Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

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Some time ago, we uploaded a post that featured a vajragiti that we wrote called Hearken to the Dharma. A vajragiti is a type of spiritual song or poem. The Sanskrit word vajra means ‘diamond’ or ‘indestructible’ and the word giti means song. Some of our vajragitis have been spoken or written spontaneously, while others have been written at the request of a particular person or for a particular occasion. Since the post was published, we have received several enquiries as to what some of the terms means. Today’s post provides information on the meaning of these terms, and on the theme of the vajragiti more generally.

Hearken to the Dharma’ is a four-verse vajragiti written in the style of the spiritual songs of certain yogic traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. In essence, it refers to the view of certain systems of Buddhist thought that we are currently in an era in which the Buddhist (and spiritual teachings more generally) are degenerating. More specifically, it refers to the fact that not all individuals who are currently teaching mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism have the ‘right intention’. When people with a selfish intent and who are without authentic spiritual realisation choose to teach meditation or Buddhism, it can result in negative consequences.

It could be argued that by writing a spiritual song such as the below, we are being judgemental. However, we wouldn’t agree with this because it is not judgemental to call a spade a spade. If things aren’t right, sometimes we need to speak up and raise awareness about the issue.

In the below vajragiti, the term ‘two accumulations’ refers to the Buddhist view that spiritual practitioners need to accumulate both spiritual merit and wisdom. Spiritual merit is accumulated by engaging in acts of generosity, patience, loving-kindness and compassion. Wisdom is accumulated by practising meditation, especially insight meditation. Spiritual merit and wisdom are necessary if we want to overcome the tendency of making our lives all about the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and the ‘I’. Living a life that is always centred upon the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘I’ is what is meant by the term ‘self-grasping’.

True renunciation’ means that we are no longer interested in mundane pursuits such as accumulating wealth or status. It means that we are aware that death is a reality that we will have to face, sooner or later. When we cultivate true spiritual renunciation, it is a liberating experience. However, it is important to remember that spiritual renunciation doesn’t mean that we turn our back on the world. Rather, it means that because we are free of selfish intentions, we can fully taste, enjoy and engage with the world.

In some Buddhist sutras, the Dharma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Law’. Therefore, the term ‘Law Holder’ means an authentic spiritual practitioner – somebody who has transcended the ego and given rise to a high level of spiritual awakening. A Law Holder could be a fully enlightened Buddha, or it could be somebody who is well on the way to attaining Buddhahood. A person who holds the Law of Dharma embodies and emanates spiritual awareness. They are not necessarily a Buddhist scholar.

In the context referred to in the vajragiti, our use of the term ‘Mara’ invokes the connotations that this term has with the notion of the Devil in Christianity. However, the term ‘Mara’ has several different meanings in Buddhism, which include negativity in its broadest sense. The ‘lower realms’ refer to realms of existence in which there are high levels of ignorance and suffering. The animal world is an example of a lower realm (i.e. when compared with the human realm), but Buddhism asserts that there are realms of existence that are lower than the animal realm (e.g. the hell realms).

The terms ‘View’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Action’ in the final verse refer to the three components that comprise an authentic Buddhist spiritual path. For example, in the Noble Eightfold Path referred to previously on this blog, each of the eight individual components of the path are understood to be primarily concerned with the cultivation of either: (i) wisdom or a ‘view’ that transcends the notion of self and other, (ii) meditation, or (iii) ethical ‘action’. If each of these three aspects (i.e. wisdom/view, ethics/action and meditation) are present, then a particular Buddhist path can be considered whole and complete. The three path elements of wisdom, ethics and meditation are known in Sanskrit as ‘trishiksha’, which means the ‘three trainings’.

The term ‘three doors’ refers to the three ‘doors’ through which we interact with the world: (i) body (i.e. actions), (ii) speech (i.e. words), and (iii) mind (i.e. thoughts). Finally, the term ‘Mind as all’ refers to a view amongst certain Buddhist schools that existence unfolds within the expanse of mind. According to this view, waking reality is no more ‘real’ than what we experience while dreaming.

Hearken to the Dharma

All you great teachers and meditators,
Who mistake self-grasping and pride for the two accumulations,
In whom true renunciation and devotion never arise,
You, pleasure seekers, hearken to the Dharma that keeps death in mind.

Proudly claiming to be great Buddhists,
Judging others as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
Spreading doubt and disparaging the Law Holders,
You, Dharma destroyers, hearken to the Dharma beyond all concepts.

Practicing sophistry you deceive the foolish,
Competing for renown like Mara princes,
Dragging your followers to the miserable realms,
You, evil doers, hearken to the Dharma of karmic cause and effect.

