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

The World Through the Eyes of the Central Nervous System

The World Through the Eyes of the Central Nervous System

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An important principle of psychology is that of saltatory conduction through the nervous system. Saltatory conduction is not particularly difficult to understand and in the United Kingdom it is probably taught as part of the A-level or even GCSE curriculum. The basic idea is that when sense receptors are stimulated, electrochemical impulses travel via the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system (CNS). The central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord, receives these electrochemical messages and transforms them into coherent information that can be acted upon.

Recently, we (along with our friend and co-author Professor Mark Griffiths) had a paper accepted for publication in the American Psychological Association Division 36 journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (see further reading list below) where we used saltatory conduction as one form (amongst many others) of evidence to support our claim that reality exists in a fundamentally different manner than contemporary psychological and scientific opinion might lead us to believe. The paper is entitled ‘Buddhist Emptiness Theory: Implications for Psychology’ and it should be published in the next week or so. In our paper, we state that “without exception, an individual’s sense of movement, touch, taste, pain, pleasure, sight, sound, and so forth is based upon a mental impression formulated by the CNS. In other words, the CNS transforms electrochemical information into a ‘working’ three-dimensional image or movie.” We then went on to explain that although there is the impression of living in and moving through a physical world, in truth, there is never any movement and life is experienced solely as the mental projection of the CNS.

If we accept that the principle of saltatory conduction is valid (we should accept it because it can be scientifically observed and proven), then we also have to accept that in actual fact, we have never truly touched an object, smelt a smell, seen a sight, heard a sound, or tasted a flavour. When we look at a tree, what we see is the brain’s interpretation of electrochemical signals that were transmitted by sensory receptors in the eyes. We don’t ‘directly see’ the tree and if we tried to touch it, then once again all that we would feel is the brain’s interpretation – based on input from electrochemical signals – of what it believes the tree feels like.

The implications of what we are saying here and of what we asserted in our abovementioned peer-reviewed paper are potentially far-reaching. If the evidence and logical reasoning we presented is robust, then it means that human beings experience and interact with the world exclusively at the level of the mind. In other words, we exist at the centre of the universe and both we and the universe make part of our mental projection. In fact, the notion of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ become null and void because if it is accepted that existence unfolds exclusively at the level of the mind, then how can we talk about near and far, centre or periphery, large or small, etc.?

Consider the analogy of a dream in which the dreamer can be under the impression that they are coming or going, experiencing pleasure or pain, are safe or are in danger. However, in truth, the dreamer doesn’t go anywhere because the dream is unfolding within the expanse of the mind. The dreamer has the impression of movement and this can be very convincing – so much so that individuals can wake up screaming if, for example, they were dreaming of falling off a cliff. But just because something is convincing doesn’t mean that our understanding of it is correct. For example, at one time scientists (and the church) were convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. However, it subsequently transpired that, as had been proposed by (the much persecuted) Galileo all along, the earth revolves around the sun.

We also discussed (this time in a more light-hearted manner) the notion of reality existing at the level of mind and in a manner similar to a dream in a paper entitled ‘Dream or Reality?’ that was published in Philosophy Now (see further reading list below). The paper features a discussion between a professor and a student who are trying to establish whether they are awake or dreaming. The key point of the paper is that there are no logical grounds for asserting that there exists a difference between the manner in which waking reality and dream reality function.

We think it is marvellous that in some basic psychological and biological processes such as saltatory conduction, there exists evidence that could help to fundamentally change scientific thought concerning the fundamental properties of the mind, matter and universe. Maybe in the future scientists will use terms such as ‘mind particles’ or ‘mind-like properties’ when referring to certain qualities of the universe or to the true mode in which everything exists.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Chan, W. S. (2008). Psychological attachment, no-self and Chan Buddhist mind therapy. Contemporary Buddhism, 9, 253-264. doi: 10.1080/14639940802556586

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

Soeng, M. (1995). Heart Sutra: Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality. Cumberland: Primary Point Press.

Vogel, H. (2009). Nervous System: Cambridge Illustrated Surgical Pathology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.

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.

Mindfulness for Treating Addiction: A Clinician’s Guide

Mindfulness for Treating Addiction: A Clinician’s Guide

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An aspect of our scientific work relating to mindfulness involves investigating its applications for treating addiction. In this respect, we have a longstanding collaboration with Dr. Mark Griffiths who is Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University (UK) and is internationally recognised for his work in this field of study. Today’s post draws upon findings from our research using Meditation Awareness Training and provides ten recommendations on the psychotherapeutic use of mindfulness in addiction treatment contexts. These recommendations are primarily intended for mental health professionals, but individuals with addiction problems may also find them of interest. Although we have principally based our recommendations on insights gained from using mindfulness and meditation for treating behavioural addictions (e.g., gambling disorder, workaholism, sex addiction), we have also consulted the literature concerning the use of mindfulness for treating chemical addictions (e.g., substance- and alcohol-use disorders). Therefore, whilst we acknowledge that there are important differences between behavioural and chemical addictions (e.g., the physical signs of drug addiction are typically absent in behavioural addiction), we envisage that the following recommendations will be applicable to both addiction categories.

