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.

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.

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.

bones of the living and dead: interbeing at the plague pits

Hey there! Have you missed me? It’s been a wonderful month beginning with a two-week jaunt to the UK where I reunited with my lovely family, met and enjoyed an out-standing day in Bristol with Justin Whitaker (who clearly enjoyed a reason to procrastinate his thesis writing), and managed to squeeze in 61km of forced marching across the City of London (UK not ON – though I have no particular aversion to the London in ON. There is a good Zen Centre there). Finally reuniting with my family after 32 years apart. How does that happen? Thirty-two years is a generation but it’s also a blink in the flash of a universe’s lightning. Still, it was lovely. Before leaving I’d had an exchange on the Shambhala Sunspace site with Jack Kornfield over a sensitive topic of indigenous practice of the Dhamma in Burma. You can read that here and Danny Fisher’s generous comments here. My intent in raising this is the conversation that flowed back channel with Jack (if I can be so familiar after 30-some emails). It reminded me of something he wrote a long time ago about his own return to family: they would like me better if I show up as a Buddha than as a Buddhist.

Important to remember when we go out into the marketplace too. Especially those rife with the bones of the living and dead.

Wandering around a city with the extensive lineage of London is a good place to do that. Doubly so when your partner has an attachment to events like plagues, cholera, and mass graves. On the surface it’s all about the Great Matter, isn’t it. Life, death and the sticky stuff in between. Digging deeper (awful but so appropriate a pun), it’s not enough to just start with life and proceed to death expecting to have some great revelation about it all. At least that’s what became very apparent as we marched off each day in search of what is delightfully called Plague Pits.

An estimated 100, 000 people died of the bubonic plague over two years and are assumed buried in various sites that were once church graveyards. With the growth and modernisation of the city, there are few actual grave sites left. But what we found at the sites we went to was far more instructive of the Dharma than the contemplation on any skeleton I’ve ever met.

Golden Square, Soho

Golden Square, Soho

If you want to see what death looked like in the plague era, head to the Museum of London for the skeletons and a view of the archeological site. The actual plague pits sites however are more interesting for their occlusion of that very fact of death. We sat in Golden Square for a while watching the vibrant activity at lunchtime. Ping-pong games, laughter, intense conversations swirled around this rather morose statue of George II; the pigeon poop didn’t give him more rationale for the despair. I suspect George is looking across at that amazing capacity we have for delusion, ignorance of what is actually right there under our noses.

It’s not that I wanted to leap up and scream: Do you people realize you’re chowing down your take-away right over a mass grave? It was far more interesting to see the literal and symbolic array of our ability to place life over death. And, in the light of some of the readings I’ve been doing on dependent co-arising or as better named by Thich Nhat Hanh, interbeing, it helped make sense of that whole cycle from ignorance of our inner life’s process to the inevitable end of it.

 

Pesthouse Close - approximate location

Pesthouse Close – approximate location

I loved the way the British used the word “rubbish.” “Oh, I’m just rubbish at that!” or “Well, he’s certainly rubbish at driving that car!” I suppose we’re all rubbish at life-the-in-between-and-death also. The rubbish bins in what would have been Pesthouse Close made that point. Interestingly, this was near Carnaby Street and the location of the “cholera pump” on Broadwick Street.

Cholera Pump

Cholera Pump

 

 

 

The pump was discovered to be the source of the cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854. Anesthetist John Snow traced the outbreak to this one infected water source (I guess this was one John Snow who knew something!). There’s a pub cater-corner to it called the John Snow – ironic because Snow was a vegetarian and teetotaler for a while but returned to the devil drink and meat.

 

 

St-Giles-in-the-Fileds

St-Giles-in-the-Fileds

Somewhere tucked behind Tottenham Court Road is St.-Giles-in-the-Fields, a lovely old church where we were convinced we’d find a graveyard but not so. I imagine that as urbanisation continues we may only ever find the dead in museums or paved over by interlock. Just another form of interbeing. In fact, David McMahan, in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (p. 148, Kindle edition), noted this is likely “the age of inter” where we realize we inter-exist, interconnect, and interact through the inter-net. I think I like that better than any labels of this age of clinging and deconstruction.

 

 

CharterhouseThe largest plague pit is at the Charterhouse in Charterhouse Square. The Charterhouse was a Carthusian monastery until the Dissolution and has been an education center and almshouse since 1611. It continues to function as a home for 40 men who might otherwise be homeless and as a healthcare facility. During the Black Death it is believed 50, 000 bodies were buried in the square – which is now a medical school.

Life, death, and life again.

