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The Buddha’s radical path of jh?na

September 2, 2014 - 10:13am

Jh?na — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a controversial topic in Buddhism. This should be rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jh?na so strongly. In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jh?nas. The Buddha said things like “There is no jh?na for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jh?na.” The jh?nas are enumerated over and over again in the P?li scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjha?gas, the 12 positive nid?nas, and the ?n?p?nasati Sutta, which mention various of the jh?na factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jh?na, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jh?na was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:

The Four Form Jh?nas and the Four Formless Jh?nas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as ?l?ra K?l?ma and Uddaka R?maputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mah?parinirv?na. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)

The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jh?nas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jh?nas of form,” and the role of these “formless jh?nas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under ?l?ra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jh?na was the “path to Awakening.”

First, there’s the assumption that ?l?ra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jh?nas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jh?nas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (?kiñcañña-?yatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from ?l?ra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññ?n?sañña-?yatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).

“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if ?l?ra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jh?na, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jh?nas — part of the four ‘formless jh?nas’ that follow on from the four ‘jh?nas of form.’” (The first two “formless jh?nas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.

The suttas never refer to any “formless jh?nas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jh?nas” are in fact never referred to as jh?nas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “?yatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jh?nas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”

Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jh?nas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jh?nas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the ?yatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jh?nas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.

There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the ?yatanas without first going through the jh?nas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jh?nas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the ?yatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the ?yatanas via the jh?nas, but there are other ways.

The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jh?nas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jha?na was “the way to Awakening”:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jha?na, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’

That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jha?na is the way to Awakening.

Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jh?nas” (in reality the third and fourth ?yatanas) under Uddaka and ?l?ra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jh?na be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jh?nas with ?l?ra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the ?yatanas through means other than by going through the jh?nas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the ?yatanas we must first go through the jh?nas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jh?nas.

I see the jh?nas and the ?yatanas arising in different ways. Jh?na involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jh?na we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jh?na is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.

The ?yatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the ?yatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.

In the suttas, all of the entry points to the ?yatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jh?nas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the ?yatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the ?yatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.

The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jh?na was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of ?l?ra and Uddaka explained the ?yatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the ?yatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). ?l?ra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.

What does jh?na do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.

The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jh?na allows us to do. Jh?na supports insight.

In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jh?nas) and vipassan? (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jh?nas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jh?na makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jh?na to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jha?na For one with no wisdom (pan?n?a), No wisdom for one with no jha?na).” Samatha and vipassan? are complementary and synergistic.

If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jha?na is the way to Awakening.”

But why, having failed to gain insight through the ?yatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jh?nas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.

First, the assumptions that ?l?ra and Uddaka made about the ?yatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.

Second, the experience of the ?yatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the ?yatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.

A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.

So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jh?nas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jh?nas by ?l?ra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the ?yatanas. The intuition that jh?na might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.

It’s time to lay aside the notion that the ?yatanas are jh?nas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jh?nas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jh?nas) and vipassan? (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.

And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jh?na to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jh?na, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.

Rather than jh?na acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jh?na that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.

Emotional hijacking

September 2, 2014 - 8:56am

In light of the machinery of survival-based, emotional reactivity, let’s look more narrowly at what Daniel Goleman has called “emotional hijacking.”

The emotional circuits of your brain – which are relatively primitive from an evolutionary standpoint, originally developed when dinosaurs ruled the earth – exert great influence over the more modern layers of the brain in the cerebral cortex. They do this in large part by continually “packaging” incoming sensory information in two hugely influential ways:

  • Labeling it with a subjective feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is primarily accomplished by the amygdala, in close concert with the hippocampus; this circuit is probably the specific structure of the brain responsible for the feeling aggregate in Buddhism (and one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness).
  • Ordering a fundamental behavioral response: approach, avoid, or ignore. The amygdala-hippocampus duo keep answering the two questions an organism – you and I – continually faces in its environment: Is it OK or not? And what should I do?

