The Meditation of Life
Without exception, everything that has happened in your life, every choice you have made, has brought you to where you are now. And where are you now? You are reading this blog post. Depending on your frame of mind, you will engage with the words in this post to a greater or lesser extent. This blog post, as well as every other experience and encounter you have ever had, will be a causal factor in terms of bringing you into contact with all of your future experiences. The process of accumulating experiences that each influence who we are and what we do, is called life. Perhaps we can think of life as a big snowball rolling down a hill. The snowball grows and accumulates snow as it rolls, and this accumulation – as well as the gradient and texture of the terrain – keeps causing the snowball’s weight, size, shape, velocity, and direction, to change.
If a person was to stop the snowball and look at it, they might only see a big ball of snow that they want to play with or take photographs of. Alternatively, if they have sufficient insight, they might see the snowball as the product of the journey it has undertaken. In this case, when they look at the snowball, they will see how it has grown, the choices it has made, the terrain and landscape it has passed through, and the different bumps and jumps it encountered along the way. The same applies when we look at ourselves and other people. If we have sufficient skill and insight, when we meet somebody we can glean understanding into the journey they have undertaken. We can see how they have grown, what motivates them, what scars they have accumulated, and whether they live only for themselves or for the betterment of humanity. Furthermore, based on the trajectory of their choices and journey thus far, we might be able to estimate the direction that they will go in next.
The difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that when the skilled meditator looks at a person, situation, or object, they see the whole story. They see that a person or object is comprised of its past, present, and future. If we can understand the trajectory that a person is travelling on, it means we are better able to decide what intervention, if any, might be possible to help shift that trajectory into one that will bring them wisdom and happiness.
Another difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that the skilled meditator doesn’t actually practise meditation. To practise meditation implies that a person tries to be mindful or regularly sits in meditation in order to cultivate mental tranquillity or clarity. However, the truth is that whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, we are all partaking in a meditation. This mediation is called life. Life brings us into contact with new experiences each moment of every day. These experiences are pregnant with wisdom. They are our teacher, if we want them to be. This applies to seemingly boring situations just as much as it does to circumstances that appear to be out of the ordinary or that we find challenging.
In other words, we don’t need to strain ourselves in meditation to look for spiritual insights because they are all around us. Everything we do, every sound we hear, every person we meet, are opportunities to grow and encounter spiritual insight. All we have to do is open our eyes, heart, and mind. Don’t you see that you have been meditating since before the moment you were born? As soon as we realise we are partaking in a meditation, we start to wake up and see how each moment of our lives connects to, and influences, the next. Moreover, we encounter the complex web of the universe and begin to see how each moment of our lives connects to each moment of the life of every other living and non-living entity.
Meditation isn’t about sitting with our legs crossed and working ourselves into a state of calm. Rather, it is the art of fully experiencing every aspect of normal daily living and using it as the raw material to foster spiritual awakening. Meditation is both joyful and painful. There is nothing mystical about meditation. It is the process of allowing life to be our teacher. Eating a piece of toast is our teacher. Getting drenched by the rain is our teacher. Missing the bus is our teacher. Being cheated out of money is our teacher. Making love is our teacher. Taking a dump is our teacher. The death of a loved one is our teacher. Winning is our teacher. Losing is our teacher. Getting old is our teacher. Meditation is being awake to what is unfolding in front of us and having the courage to embrace life as the training ground for cultivating our full potential for love and wisdom.
Dr Edo Shonin & Dr William Van Gordon
Gone, all is gone.
Nothing to fight for.
No more doing.
No more being.
The path has been discarded.
How sublime to abide in nothingness.
Seeing beyond the reach of time and space.
Inexpressible in words.
Ah, such profound peace.
But all is not as it should be.
A strange wind blows.
A dark shadow encroaches.
Smothering being’s hearts.
Gathering the energy of the universe.
I shall turn the Wheel of Truth.
The shadow may encroach no further.
Not on my watch. Not on my watch.
Blessed by the wisdom of my forefathers.
I shall defeat all inner and outer obstacles.
Brilliant white light will shine throughout space and time.
Dispelling ignorance and hatred.
The harvest will be painfully small.
Most will fall and drown.
But some will inhale the breath of life.
Come now, there is much to do.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon
The following post is from a friend in Thailand. Roughly, the words translate as: ‘If you let go, time will heal’. This is sound advice. However, better still is not to hold on in the first place! This is the path of meditation.
Condivido il seguente post da un’amica in Thailandia. Grossomodo, le parole si traducono come: ‘Se si lascia andare le cose, con il tempo tutte le cose possano guarire’. Questo è un consiglio sano. Tuttavia, Forse è meglio non trattenere delle cose già dall’inizio! Questo è il percorso della meditazione.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon
The words ‘know thyself’ appear frequently in the work of the Greek philosopher Plato and have been used by writers and philosophers for thousands of years. But what does it mean to know oneself, why is it important, and how can a person acquire such knowledge?
We suspect that some people would be uncomfortable, or even offended, by the suggestion that they don’t know themselves. We spend 24 hours a day in our own company and while it can sometimes be difficult to interpret other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, we can’t use this excuse when it comes to ourselves. We have direct access to our inner psychological world and in theory, we are in an ideal position to cultivate an in-depth understanding of who we are.
However, the truth is that many people are not aware of the events unfolding in their mind. At any one moment, a vast number of psychological processes are happening inside them, but at best, they are only partially aware of a small number of these. Consequently, their behaviours are the automated product of a complex – and sometimes competing – assortment of impulses, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and memories. Rather than consciously allowing these psychological processes to influence their choices, they are effectively ‘processed’ by them. Instead of collaborating with the mind and using it as a tool, they find themselves ‘lived’ by the mind.
Changing this habit is easier said than done but there are some remits of human endeavour that may be able to assist us. In particular, we can look to modern science in order to gain insight into how we can develop a better understanding of ourselves. In order to acquire knowledge about a given phenomenon, scientists engage in the process of observation. This observation takes on many forms. It can involve observing phenomena in their natural state or it can involve observing how phenomena behave under a given set of experimental conditions. However, either way, careful observation is a crucial part of scientific enquiry and if we adopt the same principle in order to gain insight into ourselves, it is likely that our journey of ‘inner scientific enquiry’ will bear fruit.
