Does Mindfulness Have a Role in the Treatment of Fibromyalgia Syndrome?

Does Mindfulness Have a Role in the Treatment of Fibromyalgia Syndrome?

Fibro 1

Fibromyalgia syndrome is a poorly understood chronic pain disorder. An estimated 3% of adults are reported to suffer from fibromyalgia, with higher levels of occurrence in females compared to males. The main symptoms of fibromyalgia syndrome are all-over body pain, tiredness, difficulty in sleeping, and cognitive dysfunction such as memory impairment. There is also a high level of association between fibromyalgia syndrome and poor quality of life, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, and unemployment.

Some of the reasons why fibromyalgia syndrome is believed to be a controversial illness are as follows:

  1. Individuals with fibromyalgia are reported to exert a higher burden upon healthcare resources when compared with individuals diagnosed with other chronic illnesses.
  1. Research has shown that individuals with fibromyalgia often experience difficulty in having their illness diagnosed, and often feel that their needs and symptoms are poorly understood by the medical profession.
  1. A diagnosis of fibromyalgia is primarily based upon the exclusion of other illnesses, the patient’s medical history, and their reaction to pressure being gently applied to ‘tender points’. In other words, there isn’t a reliable laboratory test for fibromyalgia syndrome (e.g., blood test, x-ray) and this means that it is difficult to be 100% certain that a given individual is genuinely suffering from the illness.

The current treatment-of-choice for fibromyalgia syndrome is the use of psychopharmacology (principally antidepressants) coupled with non-pharmacological approaches such as physical exercise, cognitive-behavioural therapy, self-help, and/or psycho-education. However, pharmacological treatments for fibromyalgia have shown only a limited degree of effectiveness, and many patients withdraw from treatment due to the side-effects of antidepressants as well as low levels of symptom reduction.

The lack of convincing treatment efficacy outcomes for existing pharmacological and non-pharmacological fibromyalgia interventions has led to the empirical evaluation of alternative treatment approaches. Since there exists evidence (which varies in quality and quantity) supporting the use of mindfulness in treating each of the individual symptoms of fibromyalgia syndrome (e.g., chronic pain, sleep disturbance, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and cognitive dysfunction), mindfulness-based interventions have been an obvious candidate in terms of investigating their effectiveness for treating the illness.

A systematic review and meta-analysis comprising six randomised and non-randomised controlled trials of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for individuals with fibromyalgia (674 participants in total) found that individuals receiving MBSR experienced significant short-term improvements in quality of life and pain compared to individuals in the non-meditating control groups. A further systematic review (incorporating a range of intervention study designs) examined the findings from ten studies of mindfulness meditation (702 participants in total). The review concluded that mindfulness led to significant improvements in both physical symptoms (e.g., pain, sleep quality, functionality) and psychological symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety, perceived helplessness).

In terms of the possible mechanisms by which mindfulness helps to alleviate the symptoms of fibromyalgia syndrome, the most widely proposed explanation is that mindfulness helps to increase perceptual distance from somatic pain and distressing psychological stimuli. By mindfully observing painful bodily sensations, it appears that individuals suffering from fibromyalgia (and other pain disorders) can begin to objectify and almost distance themselves from their pain. The same applies to feelings of psychological distress and fatigue that are often associated with musculoskeletal pain. Mindfully observing feelings of distress, frustration and low mood appears to weaken the intensity of such feelings, and to help create the ‘psychological space’ necessary for other – more psychologically adaptive – feelings and thought processes to arise.

Based on findings from a randomised controlled trial of an online mindfulness-based intervention, it has been suggested that stronger treatment outcomes can actually be achieved by using mindfulness not just as a means of improving patient’s ability to cope with pain and psychological distress, but as a means of helping improve patients’ ability to engage in effective social and interpersonal interactions. In other words, given the complexity of fibromyalgia syndrome, it appears that in order to maximise treatment effectiveness, mindfulness interventions targeting fibromyalgia should be purpose-designed and encourage participants to draw on both psychological and social resources.

In terms of other potential mechanisms of action, there is evidence to suggest that mindfulness leads to changes in neurological pain pathways, reduced levels of ruminative thinking and self-preoccupation, and improvements in spirituality. This latter potential mechanism is important because cross-sectional studies involving individuals with fibromyalgia have specifically identified a positive correlation between spirituality and positive affect (i.e., as levels of spirituality increase so do positive mood states), and a negative association between spirituality and symptoms of depression and anxiety (i.e., as levels of spirituality increase in individuals with fibromyalgia, their levels of depression and anxiety decrease).