Meanwhile, the frontal lobes have also been receiving and processing sensory information. But much of it went through the amygdala first, especially if it was emotionally charged, including linked to past memories of threat or pain or trauma. Studies have shown that differences in amygdala activation probably account for much of the variation, among people, in emotional temperaments and reactions to negative information.

The amygdala sends its interpretations of stimuli – with its own “spin” added – throughout the brain, including to the frontal lobes. In particular, it sends its signals directly to the brain stem without processing by the frontal lobes – to trigger autonomic (fight or flight) and behavioral responses. And those patterns of activation in turn ripple back up to the frontal lobes, also affecting its interpretations of events and its plans for what to do.

It’s like there is a poorly controlled, emotionally reactive, not very bright, paranoid, and trigger-happy lieutenant in the control room of a missile silo watching radar screens and judging what he sees. Headquarters is a hundred miles away, also seeing the same screens — but (A) it gets its information after the lieutenant does, (B) the lieutenant’s judgments affect what shows upon the screens at headquarters, and (C) his instructions to “launch” get to the missiles seconds before headquarters can signal “stand down!”

Mindfulness training can improve quality of life for memory impaired and their caregivers

September 2, 2014 - 7:07am

Medical News Today: Mindfulness training for individuals with early-stage dementia and their caregivers together in the same class was beneficial for both groups, easing depression and improving sleep and quality of life, reports new Northwestern Medicine study.

“The disease is challenging for the affected person, family members and caregivers,” said study lead author Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and a fellow of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Although they know things will likely get worse, they can learn to focus on the present, deriving enjoyment in the moment with acceptance and without excessive worry about the future. This is what was taught in the mindfulness program.”

The study was published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are particularly hard on caregivers, who are often close family members. They tend to have an increased incidence of anxiety, depression, immune dysfunction and other health concerns as well as an increased mortality rate, according to prior studies.

This is the first study to show that the caregiver and the patient both benefit from undergoing mindfulness training together. This is important because caregivers often don’t have much time on their own for activities that could relieve their emotional burden.

The training also helps the patient and caregiver accept new ways of communicating, scientists said.

“One of the major difficulties that individuals with dementia and their family members encounter is that there is a need for new ways of communicating due to the memory loss and other changes in thinking and abilities,” noted study co-author Sandra Weintraub, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg and a neuropsychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “The practice of mindfulness places both participants in the present and focuses on positive features of the interaction, allowing for a type of connection that may substitute for the more complex ways of communicating in the past. It is a good way to address stress.”

The study included 37 participants including 29 individuals who were part of a patient-caregiver pair. Most of the patients were diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. Others had memory loss due to strokes or frontotemporal dementia, which affects emotions as well as speaking and understanding speech. Caregivers included patients’ spouses, adult children, a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law.

Although the individuals with Alzheimer’s had mild to severe memory loss, they still were able to use other cognitive functions to participate in the mindfulness training and to experience emotion and positive feelings, Weintraub noted.

The participants attended eight sessions designed specifically for the needs of patients with memory loss due to the terminal neurodegenerative illness (dementia) and for the needs of their caregivers. Both groups completed an assessment within two weeks of starting the program and within two weeks of completing it.

Paller had expected mindfulness to be helpful for dementia caregivers based on previous research in the field. But he was uncertain whether a program would be successful for patients with memory impairments and whether patients and their caregivers could be trained together.

“We saw lower depression scores and improved ratings on sleep quality and quality of life for both groups,” said Paller, director of the cognitive neuroscience program. “After eight sessions of this training we observed a positive difference in their lives.”

“Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment,” Paller said. “You don’t have to be drawn into wishing things were different. Mindfulness training in this way takes advantage of people’s abilities rather than focusing on their difficulties.”

Developing mindfulness is about learning different habits and a person has to practice a new habit for it to stick, Paller noted.

Paller said he hoped the study findings would encourage caregivers to seek out resources for learning mindfulness for themselves and the individuals with illness.

