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Meditation isn’t always relaxing, new study finds

August 4, 2015 - 8:46am

Sarah Berry, Stuff.co.nz: Meditation is many things, but it is not always relaxing.

It restores clarity, relieves stress, changes our brains for the better, encourages creativity and calms our nervous system.

But a new study has found that we experience elevated heart rates during certain types of meditation.

Participants in the study were asked to practise loving-kindness meditation, thought-observation meditation and a relaxing breathing meditation technique.

The neuroscience researchers found that heart rate and effort were higher during loving-kindness meditation and observing-thoughts meditations.

“In contrast to implicit beliefs that meditation is always relaxing and associated with low arousal, the current results show that …

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How mindfulness can help us appreciate food

July 30, 2015 - 9:01am

Derek Watson, Herald Scotland: When I was a wee girl my daddy used to cajole me and my brother and sisters into finishing our meals by playing a game in which we were to imagine each forkful going to a different part of our bodies. Beef and potato, for instance, would be mashed up and formed into a pie shape, which we took great delight in dividing into wedges. On dad’s instruction we’d scoop up each piece and as we swallowed we’d imagine it going to, say, our left knee or our right pinky toe or a bicep or an eye. We imagine …

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The structure of gratitude

July 29, 2015 - 8:41am

David Brooks, NY Times: I’m sometimes grumpier when I stay at a nice hotel. I have certain expectations about the service that’s going to be provided. I get impatient if I have to crawl around looking for a power outlet, if the shower controls are unfathomable, if the place considers itself too fancy to put a coffee machine in each room. I’m sometimes happier at a budget motel, where my expectations are lower, and where a functioning iron is a bonus and the waffle maker in the breakfast area is a treat.

This little phenomenon shows how powerfully expectations structure our moods and …

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Why a Buddhist monk doesn’t need an app to meditate and why you do

July 21, 2015 - 10:06am

Dragos Bratasanu, Huffington Post: A few years ago I traveled to Nepal to hike in the Himalayas, learn a bit more about myself and about the world from the Buddhist spiritual teachers. For over seven years I have went back and forth across the bridge between science and spirituality. I have studied both, trying to understand why we try to separate them, why we need to follow one path or the other. I never could quite understand why a scientist cannot spend time in meditation or pray and why a person on the spiritual path can’t actually think?

As the night embraced the …

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Meditation infographic

July 21, 2015 - 8:43am

InformationIsBeautiful.net reviewed 75+ studies and compiled all the evidence in one graphic and datasheet.

What are the effects of meditation & mindfulness, according to the latest scientific research? What’s it good for? And while we’re at it, what’s the difference between meditation and mindfulness anyway?

Click on the graphic above to get more information.

The “Now Bench”

July 20, 2015 - 8:25am

I just got word of a Kickstarter for an interesting new meditation tool.

For many people, sitting cross-legged isn’t comfortable, or even possible! For those who aren’t so flexible, the traditional kneeling, or “seiza” posture is very handy. It provides stability, comfort (once you figure out the right height, angle, and floor cushioning), and a sense of groundedness (certainly compared to being perched on a chair).

A good seiza bench, usually made of wood, can cost anything from $60 to $200 for a decent model.

The Now Bench is a different approach, using modern foam technology. It’s a simple U-shape, allowing the bench to find the right angle for having the spine naturally erect. It’s something I’d like to try out.

The pros of this are that it’s very light and inexpensive. One con would be that it’s “one size fits all,” which is never ideal. Tall or still people need more height than small or flexible people. Ideally a seat like this would come in a range of sizes. Another con would be that it’s rather bulky compared to a folding wooden bench. I can throw my Kindseat into a standard carry-on bag without it taking up any significant room. I suspect the Now Seat isn’t going to leave room for much else.

But those caveats aside, not everyone travels, and if the Now Seat fits you then it might be a great choice.

The Now Bench comes with an optional “Now Mat,” which is a foam version of the traditional “zabuton,” offering your knees and ankles protection against hard flooring.