By stepping back and observing our inner psychological world, a number of ‘truths’ about ourselves become apparent. Firstly, given that it is possible – particularly when using meditation – to observe our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, we must conclude that we are something more than these psychological processes. Secondly, we must also conclude that there exists a part of us that can ‘consciously observe’ our own mind. As we continue to engage in the process of inner observation, this ‘conscious observer’ part of us steadily grows, such that it becomes easier to maintain concentration and observe ourselves for longer periods of time.
A third truth that we may come to understand about ourselves is that the closer we observe, the harder it becomes to establish exactly who and what we are. The reason for this is that we don’t exist as standalone or isolated entities. We exist in reliance upon all other phenomena in the universe. We breathe in the out-breath of every other living being. When we drink a glass of water, we are effectively drinking rivers, clouds, and oceans. Our visit to the bathroom produces food for the plants and trees. Being embraced by a loved one can change a bad day into a good one, and a single heartfelt smile can completely change another person’s life.
In order to truly know ourselves, we have to fundamentally change our ideas of who we think we are and of how we think we exist. In effect, in order to find ourselves, we have to let go of ourselves. When we stop thinking in terms of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’, we start to see the world differently. We start to experience that the boundaries between ourselves and other phenomena become blurred. It becomes difficult to determine where the ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins. We adopt a much looser definition of ‘self’ yet somewhat paradoxically, we start to understand more about who and what we are.
Letting go of self really means that we are embracing the universe. The universe has existed for billions of years and it contains lots of knowledge. It contains the knowledge of creation, existence, and dissolution. We are an indispensable part of the universe and it relies upon us just as much as we rely upon it. By exploring the inner universe of our mind, we can weaken – or even remove completely – the boundary that we think exists between our inner psychological world and the external physical world. In other words, our practice of inner scientific enquiry and observation can, in time, cause our inner and outer worlds to collide. When this happens, we find ourselves flooded with the knowledge of the universe and the universe becomes flooded with the knowledge of our mind.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
The past is history and no longer exists. The future never arrives. Life can only be experienced in the present moment. Mindfulness involves focussing awareness on the present moment and paying attention, in real-time terms, to psychological and sensory processes. Mindfulness derives from Buddhist practice where it is deemed to constitute a form of spiritual training. In Buddhism, mindfulness comprises one small part of the path to spiritual awakening.
As Buddhist teachers, we have practiced mindfulness for most of our adult lives. However, about four years ago, we decided to commence a programme of empirical research with the objective of helping to improve scientific understanding of mindfulness and related contemplative techniques. The decision to do this was influenced by our growing concern that the rate at which mindfulness is being assimilated by academia (and Western society more generally) means that some researchers, scholars, and Buddhist teachers have overlooked the need to (i) consolidate and replicate research findings, (ii) clarify whether mindfulness (i.e., as it is used in contemporary mindfulness-based interventions) continues to bear any resemblance to the Buddhist model of mindfulness, (iii) investigate potential harmful effects of mindfulness, (iv) control for a ‘popularity effect’ in mindfulness intervention studies, (v) formulate comprehensive training and supervision curricula – that are informed by the traditional meditation literature – for secular mindfulness instructors, and (vi) investigate the Buddhist position that mindfulness has limited utility when isolated from the supporting meditative and spiritual techniques that would traditionally accompany it.
Within the last four years, we have published (or submitted for publication) – mostly as first authors – over 80 academic papers specifically relating to mindfulness and related contemplative techniques (i.e., peer-reviewed papers, professional/practitioner journal papers, academic book chapters, and books [over 230 publications within the last 4 years if one counts peer-reviewed papers on subjects not directly related to mindfulness, conference papers, blog posts, etc.]). Today’s post provides a brief summary of findings from some of our key academic papers relating to mindfulness and outlines their implications for the field of mindfulness research and practice (see further reading list below for details of specific papers referred to in this post).
Second-Generation Mindfulness-Based Interventions
In order to address some of the aforementioned issues relating to mindfulness, an important part of our research has explored the applications of a newly-developed second generation of mindfulness-based intervention (SG-MBIs). SG-MBIs frame mindfulness as a spiritual or psycho-spiritual practice and employ a greater range of meditative techniques compared to first-generation mindfulness-based interventions (FG-MBIs). More specifically, a part of our empirical work has focussed on assessing the efficacy, versatility, and flexibility of an eight-week secular SG-MBI known as Meditation Awareness Training (MAT). MAT has been the subject of empirical investigation since 2010 and to our knowledge, it represents the first intervention meeting all the criteria of a SG-MBI to be formally evaluated in research settings.
Findings from our research show that SG-MBIs (and more specifically MAT) may have a role in the treatment of a range of health-related disorders including fibromyalgia syndrome, work addiction, sex addiction, problem gambling, schizophrenia, sleep disturbance, stress, anxiety, and depression. Our published research findings also indicate that MAT can lead to improvements in (for example) job performance, goal attainment, decision-making competency, positive affect, negative affect, dispositional mindfulness, civic engagement, non-attachment (to self and symptoms), and job satisfaction.
In addition to helping to prompt an international programme of empirical investigation into SG-MBIs (i.e., as a means of addressing some of the limitations of FG-MBIs), other specific examples of how our research has helped to advance scientific understanding are as follows:
Findings from our research need to be considered in light of their limitations that are discussed in detail in the various papers referred to in this post (see further reading list below). However, a more general limitation of our research is that although SG-MBIs have been presented as a means of addressing some of the limitations of FG-MBIs, our research findings do not allow direct comparisons to be drawn as to the relative effectiveness of FG- versus SG-MBIs. Accurately drawing such conclusions would require the conducting of head-to-head comparison studies in which the FG- and SG-MBI protocols are delivered under identical research conditions (although it is acknowledged that effect size calculations as part of rigorously conducted meta-analytical studies could provide an approximation of relative effectiveness). Thus, our research could be criticised for relying too heavily on supposition as to the necessity for SG-MBIs.