 

hand-wash stones cold

DSC_0158 It’s the mantra of this season around the community: Tough winter. Lose everything?

I would hope so. Losing everything is the practice, isn’t it? Youth, good health, eternal life – these we know we are meant to lose. Ah but, let go? No. That’s a whole different matter. I’d rather die than let go and that has all the makings of a terrific TV drama. The sad thing is it’s my life drama. Dying is easy¹; letting go requires getting dirty.

A tough winter helps with letting go. So do two hooligan pups weighing in at 90 lbs apiece and loving the untrammelled joy of tearing through the dry bed garden. The results showed as the snow did its own letting go: a magnolia with top-kill, the Japanese maple looking gouged out and gnawed, the pebbles of the dry bed strewn hither and yon.

Determined to face this year’s disasters with equanimity, I dug deep beyond my typical tendency to overwhelm. This year would be different. I am, after all, a seasoned practitioner. So I sat in the Japanese garden by the upheaval of landscape material, stones, and cedar chips stuck to dollops of dog shit and cried. Crying is a normal function of a deep-felt embodied equanimity. Truly. In that moment of sensorily experiencing a vibrant mixture of soil, dirt, and poop, it is a statement of abject honesty which is the first part of equanimity.

The second is to start with what is at hand. Yes, even if it is dog poop. But if you’re really squeamish, do it first. Then pick up each rock, pebble, stone and wash off the debris of winter. Some things need a bit of help to let go of their accretions because they can’t quite do it for themselves. Sometimes we need to be the one driving that wedge between comfortably covered in useless material and frighteningly adrift in a cold wash of freedom.

And so I progressed from the Japanese garden to the walkway of the south garden.

DSC_0014

 

Then onto the veggie and rose gardens where there was much more letting go to be done. It’s easier to let go of weeds but making the decision to tear out the vegetable boxes and all the paraphernalia that went with it was a bizarre series of discussions that eventually amounted to confronting my attachment to “being fair” to a pile of rotting wood. Pruning back the overgrown rose bushes drove the point home quite literally. There is no logic to attachment, only a misperception of what we think we’re nurturing.

DSC_0040

rose garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end all the procrastinating, crying, and debating culminated in a rather nice new layout.

veggie boxes

 

Yes, it’s been a tough winter. And we didn’t lose much but we let go of everything.

————-

¹Ram Dass (2010). Dying is absolutely safe. Retrieved from http://www.ramdass.org/dying-is-absolutely-safe/

 

what am i doing? lessons from the edge

L&F-BCBS

Hardly the next power couple in the dharmic world but we are perhaps a good example of karmic consequences of not steering clear of muddy waters.  Frank & I lead a retreat on the Buddhist roots and ethics that underlie mindfulness programs at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. This was an opportunity gifted through the immense generosity of Chris Germer, Kristy Arbon, Mu Soeng, and BCBS Executive Director Laurie Phillips, all of whom galvanized the work we’ve been doing on making explicit the root teachings that inform the psychological aspects of contemporary mindfulness.  Although the retreat was not intended to be a journey into personal practice, it had that effect and spoke to the need for these foundational teachings. It keeps what tends to be superficial attempts at attention and awareness grounded in the original intentions of practice.

Stepping into that liminal space between Buddhist philosophy and psychological models of suffering is not difficult. But it does require a willingness to let go of one’s tribal mentality and concede that wisdom only arises as a result of contact and community. It was uplifting to be with so many practitioners who willingly entered into the intention of the retreat and shared their personal and professional wisdom with us.

Happily, our article, Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path in the Tangle of Concerns, was published in Mindfulness the day before the retreat. The email response so far is mostly positive and supportive with one rather wild foray into psychology-bashing & mindfulness as the Ultimate realm where everything is One. This, along with a few comments from surprising sources, makes me wonder if we’ve forgotten that the Buddha recommended teaching to one’s audience. I tried to make the point that most people don’t show up on my doorstep and say, “I’m struggling with the evanescent nature of experience.” They tend to come with a felt though poorly articulated sense that something is amiss. As teachers of any ilk, we are meant to meet those who suffer where they are on the path, not where our elevated egos think they should be.

Not just “know your audience” but also “what am I doing?” This is the edge we found ourselves walking moment by moment as we opened up the texts and poetry that inform contemporary mindfulness. Of course, “what am I doing” occasionally took on the feeling tone of “why the hell did I think I could do this!?” But that’s a post for another day.

I’ve thanked Justin Whitaker in the article but it is worth repeating it here: Thank you for keeping this discussion going at so may levels.