The Winds of Change

The Winds of Change

Gone, all is gone.

Nothing remains.

Completely alone.

Silence abounds.

 

Nothing to fight for.

No more doing.

No more being.

The path has been discarded.

 

How sublime to abide in nothingness.

Seeing beyond the reach of time and space.

Inexpressible in words.

Ah, such profound peace.

 

But all is not as it should be.

A strange wind blows.

A dark shadow encroaches.

Smothering being’s hearts.

 

Gathering the energy of the universe.

I shall turn the Wheel of Truth.

The shadow may encroach no further.

Not on my watch. Not on my watch.

 

Blessed by the wisdom of my forefathers.

I shall defeat all inner and outer obstacles.

Brilliant white light will shine throughout space and time.

Dispelling ignorance and hatred.

 

The harvest will be painfully small.

Most will fall and drown.

But some will inhale the breath of life.

Come now, there is much to do.

 

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon

 

Just a Thought

Just a Thought

thought2

The term ‘thought’ is widely used in contemporary society. For example, most people probably don’t go for more than a day or two before they say or hear an expression such as ‘I’ve just had an interesting thought’, ‘What are your thoughts on the matter?’, or ‘I’ve thought more about what you said’. However, although common human experience tells us that thoughts definitely exist and are a normal aspect of human functioning, have you ever tried explaining to another person exactly what a thought is? It is difficult to outline in precise terms exactly what constitutes a thought, and even the dictionary definitions of this term are somewhat ambiguous. For example, the Oxford English dictionary describes a thought as ‘An idea or opinion produced by thinking, or occurring suddenly in the mind’. Although this dictionary definition informs us that thoughts are the product of thinking, it doesn’t actually provide us with a definitive account of what constitutes a thought.

An object such as a table can be described to another person without too much difficulty. According to the Oxford English dictionary, a table is ‘a piece of furniture with a flat top with one or more legs, providing a level surface for eating, writing, or working at’. This definition introduces a number of defining characteristics (such as a ‘level surface’, ‘one or more legs’, and ‘surface for eating’) which – whilst allowing for differences in interpretation – would probably make it reasonably easy for a person to picture in their mind what a table is, and then try to locate one should they wish to do so. A thought, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any tangible characteristics that would allow a person to create an accurate picture in their mind. For example, thoughts – as far as we know – do not have a shape, colour, texture, size, sound, or smell. They do not have a top or a bottom and their surface (if indeed they have one) cannot said to be level or undulating.

Neuropsychological studies allow us to study certain aspects of thoughts by measuring (for example) electrical impulses and changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain. However, although such studies provide important information relating to thoughts, they cannot measure thoughts directly (i.e., an electrical signal that corresponds to a thought is not the thought itself) and are not able to observe the ‘raw material’ that thoughts are made of. Likewise, neuropsychological studies are unable to ascertain the precise location from which thoughts originate or how many levels of thought can manifest simultaneously. Therefore, although through scientific study and shared human experience we have learned a lot about thoughts, it is arguably fair to say that contemporary understanding of thoughts is still at an elementary level.

It is perhaps also fair to say that in general, people (and to a certain degree modern science) have a tendency to take thoughts for granted and to overlook their importance. For example, with each and every thought that we have, we change the trajectory of the present moment and reset the future. This may sound like a remark by one of those authors who has jumped on the meditation and mindfulness bandwagon, and who is trying to impress readers by writing a book full of (what they deem to be) deep and meaningful remarks. However, it’s not meant to be a deep or meaningful remark and if you stop and think about it, it’s a perfectly true statement. The world as we know it is shaped by (amongst other things) the words and actions of human beings. Our thoughts influence (and in many cases underlie) our words and actions, and our (and other people’s) words and actions also influence our thoughts. A person’s decision and intention to pursue a particular career might have originated in a single thought. The same applies to the words and actions of leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King – perhaps their motivation to inspire political and spiritual change traces back to a single thought that they once had.