Findings indicate that purpose-designed mindfulness-based interventions may have a role to play in the treatment of fibromyalgia syndrome. However, at present the overall quality of the evidence is weak and there is a need to replicate and consolidate findings using methodologically robust randomised controlled trials.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Branco, J. C., Bannwarth, B., Failde, I., Abello Carbonell, J., Blotman, F., Spaeth, M., … Matucci-Cerinic, M. (2010). Prevalence of fibromyalgia: a survey in five European countries. Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism, 39, 448-55.

Cramer, H., Haller, H., Lauche, R., & Dobos, G. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for low back pain. A systematic review. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 12, 162.

Davis, M. C., & Zautra, A. J. (2013). An online mindfulness intervention targeting socioemotional regulation in fibromyalgia: results of a randomized controlled trial. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 46, 273-284.

Dennis, N. L., Larkin, M., & Derbyshire, S. W. G. (2013). ‘A giant mess’ – making sense of complexity in the accounts of people with fibromyalgia. British Journal of Health Psychology, 18, 763-781.

Häuser, W., Wolfe, F., Tölle, T., Üçeyler, N., & Sommer, C. (2012). The role of antidepressants in the management of fibromyalgia syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis. CNS Drugs, 26, 297-307.

Henke, M., & Chur-Hansen, A. (2014). The effectiveness of mindfulness-based programs on physical symptoms and psychological distress in patients with fibromyalgia: a systematic review. International Journal of Wellbeing, 4, 28-45.

Hickie, I., Pols, R. G., Koschera, A., & Davenport, T. (2004). Why are Somatoform Disorders so Poorly Recognized and Treated? In: G. Andrews & Henderson S. (Eds). Unmet Need in Psychiatry: Problems, Resources, Responses (pp. 309-323). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hughes, G., Martinez, C., Myon, E., Taïeb, C., & Wessely, S. (2005). The impact of a diagnosis of fibromyalgia on health care resource use by primary care patients in the UK: an observational study based on clinical practice. Arthritis and Rheumatism, 54, 177-183.

Jones, K. D., Sherman, C. A., Mist, S. D., Carson, J. W., Bennett, R. M., & Li, F. (2012). A randomized controlled trial of 8-form Tai chi improves symptoms and functional mobility in fibromyalgia patients. Clinical Rheumatology, 31, 1205-1214.

Langhorst, J., Klose, P., Dobos, G. J., Bernardy, K, & Häuser, W. (2013). Efficacy and safety of meditative movement therapies in fibromyalgia syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Rheumatology International, 33, 193-207.

Lauche, R., Cramer, H., Dobos, G., Langhorst, J., & Schmidt, S. (2013). A systematic review and meta-analysis of mindfulness-based stress reduction for the fibromyalgia syndrome. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 75, 500-510.

Moreira-Almeida, A., & Koenig, H. G. (2008). Religiousness and spirituality in fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 12, 327-332.

Nüesch, E., Häuser, W., Bernardy, K., Barth, J., & Jüni, P. (2013). Comparative efficacy of pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions in fibromyalgia syndrome: network meta-analysis. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 72, 955-962.

Peterson, E. L. (2007). Fibromyalgia – Management of a misunderstood disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. 19, 341-348.

Rimes, K. A., & Wingrove, J. (2013). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for people with chronic fatigue syndrome still experiencing excessive fatigue after cognitive behaviour therapy: a pilot randomized study. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 20, 107-117.

Scott, M., & Jones, K. (2014). Mindfulness in a fibromyalgia population. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20, A94-A95.

Sicras-Mainar, A., Rejas, J., Navarro, R., Blanca, M., Morcillo, A., Larios, R., … Villarroya, C. (2009). Treating patients with fibromyalgia in primary care settings under routine medical practice: a claim database cost and burden of illness study. Arthritis Research & Therapy, 11, R54. DOI:10.1186/ar2673.

Wolfe, F., Brähler, E., Hinz, A., & Häuser, W. (2013). Fibromyalgia prevalence, somatic symptom reporting, and the dimensionality of polysymptomatic distress: results from a survey of the general population. Arthritis Care and Research, 65, 777-785.

Wolfe, F. (2009). Fibromyalgia wars. Journal of Rheumatology, 36, 671-678.

Wolfe, F., Anderson, J., Harkness, D., Bennett, R. M., Caro, X. J., Goldenberg, D. L., … Yunus, M. B. (1997a). A prospective, longitudinal, multicenter study of service utilization and costs in fibromyalgia. Arthritis and Rheumatology, 40, 1560-1570.

Wolfe, F., Anderson, J., Harkness, D., Bennett, R. M., Caro, X. J., Goldenberg, D. L., … Yunus, M. B. (1997b). Work and disability status of persons with fibromyalgia. The Journal of Rheumatology, 24, 1171-1178.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

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.

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., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Do You Know Who I Am?

