to face, sooner or later. When we cultivate true spiritual renunciation, it is a liberating experience. However, it is important to remember that spiritual renunciation doesn’t mean that we turn our back on the world. Rather, it means that because we are free of selfish intentions, we can fully taste, enjoy and engage with the world.

In some Buddhist sutras, the Dharma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Law’. Therefore, the term ‘Law Holder’ means an authentic spiritual practitioner – somebody who has transcended the ego and given rise to a high level of spiritual awakening. A Law Holder could be a fully enlightened Buddha, or it could be somebody who is well on the way to attaining Buddhahood. A person who holds the Law of Dharma embodies and emanates spiritual awareness. They are not necessarily a Buddhist scholar.

In the context referred to in the vajragiti, our use of the term ‘Mara’ invokes the connotations that this term has with the notion of the Devil in Christianity. However, the term ‘Mara’ has several different meanings in Buddhism, which include negativity in its broadest sense. The ‘lower realms’ refer to realms of existence in which there are high levels of ignorance and suffering. The animal world is an example of a lower realm (i.e. when compared with the human realm), but Buddhism asserts that there are realms of existence that are lower than the animal realm (e.g. the hell realms).

The terms ‘View’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Action’ in the final verse refer to the three components that comprise an authentic Buddhist spiritual path. For example, in the Noble Eightfold Path referred to previously on this blog, each of the eight individual components of the path are understood to be primarily concerned with the cultivation of either: (i) wisdom or a ‘view’ that transcends the notion of self and other, (ii) meditation, or (iii) ethical ‘action’. If each of these three aspects (i.e. wisdom/view, ethics/action and meditation) are present, then a particular Buddhist path can be considered whole and complete. The three path elements of wisdom, ethics and meditation are known in Sanskrit as ‘trishiksha’, which means the ‘three trainings’.

The term ‘three doors’ refers to the three ‘doors’ through which we interact with the world: (i) body (i.e. actions), (ii) speech (i.e. words), and (iii) mind (i.e. thoughts). Finally, the term ‘Mind as all’ refers to a view amongst certain Buddhist schools that existence unfolds within the expanse of mind. According to this view, waking reality is no more ‘real’ than what we experience while dreaming.

Hearken to the Dharma

All you great teachers and meditators,
Who mistake self-grasping and pride for the two accumulations,
In whom true renunciation and devotion never arise,
You, pleasure seekers, hearken to the Dharma that keeps death in mind.

Proudly claiming to be great Buddhists,
Judging others as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
Spreading doubt and disparaging the Law Holders,
You, Dharma destroyers, hearken to the Dharma beyond all concepts.

Practicing sophistry you deceive the foolish,
Competing for renown like Mara princes,
Dragging your followers to the miserable realms,
You, evil doers, hearken to the Dharma of karmic cause and effect.

For View you delight in ‘self’ and ‘other’,
For Meditation you indulge in scheming thoughts,
For Action you mindlessly vomit through your three doors,
You, delusion revellers, hearken to the Dharma that knows Mind as all.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

What Science Can Tell Us about How Mindfulness Actually Works

What Science Can Tell Us about How Mindfulness Actually Works

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Throughout recent decades there have been increasing attempts by scientists to understand how mindfulness actually works. However, because there are so many factors that could potentially exert an influence, coming to a definitive conclusion over the precise mechanisms of action that underlie the biological, psychological, or spiritual changes caused by mindfulness practice is not an easy task. Consequently, when scientists propose a mechanism in terms of how mindfulness causes change in individuals receiving mindfulness training, these proposals tend to be treated as just one piece of the larger jigsaw rather than as the final verdict. In today’s post, we summarise and discuss a selection – covering numerous remits of scientific enquiry – of the mechanisms of action that have been put forward to date.