  1. Undertake a Thorough Assessment: Careful evaluation of the client’s history (e.g., clinical history, social history, education history, religious history, employment history, etc.) and presenting problems will come high on the list of any competent mental health clinician. However, we have chosen to include ‘thorough assessment’ as one of our specific recommendations because there appears to be a belief amongst a minority of mental health professionals that mindfulness is a one-stop cure for all mental health issues. As discussed in one of our peer-reviewed papers that was recently published in the British Medical Journal, the only psychopathologies for which the empirical evidence is robust enough to support the wide scale utilisation of mindfulness are specific forms of depression and anxiety. In other words, mindfulness is not a suitable treatment for every individual presenting for treatment. For example, we recommend that clinicians exercise additional caution (including taking into account their own experience with using mindfulness) before introducing mindfulness to clients whose addiction problem occurs in conjunction with psychotic features.
  2. Build Strong Meditative Foundations: Mindfulness is a practice to develop throughout one’s lifetime. It is a marathon and not a sprint. If an individual is to derive lasting benefit from mindfulness, it is essential that they establish strong meditative foundations. If we want to become aware of the subtle aspects of mind, we first need to become aware of the gross aspects of mind. And before we can do that, we need a method of calming, collecting and focussing the mind. This is why breath awareness is a vital feature of meditative development. Using the breath as a concentration anchor provides the client with a reference point – a place of safety to which they can return whenever their mind starts to run away with itself. The mental cravings that underlie addiction can be powerful and consuming, and without strong meditative foundations, it is unlikely that the client will be able to regulate these cravings as well as the withdrawal symptoms that they are likely to encounter during later treatment phases. Another important foundation of mindfulness is awareness of the body. At the early stages of treatment, clients should be taught how to sit with awareness, eat with awareness, walk with awareness and talk with awareness. Clients should be encouraged to adopt mindfulness as a way of life and not just a technique to apply when they are feeling low or susceptible to addiction-related urges.
  3. Make use of Psycho-education: In addiction treatment contexts, we suggest that psycho-education should be utilised at the early stages of treatment and should focus on two key areas: (i) educating clients in the science concerning the aetiology and symptom course of their particular addiction, and (ii) explaining the principles of mindfulness and a meditation-based recovery model. For a comprehensive and insightful academic resource that clinicians can draw upon in this respect, we recommend the chapter on mindfulness and addiction by Dr. Sean Dae Houlihan and Dr. Judson Brewer that features in our recent edited Springer volume on Mindfulness and Buddhist-Derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction (see further reading list below).
  4. Teach ‘Urge Surfing’: The term ‘urge surfing’ has been used in the scientific literature to refer to the process of mindfully observing the mental urges associated with addiction. The idea is that the client, having established themselves in awareness of breathing, takes craving as the object of meditation. They follow their breath and observe how craving dominates their cognitive-affective processes. The process of observing mental craving helps to objectify it and creates ‘mental space’ whereby instead of feeding the craving (i.e., by emotionally and conceptually adding to it), craving is allowed to exist ‘as it is’. It may appear as though urge surfing is concerned with controlling craving, but that’s not the case. Rather, the technique involves allowing craving to come and go such that it can progress through its natural cycle of birth, life and dissolution. When we teach this technique, we inform clients that if craving is manifest in the mind, that’s OK. We also inform them that if craving is not manifest, that’s OK too.
  5. Make use of Bliss Substitution: Substitution techniques are sometimes used in the treatment of both behavioural and chemical addictions. For example, studies have shown that some individuals with gambling disorder respond well to gradually substituting their gambling activity for recreational activities such as singing, learning computer skills, communication workshops, dance and music. Our own studies have shown that the substitution principle can also work well in the case of addiction treatments following a meditation-based recovery model. One of the key drivers of addiction is the mood modification (e.g., ‘feeling high’) that results from engaging with a particular substance or behaviour. Meditation may be particularly suitable as an addiction substitution technique because specific forms of meditation can induce blissful feelings. Effectively, the client learns to replace the ‘buzz’ or ‘high’ associated with a ‘negative addiction’ with the bliss and peace of meditation (i.e., a positive form of addiction). Eventually, clients should be encouraged to relinquish any dependency on meditation, but in the early stages of treating addiction, it can be a useful therapeutic technique.
  6. Employ Meditation Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy is a method employed by various modalities of psychotherapy, and it can also be used as part of mindfulness therapy for individuals suffering from addiction. It is all very well teaching the client how to practise mindfulness from the safety of the psychotherapist’s consulting room, but at some point it is probable that they will encounter the stimuli that have previously caused strong mental urges to arise. Consequently, we encourage the psychotherapist to accompany (i.e., where it is safe and realistic to do so) the client in ‘real-world settings’ that are likely to induce relapse. For example, if the client is addicted to off-line gambling, consider accompanying them to a casino in order to demonstrate that it is possible for them to remain meditatively composed whilst surrounded by the object of their addiction. Meditation exposure therapy isn’t suitable for every client (or indeed for every mental health clinician), but where applicable, we generally recommend that it is used towards the end of the treatment course.
  7. Undermine the Value of the Addictive Object: This technique involves guiding the client to think about the ‘true nature’ of the object of their addiction. More specifically, it involves introducing the client – albeit at an elementary level – to the concepts of impermanence, interconnectedness and emptiness. Again, the clinician will have to assess on a case-by-case basis whether this technique is appropriate, but we have personally found it to be effective in addiction treatment contexts. By fostering meditative awareness of impermanence and the empty nature of all phenomena, the client can gradually begin to question and then undermine the intrinsic value that they have assigned to the object of their addition. For example, an individual suffering from sex addiction can use specific meditative techniques in order to better understand that (i) the individual components that comprise the human body are not particularly desirable in and of themselves (e.g., nails, hair, mucus, faeces, urine, pus, vomit, blood, sinew, skin, bone, teeth, flesh, sweat, etc.), (ii) the inevitable destiny of the body is that of ageing, illness and decay, and (iii) the body exists as a composite entity but does not exist intrinsically. If the client looks deeply using meditation, they can learn to see that in beauty and life, there is foulness and decay (and vice-versa). They can also learn to see that there is ‘other’ in ‘self’ and ‘self’ in ‘other’, and that when they practice kindness and respect towards themselves, they practise kindness and respect towards the entire world.
  8. Schedule Follow-up Sessions: Most of the available treatments that use mindfulness generally adhere to an eight-week treatment course. However, in the traditional Buddhist setting, a person would normally be required to engage in day-to-day mindfulness practice over a period of many years before being deemed to have gained a reasonable grounding in the practice. Consequently, it is important to schedule booster sessions and to meet with the client at regular (e.g., monthly) intervals following the initial programme of treatment. Ideally, clients should also be encouraged to make contact with mindfulness groups that are facilitated by competent teachers.
  9. Lead by Example: As discussed in a previous post where we offered guidelines on the general use of mindfulness in psychotherapy (i.e., not specific to treating addiction), it is important that the mental health clinician emanates a presence of meditative calm and awareness. This has to be natural and as indicated above, it can only arise after consistent daily practice over a period of many years. If the clinician merely ‘acts’ at being mindful, the client is likely (whether consciously or subconsciously) to pick up on this and it will inevitably act as an obstacle to recovery.
  10. Be Inspired: Mindfulness has been practised by spiritual traditions for thousands of years. When a clinician engages with the practice in a sincere manner, and when they wholeheartedly wish to help the client overcome their suffering, that clinician is bestowed with the blessings and wisdom of this ancient spiritual lineage. They become what is known in Buddhism as a Bodhisattva – a rare and beautiful being that conduct acts of kindness in order to alleviate the suffering of others. Skilled mental health professionals perform an invaluable role to society. They are inspired individuals who in turn help to inspire the clients they work with.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Alavi, S. S., Ferdosi, M., Jannatifard, F., et al. (2012). Behavioral addiction versus substance addiction: Correspondence of psychiatric and psychological views. International Journal of Preventative Medicine, 3, 290-294.