Implications and Future Directions
Notwithstanding the lack of studies directly comparing FG-MBIs with SG-MBIs, SG-MBIs constitute an important development in mindfulness research and practice because, at the very least, they provide service-users—including those interested in (or belonging to) Eastern contemplative traditions—with an intervention that more closely follows a traditional (but secular) approach to mindfulness practice. Furthermore, it may be that FG-MBIs and SG-MBIs can co-exist or complement each other because they are based on different delineations of mindfulness and employ distinct treatment models.
Findings from our (and others’) research indicate that SG-MBIs may have applications for treating a diverse-range of health disorders (as well as applications in other applied settings such as the workplace). It appears that the more spiritual approach embodied by SG-MBIs plays an important role in terms of their therapeutic efficacy. This is significant because FG-MBIs have generally been reluctant to acknowledge any spiritual affiliation and have largely presented mindfulness as an exclusively psychological technique. There are, no doubt, important psychological and attentional aspects to mindfulness and it is correct to identify and evaluate these under research conditions. However, there can reach a point where the conceptual and empirical reductionism of mindfulness means that its use in Western research and applied settings fails to capture the essence of what mindfulness was traditionally intended to embody. Moving forward, a key challenge for the scientific community will be to embrace the need to undertake programmes of empirical investigation to explore the possibility that some of the most active ingredients of mindfulness operate on the metaphysical rather than purely the psychological or biological plane.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
Our immediate response to the question of whether Buddhists should celebrate Christmas is: ‘if they feel like it’. However, we suspect that some readers might be looking for a fuller account of our view on this matter. Therefore, here are five reasons why we feel it is appropriate for Buddhists to celebrate Christmas if they feel like doing so:
Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
Note: The following post was written with Professor Mark Griffiths and has recently been published on PsychCentral. The full reference is: Van Gordon, W., Shonin., E., & Griffiths, MD. The Four Types of Psychologist: Ineffective, Satisfactory, Gifted, and Gone Beyond. Psych Central. Available at: http://pro.psychcentral.com/the-four-types-of-psychologist-ineffective-satisfactory-gifted-and-gone-beyond/0016491.html
Most introductory books on psychology inform readers that there are many different types of psychologist such as clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, developmental psychologists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologist, health psychologists, occupational psychologists, sports psychologists, counselling psychologists, neuropsychologists and research psychologists. Clearly there are many other types of psychologist in addition to the list above, and there are also numerous sub-types of psychologist that specialise in a specific area within one of the aforementioned domains.
In this article, we deviate from the traditional model of categorising psychologists according to work setting and/or study perspective, and suggest a new schema that focusses on the underlying qualities and competencies of the psychologist. Our approach is not intended to supplant the aforementioned traditional categorisations. Rather, it is solely intended as ‘food for thought’ by suggesting a method of categorisation that emphasises the core skills and values that are common to the job description of all psychologists (i.e., irrespective of whether they work in clinical, occupational, or developmental settings, or adhere to a specific psychological perspective, etc.). Consequently, we have based our schema on the assumption that regardless of the particular setting or perspective in which a psychologist specialises, there is an expectation that all psychologists – at least to a small degree – have an understanding of the scientific workings of the human mind and behaviour that exceeds that of the average lay person. Our method of categorisation is also founded on the assumption that, based on this greater degree of insight into the mind, all psychologists have a duty to guide others toward a better understanding of their own minds and behaviour, and where appropriate, toward improved levels of psychological wellbeing. Our ‘food for thought’ model comprises four categories of psychologist.
1. Ineffective Psychologists: The first class of psychologist are those that actually do more harm than good. There are various reasons why a psychologist might fall into this category, but in general it is due to shortfalls in either their attitude and/or ability. Therefore, it is possible that a psychologist in this category may sincerely wish to help a person, but they happen to be ineffective in this respect (i.e., they have the right attitude but lack the ability). Alternatively, a psychologist belonging to this category might be capable of treating people in a manner that helps them to grow as human beings, but they are uninterested in doing so (i.e., they have the necessary ability but the wrong attitude). One explanation of why a psychologist might have the required ability but inappropriate attitude is because the primary purpose for them performing their role is to accrue wealth or reputation.
2. Satisfactory Psychologists: Unlike the first class of psychologist, the second class of psychologist do more good than harm. However, although they create and spread more positivity than negativity, they are not what one might call ‘natural’ in the manner in which they embody and perform the role of a psychologist. In general, when this category of psychologist takes it upon themselves to better the psychological wellbeing of another human being, they are relying heavily on the various theories, models and practice guidelines that they have studied and trained in. These theories and practice techniques are normally evidence-based, and as such, they are generally of assistance to the other person. However, the fact that this second type of psychologist is heavily reliant upon processes and theories, means that there will always be a degree of disconnect between them and the individual they are interacting with. To a certain extent, this disconnect can be useful because it forms a protective barrier that the psychologist can work behind. However, it can also create an obstacle that prevents the ‘core’ of the psychologist’s being connecting and communicating with the ‘core’ of the other person’s being.
Put simply, it is rare for this type of psychologist that a meaningful ‘human-to-human’ interaction takes place, and as such, the person they are attempting to help invariably feels that they are the subject of a process or service. Consequently, an individual in the hands of this category of psychologist is unlikely to feel truly nourished or renewed. In summary, satisfactory psychologists do not embody and live the practice of psychology, and they are invariably unskilled at drawing upon and integrating their life experience into their work.