  1. Perceptual Shift: Practising mindfulness is believed to create a perceptual shift in terms of how individuals respond and relate to thoughts, feelings, and sensory stimuli (e.g., sounds, sights, smells, pain, etc.). This greater perceptual distance is understood to help individuals objectify their psychological and somatic experiences and to regard them as passing phenomena.
  2. Increase in Spirituality: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness can increase spirituality and that this, in turn, acts as a buffer against feelings of loneliness as well as the various adversities we encounter in life. This growth in spiritual awareness is understood to help broaden an individual’s perspective on life and cause them to re-evaluate their life priorities.
  3. Reduced Autonomic and Psychological Arousal: It has been shown that mindfulness – and in particular conscious breathing – increases vagus nerve output which causes the heart and breathing rate to lower. Keeping the heart and breathing rate under control is understood to go hand in hand with remaining calm and being able to cope with stressful situations.
  4. Neuroplastic Changes: Neuroplasticity refers to changes in the brain neural pathways and synapses. Neuropsychological functional and structural imaging studies have demonstrated that mindfulness practice results in neuroplastic changes in various areas of the brain (including the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures). These neuroplastic changes are believed to improve an individual’s ability to regulate and remain in control of their choices, feelings, and behaviours.
  5. Increase in Self-Awareness: Mindfulness is understood to improve self-awareness which, in-turn, is believed to make it easier for people to identify and label negative mood states and thinking patterns. This relates closely to the above ‘perceptual shift’ mechanism because being able to accurately label mental processes makes it easier for people to objectify them.
  6. Addiction Substitution: One recently proposed mechanism of mindfulness (and other forms of Buddhist meditation) is that the peaceful/blissful states associated with mindfulness can be substituted for the highs and various forms of mood modification experienced by individuals with addictive behaviours. This particular mechanism was actually proposed by ourselves and it basically involves a ‘negative addiction’ (e.g., to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) being substituted with a ‘positive addiction’ (i.e., to mindfulness/meditation).
  7. Urge Surfing: Another proposed mechanism of action (not by ourselves this time) relating to how mindfulness works as a treatment for addiction is that of ‘urge surfing’. Urge surfing basically refers to the process of an individual observing and not reacting to mental urges. In other words, they surf the urge and are therefore better able to regulate habitual compulsive responses.
  8. Letting Go: By mindfully observing the coming and going of thoughts and feelings (and other phenomena), it is believed that mindfulness practitioners cultivate a better understanding of the ‘transient’ nature of existence. This helps them to let-go of difficult situations and not to see things as fixed or permanent.
  9. Increase in Patience: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness increases an individual’s levels of patience. This is understood to reduce an individual’s desire for instant gratitude as well as their propensity for anger.
  10. Greater Situational Awareness: Outcomes from our own research have shown that mindfulness can help people feel more in touch with the physical and social environment in which they find themselves. This greater situational awareness is understood to improve decision-making competency, job performance, and the ability to pre-empt how a particular situation might unfold.

It is beyond the scope of today’s post to discuss every single mechanism of action that has been proposed in relation to how mindfulness causes somatic, psychological, or spiritual change. Nevertheless, the above overview represents a mixture of recently proposed mechanisms of action as well as those that are more established. As scientific enquiry continues, it is likley that new mechanisms of actions will be identified and that a more complete picture of ways in which mindfulness leads to positive change will emerge.

Further Reading

Dane, E. (2010). Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37, 997-1018.

de Lisle, S. M., Dowling, N. A. & Allen, J. S. (2012). Mindfulness and problem gambling: A review of the literature. Journal of Gambling Studies, 28, 719–739.

Derezotes, D. (2000). Evaluation of yoga and meditation trainings with adolescent sex offenders. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 17, 97-113.

Gillespie, S. M., Mitchell, I. J., Fisher, D., & Beech, A. R. (2012). Treating disturbed emotional regulation in sexual offenders: The potential applications of mindful self-regulation and controlled breathing techniques. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 333-343.

Holzel, B., Lazar, S., & Gard, T., et al. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.

Howells, K., Tennant, A., Day, A., & Elmer, R. (2010). Mindfulness in forensic mental health; Does it have a role? Mindfulness, 1, 4-9.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-4. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3629307/)

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, 18, 365-372.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Managers’ experiences of Meditation Awareness Training. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0334-y.

Toneatto, T., Pillai, S., & Courtice, E. L. (2014). Mindfulness-enhanced Cognitive Behavior Therapy for problem gambling: A controlled pilot study, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 197-205

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, 5, 381-391.

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.