For View you delight in ‘self’ and ‘other’,
For Meditation you indulge in scheming thoughts,
For Action you mindlessly vomit through your three doors,
You, delusion revellers, hearken to the Dharma that knows Mind as all.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

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

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

“Keeping Your Shit Together”: A Perspective on the Buddhist Middle-Way Approach

“Keeping Your Shit Together”:

A Perspective on the Buddhist Middle-Way Approach

Together 6

Some people like fast cars, some people like fine dining, and some people like expensive clothes. Some people are partial towards liquor, some towards gambling, and some towards tobacco. Some people like men and some people like women. Some people have a penchant for extreme sports, some for hot climates, and some for partying. Some people are passionate about video games, some about film, and some about photography. Some people like technology, some like nature, and some like travelling.

Some people like some of the above, some like none of the above, and some people like all of the above. People like certain things when they are young, other things when they are middle-aged, and different things when they are older. Likewise, people like certain things in the morning, other things in the afternoon, and different things in the evening. Some people are comfortable with the fact they like some, all, or none of the above, some people are indifferent about this matter, and some people are uncomfortable or feel guilty about the things that they are partial towards.

As far as the Buddhist spiritual teachings are concerned, there are lots of different methods of relating to the various desires and partialities that we have in life. Some Buddhist paths advocate separation and renunciation from potentially desirous objects and situations. Other paths advocate being in the presence of our various desires but exercising advanced levels of mental discipline. There are also some (often misunderstood and incorrectly practised) esoteric Buddhist paths that advocate accepting and embracing one’s desires.

When correctly taught and practised, each of these approaches represent valid spiritual paths. They have their own rules, they lead to their own spiritual fruits (i.e., levels of awakening), and they are intended to suit the needs of individuals with differing degrees of spiritual capacity. Nevertheless, although the three paths referred to above appear to represent very different modes of spiritual practice, these paths often intersect and feed into each other. For example, an individual who chooses to renounce and completely separate themselves from potentially desirous objects and circumstances may reach a point in their spiritual development when they feel that in order to move forward, they need a greater level of interaction with people and phenomena (i.e., in order to ‘put their practice to the test’). Eventually, the same person might decide that in order to grow even further as a spiritual being, they have to embrace all phenomena and experiences, including those typically considered to be incompatible with a spiritual way of life.

Although there are points of intersection and convergence in the three spiritual paths outlined above, a person who embarks on a path that they are not suited for, or who switches from one path to another before they are ready, is likely to find that the path is of little benefit or that it actually does them more harm than good. In other words, there are many different ways of interacting with the objects, people, and situations that are a potential source of attraction, but in order to grow in spiritual realisation, it is vital to employ the method that is most suited to our particular stage of spiritual development.

Recently, we were giving a talk to a group of young adults from a socio-economically deprived inner-city suburb of a northern English city. The theme of the talk was the principle of the ‘middle-way’. The Buddhist teachings on the middle-way basically assert that the best way to relate to the various desires and partialities that we have in life is to do things in moderation. Too much of something is generally not good for us, and completely avoiding things can also be detrimental to our wellbeing. Following the approach of the middle-way means that we don’t take anything to extremes, but it also means that we are open to new experiences and aren’t afraid of responsibly enjoying our lives. We use the term ‘responsibly enjoying’ here because implicit within the Buddhist teachings of the middle-way, is the premise that however we decide to spend our time, nobody (including ourselves) should be hurt or taken advantage of as a result of our actions. If we keep this basic premise in mind, then the approach of the middle-way seems to provide us with a means of exploring, enjoying, and engaging with life, but without letting our mind be ‘over-run’ by the various objects and activities of our desire.

If we want to embrace spiritual living to a slightly greater extent, then in addition to ‘responsibly enjoying’ life (i.e., by making sure we don’t hurt or take advantage of anybody), we should try to undertake everything we do in a gentle and compassionate manner, and whilst maintaining meditative awareness. If we expand our understanding of the middle-way approach to embody these three basic spiritual principles (i.e., 1. Responsibly enjoying life, 2. Being gentle and compassionate, and 3. Cultivating meditative awareness), then the middle-way philosophy becomes a practical, effective, and expedient means of fostering spiritual growth.

In terms of where the middle-way approach fits within the schema of the three Buddhist paths referred to earlier (i.e., the paths of relating to potentially desirous objects and situations via: 1. Renunciation and separation, 2. Applying advanced mental discipline, or 3. Acceptance and embracing), it could be said that the middle-way teachings apply to each of these different paths. For example, if a person is practising the path of renunciation and separation, then there is a ‘middle-way’ philosophy that they can apply to that path (i.e., by moderating the degree to which they cut themselves off from the world around them). Likewise, if a person chooses to engage with potentially desirous objects by either applying advanced levels of mental discipline or by meditatively accepting and embracing them, then there is a corresponding middle-way approach towards relating to and following each these paths. Thus, whichever spiritual path we choose to adopt, the teachings and approach of the middle-way remain valid.