From this perspective, it is fair to say that thoughts are incredibly creative. With our thoughts, we shape who we will be in the future. We also shape how other people (and the world more generally) will be in the future. With each new thought, an entirely new future, and an entirely new world, is born. In many respects, thoughts are the creative energy of the universe. In fact, perhaps it is conceivably possible that thoughts are made of the same ‘raw material’ that caused the universe to be created (i.e., during the big-bang). If this statement is correct it would mean that during the process of giving birth to a single thought, the mind draws upon the underlying primordial energy of existence, and that it serves as the strata within which thoughts explode into existence and thus create an entirely new universe. What a marvellous thought!

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

monkey 2

Within Buddhism, the term ‘monkey mind’ is sometimes used to describe people that have very unsettled minds. If you have a monkey mind, it basically means that just like a naughty monkey, your mind constantly jumps from one thing to another and only very rarely does it actually settle down. People with monkey minds might be engaged in some kind of task or conversation, but they quickly succumb to boredom and their mind begins to wander off again. The monkey mind condition normally becomes apparent to people when they start learning meditation. Indeed, people that are new to meditation frequently experience great difficulty in holding their concentration on a single meditative object (such as the natural flow of their in-breath and out-breath). We are not aware of any empirical research that has attempted to quantify the prevalence of the monkey mind condition, but we would estimate that most people would admit to having experienced monkey-mindedness to a greater or lesser extent.

In general, people with a more severe form of monkey-mindedness are quite easy to spot because in addition to being mentally restless, they are invariably also very physically restless. Of course, there can be many reasons – including medical ones – that may influence the degree of physical unrest that a person exhibits. However, generally speaking and based on our experience, if a person finds it difficult to sit still and always has to be doing something, then this is a sign that they may be afflicted by monkey-mindedness. Another good indicator of monkey-mindedness is when an individual is following a certain line of dialogue or conversation and they suddenly go off on tangents and introduce completely-unrelated topics. In fact, we encounter quite a number of people that can thread together what seems to be an endless string of completely-unrelated topics and hold (what they deem to be) a ‘conversation’ for hours on end. Perhaps the monkey in the mind of people like this is bigger than the average-sized monkey or perhaps it is just particularly naughty and restless – who knows?

Although monkey-mindedness often reveals itself through an individual’s physical demeanour and comportment, some people try to conceal their monkey mind. For example, as part of our vocation as Buddhist monks, we have been present at or facilitated a large number of meditation retreats, and as with most of life’s pursuits, there is a tendency for people at meditation retreats to try to give the impression that they are very experienced and/or are much more accomplished than everybody else. You would probably be surprised at the lengths that some people go to in order to convince others that they are a ‘serious’ meditator. Indeed, some people sit in what they believe is meditation for hours on end without flinching or moving a muscle, and whilst keeping a very solemn expression on their face. For people who are new to meditation, seeing others behave like this can actually be quite intimidating – we’re not sure that it creates a hostile environment but it certainly doesn’t help people to feel welcome and at ease.

Despite their attempts to convince people otherwise, you only need to observe these ‘serious meditators’ when they get up and leave the meditation hall to see that their mind is far from disciplined and serene. Because such people are more interested in giving the impression of practising meditation rather than actually practising it, then it doesn’t take long before the ego-monkey in their mind reveals itself and does or says something that is selfish and/or hurtful to others. In fact, on several separate occasions, we have observed a meditator sitting very seriously, but due to trying to supress or ignore their monkey mind, they allow psychological pressure to build-up. The next thing that happens is they suddenly can’t take it anymore and they end up rushing out of the meditation hall.

The wisdom and lesson that can be learned from the above example of the overly-serious meditator is that if we try to ignore or supress the monkey mind, it can lead to both internal and external conflict. The same thing happens if we are too rigid and serious in our efforts to tame the monkey within. In other words, in order to begin taming the monkey mind, in addition to a certain degree of meditative-technical knowhow, we need a great deal of patience, gentleness, perseverance, and a good sense of humour.