Appel, J., & Kim-Appel, D. (2009). Mindfulness: Implications for substance abuse and addiction. International Journal of Mental Health Addiction, 7, 506-512.

Griffiths, M. D., (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M. D., Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). Mindfulness as a treatment for gambling disorder. Journal of Gambling and Commercial Gaming Research, 1, 1-6.

Houlihan, S. D., & Brewer, J. A. (2015). The emerging science of mindfulness as a treatment for addiction. In: E. Y. Shonin, W. Van Gordon and M. D. Griffiths (eds.), Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived approaches in mental health and addiction (pp. 191-210). New York: Springer.

Iskender, M., & Akin, A. (2011). Compassion and internet addiction. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 10, 215-221.

Jackson, A. C., Francis, K. L., Byrne, G., et al. (2013). Leisure substitution and problem gambling: report of a proof of concept group intervention. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 11, 64–74.

Rosenberg, K. P., Carnes, P. J., & O’Connor, S. (2014). Evaluation and treatment of sex addiction. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 40, 77-91.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A Case Study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 10, 193-195.

Shonn, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for the treatment of co-occurring schizophrenia with pathological gambling: A case study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 181-196.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness and the social media. Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism, 2014, 4: 5, DOI: 10.4172/2165-7912.1000194.

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. (2013). Meditation for the treatment of addictive behaviours: Sending out an SOS. Addiction Today, March, 18-19.

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

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Witkiewitz, K, Marlatt, G. A., & Walker, D. (2005). Mindfulness-based relapse prevention for alcohol and substance use disorders. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19, 211-228.

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.

To Enlightenment and Beyond

To Enlightenment and Beyond

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Click here for Italian readers – Clicca qui per i lettori italiani

Most Buddhist practice systems assert that there are various stages on the path to enlightenment. Perhaps the most well-documented example is the Ten Bodhisattva Bhūmis which in Mahayana Buddhism, are understood to reflect ten stages of spiritual awakening – culminating in Buddhahood – that a Bodhisattva (a highly compassionate spiritual being) progresses through. Another  perhaps less known  example is the Four Vidyadhara Levels in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A vidyadhara (which means ‘awareness holder’) is believed to progress through the following four stages: 1. matured vidyadhara, 2. vidyadhara with power over life, 3. mahamudra vidyadhara, and 4. spontaneously accomplished vidyadhara. In Theravada Buddhism, various states of spiritual awakening are likewise recognised, including the state of ‘Arahant’, which is generally understood to correspond to a level of spiritual awakening in which the cycle of samsara (the perpetuating round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth) has been broken, but that is still below the level of a Buddha. In order to arrive at the state of Arahant, Theravada Buddhism (and other early Buddhist schools) assert that the spiritual practitioner progresses through stages of ‘stream-enterer’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘once-returner’ (Sakadagami), and ‘non-returner’ (Anāgāmi).

Although there are numerous systems of thought in Buddhism regarding levels of spiritual awakening, all Buddhist schools appear to accept that there is a state of ‘full’ Buddhahood, which is unsurpassable. The Sanskrit term is ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ (Pāli: anuttarā sammā sambodhi), which literally means ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. There are specific references to the state of ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ in the Buddhist canonical literature (such as in the Astasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra of the Prajñāpāramitā collection), but the term is mostly employed to teach the principle that even when an individual attains a high level of spiritual realisation, there are invariably still subtle levels of ignorance that must be transcended. The state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ is understood to be a state that does not require any deliberate effort or ‘practice’ on the part of the spiritual practitioner.

Our take on the various levels of spiritual awakening and the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ differs from that of many Buddhist scholars and teachers. We accept that there are different levels of spiritual awakening, but labelling these states is not as easy as most people think. Each spiritual practitioner is an individual, and their spiritual journey is unique. Therefore, although there are some common ‘signposts’ that spiritual practitioners may encounter, it is difficult (and unwise) to assign a label to a person’s level of spiritual awakening. Indeed, for the diligent spiritual practitioner, spiritual development happens (or should happen) every moment of every day. Consequently, an individual’s level of realisation in the morning, is unlikely to be the same as the evening.