Do You Know Who I Am?

who am I 6

I am not interested in where you have been or what you have done.

I care not who you are, but I care deeply how you are.

If you are happy – truly happy – then so am I.

Do you know who I am?

.

You could be rich or poor, young or old, educated or uneducated, a man or woman.

You could be successful or unsuccessful, of high status or low status, a sinner or saint.

All of these things are irrelevant to me.

Do you know who I am?

.

I care not what religion you belong to.

I also do not care if you abstain from religion altogether.

What I represent transcends the beliefs, rituals, and concepts of any religion.

Do you know who I am?

.

In so far as I have an objective, it is to help you to help yourself.

In this regard, I prefer to be gentle and kind with you.

But I can also be incredibly firm and unyielding if it will benefit you.

Do you know who I am?

.

I am flexible and can be whoever you need me to be to help you.

But you must always strive to be who I am, I cannot be who you are.

This is a matter about which I am completely inflexible.

Do you know who I am?

.

I feel happy when I see kindness in others.

I feel sad when I see cruelty in others.

But I am not attached to any of my feelings.

Do you know who I am?

.

I see praise and criticism as the same thing.

Because I know myself, it matters not what others say or think about me.

My happiness is completely unconditional.

Do you know who I am?

.

The faithless and cowardly see me a charlatan.

They perceive everything through the lens of ignorance, fear, and selfishness.

But the pure in heart are drawn to me and are nourished by my presence.

Do you know who I am?

.

I have walked with kings and beggars, lived in poverty and luxury.

But these things make no difference to me.

Whatever my circumstances, I always live simply and am content.

Do you know who I am?

.

There are some with undisciplined minds that pretend to be me.

Interested only in being seen to do the right thing, they deceive their followers.

In my presence such impostors become angry, confused, and full of fear.

Do you know who I am?

.

Most people only start to think of me when they are dying.

But by waiting until then it is difficult for me to help them.

I have always taught that the right time to get to know me is right now.

Do you know who I am?

.

Some people try to know me by looking outside of themselves.

They label me, box me with concepts, and worship me.

But I can never be known in this way.

Do you know who I am?

.

I exist within you and within all things.

Look deeply inside of yourself and you will see me there.

You can be me if you really want to.

Do you know who I am?

.

To me, life and death are one and the same.

I am never really born and I never really die.

You can be like this too if you want to.

Do you know who I am?

.

At all times I am sustained by a spring of deep calm and joy.

I do not attach myself to anything and my mind is completely unobstructed.

I soar freely and gracefully beyond the limits of space and time.

Do you know who I am?

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

science 2

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.

 

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.

Do We Really Exist

Do We Really Exist?

dream

A truly fascinating question, don’t you think? In order to investigate this question effectively, we need to plunge into and explore some slightly taxing concepts.

When we want to examine the question of whether or not things truly exist, we can do so from either a relative or an absolute perspective. Answering this question from a relative perspective is a fairly uncomplicated procedure: if we accept that other things exist then in relation to those things we can conclude that we definitely exist. However, when we examine this question from an absolute perspective, things are not quite so straight forward.

When investigating this question in absolute terms, we need to remember that our existence is dependent on many factors, is caused by many factors, and is defined by many factors. According to the Buddhist view of emptiness based on the Madhyamaka system of philosophical reasoning, any given apprehended object relies for its existence on: (i) our mental designation of it, (ii) the conditions that caused it to be produced, and (iii) its attributes and component parts. However, the Madhyamaka treatises go on to explain that objects are neither equivalent to any of these individual causes or components, nor to their sum total, nor do they truly exist apart from these causes and components.

In other words, no matter how hard we try to find an object that inherently exists, we will never be able to do so. The reason why phenomena appear far more “real” and concrete than they actually are is due to the process of mental reification. We tend to make things real – including how we construct and create the ‘self’ or ‘I’.

In our most recent post entitled ‘Suffering Exists’, we used the example of a motor car to explain how people suffer due to constantly wanting to change or better their situation. Let’s now use the example of a motor car in a slightly different way in order to try and understand more about this idea of “non-self”. The example that we have formulated is based on a dialogue between a meditation teacher and their (somewhat haughty) student.

An Example: Looking for the Car

bugatti-veyron-super-sports-480

Meditation Teacher: Does this car inherently exist?

Student: Yes, of course.

Meditation Teacher: How does it exist?

Student: It exists because it is comprised of car parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, I see. So is this the car?

car chasis 2

Student: No, of course not, that’s just the chassis.

Meditation Teacher: Well what about this?

CAR AXLE-ILLUSTRATION

Student: No, don’t be ridiculous, that’s just the wheels and one of the axles. An individual car component cannot be all of the mutually exclusive parts that make up the car. One thing cannot be another thing.