If we understand that on the one hand, taming the monkey mind requires lots of effort and is arguably the most important thing we will ever do in our lives, but on the other hand personal and spiritual growth takes time and cannot be forced, then we create the optimum frame of mind for enjoying the process of transforming unwholesome habits and for progressing along the path of awareness. In order to tame the monkey mind, we need to become aware of its undisciplined nature but in a manner that keeps things light, spacious, and airy. As we discussed in our post on ‘the absorbing mind’, the simple act of observing and becoming aware of our thoughts and mental processes helps to objectify them and to loosen their hold over us. However, if we try to watch our thoughts and feelings too intensely then despite our efforts to do the opposite, we end up giving them too much power and importance.

Therefore, when we practice awareness of our thoughts and of our mental processes, we should do so with a very big and generous mind. This means that we accept the mind as it is and that we don’t try to manipulate it. If the mind is particularly wild and out of control that’s absolutely fine – all we do in this situation is take the unruly mind itself as the object of our awareness. In effect, what we are doing is setting the mind free within the field of our awareness. Because we are not holding onto the mind or offering it resistance by trying to keep it under control, it has no alternative but to begin to calm and settle. Believe it or not, attempting to modify the mind actually runs contrary to the general principle of meditation which is that tranquillity and wisdom are naturally present in the mind and will arise of their own accord when the correct conditions come about. One of these ‘correct conditions’ is simply observing and nourishing the mind through meditative awareness. A metaphor that we have used previously to help explain this principle is that of a garden fish pond – every time the garden pond is stirred or interfered with, the water becomes muddy and unsettled. However, if a person sits quietly next to the pond and simply observes it, the water becomes perfectly still and clear again.

The monkey mind will remain a monkey mind for as long as we choose not to tame it. We might decide that we don’t have a monkey mind or that we do have one but that it doesn’t need to be changed. However, if we are being truthful with ourselves and if we examine the mind closely, unless we are already very spiritually enlightened, then we are likely to see that it is only very rarely (if at all) that we experience true peace of mind. Indeed, irrespective of whether or not we are aware of the wild nature of our minds, having a mind that is always racing around – constantly jumping to and fro between the past and the future – eventually causes us to become physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. In fact, it is our personal view that a lot of mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, and depression arise because people have very unruly minds and are without the knowledge of how to properly tend to their thoughts and feelings. However, it is also our view that by practising full awareness of all of our thoughts and mind movements, we can begin to take care of our monkey mind until it gradually learns to sit in perfect stillness and quiet.

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

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

References

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.

Should Mindfulness be taught to Improve Military and Business Effectiveness?

Should Mindfulness be taught to Improve Military and Business Effectiveness?

military

During one of our recent talks on mindfulness, we were asked whether we feel it is ethically and morally correct for mindfulness to be taught for the purposes of improving military or business effectiveness. Given that mindfulness was originally taught as a means of fostering peace and spiritual awakening, some people are of the view that it is inappropriate for businesses and the military to teach mindfulness to their employees in order to give them a strategic advantage over the competition. This seems to be quite a hot topic at the moment – especially because projects investigating the applications of mindfulness in military and business settings are already underway. Consequently, we have decided to dedicate this entire post to providing our view on this issue.

In the Buddhist teachings, mindfulness occurs as just one aspect (the seventh aspect) of a fundamental teaching known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Although the Noble Eightfold Path (obviously) consists of eight different elements, these elements do not function as standalone entities. In other words, it is not the case that one starts at the first practice of the Noble Eightfold Path (known as ‘right view’) and concludes one’s training in this practice before moving onto the second practice (known as ‘right intention’.). Rather, although the Noble Eightfold Path has eight different elements, it is in fact just one path and just one practice. This means that whenever one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is present and functioning correctly, then all of the other aspects are also present and functioning correctly. For example, without, ‘right view’, ‘right intention’, ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, ‘right livelihood’, ‘right effort’, and ‘right concentration’, there cannot be ‘right mindfulness’.

Thus, if a person in the military is taught mindfulness correctly, then they are also being directly or indirectly instructed in practices intended to cultivate ethical awareness (i.e., ‘right speech’, ‘right action’, ‘right livelihood’), a compassionate and spiritual outlook (i.e., ‘right intention’), and wisdom (i.e., ‘right view’). Accordingly, people in the military or in business that practice mindfulness correctly will also be learning how to become more responsible, wiser, and compassionate world citizens. Therefore, we don’t really need to worry about whether such people will “miss-use” the mindfulness teachings. In actual fact, many accomplished Buddhist practitioners believe that the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness are so potent and effective that anybody that practices them correctly can’t help but become a better human being.

Of course, there is a strong possibility that people in the military or in business could be taught to practice “mindfulness” outside of the above system of ethical and spiritual values. However, we also don’t particularly need to concern ourselves about this because in such situations it is no longer mindfulness that is being taught. In other words, one can’t really raise a grievance that an organisation is misusing mindfulness if in fact what they are teaching isn’t mindfulness.

Apologies if you were expecting a lengthier discourse but we don’t think there is much else to discuss on this topic.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Khyentse D. (2007). The heart of compassion: the thirty-seven verses on the practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

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

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

lit flame

It seems that nearly every academic paper concerning mindfulness includes a statement to the effect that ‘there is currently a lack of consensus amongst Western psychologists in terms of how to define mindfulness’. However, we’re not sure whether disagreement amongst psychologists regarding an appropriate definition for mindfulness is as prevalent as the academic literature might suggest. In other words, perhaps people are of the opinion that there is a lot of disagreement about mindfulness amongst Western psychologists only because everybody keeps saying that there is. Indeed, it could be argued that since it is only during the last few decades that mindfulness has been introduced into Western psychological settings, a certain number of ‘teething’ issues are to be expected and that, in terms of what constitutes some of the basic attributes of mindfulness practice, there is actually a decent level of concordance amongst psychologists. Examples of some of the things that Western psychologists generally seem to agree on in relation to mindfulness practice are that mindfulness: (i) is fundamentally concerned with becoming more aware of the present moment, (ii) can be practiced during everyday activities and not just when seated in meditation, (iii) is cultivated more easily by using concentrative anchors such as observing the breath, (iv) is a practice that requires deliberate effort, and (v) is concerned with observing both sensory and mental processes.

Our personal view is that too much emphasis is placed by Western psychologists on areas where there is disagreement rather than working with the aspects of mindfulness practice that have already been theoretically or empirically established. We also believe that too much emphasis is placed by academicians on attempting to devise and disseminate an ‘absolute’ or ‘all-encompassing’ definition of mindfulness. That is not to say that there are certain aspects of Western psychological definitions of mindfulness that wouldn’t benefit from additional clarification, but this doesn’t need to be made into too big a deal or detract from the insights and progress that have already been made. In today’s post, we briefly outline some of the key aspects of mindfulness practice where there is currently disagreement amongst Western psychologists. Following this, we propose a definition of mindfulness that (in our view) embodies a traditional Buddhist perspective on mindfulness and that may help to inform the ongoing scientific debate amongst Western psychologists in terms of how best to define the mindfulness construct.

Key Areas of Confusion in Western Psychology

1. Non-judgemental awareness: Arguably, the most popular definition of mindfulness employed in the Western psychological literature is the one proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn who defines mindfulness as the process of “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. In the context of this definition, some people believe that the use of the term ‘non-judgemental’ is appropriate because it implies that mindfulness involves the acceptance (i.e., rather than the rejecting or ignoring) of present-moment sensory and cognitive-affective experiences. However, others believe that the term ‘non-judgemental’ is unsatisfactory and/or too ambiguous because it could imply that the mindfulness practitioner is essentially indifferent and doesn’t seek to discern which cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses are conducive to ethically wholesome conduct.

2. Insight generation: In the Western psychological literature, ‘vipassana meditation’ and ‘insight meditation’ are often regarded as being the same as ‘mindfulness meditation’. However, this portrayal of vipassana meditation (and insight meditation) is not consistent with the traditional Buddhist perspective. According to the classical Buddhist literature, vipassana meditation (which means ‘superior seeing’) involves the use of penetrative investigation in order to intuit (for example) the ‘non-self’, ‘non-dual’, and ‘empty’ nature of reality (please see our posts on ‘Do We Really Exist?’ and ‘Exactly What is the Present Moment?’). Thus, although mindfulness meditation is certainly insight-generating in the sense that it leads to an intimate awareness of the mind, ‘mindfulness meditation’ is not ‘insight meditation’ as per the traditional Buddhist understanding. Therefore, there is debate amongst psychologists as to the role of insight in mindfulness meditation.

3. Context for practice: Mindfulness is traditionally practiced in the context of spiritual development. Indeed, within Buddhism, mindfulness is practiced in conjunction with numerous other spiritual practices and is just one aspect (the seventh aspect) of a key Buddhist teaching known as the Noble Eightfold Path. As we discussed in our post on ‘Meditation: A Threefold Approach’, the successful establishment of mindfulness relies upon a deep-seated understanding of the three Buddhist root principles of: (i) wisdom, (ii) meditation, and (iii) ethics (collectively known as ‘the three trainings’ – Sanksrit: trishiksha). In Buddhist practice, these three elements interact to form a cohesive whole, and there isn’t a single Buddhist practice that is not encompassed by the trishiksha principle. Therefore, there is debate in the Western psychological literature relating to whether or not mindfulness needs to be practiced within the context of spiritual development.

 

Mindfulness: A Traditional Buddhist Perspective

Needless to say, within Buddhism, there are different views about what constitutes mindfulness practice. That said, and as inferred in our post ‘When Buddha and Christ met for Tea’, we personally believe that there is actually no contradiction in the teachings from any of the different cycles of Buddhist transmission (known as the various ‘Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma’). Accordingly, in terms of a traditional Buddhist depiction, we would define mindfulness as ‘the full, direct, and active awareness of experienced phenomena that is spiritual in aspect and that is maintained from one moment to the next’.

The intended meaning of each of the words in this definition is as follows:

  • Full awareness’ means that mindfulness is all-embracing – nothing is left out and everything is accepted. This is the passive aspect of mindfulness.
  • Direct awareness’ means that there is no gap or delay between the experienced phenomena and our awareness of it. This is the insight aspect of mindful awareness. However, this doesn’t mean that mindfulness is the same as (the traditional Buddhist depiction of) insight meditation or vipassana meditation. Insight can definitely arise during mindfulness meditation but we are not actively trying to induce it as with vipassana meditation practice. Depending on a person’s level of experience, ‘direct awareness’ means doing ones best during mindfulness practice to remember that there is ‘self in other’ and ‘other in self’, or, in the case of very experienced practitioners, it means directly perceiving that this is so.
  • Active awareness’ is discerning and means that the mindfulness practitioner should not only observe the present moment but should also participate in it. Active awareness allows us to determine how to act skilfully in a given situation as well as how to create and shape the present moment. It also allows us to discern the ‘nutritional value’ of our various experiences and which environmental stimuli should be allowed to penetrate and nurture our being (please see our recent post on ‘The Absorbing Mind’). Active awareness is (obviously) the active aspect of mindfulness.
  • Experienced phenomena’ means that we should be natural and not over-exert ourselves in our practice of mindfulness. It means that we take ‘experience now’ as the path. This includes both the ‘external’ phenomena and the ‘internal’ phenomena (sometimes called noumena) that enter our field of awareness. This is the effortless or spontaneous aspect of mindfulness.
  • Spiritual in aspect’ means that the primary intention for practicing mindfulness is to effect spiritual awakening in oneself and in others. This is the compassionate aspect of mindfulness.
  • Sustained from one moment to the next’ means that the practitioner tries to maintain an unbroken flow of awareness throughout the day (and even during sleep if they are experienced enough). This is the enduring aspect of mindfulness.