Our view differs from consensus opinion even more when it comes to the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. We accept that there is a state of Buddhahood, in which all forms of suffering are transcended, and in which spiritual awareness is self-sustaining (i.e., it does not require deliberate effort). We also accept that arriving at Buddhahood, a spiritual being penetrates fully, and abides as, the underlying ‘fabric’ of the universe. However, we don’t accept that there is such a thing as an ‘absolute’ level of spiritual awakening. If the state of Buddhahood reflects the upper limit of spiritual awareness, then logic dictates that there must also be a lower limit of spiritual awareness – a state of absolute spiritual ignorance. Based upon an observation of the life forms around us, it seems improbable that there is a lower limit to ignorance. Taking hatred amongst human beings as an example, it can consume a person’s mind to such an extent that they will harm and kill other humans, only to hate themselves and others more intensely. Perhaps this is what Einstein was referring to when he said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe”.

When a person becomes a ‘stream enterer’ that we referred to earlier, they become a child of the Buddhas, and enter a completely new world. They leave behind a life of living a soap opera and their – as well as other people’s – existence, takes on new meaning. When a person enters the stream that leads to liberation, their ‘wisdom eye’ is opened, compassion takes root in their being, and they begin to emanate spiritual presence. However, a similar thing happens when that same ‘stream enterer’eventually attains Buddhahood. They are born into a completely new way of being and perceiving. In fact, the Sanskrit root of the word Buddha is ‘Budh’, which literally means, ‘to wake up’ or ‘to be awakened’ to a new way of seeing.

When a being awakens to Buddhahood, it is not the case that their spiritual journey has finished. Rather, it has just begun. A Buddha has an inconceivable amount of wisdom and compassion at their disposition, but they have to learn how to apply that wisdom, how to grow with it, and how to transcend it. Buddhahood is a dynamic state; a Buddha is continuously evolving. Therefore, there are young Buddhas, mature Buddhas, and ancient Buddhas. There are Buddhas who are learning how to harness and mould the energy of the universe, and how to best apply it in order to help suffering beings. There are also Buddhas who are primordial, who are ‘masters of reality’, and who ‘gave birth’ to other enlightened beings.

Try not to reduce spiritual development into a system of limits, levels, and labels. For as many Buddhas that exist, there are that many different levels of Buddhahood. How inspiring that there is no upper limit to the amount the mind can expand and awaken. How beautiful that the spiritual journey continues for eternity. How amazing that within every sentient being, there exists the potential to attain Buddhahood, and then go beyond.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Verso l’illuminazione e oltre

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La maggior parte dei sistemi di pratica buddista affermano l’esistenza di varie tappe del percorso verso l’illuminazione. Forse l’esempio meglio documentato è quello dei Dieci Bodhisattva bhumi, che nel buddismo Mahayana riflettono le dieci fasi di risveglio spirituale, che culminano nella Buddità, attraverso cui un Bodhisattva (un essere spirituale altamente compassionevole) progredisce. Un altro esempio – forse meno conosciuto – è quello dei Quattro Livelli di Vidyadhara nella tradizione Nyingma del Buddismo Tibetano. Si ritiene che un Vidyadhara (che significa ‘detentore di consapevolezza’) progredisce attraverso le seguenti quattro fasi: 1. Vidyadhara maturato, 2. Vidyadhara con potere sulla vita, 3. Vidyadhara di mahamudra, e 4. Vidyadhara che è spontaneamente compiuto. Nel Buddismo Theravada, si ritrovano similmente vari stati di risveglio spirituale, compreso lo stato di ‘Arahant’, con cui generalmente si intende un livello di risveglio spirituale in cui il ciclo del samsara (il ciclo perpetuo di nascita, sofferenza, morte e rinascita) è stato interrotto, ma che è ancora al di sotto del livello di un Buddha. Al fine di raggiungere lo stato di Arahant, il Buddhismo Theravada (e altre scuole buddiste dello stesso periodo storico) affermano che il praticante spirituale progredisce attraverso le fasi di ‘colui che entra nella corrente’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘colui che ritorna una sola volta’ (Sakadagami) e ‘Anāgāmin’ (colui che non-ritorna).

Anche se ci sono numerosi sistemi di pensiero nel Buddismo per quanto riguarda i livelli di risveglio spirituale, tutte le scuole buddiste sembrano accettare il fatto che vi sia uno stato di Buddità ‘assoluta’, che è insuperabile. Il termine Sanscrito è ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ (Pali: anuttara Samma sambodhi), che letteralmente significa ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Ci sono riferimenti specifici allo stato di ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ nella letteratura canonica buddista (come nel Astasāhasrikā Prajnaparamita Sutra della collezione di Prajñāpāramitā), ma il termine viene impiegato principalmente per insegnare il principio che, anche quando un individuo raggiunge un alto livello di realizzazione spirituale, ci sono inevitabilmente ancora sottili livelli di ignoranza che devono essere trascesi. Lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è inteso come uno stato che non richiede alcuno sforzo intenzionale o ‘pratica’ da parte del praticante spirituale.

Il nostro punto di vista sui vari livelli di risveglio spirituale e sullo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è diverso da quello di molti studiosi e insegnanti buddisti. Accettiamo che ci siano diversi livelli di risveglio spirituale, ma l’etichettatura di questi Stati non è così facile come molti pensano. Ogni praticante spirituale è un individuo, e il suo cammino spirituale è unico. Pertanto, anche se ci sono alcuni ‘segnali’ comuni che i praticanti spirituali possono incontrare, è difficile (e non è saggio) assegnare un’etichetta al livello di risveglio spirituale di una persona. Infatti, per il praticante spirituale diligente, lo sviluppo spirituale avviene (o dovrebbe avvenire) ogni momento di ogni giorno. Di conseguenza, sarà improbabile che il livello di realizzazione di un individuo al mattino sarà come quello della sera.