The above discussion concerning the middle-way teachings and how they relate to different types of spiritual path was basically the subject of the talk that we mentioned above, which was given to a group of approximately 35 young adults. At the end of the talk, the floor was opened to questions and comments. At this point, a young lady who was about 20-years-old stood up and commented as follows:

What you are saying is that as far as Buddhism is concerned, life is basically about keeping your shit together. If you keep your shit together, then so long as you are not hurting anybody, you are free to thoroughly enjoy life. It’s when your shit falls apart and you take things too far that trouble starts. Based on what I’ve understood, it seems that you are also saying that if you manage to keep your shit together and be a kind person at the same time, then that’s even better. I think I can do that. It sounds like common sense to me.

After the talk, we spoke briefly with the young lady and informed her that we liked her comment and thought she had provided some sound words of advice. We asked for her permission (which she kindly provided) to make use of her advice in some of our writing projects. We don’t really consider ourselves to be particularly up-to-date with modern phrases or expressions, but based on our understanding, it appears that an aspect of the meaning of the Buddhist middle-way teachings is captured by the expression ‘keep your shit together’.

In terms of giving some examples of what ‘keeping your shit together’ means in practice, we would say that if you like gambling or alcohol, then by all means enjoy placing a few bets or having a few drinks. However, if you bet to the point of bankruptcy or if you drink yourself into a state of severe inebriation on a daily basis, then it probably means that you are not ‘keeping your shit together’. The same applies to all of the other things mentioned at the start of this post. It is good to responsibly enjoy some of the things that we are partial towards, but if we take things too far (in either direction), then there are likely to be negative consequences.

In terms of the things in life that we are partial towards, people have different levels of tolerance. Therefore, it is up to us as individuals to work out what constitutes a middle-way between extremes, and what amounts to not keeping ourselves together. Similarly, in light of the fact that people have different tolerance levels, it is also important that we don’t judge people by projecting our own ideas of what is right and wrong onto them. What amounts to not keeping it together for one person, might constitute a middle-way approach for somebody else. In other words, if we try too hard not to ‘lose our shit’, and get all haughty and wound up when we deem that others have lost theirs, then this might actually mean that we have ‘allowed our shit to fly all over the place’.

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 a Buddhist Eat Meat?

Should a Buddhist Eat Meat?

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We never cease to be amazed by the number of non-Buddhist individuals that we encounter who believe that abstaining from eating meat is a prerequisite for being a Buddhist. However, it is not just amongst non-Buddhists where this view is prevalent because in the region of about 25% of Buddhist individuals that we meet (in both the East and West) also appear to share the same view. The question of whether or not it is appropriate for Buddhists to eat meat raises a number of important ethical (and practical issues) that are as relevant today as they were when the Buddha was teaching some 2,500 years ago. In this post, we examine the logic and scriptural provenance underlying some of the leading arguments for and against Buddhists eating meat.

A Scriptural Account

We have sometimes read or heard it said that the Buddhist scriptures are ambiguous on the matter of meat eating. However, this presumption is incorrect because the Buddha gave some very specific advice on this topic. According to the Jivaka sutta, the Buddha stated that there are three particular instances where it is acceptable for a Buddhist practitioner to eat meat, and three circumstances where it is inappropriate. The exact words as recorded in the English language Pāli canon edition of this sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 55) are as follows:

“Jivaka, I say that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten: when it is seen, heard, or suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat should not be eaten in these three instances. I say that there are three instances in which meat may be eaten: when it is not seen, not heard, and not suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat may be eaten in these three instances.”

Thus, the Jivaka sutta, which contains one of the Buddha’s most direct references to meat eating, makes it clear that although the Buddha was adverse to a spiritual practitioner consenting for an animal to be killed on their behalf, he was not adverse per se to the idea of a spiritual practitioner eating meat.

Arguments against Eating Meat

The main argument against Buddhists eating meat is that meat eating is incongruous with the core Buddhist precept of abstaining from taking life, as well as with the general emphasis placed in Buddhism on cultivating loving-kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings (including animals and fish). Of course, it could be argued that if a person buys meat in the supermarket then they haven’t personally killed the animal. However, the robustness of this position is questionable because clearly the consumer is a vital link in the chain of meat production (i.e., if there wasn’t a demand for meat then the number of animals slaughtered for the purposes of supplying meat would be significantly less).

There are several other views relating to why Buddhists should not eat meat but they are mostly encompassed by the primary argument outlined above. An example of such a secondary argument is that by capturing and killing a mature wild animal (i.e., an animal that has not been specifically bred for meat production), it is possible that: (i) its offspring will suffer (and possibly die) due to being without the protection of their mother or father, or (ii) an animal (or animals) higher up the food chain will suffer (and possibly die) due to not being able to find a prey. In other words, due to a human being eating just one single animal, it is possible that numerous other animals will incur suffering.

A further example of a secondary argument relates to the Buddhist view of reincarnation in which it is implied that a living being that is currently an animal may, in its recent past, have been a human. Since most people would be repulsed by the idea of eating a human being, the question arises as to whether it is ethically correct to eat an animal that was a human being during a previous lifetime. These secondary arguments add additional ‘food for thought’ but they are all basically encompassed by the view that human beings are in many ways responsible for the wellbeing of the insects, fishes, and animals with whom we share this earth, and that it is cruel to kill them or cause them to suffer.

Arguments for Eating Meat

From the point of view of practicality, there are certain geographical regions where, without going to great expense, it would be very difficult for a Buddhist practitioner to live on a meat-free diet. In arctic, sub-arctic, and tundra regions, it is much more difficult to grow produce compared to regions that are much warmer. The same applies to very arid regions where droughts can last for months on end. In such areas, it is probably unrealistic for a person on an average or below average income to live on a diet that excludes meat or fish.

In addition to influences and limitations imposed by the elements, an individual’s level of wealth may also affect the dietary options that are available to them. For example, there are regions of the world that are conducive to growing produce but where poverty places restrictions on the types of food a person can buy. In the West, it is becoming increasingly easier to be vegetarian without it meaning that one’s health and nutritional intake somehow has to suffer. Indeed, some Western supermarkets now have entire sections of the shelves, chillers, and freezers that are dedicated to meat alternatives and vegetarian meals. Many restaurants in the West also have vegetarian sections of the menu and there are also some restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian. However, this isn’t the case all over the world and it is probable that in abstaining from eating meat, some individuals of below average means would not be able to afford to buy everything they need for a balanced and healthy diet.

The above arguments are not necessarily in favour of Buddhist practitioners eating meat but they simply highlight the fact that there are certain circumstances where it is impractical for an individual to be vegetarian. In addition to such practical considerations, there are also arguments that support meat eating that are more philosophical in nature. In particular, there is the argument that by eating meat, Buddhist practitioners (and anybody else for that matter) are actually sustaining life. This somewhat paradoxical argument relates to the fact that if there wasn’t demand for meat, then a large proportion of animals currently being bred for meat production simply wouldn’t exist. It is true that some animals bred for meat production live in conditions that are far from ideal (or that in some instances constitute cruelty to animals). However, it is also true that many of these animals – particularly in developed countries – live in conditions that are deemed to be comfortable and conducive to their health and wellbeing. Therefore and according to this line of thought, by eating meat a Buddhist practitioner plays an integral role in the process of giving and sustaining life.

The above slightly paradoxical argument could be challenged by asserting that although the meat eater is a contributing factor for new life being brought into the world, they are also the cause of that life coming to a premature end. This is a valid counter-argument but it can be easily undermined by taking into consideration the fact that even when living in the wild, a lot of animals die ‘prematurely’. The reason for this is because unless they are at the top of the food chain, animals are predated upon. In fact, even animals that are at the top of the food chain are an easy target for a carnivorous or scavenging animal when they become sick or old. Thus, in the wild, there are probably very few animals that die of old age, and it is not uncommon for an animal that becomes the prey of another animal to meet with a brutal end (in some cases probably much more brutal than being slaughtered in a controlled environment). 

Concluding Thoughts

There are strong arguments both for and against the Buddhist practitioner eating meat. According to the suttas, the Buddha’s personal view on this matter was that spiritual practitioners should avoid killing, or directly consenting to the killing of, an animal intended for consumption by human beings. However, the Buddha was seemingly not opposed to a person eating meat where the animal had been killed without that individuals ‘direct’ knowledge or consent. Our own personal view on this matter is that Buddhist practitioners should appraise themselves of the key arguments for and against meat eating, and then come to an informed decision.

As far as we see it, although we would encourage people to make sure that whatever they eat (meat or otherwise) has not somehow resulted in the subjecting to cruelty of an animal or human being, there isn’t really a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ position here. If a spiritual practitioner makes an informed decision and decides that they would like to eat meat, then that’s fine. Likewise, if a spiritual practitioner understands all of the options and decides that they would like to be vegetarian, that’s also fine. In other words, from the point of view of authentic spiritual development, the issue of eating or abstaining from eating meat is actually of limited relevance. Today, some people that call themselves Buddhists make a big deal out of this issue, but according to the record of the scriptures, it wasn’t considered to be a big deal by the Buddha. In terms of its spiritual significance, rather than ‘what’ a person eats, we would argue that ‘how’ they eat counts for a lot more. If a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal with spiritual awareness, gentleness, and good table manners then this will certainly contribute towards their spiritual growth. However, if a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal in a greedy and mindless manner (e.g.,  by slouching over their meal and shovelling it into their mouths), and if they eat without being considerate of other people who might be in their presence, then such comportment actually counts as a hindrance towards progressing along the spiritual path.

 Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

Just a Thought

Just a Thought

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

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

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

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

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

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

For mindful teaching of mindfulness – The Psychologist

This letter was written by colleagues in response to my recent interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn. The letter has just been published in The Psychologist. For mindful teaching of mindfulness – The Psychologist.

Meditate to medicate: Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioural addiction

drmarkgriffiths

Please note: A version of the following article was first published on addiction.com and was co-written with my research colleagues Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that derives from Buddhist practice and is one of the fastest growing areas of psychological research. We have defined mindfulness as the process of engaging a full, direct, and active awareness of experienced phenomena that is spiritual in aspect and that is maintained from one moment to the next. As part of the practice of mindfulness, a ‘meditative anchor’, such as observing the breath, is typically used to aid concentration and to help maintain an open-awareness of present moment sensory and cognitive-affective experience.

Throughout the last two decades, Buddhist principles have increasingly been employed in the treatment of a wide range of psychological disorders including mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. The…

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“This is not McMindfulness by any stretch of the imagination” – The Psychologist

I was recently asked by The Psychologist to interview Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction. The interview has now been published online and can be accessed via the following link:

“This is not McMindfulness by any stretch of the imagination” – The Psychologist.

Edo Shonin

 

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

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The five precepts (Pāli: pañca-sīlāni) provide a basic code for living a life that is in-keeping with Buddhist ethical ideals. They are recited by lay and monastic Buddhist practitioners all over the world and a great deal has been written about their literal meaning. In today’s post, we offer an interpretation of the five precepts that focuses on their hidden meaning.

First Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing (Pānātipātā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden meaning of the first precept is that we should not kill the Buddha within. Whenever we chase after mundane goals such as wealth and status, this is killing the Buddha within. Our time on this earth is limited and sooner or later we will encounter death. At the point of death, all of our various life encounters and accomplishments mean absolutely nothing. They have no more significance than the fading memories of a dream and no matter how hard we try, nothing from this life can be taken into the next. The only exception to this is the spiritual insight that we manage to accrue on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, if we don’t use this precious human rebirth to nourish and develop ourselves spiritually, we suffocate the Buddha within.

When we are with someone who is talking with us, confiding in us, and our mind is thinking about either what we want to say or what we could be doing instead of being with that person, then we are killing the Buddha within that person and we kill the Buddha within ourselves. When we do not listen to the bird that is singing for us then we kill the Buddha within ourselves as well as the Buddha in the bird. That bird spent many lifetimes training to sing that song so that we could hear it and we spent many lifetimes training so that we could listen to what the bird has to say. The bird sang, we couldn’t care, the moment passed and we were not aware. We are as good as dead alongside the Buddha within.

Second Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given (Adinnādānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the second precept is that we should not steal from ourselves the opportunity to attain enlightenment in this lifetime. The second precept also means that we should not steal this opportunity from others. The opportunity to attain enlightenment is the birth-right of every living being in the universe. We steal away this opportunity from ourselves each time we practice mindless, selfish, and unskilful ways. We steal away this opportunity from others when we do not act with kindness, awareness, and gentleness in their presence.

When people set themselves up as ‘Buddhist’ teachers without having dedicated their lives to spiritual practice (or in some cases after having taken part in just one or two meditation retreats facilitated by people who have no real spiritual experience), they are putting their own spiritual lives in jeopardy. More concerning however, is that they are stealing the spiritual breath of others. They are stealing other people’s opportunity to attain enlightenment. People come to them obviously in need of spiritual nourishment and all they get is the unfortunate experience of being robbed – both spiritually and materially.