Meditation Teacher: So the car doesn’t exist in any of its component parts?

Student: Of course not.

Meditation Teacher: Does it exist outside of its component parts?

Student: No, that’s even sillier. The car doesn’t exist in any one of its individual component parts nor does it exist outside of its component parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, so how does the car exist?

Student: The car exists as the sum of its component parts.

Meditation teacher: Ah, I see. But you have already said that a component part can’t be two things at once. Are you now saying that the chassis can be both a chassis and a car?

Student: No, that would be illogical.

Meditation Teacher: So you’re saying that when the wheels, chassis, axles, and all the other car components are put together they stop being those components and become a new single entity?

Student: No, that wouldn’t make sense either – the component parts still exist in the car. The word “car” is used to designate the collection of individual components that collectively form a car.

Meditation Teacher: Right, so you are saying that the car is just label?

Student: Well, I guess so.

Meditation Teacher: How can a car be just a label?

Student: I don’t know.

Meditation Teacher: You still haven’t shown me where I can find a car that inherently exists. Where is the car?

Student: I’m not sure, I’m confused.

Meditation Teacher: Enjoy being confused.

Student: I’m going out to get some fresh air.

Meditation teacher: Ok, but don’t take too long. We’re going to test drive a new car later and I’ve been looking forward to it all day.

We can apply the same line of reasoning employed in the above example of the motor car to ourselves as human beings. We are made up of blood, flesh, bone, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. We are made up of molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks. We are made up of our parents and their parents, and of the wind, water, earth, and sun. Although without any of these things we do not exist, an inherently existing self may not be found within these causes and components whether in singular or in sum. Therefore, when, in Buddhist philosophy, we speak of ‘non-self’ (Pali: anattā), the ‘self’ that we are denying is an independent and intrinsically existing self.

Deconstructing the ‘Self’

mansion

However old we are, we have had that much time since birth in order to create the construct of ‘I’. In fact, we don’t limit ourselves with just one ‘I’, but tend to be a different I for each different aspect of our lives. We have an ‘I’ that we use when we are with the family, another for friends, and yet another when we are at work.  It’s as if we have built a mansion with many rooms where each room comes with the label ‘I’. A useful practice is to take a moment to discover how many rooms make up our mansion and what materials have been used to construct and arrange each of these rooms. What beliefs, motivations, habits, and perceptions have influenced the creation of each of your different ‘I’s’?

Unfortunately, most people live out their entire lives in this mansion – stuck in a boring and cyclic pattern of moving from one room to the next and limiting themselves to being the same cluster of ‘I’s’ that everyone expects them to be. People have a tendency to get stuck in their own identity, and to forget that outside of their mansion there is a whole world to explore. As we discussed in our post entitled “The Practice of Impermanence: Learning How to be Alive”, the problem with getting stuck like this is that we cause ourselves a great deal of suffering because we are not open to change.

self deception

Were you able to witness with clarity and honesty all of the different construction materials that you have used over the course of your lifetime?

prison

What exactly is this mansion that we have constructed? Did the thought cross your mind that instead of a mansion perhaps we have constructed a prison? Is it possible that we have limited and imprisoned ourselves with our concepts, words, judgements, feelings, perceptions, and so forth? Maybe we are our own jailors guarding a prison of our own construction.

If that’s the case, then we need to think about how we can escape from this prison. The good news is that we’re not stuck. If we have the power to create a prison for the mind then we also have the power to dismantle it. With perseverance and hard work, we can definitely dismantle the limited construct of ‘I’ that we have created.  For many people, this can be a somewhat daunting prospect so it is advisable to take things one step at a time. As we become familiar with the fact that we (body, mind, spirit) are not a constant, we begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of allowing things to change. It is then that we can begin to demolish the old ‘I’ and prepare the ground for the new build:

demolition

Everything that we uncover during the demolition process made us what we are today. In fact, some of this ‘stuff’ such as ideas, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts will be useful and can be put to one side for recycling in the new build. However, some of the things that we uncover will be of zero or even negative value and it is therefore advisable to dispose of them completely. When the old mansion is completely demolished and we have a clear and clean plot, we can start to build a new ‘I’ that is dynamic, has a vast and panoramic view, is up-to-date, and in a constant state of flux:

meditation house

As we mature in the practice and become more familiar and comfortable with change, letting go of the old to make way for the new becomes easier and easier. We begin to dynamically flow with impermanence and this new found space and freedom causes the mind to remain in tranquillity. It is here that we can start to enjoy the empty nature of phenomena – allowing the old to dissolve and the new to become.

meditation house 3

In seeing, there is just seeing. No seer and nothing seen. In hearing there is just hearing. No hearer and nothing heard.”

(The Bahiya Sutta)

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon