The Spiritual Fence Sitter

The Spiritual Fence Sitter

Fence 4

When people are practising a spiritual path it is normal that, to a certain extent, their interest and commitment to the path waxes and wanes. For example, they may feel fully on-board one day but then later during the same month, they may question their choice to follow a particular spiritual teacher or a given path of spiritual practice. Generally speaking, the cycle of feeling more or less committed, along with the inner dialogue that typically accompanies it, is a positive thing. Doubts or questions arise and in the course of working through them, people often end up understanding more about themselves, as well as the path they are treading. In other words, periods of ‘spiritual questioning’ are normal, if not essential, for fostering progress along the path.

A good spiritual teacher will understand the tendency of spiritual practitioners to move through phases of feeling less or more convinced. At times when the practitioner’s faith or commitment appears to be waning, the teacher may seek to inspire them and recapture their interest. Particularly at the beginning phases of a spiritual relationship, an authentic spiritual teacher will do all they can to demonstrate to the practitioner that 1. the path is real, 2. the goal of the path (i.e., enlightenment) is real, and 3. they (i.e., the teacher) have the necessary spiritual acumen to guide the practitioner to their goal.

As intimated above, it is normal for the practitioner to test the spiritual teacher’s resolve and level of awareness. Consequently, the beginning phase of a spiritual relationship is often somewhat one-sided in terms of the amount of spiritual energy introduced by the teacher, versus the amount of faith and diligent practice exhibited by the practitioner. Nevertheless, a good spiritual teacher will be patient and will always provide individuals with ample time and opportunity for them to decide whether they are ready to embrace the path.

The duration of this ‘honeymoon’ period of the spiritual relationship is different for every individual, but inevitably, there reaches a point when the spiritual teacher has to evaluate whether continuing to coax or ‘spoon-feed’ the individual is likely to be effective. According to some Buddhist traditions, Avalokitesvara is a Buddha with an immense amount of compassion for all living beings. Driven by his compassion, Avalokitesvara is said to have entered the hell realms in an attempt to free all of the beings that inhabit them. However, as quickly as Avalokiteshvara was emptying the hell realms, they were filling up again. The point is that although enlightened beings can offer support, the spiritual practitioner has to do the work and can’t be carried to enlightenment (if they could, then it is reasonable to assume that there would not be such a thing as a ‘suffering being’ because enlightened beings would have already separated everybody from their suffering).

Our definition of a ‘spiritual fence sitter’ is a person that has not only been introduced to an authentic spiritual path by an authentic spiritual teacher, but has had ample opportunity to test both the teacher and the path that they represent. According to our delineation, spiritual fence sitters are relatively spiritually ‘ripe’ in the sense that a part of them is genuinely interested in devoting their life to spiritual awareness. In other words, they should not be confused with the significant number of individuals that purport to practise spiritual development but whose interest is highly superficial. Such people can’t be classed as spiritual fence sitters because rather than a genuine desire to foster spiritual awareness, their interest in spiritual practice is mostly driven by (for example) the wish to follow a fashion, make friends, meet a partner, socially interact, advance their career or reputation, or escape from problems (i.e., an individual can’t be said to be fence sitting if they have no interest in finding out what lies on the other side of the fence).

For a spiritual fence sitter that has had plenty of opportunity to ‘taste’ the authentic teachings, perhaps the most important consideration to bear in mind is that they can’t stay on the fence indefinitely. At some point, the spiritual fence sitter will have to decide whether they are ‘in’ or whether they are ‘out’. When all conditions are right, a good teacher will create circumstances that ‘force’ the practitioner to make this decision. This is done not only to help the teacher determine where to expend their time and energy, but also to ‘protect’ both the spiritual teachings and the spiritual practitioner. Once an individual has had several tastes of the path and/or the teacher’s wisdom, they no longer have any excuse for believing that enlightenment and the spiritual world are notions of fiction. Choosing not to wholeheartedly embrace the spiritual path under such circumstances can have significant negative consequences for the practitioner. The spiritual link that has been established between them and the teacher will, by its very nature, expose them to a range of new experiences and situations. Without the required level of conviction, these experiences and situations (that would otherwise act as major stepping stones on the path), are likely to cause lasting harm that could extend beyond the spiritual practitioner’s current lifetime.

Consequently, the spiritual teacher may deem it necessary to distance themselves from the practitioner. Of course, the sacred spiritual link between teacher and practitioner can be re-established, but at this point rather than the teacher trying to convince the practitioner to remain on-board (i.e., which was the case at the early phase of the spiritual relationship), now the practitioner has to work hard in order to convince the teacher.

 Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

Fearlessness1

Some people are of the view that in order to enter the spiritual path one has to forget about the world and everything we know. However, rather than forgetting about or turning one’s back on the world, a true meditation practitioner is a person that completely surrenders themselves to, and becomes fully immersed in, the world. In order to surrender ourselves to the world we first have to abandon hope and fear. When we have hope, we leave ourselves exposed to suffering. We suffer when our hopes and expectations are not met. Wherever there is hope, there is also fear – the fear that our hopes will not be realised.

Many people think that in order to be happy they need hope. But this kind of happiness is very conditional and is reliant upon the presence of external factors. Relying for our happiness on external factors will never lead to lasting happiness because situations and phenomena are changing all of the time – there is no way we can control them all. By always hoping to be somewhere else, be someone else, or have something else, we effectively turn our back on the present moment and deep spiritual peace can never take root in the mind. This is not to say that we should not make efforts to improve our current situation, but we should do so in such a way that we do not allow the mind to intoxicate itself with hope that our efforts will bear fruit. In other words, if we wish to change or improve our current circumstances, we should do so with absolute focus to the task at hand but remain completely unattached to expecting that we are somehow going to gain something or get somewhere.

It is by engaging in, yet remaining completely unattached to, all that we experience that we create the correct conditions for gaining our first taste of unconditional fearlessness. When they have become adept at abandoning hope and desire, absolutely nothing can shake the meditation practitioner’s confidence. Without trying, they begin to emanate strength, courage, and contentedness. They remain centred and un-phased by any situation. People can’t help but notice the fearlessness that exudes from the person walking the path of meditation. However, because the meditator’s fearlessness stems from a place of calm, compassion, and non-attachment, people invariable feel reassured and safe in their presence.

Of course, there will always be some people who feel threatened and unsettled in the presence of a person that has wholeheartedly entered the path of meditation. However, rather than actually being afraid of the meditation practitioner, it is more the case that such people are afraid of themselves. Due to being free of hope and the idea of being somewhere else or being somebody else, the mind of an accomplished meditator is calm and completely clear. When others encounter this clear awareness, it acts as a mirror and reflects back upon them that which is prominent in their mind. Therefore, upon meeting a genuine meditation practitioner, some people are forced to face up to the fact they are living a meaningless soap opera and that they are effectively devoid of spiritual awareness. Understandably, this is a difficult pill to swallow but having it pointed out is a good thing because it gives people the opportunity to examine their life choices and to make changes where appropriate. However, it is often the case that people don’t want to admit that there is no substance to the self they have worked so hard to create. They become angry at themselves and at what is reflected in the meditation practitioner’s mind.

As referred to above, the quality of fearlessness that arises naturally as part of walking the path of meditation stems from a place of wisdom, compassion, and having abandoned all hopes. Consequently, it has absolutely nothing to do with being macho or deliberately trying to be courageous. These types of fearlessness are very much reliant on the presence of a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, and an ‘I’. The fearlessness that exudes from the authentic meditation practitioner is what is left after the ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’ are removed from the equation. For this reason, the fearlessness that the meditator experiences is completely devoid of aggression and is without a personal agenda.

An important source of the authentic meditation practitioner’s fearlessness is absolute commitment to the path that they are walking. They do not make a distinction between spiritual practice and time at work or time with the family. Whatever they are doing and wherever they find themselves, they strive to perfect each breath, moment, and activity of their lives. This unremitting commitment to their chosen path provides them with access to an immense resource of spiritual energy. It is the energy of the present moment that flows through and connects all phenomena. By tapping into and nourishing themselves in this energy, the authentic meditation practitioner is able to respond with fearlessness and take whatever happens in their stride. Everything that they encounter forms part of their practice. It doesn’t matter if they are seen as a national hero or if the whole country despises and rises against them – a person that has truly entered the path of meditation has absolute confidence in what they are doing. This is a beautiful and invigorating way to live.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.

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

Khyentse, D. (2007). The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Nanamoli Bhikkhu. (1979). The Path of Purification: Visuddhi Magga. Kandy (Sri Lanka): Buddhist Publication Society.

Santideva. (1997). A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. (V. A. Wallace, & A. B. Wallace, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Tsong-Kha-pa. (2004). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Vol. 1). (J. W. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & The Lamrim Chenmo Translation committee, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Trungpa, C. (2002). Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala.

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.