Il nostro punto di vista differisce ancora di più dall’opinione diffusa per quanto riguarda lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Accettiamo che ci sia uno stato di Buddità, in cui tutte le forme di sofferenza sono trascese e nella quale la consapevolezza spirituale è autosufficiente (cioè, non richiede sforzo intenzionale). Accettiamo anche che, arrivando allo stato di Buddità, un essere spirituale penetra completamente – e rimane o resta come – la ‘matrice’ alla base dell’universo. Tuttavia, non accettiamo che ci sia qualcosa come un ‘assoluto’ livello di risveglio spirituale. Se lo stato di Buddità riflette il limite superiore di consapevolezza spirituale, allora la logica impone che ci debba essere anche un limite inferiore di consapevolezza spirituale – uno stato di ignoranza spirituale assoluta. Tuttavia, sulla base dell’osservazione delle forme di vita intorno a noi, sembra improbabile che ci sia un limite inferiore per l’ignoranza. Prendiamo, per esempio, l’odio tra gli esseri umani, che può consumare la mente di una persona a tal punto da nuocere e uccidere altri esseri umani, solo per odiare più intensamente se stessa e gli altri. Forse questo è ciò a cui Einstein si riferiva quando ha detto: “due cose sono infinite: l’universo e la stupidità umana; riguardo l’universo ho ancora dei dubbi”.

Quando si diventa una persona, come quella a cui abbiamo fatto riferimento in precedenza, ‘colui che entra nella corrente’, si diventa un bambino dei Buddha e si entra in un mondo completamente nuovo. Si lascia alle spalle una vita vissuta da soap opera e la sua esistenza – così come l’esistenza delle altre persone, assume un nuovo significato. Quando una persona entra nella corrente che porta alla liberazione, si apre il suo ‘occhio della saggezza’, la compassione si radica nel suo essere e comincia a emanare una presenza spirituale. Una cosa simile accade quando un praticante spirituale raggiunge alla fine lo stato di Buddità. Nasce in lui un modo completamente nuovo di essere e percepire. Infatti, la radice sanscrita della parola Buddha è ‘Budh’, che significa letteralmente,  ‘svegliarsi’ o ‘essere risvegliato’ a un nuovo modo di vedere.

Quando un essere si risveglia alla Buddità, non significa che abbia terminato il suo cammino spirituale. Piuttosto, è appena iniziato. Un Buddha ha una quantità inimmaginabile di saggezza e compassione a sua disposizione, ma deve imparare ad applicare quella saggezza, come crescere con essa, e come trascenderla. Lo stato di Buddità è uno stato dinamico; un Buddha è in continua evoluzione. Di conseguenza, ci sono giovani Buddha, Buddha maturi e Buddha antichi. Ci sono Buddha che stanno imparando a sfruttare e plasmare l’energia dell’universo e come applicarla al meglio al fine di aiutare gli esseri che soffrono. Ci sono anche Buddha che sono primordiali, che sono ‘maestri della realtà’ e che ‘hanno fatto nascere’ altri esseri illuminati.

Cercate di non ridurre lo sviluppo spirituale in un sistema di limiti, livelli ed etichette. Così come esistono molti Buddha, ci sono numerosi diversi livelli di Buddità. Quanto è stimolante il fatto che non esista un limite superiore a quanto la mente possa espandersi e risvegliarsi. Quanto è bello che il cammino spirituale continui per l’eternità. Quanto è incredibile che all’interno di ogni essere senziente, esista la possibilità di raggiungere la Buddità, e poi andare oltre.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection

Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection

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We were recently invited to write a paper for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation. Our contribution (which was co-authored with our friend and colleague Professor Mark Griffiths) was entitled ‘Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection’. In light of the substantial growth of scientific and public interest into the health-related applications of mindfulness, our paper discussed whether the scientific evidence for mindfulness-based interventions actually merits their growing popularity amongst mental health practitioners, scientists, and the public more generally. We concluded that mindfulness-based interventions have the potential to play an important role in mental health treatment settings. However, due to the rapidity at which mindfulness has been taken out of its traditional Buddhist setting, and what is possibly evidence of media and/or scientific hype concerning the effectiveness of mindfulness, we recommended that future research should seek to:

  1. Establish whether the benefits of participating in mindfulness-based interventions are maintained over periods of years rather than just months.
  2. Examine whether there are any risks or unwanted consequences associated with participating in mindfulness-based interventions.
  3. Make sure that research findings are not influenced by what is perhaps best described as a form of ‘intervention effect’. Rather than behavioural and psychological changes arising from actually practising mindful awareness, it is possible that some of the positive outcomes observed by researchers actually reflect a belief amongst participants that they are receiving a very popular and ‘proven’ therapeutic or ‘spiritual’ technique. In other words, rather than mindfulness practice per se leading to health improvements, one of the reasons that mindfulness-based interventions are effective might be due to participants’ expectations, and their belief that mindfulness works.
  4. Investigate the Buddhist position that sustainable improvements to mental and spiritual health typically require consistent daily mindfulness practice over a period of many years (i.e., they do not arise after attendance at just eight two-hour classes with some self-practice in between).

The full reference for the article is shown below, and the article can be downloaded (free of charge) from here: Mindfulness_A critical reflection 2015

Article Reference: Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Mindfulness in Mental Health: A Critical Reflection. Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation, 1(1), 102.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Should Mindfulness be Taught to the Military?