You can check out the Kickstarter campaign here.

And you can see images of the bench in use below:

Mindfulness study to track effect of meditation on 7,000 teenagers

July 20, 2015 - 7:59am

Robert Booth, The Guardian: Seven thousand teenagers wrestling with the churning emotions of adolescence, exam stress and peer pressure are to take part in an unprecedented trial of the effect of mindfulness meditation on mental health.

Psychologists and neuroscientists from Oxford University and University College London announced on Wednesday they plan to recruit children aged 11 to 16 from 76 secondary schools as part of a seven-year study. They said it would be the largest trial of its kind ever conducted and it would test some of the increasingly ambitious claims about the power of mindfulness meditation to tackle illnesses such as depression and anxiety …

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Why meditation should be taught in schools

July 17, 2015 - 7:46am

Lea Waters, The Conversation: New research in the fields of psychology, education and neuroscience shows teaching meditation in schools is having positive effects on students’ well-being, social skills and academic skills.

A recent meta-review of the impact of meditation in schools combined the results from 15 studies and almost 1800 students from Australia, Canada, India, the UK, the US and Taiwan. The research showed meditation is beneficial in most cases and led to three broad outcomes for students: higher well-being, better social skills and greater academic skills.

Students who were taught meditation at school reported higher optimism, more positive emotions, stronger self-identity, greater self-acceptance and …

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What consciousness wants

July 17, 2015 - 5:00am

What does consciousness want? I don’t mean what do “you” want. I mean, what is consciousness fundamentally about? What is it trying to do? What is its nature?

Consciousness is undefinable. We can look at the brain with fancy machines and see activity going on. We can study neurons and understand the physical processes by which, for example, vision takes place. But how actual experience comes to arise on the basis of this is something that isn’t understood. This has been called the “hard problem” of explaining consciousness because scientists and philosophers don’t even know how to begin to think about this.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Alva Noë has said that consciousness is co-extensive with life itself. This doesn’t define consciousness, since we can’t even define life. But Noë’s argument is that all life has some kind of awareness of and ability to respond to its environment.

I believe that the consciousness that animates an amoeba or a yeast cell is fundamentally the same as that of a human being. There is only one kind of consciousness.

Yes, there is a difference as well. Although there is only one kind of consciousness, it performs in different ways depending on the nature of the being in which it is manifesting. An amoeba lives in a relatively simple world that includes food and toxins. It moves toward and engulfs food, and avoids toxins. It almost certainly doesn’t have thoughts or emotions. A wolf has a more complex nervous system, sense organs, and body. It has things like feelings, a sense of social hierarchy, needs for affection and companionship, etc. It is capable of more developed memories than an amoeba. It can plan and anticipate the future. A human being is more complex still. Our nervous systems are capable of seeing meaning in life, for example, and we’re able to construct stories, culture and technology (memories passed from generation to generation).

But the same fundamental consciousness is expressing itself through these various channels. Consciousness is like water or electricity. The water that flows through a stream is the same “stuff” as the water that flows through the trunk of a redwood tree, and the electricity in lightning is the same “stuff” that flows through our nerve cells when we remember our first date. Similarly, consciousness is all the same “stuff” whether it’s manifesting in a paramecium or a person.

Consciousness will naturally try to express itself as fully as it can, within the confines of the physical structure in which it’s manifesting. But the way in which consciousness expresses itself is always going to be limited because of those structures.

Consciousness, I believe, fundamentally wants to flow with the least resistance possible. When I say that it “wants” this I don’t mean that this is a real desire, any more than water has desire when it flows downhill. Water, if given the “choice,” will flow along a wide straight channel rather than along a narrow, twisted one. Electricity does the same, “choosing” to flow along a wire with low resistance, rather than one with high resistance. “Choice” here is just an analogy. All we’re saying is that this is how water and electricity behave.

I believe that consciousness “wants” to “flow” freely. Unfortunately, in the human brain/mind it rarely gets a chance to do this. The structure of the human brain leads to internal conflict, because various “modules” have different strategies. For example, in order to promote survival (and thus continued wellbeing) the amygdala prompts us to behave aggressively when it detects a threat. On the other hand, the neocortex recognizes that aggression frequently creates conflict and thus threatens our wellbeing. These are mutually incompatible aims. Consciousness is thus like water where the flow is turned back upon itself, causing turbulence. We experience this disturbance as dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, or suffering. Craving, aversion, and delusion are all sources of this turbulence.

The ultimate state of peace to which consciousness “aspires” is the calm state that Buddhism calls “equanimity,” where the mind has been harmonized, and consciousness doesn’t react to stimuli in ways that cause unnecessary disturbance. This state is also called “compassion” because relating compassionately to other manifestations of consciousness is the most peaceful way that it can function socially. This state is also called “wisdom,” because consciousness at rest recognizes that craving and aversion are simply flawed strategies for finding peace, and because consciousness expressing itself in one physical form recognizes how consciousness as it manifests in other physical forms is simply trying to find peace.

In a neurologically complex being, such as a human being, consciousness has the ability to observe and assess its own functioning. It also has the ability to change the physical structure through which it operates. When consciousness observes that, for example, compassion is a valid way to move towards a state of peace, and that aggression isn’t, the brain changes in ways which make compassion more likely to be expressed in the future. New habits create new neural pathways. Abandoning habits leads to neural atrophy in unused circuits.

Consciousness does not take place within a self, but the self—or the idea of the self—takes place within consciousness. One of the things that happens in a complex consciousness is that stories are created in an attempt to explain the past and predict the future. One of those stories is that there is a “self” which contains consciousness, owns consciousness, and of which consciousness is a part. In reality, of course, the “self” happens within consciousness, as a simulation.

When a consciousness recognizes that one of the limits that has been hindering its expression is this imagined self, it can then begin to test the illusion. It can look and see that there are no stable experiences. All experiences are impermanent. Thus, there is no way for a stable self to exist. Eventually the imagined self is seen as what it is, a story representing something that doesn’t exist. At that point there is a major shift in how consciousness operates, and in its ability to move toward a state of rest and peace. We call that shift “Awakening.”

Other aspects of the functioning of the being are also questioned—not just whether craving and aversion can ever work at bringing about peace (it’s been largely seen that they don’t), but whether in fact there is any “thing” to be grasped or avoided. Progressively, craving and aversion cease to function, because they’re no longer taken seriously. The very idea of separateness (I versus the world, me versus you, experiencer versus experienced) fades away.

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Gradually, consciousness is able to express itself more and more freely, without painful turbulence, and just as gradually, consciousness moves toward a state of graceful expression characterized by wisdom and equanimity, and expressing itself as compassion.

We can summarize all this by saying that when the physical universe becomes complex enough, life (and consciousness) arise. Give a star enough time, and it starts to wonder why it isn’t happy. Part of the universe ponders the rest of the universe, and wonders what it’s all about. Why am I here? What happens then I die? How can I become happier? How can I have more of the experiences I like and fewer of those I don’t like? It thinks of itself as separate.

Give this apparently separate part of the universe a bit more time and it’ll learn to untangle, unwind, and relax the habits that have created its sense of separateness. It then becomes simply another part of the universe, flowing, clearly aware, without delusions of separateness, and with the compassionate desire to help other deluded expressions of consciousness to reach the same state of rest, peace, and wisdom.

Just Sitting is an important part of this process. It allows consciousness the time and space to become aware of its own functioning, to create the conditions for removing the “turbulence” of craving, aversion, and delusion, and so to come to a state of pure, unobstructed flow.

Mindfulness is a capitalist grift: How faux enlightenment maintains our status quo

July 16, 2015 - 7:56am

Kali Holloway, Salon: I stumbled across mindfulness, the meditation practice now favored by titans of tech, sensitive C-suiters, new media gurus and celebrities, without even really knowing it.

A couple of years ago, I was deeply mired in an insane schedule that involved almost everything (compulsive list-making at 4am, vacations mostly spent working, lots of being “on”) except for one desperately missed item (sleep; pretty much just sleep). A friend suggested I download Headspace, a meditation app he swore would calm the thoughts buzzing incessantly in my head, relax my anxious energy and help me be more present. I took his advice, noting …

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Toward a socially responsible mindfulness

July 15, 2015 - 9:57am

The big news in the Buddhist world recently was a gathering of Buddhist teachers and leaders at the White House – yes, that White House. My heart leaped with joy when I saw photos of members of the group holding up three banners with these words:

The Karma of Slavery is Heavy
I vow to work for racial justice

The Whole Earth is My True Body
I vow to work for climate justice

U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence Not Safety
I vow to work for peace and freedom

The banners were lovingly hand-painted by members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the San Francisco Bay Area. BPF is an organization near and dear to my heart – I worked there for many years, and served as its executive director from 2004 – 2007.

This dharmic-based activism is a good lead-in to something I’ve been intending to write about for a very long time.

Even though I often use the word “mindfulness” to describe the principle at the very foundation of my work, I have to confess that I have a lot of resistance to using the ‘m’ word.

Over the past few years as mindfulness has taken root in the public discourse, I’ve felt grateful that this practice which has long been part of my life is being widely shared and made accessible to many more people. Yet at the same time I am concerned, with others, that its original intention is becoming distorted. We’ve all observed how our capitalist/consumerist culture can take anything and turn it into a commodity.

Many months ago, I had a vision of creating a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto,” a document that I imagined could serve as a rallying point for those of us who hold mindfulness in a larger context and see its potential as a vehicle for personal and collective liberation. Part of the manifesto would be a pledge signed by people who teach mindfulness in secular settings — a vow that we would hold awareness of social and environmental issues as we do this work and not be complicit with unjust conditions.

I thought of a number of people who I deeply respect to be part of a working group on this document and sent them a first draft. I want to especially acknowledge two people who took time to give the document a thorough read and responded with important feedback. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, whom I’ve known since our days working together at BPF, contributed a perspective of inclusivity, reminding me of the importance of writing a document that was relevant to Buddhists from all backgrounds, not just Zen practitioners. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi – a respected Buddhist scholar, Theravadin monk, and founder of Buddhist Global Relief – contributed the gift of integrity. He pointed out places where the document was at odds with the teachings of the Buddha, and helping to contextualize mindfulness both historically and doctrinally.

When the first round of feedback came, I was unsure how to move forward or if it even made sense to continue with this effort. However, the more I considered the insightful comments that were offered, the more I realized that this process might be worth sharing with you. Even if there isn’t a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto” to show yet, there is a lot of good thinking about what this might look like and what purpose it can serve. Stay tuned.

And I still passionately believe in the reason for the document in the first place: If mindfulness is indeed a ‘movement,’ I want to be part of a movement that supports people to wake up to the connections between us, that helps us to see that personal stress reduction is not separate from fair wages and safe working conditions, that does not hide from questions about power and privilege.

Both Mushim and I thought it might be beneficial to share the email conversation that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I had about this subject. My thanks to Mushim for putting this in a dialogical format that helps to illustrate the important points. I certainly learned a lot from this engagement!

Maia: For socially-engaged spiritual activists, secular mindfulness practices seem to offer a liberatory potential, in terms of helping to create more embodied and mindful social justice movements. What’s your take on this idea?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: From a Buddhist perspective, “the most emancipatory context” for the practice of mindfulness is one dedicated to the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice—which from the early Buddhist perspective is the attainment of emancipation from sams?ra—and for me it is questionable that the use of mindfulness practice in secular settings has this aim. I don’t begrudge the efforts to find new applications of mindfulness, and I agree that these applications should be bolstered by an ethical framework and used for salutory purposes. But I think one has to be cautious about assuming that these modernist applications are identical with—or even congruent with—the practice of mindfulness in its original context.

Maia: Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally [emphasis mine] to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Some might say that the practice of mindfulness allows us to increase our awareness of aspects of wellness and disease as they manifest within our individual bodies and emotions, and also within our social systems as well. From that place of increased awareness, we are in a better position to take skillful action to address the causes of disease. Do you think that the practice of mindfulness meditation automatically or inevitably leads to social responsibility?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There is the rub: the idea that mindfulness is inherently nonjudgmental. In the Pali texts, mindfulness is always conjoined with the faculty of judgment (dhammavicaya), through which one engages in assessment, evaluation, and discrimination, and thereby endeavors to eliminate what is harmful and to arouse and strengthen what is wholesome and beneficial.

Maia: Because of a cultural tendency to focus on private wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing (a tendency more often present in people with economic and other kinds of privilege), we may overlook one of the teachings of the Buddha: the teaching of interdependence. In the words of Thai Buddhist activist and author Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa,

“Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.”

From our perspective, Buddhadharma was never intended as an escape from reality, rather it is a way of being present to reality. This includes the reality of unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and environmental destruction. Therefore, our understanding of mindfulness in the Buddhist sense is not limited to personal wellbeing; it is inclusive of social, economic, and environmental concerns. What’s your take on this?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Technically, I don’t think this wider sphere of concern is the domain of mindfulness but of its companion, sampajañña, “clear comprehension.”

Maia: Our primary concern is that the concept and practice of mindfulness is all too often co-opted to serve as a diversion from dealing with issues of social, economic, environmental, gender, and racial injustice.

Dr. Funie Hsu (postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis School of Education) eloquently articulates this concern: “The particular brand of mindfulness that is gaining widespread acceptance serves to bolster long-standing systems of power: making them more efficient, potent, and acceptable under the pretext of inner peace.”

We are deeply concerned about this tendency to use secular mindfulness to move away from difficult questions about power and privilege.

It appears to us that mindfulness can be used as a spiritual bypass – or it can be a vehicle to raise awareness of injustice and structural oppression in all its forms, including classism, racism, and sexism. Do you think that mindfulness has the potential to create spaces for authentic (and often difficult) conversations about these realities as well as for meaningful and effective responses to them?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I’m not so sure that the above is the function of mindfulness itself. It seems to me that recognition of these forms of injustice and oppression is incumbent on us as citizens in today’s world, but I’m uncertain whether and to what extent this is actually fostered by mindfulness in the meditative sense. It seems to me that this awareness develops by paying close attention (through active cognitive engagement, not meditatively) to events happening around us. Perhaps mindfulness practice establishes the ground for greater sensitivity and responsiveness in relation to the suffering of others, but I’m not sure that the practice itself “raises awareness” of these things.

The great leaders of social transformation, both in theory and action, for the most part do not practice the meditative mode of mindfulness, and the foremost exponents of meditative mindfulness in a Buddhist setting hardly promote large-scale social transformation. Contrast for example the African American Christian clergy involved in human rights campaigns, or the Christian and Jewish clergy who have led the campaigns against US military involvement around the world, with the Buddhist meditation masters. The former, with perhaps a few exceptions, don’t practice meditative mindfulness, while the latter show only a marginal concern with social justice issues.

Perhaps a type of awareness different from Buddhist meditative mindfulness is what is needed to foster recognition of these issues. Of course, adding meditative mindfulness to the arsenal of techniques may be helpful in some respects, but let’s not assume that it is intrinsically the sufficient antidote. It seems meditative mindfulness can swing either way, even among earnest practitioners: toward or away from greater awareness of justice issues. The catalyst must therefore be something other than mindfulness itself, perhaps an awakening of the sense of conscience and responsibility for the fate of others.

As part of this conversation, Bhikkhu Bodhi showed us a document he created on “Modes of Applied Mindfulness.” He gave his permission for it to be shared, recognizing that it is a work in progress. I am including it here because I find it a very helpful way to see the nuances inherent in bringing mindfulness into diverse domains, and that each mode has its openings and limitations.

Classical

Function: to facilitate insight

Ultimate aim: enlightenment, liberation from birth and death

Problem: may lead to narcissistic self-absorption, indifference to inequities of social- economic institutions and policies and ecological destruction

Secular Therapeutic

Function: to help people deal with physical ailments, psychological traumas and stress, addictions and conflicts, alienation and hopelessness

Ultimate aim: to enable people to become more peaceful, hopeful, equanimous, patient; less reactive, more considerate and compassionate

Problem: people may be conditioned to deal solely with their individual challenges without being moved to confront larger structures of social and economic injustice

Secular instrumental

Function: to help people become more effective in their roles and assignments: more effective as corporate leaders, workers, athletes, students, soldiers, etc.

Ultimate aim: to enhance productivity within the boundaries of existing social and economic institutions

Problem: May acclimatize people to unwholesome roles, sustain corporatist, militaristic, consumerist programs

Socially transformative

Function: as a Buddhist practice, to provide a means of fostering structural transformation toward the social ideals of the Dharma: greater social and economic justice, environmental stability, peace, equality, etc.

Ultimate aim: to promote realization of a just, peaceful society and world

Problem: to ground these ideals on textual sources and develop a theoretical foundation for an ethic of Buddhist engagement in the world.

Possible tensions between this application of mindfulness and its classical role that need exploration and resolution.

Please share your thoughts on “socially responsible mindfulness” in the comments below — do you find this a helpful construct? Not so helpful? If you teach mindfulness practice in secular settings, what’s your take on addressing social justice issues that may arise in the course of your work?

Is mindfulness a technique that can help kids succeed?

July 14, 2015 - 10:23am

News.com.au: I’m in a small room with 25 other people. At our teacher’s instruction, we are all sitting very still, eyes closed, hands in our laps, concentrating on our breath.

Outside, a bus roars past, which makes me sneakily open one eye. But it appears I’m the only one who’s distracted; nobody else has moved. Eventually, the teacher invites everyone to open their eyes when they’re ready. There’s a second of silence before chairs scrape back and there’s some muffled chatter among the participants. The clatter of a pencil case falling to the floor reminds me exactly where I am; not in an idyllic …

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Letting Go Into Bliss: an exploration of “jhana”

July 13, 2015 - 9:16am

Letting Go Into Bliss (Aug 12-Oct 30) is an exploration of “jhana” — a joyful state of focused attention that can arise in meditation. We’ll be learning how to allow jhana to happen.

On this 80 day meditation event, you’ll learn to:

  • Notice and counteract the various ways your mind suppresses joy
  • Calm the mind, using a variety of techniques
  • Deeply relax the body, allowing physical pleasure to arise
  • Tap into an innate sense of joy
  • Develop the mind’s ability to focus undistractedly

Signing up for this event gives you access to:

  • Emails (roughly every other day) with practice suggestions
  • Access to guided meditations
  • Support in our online community

This event is suitable for people with an established meditation practice, including a familiarity with mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditations.

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Registration is now open!

Your phone is not your friend, so stop acting like it

July 13, 2015 - 8:28am

Kimberly Gillan, News.com.au: My chest tightened and my palms prickled as I flattened myself against the wall and glanced around the party, looking for a familiar face. The handful of people I knew were in the bathroom, deep in conversation or outside smoking, and I’d rather fly solo than passive smoke on a beachfront balcony on a blustery winter night in Melbourne.

I was about to hightail to the bedroom to dig my phone out of my bag and fill the lonely minutes with some scrolling — not so much because I was hankering for the latest headlines but more so that I …

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Mind your manners: mindfulness becoming a way of life

July 10, 2015 - 8:42am

Brian Haggerty, NorthJersey.com: Mindfulness. You may be reading about or hearing this word more often. While the word is not new, its usage among the general population as well as within education is on the rise. In essence, it is a state of mind which is achieved by focusing our awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting our feelings, thoughts and physical sensations. Originally intended as a means of therapy, mindfulness, today, is becoming more of a way of life. We are, after all, the sum total of our thoughts. Our thoughts affect the way we feel by producing chemicals, …