A Different Approach to Defining Mindfulness

Our hope from introducing the above definition, is to try and give a small amount of ‘food for thought’ to certain aspects of the ongoing debate amongst academicians regarding the formulation of a suitable definition for mindfulness. If you like this definition then please don’t get too worked-up about it. Equally, if you think it is an unsatisfactory definition then please try not to become too upset. It’s just a definition and it would be far better if you practiced and experienced what mindfulness is for yourself. That way, it wouldn’t really matter how other people defined it. In fact, we believe that it’s unlikely that an ‘absolute’ definition of mindfulness will ever be developed because as a spiritual phenomenon, certain dimensions of the mindfulness construct will always be difficult to express in words and can only be fully understood by those individuals who can tap into them on the experiential rather than the academic level. Furthermore, it should also be kept in mind that people will have different understandings depending upon why they are interested in mindfulness and on their level of meditative experience. In this sense, we believe that one of the most insightful and pragmatic approaches to reconciling aspects of the ‘mindfulness definition debate’ is the one taken by Professor Nirbhay Singh (a leading mindfulness expert) and his team. According to Professor Singh and colleagues, “the definition of mindfulness will vary depending on whether one is interested in mindfulness from a social psychological, clinical, or spiritual context, or from the perspective of a researcher, clinician, or a practitioner, and their various combinations”.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

 

  1. Bodhi, B. (Ed.). (2009). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (4th ed.). (Bhikkhu Bodhi, & Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Trans.) Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications. (see the satipattana sutra [sutra no. 10] and the anapanasati sutra [sutra no. 118])
  2. Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.
  3. Dalai Lama, & Berzin, A. (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  4. Dorjee, D. (2010). Kinds and dimensions of mindfulness: Why it is important to distinguish them. Mindfulness, 1, 152-160.
  5. Gethin, R. (2011). On some definitions of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 263-279.
  6. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
  7. Kang, C., & Whittingham, K. (2010). Mindfulness: A dialogue between Buddhism and clinical psychology. Mindfulness, 1, 161-173.
  8. Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.
  9. Rosch, E. (2007). More than mindfulness: when you have a tiger by the tail, let it eat you. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 258-264.
  10. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Wahler, R. G., Winton, A. S., & Singh, J. (2008). Mindfulness approaches in cognitive behavior therapy. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36, 1-8.
  11. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013d). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 194, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194.
  12. 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.

Tips for using Mindfulness in Psychotherapy Contexts

Tips for using Mindfulness in Psychotherapy Contexts

psychotherapy 2

Recently, we were joined by our friend and academic colleague Professor Mark Griffiths in writing a paper on ‘Meditation as Medication: Are Attitudes Changing?’ (the paper is currently in press with the British Journal of General Practice).1 The paper discusses how, amongst both patients and clinicians, the prospect of using mindfulness and meditation as a mainstream medical intervention is becoming increasingly acceptable. Over the last 12 months or so, in addition to mainstream research journals such as the above, we have also published (or had accepted for publication) a series of articles in more practitioner-based and/or professional journals where we offer suggestions on how best to use and teach mindfulness (and other meditative techniques) within medical and/or mental health settings. Examples are articles published in Corrections Today (a journal of the American Correctional Association),2 Thresholds (a journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), 3 Addiction Today (a practitioner-focused journal focusing on addiction recovery), 4 Education Today (the nationwide journal of the School and Student Health Education Unit), 5 and the quarterly publication of the National Council on Problem Gambling.6

Based on a synthesis of the recommendations outlined in the abovementioned professional/practitioner journals, and based on insights from our own and others’ research and practice of meditation, today’s post outlines what we consider to be helpful strategies for the effective use of mindfulness techniques within client-therapist settings:

1. Therapist-led practice: Findings from our own empirical research into Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) indicate that clients and patients place tremendous importance on the extent to which the therapist’s own thoughts, words, and actions are infused with mindful awareness.7 A therapist who is ‘well-soaked’ in meditation naturally exerts a reassuring presence that helps clients to relax and connect with their own capacity for spiritual awareness. As we discussed in our posts on ‘Teaching Mindfulness to Children and ‘Predicting your Enlightenment, if a meditation teacher (or a therapist) is going to instruct others on how to practise mindfulness correctly, then it is essential that they do so from an experiential standpoint. Furthermore, clinicians and psychotherapists are particularly at-risk for compassion fatigue – a type of secondary traumatic stress caused by working with clients who have an illness of a distressing nature or who have directly experienced a traumatic event.3 Therapist mindfulness practice has been shown to exert a protective influence over compassion fatigue and therefore helps to improve the therapeutic experience for client and therapist alike.8

2. Insight-led practice: This point is closely related to the above point on therapist-led practice and refers to the importance of psychotherapists appreciating that there are many ‘activating agents’ that are essential for the development of ‘right mindfulness’. As outlined in our most recent post on ‘Exactly what is the Present Moment?’, an example of such an activating agent is cultivating insight into the ‘impermanent’, ‘non-self’, and ‘empty’ nature of reality. A firmly embedded understanding by therapists of the principles that underlie effective mindfulness practice (i.e., non-self, emptiness, impermanence, etc.) is likely to enhance therapeutic outcomes in the long term. Indeed, according to psychotherapists Maura Sills and Judy Lown, greater therapeutic connection and transformation can take place as client and therapist begin to acquaint themselves with the non-self construct and work in an “open and empty ground state”.9 Similarly, as Professor Seth Segall of Yale University School of Medicine acknowledges a firm understanding of non-self can improve therapeutic core conditions because “the more the therapist understands anatta [non-self], the less likelihood that the therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist”.10

3. Deep listening: As with all psychotherapy modalities, the therapist’s ability to listen deeply to what the client is saying, as well as to what they are not saying, is a vital part of the therapeutic process. However, in the context of mindfulness-based therapy, the practice of deep listening takes on a slightly different meaning compared with the more conventional therapeutic modes. When the mindfulness practitioner (or therapist) listens deeply to another person, believe it or not, the emphasis is actually placed more on listening to oneself rather than the client. Let’s clarify what is meant by this statement. Normally, any kind of discussion with another person triggers various kinds of emotional and cognitive responses. The way we interpret the words of others, and the types of thoughts and feelings that are engendered by those words, is heavily influenced by our own conditioning and beliefs. In other words, it is through the lens of the conditioned mind that we experience ourselves and others. So as meditation practitioners, the reason why we make an effort to listen to our own mental chatter during dialogue with others, is to try to limit the extent to which our own conditioning might colour our interpretation of what the other person is actually saying. As we referred to in a short vajragiti (a type of spontaneous spiritual song or poem) called Simply Being with Nothing to Be, the best way to listen deeply to ourselves in this manner is by being fully present with ourselves. When we are fully present with ourselves and are perfectly content with where and who we are, when we are happy to simply experience the present moment without trying to modify it, the pain that has built up inside the other person begins to talk to us. This happens naturally and without us having to look too hard. We can see all of the person’s suffering, we can smile gently at it, and that person’s pain knows that it now has a friend and is no longer alone. Their suffering has exposed itself to us, and because we are not lost or caught-up in our own thoughts or ego-attachments, a true communion of compassion and loving-kindness can now occur.

4. Life integration: Although it is undoubtedly beneficial for a client to meet with the therapist once or twice a week, it goes without saying that emphasis should be placed on empowering the client to introduce mindfulness into all aspects of their lives. Many clients find a CD of guided meditations and written resources about mindfulness practice to be useful props in this respect. Another factor that can make a big difference to the success of the therapy is working with the client to establish a routine of mindfulness practice. Our personal preference is to do this on a case by case basis (i.e., rather than prescribing a blanket-amount of formal meditation practice time for all people). When working with patients or meditation practitioners as part of our research or monastic work, we generally encourage people to try to adopt a dynamic meditation routine. In this manner, people are dissuaded from drawing divisions between meditation during formal sitting settings and meditation during everyday activities.11 As referred to in our post on ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners’, the purpose of this is to reduce the likelihood of dependency on the need for formal meditation sessions.

5. Meditative anchors: Integral to effective mindfulness training, particularly at the beginning stages, is the use of meditative anchors.3 A good example of a meditative anchor is observing the breath. Full-awareness of the in-breath and out-breath helps clients ‘tie their mind’ to the present moment and to subdue ruminating thought processes. Where clients have noticeably low levels of concentration, then teaching them to count their breath can be quite helpful. However, when using breath awareness as a meditative anchor, it is important to discourage clients or patients from forcing their breathing. In other words, the breath should be allowed to follow its natural course and to calm and deepen of its own accord (i.e., as a regular consequence of it being mindfully observed).3

6. Mindfulness reminders: In addition to meditative anchors, the maintenance of mindfulness during everyday activities appears to be facilitated by the use of mindfulness reminders. An example of a mindfulness reminder is an hour chime (e.g., from a wrist-watch or wall clock), which, upon sounding, can be used as a trigger by the client to gently return their awareness to the present moment and to the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath (and to the space and time between each in-breath and out-breath).3 Some clients seem to prefer a less sensory reminder such as a simple acronym. For example, in the aforementioned eight-week Meditation Awareness Training program, clients are taught to use the following SOS technique to facilitate recovery of meditative concentration by ‘sending out an SOS’ at the point when intrusive thoughts arise:

 

The three-step SOS technique3,4

 1. Stop

2. Observe the breath

3. Step back and watch the mind

 

7. Meditative posture: Although the focus of mindfulness practice should be directed towards its maintenance during everyday activities, formal daily seated-meditation sessions are an essential aspect of mindfulness training. As part of seated meditation practice, a good physical posture helps to facilitate the cultivation of a good mental posture. The most important aspect of the meditation posture is stability which can be achieved whether sitting up-right on a chair or on a meditation cushion. The analogy used in Meditation Awareness Training for the appropriate meditation posture is that of a mountain. A mountain has a definite presence, it is upright and stable yet at the same time it is without tension and does not have to strain to maintain its posture – it is relaxed, content, and deeply-rooted in the earth.3

8. Psychoeducation: In most psychotherapeutic approaches, a degree of psychoeducation regarding the mechanisms of action and projected hurdles to recovery is generally regarded as a means of augmenting client-therapist trust and therapeutic alliance. Mindfulness-based therapy is no exception to this, and clients generally welcome advance notice of the difficulties they are likely to encounter as their meditative training progresses. One such difficulty, particularly in the beginning stages, is the feeling by patients or clients that their mind is becoming more discursive than before. However, rather than an actual reduction in levels of mindfulness, our own research into meditation has shown that such feelings generally result from a greater awareness by clients of the “wild” nature of their cognitive and emotional processes that had hitherto remained unnoticed.7 Particularly within the context of mindfulness-based therapy, psychoeducation should be regarded as a two-way process. In other words, in working with the client to discuss and explore different dimensions of their mindfulness practice, a co-produced form of understanding or wisdom often emerges. This is something that both the client and therapist can benefit from and is consistent with the Buddhist technique known as ‘Dharma sharing’.

Although the above points are not exhaustive, we believe that when they are implemented as part of a therapeutic relationship based on trust, patience, loving-kindness, and compassion, they will help to add authenticity to the transmission that takes place between client and therapist.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

References

  1. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice. In Press.
  2. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending. Corrections Today, In Press.
  3. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds. Summer Issue, 14-18.
  4. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation for the treatment of addictive behaviours: Sending out an SOS. Addiction Today, March, 18-19.
  5. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). The health benefits of mindfulness-based interventions for children and adolescents. Education and Health, 30, 94-97.
  6. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of the National Council on Problem Gambling, 16, 17-18.
  7. 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.
  8. Christoper, J.C., & Maris, J.A. (2010). Integrating mindfulness as self-care into counselling and psychotherapy training. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 10, 144-125.
  9. Sills, M., & Lown, J. (2008). The field of subliminal mind and the nature of being. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 10, 10: 71-80.

10. 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.

11. 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.