Step two – seeing how we can create extra suffering in our lives

August 31, 2014 - 9:07pm

The Buddha was asked, what is the difference between how an ordinary person and a wise person responds to pain? He replied with the analogy of the two darts. All of us experience pain – whether that is physical pain like catching your finger in the door or mental pain such as when someone rejects you. This is the first dart, which we could call primary suffering.

An ordinary person then gets caught up in trying to push away or avoid the pain; in blaming themselves or others, or feeling self-pity. This has the effect of making matters worse: the second dart, which we can call secondary suffering. A wise person just has the first dart. They don’t get stuck in avoidance or obsessing about the pain. Instead they mindfully accept it for what it is, without making it worse with secondary suffering.’ Extract from Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s teachings to Overcome Addiction

The question is how do we become like the wise person?

The ordinary person takes refuge in distractions to help move away from the pain or suffering. The ordinary person seeks refuge in self pity, blame, and or distraction through addictions. Every time the ordinary person reacts to suffering or pain by distraction, self pity and or blame, they are re-creating a habit. Recreating a pattern of behavior that can in the end result in a matter of life and death.

Every time we turn away from the pain and or suffering, we are just delaying the inevitable. Know that turning away in the moment will create momentary release from the suffering, perhaps even pleasure, but know that misery is swiftly upon our heels.

We can become a wise person by recognizing our patterns of behavior. By seeing how we habitually turn away from our suffering and pain. However we do not become wise, until we take action and do something different.

The good news is; that it is possible to be free of psychological, existential pain and suffering. Yes we will always experience some form of physical pain, but know too that if we react, turn away from it, it will multiply it.

It’s said that the Buddha experienced chronic back and stomach pain due to the extreme austerities that he practiced during the six years before he became enlightened. In fact some say that the dyspepsia that culminated into his last serious illness of dysentery, was caused by his unhealthy eating habits during his ascetic life. He was a human being and like all of us was subject to sickness, ageing and dying. Although there is reference to this physical pain, we never hear of the Buddha complaining.

Sometimes when we clean up from addictions, and step onto the path of recovery, we become resentful of the ailments we are left with, creating more suffering in our lives. If we are to become wise, we have to learn that we have the potential to change our lives in the present moment. The present moment is what we have, and in it we can create a life of misery or a life of peace.

Becoming wise can be as simple as realizing we are not our thoughts. As simple as realizing that our thinking is not true. As simple as learning to pause. And yes I hear you. It’s not easy. But was your addiction easy? Was taking refuge in your addiction to deal with what life presented to you easy? I say that acting on these simple realizations is easier than living with any addiction, compulsive or obsessive behaviour.

Step two – pages 43 – 78

Eight Step Recovery is out now: Eight Step Recovery – Order your book now

Or try a free sample – For a free sample chapter of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: [email protected]

Meditation is fine, but what about the Buddhism behind it?

August 29, 2014 - 8:29am

Jessica Brown, The Independent: Closing your eyes and being mindful isn’t the only way to achieve inner wellbeing.

Just when you thought it was safe to close your eyes, there has been recent warnings from psychiatrists on the adverse effects of mindfulness meditation. As well as evidence of underqualified teachers, there have been rare cases of depersonalisation, where people feel an out-of-body experience.
There has also been questions raised over the vulnerability of some of those who seek meditation as a form of treatment, regarding the increase in awareness and the emotions this can conjure.

Meditation has fast become synonymous with the improvement …

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Empathy versus compassion

August 29, 2014 - 5:26am

On the Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a provocative article titled “Against Empathy.” It’s not advocating an uncompassionate approach to life, and in fact central to his thesis is that there is a distinction between empathy, which he says can limit and exhaust us, and compassion, which he points out is more sustainable.

There’s one particular section where there are several references to Buddhism and to Buddhist practitioners:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Or consider long-distance charity. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone who hears about the plight of starving children might actually go through the empathetic exercise of imagining what it is like to starve to death. But this empathetic distress surely isn’t necessary for charitable giving. A compassionate person might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.

Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction has some support in the collaborative work of Tania Singer, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist. In a series of studies using fMRI brain scanning, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, these meditative states did not activate parts of the brain that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain. Ricard described his meditative experience as “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathetic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate circuits associated with empathetic distress were activated. “The empathic sharing,” Ricard said, “very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.”

One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer and her colleagues in which people are either given empathy training, which focuses on the capacity to experience the suffering of others, or compassion training, in which subjects are trained to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care. According to Singer’s results, among test subjects who underwent empathy training, “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations. . . . these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.” Compassion training—which doesn’t involve empathetic arousal to the perceived distress of others—was more effective, leading to both increased positive emotions and increased altruism.

How firmly should you pursue your intentions?

August 28, 2014 - 8:31am

How firmly do you pursue your intentions? Neither too tight nor too loose a rein.

As with the balance of the capital city and the provinces, it’s worth considering what your tendencies are and if there is an imbalance. For example, some of us hold onto our goals to a fault (myself, ahem) going down with the ship – pull up! It’s a trap!! – while others give up way too soon or don’t take their own needs and wants seriously enough.

From the Buddhist perspective, the path that leads to the greatest well-being and goodness for oneself and others steers clear of over-striving on the one hand – clinging is, after all, the primary engine of suffering – yet is also guided by Right Intention and other wholesome aims.

The importance of this side of the balance – of perseverance guided by goodness – is seen in one of my favorite phrases of the Buddha. Appearing in many places in the Pali Canon, indicating its importance, it describes worthy practitioners as “ardent, resolute, diligent, and mindful.” All these speak to a real dedication.

In my experience, more people err on the side of being flabby or fearful in their resolutions, and not enough of an ally to themselves, than err on the side of being obsessively driven toward important goals. And of course, within the same person, there may be goals that he or she is too lax about as well as goals that he or she is too obsessive about.

You could reflect on how you might come to better balance for yourself with regard to your strength of resolution. Consider both the goals you could be too driven about . . . . and the goals you could be too lax about.

Mindfulness meditation improved quality of life in adolescents with cancer

August 28, 2014 - 8:06am

Christine A. Zawistowski, MD, HemOnc Today: A diagnosis of cancer is accompanied by a high degree of emotional stress.

Consequently, psychological interventions have become a vital and integral component of cancer care.

One example is mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation derived from the Buddhist practice of insight meditation. It is designed to develop the skill of paying attention to both inner and outer experiences with acceptance, patience and compassion. It focuses on experiencing life in a nonjudgmental way, in the moment.

The practice strives to help patients develop stability, inner calmness and non-reactivity of the mind. In essence, it tries to train …

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Meditation is an emotional rollercoaster

August 27, 2014 - 7:28am

Ed Halliwell, The Guardian: About four days into my first meditation retreat, I started crying. Not little droplets of tears, but great, big, uncontrolled sobs – it felt like I was throwing up wave after wave of stale sadness. I’d expected the long days of sitting to be boring, annoying, physically demanding and (with a bit of luck) illuminating, so to find myself repeatedly breaking down into a noisy heap of grief came as a shock. These spontaneous outbursts of wailing continued throughout the month-long programme – it says much for the teachers’ equanimity that they didn’t chuck me out.

So when would-be …

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Sweet Nirv?na!

August 27, 2014 - 5:00am

I found this sweet hymn in a book by Paul Carus, called Sacred Tunes for the Consecration of Life: Hymns of the Religion of Science. Carus (18 July 1852 – 11 February 1919) was an early German-American translator, compiler, and popularizer of Buddhist texts.

Carus seems to have been fond of hymns, since he published an entire book of settings of Buddhist texts. This is available online, courtesy of archive.org.

Unfortunately my sight-reading skills have atrophied through decades of disuse, and I’m only able to guess at what the tune is.

Here is the rest of the song.