3. Gifted Psychologists: Individuals belonging to the third class of psychologist are much more natural at performing their role compared with those in the satisfactory category. In fact, one could probably go as far as to say that an individual belonging to this category of psychologist is ‘gifted’. They have an in-depth knowledge of all of the relevant psychological theories and techniques, but they understand that these models and processes are only tools. In fact, more often than not, this category of psychologist develops their own models and psychological techniques and they use these in their work and interactions with others. However, when they interact with other people, it is not entirely accurate to state that they are applying a theory or model. Rather, they are directly connecting with the individual on the ‘human-to-human’ level and they allow their intuition and instinct to guide how the dialogue and relationship evolves. The way in which they do this is still aligned with proven methods and practices, but they are not constrained by these methods and are spontaneous in the manner in which they help others.
Gifted psychologists have an in-depth understanding of their own mind, and as such, they understand well the mind and behaviours of others. When a patient, client, or another individual meets with a psychologist of this category, they immediately feel reassured due to knowing that they are in capable hands. This type of psychologist is confident, positive and energetic, and they inspire and invigorate people. They take the responsibility of being a psychologist and human being seriously and they are, by all accounts, impressive members of society.
4. Psychologists that have Gone Beyond: The fourth type of psychologist is an individual that has transcended all conventional criteria for evaluating the competency of a psychologist. Consequently, accurately determining whether a psychologist falls into this category requires skill, and it is easy to misinterpret their behaviour as evidence of them meeting the inclusion criteria for one of the three aforementioned outlined classifications. The rules that govern the decisions and strategies employed by ineffective, satisfactory, and gifted psychologists no longer apply here. Psychologists that have Gone Beyond are individuals that have studied and investigated their own mind and behaviour to such an extent, they are no longer limited by it. They understand fully that, much like a spider’s web that spreads out in multiple directions, they are deeply connected to all other life forms and phenomena in the universe. Their insight and wide-ranging perspective means that they have a much more expansive selection of tools, techniques, and materials at their disposition. Psychologists that have Gone Beyond know and make full use of the fact that each of their thoughts, words and actions will reverberate throughout space and time, and will eventually come to touch all other beings. In this manner, they understand that they are a sculptor, and they use the world and its inhabitants as their raw material.
Psychologists that have Gone Beyond are truly remarkable beings – everyone they meet becomes their ‘client’, but in the majority of instances, individuals are unaware of the fact they are being helped. Irrespective of who a psychologist of this category meets or interacts with (e.g., a supermarket cashier, neighbour, work colleague, partner, or even a person wishing them harm), they provide the individual with exactly what they need in order to help them evolve as a human being. Except for a small number of individuals that also want to become Psychologists that have Gone Beyond (and who are searching for a suitable mentor), the work of psychologists belonging to this category often goes unnoticed. However, they are not in any way demotivated by this and in the majority of instances, maintaining a low profile allows them to perform their role more effectively.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
Student: Are you busy?
S: May I talk with you for a short while?
S: I’ve been practising meditation for over ten years. I’ve studied the scriptures and received teachings from great meditation masters. I’ve written a book on meditation and I’ve even been awarded a PhD in Buddhist Studies. I’ve completed a three-year long retreat and practised advanced Mahāmudrā techniques. This was all before I came to practice with you, and I’ve followed your teachings for over 18 months now.
T: (remains silent)
S: It’s just that I feel ready to become a teacher myself. I feel I’m ready to leave and start teaching others.
T: (remains silent)
S: I want to know if I have your blessing to leave and teach?
T: You can leave whenever you want.
S: But do I have your blessing?
T: Why do you want to teach?
S: I want to help others. I want to tell them what I know and ease their suffering.
T: So, you came to me only to seek my approval for you to teach?
S: No, of course not. I came to follow your teachings. I came to learn from you.
T: But you haven’t followed my teachings. You haven’t learned a thing.
S: What do you mean?
T: You’ve wasted your time here.
S: But I’ve been so focussed on learning all there is to know.
T: That’s why you haven’t learned anything. Your head is full of useless information. You wish to learn only so you can impress yourself and others with how much you know. However, although you might be able to recite entire scriptures, you haven’t grasped their inner meaning.
S: What’s your point.
T: My point is that you’ve missed the point.
S: Your talking in riddles.
T: It’s not only during the last 18 months that you’ve wasted your time. You say that you’ve been practising meditation for ten years, but you don’t have ten years’ meditation experience. You have one years’ experience ten times. You haven’t continued to grow and to learn. This isn’t the same as having ten years’ experience.
S: Well, you’re not holding back with your words. In fact, I’m offended by what you’ve said.
T: You need to start from the beginning. You need to let go of what you think you know and relearn the foundation practices.
S: And how long will that take? When, in your so-called wise opinion, will I be ready to become a teacher in my own right?
T: When you no longer have the desire to become a teacher?
S: That doesn’t make sense. Why do you always talk in riddles?
T: It’s not a riddle.
S: You’re saying that I should abandon my wish to help others by teaching them the path. Isn’t this what you have been teaching us to do all along?
T: I am saying that you should abandon your ego.
S: But wanting to help others is an act of selflessness. How can there be ego involved?
T: You’re full of ego. You’re full of shit. Your words carry no weight because you don’t have the experience to back them up. When I talk about people corrupting the teachings, I’m talking about people like you. Your entire approach to Buddhist practice is governed by your ego. You’re a selfish egoistic pig, and in terms of spiritual progress, you’re worse off than somebody that hasn’t encountered the teachings. Your problem is that you’re ‘too Buddhist’.
S: How rude of you to say these things. I completely disagree with everything you have said.
T: To become a teacher, you must let go of the idea of being a teacher. A teacher simply teaches. They teach with each breath they take. They teach by the way they walk and by the way the sit down. They teach through their being, not through their words. A true Spiritual teacher has no interest in gathering followers. They are just as happy teaching a butterfly or a dog, as they are a gathering of 10,000 people. In fact, they humbly accept the butterfly or dog as their teacher. A true teacher doesn’t label themselves as a ‘teacher’.
S: In my opinion, a ‘true teacher’ doesn’t speak to people in the manner that you have just done. You tell us to show kindness to one another, yet you’re not following your own advice. Perhaps it’s you who hasn’t grasped the inner meaning of the teachings.