Should Mindfulness be Taught to the Military?

military

A few months ago, we wrote a post on whether mindfulness should be used in military (and business) settings?  As we mentioned in our earlier post, the issue of using mindfulness in military settings is a reasonably hot topic at the moment because although some people – including ourselves – believe that there is no reason why mindfulness should not be taught to military or business personnel, others are of the view that because mindfulness was originally taught as a means of fostering peace and spiritual awakening, it is inappropriate to teach mindfulness to the armed forces. Since writing the above post, we have received a few emails/comments from people disagreeing with or requesting additional clarification on some of the arguments that we made. Thus, in today’s post, we revisit this topic and provide five reasons why – in our opinion – teaching mindfulness to military personnel is in keeping with Buddhist values and ideals.

  1. The Dharma is for everybody: The Buddhist teachings (known as the Dharma) – which include teachings on mindfulness – are universal in their application. It does not matter if a person is rich or poor, good or bad, famous or obscure, young or old, male or female, or if they purport not to have an interest in matters of a spiritual nature – the Dharma is available for everybody to benefit from. Indeed, it is not for anybody – not even the Buddha – to decide which people should be denied the spiritual teachings and which people should receive them. Each person must make that choice on an individual basis and, really and truly, the only way they can make an informed decision about whether a particular form of spiritual practice is right for them, is if they have the opportunity to try it first. Therefore, introducing military personnel to the mindfulness teachings brings people working in military settings into contact with the Dharma and gives them the opportunity to make an informed decision as to whether mindfulness is a practice they would like to integrate into their lives. This is a good thing.
  2. The Dharma is 100% effective for transforming suffering: The Buddhist teachings are 100% effective for uprooting the causes of suffering and for cultivating wisdom. Indeed, ithas been said by Buddhist teachers of the past that if just one word of the Buddha’s wisdom is correctly put into practice, then lasting benefit will ensue. In other words, if the Buddhist teachings – in whatever form they mayappear – are correctly taught and correctly practiced, then there is only one outcome for the practitioner – an increase in wisdom, compassion, and awareness. In the event that such qualities do not begin to manifest in theindividual, this means that either the teachings are not being taught correctly, or they are not being practiced in the right way.Thus, if a person is not being taught correctly or is not practising the Dharma properly, then no meaningful benefit will arise from their practice and they cannot be called authentic Dharma or authentic mindfulness practitioners. Therefore, as we discussed in our original post on mindfulness and the military, we don’t need to be worried about people potentially misusing the insight or abilities they accrue when practicing the Buddhist teachings – it simply can’t happen. Perhaps a better way of understanding this principle is to think of the Buddhist teachings – including the mindfulness teachings – as having a natural protection or defence mechanism. If a person comes into contact with the Dharma who is not ready to receive the teachings or who intends to use them for selfish or negative purposes, their wrong intention will prevent the teachings from taking root within their being. In fact, all that they will receive will be a theoretical and superficial account of the teachings – and even this won’t be properly understood. Of course, one might argue that with this newly-accumulated theoretical knowledge military personnel may play a part in passing on wrong information or a watered-down version of the Buddhist teachings from one person to another. However, given that there are a lot of (so-called) Buddhist and mindfulness teachers already doing this, then we don’t see why the military should be targeted for criticism over and above anybody else.
  3. Wise and compassionate military leaders are better than mindless ones: In one of the sets of feedback that we received on our original post on this subject, a person commented that “My take is that they [people in the military] should resign and renounce their military affiliations.” Although there is nothing greater we would like than to live in a world where there is no need for countries to have armed forces, unfortunately, this is not the world wecurrently live in. Indeed, if a country decided to disband its armed forces, then because of peoples’ greed and ignorance, thelikelyhood is that the country in question would be subject to invasion from other armed forces, attacks from terrorist groups, and/or a greater amount of civil unrest and rioting. Therefore, if we are going to teach the Dharma, then we have to do so in a way that is realistic, up-to-date, and relevant to the world that we live in. To propose that anybody in the military who wants to live an ethically and morally wholesome life (which in most countries probably includes the overwhelming majority of military personnel) simply resigns their post is not a realistic suggestion and would jeopardise the safety and wellbeing of countless people across the globe.Therefore, a much more pragmatic solution is to have soldiers and military leaders that practice spiritual development and who execute their role with wisdom and loving-kindness for all beings. In fact, if all military personnel who aspire to live a good life and to be good world citizens were to resign from the military, then we think there would be much more conflict and acts of military brutality than there already are. To explain this idea in a different way, we would like to share with you a discussion we had this morning with a young Sri Lankan man who has been assigned by the community we are staying with at the moment to use a sling shot to keep the crows away from washing and feeding in the clean water. We noticed the young man was looking very sad and so we decided to ask him what was upsetting him. He responded by saying that he was upset because the job he had been assigned meant that he could not uphold his Buddhist vows because he was constantly firing stones at the passing crows. We asked the young man how many crows he had actually hit since he took up his post. He said that to his knowledge, he hadn’t actually hit a single crow because he always aims for roof tops or for a branch of a tree so that the birds fly away when they hear the noise. We then asked the man if everybody assigned to do this task does the same thing as him or if some people actually try to hit the birds. The young man responded by explaining that there are some young men in the village who take great pleasure in hitting the crows and who even have competitions with each other to see who can hit or kill the most birds in one day. After hearing this we suggested to the young man that he was actually conducting his role with great compassion and wisdom because on the one hand, he was performing his job effectively by protecting the water from dirt and disease, but at the same time he was preventing other people from causing harm to sentient beings. On hearing this the young man gave the most beautiful smile and happiness returned to his face.In a world where there is lots of greed, negativity and extreme views, it seems that some kind of armed force is essential for acting as a deterrent and for maintaining a relative amount of peace and wellbeing. However, it is definitely possible for military leaders to apply wisdom and compassion in the way in which they conduct their roles and to do their best to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts. For such military leaders, the use of weaponry would be kept to an absolute minimum and weaponry would be used only after all other options had been exhausted. You see, it is all very well saying that under no circumstances must a person take another person’s life, but from time to time situations arise that mean such an approach is not realistic. One obvious example would be eliminating the threat caused by a terrorist who was about to set off a bomb in order to cause harm to hundreds of people. In our opinion, if there was no way to capture and disarm the terrorist without causing them harm, then in the interests of preserving life, it would be acceptable and in keeping with Buddhist values to take defensive action in order to eliminate the threat to many others. The difference is that the mindful or Buddhist practitioner would do so with the greatest amount of love and compassion for the terrorist and would understand that it is ignorance that has led them to such extremist behaviour.
  4. Military personnel often make good Dharma practitioners: Some of the most sincere mindfulness/Dharma practitioners that we have come across have been people with a military background. We are not 100% sure why some people with a military background take very well to the practice of mindfulness but we believe individuals that have completed military service in hostile areas seem to better understand just how harsh and unpredictable life can be. The process of having first-hand experience of death and suffering can sometimes jolt a person out of selfishness and of taking everything for granted. Indeed, here in the West, most people enjoy a privileged lifestyle and do not have to worry about finding food, shelter, or medicine. Despite this, many people in developed countries take their situation for granted and spend all of their time complaining about things or being bigoted and passing judgement on others. Depending on the person and on where they have completed active service, working in the armed forces can sometimes shake a person out of this selfish attitude and cause them to become disillusioned with the soap opera that a large number of civilians choose to adopt as their way of life.
  5. Research supports the use of mindfulness for military personnel: The use of mindfulness in military settings is supported by two different areas of mindfulness research (see further reading list below for examples of studies). The first area is research demonstrating that mindfulness actually helps people to become more compassionate (both for themselves and for others) and to grow in spiritual insight. The second area is research that has been specifically conducted with military personnel and demonstrates that mindfulness both prevents and helps individuals recover from psychological distress.

