The Middle Way in Mindfulness Practice

The Middle Way in Mindfulness Practice

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable. Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana.”  – Siddhārtha  Gautama

 

I have a life-long habit of trying too hard. In American culture, that is not considered a fault, but in the contemplative life it often is. The Buddha taught the middle way as the proper approach. He tried the extremes from the excess in the life of a prince to the opposite excess in the life of an ascetic. He found after years of futile effort that neither worked in ending suffering. But, when he rejected both and compromised, exerting effort but not too much, he found success and attained enlightenment. So, he taught his followers the middle way.

 

The Buddha likened the spiritual path to a stringed musical instrument. If no effort is exerted the string is slack and does not produce music. If too much effort is exerted, the string is tightened too much and breaks. Only when the string is tightened moderately does it produce beautiful music. He taught this middle way of moderation in all things to achieve success in all phases of life but particularly in spiritual endeavors.

 

The modern sage Thich Nhat Hahn visited the San Francisco Zen Center; a center noted for its rigor. After his visit, he was asked by the leader how the Center could improve. He stated that first he would sleep later, and that they shouldn’t be so grim and dour, and should smile much more. What he was pointing to is the middle way; being less strict and rigorous and practicing with greater joy; keeping the body and spirit at a moderate level that allows for the practice to be relaxed and joyful.

 

I learned this lesson during this most recent retreat. It was a personal retreat with no one but myself setting the schedule of activities. The first couple of days it was raining hard, so I took the opportunity to meditate frequently and for extended periods; as it turns out too frequently and too long. After two days, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Meditation became painful and unproductive. I decided to take the afternoon and evening of the third day off. I simply rested, maintaining silence, but read a novel. Many teachers would reprimand me from breaking from the focus on silent meditation. But, as it turned out, it worked wonderfully. The next day I was refreshed, the pain was gone and my level of concentration was wonderful.

 

I scaled back on the frequency and duration of the meditation and rested more often and for longer times. There was no more novel reading or time off. I had learned the middle way as the way to practice in retreat. Previously on a formal retreat with scheduled meditations, I would scoff at participants who would skip a scheduled meditation or a dharma talk and believed that they were wasting a valuable opportunity. Now I see that I was being unfairly judgmental. I now realize that they were being wise, tailoring the retreat to their own level of energy and physical endurance. They were keeping the practice within the middle way.

 

Psychological research has demonstrated that there is an optimum level of motivation for any task and it is not at the extremes, but in the middle. The research has also demonstrated that what the optimum level is varies from person to person. For some, a low level works best, while for others only very high levels produce optimum results. For most, somewhere in the middle is best. It is up to each of us to find our own optimum level and practice accordingly. I found mine on this personal retreat and once I practiced at this level, the results were good. The Buddha taught to judge an activity, not by its nature, but by the results it produces. Clearly, following my own middle way had positive results for me.

 

Happiness is more likely to be found on the middle way. Studies of happiness have shown that people with very low incomes are generally unhappy. Surprising, those who are quite rich tend to be generally unhappy. It’s the people in the middle, with sufficient, but not excessive income, are generally the happiest. A surprising fact in this regard is that people who have one large amounts of money in the lottery afterward are much less happy than before. It is clear that the middle way with wealth leads to the greatest happiness.

 

Athletes have learned the benefits of the middle way. Trying too hard results in poorer performance and often times injury. Not working hard enough, being too lax, similarly leads to poor performance. Exerting the right amount of effort and relaxing, the middle way, leads to excellence in athletic achievement. Every yoga student knows that to improve flexibility muscles and tendons can’t be stretched too hard. The muscles will resist the stretch or could get injured. Similarly, too little stretch produces no benefits. On the other hand, moderate, middle way, stretching produces the best results.

 

Even something as simple as eating is best practiced on the middle way. We all know that we have to eat. Eating too little is damaging to health and eating too much leads to obesity and disease. During the evolutionary development of humans, the problem was a lack of consistency in the supply of food. Food was plentiful at times, but scarce at others. It was adaptive for humans to overeat during times of plenty in order to store the energy needed to withstand the times of scarcity. In modern times, though, where food can be plentiful at all times, the tendency to overeat doesn’t solve a problem, it creates one, obesity. Here, also, the middle way is best; eating sufficiently for health but not more than is needed. This is promoted by mindful eating. Eat carefully on the middle way.

 

Driving a car is a clear example of the need for a middle way. Driving too fast can lead to loss of control or inability to stop quickly in an emergency, which can be fatal. On the other hand, driving too slowly can also be dangerous as it can lead to being rear ended, prompt overly aggressive passing by other cars, or major back-ups in traffic. Driving too aggressively van be dangerous, while driving too passively can also be. It is best to be driving the middle way, not meaning down the center of the road, but with moderation with speed and assertiveness.

 

I spent many years as a teacher and observed students who were very highly motivated getting exhausted cramming and then were so nervous during exams that they performed poorly. It has been established that too high a level of motivation interferes with learning and memory. Similarly, students who were lackadaisical and don’t apply themselves also performed poorly. But those students who were moderately motivated so that they studied but who could relax, performed the best. Hence, in academics as in meditation, athletics, and work, the middle way is best.

 

In our live in general, overly stressing one aspect of life almost always leads to unhappiness. Balance, the middle way, is needed. Many people, particularly Americans, work excessively at their jobs, working long hours and rarely taking vacations. They may have successful careers, but be miserable. On the deathbed, people virtually never wish that they had spent more time or effort on developing their resumes, on working harder or being more successful. Rather, they most often decry the fact that they didn’t spend enough time and energy on family and friends. A palliative care nurse once recorded the top five regrets of the dying. They were

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

 

When I was younger and went to a new interesting place, I was determined to see all the sights. I got up early and ran from sight to sight till closing time. By evening, I and any companions were exhausted. I had seen many great things; what the place had to offer. But, upon reflection, I realized that I really didn’t enjoy or truly appreciate any of them. I’ve learned to take the middle way, to slow down, to relax, to see less, but enjoy and learn from it more. Spending the day ticking off as many items as possible from the to-do list is a recipe for unhappiness. Take the middle way in everything you do.

 

Raising children is best guided by the middle way. Young children must learn boundaries to their behavior in order to function at home and in society. They can’t have everything they want and they can’t do everything they want. If parenting is too lax the child will grow unruly and difficult and will have problems integrating into school and social groups. On the other hand, if parenting is too severe and intrusive the child will be fearful, the child will have a damaged self-concept, creativity will be stifled, and the child will avoid authority. At extreme levels the child may experience abuse and trauma that may haunt them for the rest of their lives. Mindful parenting takes the middle road, maintaining boundaries but doing so with love and understanding, valuing the child, and guiding development with unconditional positive regard. With this middle way, children grow and are socialized while maintaining creativity and a positive self-regard. They grow into psychologically health adults.

 

So, practice the middle way in mindfulness practice and in life in general, finding the level of effort what works for you. Don’t string yourself too loosely or too tightly, enjoy the symphony of life, and play beautiful spiritual music.

 

“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.” ― Jalaluddin Rumi

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Democracy on the Eightfold Path

Democracy on the Eightfold Path

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“It is important to realize that a well-functioning democracy — a republic — depends not just on freedom from censorship, but also on a set of common experiences and on unsought, unanticipated, and even unwanted exposures to diverse topics, people, and ideas. A system of “gated communities” is as unhealthy for cyberspace as it is for the real world.” ~Scott Meyer

 

With the US midterm elections on the horizon, I thought that it would be a good time to reflect on what the teachings of the Buddha tell us about how we should approach voting and engaging in the democratic process in general. Right now, the political landscape is characterized by tremendous rancor and division. I believe that this situation results from not following these teachings. Perhaps looking at their application to engaging in the democratic process will help us in the future to begin to heal the deep wounds that have been opened and begin to engage in a more constructive and beneficial political process.

 

We often think of meditation or spiritual practice as occurring in quiet places removed from the hubbub of life. This is useful to develop skills and deep understanding. Unfortunately, most people do not have the luxury of withdrawing into solitary or monastic life. But it is possible to practice even in the midst of the chaos of everyday life. In fact, there are wonderful opportunities to practice presented to us all the time in the complexities of the modern world. I find that engagement in democracy is one of many wonderful contexts in which to practice the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s prerequisites for the cessation of suffering; Right View, Right Intentions, Right Actions, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Engaging in democracy on the eightfold path can not only help our spiritual practice but also help further peace, happiness, and harmony in our society.

 

Engagement in democracy is a wonderful opportunity to practice Right View. The impermanence of everything is on display. No matter how bad or good the political situation is we can be sure that it will change. This is especially true with democracy where the ability to change the current laws or leadership is its strength. If we don’t like it, we have a route to try to change it. By recognizing this we not only practice Right View but also relax and accept what is. Democracy is also a situation that reflects how interconnected everything is. Engagement in democracy is a cooperative social venture. Without everyone’s cooperation, there would be political chaos. Each of us has only one vote. The outcome of an election depends upon the votes of many. But beyond that democracy can only function if everyone cooperates and accepts the decision of the majority.

 

In the context of democracy, if we take a moment to look, it is easy to develop Right View. We can view the transitoriness of our thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away in response to the election process and political debate. We may become very worked up about an issue, but see that these feelings are only temporary and will subside in a short time. We can see that our political identity as Democrat or Republican, as conservative or liberal, or any other label is never truly accurate and is subject to change. We can see that there is no permanent thing that is our political self and that is also true for others. This is a tremendous learning experience and laboratory to not only personally develop Right View, but to help develop Right View in our society.

 

Engagement in democracy allows us to observe our suffering, unsatisfactoriness, and its roots. We seem to want our system and its outcomes to be exactly as we want them to be and when they are not we suffer. We want other voters to think the way we do, for our candidates to always win, we want the laws passed to always match our world view and beliefs, we want the media to always present arguments in favor of our positions, etc. In other words, we can learn, if we are observant of what is happening during participation in democracy, that our suffering is caused by our lack of acceptance of how things are. So, political engagement constitutes a laboratory to practice Right View. We can learn to accept things as they are, to see things without judgment, to view the others just as they are, and to understand how we vote has consequences, affecting ourselves and others, in other words, we learn Right View.

 

We can quite readily practice Right Intentions while engaging in democracy and this can lead to Right Actions.  Right Intentions involves targeting what we do to increase peace, happiness, prosperity, and happiness in ourselves and throughout society. These intentions include the abandonment of unwholesome desires. If we engage in the democratic process with anger, impatience, selfishness, resentment we are likely to harm others and ourselves. The harm may not be major or direct, but indirect by affecting the other citizens in negative ways. Perhaps interrupting another while arguing their position produces anger in them that causes them suffering and elicits anger and aggression from them toward the positions of others. Perhaps, not simply listening to others ideas may unnecessarily cause them to suffer and induce impatience and an inability on their part to simply listen to others. But sometimes direct physical harm to others can be produced as in the case of violent political protests or confrontations with people with whom we strongly disagree. But if we practice Right Intentions with sincere intentions to create good and happiness, relieve suffering in ourselves and others, and not harm any living thing, we will act and interact with our fellow citizens with courtesy, with tolerance and understanding, with kindness and good will. When listen deeply to another’s position and try to understand it or react to an aggressive political post on social media with patience and tolerance, we may have prevented harm. Had the reaction be angry or judgmental it might provoke even more divisive or aggressive actions in response, creating an upward spiral of anger and frustration. It is good to reflect on the ripples of good that may have been created through Right Actions with unknown consequences extending broadly well into the future.

 

Intentions are a key. They become our moral compass. They tend to lead us in the right direction even though we may at times stumble.  It is often difficult or impossible to predict all of the consequences of our actions. It is also very difficult not to create some harm. Just the fact of taking positions and backing certain candidates can result in an ineffectual or even corrupt candidate being elected or damaging laws being passed. We need to try to not only have Right Intentions, but to discern and accept that even the best of intentions can sometime produce harmful outcomes. We have to sometimes balance the good we’re doing with the harm produced by the same actions. This requires Right Intentions. This is where engaging in politics can be such a great practice as we can learn what works and what doesn’t and become better at discerning what are the wholesome Right Actions from those that produce more harm than good. But, if we form Right Intentions and aspire to create good and happiness we’ll be better citizens and will produce more harmony and good will and more importantly will be moving ourselves along the eightfold path.

 

Verbal interactions are a fundamental process in a democracy, providing many opportunities to practice Right Speech. Political discussions, like any discussion include communicating ideas and feelings both verbally and also non-verbally. Non-verbal communications include facial expressions and body postures. I have a bad habit of often reacting with grimaces or looking away when someone presents a point I don’t agree with. This obvious non-verbal judgement of the others position can harden their position making it more difficult to truly discuss the issue. But, predominantly Right Speech is verbal. I have another bad habit of often getting very frustrated when in a discussion, someone presents, as true, a different set of facts than I believe to be true. It becomes impossible to have an honest discussion when the underlying facts differ. I often react reflexively with anger and frustration and blurt out something like “that’s not true.” This cuts off the possibility of listening deeply to the other’s ideas and short circuits the possibility of a reasoned discussion of the facts. This does no good and often aggravates others. Practicing Right Speech involves engaging in civil, respectful discourse. The facts, beliefs, and conclusions can be questioned and discussed but simply as a difference and not judged as good or bad, right or wrong, just simply a difference that can be investigated and resolved.  For me, this is a work in progress. I have a long way to go. But I can clearly feel the benefits for myself and for the quality of the interaction when I am mindful and engage in Right Speech.

 

Right Speech is non-violent and non-judgmental speech. So much political discourse involves trying to be right or to convince someone of your position. Right Speech, on the other hand, is directed to understanding and producing good feelings. Here, deep listening is a key. It is impossible to respond appropriately to another if you haven’t listened carefully to exactly what the other said. We, too often, spend our time while another is speaking composing our next speech for whenever they stop. This doesn’t allow deep listening and can poison a conversation. Political Right Speech involves listening as much as talking and what is said is directed to improving harmony and understanding. This is a lofty goal that few of us are able to achieve. But, striving in that direction will make us better citizens.

 

Being a politician can be itself Right Livelihood. It can be directed to creating good, helping people, keeping peace, and moving society forward in a positive direction. It is not ours to judge the “rightness” of politicians. This is a personal matter where intention matters, that must be reflected upon deeply. But representational democracy is a system that demands that members of the society make their living as the people’s representatives. This is important and can create great good for the society. If it is Right Livelihood and adheres to the seven other components of the eightfold path it helps the individual in their personal development and the development of the greater society.

 

Once again, engagement in democracy presents a fine context to practice Right Effort. It takes substantial effort to be an engaged citizen. If one simply assumes that their right without doing the hard work of learning the facts, there is little or no mindfulness and little or no effort. When we first engage politically we have to set the intention to act in such a way as to lessen suffering in ourselves and others. We need to interact with other people with kindness, compassion, patience, and courtesy, to drop fear, anger, hatred, and selfishness, and to bring to our political interactions with others the intention to promote well-being and happiness. This is hard and requires Right Effort.  But, we can try too hard. Right Effort involves acting according to the “Middle Way.” That is, not trying too hard and getting stressed about politics, but also not being lackadaisical, rather it involves relaxed effort. The “Middle Way” is where effort should be targeted. But, nonetheless effort is needed. Democracy cannot function without an informed electorate and in today’s information age it can be devilishly difficult work to discern the truth. Right Effort on the part of citizens is not only needed but essential to the successful operation of democracy.

 

Democracy requires an accurate understanding of the nature of the current situation in order to determine what political steps are needed to promote good, happiness, and harmony. Unfortunately, mindless political engagement is probably the norm. Rather than seeing things as they are, we tend to view society through a lens of how it was in the past, or how we believe it should be. But, this can be corrected by the practice of Right Mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” What better opportunity to practice this than in seeing what is present right in front of us right now in our society and with the people who compose it? Right Mindfulness makes us acutely aware of what is happening around us and how we’re feeling during every moment of our day; seeing the situation accurately, unclouded by beliefs or prejudgment. This allows us to better craft ideas and solutions to the ills of society. Seeing a welfare recipient, a homeless person, or a prisoner as a person and their situation as it actually is and not judging the individual based upon our political beliefs and social media memes, we can much better understand what is the truth and what can best be done to help. Right Mindfulness provides the data to engage politically. Right Mindfulness is not just part of the eightfold path it is a prerequisite for the practice of the seven other components of the path. So, being mindful is fundamental to all aspects of political engagement.

 

Right Concentration” is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one object or a specific unchanging set of objects. Mindfulness is paying attention to whatever arises, but concentration is paying attention to one thing to the exclusion of everything else. This is usually developed during contemplative practice such as meditation and is nearly impossible to practice in real life. But, improvement in attentional ability is a consequence of practicing Right Concentration. This can lead to improved political engagement. It can reduce the impact of distractions and mind wandering, making us better at focusing on the topic at hand and increasing the likelihood that we’ll discern the best course of action. In addition, Right Concentration requires Right Effort, Right Intention, and Right Mindfulness so these can be developed while applying Right Concentration to our political activities. In a political discourse, there is often a jumping around from topic to topic without every reaching a conclusion about any of them. Right Concentration can be the antidote, allowing for focus and hopefully resolution.

 

Engaging in democratic activity on the eightfold path is not easy. But, remember that it is a practice. Over time I have gotten better and better at it, but nowhere near perfect. Frequently the discursive mind takes over or my emotions get the better of me. But, by continuing the practice I’ve slowly progressed. I’ve become a better at discussing politics with others and I’ve become better at seeing what needs to be accomplished in our society. I’ve become better at seeing people with different ideas and beliefs not as the enemy but simply as worthy people who simply hold different opinions that I can learn from. I am learning to be relaxed with a smile on my face when I engage politically and enjoy being part of a democracy where diversity of people and ideas is not a problem but a strength.

 

Can we attain enlightenment through political engagement? Probably not! But we can practice the eightfold path that the Buddha taught leads there. The strength of engaging in democracy with the practices of the eightfold path is that it occurs in the real world of our everyday life. Quiet secluded practice is wonderful and perhaps mandatory for progress in spiritual development. But for most people it only can occur during a very limited window of time. By extending the practice directly into the mainstream of our lives we can greatly enhance its impact. I like to keep in mind the teaching that actions that lead to greater harmony and happiness should be practiced, while those that lead to unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness should be let go.  Without doubt, by practicing the eightfold path in our engagement in politics leads to greater harmony and happiness and as such should definitely be included in our spiritual practice.

 

“To engage in politics—the system through which we take care of one another—is to bring mindfulness outward. To participate, to speak out, is to address the complexities of our modern world.” ~Lisette Cheresson

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

The Power of Retreat 6 – Darkness, Light, and Nothingness

The Power of Retreat 6 – Darkness, Light, and Nothingness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Silent retreats are a kind of crucible that reveal the workings of the mind in a unique and illuminating way.” James Baraz

 

This essay is the 6th of a continuing series of essays about the experience of silent meditation retreat. Click on the numbers to follow the links to the prior essays, titled “The Power of Retreat 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5”. This essay is written as we are about to embark on another 7-day silent retreat at one of our favorite retreat sites located in the beautiful smoky mountains in North Carolina. In a sense we’ll be on vacation as everything will be taken care of for us, beds made, towels and linens provided, all meals prepared for us, and our time will be dictated by a detailed schedule of meditations, talks, question and answer periods, and reflective time. All we have to do is show up, meditate, relax, contemplate and listen. We’re terribly spoiled!

 

That seeming ease, however, is deceptive. Retreat is actually quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it runs from 7:00 in the morning till 10:00 at night every day. It can also be physically challenging as engaging in sitting meditation repeatedly over the day is guaranteed to produce many aches and pains in the legs, back, and neck. But the real challenges are psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Retreat can be a real test.

 

Retreat isn’t all relaxation and fun. Far from it. The darkness can descend. During silent retreat deep emotional issues can emerge and may even overwhelm the individual. There are plenty of tissues available at the site as many will spontaneously burst out in tears. Others may become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and break out in cold sweats, and still others are sleepless and tormented. How can this be, that something so seemingly peaceful as silent retreat can be so emotionally wrenching? The secret is that the situation removes the minds ability to hide and distract.

 

Humans have done a tremendous job of providing distractions for the mind including books, movies, magazines, music, television, sports, amusement parks, surfing the internet, tweeting, texting, etc. Any time troubling thoughts or memories of traumatic experiences begin to emerge in everyday life, we can easily change the subject by engaging in a distraction. So, we never have to truly confront the issues. But, in silent retreat there is no escape. Difficult issues emerge and there is no place to hide. They must be confronted and experienced. For some people this may be the first time in their entire life that they’ve had to directly face themselves and their darkest thoughts. It’s no wonder that retreat can be so wrenching.

 

So, why, you might ask, should someone put themselves into such a position? Simply put, you can’t address problems until you recognize them. Retreat is a safe place to do so. Many other people there, have gone through similar experiences and as a result, there’s a great deal of acceptance and compassion from others. It is, however, advised to not intervene but to let anyone in crisis simply work it through themselves. They’ll let you know if they really need help. In the warm and accepting environment of retreat it is actually possible to work on these issues that may have been impossible to address elsewhere. This can lead to substantial personal growth. This is the benefit, that individuals can begin to resolve the very issues that may have, unbeknownst to themselves, been holding them back for their entire life. This is very powerful, and confronting the darkness begins to let the light through.

 

There are much more positive and pleasant sides to silent retreat. One simple one is that many modern adults are overworked, stressed, and as a result sleep deprived. The opportunity to rest and sleep is priceless. Many people fall asleep during meditations and talks early in the retreat. This is not only OK, it’s desirable. If need be it is encouraged to skip sessions and take naps.

The positive benefits of retreat can only emerge when the individual is sufficiently rested to have the energy available to meditate deeply, to look inside, and to begin to remove the veil of delusion that blinds us all.

 

The opportunity to have repeated meditation sessions over prolonged periods of time in a quiet, accepting, and peaceful setting provides the ability to build from meditation to meditation. It allows for deep, repeated engagement into the inner realms, to begin to peel away the layers of awareness, and to begin to dissolve the delusions standing between the individual and their true nature. This progressive process can reveal the light, the positive and pleasant side of retreat. The individual begins to feel happier, more peaceful, and more mindful of themselves and their environment. They can even develop into deeply blissful states. Many people can go no further, but this is far enough. They emerge from retreat feeling peaceful, happy, insightful, having a better understanding of themselves, being better able to deal with their emotions, and with a sense of well-being. In fact, toward the end of retreat the most frequent question asked is how can this be held onto as the process of reintegration into everyday life unfolds.

 

Just going this far makes the retreat worthwhile, but there is a possibility for much deeper experiences and realizations. It is possible to enter the realm of nothingness. It seems like five to ten people in each retreat have some form of spiritual awakening. It is, however, not predictable who will this happen too. It sometimes occurs to long-time veterans of retreat and meditation practice, but it also often happens to complete novices on their first retreat. One has to always be open to the possibility. It is sometimes a nearly complete enlightenment, but sometimes a relatively shallow but real awakening. Again it is unpredictable. The teacher, Adyashanti, calls it falling into grace.

 

What is the nature of these experiences? They tend to have a common property of an experience of oneness, an experience that everything is singular, there is no distinction between subject and object, such that the sound and the listener, the sight and the seer, and the feeling and the feeler, are one and the same. These can be what are termed extrovertive awakening experiences wherein one experiences and observes the entire environment, sights, sound, smells, feelings, thoughts, etc. as simply an experience that all are one, with no distinction or separation. They can also be very deep experiences of nothingness that are termed introvertive awakenings. In these experiences everything dissolves into a void a nothingness, in which only pure awareness exists.

 

These are shattering experiences revealing a reality that was entirely unseen previously. People having had these experiences frequently state that death is not to be feared but rather seen as part of the fabric of existence, not an ending, but simply a change. These are frequently life changing experiences, forever altering the individual. They are never the same again. Needless to say, these are powerful spiritual experiences that many people previously believed were only open to special enlightened beings such as the Buddha. They are glimpses into our true nature and the workings of the universe.

 

There is no requirement that a retreat is necessary for these awakening experiences. Indeed, they occur spontaneously, quite frequently in everyday and even unlikely settings. But, retreat appears to greatly increase the probability that an awakening, a descent into the void, the nothingness, that is the basis for all existence, will happen. We have no expectations regarding what will happen on our upcoming retreat. We have enough experience to know that every retreat is different and to expect to repeat or build on an experience from a prior retreat is a fundamental error. Whatever, happens, if anything, can’t be predicted. On a previous retreat I went with great expectations only to get terribly sick and missed about half of the retreat sick in bed. You never know what will happen. But, know that whatever it is, it will move you in a positive direction.

 

So, go on retreat and feel its power, it’s power to fundamentally change you in mundane ways and sometimes in the most profound ways imaginable.

 

“One of the most powerful aspects of retreat in aiding the factor of determination is the collective energy of the community that is inherent to the retreat setting. When the bell rings and 150 people make their way into the meditation hall to sit, again and again, it becomes evident that this impulsion is like a powerful, gentle, loving force calling us back to remember again and again that we are loving, connected, resilient and forgiving. We, like so many others carry the responsibility of influencing the overall humanness of our totality.” – Scott Francis

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

 

“Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” – Alan Watts

 

In a prior essay ‘The Power of Retreat 4 – the Container of Silence’ (https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/insights/?section=navPosts), the effects of the container in which retreat is conducted were explored. But, the point of retreat is not the container, it is what transpires within it. Meditation and contemplation are the primary practices of the retreat. The amount varies with different types of retreats. The one we just returned from the amount of meditation varied between 3 to 4+ hours per day occurring in 6 to 8 periods beginning at 7:30 in the morning through 9:30 in the evening. The retreat not only allows for deep meditative experiences that build over the course of the retreat, but it also allows for time for contemplation. Just sitting or walking while reflecting on our environment, immediate experience, or the insights occurring in meditation is as important as the meditation itself.

 

The specific type of meditation practiced can vary with different retreats (see links below for explanations of meditation techniques). But, all practices emphasize quieting the mind, reducing the internal conversation and chatter, in order to better see and understand the operation of the mind. The amount of meditation is important as it is a ‘practice’ and over time the mind gets quieter. When the mind quiets all sorts of things can emerge, some expected, some a complete surprise, some sublime, but some very uncomfortable and upsetting. Be forewarned, meditation can produce wrenching experiences. We’ve seen many people spontaneously break out in tears at any moment. Most deal with it effectively, confronting and experiencing troubling experiences and the attached strong emotions. This is actually a very good thing as it can help to heal inner wounds that may have festered for decades. But, some participants are overwhelmed and need assistance or need to leave the retreat. Don’t be put off, these are important experiences and may constitute breakthrough moments, leading to self-transformation.

 

The intent of meditation is not to elicit thinking or emotions, even though thinking and emotions occur frequently during meditation. The intent is to allow inner silence to prevail. At the retreat we attended we all wore tags stating “I am observing silence.” This can be viewed very practically as a message to everyone around who may not be participating in the retreat, that we’re not open to conversation, or even everyday niceties. But, it’s true meaning is deeper. It suggests that we are observing silence itself, the silence within that is ever present and the foundation upon which all experiences emerge. It is a wonderful experience to be deeply immersed in the silence.

 

A powerful component of retreat is the commitment and intention that the participants bring. Most people coming to a retreat are very committed. The investment of money and especially a week’s time is a concrete expression of that commitment. The week taken away from work and everyday activities is dear to many. It could have been used to take a cruise, tour a foreign country, go to a beach or theme park, visit friends and family, etc. So, the choice to go on retreat instead is meaningful. This commitment provides the motivation for the individual to focus on the work of the retreat and particularly on their intention. Most come with an intention to work on self-understanding, which may paradoxically include a loss of self! In addition, the fact that there is a group of committed individuals with a shared intention present energizes the retreat.

 

For many the intention is for spiritual development. Some come to retreat with a specific intention to experience spiritual awakening or to experience a union with God. But, even those who come for personal development reasons often migrate toward spiritual development. This is a natural outgrowth of meditation. It is impossible to look deeply inside, particularly at the silence and emptiness and not be spiritually affected, to not glimpse the deeper aspects of existence. In fact, it is common in retreat for people to have awakening experiences. These frequently occur not in the meditation itself but during the contemplative time. That’s frequently where the fruits of meditation ripen. Additionally, the supportive environment of retreat can promote awakenings as the individual knows that these unusual experiences will be accepted and understood, whereas in everyday life they are not.

 

Silent meditation retreat is an opportunity to move away from our everyday lives. Some may see this as an opportunity to escape them but the power of retreat is not to escape our lives but to provide perspective on them. Yes, work, chores etc. must be done. But, by putting perspective on their true importance we become less stressed and anxious about them and don’t ruminate about unfinished tasks. Rather, we can begin to live our life with balance, making sure that we take care of what constitutes the to do list of our happiness and growth. It has been pointed out that absolutely no one, on their death bed, wishes that they had spent more time at work. Retreat can provide this same kind of perspective. We come away from retreat with a clear realization that we must give higher priorities and more time to our emotional and spiritual lives. We must invest the precious time of our lives in rest and contemplation. We must devote ourselves more to others and especially, to caring for ourselves. We can see how important our relationships, family and friends are to our inner reality. Retreat can provide this perspective for us and is part of its life-altering power.

 

We highly recommend retreat, especially silent retreat, for those who wish for personal or spiritual development. But, be prepared. It is often not the pleasant relaxing time off that many envision. It can be emotional and spiritual dynamite that needs to be approached with caution.

 

As gold purified in a furnace loses its impurities and achieves its own true nature, the mind gets rid of the impurities of the attributes of delusion, attachment and purity through meditation and attains Reality. – Adi Shankara”

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

The Noble Eightfold Path with Relationships

The Noble Eightfold Path with Relationships

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“When we have closer intimate relationships, maybe a marital relationship or lover relationship where sexuality is involved, then we assume we want more from each other. And, there’s the rub. This is where the Buddhist idea of true love helps. True love is where you want the happiness of the beloved; it’s not that you want something from the beloved. You just want to give to the beloved. Shantideva said, “All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting happiness for oneself.” – Robert Thurman

 

Probably the best place to practice the Eightfold Path is not on the meditation mat or in a cloistered environment but in the midst of the chaos of everyday life. There are wonderful opportunities to practice presented to us all the time embedded in the complexities of the modern world. In fact, the whole idea of practicing on the mat is to learn things that will apply to our everyday existence. What better place is there, then, than the real environment to practice them.

 

In previous essays, we discussed driving an automobile and the work environment as excellent venues for practice. In today’s essay we’ll discuss practicing in the midst of our relationships with significant others. This is an excellent context in which to practice the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. It is filled with emotions, desires, sex, conflicts, suffering, compassion, and memories. In other words, our relationships have all the ingredients to practice and to put to the test all the principles of mindfulness and the Eightfold Path for the cessation of suffering; Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

 

There are many wonderful opportunities in relationships to practice the Right View idea of impermanence. Indeed, our relationships are constantly changing. One day is full of love, understanding and kindness and the next filled with conflict, resentment, and anger. No matter how bad or good the relationships are or the daily interactions between partners, they are sure to change. Sexual relations are a wonderful example of impermanence, with desires and feeling changing dramatically from moment to moment, but none of it can be held onto for more than a moment. They come and they go. They’re impermanent. This exemplifies the Right View idea of transitoriness. We all grow and develop and change throughout our lifetime and these changes can be challenging for relationships. There’s an old story about relationships that upon marriage, the woman believes that the man will change, but he doesn’t, while the man believes that the woman will never change, but she does! Adapting and coping with these changes requires that we understand impermanence, the Right View.

 

We can also practice the Right View idea of interconnectedness. Relationships are cooperative ventures. How interconnected the couple is, is on display. Relationships require consideration of the needs and aspirations of both partners by both partners. Acting alone would is a sure formula for chaos and conflict in a relationship. You affect your partner and your partner affects you, which affects your partner, which, in turn, affects you and so on. If there are children involved this interconnectedness becomes magnified. Keep in mind “If you want to be happy effectively, then think about other people’s happiness and you will be. Think about your own happiness only, and you will always be dissatisfied because you will never have enough.”  – Robert Thurman. Understanding and adapting to the dynamic interplay between partners requires that we recognize, adapt to, and work with this interconnectedness, the Right View.

 

In relationships we can also view and practice the Right View idea of no permanent self. This thing called self that you think of a permanent and static actually changes moment to moment in reaction to what transpires in relationships. How you view yourself and your beliefs about the supposed self can change in a flash depending upon what your partner says and does. You may think of yourself as a kind and loving person, but your partner treats you like a selfish and cruel person. This can change this idea of the self. A little mindful reflection regarding this reveals that this thing that we call the self was never permanent in the first place but changing and evolving, coming and going, just like everything else. The highly emotionally charged cauldron of relationships amplifies this and makes it clearer and clearer. This is a tremendous learning experience. Coming to grips with this requires that we develop the Right View of no permanent self.

 

It is hard to find a better context than relationships to develop the Right View idea of suffering and unsatisfactoriness, and their roots. In relationships we want everything to be exactly as we want it to be, and when it isn’t we suffer. We want our partners to understand us, we want sex to fulfill our fantasies, we want to always be agreed with, we want more excitement and less dull chores, we want our partners to acquiesce to all our decisions, we want to have space, we don’t want to deal with our in-laws, we want our partners to unconditionally love us, etc. When these things don’t happen, we suffer. In other words, you can learn, if you are observant of what is happening in relationships, that your suffering is caused by your lack of acceptance of how things really are in your relationship. So, relationships constitute wonderful laboratories to practice Right View. You can learn to accept things as they are, to see things without judgment, to view the relationship, your partner, and children just as they are, as individual human being with their own desires and needs. When you view them this way, the love grows, and the incredible wonder of life and loving begins to reveal itself. You can learn to understand that the way you act with them has consequences, affecting yourself and the rest of the family, in other words, you practice and develop Right View.

 

You can readily practice Right Intentions in relationships and this can lead to Right Actions. Intentions are a key. They become your moral compass. These intentions include the happiness of our partner. “True love is where you want the happiness of the beloved; it’s not that you want something from the beloved.”  – Robert Thurman. They tend to lead you in the right direction even though you may at times stumble.  But, it is often difficult or impossible to predict all of the consequences of your actions. Sometimes, even with the Right Intentions you can cause your partner to suffer. For example, you may want to provide a high standard of living for your partner and family and work long hours to do so. But, this may cause your partner to be lonely and unhappy or your children to feel neglected. You need to try to not only to have Right Intentions, but to discern how even the best of intentions can sometime produce harmful outcomes. The truly Right Intentions do not produce harm, only good. You have to sometimes balance the good you’re doing with the harm produced by the same actions. This requires Right View. This is where relationships can be such a great practice as you can learn what works and what doesn’t and become better at discerning what are the wholesome Right Actions from those that produce more harm than good.

 

Right Intentions also includes the abandonment of unwholesome desires. If you relate to your partner with anger, impatience, selfishness, resentment you are likely to harm them and yourself. The harm may not be major or direct, but indirect by affecting partner and children in negative ways. Perhaps your anger at your partner overdrawing a checking account causes you to lash out at your children. Perhaps, your selfishness causes you to neglect you partners requests or needs eliciting frustration or anger in your partner, or simply cause them to suffer. But sometimes you can produce direct harm to your partner. This can occur when anger and alcohol result in physical or psychological abuse or when your sexual desires cause you to force yourself on an unwilling partner.

 

On the other hand, if you practice Right Intentions with sincere intentions to create good and happiness, relieve suffering, you will treat your partner with tolerance and understanding, with kindness and good will. When our partners are treated with respect, compassion, and helpfulness or when a partner’s anger or frustration are reacted to with patience, kindness, and tolerance, harm and suffering have likely been prevented. A considerate sexual relationship, where the intentions are to love and satisfy your partner, the relationship will become more satisfying for both of you, particularly if your partner has the same Right Intentions. The happiness and love produced carries into everything that you do affecting how you treat you children, your friends, your coworkers, and everyone that you meet. It is good to reflect on the ripples of good that may have been created by the Right Actions producing positive consequences, which produce more positive consequences, producing more positive consequences, etc. well into the future. So, if you form Right Intentions and aspire to create good and happiness you’ll be a better partner and will produce more harmony and good will in in all of your interactions and more importantly will be moving yourself along the eightfold path.

 

There are many opportunities to practice Right Speech in relationships. This can include non-verbal communications such as facial expressions, body postures, etc., perhaps even holding hands or loving glances. But, predominantly Right Speech is verbal. You may have a bad habit of often reacting to a mistake with reflexive emotional expletives. This can occur in response to something as simple as dropping a glass of wine. This can also include gestures. These can occur reflexively or even without awareness but do no good and create harm in yourself and sometimes aggravate your partner. Keep in mind the advice “Have a fast ear and a slow tongue.” ~Mark Ward. Right Speech also involves refraining from gossip. Couples often gossip or repeat rumors about family and friends. This can hurt others in unpredictable and sometimes unknown ways. In addition, Right Speech is truthful speech. In communicating with your partner only speak things that you know are absolutely true. Even “little white lies” have a cumulative effect eroding trust and understanding, while always speaking the truth promotes trust, understanding, and harmony. Right Speech takes practice. We have years of training and daily multiple examples of wrong speech. So, be patient and practice. Slowly the effects and benefits will become apparent.

 

The notion of Right Livelihood mandates that the couple’s occupations not only earns a living but also creates greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering. Conversely, they should not produce harm. Some occupations can be clearly seen as creating harm such as manufacturing, selling, or delivering weapons, cigarettes, or harmful drugs, human trafficking, or driving animals to slaughter. Some occupations clearly seem to create greater good and happiness, such as teacher, aid worker, nurse, etc. But, most occupations are a little more difficult to tell. Sometimes harm is produced indirectly, such as by damaging the environment, or resulting in layoffs from a competitor, or by producing goods or services that can be misused or used by others to create harm. Although rarely having direct effects upon relationships, engaging in Right Livelihood can do so indirectly. Feeling good about what you do for work can spill over bringing those good feelings home. Also, developing the discernment required to understand the impact of your occupations is a useful skill for understanding the impact of your actions upon your partner.

 

Relationships also present a great context to practice Right Effort. It takes substantial effort to interact mindfully. If you act automatically as most people do most of the time, there is little or no mindfulness and little or no effort.  When you first get up in the morning you have to set the intention to engage in your daily activities in such a way as to lessen suffering in yourself and your partner, to act with kindness, compassion, patience, and courtesy, to drop fear, anger, hatred, selfishness, and to bring to our interactions with our partner the intention to promote well-being and happiness. Right Effort is working the “Middle Way.” That is not trying too hard and getting stressed about interacting and loving properly, and also not being lackadaisical, but rather to try, but relax. Don’t beat yourself up when you’re not relating to your partner mindfully, but congratulate yourself when you do. The “Middle Way” is where effort should be targeted.

 

Acting mindlessly is probably the norm. Most people perform their routine daily activities while their minds are elsewhere, ruminating about the past, planning for the future, or off in fantasy and daydreams. This provides you with a terrific opportunity to practice Right Mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” What better opportunity to practice this than while your interacting with your partner? Right Mindfulness precludes focusing on social media or engaging in other distractions when with your partner. Right Mindfulness makes you acutely aware of what is happening and how you’re feeling during every moment together. Awareness of how you’re feeling and what’s producing those feelings, and how you’re reacting to them makes you better able to interact effectively without emotional outbursts that are non-productive and can hurt your partner. Right Mindfulness is not just part of the eightfold path it is a prerequisite for the practice of the seven other components of the path. So, relating mindfully is a fundamental practice and relationships are great situations for practice.

 

Right Concentration is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one object or a specific unchanging set of objects. This is developed during contemplative practice such as meditation. It is essential to effectively interacting with you partner. Our world is replete with distractions and interruptions. But, to truly be attentive and listening mindfully to our partner we must concentrate. Right Concentration in relationships includes making the effort to be there for your partner and deeply listen to them. There are very few more important things that you can do in relationships than to simply give your partner your full presence, your full attention, your full mindfulness. Improvement in attentional ability is a consequence of practicing Right Concentration. The ability to concentrate and screen out intrusive sounds, sights, speech and thoughts allow you to focus on your partner, producing a higher quality relationship. In addition, it is thought that Right Concentration requires Right Effort, Right Intentions, and Right Mindfulness and these can also be practiced and developed. So, interacting with our beloved is a wonderful situation for the practice of Right Concentration, benefiting each partner.

 

Negotiating the eightfold path in relationships is not easy. But, remember that it is a practice. Over time you’ll better and better at it, but nowhere near perfect. Frequently the discursive mind takes over or your emotions will get the better of you. But, by continuing the practice you’ll slowly progress. you’ll become a better partner and have a more relaxed, loving, and happier relationship. Keep in mind the teaching that actions that lead to greater harmony and happiness should be practiced, while those that lead to unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness should be let go. One of the keys in the practice is mindfully observing your partner and yourself. This allows you to discern the improvements even when they’re small and subtle.  Over time, these small improvements add up.  Without doubt, practicing the eightfold path lead to a terrific, happy, satisfying, loving relationship.

 

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Driving the Eightfold Path

Driving the Eightfold Path

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “We are not proving ourselves spiritually worthy of our material progress. We have not been neighborly, courteous, and kind upon the highway. Our lack of decency toward our fellow men is a definite black mark against us.” ~Cary T. Grayson

 

We often think of meditation or spiritual practice as occurring in quiet places removed from the hubbub of life. This is useful to develop skills and deep understanding. Unfortunately, most people do not have the luxury of withdrawing into solitary or monastic life. But it is possible to practice even in the midst of the chaos of everyday life. In fact, there are wonderful opportunities to practice presented to us all the time in the complexities of the modern world. I find that driving an automobile is an almost perfect context in which to practice the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s prerequisites for the cessation of suffering; Right View, Right Intentions, Right Actions, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

 

Driving is a wonderful opportunity to practice Right View. The impermanence of everything is on display. No matter how bad or good the traffic condition we can be sure that they will change. By recognizing this we not only practice Right View but also relax and accept what is. Driving is also a situation that reflects how interconnected everything is including the thing we label self. Driving is a cooperative venture. Without everyone’s cooperation, there would be chaos on the roads. How other people drive effects how we drive at the moment and in the future. In this context if we take a moment to look, it is easy to develop Right View. We can also view the transitoriness of our thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away in response to the experiences occurring while driving and our reactions to them, how this thing called self that we think of a permanent and static actually changes moment to moment in reaction to our experiences while driving. This is a tremendous learning experience and laboratory to develop Right View.

 

It is hard to find a better context than driving to observe our suffering, unsatisfactoriness, and its roots. While driving we seem to want everything to be exactly as we want it to be and when it isn’t we suffer. We want other drivers to drive the speeds we want so they are not in our way, we want traffic signals to always be green, we want the sun or other drivers’ high beams not to be in our eyes, we want a parking space to be available close to our destination, etc. In other words, we can learn, if we are observant of what is happening during driving, that our suffering is caused by our lack of acceptance of how things are. So, driving constitutes an ideal laboratory to practice Right View. We can learn to accept things as they are, to see things without judgment, to view the road and other vehicles just as they are, and to understand how we drive has consequences, affecting ourselves and others, in other words, we learn Right View.

 

We can quite readily practice Right Intentions while driving and this can lead to Right Actions. These intentions include the abandonment of unwholesome desires. If we drive with anger, impatience, selfishness, resentment we are likely to harm others and ourselves. The harm may not be major or direct, but indirect by affecting the other drivers in negative ways. Perhaps cutting another off produces anger in them that causes them suffering and elicits poor driving from them or anger and aggression toward others. Perhaps, not moving over to allow faster traffic to pass may induce impatience and elicit inappropriate passing on their part or simply to unnecessarily cause them to suffer. But sometimes direct physical harm to others can be produced as in the case of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But if we practice Right Intentions with sincere intentions to create good and happiness, relieve suffering in ourselves and others, and not harm any living thing, we will drive sober, with courtesy, with tolerance and understanding, with kindness and good will. When I move over to allow someone to pass or I react to an aggressive driver with patience and tolerance, I sometimes reflect that I may have prevented great harm. Had I aggravated the other driver their emotions could provoke even more dangerous driving or resulted in later anger or aggression toward others. I like to reflect on the ripples of good that I may have created with unknown consequences well into the future.

 

Intentions are a key. They become our moral compass. They tend to lead us in the right direction even though we may at times stumble.  It is often difficult or impossible to predict all of the consequences of our actions. It is also very difficult not to create some harm. Just the fact of driving is producing carbon emissions contributing to global warming. We need to try to not only have Right Intentions,” but to discern how even the best of intentions can sometime produce harmful outcomes. We have to sometimes balance the good we’re doing with the harm produced by the same actions. This requires Right View. This is where driving can be such a great practice as we can learn what works and what doesn’t and become better at discerning what are the wholesome Right Actions from those that produce more harm than good. But, if we form Right Intentions and aspire to create good and happiness we’ll be better drivers and will produce more harmony and good will on the roads and more importantly will be moving ourselves along the eightfold path.

 

There are many opportunities to practice Right Speech while driving. This can include non-verbal communications such as the use of turn signals. This is a form of Right Speech on the roads, communicating for the greater good. But, predominantly Right Speech is verbal. I have a bad habit of often reacting to driving situations with reflexive emotional expletives. This can occur in response to something as simple as being caught at a red light to another driver’s dangerous actions. This can also include gestures. They do no good and create harm in myself and sometimes aggravate and harm others. By practicing Right Speech. I work toward alleviating the suffering my habit produces in myself and others. I’ve started to develop a habit of simply reacting, rather than with expletives, with words such as “be safe” or a recitation of the loving kindness meditation wishes for health, happiness, safety etc. It’s a work in progress, but I can clearly feel the benefit when I do.

 

Right Livelihood. only applies literally to a few drivers on the road, such as truck drivers, taxi drivers, police, tow truck drivers, etc.  But if we fall into the category of people who make their living driving it is good to reflect on the effects of our activities on others. Does our livelihood produce harm to others, such as delivering weapons, cigarettes, or harmful drugs, or driving animals to slaughter, or does it produce greater good and happiness? It is not ours to judge the “rightness” of other people’s occupations. This is a personal matter where intention matters, that must be reflected upon deeply by each of us. But driving is more frequently a secondary component of our livelihood, perhaps as a means to get to our workplace. So, it can be conceived as part of our livelihood. So, driving is for many an opportunity to reflect upon our Right Livelihood.

 

Once again, driving presents a great context to practice Right Effort. It takes substantial effort to drive mindfully. If one drives automatically as most of us do most of the time, there is little or no mindfulness and little or no effort. When we first get in the driver’s seat we have to set the intention to drive in such a way as to lessen suffering in ourselves and others, to drive with kindness, compassion, patience, and courtesy, to drop fear, anger, hatred, selfishness, and the survival of the fittest attitude, and to bring to our interactions with others on the road the intention to promote well-being and happiness. Right Effort is driving the “Middle Way.” That is not trying too hard and getting stressed about driving mindfully, and also not being lackadaisical, but rather to try but relax. Don’t beat yourself up when you’re not driving mindfully and congratulate yourself when you do. The “Middle Way” is where effort should be targeted.

 

Mindless driving is probably the norm. Most people navigate the roads and traffic while their minds are elsewhere, ruminating about the past, planning for the future, or off in fantasy and daydreams. This provides us with a terrific opportunity to practice Right Mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” What better opportunity to practice this than while driving? Right Mindfulness while driving precludes the dangerous activities of texting or engaging in other distractions that are known to amplify the dangers of driving. Right Mindfulness makes us acutely aware of what is happening and how we’re feeling during every moment of our drive. This makes not only for a more enjoyable drive, but also for much better driving. Awareness of how we’re feeling and what’s producing those feelings, and how we’re reacting to them makes us better able to drive safely without emotional outbursts eliciting unsafe behaviors. Right Mindfulness while driving is not just part of the eightfold path it is a prerequisite for the practice of the seven other components of the path. So, driving mindfully is a fundamental practice and driving is a great situation for practice.

 

Right Concentration” is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one object or a specific unchanging set of objects. Mindfulness is paying attention to whatever arises, but concentration is paying attention to one thing to the exclusion of everything else. This is usually developed during contemplative practice such as meditation and is nearly impossible to practice while driving. But, improvement in attentional ability is a consequence of practicing Right Concentration in other contexts which can improve driving by reducing distractions and mind wandering. In addition, it is thought that Right Concentration requires Right Effort, Right Intention, and Right Mindfulness and these can be practiced and developed while driving. So, although driving is not a situation for the practice of Right Concentration directly, the prerequisites for Right Concentration can be practiced and the benefits of its development can be appreciated.

 

Driving the eightfold path is not easy. But, remember that it is a practice. Over time I have gotten better and better at it, but nowhere near perfect. Frequently the discursive mind takes over or my emotions get the better of me. But, by continuing the practice I’ve slowly progressed. I’ve become a better driver and I’ve become a more relaxed and happier driver. I arrive at my destination relaxed with a smile on my face as opposed to the anger and stress that used to accompany me there.

 

Can we drive ourselves to enlightenment? Probably not! But we can practice the eightfold path that the Buddha taught leads there. The strength of driving the eightfold path practice is that it occurs in the real world of our everyday life. Quiet secluded practice is wonderful and perhaps mandatory for progress in spiritual development. But for most people it only can occur during a very limited window of time. By extending the practice directly into the mainstream of our lives we can greatly enhance its impact. I like to keep in mind the teaching that actions that lead to greater harmony and happiness should be practiced, while those that lead to unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness should be let go.  Without doubt, driving the eightfold path leads to greater harmony and happiness and as such should definitely should be included in our spiritual practice.

 

“It helps if you don’t see it as traffic but rather as thousands of individuals resolved to press on another day.” ~Robert Brault

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

The Eightfold Path at Work

The Eightfold Path at Work

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “So where do we begin if we want to improve our work life for ourselves and those around us? I suggest starting with the mind. Ask yourself: what is the quality of my mind at work? What’s happening in my mind as the hours at work go by day in and day out? Is my mind working at its utmost? . . . . Through mindfulness, we can train our minds to work better.” – Tara Healey

 

The work environment as an excellent context in which to practice the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. It is filled with interpersonal interactions and clashes, task focusing, dealing with authority, frustrations, successes, self-worthiness, and emotionality. In other words, the work environment has all the ingredients to put to the test all the principles of mindfulness and the Eightfold Path for the cessation of suffering; Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

 

We often think of meditation or spiritual practice as occurring in quiet places removed from the hubbub of life. This is useful to develop skills and deep understanding. Unfortunately, most people do not have the luxury of withdrawing into a solitary or monastic life. Fortunately, it is possible to practice even in the midst of the chaos of everyday life. In fact, there are wonderful opportunities to practice presented to us all the time embedded in the complexities of the modern world. In a previous essay we discussed driving an automobile as an almost perfect venue for practice. In today’s essay we’ll discuss practicing in the work environment.

 

There are many wonderful opportunities at work to practice Right View. The view that all things are impermanent can be practiced. Indeed, the situation at work is constantly changing and no matter how bad or good the work conditions or the daily experiences are you can be sure that they’ll change; the business cycle is constantly changing as are the people you work with and for. By recognizing this we not only practice Right View but also relax and accept what is. Work is a cooperative venture. It’s a situation that reflects how interconnected everything is including the thing we label self. Working without consideration of our superiors or co-workers and their needs and aspirations would be chaotic and very unproductive. How you work effects how they work and vice versa. In this context if you take a moment to look, it is easy to develop Right View including the transitoriness of our thoughts and emotions. At work they arise and fall away in response to the ever changing experiences occurring at work and your reactions to them. This thing called self that you think of a permanent and static actually changes moment to moment in reaction to these experiences at work. This is a tremendous learning experience with work being a wonderful laboratory to practice and develop your Right View.

 

It is hard to find a better context than working to develop the Right View on suffering and unsatisfactoriness, and their roots. While working we seem to want everything to be exactly as we want it to be, and when it isn’t we suffer. We want meetings to be short, incisive, and productive, we want technology to always be working properly, we want to always be recognized for our efforts and accomplishments, we want less dull repetition and paperwork, we want our co-workers to be cooperative rather than competitive, we want a raise, we want a promotion, we want our bosses to always make the right decisions, we want everyone to like us, etc. When these things don’t happen, we suffer. In other words, you can learn, if you are observant of what is happening during working, that your suffering is caused by your lack of acceptance of how things are at work. So, working constitutes a wonderful laboratory to practice Right View. You can learn to accept things as they are, to see things without judgment, to view the job, your bosses, and other workers just as they are, and to understand how you work has consequences, affecting yourself and others, in other words, you practice and develop Right View.

 

You can quite readily practice Right Intentions while working and this can lead to Right Actions. These intentions include the abandonment of unwholesome desires. If you work with anger, impatience, selfishness, resentment you are likely to harm others and yourself. The harm may not be major or direct, but indirect by affecting the other workers in negative ways. Perhaps your anger at an unsatisfactory work situation causes the intentional sabotage of a project. Perhaps, your selfishness causes you to refuse to help a struggling co-worker eliciting frustration or worry about the security of their job, or simply cause them to suffer. But sometimes direct harm to others can be produced by greed resulting in your undercutting or obstructing their work in order to make yourself look better and step over them for promotion. But if you practice Right Intentions with sincere intentions to create good and happiness, relieve suffering in ourselves and others, and not harm any living thing, you will work cooperatively, with courtesy, with tolerance and understanding, with kindness and good will. When co-workers are treated with respect, compassion, and helpfulness or when a co-worker’s anger or frustration are reacted to with patience, kindness, and tolerance, harm and suffering have likely been prevented. It is good to reflect on the ripples of good that may have been created with Right Actions producing positive consequences, which produce more positive consequences, producing more positive consequences, etc. well into the future.

 

Intentions are a key. They become your moral compass. They tend to lead you in the right direction even though you may at times stumble.  It is often difficult or impossible to predict all of the consequences of your actions. It is also very difficult not to create some harm. You have to consider that your competitive success may be causing others to lose their jobs, or that the manufacturing processes you’re using compromises the natural environment, or that trying to minimize costs, you use suppliers who employ people at less than a living wage. You need to try to not only have Right Intentions, but to discern how even the best of intentions can sometime produce harmful outcomes. You have to sometimes balance the good you’re doing with the harm produced by the same actions. This requires Right View. This is where working can be such a great practice as you can learn what works and what doesn’t and become better at discerning what are the wholesome Right Actions from those that produce more harm than good. But, if you form Right Intentions and aspire to create good and happiness you’ll be a better worker and will produce more harmony and good will in the work place and more importantly will be moving yourself along the eightfold path.

 

There are many opportunities to practice Right Speech while working. This can include non-verbal communications such as facial expressions, body postures, etc. But, predominantly Right Speech is verbal. A worker may have a bad habit of often reacting to a mistake with reflexive emotional expletives. This can occur in response to something as simple as dropping a part, to another worker’s dangerous actions. This can also include gestures. They do no good and create harm in myself and sometimes aggravate and harm others. Office gossip is rampant in the work environment. This often hurts others in unpredictable and sometimes unknown ways. Right speech involves refraining from gossip. At work frequently guesses and rumors are spread. Right Speech involves only speaking things that you know are absolutely true. This can promote trust and harmony in the workplace. By practicing Right Speech you can work toward alleviating the suffering produced in ourselves and others. Simply react, rather than with expletives, with words such as “be safe” or a silent recitation of the loving kindness meditation wishes for health, happiness, safety etc. Right Speech takes practice. We have years of training and daily multiple examples of wrong speech. So, be patient and practice. Slowly the effects and benefits will become apparent.

 

The notion of Right Livelihood mandates that your work not only earns you a living but also creates greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering in yourself and others. Conversely, you should not produce harm. This doesn’t discourage earning profits and accumulating wealth. It simply indicates that it must be done in the right way. It indicates that you should acquire wealth only by legal means, peacefully, without coercion or violence; you should acquire it honestly, not by trickery or deceit; and you should acquire it in ways which do not entail harm and suffering for others. Some occupations can be clearly seen as creating harm such as manufacturing, selling, or delivering weapons, cigarettes, or harmful drugs, or driving animals to slaughter. Some occupations clearly seem to create greater good and happiness, such as teacher, aid worker, nurse, etc. But, most occupations are a little more difficult to tell. Sometimes harm is produced indirectly, such as by damaging the environment, or resulting in layoffs from a competitor, or by producing goods or services that can be misused or used by others to create harm. It is not yours to judge the “rightness” of other people’s occupations. This is a personal matter where intention matters, that must be reflected upon deeply to ascertain whether your practicing Right Livelihood.

 

Once again, working presents a great context to practice Right Effort. It takes substantial effort to work mindfully. If you work automatically as most people do most of the time, there is little or no mindfulness and little or no effort. When you first get to work you have to set the intention to engage in your work in such a way as to lessen suffering in yourself and others, to work with kindness, compassion, patience, and courtesy, to drop fear, anger, hatred, selfishness, and the survival of the fittest attitude, and to bring to our interactions with others at work the intention to promote well-being and happiness. Right Effort is working the “Middle Way.” That is not trying too hard and getting stressed about working mindfully, and also not being lackadaisical, but rather to try, but relax. Don’t beat yourself up when you’re not working mindfully, but congratulate yourself when you do. The “Middle Way” is where effort should be targeted.

 

Mindless working is probably the norm. Most people perform their routine work activities while their minds are elsewhere, ruminating about the past, planning for the future, or off in fantasy and daydreams. This provides you with a terrific opportunity to practice Right Mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” What better opportunity to practice this than while working? Right Mindfulness while working precludes focusing on social media or engaging in other distractions that detract from our efforts. Right Mindfulness makes you acutely aware of what is happening and how you’re feeling during every moment of your work. This makes not only for a more enjoyable work, but also for much better working. Awareness of how you’re feeling and what’s producing those feelings, and how you’re reacting to them makes you better able to work effectively without emotional outbursts that are non-productive and can damage the efforts of co-workers. Right Mindfulness while working is not just part of the eightfold path it is a prerequisite for the practice of the seven other components of the path. So, working mindfully is a fundamental practice and working is a great situation for practice.

 

Right Concentration is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one object or a specific unchanging set of objects. This is developed during contemplative practice such as meditation. It is essential to effective work. Very few people have the luxury of working in quiet isolated circumstances. Most work in environments that are replete with distractions and interruptions.

Improvement in attentional ability is a consequence of practicing Right Concentration  improves focused attention on the work, reducing distractions and mind wandering. The ability to concentrate and screen out intrusive sounds, sights, speech and thoughts allow you to focus on your work, producing higher quality work while being more efficient and productive. In addition, it is thought that Right Concentration requires Right Effort, Right Intentions, and Right Mindfulness and these can also be practiced and developed while working. So, working is a wonderful situation for the practice of Right Concentration, benefiting the individual and the quality of the work.

 

Working the eightfold path is not easy. But, remember that it is a practice. Over time you’ll better and better at it, but nowhere near perfect. Frequently the discursive mind takes over or your emotions will get the better of you. But, by continuing the practice you’ll slowly progress. you’ll become a better worker and a more relaxed and happier worker. You then can leave work at the end of the day relaxed with a smile on your face rather than angry and stressed.

 

Through engaging in the eightfold path at can we achieve enlightenment? Probably not! But we can practice it and the Buddha taught that it leads there. The strength of practicing the eightfold path at work is that it occurs in the real world of our everyday life. Quiet secluded practice is wonderful and perhaps mandatory for progress in spiritual development. But for most people it only can occur during a very limited window of time. By extending the practice directly into the mainstream of our lives we can greatly enhance its impact. Keep in mind the teaching that actions that lead to greater harmony and happiness should be practiced, while those that lead to unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness should be let go.  Without doubt, practicing the eightfold path at work leads to greater harmony and happiness and as such should be included in our spiritual practice.

 

“As an executive coach and physician, I often sing the praises of mindfulness approaches and recommend them to clients to manage stress, avoid burnout, enhance leadership capacity, and steady their minds when in the midst of making important business decisions, career transitions, and personal life changes.” – David Brendel

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Improve Migraine Headaches with Spiritual Meditation

Improve Migraine Headaches with Spiritual Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that people are still using today to get headache relief. This mind-body practice seems to work by relieving stress associated with headache pain.” – Chris Iliades

 

Migraine headaches are a torment far beyond the suffering of a common headache. It is an intense throbbing pain usually unilateral, focused on only one side of the head and lasts from 4 hours to 3 days. They are actually a collection of neurological symptoms. Migraines often include: visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch and smell, and tingling or numbness in the extremities or face. Migraines are the 8th most disabling illness in the world. In the U.S. they affect roughly 40 million men, women and children. While most sufferers experience attacks once or twice a month, 14 million people or about 4% have chronic daily headaches. Migraines are very disruptive to the sufferer’s personal and work lives as most people are unable to work or function normally when experiencing a migraine.

 

There is no known cure for migraine headaches. Treatments are targeted at managing the symptoms. Prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers are frequently used. There are a number of drug and drug combinations that appear to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. These vary in effectiveness but unfortunately can have troubling side effects and some are addictive. Behaviorally, relaxation and sleep appear to help lower the frequency of migraines. Mindfulness practices have been shown to reduce stress and improve relaxation. So, they may be useful in preventing migraines. Indeed, it has been shown that mindfulness practice can reduce headache pain.

 

There are a wide variety of meditation techniques. It is not known which kinds work best for migraine headaches. In today’s Research News article “Effect of Different Meditation Types on Migraine Headache Medication Use.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4600642/ ), Wachholtz and colleagues examine the effectiveness of spiritual focused vs. secular meditation techniques on treating migraine headaches. They recruited adult migraine sufferers who had at least 2 migraine headaches per month and who were naive to meditation. They were randomly assigned to one of four groups who meditated for 20 minutes per day for 30 days; Spiritual Meditation, Internally Focused Secular Meditation, Externally Focused Secular Meditation, or Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

 

The meditation techniques differed in a phrase that the participants repeated to themselves and used as a focus for their meditation during the 20-minute daily period. For the Spiritual Meditation group the participants chose one of four phrases; “God is peace,” “God is joy,” God is good,” and “God is love.” For the Secular Internal Meditation group the participants chose either; “I am content,” “I am joyful,” “I am good,” “I am happy.” For the Secular External Meditation group the participants chose either; “Grass is green,” “Sand is soft,” “Cotton is fluffy,” “Cloth is smooth.” The Relaxation group practiced progressive muscle relaxation, systematically tensing and relaxing muscles. Participants were measured before and after the 30 days of meditation for headache frequency, intensity, and usage of migraine medications, and for spiritual and religious experiences and activities. They also maintained daily headache diaries.

 

They found that while all groups showed some improvement in migraine frequency, the Spiritual Meditation groups had significantly greater improvement than the other groups. In addition, while all groups showed significant reduction in the use of migraine medications, the Spiritual Meditation groups had significantly greater reductions. There was, however, no change in the severity of the migraines. Hence, although there were fewer headaches, when they did occur they were just as intense as usual. It should be noted, however, that there wasn’t a no-treatment control. So, it is unclear that improvements would not have occurred without treatment.

 

The results suggest that meditation and relaxation, but especially spiritually focused meditation, can improve migraine frequency and medication use. Mindfulness practices, in the previous research have been shown to be effective in treating pain from a variety of sources including headaches. It is not clear, however, why meditating with a spiritual focus is superior to secular focused meditation or relaxation. Perhaps focusing on a greater power relieves the stress of searching for the sources of the headaches within the self or the environment, and the stress reduction, in turn, reduces the likelihood of a migraine.

 

So, improve migraine headaches with spiritual meditation.

 

“This kind of moment-to-moment, positive mindfulness is crucial for chronic pain sufferers. Pain is only ever exacerbated by depression and despair. And depression and despair most definitely intensify pain. Thus, the dark circle of chronic illness. Mindfulness can stop this cycle in its tracks by allowing the patient to take back control and climb out of the gloom, a single moment at a time. “ – Ashley Jonkman

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Wachholtz, A. B., Malone, C. D., & Pargament, K. I. (2017). Effect of Different Meditation Types on Migraine Headache Medication Use. Behavioral Medicine (Washington, D.C.), 43(1), 1–8. http://doi.org/10.1080/08964289.2015.1024601

 

Abstract

Spiritual meditation has been found to reduce the frequency of migraines and physiological reactivity to stress. However, little is known about how introducing a spirituality component into a meditation intervention impacts analgesic medication usage. In this study, 92 meditation naïve participants were randomly assigned to four groups (Spiritual Meditation (N=25), Internally Focused Secular Meditation (N=23), Externally Focused Secular Meditation (N=22), Progressive Muscle Relaxation (N=22)) and practiced their technique for 20min/day over 30 days while completing daily diaries. Headache frequency, headache severity, and pain medication use were assessed. Migraine frequency decreased in the Spiritual Meditation group compared to other groups (p<.05). Headache severity ratings did not differ across groups (p=NS). After adjusting for headache frequency, migraine medication usage decreased in the Spiritual Meditation group compared to other groups (p<.05). Spiritual Meditation was found to not affect pain sensitivity, but it does improve pain tolerance with reduced headache related analgesic medication usage.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4600642/

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Concentration relates closely to the final limb, mindfulness. Both are different forms of awareness, but of the two concentration is more deliberate and narrow, mindfulness broader, more spontaneous and more open and receptive.” – Clearvision

 

Mindfulness is an openness to all experiences no matter what comes up. On the other hand, concentration is to focus on only one or a small subset of what is present. So, Right Concentration is a different aspect of mind training from Right Mindfulness. It is the eighth and last component of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. But, all of these components are interconnected and depend upon one another. So, it’s position is arbitrary and should not be construed that it’s the least component. They are all important in the integrated interdependent whole of the path.

 

A good example of Right Concentration is focused meditation where a single aspect or select set of aspects is concentrated upon to the exclusion of other aspects. This is often the breath but can also be a mantra, a special word, a particular person, or basically anything that can be separated from everything else. Concentration filters out everything but the object of concentration. So, the mind is not distracted. A concentrated mind is described as single pointed, focused totally on one thing and one thing only. The Buddha taught that when one pointedness is attained it produces a state of great tranquility and peace. Hence, the two primary features of Right Concentration are unbroken attentiveness to an object and a consequent tranquility.

 

There are many levels of concentration and as the practice of focused meditation develops the individual moves through deeper and deeper levels. As the practice begins, the mind will inevitably wander. When the meditator becomes aware that the mind has strayed, s/he simply gently returns to the object of concentration. It is sometimes helpful to congratulate yourself on returning rather than feeling bad about wandering. The idea is to reinforce and strengthen being concentrated rather than punishing the mind for doing what it naturally does. This will make it more and more likely that the meditator will return quickly once the mind wanders and stays focused longer and longer.

 

The development of Right Concentration is not a linear process with the meditator getting better and better with every meditation. It is rather highly variable with concentration easy and prolonged one day followed by another day when it is difficult and short-lived with mind wandering the rule. Rather than being frustrated with this the practitioner simply needs to continue practicing with assurance that over time concentration will get deeper and deeper more and more often and un-concentrated meditation will get rarer and rarer.

 

As practice continues concentration will deepen going through a number of stages, initial application of mind, sustained application of mind, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. The initial application of mind is settling and acquiring the object of meditation and focusing on it alone. This slowly becomes a sustained application of mind, where the focus on the object is held for a prolonged period of time. Rapture and happiness begin to become a by-product of the sustained attention as the practitioner feels joy and happiness with successful concentration. Finally, the concentration develops to the level of one pointedness, with the mind unified and completely focused on the object of meditation to the exclusion of everything else.
The attainment of one pointedness relaxes the mind with its activities greatly diminished. As the mind quiets, consciousness is allowed to be on its own without interruption and it begins to move into deeper and deeper states on consciousness. The meditative absorption deepens and consciousness moves into various stages known as the “jhanas.” The first and second being one pointedness accompanied by joy and happiness, the only difference between the two is the level of refinement of the concentration. The third “jhana” involves a continuation of one pointedness and happiness but with the addition of clear comprehension and equanimity, where things are seen just as they are without judgment or valuation. The fourth “jhana” involves solely one pointedness, a state of pureness of consciousness, unmarred by feelings.

 

These stages of Right Concentration should not be seen as an unwavering roadmap to deeper states of consciousness. These stages occur to some but not others. Some, jump around, skip stages, of bypass them completely. But, Right Concentration inevitably leads to deep and deeper states of awareness. The Buddha describes even deeper states of absorption as the practitioner moves towards enlightenment. So, Right Concentration is seen as the doorway to the culmination of the path, attaining enlightenment.

 

Regardless, of these deeper states of consciousness, the process of developing concentration is very beneficial in everyday life. The ability to stay with a task without distraction or the mind wandering away improves work, study, or even relationships, virtually everything.  So, practice Right Concentration and move forward on the path toward spiritual enlightenment.

 

“Now what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors, right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, & right mindfulness‚ is called noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions.” – Buddha

 

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Psilocybin in Combination with Meditation Practice Improves Psychological Functioning

Psilocybin in Combination with Meditation Practice Improves Psychological Functioning

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“The ingestion of psilocybin, brought on “mystical” experiences that reduced illness-related anxiety and depression in nearly 80 percent of subjects studied in research trials.” – Andrew McCarron

 

Psychedelic substances have been used almost since the beginning of recorded history to alter consciousness and produce spiritually meaningful experiences. Psychedelics produce effects that are similar to those that are reported in spiritual awakenings. They report a loss of the personal self. They experience what they used to refer to as the self as just a part of an integrated whole. They report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. They experience a feeling of timelessness where time seems to stop and everything is taking place in a single present moment. They experience ineffability, being unable to express in words what they are experiencing and as a result sometimes producing paradoxical statements. And they experience a positive mood, with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

 

It is easy to see why people find these experiences so pleasant and eye opening. They often report that the experiences changed them forever. Even though the effects of psychedelic substances have been experienced and reported on for centuries, only very recently have these effects come under rigorous scientific scrutiny.

 

Psilocybin is a psychedelic substance that is found naturally in a number of varieties of mushrooms. It has been used for centuries particularly by Native Americans for their spiritual practices. When studied in the laboratory under double blind conditions, Psilocybin has been shown to “reliably occasion deeply personally meaningful and often spiritually significant experiences (e.g. mystical-type experiences).” How lasting the changes are has not been systematically studied in controlled research studies.

 

In today’s Research News article “Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5772431/ ), Griffiths and colleagues examine the duration of Psilocybin effects when administered under laboratory conditions. They recruited participants from the community who were not experienced with either psychedelics or meditation and randomly assigned to one of three groups; very low Psilocybin dose – standard spiritual support, high Psilocybin dose – standard spiritual support, or high Psilocybin dose – high spiritual support. Participants and researchers who interacted with them were not informed as to the dosing conditions.

 

Psilocybin was administered in capsule form in the morning and the participants remained in the laboratory and were measured until Psilocybin immediate effects were gone 7 hours later. One month later the participants returned for a second similar Psilocybin session. For the standard support conditions, the participants met with “guides” for five 1 to 2-hour sessions and a couple of days after Psilocybin administration for another 1-hour session, followed up later with a 10-minute teleconference. Sessions consisted of instruction and support for their usual spiritual practices. For the high support conditions, participants met on a similar schedule and dad additional sessions approximately monthly thereafter. The “spiritual practice suggestions had three primary elements: meditation (10 to 30 minutes of sitting meditation daily); daily awareness practice (use of mantra and one-pointed attention in daily activities); and daily self-reflective journaling of insights, benefits, and challenges of spiritual practice in daily life.”

 

They found that the high Psilocybin dose administration during the 7-hour post-administration period produced hallucinations and illusions, feelings of transcendence, grief, joy, and/or anxiety, and a sense of meaning and insight. These effects were significantly greater in the high spiritual support group. At the 6-month follow up they found that the high Psilocybin dose group in comparison the very low dose group had significantly improves attitudes about life and self, improved mood, increased altruism and spirituality, and significantly greater personal meaning, spiritual significance, and change in well-being. Again, in the high spiritual support group had significantly greater effects. Virtually all of the participants in the high Psilocybin dose conditions reported that this was among the greatest spiritual experiences of their lives.

 

These results are striking and important. Administration of the psychedelic substance, Psilocybin, produced consistently positive personal and spiritual effects immediately and the effects appeared to be relatively permanent, still present after 6 months. In addition, engaging in spiritual meditative practices appeared to heighten these effects. The use of psychedelic substances is extremely controversial and for the most part illegal. But, the present findings suggest that at least under controlled circumstances, they may have positive and lasting, effects on the individual and their spirituality. Further research should explore the use of Psilocybin for the treatment of mental illness and the promotion of human well-being.

 

So, psilocybin in combination with meditation practice improves psychological functioning.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Roland R Griffiths, Matthew W Johnson, William A Richards, Brian D Richards, Robert Jesse, Katherine A MacLean, Frederick S Barrett, Mary P Cosimano, Maggie A Klinedinst. Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. J Psychopharmacol. 2018 Jan; 32(1): 49–69. Published online 2017 Oct 11. doi: 10.1177/0269881117731279

 

Abstract

Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences with participant-attributed increases in well-being. However, little research has examined enduring changes in traits. This study administered psilocybin to participants who undertook a program of meditation/spiritual practices. Healthy participants were randomized to three groups (25 each): (1) very low-dose (1 mg/70 kg on sessions 1 and 2) with moderate-level (“standard”) support for spiritual-practice (LD-SS); (2) high-dose (20 and 30 mg/70 kg on sessions 1 and 2, respectively) with standard support (HD-SS); and (3) high-dose (20 and 30 mg/70kg on sessions 1 and 2, respectively) with high support for spiritual practice (HD-HS). Psilocybin was administered double-blind and instructions to participants/staff minimized expectancy confounds. Psilocybin was administered 1 and 2 months after spiritual-practice initiation. Outcomes at 6 months included rates of spiritual practice and persisting effects of psilocybin. Compared with low-dose, high-dose psilocybin produced greater acute and persisting effects. At 6 months, compared with LD-SS, both high-dose groups showed large significant positive changes on longitudinal measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping, and community observer ratings. Determinants of enduring effects were psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience and rates of meditation/spiritual practices. Psilocybin can occasion enduring trait-level increases in prosocial attitudes/behaviors and in healthy psychological functioning.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5772431/