mindfulness, ethics & the baffling debate

buddha-rain(c) Mindfulness. Ethics. Buddhism. Therapy. It’s an ongoing and oft-times baffling debate. Over the last few years (since 2011 if I track the academic publications correctly), Buddhists have stepped up to express concerns about the frighteningly rapid secular applications of mindfulness that seem to dilute and disregard its core teachings and intention. Secular practitioners which include a very large clinical population of mental health professionals have either dismissed the call for a deeper understanding or been baffled by it.

[Edited to clear confusion in sentence reference] Related to this latter group, a quick scan of LinkedIn special groups on mindfulness is quite off-putting though the comments are instructive. They are mainly tinged with a deep fear of the religious – not the ethical – nature of being required regularly to attend silent retreats, imposing (insert “religious”) ethics in the curriculum, and otherwise bring an unfamiliar and foreign languaging into what is now taken as a neutral, clinical program.

The bafflement also arises from the unquestioned acceptance of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s repeated pronouncement that ethics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the original program) is implicit; nothing needs adding because it’s already there. In fact, my own notes from my MBSR training state, “ethics not necessary to mention…arises from insight to suffering.”

Now that’s more or less true when we have years to practice and watch the mind twist and turn trying to justify all matter of unskillfulness. Ethical speech and action can and does arise as we clarify, clarify, clarify our propensity to ignorance, greed, and attachments. Ethical livelihood can arise (economics and mastering our own greed notwithstanding). But not, in my experience, reliably so in 8-weeks sitting together trying to get past the delusional nature of our suffering, layered over by our “terrible personality” that is borne forth from a multitude of biopsychosocial causes and conditions.

Recently, my colleagues Jane Compson, Frank Musten, and I published an article in Mindfulness on the difficulties of trying to reconcile, assess, and dig deeper into the issues of secular/clinical concepts of mindfulness. You can read it here and I’d encourage reading the commentaries to our article (in the previous link) because scholarly practitioners such as Ajahn Amaro and Mark Greenberg/Joy Mitra have made excellent offerings on the topic.

Along with many others, I too have a deep concern about the way mindfulness is taught and proliferating in secular and clinical domains, how it is reduced to a pabulum of trite sayings and a mash-up of mindfulness memes. But waging war against this level of misunderstanding is exhausting and actually fruitless. The fear clinicians have of incorporating ethics/values into their work stems from an over-applied historic meme itself – that our presence is but a mirror, reflecting nothing of ourselves and everything of the other. It is based in a psychological Cartesian principle of separateness, not just of mind and body but also of you and me. In fact, to bring anything of myself into the room is often harshly dealt with in internships and trainings.

Now here’s the irony, mindfulness was a hope of many of us that this delusion of separateness would finally dissolve and we would be able to enter into an authentic – a more fully authentic – relationship with each other whether it is in the marketplace or the therapy room. Doubly ironic, the fields of moral psychology and counselling and spirituality have explored issues of the fallacy of values-neutral interactions in therapy. The findings are fascinating; in brief, clients over time take on the values of their therapists. But these examinations haven’t attained much traction in the huge momentum of cognitive-based treatments.

The underlying and frequently by-passed point is that there is no time when ethics is absent from our relationships. Be it in the therapy room, at the dining table, and even most especially in the all-purpose family room with the TV flashing its programs, it can no more be excised from the practice than heat from a chilli pepper. And it is never absent in the gathering place of mindfulness programs. So, if our fear is that ethics of the Dharma as it moves into secular domains are an imposition on our program participants, then that fear is misplaced. The fear should be more that we have been lulled into believing that we can be value-neutral participants at this intimate level as we connect with those who suffer deeply from this self-same disconnect from their lives. This is where the danger lies: that we are taking this arrogant stance and blindly leading others into the very vortex of ignorance that is the source of their suffering. And more, there is the equally arrogant and disrespectful assumption that the participants are tabula rasa to their own ethics and morality.

These assumptions are also embedded in Buddhist debates about sila and mindfulness where the fear is that the Dharma is being stripped of its moral foundations. Here too the confusion is based in assumptions of pre-existing personal ethics, religious influences and the nature of ethical living. Justin Whitaker on his blog American Buddhist Perspective published two posts that reflect the difficulties of finding some middle ground in the concerns and confusion. The first post addresses Tricycle’s recent blogpost by Richard Payne on the cultural assumptions that morality/ethics are connected to religious frameworks. The second post summarizes a discussion between Bhikkhu Bodhi and angel Kyodo williams on the issues of ethics and Buddhism. Again and with all due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi and williams, we encounter the meme of secular mindfulness creating automatons in the workplace and military. (To be fair, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written in various publications that he sees the secularization of mindfulness a positive thing if it alleviates suffering AND if it honours its origins as a sacred practice.)