T: (remains silent)
S: You think you’re some kind of enlightened Zen master that can go around talking in riddles and being rude to people. People have feelings you know. In fact, you’re right, I did come here to seek your approval. If I want to teach, I require the approval of an established teacher. However, I don’t want your approval anymore. I no longer wish to be affiliated with you. I’ll find a teacher who can see my true qualities.
T: Do you see my point now?
S: What do you mean?
T: Look at how easily your ego flares up. Look at how red and tense your face is. You’re offended. You’re angry. Your ego is raging. In your book, you stated that “a person who has transcended their ego can’t be offended”. Are these not your words?
S: It’s true that I said that.
T: You also said that “people should see themselves as if looking in a mirror”. Can you see yourself now?
S: (puts head down and remains silent)
T: I’m asking you a question. Can you see yourself now?
S: (starts to cry)
T: I keep telling people that they need to make a choice. A choice between walking an authentic spiritual path or remaining in ignorance. These aren’t just words. This isn’t a game. I’m not talking about working towards a professional or academic qualification. You can’t pay lip service to spiritual practice. You must live it and breathe it. You must completely abandon yourself to the path. You can’t practice meditation to make a career out of it. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
S: I think you might be right. I’ve been wasting my time.
T: At least you see it now. This makes you more fortunate than most people in your position.
S: Having a partial knowledge of the teachings has done me more harm than good. I wish I had met you sooner.
T: You weren’t ready to meet me before now. You met me when you were supposed to.
S: How do I turn the situation around?
T: Take a step back and breathe. Breathe and know that you are breathing. Be and know that you are being. Let go of wanting to be a teacher. Let go of being a Buddhist. Sit at the centre of the universe and observe your mind as it engages with the world.
T: Why did you laugh?
S: It’s just that in my book, I wrote that “people caught up in being a Buddhist have missed the point of Buddhism”. Its only now that I truly understand the meaning of my own words.
T: It seems that you have taught yourself something. Perhaps you’re already a teacher without knowing it.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
Mindfulness is growing in popularity and is increasingly being used by healthcare professionals for treating mental health problems. There has also been a gradual uptake of mindfulness by a range of organisations including schools, universities, large corporations, and the armed forces. However, the rate at which mindfulness has been assimilated by Western society has – in our opinion – meant that there has been a lack of research exploring the circumstances where mindfulness may actually cause a person harm. An example of a potentially harmful consequence of mindfulness that we have identified in our own research is that of a person developing an addiction to mindfulness.
Being addicted to mindfulness would constitute a form of behavioural addiction (i.e., as opposed to chemical addiction). Examples of better known forms of behavioural addiction are gambling disorder, internet gaming disorder, problematic internet use, sex addiction, and workaholism. According to a model of addiction formulated by our research colleague Dr Mark Griffiths (a Professor of behavioural addiction), a person suffers from a behavioural addiction when in respect of the behaviour in question, they satisfy the following six criteria:
In modern society, the word ‘addiction’ has negative connotations but it should be remembered that an addiction can be both positive and negative. For example, in separate clinical case studies that we conducted with individuals suffering from pathological gambling, sex addiction, and workaholism, it was observed that the participants substituted their addiction to gambling, work, or sex for an addiction to mindfulness. In the beginning phases of psychotherapy, this process of addiction substitution represented a move forward in terms of the individual’s therapeutic recovery. However, as the therapy progressed and the individual’s dependency on gambling, work, or sex began to weaken, their addiction to mindfulness was restricting their personal and spiritual growth, and was starting to cause conflict in other areas of their life. Therefore, it became necessary to help them change the way they practiced and related to mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a technique or behaviour that an individual can choose to practice. However, the idea is that the individual doesn’t separate mindfulness from the rest of their lives. If an individual sees mindfulness as a practice or something that they need to do in order to find calm and escape from their problems, there is a risk that they will become addicted to it. It is for this reason that we always exercise caution before recommending that people follow a strict daily routine of mindfulness practice. In fact, in the mindfulness intervention that we developed called Meditation Awareness Training, we don’t encourage participants to practice at set times of day or to adhere to a rigid routine. Rather, we guide participants to follow a dynamic routine of mindfulness practice that is flexible and that can be adapted according to the demands of daily living. For example, if a baby decides to wake up earlier than usual one morning, the mother can’t tell it to wait and be quiet because it’s interfering with her time for practising mindfulness meditation. Rather, she has to tend to the baby and find another time to sit in meditation. Or better still, she can tend to the baby with love and awareness, and turn the encounter with her child into a form of mindfulness practice. We live in a very uncertain world and so it is valuable if we can learn to be accommodating and work mindfully with situations as they unfold around us.
One of the components of Professor Griffiths’ model of addiction is ‘salience’ or importance. In general, if an individual prioritises a behaviour (such as gambling) or substance (such as cannabis) above all other aspects of their life, then it’s probably fair to say that their perspective on life is misguided and that they are in need of help and support. However, as far as mindfulness is concerned, we would argue that it’s good if it becomes the most important thing in a person’s life. Human beings don’t live very long and there can be no guarantee that a person will survive the next week, let alone the next year. Therefore, it’s our view that it is a wise move to dedicate oneself to some form of authentic spiritual practice. However, there is a big difference between understanding the importance of mindfulness and correctly assimilating it into one’s life, and becoming dependent on it.
If a person becomes dependent on mindfulness, it means that it has remained external to their being. It means that they don’t live and breathe mindfulness, and that they see it as a method of coping with (or even avoiding) the rest of their life. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how a person can develop an addiction to mindfulness, and how they can become irritable with both themselves and others when they don’t receive their normal fix of mindfulness on a given day.
Mindfulness is a relatively simple practice but it’s also very subtle. It takes a highly skilled and experienced meditation teacher to correctly and safely instruct people in how to practise mindfulness. It’s our view that because the rate of uptake of mindfulness in the West has been rather fast, in the future there will be more and more people who experience problems – including mental health problems such as being addicted to mindfulness – as a result of practising mindfulness. Of course, it’s not mindfulness itself that will cause their problems to arise. Rather, problems will arise because people have been taught how to practice mindfulness by instructors who are not teaching from an experiential perspective and who don’t really know what they are talking about. From personal experience, we know that mindfulness works and that it is good for a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. However, we also know that teaching mindfulness and meditation incorrectly can give rise to harmful consequences, including developing an addiction to mindfulness.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
Griffiths, M. D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.