Sweet Nirv?na,
Highest Jh?na!
Rupture sweeter than all pleasures,
Thou the measure of all measures,
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirv?na,
Highest Jh?na!
Balm that all our ailments curest.
Thou alone for aye endurest!
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirv?na,
Highest Jh?na!
State where thoughts are truest, purest;
Where our wisdom is maturest,
And our hearts in love securest,
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirv?na,
Highest Jh?na!
Of all jewels thou the rarest,
Him thou fill’st with radiance fairest,
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Sweet Nirv?na,
Highest Jh?na!
Overcome all selfish clinging,
Let love’s harmonies be ringing,
While all join the chorus, singing:
O, immortal Buddhahood!

Why mindful individuals make better decisions

August 26, 2014 - 7:42am

Natalia Karelaia, Forbes India: Mindfulness is practiced in board rooms from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. But just how much does it improve the quality of your decision-making?

Five years ago when I introduced mindfulness to my MBA decision-making class it was perceived as something completely esoteric; there were maybe two or three students who could relate to the concept. Today, not only have most of them heard about it, many are practicing it. More and more corporations are offering mindfulness training to their employees. It’s being incorporated into negotiation techniques and leadership manuals, in fact every area of business where strong decisions …

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Breathe away pain

August 26, 2014 - 6:58am

Ferris Jabr, Psychology Today: While resisting pain only makes suffering worse, mindfulness meditation can help chronic pain sufferers.

Pain is necessary. It alerts us to threats, teaches us to avoid future risks, and makes sure we don’t forget to help ourselves heal. Our bodies have evolved instinctive reactions to pain and injury—accidentally brush your hand against a boiling kettle and your arm will retract reflexively before you even realize why. Our minds, too, respond to pain in a characteristic manner: ever notice how even a minor wound can dominate your thoughts?
But what if you could manipulate your natural response to pain in …

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CBT mindfulness for depression may also reduce MD visits

August 25, 2014 - 8:18am

Rick Nauert, PsychCentral: New Canadian research finds a reduction in primary care visits among individuals receiving mindfulness-based therapy for depression.

Investigators discovered frequent health service users who received mindfulness-based cognitive therapy showed a significant reduction in non-mental health care visits over a one-year period, compared with those who received other types of group therapy.

The mindfulness therapy group had one fewer non-mental health visit per year, for every two individuals treated with this therapy – which translates into a reduction of nearly 2,500 visits to primary care physicians, emergency departments or non-psychiatric specialists in Ontario over eight years.

“We speculate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy …

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6 tips that prove meditation is way easier than you think

August 22, 2014 - 9:43am

Anna Maltby, Huffington Post: “I’m terrible at trying to meditate — I can never shut off my brain or sit still!” Sound familiar? You know practices like mindfulness meditation are good for you, but they just seem so counter to our 20-tabs-open-at-a-time lifestyle that it’s hard to imagine where to start. We asked Marianela Medrano, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor and member of the American Counseling Association, for help. Let’s start National Relaxation Day off on a good foot, shall we?

1. It’s not about saying “om” over and over again.
Unlike some types of meditation, you don’t have to say a mantra or try …

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Patterns of closeness and independence

August 22, 2014 - 7:56am

Intimacy and autonomy are independent dimensions, and it is their combination that counts.

The qualities in each category, imperfectly summarized by a single word, characterize both types of individuals and, more importantly, states of mind we all transit:

  • Integrated – Comfortable and skillful with both closeness and agency; able both to carry others in her heart while pursuing her own aims, and to be completely authentic in the most intimate moments; symbolically, “you” and “I” are about the same size.
  • Engulfed – Highly connected, but not free to act or express himself fully; giving up “me” is price to be “we;” unnecessarily dependent; clutching, beseeching, placating; could resist encouragement to be more independent; “you” are big and “I” am small.
  • Isolated – Strong sense of personal desires but weak connections with others; a solitary captain with a firm hand on the rudder; could be prickly about bids for closeness or seeming infringements on her prerogatives; “you” are small and “I” am big.
  • Adrift – Dissociated from both others and oneself; unresponsive and passive; alone in a boat with no direction; “you” are small and “I” am small.