The ongoing debate among Buddhist, between Buddhists and secular/clinical practitioners, and all other permutations and combinations involved in the issue of placing ethics in mindfulness programs/teachings needs to turn back onto itself and examine its own assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality as well as how we acquire and embody them. As Ajahn Amaro points out in his commentary to our article, we need to examine the “subtle influences” of our own religious (even if disavowed) and cultural baggage that lead us to believe having ethics in a curriculum will create better people or that not having it will create monsters.

It’s time that we see the fear-inducing memes about religious infringement and mindful evil-doers as click bait, distracting both Buddhists and secular individuals committed to the teachings of mindfulness from the real issue of how to cultivate an embodied ethic.

Help for Nepal & surrounding countries

Picture from The Wall Street Journal-India.

Dear Friends,

We awoke this morning to the news of the earthquake in Nepal and the devastation it has caused. Nepal, India, Bangladesh and border regions of China are affected. Please take a moment to offer your support to the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund here set up by the America Nepal Medical Foundation – ANMF. Other agencies are listed in the ways to help page on this site.

CANADIAN Sources for help – includes MSF, Red Cross, UNICEF.

CITTA – They will be on the ground in Kathmandu and going to the Gorkha district an area that has been completely devastated. The money will go directly to the people of Nepal.

Karuna-Sechen – Founded by Matthieu Ricard

Olmo Ling – Center supporting the Bon tradition

Kyabgön Phakchok Rinpoche for disaster relief here. Please indicate “Disaster Relief” in the “Purpose” field.

OXFAM is marshalling a response.

American Buddhist Perspectives has additional donations and help resources.

More sites here on how to help Nepal.

Abari.org – Building medical camps and accommodations.

Rolling updates are available here.

May all being be safe and find care in this difficult time.

what’s on your zafu? practicing the great matter

Winter 2014-15 has been one of the most challenging we’ve had here in the NE corner of North America. Atlantic Canada and US have been pummelled by snow, blizzardly snow and by March even the most-hardened of optimists had stopped regaling us with their memories of winters past. And, to really bend the mind, it’s also been the warmest winter on record globally. Too bad we don’t live life in the averages or the picture my dear friend sent from California of an 82°F sunny day in San Francisco would have cheered me up.

A plow makes its way through heavy snow on Route 20 near Park Corner, PEI, 16 March 2015 (Facebook)

I wish I could also say this winter has been a call to deepen my practice by turning towards that Great Matter that hangs around like an optimistic stray which thinks you’ve only forgotten to feed it this time. In one way, I have actually committed to a more consistent practice by sitting everyday. But I must confess, it’s only by virtue of greed and clinging that I’ve managed that. You see, the Insight Timer gives its users a little yellow star – one for every 10 days with a session – and you even get a green star after a bunch of these sessions. I don’t know how the “50 days with a session” star system works. It’s cheesy, I know, I know! But it gets my butt to zafu and that’s really all that matters in the matters of the Great Matter.

Or not really. A couple of days ago I came across a Facebook post by the glossy magazine Mindful quoting ABC anchor Dan Harris (him of his book 10% Happier – which I thought was quite funny except that he never really copped to his drug addiction). Harris’ comment was excerpted from an interview with Charlie Rose: “I think meditation can be anything you pay attention to. I just think you need a couple of minutes a day of formal practice in order to really get it.”

Just think. Well, I could be paying attention to my Miss Vickie’s potato chips which I munch each day with the same dedication as my butt-to-zafu commitment. It takes less time – only a couple of minutes because they’re the mini packs – and I’m likely to get it! Of course, I do want to be fair because Harris doesn’t say what kind of attention or what the “it” is we would get, really. Would it be much different from the “sudden enlightenment” proponents of Zen, for example. Nah. For me, I do believe all I’ll get from my addiction to crispy, oily snacks would be another cardiac “event” or a different outcome to that couple of minutes of vertigo last night.

That Great Matter again, dammit.

Harris’ comments on practice are not unusual and quite apparent both in his book, subsequent interviews and co-hostings with his new-found pals who are meditation teachers. They are much like the aphorisms we throw out in the heart of winter when our brain freezes over and we regress to magical thinking. In our Zen group last evening, I asked why we practice. The answers were the typical round of “being,” “the present moment,” “here and now” and all the other catchy phrases we think great teachers are pointing to. It’s rare to push past that mind-muffling stage into the real question: What is it in the present moment that we are practicing?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book The Buried Giant offers a piercing metaphor of what happens when we fall into a fog of forgetfulness. The inhabitants of the mythic land of post-Arthurian Britain live without awareness of their history or their relationships to each other except in the most rudimentary ways. They function quite well and feel safe in those wrappings of unremembered purpose. It serves to silence the competitiveness, the hatreds, the need for revenge and recompense. It also stops all process of forgiveness and growth. Our practice gets this way. And we fall prey to the quick sound bytes of shiny objects, characters and promises.