Third Precept: I undertake the training rule to avoid lustful conduct (Kāmesumicchācāra veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost aspect of the third precept is that we should not lust after being a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’. Because of wanting to be somebody, people are unable to be themselves. The more we want to be someone, the more difficult it becomes to just simply be. Wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’ causes us to develop a big ego which acts as an obstacle to spiritual growth. When we let go of the idea that we inherently exist, we cease to separate ourselves from the energy and dance of Dharmata that is all around us. Phenomena do not exist as discrete entities. They exist as one. When the universe breathes in, all of the phenomena that it contains breathe in with it. When the universe breathes out, all of the matter and space that it contains also breathes out. When we stop wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’, we are able to relax into and once again abide in unison with the energy of all that is.

Forth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech (Musāvādā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the fourth precept means that we should not utter false speech by giving Dharma teachings on subjects that we have not fully and directly realised ourselves. It seems that the number of so called Dharma and meditation teachers is rapidly increasing. More and more people are writing books about the Buddhist teachings (including mindfulness), and more and more people are offering meditation retreats and courses. Whenever we try to instruct others in spiritual teachings that we ourselves have not fully realised, we lie to them and we also lie to ourselves. This false speech serves to water down the Dharma, bolster our egos, and distance us (and those listening to us) from the possibility of cultivating true meditative calm and insight.

The same applies when we utter words such as “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”. If during our day-to-day existence, we are only concerned with the petty affairs of our lives and getting ahead in the world, then these words are untrue. If we wish to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we have to stop thinking that the world revolves around us. We have to stop living a soap opera. We have to make our entire life a spiritual practice and not just engage in (what we deem to be) Buddhist practice when it is convenient to us or when we are going through a particularly difficult time.

Fifth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from ingesting intoxicants (Surāmerayamajjapamādatthānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost meaning of the fifth precept is that we should not fill up and intoxicate our own mind or other people’s minds with concepts, clever ideas, and wrong views. Too many people have their minds full-up. If our minds are too full then there is no room for wholesome thoughts to grow and flourish. In a full mind there is no space for simply being, and there is no emptiness to nurture and refresh our being. Having our minds full-up all of the time becomes very stressful and tiring not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we interact.

Some people that practice Buddhism fill up their minds with the idea that they are a Theravada Buddhist, a Mahayana Buddhist, or a Vajrayana Buddhist. However, a Theravada Buddhist who is caught up in the idea of being a Theravada Buddhist is not, in truth, a Theravada Buddhist. The same applies to Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners who foolishly attach themselves to the name and label of their particular Buddhist practice modality.  In Theravada Buddhism there are strong Mahayana and Vajrayana elements, and in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism there are strong Theravada elements.

In our work as Buddhist monks, we meet lots of people that proudly introduce themselves as (for example) a vegetarian, vegan, spiritual teacher, meditator, or philanthropist. If people want to be a vegetarian or a vegan that’s great – good for them. But if they over-identify with the idea of being a vegetarian and/or believe that it somehow makes them a more spiritual or virtuous person, then they have allowed their life choices to intoxicate their mind. We abstain from intoxicating the mind with concepts and wrong views when we observe but do not attach ourselves to thoughts and feelings. When we allow thoughts, feelings, and other mental processes to roll freely through the mind and not to stick to it, the mind becomes completely immune to all forms of intoxicant.

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective

The Seat of Self and Consciousness in the Brain: A Buddhist Perspective

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Clicca qui per Italiano

In recent decades there have been major advances in scientific understanding of the human brain. To a large extent these advances have been driven by new neuroimaging technologies that have provided neuroscientists with increasingly refined images or maps of the brain. One specific arm of neuroscientific research has made use of these neuroimaging techniques in order to try to identify the neurological seat of the self or consciousness. Today’s post briefly highlights some of the key findings of this research and discusses them in relation to core Buddhist principles concerning the manner in which the self is believed to exist.

Neuroimaging studies exploring how and where the brain processes information concerning the self have identified associations between certain self-related cognitive processes and the activation of specific areas in the brain. For example, self-referential memories (i.e., memories concerning the self) are associated with increased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. A further example is the role played by the left cerebral hemisphere in the regulation of self-recognition (i.e., an individual’s ability to recognize itself in, for example, a reflection or visual image).

The ability to distinguish between self and other is a key aspect of adaptive psychosocial functioning and it therefore makes logical sense that there exist areas within the brain that play a role in processing information concerning the “self”. However, despite the fact that neuroimaging studies have provided some valuable data in terms of brain areas that correspond to self-referential processes, the activation of such brain areas does not equate to the location of consciousness or the nucleus of an inherently existing self. Rather, neuron activation in these brain areas simply demonstrates that most individuals have a pronounced sense of self.