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The psychology of mindfulness, digested

July 9, 2015 - 7:50am

Christian Jarrett, Research Digest: Right now, mindfulness is a hot topic in psychology and beyond. In 2012, 40 new papers on mindfulness were published every month, a number that has probably risen since. Last September, the Guardian journalist Barney Ronay noted that a staggering 37 new books had been released on the topic that very week. There are numerous conferences devoted to mindfulness around the world, multiple organisations and even dedicated science journals and magazines. And yet, a dissenting voice in this chorus of enthusiasm, a new book out last month – The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? – warned that mindfulness is not harmless. …

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When the Buddha quit

July 8, 2015 - 12:19pm

There’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the C?tum? Sutta (Majjhima Nik?ya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called C?tum?, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, S?riputta and Moggall?na.

There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.

Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:

Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.

There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.

Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahm? Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.

The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.

The Buddha first talks to S?riputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, S?riputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.

The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! S?riputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasen?pati).

After reproaching S?riputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggall?na what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and S?riputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.

This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggall?na decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of S?riputta and Moggall?na? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.

Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both S?riputta and Moggall?na to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for S?riputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggall?na to assume that he (and S?riputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”

The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.

I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.

There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting M?ra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.

I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.

And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.

Surprising science-backed ways to boost your mood

July 8, 2015 - 7:32am

Erin Brodwin, Business Insider: We all have a remarkable capacity to make ourselves happier.

Each of the little things we do to boost our mood — from reading an adventure story to keeping a gratitude journal or even gazing up at the stars on a clear night — can add up to greater overall satisfaction.

But happiness doesn’t come easy. We have to work at it.

Here are some of the things that psychologists and social science researchers have found that have the power to lift your spirits and keep them high. …

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Don’t worry, you can practice mindfulness and still be a jerk

July 7, 2015 - 8:37am

Jeena Cho, Above the Law: In case you missed it, there was a cover story in the Wall Street Journal on mindfulness in the legal profession. It’s fair to say that when the WSJ is writing about mindfulness in law, it’s gone mainstream. I was interviewed and quoted in the article, and I’ll admit, I got a little teary eyed when I saw my name on the cover of the WSJ. Not bad for an immigrant “salon girl.”

In the July issue of the ABA Journal, there was an article titled How lawyers can avoid burnout and debilitating anxiety, citing meditation and mindfulness …

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Spiritual earworms and the Dharma of the Muppets

July 6, 2015 - 1:08pm

This morning as I was walking to the office, I noticed that I had an earworm stuck in my head. In case you’re unfamiliar with this term, it refers to a song or jingle that runs in a repetitive loop in the head. Often it’s only one or two lines from a song. Sometimes it’s not even a song we like. It may even be one we detest.

I have a very effective technique that not only helps get rid of earworms but also turns them into mindfulness triggers should they recur, but this morning it occurred to me that mantras could be regarded as a form of self-induced spiritual earworm.

Mantras are self-induced because we consciously cultivate them. They’re spiritual because they act as reminders of the qualities of awakening (e.g. Om mani padme hum reminds us of the compassionate warmth of Avalokiteshvara). And they’re earworms in that they often take on a life of their own, and present themselves to us unbidden.

I briefly considered invoking the mantra of Padmasambhava, but then I realized that the song I had in my head was actually teaching me something. I’m just back from a long road-trip with my kids, and one of the ways we passed the time in the car was by listening to my six-year-old son’s limited CD collection, which includes some Disney songs. The particular song I had stuck in my head was a Muppet track called “Life’s a Happy Song,” and the specific lyrics that my mind kept turning to over and over were these: “I’ve got everything that I need, right in front of me.”

Those words seem like a perfect invitation to let go of craving for things to be other than they are, and to pay attention to and appreciate the present moment. As often happens, my mind had found a teaching that I hadn’t even been aware, at a conscious level, that I needed. As far as earworms go, this one turned out to be perfect.