We think this is practice. And that’s the poison – we think. And we go no further.

What are the great teachers pointing to then with their commentaries of being, present moment, here and now? The same thing climate change, societal upheaval and our anxiety are pointing to: You don’t have the time you think; you only have the time you practice. And it’s going to take more than a couple of minutes paying attention to make a real practice of the Great Matter.

invitations from the buddha, rsvp: book review of Gowans’ philosophy of the buddha

Christopher Gowans’ Philosophy of the Buddha gives me some hope that I might get a handle on the convolutions philosophers tend to put into explaining the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. It’s well over 10 years old in print and I suspect some challenges have arisen around his explanation of non-self though I have yet to find anything via my oracle Google. I did however come across an essay by Gowans on Buddhist Well-Being that outlines his approach to this intersection of Western philosophy and Buddhist ideas.

Gowans’ interest in this meeting place of thoughts and ideas introduces his essay:

First, what is the proper philosophical elucidation of Buddhist ideas? Second, in what ways, if any, do these ideas relate to ideas in Western philosophy (contemporary as well as historical)? Finally, to what extent might these two domains—Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy—learn from one another and challenge one another? That is, to what extent might they critically interact so as to advance our philosophical understanding?

The first point – the proper elucidation of Buddhist ideas – is the gist of this book where

(the) first goal is an accurate and insightful understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. We should assume neither that a perfectly objective account is possible nor that any interpretation is as good as another.

Gowans is insistent throughout his book that we are held tightly by our own perspective and, while not necessarily a negative thing, it would be naive to believe that objectivity would be possible. That being said, he does an excellent job of guiding us down the intricate path of Buddhist ideas and principles. Where the interpretations are likely to be convoluted or conflated with Western ideas, he sets up the investigation so that ideas are challenged not as a means of showing off but rather to truly tease apart the complex layers of understanding. His strategy is particularly helpful in working through the concepts of impermanence, non-self and suffering where he holds up the objections and the support all the while questioning the answers.

As for that thorny issue of non-self, Gowans does a remarkable job of breaking it down into substance-self and process-self; the former being a belief of the Buddhism-curious (he calls them stream-observers) that various aspects of form and experience confirms the existence of a distinct substance with an identity (think: sun and plant) while the latter proposes a self “consisting of over-lapping and ever-changing aggregates (p78 Kindle edition)” which have “no independent reality but do have a form of dependent reality (p60 Kindle edition).” Even more so is his explanation of dependent origination which includes imagery of aggregates as “neighboring sandbars…each is a unified nexus of processes that is part of the overall network of processes (p81 Kindle edition)” and the challenge of explaining causal conditioning and freedom to choose action “without recourse to distinctness” of the component parts.

After establishing the underlying Buddhist thought, Gowans tackles the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path with the same steady and unrelenting intensity of examination all the while returning to a common sense rendering of the teachings.  These two sections of his book contain some of the best and most clearly written explorations of the core teachings of Buddhism. And they are enhanced by a tone and quality of writing that is absent of the writer’s need to show he is doing what he is doing.

The final chapter is perhaps the sweetest. In it, Gowans proposes the Buddha’s teachings are an invitation to live selflessly (the theme of ethics runs through all the chapters.

“The first invitation asks us to think about the quality of our life as a whole in a fundamental and sustained way.”

“The second invitation asks us to consider why the fragility of our lives is a source of dissatisfaction.” (Go beyond the obvious that we don’t have what we want, don’t want what we have and get confused regularly by all of it.)

“The third invitation brings us to a crucial juncture. What, the Buddha asks us, can be done to overcome this dissatisfaction?” (The answer can be one of despair, frustration or hope.)

“The (fourth) invitation asks us to reflect on why fulfillment of desires is so important to us.”

“The (fifth) invitation (and hardest to accept) is to consider whether piercing through the illusion of selfhood might reveal not nothing, but…everything.”

“The final invitation asks us to discover on our own whether there is any truth in what he says.”

Gowans book makes for a good introduction to Buddhism and a training in critical thinking that many practitioners would find useful, especially in these days of “quotable Buddhism” and a leaning to fundamentalist-type clinging to what we think is what the Buddha taught. This is definitely a keeper on the book shelf.

bundles, baggage & bye bye blackbird

Insight comes in the darndest ways. I was scrolling down my Facebook feed deeply engaged in avoiding the reality that I had to pack for a week-long business trip. The routine for going away is just that – a routine, tinged with annoyance about how many pants and sweaters to take and angst over trying to remain vegetarian in a city with the discerning palate of a cave. Snapping myself out of procrastination typically takes some concept or approach that elevates the routine to intrigue. This did: a video on how to pack enough clothing for 60 days into a 22″ carry-on bag.

I tried it. It was awesome. Everything packed into “bundles.”