We hope the above helps to clarify why we cautiously advocate the responsible integration of mindfulness into military settings. However, we appreciate that this is quite a sensitive topic and that not everybody will share our view.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Le, T. N. (2014). Mindfulness-Based Adventure Camp for military youth. Journal of Extension, 52, Article No. 2FEA5.

Rice, V., Boykin, G., Jeter, A., Villarreal, J., Overby, C., & Alfred, P. (2013). The Relationship between mindfulness and resiliency among active duty service members and military veterans. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 57, 11387-1391.

Stanley, E.A., Schaldach, J. M., Kiyonaga, A., & Jha, A. P. (2011).  Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training: A case study of a high-stress predeployment military cohort. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 18, 566-576.

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, 53, 849-863.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Managers’ experiences of Meditation Awareness Training. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0334-y.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation in psychotherapy. Thresholds: Quarterly Journal of the Association for Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counselling (A Journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), Spring Issue, 9-12.

Trousselard, M., Steiler, D., Claverie, D., & Canini, F. (2012). Relationship between mindfulness and psychological adjustment in soldiers according to their confrontation with repeated deployments and stressors. Psychology, 3, 100-115.

Williams, M. J., McManus, F., Muse, K., & Williams, J. M. (2011). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for severe health anxiety (hypochondriasis): An interpretative phenomenological analysis of patients’ experiences. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 50, 379-97.

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.

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Concentration

      Given that Buddhahood is frequently described as a state of limitless compassion that is completely free of negative and afflictive emotions, it might seem strange that we have decided to write a post addressing the question of whether it is possible for a Buddha to become angry. However, believe it or not, the answer to this question is not a straightforward ‘no’. In today’s post, we begin by exploring some Buddhist and psychological perspectives on anger and then provide our view on the above question.

Within Buddhism, in addition to attachment and ignorance, anger is known as one of the three root poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Anger can be thought of as a form of aversion towards another person, situation, or even ourselves. Because we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that we don’t like or that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing or sense of self, we quickly want to remove or destroy it so that things return to normal. Basically, anger manifests because we are trying to keep things orderly and under control – people or situations that threaten to disturb or interfere with the world that we have created for ourselves make us feel angry and afraid.

Although in the Buddhist teachings anger is often described as a form of aversion, it can actually also be thought of as a form of attachment. Indeed, the reason we have aversion towards a particular situation is because we have allowed ourselves to become attached to what we deem to represent the ‘opposite’ of that situation. For example, imagine that for some time everything was cushy at work and things were going really well with the career. But then along comes a work colleague who makes us angry and who starts to create problems – it seems that they deliberately go out of their way to cause us trouble. However, if we stop and think about it, the anger and aversion that we experience arises because we have become attached to the idea of everything being cushy and comfortable at work – the perfect environment where we will always be recognised and rewarded for our efforts and where we can swiftly move up the career ladder.

If we didn’t harbour attachments or have unrealistic ideas in the first place, then we wouldn’t become so angry when our plans and ideas are disrupted. Buddhism asserts that a person’s propensity for anger is closely associated with how much attachment they harbour. A person that becomes very attached to their possessions – which in some people’s minds can also include family members, partners, and friends – is likely to be quick to anger. In a paper that we recently published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we defined the Buddhist notion of 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”. As demonstrated by our definition, attachment takes on a very different meaning in Buddhism compared to its use in Western psychology where attachment (e.g., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over mental health problems.

In the same way that the Buddhist root poisons of attachment and anger (or aversion) are closely related to each other, they are also both closely related to the other root poison that we mentioned – ignorance. Ignorance is described as one of the three root poisons, but it is actually the primary cause of each of the other poisons and of suffering more generally. Ignorance in the context that we are discussing it here refers to the extent to which a person views themselves as an independently or inherently-existing entity. The more a person is caught up in themselves and thinks that they possess a definite self, the more ignorant they become – and the larger their ego inflates itself. Thus, aversion or anger is a direct result of attachment, and attachment is a direct result of ignorance or ego.

When a person becomes angry, it basically means that the ego-monkey that we talked about in our last post has decided to raise its head. Although ego underpins all of our emotions and behaviours, this is particularly the case when anger is ravaging the mind. In fact, you only have to look at an angry person and it is as though their ego is trying to burst through their skin. We touched on this in our post on the Top Five Beauty Tips for Men and Women where we made reference to research demonstrating that anger is associated with physiological responses such as contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions.

Anger has a tendency to overrun the mind and body and it is generally accepted by Western psychologists that anger can distort a person’s perspective of a situation and reduce their ability to make wise decisions. As we discussed in a paper that we published in the psychology journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour, in addition to causing people to say and do unpleasant things, anger can also cause people to behave irrationally. For example, a few years ago we were guiding a meditation retreat in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales where one of the participants was a middle-aged lady who was very angry because she couldn’t get her mind to relax. Part way through one of the meditations, it became apparent that one of the male participants in the group was a ‘breather’. ‘Breathers’ are those people that breathe really deeply and loudly during meditation so that everybody else can hear them and so that everybody knows they are ‘serious’ about their practice. Anyway, about half way through this particular meditation session, it just became too much for the lady who broke her silence and in an angry voice suddenly shouted out ‘stop breathing’!

The point we have been trying to make above is that anger is a major obstacle to happiness and spiritual development. It is a sign that a person’s ego is very much in tact – which from the point of view of the meditation or spiritual practitioner – means that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. As a general rule, the smaller the degree to which a spiritual practitioner’s thoughts, words, or actions are influenced by ego (and therefore anger), the closer they are to attaining Buddhahood. However, whilst this general rule applies for practically all stages of the spiritual practitioner’s journey, it no longer applies when they have awoken to full Buddhahood.

For a fully enlightened Buddha, the moment a thought or feeling arises in their mind, it is immediately liberated. The Buddhas perceive clearly that all phenomena – including those of a psychological nature – are absent of an intrinsically—existing self. They see that everything that manifests has no more substance than a mental projection or a dream. As it says in the heart sutra, the Buddhas understand that form (i.e., phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form. The Buddhas are not bound by concepts such as self and other, past and future (i.e., time), or here and there (i.e., space). Consequently, their mind is unlimited – it is free of any form of attachment or aversion.

This ability of Buddhas to never become attached to physical or mental objects means that they are free to manifest whatever feelings might be most skilful and compassionate within a given situation. In effect, the Buddhas have uprooted the causes of negative emotions to such an extent, that they are now free to use so-called ‘negative emotions’ as they see fit. Ultimately, the Buddhas are 100% focussed on liberating other beings from suffering. They are overflowing with unconditional kindness, compassion, and patience, but if it is a blast of anger that is required to jolt a person to start truly practicing spiritual development, then it will be duly administered. This is very different than pretending to be angry (e.g., as a parent might do) in order to communicate feelings of disapproval towards another person. The type of anger that we are referring to here is very real – it is primordial anger but there is absolutely no ego mixed in with it. Due to the rawness of this anger and the fact that it is not tainted by ego, it enters deeply and directly into the recipient’s mind and gives them a clear choice in terms of embracing or rejecting the Dharma (truth/teachings).

There are quite a number of examples of enlightened beings using this primordial anger to benefit others. Probably the best known example amongst Westerners is that of Jesus Christ when he over-turned the tables and started throwing the traders out of the temple. Buddhist practitioners might have heard about the 11th century Tibetan spiritual adept Marpa who would even administer a physical beating where he felt it would be of some long-term benefit. Another reasonably well-known and much more recent example is Lama Yeshe who died in 1984 – there are reports that he once got hold of a pick-pocket (i.e., a thief) and gave them a right good shaking in order to make them see sense. There are also examples of Zen teachers becoming angry with their students and in some cases this actually prompted an intuitive leap or a sudden flash of realisation.

For the everyday meditation practitioner such as you and us, anger can make it almost impossible to stabilise the mind and it can significantly disrupt a persons’ spiritual progress. Consequently, every effort should be made to practice patience and kindness and to never act out of anger. However, for the fully enlightened Buddhas, although their very being overflows with joy, wisdom, and compassion, it does seem that they can and do use primordial anger as a very skilful and effective means of teaching. This is quite a dangerous subject to write about because some meditation practitioners or teachers could misinterpret what we are saying and start believing that it is acceptable to be angry. However, given that there are reports of Buddhas exhibiting anger, then it seems appropriate to offer an explanation as to why this might be. Another reason for writing this post is because in the event you are one of those handful of people fortunate enough to meet a fully-enlightened teacher – you’ll be less likely to become all haughty and self-righteous if they decide to give you verbal kick-up the backside!

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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

Day, A. (2009). Offender emotion and self-regulation: Implications for offender rehabilitation programming. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 119-130.

Huang Po. (1982). The Zen teaching of Huang Po: On the transmission of the mind. (Blofeld, J., Trans.) New York: Grove Press.

Novaco, R. W. (2007). Anger Dysregulation. In T. A. Cavell, & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.), Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence (pp. 3-54). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending.Corrections Today: Journal of the American Correctional Association, March/April, 48-51.

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.

Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14, 396-401.