According to the Buddhist teachings, there is an ocean of difference between individuals having a sense of self and there actually being a self that inherently exists. Buddhism accepts that a sense of self is essential if society is to function effectively. For example, most elucidations of the practices of loving-kindness and compassion – two core aspects of the Buddhist teachings – are based on the assumption that there is both a giver (i.e., self) and a receiver (i.e., other). If the historical Buddha didn’t have a sense of self that allowed him to identify that his level of spiritual insight was in some way different than most of his followers, then it is reasonable to assume that he would not have felt the need to expound a path to overcome suffering and ignorance.

However, although beings at the stage of enlightenment have a sense of self (and understand fully that this sense of self is necessary if they are to effectively function in the world), they are also fully aware that the “self” is an illusion. The reason why Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion relates to the principle of emptiness which asserts that beings (and all phenomena) exist only as interdependent and mentally designated constructs. For example, a flower manifests in dependence upon the water and air in the atmosphere, heat of the sun, seed from which it grew, nutrients in the soil, insects and animals that died and decomposed in order to produce those nutrients, and so forth. Consequently, the flower does not exist in isolation of all other phenomena and it is empty of an independent and inherently existing self. Thus, as we discussed in our Zen-style post on Dream or Reality, phenomena certainly appear to be real but the manner in which they are perceived does not actually equate to the manner in which they truly exist.

Enlightened and unenlightened beings both have a sense of self, but a key difference between these two types of being is that the latter is caught up in the belief that they inherently exist. As we discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self, due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed “self” incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive. As part of our academic work we have termed this condition ontological addiction and have defined it as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”.

The idea that at the ultimate level there is no such thing as a self that intrinsically exists may be a difficult notion to digest. However, scientific experiments have recently been conducted that appear to add credence to the validity of emptiness. For example, a study published in the journal Nature in 2010 demonstrated that a minute metal blade of semi-conductor material can be made to simultaneously vibrate in two different energy states. This is the kinetic equivalent of matter being in two different places at the same time and it demonstrates that at the sub-atomic level, particles (and any property of self that they might possess) can never be absolutely located in time and space (i.e., they exist nowhere and everywhere at the same time).

Using neuroimaging techniques in order to explore where and how we regulate self-referential processes is important for advancing scientific understanding about the human brain. However, from the Buddhist perspective, consciousness and self are absent of intrinsic existence and they abide just as much within the brain as they do outside of it. Therefore, according to Buddhist theory, attempts by some scientists to identify the specific location of self or consciousness in the brain might be considered a somewhat futile endeavour.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

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

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

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

La sede del Sé e della coscienza nel cervello: una prospettiva buddista

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Negli ultimi decenni ci sono stati grandi progressi nella comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Per la maggior parte questi progressi sono stati guidati dalle nuove tecnologie di neuroimaging che hanno fornito ai neuroscienziati immagini o mappe sempre più raffinate del cervello. Un ramo specifico della ricerca neuroscientifica ha fatto uso di queste tecniche di neuroimaging per cercare di identificare la sede neurologico del sé o della coscienza. Il post di oggi, in breve, mette in evidenza alcuni dei principali risultati di questa ricerca e li discute in relazione ai principi buddisti fondamentali, riguardante il modo in cui si crede che il sé esista.

Gli studi di neuroimaging, esplorando dove e come il cervello elabora le informazioni riguardanti il sé, hanno identificato associazioni tra determinati processi cognitivi sé-correlati e l’attivazione di specifiche aree del cervello. Ad esempio, le memorie autoreferenziali (cioè, i ricordi riguardanti il sé) sono associati a una maggiore attivazione della corteccia prefrontale mediale. Un altro esempio è il ruolo svolto dall’emisfero cerebrale sinistro nella regolazione dell’auto-riconoscimento (cioè, la capacità dell’individuo di riconoscersi, ad esempio, in una riflessione o immagine visiva).

La capacità di distinguere tra sé e l’altro è un aspetto fondamentale del funzionamento psicosociale adattivo e ha quindi senso logico che esistano aree all’interno del cervello che svolgono un ruolo nell’elaborazione delle informazioni concernenti il “sé”. Tuttavia, nonostante il fatto che gli studi di neuroimaging abbiano fornito alcuni dati importanti in termini di aree cerebrali che corrispondono a processi auto-referenziali, l’attivazione di tali aree cerebrali non equivale alla posizione di coscienza o al nucleo di un sé inerentemente esistente. Piuttosto, l’attivazione dei neuroni in queste aree del cervello dimostra semplicemente che la maggior parte degli individui ha un pronunciato senso di sé.

Secondo gli insegnamenti buddisti, c’è un oceano di differenza tra individui che hanno un senso di sé e il concetto di un sé inerentemente esistente. Il buddismo accetta che un senso del sé è essenziale se la società deve funzionare efficacemente. Ad esempio, la maggior parte delle delucidazioni delle pratiche di amorevole gentilezza e compassione – due aspetti fondamentali degli insegnamenti buddisti – si basano sul presupposto che c’è sia un donatore (cioè, il sé) sia un ricevitore (cioè, l’altro). Se il Buddha storico non avesse avuto un senso di sé che gli avesse permesso di identificare che il suo livello di intuizione spirituale era in qualche modo diverso dalla maggior parte dei suoi seguaci, è ragionevole supporre che non avrebbe sentito la necessità di esporre un percorso per superare la sofferenza e l’ignoranza.

Tuttavia, anche se gli esseri nella fase di illuminazione hanno un senso di sé (e comprendono appieno che questo senso di sé è necessario per poter funzionare efficacemente nel mondo), sono anche pienamente consapevoli che il “sé” è un’illusione. La ragione perché il buddismo insegna che il sé è un’illusione riguarda il principio del vuoto, che afferma che gli esseri (e tutti i fenomeni) esistono soltanto come costrutti che sono interdipendenti e mentalmente designati. Ad esempio, un fiore si manifesta nella dipendenza da acqua e aria, dall’atmosfera, dal calore del sole, dal seme da cui è cresciuto, dalle sostanze nutrienti nel terreno, dagli insetti e gli animali che morirono e si decomposero al fine di produrre tali sostanze nutritive e così via. Di conseguenza, il fiore non esiste isolato da tutti gli altri fenomeni, ed è privo di un sé indipendente e intrinsecamente esistente. Così, come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post di stile Zen il Sogno o la Realtà, I fenomeni certamente sembrano essere reali, ma il modo in cui sono percepiti in realtà non equivale al modo in cui esistono veramente.

Sia gli esseri illuminati sia quelli non illuminati hanno un senso del sé, ma una differenza fondamentale tra questi due tipi di essere è che questi ultimi sono presi dalla convinzione che essi esistono intrinsecamente. Come abbiamo discusso nel nostro post sulla decostruzione del sé, a causa di una convinzione saldamente incorporata (ma scientificamente e logicamente non plausibile) che il sé è un’entità inerente e indipendentemente esistente, il Buddismo afferma che gli stati mentali affliggenti nascono come conseguenza dell ‘”io” figurative, desiderando incessantemente degli oggetti che ritiene di essere attraenti o provando avversione verso gli oggetti che ritiene  essere poco attraenti. Nel nostro lavoro accademico abbiamo defenito questa condizione dipendenza ontologico, per precisare è “la mancanza di volontà di rinunciare a una credenza erronea e radicata in un ‘sé’ inerentemente esistente o ‘io’ e la ‘funzionalità ridotta’ che nasce da questa convinzione “.

L’idea che al livello ultimo non esiste una cosa come un sé che esiste intrinsecamente può essere un concetto difficile da digerire. Tuttavia, di recente sono stati condotti esperimenti scientifici che sembrano aggiungere credibilità alla validità del concetto del vuoto. Ad esempio, uno studio pubblicato sulla rivista Nature nel 2010 ha dimostrato che una lama di metallo molto piccola di materiale semi-conduttore può essere fatta vibrare contemporaneamente in due differenti stati di energia. Questo è l’equivalente cinetico della materia simultaneamente esistente in due posti diversi e dimostra che a livello sub-atomico, le particelle (e qualsiasi proprietà di sé che essi potrebbero possedere) non possono mai essere localizzato nello spazio o nel tempo (cioè, esistono da nessuna parte e ovunque nello stesso momento).

Utilizzare le tecniche di neuroimaging per esplorare dove e come si regolano processi autoreferenziali è importante per far progredire la comprensione scientifica del cervello umano. Tuttavia, dal punto di vista buddista, la coscienza e il sé sono assenti di esistenza intrinseca ed è altrettanto corretto affermare che risiedono sia all’interno del cervello che fuori del cervello. Pertanto, secondo la teoria buddista, i tentativi da parte di alcuni scienziati di identificare la posizione specifica di sé o della coscienza nel cervello potrebbe essere considerato un tentativo un po’ inutile.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Ulteriore lettura

Kelley, W.T., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C., Caglar, S., Inati, S., & Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 785-794.

Heatherton, T. F., Macrae, C. N., & Kelley, W. M. (2004). What the social brain sciences can tell us about the self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 190-103.

O’Connell, A.D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R.C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E. …. & Cleland, A.N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697-703.

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

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Searching for the Present Moment. Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Turk, D. J., Heatherton, T.F., Kelley, W.M., Funnell, M.G., Gazzaniga, M.S., & Macrae, C. N. (2002). Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 841–842.

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