As the week wore on and irritations became more charged (I get cranky when I’m away from home), it became very apparent that I had packed and brought along far more bundles than those in my suitcase. You know these heaps – or skandhas – well too: form, feeling, perception, mental formation & consciousness. You should; you never leave home without them. In fact, we’re pretty good at packing up all our cares and woe in tight bundles assuming we never have to unpack them.

Anytime I get too snotty about how well my heaps are packed away, I remember the steward on one fight announcing as we prepared to land: Please be careful opening the overhead bins as your contents may have shifted in transit. These life lessons always come from invisible Buddhas and Bodhisattvas crossing our path. Mostly though, we disregard their wisdom and get bonked on the head by cascading aggregates.

Practice helps. Sitting helps a lot. The beauty of leaving home is the liberation from the various scheduled obligations like feeding cats and dogs and elephants, making breakfast, lunch and dinner, doing laundry (for the short hauls) and all the myriad chores that shackle us just out of reach of our cushion. Here in the hotel room, I am liberated from all but my resistance to getting acquainted with my self, that someone waiting for me. Fair warning though, unpacking that carry on was as complicated as unpacking my cares and woes.

If you need more encouragement than taking along a good dharma book, do try the new Worldwide Insight teachings. Each Sunday a different teacher and so far (two sessions) it has been a terrific way to keep practice fresh.

 

a metta wish for all

Bearbrook-dec2

 

The sun is warming the snow and ice that cakes the lane way and the pups are enjoying their version of a Formula 500 race around the house. It’s quiet. Well, quiet except for the music from Songza – a recent discovery I made that takes the anxiety out of choosing music for various activities in the day and evening. It also seems to render the CDs obsolete though I’m told to stash them away until I truly want to send them along to wherever CDs go when their time is up.

Speaking of which, in teaching about the first precept I’m fond of telling people that everyone has a “best before” date. (Frank often adds, “But better after!”) Embedded in the First True Reality (Peter Harvey’s term) is the painful truth that we are not meant to be around forever. When I work with individuals with a terminal disease such as cancer, I feel a bit of a hypocrite simply because in the face of what they now know, I am still blind to my own “stale date.” Death happens as it has for a number of family members and friends since I last wrote. And those of us here remain helplessly blind to our own biological last moment.

And yet. There is also life. Grandest Baby turned one year old. Born 20 minutes short of the celebrated date of the Buddha’s enlightenment, she has been a teisho on equanimity, patience, letting go and all the other goodies we’re meant to practice. Cultivating grandmother-mind – robai shin – is an interesting practice. May I live long enough to see some buds break through these hardened branches!

Such a desire for sight, seeing, sight consciousness. I’m aware of how much that plays into our interactions. “Can you see what I’m saying?” “I can’t see my way out of this.” “See?”  In a conversation with a colleague, she asked about my paternal grandmother. Did she know, my colleague asked, the impact she had on your spiritual path?

At the entrance of our home in Rangoon on one side of the door was a statue of St. Philomena, a Christian saint with a problematic relationship with the Holy See who bounced her off the liturgical calendars in 1961 but still allows devotions to continue à la St. Patrick and St. Christopher. But such news had not reached us and my aunt in particular remained spectacularly devoted to her. Well, to the statue anyway, as she walked into the house, stood in ecstatic  prayer before it and at the conclusion would touch the saint’s eyes then her own. She believed that St. Philomena would cure her encroaching blindness from cataracts and no amount to explaining that it wasn’t in Philomena’s job description would dissuade her. Blindness, especially one that offered a forewarning of things to come, was terrifying and warranted an appeal to all saints available.

My paternal grandmother would enter the house, first dousing her cheroot in an empty oyster can Dad would leave at the door for such purposes, and turn towards the window. She would sit on her haunches with hands in prayer and shi-ko three times. The prostrations were quick and efficient with no great devotional drama. My memory of her was of an ancient elder though she was likely only (only!) in her sixties. I asked her if she was doing that because she too wanted to prevent being blind. No, she said. She knew she was already blind.

Understandably it was perplexing then. Not so now.

We are already blind. Some times we remained resolutely blind. Some times we claw at the blindness hoping to peel away the cataracts. Some times we forget we are blind and assume the rest of the world is careening around, banging into us and generally making life difficult. If only they could see!

Funny isn’t it?

Frank and I and the monstrous pups wish you all a season of enlightening joy. Our metta wish for you is that you are blinded only by the light of your wisdom, that it sears off the cataracts and you lead the rest of us mundanely blinded folk with compassion and love.

qi and the fasting of the mind: video by Edward Slingerland

A terrific lecture on Zhuang Zi by Edward Slingerland (Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia) with a section by Evan Thompson (Professor of Philosophy at University of British Columbia) on cognitive science and meditation.

 

Posted with appreciation for permission by Dr. Slingerland.