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.
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. (2015). Are there risks associated with using mindfulness for the treatment of psychopathology? Clinical Practice, 11, 389-382.
Sussman, S., Lisha, N., Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professionals, 34, 3-56.
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.
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 5, 363-372.
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Ontological addiction: Classification, etiology, and treatment. Mindfulness, 7, 660-671.
Unsurprisingly, a search of the academic literature reveals that there has been little (if any) scientific investigation into whether dogs can be taught mindfulness. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that teaching dogs mindfulness is taking things too far and that it is another example of how ancient mindfulness teachings are being misappropriated in modern society. However, based on personal experience, it’s our view that under certain conditions and to a certain extent, some dogs can learn to practise a form of mindfulness. In this post we present the cases of Vajra, Tara, and Zeus – three beautiful dogs with whom we are fortunate to have shared our lives – and share how they have each come to embody a form of mindfulness practice.
Vajra was a medium sized mixed-breed male dog who lived with us at a Buddhist monastery and retreat centre that we ran in North Wales. Vajra (pictured above) was fawn coloured and his weight as an adult was approximately 18kg. Vajra came to us as a puppy from a dog rescue centre. He grew up in the monastery and met new people on a day-to-day basis. The monastery followed a daily routine of meditation practice involving formal seated meditations in the morning and evenings as well as periods of silence, walking meditation, working meditation, study, and chanting. At various times throughout the day, the monastery bell would sound in order to invite people to a particular practice or to remind them to stop, breathe, and remember that they are alive.
When Vajra was two years old, of his own accord he would come and lie in the meditation hall during the formal meditation sessions. To begin with, he would often just go to sleep and he could sometimes be heard snoring when people were trying to meditate. However, from the time Vajra reached three years of age, rather than lay on his side and go to sleep during meditation, he would assume a squatting position whereby he was still effectively lying down, but was upright and sat directly over his front paws. When sat in this manner, Vajra would hold his head off the ground and in addition to remaining alert, he would stay still and as quiet as a mouse. We suppose this posture would be similar to that which professionally trained dogs assume when they are given the “platz” command.
As mentioned above, walking meditation was practised on a daily basis at the monastery and this involved participants walking very slowly, in single file, and remaining meditatively aware of all that they experienced during each moment of every step. When he was young, Vajra would ignore the people practising walking meditation and would use the practice as an opportunity to play, sniff, and run around. However, as he grew older, Vajra started to join in with the walking meditation; he would take his place in the line of participants and place one foot in front of the other in a slow and focussed manner.
Of course, it is impossible for us to know what was going through Vajra’s mind when he exhibited these behaviours and it could be that all along, he was thinking about what he would receive for dinner or was just unconsciously mimicking our behaviour. However, many of the visitors to the monastery commented on Vajra’s calm nature and we like to think that in his own way, Vajra had learned to practice a form of meditation.
Tara (pictured above) is a toy Jack Russel Terrier. She weighs about 5kg in adulthood and came to us as a puppy. Like many Jack Russel Terriers, for the first few years of her life, Tara was somewhat naughty. Despite almost being small enough to sit in the palm of a person’s hand, it seemed Tara thought that she was a Rottweiler and she would even try to dominate dogs that were ten times her size. Also, Tara had a habit of climbing trees and getting stuck high up in the branches such that in order to bring her down, we had to perform acrobatic manoeuvres that easily exceeded our tree-climbing capabilities. It’s fair to say that Tara was hard-headed and despite understanding fully our commands, she would frequently test how far she could cross the line.
However, when Tara turned four years old, she began to settle down and assume a much calmer demeanour. The house that we lived in with Tara was visited by a large number of practicing Buddhists (as well as spiritual practitioners from non-Buddhist traditions). In the house, there was a chiming clock that was used as a mindfulness reminder. When the clock chimed to announce the turn of the hour, people in the house were invited to stop whatever they were doing in order to return to awareness of their breathing and awareness of their being. Each time she heard the clock chime, Tara would freeze her position and remain perfectly still and quiet. In fact, there reached a point when not only would Tara take a moment of pause when the clock chimed, but if – as was frequently the case – visitors ignored the chiming clock, Tara would bark at them to remind them to stop and be present. Therefore, in the house at that time a system of a ‘double mindfulness reminder’ was in place; Tara reminded people to remember to be mindful of the mindfulness reminder!
Zeus is approximately one-year-old and his current weight is 42kg. Zeus was abandoned when he was five months old and as a stray dog, he roamed the countryside and streets for about three months. Zeus has been with us for four months and we are informed by the vet and a dog breeding specialist that Zeus is an American Mastiff. It is expected that Zeus will reach a weight of 50-60kg. Zeus is highly protective of us and through training, we are attempting to temper some of his protective instincts. He is making exceptionally good progress and we think that although his time in the wild has been difficult, it has helped him to think for himself and perhaps even to understand something about the nature of suffering.
Zeus appears to really enjoy joining in with meditation and related forms of spiritual practice. For example, when we practice chanting, Zeus makes deep humming and groaning noises, and if he hears the gong sound to announce the start of a meditation session, he comes running in from the land and sits in a relaxed but attentive manner at our side. When Zeus is practising canine meditation in this manner, if somebody throws him a treat or ball to fetch, he remains completely undistracted and won’t retrieve it until after the meditation session has concluded. Zeus has adopted these behaviours of his own accord and several individuals have commented that Zeus sometimes appears to exude an air of wisdom and elegance.