Of these four, the Integrated mode of being clearly brings the most benefits to you and to others, it is the best foundation for personal growth and spiritual practice, and it involves the most complex forms of neural regulation. To feel safe in the deep end of the pool of intimacy, a person needs to be able to speak her own truth and be comfortable with closeness.

Health benefits aplenty from mindfulness and meditation

August 21, 2014 - 7:32am

Niagara-On-The-Lake Town Crier: Mindfulness and meditation.

These two topics are appearing in many health articles these days.

Do you know what they are?

They are wonderful practices that can improve your health.

Scientists are evaluating and have proven that by using these practices you can change and experience many health benefits.

Here is a definition of what mindfulness is: paying attention to the present moment, experiencing it with open curiosity and willingness to not judge but just observe. When we do this we open our brains to looking at things differently. In today’s world we are always being told to look for improvement …

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Social and emotional skills for schools

August 20, 2014 - 12:14pm

Ravi Pradhan, República: In the past decade, a very exciting new approach has started to attract the attention of educators and parents in the US. An umbrella term to describe these approaches is “social and emotional learning” or SEL.

In fact, the US Federal Government and private foundations have funded several pilot grants all over the country.

SEL is seen as a relatively low-cost, secular, science-based approach that generates the following kinds of results across age, sex, income levels, and ethnic backgrounds in schools:

  • Reduces stress, anxiety, negative behavior, and bullying.
  • Increases calmness, relaxation, self-awareness, self-control, and empathy.
  • Improves focus, attention and self-awareness …

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Just breathe: why meditation is going mainstream

August 19, 2014 - 7:36am

Chavie Lieber, Racked.com: Cruise through the posh Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, and you’ll drive past all the hot spots: the local farmers’ market, a smattering of spinning studios, a boutique coffee shop—and a new trendy meditation spot, Unplug.

Four months ago former Glamour editor Suze Yalof Schwartz opened Unplug, imagining it as a “modern meditation studio” where guided classes are easy, soothing and accessible.

“I want Unplug to be the Drybar of meditation,” Yalof Schwartz told Racked. “There needs to be a place to just pop in and meditate, not take eight-week programs that cost $1400 and are in the middle of nowhere.” …

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A silent journey to the centre of the self

August 18, 2014 - 9:31am

Debra Black, TheStar.com: Reporter Debra Black attends a six-day silent retreat, where she practices yoga and mediation and tries her best to live in the moment.

“When we relax the breath, the mind temporarily becomes relaxed. The breath is free from greed, hatred, delusion and fear. Relaxing the breath, breathe in. Relaxing the breath, breathe out. The joy arises naturally.” Bhante Gunaratana, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English.

It is odd to eat in silence. I’ve lined up for today’s lunch — miso mushroom soup; cold vegetarian rolls of rice noodles, cabbage and avocado; and fresh fruit — without uttering a …

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The Power of Mindfulness: an introductory meditation course begins September 2, 2014

August 15, 2014 - 9:44am

Do you want to be calmer, happier, and experience more freedom from stress? Mindfulness has been clinically proven to reduce stress, promote feelings of wellbeing, and improve mental and physical health.

The next Power of Mindfulness online course starts September 2, 2014. It’s a four-week meditation course that’s accessible 24 hours a day, every day of the week, wherever you are. All you need is an internet browser. You can even participate on an iPad or other mobile device.

The convenience makes this perfect for people who don’t have meditation classes nearby, or who work irregular hours or who can’t travel because of illness, childcare arrangements, etc.

The course is web-based, and involves readings, guided meditation MP3s that were specially recorded for this course, a discussion forum, and email exchanges with the teacher, Bodhipaksa.

Weaving together the latest scientific research with ancient Buddhist wisdom, this four-week course provides a comprehensive introduction to living mindfully. It’s not just about the skills of meditation. You’ll also learn how to take what you learn into action. This course gives you the tools to gain more insight into yourself, and be more at ease and content through life’s ups and downs.

For more information, or to register for the course click here to go to the online store.