We have shared our lives with other dogs in addition to Vajra, Tara, and Zues. For example, in addition to mixed-breed and cross-breed dogs, family members have included a Border Collie, German Shepard, and Rottweiler. All of these dogs have been beautiful companions in their own right but it is only Vajra, Tara, and Zeus in whom we feel there was some genuine form of meditative practice. We have always attempted to obedience train any dog that has lived with us and to do so in such a manner that the dog enjoys the training and feels loved and cared for. However, we have never specifically sought to teach mindfulness to a dog and have found that just by practising mindfulness ourselves, most dogs gradually assume a calmer demeanour but a minority of dogs actually go onto practice what appears to be a canine form of meditation.
It should be noted that the type of canine mindfulness we are referring to here is very different from the high level of concentration exhibited by a working dog that is following their handler’s commands. As we have discussed in previous posts, mindfulness is not simply about being alert or concentrating in a focussed manner. It is more about being aware of one’s being and about the nature and dance of the present moment. There is no doubt in our mind that being in an environment or family where people practice mindfulness is of benefit to dogs and that in turn, the dog’s calmer demeanour is of benefit to family members. However, in the absence of empirical research, it is difficult to know what factors predispose a dog to learning mindfulness and, just as with humans, it could be that some dogs are simply more spiritually inclined than others. Empirical research to investigate some of these knowledge gaps would be both welcomed and interesting.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
Carbonell, H. J., Waite, D., & Jackson-Grossblat, A. (2016). The therapeutic effects upon dog owners who interact with their dogs in a mindful way. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 56, 144-170.
Epstein, R. (1984). On mindfulness and our relation to animals. Between the Species. Available at: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1423&context=bts
Fox, M. (2007). Dog body, dog Mind: Exploring canine consciousness and total well-being. Lanham, Maryland: Lyons Press.
Henry, C. L., & Crowley, S. L. (2015). The psychological and physiological effects of using a therapy dog in mindfulness training. Anthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals, 28, 385-402.
Karen L. Dean (2005). Mindfulness meditation: Learning from dogis and mystical dogs. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 11, 319-321.
“Non perseguire il passato. Non perderti nel futuro. Il passato è la storia. Il futuro deve ancora arrivare. Guardando in profondità la vita così com’è nell’ hic et nunc, il praticante rimane incrollabile e libero nel cuore. Oggi dobbiamo essere diligenti, perché la morte può colpire domani. Non c’è nessuna contrattazione con il Signore della morte” – The Buddha, 500 BCE (sutra 131, MajjhimaNikaya)
Nel 1960 e 1970, la psichiatra Elizabeth Kubler-Ross e lo psicologo e medico Raymond Moody hanno giocato un ruolo fondamentale nel portare il fenomeno definito in inglese “Near Death Experience” (NDE l’esperienza prossima della morte) all’attenzione del grande pubblico e della comunità scientifica. Lo studio scientifico delle NDE – soprattutto prima del 1990 – ha incontrato un certo scetticismo tra psicologi e medici professionisti. Tuttavia, negli ultimi anni, le comunità psicologica e medica sono diventati più aperti alla possibilità che la NDE è un fenomeno vero che rientra nella gamma delle possibili esperienze umane.
La NDE è tipicamente associata ad un insieme o un modello di esperienze che possono verificarsi quando una persona è vicino alla morte (ad esempio, a causa di una malattia), quando credono di essere vicino alla morte (cioè, situazioni di pericolo di vita), o quando si trovano nel periodo tra la morte clinica e la rianimazione.1-3Le NDE spesso comportano una combinazione delle seguenti caratteristiche: un’esperienza fuori dal corpo, l’esperienza di muoversi attraverso un tunnel, la comunicazione con un essere di luce, osservazione di un paesaggio celeste, incontro con persone decedute, e / o di una revisione della vita.1-3
Piuttosto che l’approccio tradizionale di vedere l’NDE come fenomeno esplicitamente associato con la morte o la minaccia imminente di essa, qui adottiamo un punto di vista leggermente diverso, più ampio, prendendo in considerazione l’esistenza umana e la vita più in generale come un’esperienza di premorte.
Secondo la US Central Intelligence Agency4, il tasso di mortalità mondiale per il 2013 è di 7,9 morti ogni 1000 persone all’anno (cioè, 0,79%). Sulla base di queste cifre, una media di 107 persone muoiono ogni minuto. Questo significa, per rendere ulteriormente l’idea, che se sei una persona che normalmente va a letto alle ore 23.00 e dorme per otto ore, quando ti svegli alle ore 7.00 del mattino successivo oltre 50.000 persone sono morte. La morte è un evento molto comune. Non esistono casi scientificamente verificabili di qualsiasi essere senziente – umani e non – in grado di sconfiggere la morte. La causa più comune di morte è la malattia (in particolare la malattia in età avanzata). Altre cause della morte molto frequenti includono l’incidente, il suicidio e l’omicidio. Cause meno comuni di morte sono la combustione umana spontanea e la morte da colpo di fulmine (anche se queste morti potrebbero essere classificate come accidentali).
Il corpo umano è un’entità bellissima e meravigliosa – ma l’invincibilità non è uno dei suoi punti di forza. Una piccola puntura di spillo, il contatto con una padella calda, un dito intrappolato in una porta – questi sono solo alcuni esempi di come il più piccolo incidente può causare enorme dolore e disagio. In realtà, basta solo che ci sia il minimo squilibrio nell’ambiente esterno per far si che il corpo umano incominci a spegnersi rapidamente. Condizioni ambientali estreme tipo il troppo caldo, o il troppo freddo, una carenza di acqua o la mancanza di cibo possono rapidamente portare alla morte. Anche piccole situazioni come mangiare un boccone di cibo avariato, prendere un comune microbo dell’influenza, o scivolare sul ghiaccio possono portare alla morte. Infatti, in qualsiasi momento, l’unica cosa che ci separa dalla morte è un “unico respiro”. Sembra che l’essere umano disponga di un sistema di sopravvivenza che possiamo definire di “appena in tempo”, per indicare che anche il minimo ritardo nel prendere aria, acqua o cibo può essere fatale.
Dal momento in cui nasciamo, ogni singolo secondo che passa ci avvicina alla nostra morte. Il fatto stesso di essere giovani non fornisce alcuna garanzia di vita perché la morte può verificarsi a qualsiasi età. Infatti, alcune persone muoiono mentre sono ancora nel grembo materno, alcuni nell’infanzia e altri ancora durante l’adolescenza. Alcune persone muoiono nel fiore dell’età adulta e alcuni nella vecchiaia. La vita è come la sabbia che si muove attraverso una clessidra – alcune persone iniziano con più sabbia di altri, ma alla fine si esaurisce lo stesso.
Per aiutare a capire questo concetto, in modo leggermente diverso, possiamo citare gli insegnamenti buddisti che usano l’analogia del prigioniero che viene portato alla propria esecuzione e ogni singolo passo che fa si avvicina alla morte.5 Nasciamo, viviamo e moriremo. Tutti i fenomeni sono transitori e sono soggetti al decadimento e alla dissoluzione. Assolutamente nulla sfugge al ciclo dell’impermanenza. Il corpo umano è impermanente, gli amici e la famiglia sono impermanenti, il pianeta su cui viviamo è impermanente, e anche l’universo, in ultima analisi, cessa di esistere.
Questo è ciò che il Buddha ha detto circa la natura fugace dell’esistenza:
“Questa nostra esistenza è transitoria come le foglie d’autunno. A guardare la nascita e la morte degli esseri è come guardare i movimenti di una danza. Una vita è come un lampo nel cielo, che scorre via, come un torrente lungo una ripida montagna.”
In generale, c’è una diffusa tendenza tra le persone a non accettare il concetto della morte e ad assumere anzi il convincimento che a loro non accadrà mai. Tuttavia, questa non accettazione scomparirà rapidamente quando le persone si troveranno alle soglie della morte. Quando arriva il momento, spesso molte persone provano sentimenti travolgenti come: rammarico, rabbia, paura. Infatti, al momento della morte, le persone manifestano spesso una forte fissazione e un forte attaccamento verso la loro famiglia, i loro successi, gli amici, i beni materiali, la propria reputazione e la vita. Tuttavia, quando gli ultimi granelli di sabbia sono in procinto di scivolare attraverso la clessidra – queste cose non contano assolutamente nulla e non possono essere portate con sé. Dobbiamo lasciare la vita esattamente nello stesso modo in cui siamo entrati – da soli.
Si potrebbe pensare che è inopportuno discutere la realtà della morte in modo cosi diretto e aperto come stiamo facendo in questo articolo. Tuttavia, a nostro modesto parere, prima una persona inizia ad accettare completamente che a un certo punto senza nessun dubbio morirà, e prima può iniziare a prepararsi per la morte, piuttosto che aspettare fino all’ultimo quando poi è troppo tardi.
In un articolo che è stato recentemente pubblicato sulla rivista dell’American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,6 abbiamo discusso che imparare ad accettare la natura impermanente della vita può effettivamente essere un processo molto gratificante.
In effetti, la letteratura accademica indica che la consapevolezza dell’impermanenza può effettivamente fungere come un buffer (protezione) contro la psicopatologia. Inoltre è stato dimostrato che una maggiore accettazione e internalizzazione dell’impermanenza può aiutare nei confronti di una crescita post-traumatica.7,8
Gli insegnamenti buddhisti spiegano che una persona veramente saggia è colui che, in ogni singolo respiro e in ogni singolo battito cardiaco, è profondamente consapevole dell’incertezza della propria vita e di come la morte sia effettivamente inevitabile.5
Si ritiene che questa consapevolezza dell’impermanenza aiuta una persona a privilegiare ciò che è importante nella vita.6 I risultati della nostra ricerca indicano che coltivando una radicata comprensione dell’impermanenza si può arrivare ad una grande gioia e ci si può arricchire spiritualmente.9,10
Consentendo al concetto dell’impermanenza di infondere tutto il nostro essere, possiamo gradualmente imparare a non attaccarsi strettamente alle cose.
Questo significa che quando le persone e le cose che amiamo sono presenti, noi possiamo veramente amarle, ma quando si dissolvono possiamo lasciarli andare più liberamente. Una cosa utile da ricordare è che ogni volta che facciamo qualcosa, lo facciamo per la prima e l’ultima volta. Un momento di tempo non si ripete mai.
Riconoscere questo aspetto ci permette di dare grande significato alle cose che facciamo e diciamo. Noi non dobbiamo essere dei sonnambuli all’interno della nostra vita – non dobbiamo diventare dei cadaveri ambulanti.
Sulla base di alcune considerazioni, le NDE non sono particolarmente comuni e riguardano soprattutto quello che alcune persone potrebbero definire come esperienze “mistiche”. Tuttavia, dato che la vita è incredibilmente fragile e utilizzando criteri di definizione leggermente diversi, crediamo che ogni singolo essere senziente sta essenzialmente, in questo stesso momento, partecipando a una esperienza di premorte (NDE).
Vorremmo concludere questo post con una breve riflessione sulla morte dal titolo “una bolla nel vento”:
Una Bolla nel Vento
“La vita è come una bolla trasportata dal vento. Alcune bolle scoppiano presto, altre più tardi. Alcune scoppiano di loro spontanea volontà, altre per caso. Alcune vengono deliberatamente scoppiate. Ciononostante, in un modo o nell’altro, tutte le bolle scoppiano. La differenza tra il praticante spirituale realizzato e la persona comune, è che il praticante riconosce di non essere solo una bolla, ma anche il vento che dolcemente lo trasporta.
Quel vento non ha alcun punto di origine ed è senza meta. Soffia liberamente dove le pare. Che meraviglia!”
Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
We recently had a paper accepted for publication in the Mindfulness in Practice section of Mindfulness. The paper is entitled ‘Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation’. It can be downloaded (for free) by clicking here The Universal Breath_Mindfulness 2016 EYS or by accessing the journal’s website directly: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-016-0570-4
The full reference is as follows:
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2016). Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-016-0570-4.
Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon