Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Quantum Entanglement
“If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet. Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” – Niels Bohr
The idea of Quantum Entanglement has shaken the world of physics contradicting classical physics including relativity. It is a very complex notion that is difficult to express outside of complex mathematical expressions. But in its essence, it suggests that matter is entangled with other matter with the states of particular particles linked to the states of other particles even over large distances. So, when a photon (quantum of light) changes its state, an entangled photon simultaneously changes its state even far away.
“Quantum entanglement is a label for the observed physical phenomenon that occurs when a pair or group of particles is generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in a way such that the quantum state of each particle of the pair or group cannot be described independently of the state of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance.” – Wikipedia,
This is not just a theoretical notion. As strange as it may seem there has accumulated evidence that Quantum Entanglement occurs ubiquitously in nature. Its implications are profound and revolutionize our views of the nature of the universe including notions of space and time themselves. Without belaboring the immensely complex physics and mathematics underlying the notion, the idea of Quantum Entanglement fits amazingly well with eastern spiritual thoughts, including the notions of mindfulness and enlightenment.
Everything is interconnected. This is a notion fundamental to eastern spiritual teachings. The Buddha referred to this as interdependent co-arising. The teaching was that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity. Indeed, it is evident to anyone who wishes to look closely at anything that it is connected to everything else. In other words, everything that happens is entangled with everything else and nothing can be viewed solely alone without reference to other things.
The paper that this may be printed on is in one way or another connected to everything else in the universe. The paper was manufactured from tree pulp. For the tree to have grown and produce this pulp there was sunlight, soil, water, and seeds provided by prior trees. The harvesting of the trees required lumbering and transportation of the trees to a mill. The manufacturing requires machinery that was invented by people who were trained based upon the accumulated knowledge of generations. After manufacture it was transported by truck requiring trained drivers, fuels, roads etc. all of which required a myriad of other components and actions. The actual atoms of which it is composed were created billions of years ago in the explosions of stars called supernovas. These, in turn stretch back to the Big Bang itself, where all matter and energy emerged at once. Perhaps by now you get the idea that the piece of paper is connected to everything else on the universe.
The notion of Quantum Entanglement indicates that all particles created at the same time are entangled and the state of any one of them is affected by all the others no matter where they are. Since, all particles emerged with the Big Bang, then all of them are entangled. This notion then is the science of physics way of expressing that everything is interconnected even on the quantum level of subatomic particles. This includes us. We are all entangled both on the fundamental quantum level and also on the perceived physical level. Each of us is connected to everyone else and to everything else in the universe. It’s all one.
The notion of Quantum Entanglement indicates that the linkage of particles can occur simultaneously over very large distances, distance large enough that any effect of one particle on the other would have to move at faster than the speed of light. This suggests that their entanglement is in the now. Time is irrelevant. Just as consciousness exists only in the now where there is no time. This suggests the interesting possibility that consciousness itself is an entangled phenomenon.
Consciousness has been termed as an observerless observer; a phenomenon where causes have no further effects. Something registers what is going on but is not itself changed by it and doesn’t affect anything else. It’s an end point on a chain of causation. This is much like the effect of a change in a particle producing instantaneous changes in another without further consequence. Perhaps, then, consciousness itself results from Quantum Entanglement.
Consciousness itself may be also entangled at the quantum level. It’s long been an understanding in quantum mechanics that the act of observing something fundamentally changes it. As a result, it is impossible to determine more than one aspect of a particle at a time. The act of observing one aspect changes the others. This gets even deeper on the quantum level where the classic double slit experiment demonstrated that observations actually change the behavior of particles. Indeed, “observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel [a quantum particle] to assume a definite position. In other words, we ourselves produce the results of measurements.” – Pascual Jordan
These strange phenomena at the quantum level appear to defy our understanding of the universe just as the existence of awareness and consciousness appear to defy understanding. This suggests that they may occur for similar reasons. The fabric of the universe may well be entangled with consciousness.
“Nobody understands what consciousness is or how it works. Nobody understands quantum mechanics either. Could that be more than coincidence?” – Philip Ball
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Pandemic on the Eightfold Path
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“If we strive to transform our collective isolation into an opportunity for communal solitude, we might discover that it is, as it has always been, the seedbed for growth in holiness and wholeness, for communion and connection, for resistance and renewal.” – Kerry Maloney
The Covid-19 Pandemic has proved challenging in many ways. Not only is it a threat to physical health, it is also a threat to mental health. It has produced isolation from normal activities and social connections. This includes spiritual activities with many church services curtailed and even the cessation of spiritual retreats. But it also produces many opportunities to practice engaging with the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s method for the cessation of suffering. The path includes 8 components; Right View, Right Intentions, Right Actions, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. During the pandemic there are numerous opportunities to practice the eightfold path. This is an opportunity to not only help cope with the pandemic but also can contribute to spiritual development.
The first component of the path is “Right View.” There are a number of these Right Views.” Including the recognition that all things are impermanent, they come and they go and never stay the same. This is true of the pandemic we see infection rates spiking and then falling and eventually they will go away completely. Even with infection the vast majority of victims fall ill but then slowly recover. The disease is impermanent. But part of “Right View” is also the recognition that health too is impermanent. Illness is as much a part of life as is health. The monk, Ajahn Brahm, tells his doctor when he’s ill that he “has something right” with him. The state of our physical being is constantly changing with all states of health and illness impermanent.
Not just our physical being is impermanent but so is everything else. All of the psychological, social, and economic consequences of the pandemic also come and go. Eventually, the fear and depression produced by the pandemic will lift, social life will be reestablished, and the economy will recover. Recognition of this impermanence is important as it emphasize that all this unpleasantness will pass and life will eventually return to normal. It doesn’t relieve the pain, but it provides an optimism that it will eventually cease. But there is no such thing as normal. Our emotions are constantly changing, people come and go from our circle, and wealth comes and goes. It is all impermanent.
Another important component of “Right View” is the recognition that everything is interconnected. This is readily apparent during the pandemic. The disease has affected everything, from health, to the economy, to education, to supply chains, to crime, to mental health, to food availability, to travel, to jobs, to the environment, and on and on. There is hardly and aspect of life that has not been changed reflecting how they are all interconnected in the first place. A tiny microscopic virus changes the whole universe reflecting the “Right View” of the interconnectedness of all things
Another important component of “Right View” is the recognition of the presence of suffering and unsatisfactoriness in everything. The pandemic directly produces suffering but our response to it can increase or decrease that suffering. One outgrowth of pandemic with which I struggle is boredom. By taking away so many activities, the pandemic has left a vacuum. This creates a problem with boredom. Jon Kabat-Zinn has said that “when you pay attention to boredom it gets unbelievably interesting.” This seemingly paradoxical statement is an amazing teaching. Paying attention to boredom reveals that it is simply wanting things to be different than they are. Such “wantings” are the source of much of unsatisfactoriness and suffering.
The antidote is to pay close attention to what is actually present in the now including the beauty and wonder of simply being alive and healthy and the awareness of all the nuances of our sensations and feelings. But it is not just what is there it is also what is not. One wonderful practice taught by the great sage Thich Nhat Hahn is to pay attention to the “non-toothache.” Oral health is taken for granted except when there is a toothache. Then, our entire being becomes focused on the discomfort and the desire for it to cease. Yet when it isn’t there, it isn’t noticed. When we pay attention, not only to what is there but also to what is absent, we can see that there is much more right about the present moment than there is wrong. This evokes a recognition that the present moment is actually wonderful and that paying attention to all that is right in the present relieves the boredom, reinforcing the “Right View” of the presence of suffering and unsatisfactoriness in everything.
The pandemic provides a wonderful opportunity to observe unsatisfactoriness and suffering and its roots. Looking closely can reveal that it is not the pandemic alone that produces the unsatisfactoriness and suffering, but also our response to the pandemic. It reveals that we make ourselves miserable by our reactions to it. Wanting it to go away doesn’t change the situation in any way except to produce unsatisfactoriness and suffering. It is sometimes referred to as the “second arrow.” The first arrow is the pandemic and the suffering that it directly produces. This is out of our control. The “second arrow”, however, is our response to it, which has the effect of amplifying the suffering. Trying to fight something over which we have no control produces greater suffering. If it is accepted as pain that is out of our control, we cease to fight against it, and accept it for what it is; a lousy situation produced by the world in which we live. This stops the amplification of the suffering produced by the “second arrow.” Recognizing this can lead to greater understanding of how we make ourselves unhappy, and how by simply accepting things as they are can decrease the suffering. Practicing this builds the “Right View.”
The pandemic provides us with an opportunity to practice “Right Intentions.” These are the intentions to reduce or prevent harm and promote greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being for all beings. During the pandemic “Right Intentions” involves doing things to reduce the horror and to increase peace, well-being, and happiness. If the pandemic is responded to with anger, impatience, selfishness, and resentment it is likely infect others and produce harm. If, on the other hand, we set the “Right Intentions” to respond to the pandemic with tolerance, generosity, equanimity, and understanding it can evoke the same in others. This way injury or harm can be minimized. It would seem obvious, but taking the time beforehand to establish “Right Intentions” may lower the suffering of ourselves and others.
Responding to the pandemic with “Right Intentions” is a practice that requires a moral compass. This tends to lead in the right direction even though at times there are stumbles. It is often difficult or impossible to predict all of the consequences of actions. It is also very difficult avoid all harm. But forming “Right Intentions” and aspiring to create good and happiness will produce more harmony, good will, and happiness than their opposites and produce progress along the eightfold path.
During the pandemic we can practice “Right Actions.” Some simple “Right Actions” are to wear a mask, social distance, get vaccinated, and encourage others to do the same. Wearing a mask and social distancing not only helps to protect ourselves but is even more protective to others making it much less likely that the virus will spread. Getting vaccinated as soon as it’s available and encouraging others to get vaccinated not only protects ourselves and the people around us, but also contributes to ending the pandemic for the benefit of all humanity.
Verbal and non-verbal interactions are important during the pandemic. “Right Communications” involves communicating in such a way as to promote wisdom, understanding and well-being. They are non-violent and non-judgmental communications. To engage in “Right Communications” the communication must be evaluated beforehand to ascertain whether it true, necessary, and kind. Only if all of these conditions are met should the communication occur.
In order to engage in “Right Communications” there needs to be deep listening. It is impossible to respond appropriately to another if you haven’t listened carefully to exactly what the other said or looked carefully at their expressions or body language. We may not agree with the actions of others. But “Right Communications” demands that have listened deeply. Some people may refuse to wear a mask or call the pandemic a hoax. Responding nonjudgmentally with kindness and compassion after deep listening can go a long way toward having a productive discussion about mask wearing and the reality of the disease. Responding otherwise will simply create more harm than good. It is important that it is realized that we may not be able to change the minds or actions of others but at least with “Right Communications” we can promote understanding.
There are many ways that people can make a living during the pandemic that is directed to creating good, helping people, keeping peace, and moving society forward in a positive direction. These occupations are considered “Right Livelihood.” There are rather obvious examples during the pandemic including health care workers, scientists developing vaccines, first responders, and essential workers. But many are hard to evaluate whether they are “Right Livelihood.” In this case there is a need to reflect deeply on what are the effects of the occupation to ascertain whether it promotes good and doesn’t create harm. It is not ours to judge the “rightness” of the livelihood of others. This is a personal matter where intention matters. The process itself of evaluating “Right Livelihood” may heighten awareness of the consequences of participating in careers. This can produce a tailoring or adjustment to the occupation to maximize the good and minimize he harm created.
During the pandemic it is helpful to exercise “Right Effort” which involves acting according to the “Middle Way.” That is, not trying too hard but also not being lackadaisical. “Right Effort” is a relaxed effort. The “Middle Way” is where effort should be targeted. Reacting to the threat of virus by becoming a hermit and isolating oneself is not “Right Effort.” Similarly, not being vigilant and going to bars, restaurants, parties, and large indoor gatherings is also not “Right Effort.” Taking the middle way of wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding large indoor gatherings, and getting vaccinated when available would be best for well-being and would be a right level of effort.
All of these components of the eightfold path require “Right Mindfulness”. Unfortunately, mindlessness is generally the norm. But paying attention to what is being experienced in the present moment can turn simple everyday activities into a meditative practice. It creates a richly textured experience of physical and mental activities. It heightens the experience and makes it much more enjoyable. Just the simple act of wearing a mask can be practiced mindfully. Focusing on the feelings on the face from the simple act of breathing through the mask, highlighting the warmth of the breath can make wearing the mask more enjoyable. Paying close attention to how others are moving to maintain social distance can produce an appreciation of the social dance we perform with others. This can improve our lives even during the pandemic.
“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. But the pandemic has given us extra unused time that can be allocated to meditation or other mindfulness practices. One of the benefits of the pandemic is that it provides us the opportunity to deepen our practice and “Right Concentration”.
Experiencing the pandemic on the eightfold path 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 seeing what needs to be accomplished. I am learning to be relaxed with a smile on my face even when wearing a mask and social distancing. I’ve learned to accept the way things are and understand their impermanence. It takes time and practice but leads to great benefits.
Can we attain enlightenment during the pandemic? Probably not! But we can practice the eightfold path and the Buddha taught that this practice leads toward it. Quiet secluded practice is wonderful and perhaps mandatory for progress in spiritual development. But for most people it this is only available during a very limited window of time. The strength of practicing the components of the eightfold path in the real world of our everyday life, even during the pandemic, is that it can greatly enhance its impact. Keep in mind the teaching that actions that lead to greater harmony, understanding, and happiness should be practiced, while those that lead to unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness should be let go. Without doubt, by practicing the eightfold path during the pandemic can lead toward deeper spirituality.
“Mindfulness cultivates agility and flexibility in attention, allowing us to more easily tune in to pleasant experiences that are always present even during a pandemic: spring blossoms, blue skies, laughter and love.” – Trinh Mai
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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The Psychology of Ending Suffering
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” – anonymous
The Buddha taught that every one of us is already enlightened We simply need to remove those things that are preventing us from realizing our true nature, and those things are our sufferings. But suffering unsatisfactoriness is rampant in our daily lives. But these unsatisfactorinesses have causes and by eliminating the causes of unsatisfactoriness we can bring about equanimity and happiness. The Buddha and his followers have developed many methods for eliminating unsatisfactoriness and many of them are identical to the teachings of modern Psychology on how to eliminate unwanted behaviors.
The usual way most people tend to think about stopping a behavior is to punish it. This is the ubiquitous solution in our society, particularly exemplified by our treatment of criminal behavior. But we do it also at work. B. F. Skinner analyzed the work environment as dominated by punishers and the avoidance of punishers. He taught that the salary that is earned sets up a lifestyle and we become reliant upon the income to support it. Behavior at work is then controlled by threatening to withdraw this lifestyle, e.g. threat of firing or layoff, lack of raises or promotions, etc. But, psychological research has clearly shown that for the most part, punishment is ineffective in removing unwanted behaviors. Instead, it at best temporarily suppresses behaviors that can reemerge at any time or it leads to the individual avoiding the punisher, the supervisor, the police, or often parents and teachers.
The frequent use of punishment is apparent in our contemplative practice, where we frequently punish ourselves for not being or doing what we think we should be. We get angry at ourselves when we fail at quieting our mind in meditation. We get upset at ourselves when our mind wanders. We feel ashamed when we let our desires control our behavior. We feel bad when we see how we’re constantly wanting things in our lives to be different than they are. But, these punishers, like those in society are ineffective. Instead of improving our practice, they can lead to our avoiding or abandoning the practice.
But, the science of Psychology has a lot to offer in place of punishment in our quest to end unsatisfactoriness. Much has been learned through the years of research of how things are learned and unlearned and how to change behaviors. One of the key notions in Psychology is known as Thorndike’s Law of Effect. Simply stated it teaches that when we do things that lead to a pleasant state of affairs, we tend to repeat them while those that lead to an unpleasant state of affairs tend to become less likely to be repeated. This simple, seemingly obvious principle is actually quite powerful and suggests how we should proceed.
As we’ve discussed, applying unpleasant states, punishment, is not generally effective. Note, the Law of Effect states that we tend not to repeat behaviors that lead to an unpleasant state of affairs. So, if our contemplative or spiritual practice leads to self-punishments, it doesn’t lead to better practice, rather it leads to our becoming less likely to practice. This is the exact opposite of what we want to happen. So punishing ourselves for our failures in practice, instead of correcting them, leads to less practice.
All of this is also true in our everyday lives. Punishing our boss by getting angry at him or her is likely not going to change his or her behavior, except maybe to prompt the boss to punish us. Honking, making obscene gestures, or tailgating a driver who cuts us off is unlikely to make the driver stop cutting people off. Rather it’s likely to anger the driver and make for a more dangerous driving situation. Yelling at your life’s partner when he or she does something that we don’t approve of is more likely to sour our relationships than change our partners’ behavior. Telling people whose political opinions vary from our own that they’re stupid or ignorant, is not likely to change their opinions, but rather to cause them to avoid talking politics with us in the future. Getting upset at ourselves when we’re not as fast, adept, or as effective as we want to be in our exercises, is unlikely to make us faster or more adept or effective, but rather to make it less likely that we’ll engage in exercise in the future. In a nutshell, punishment doesn’t work to change behaviors in our lives. So, it is unlikely to work in helping us eliminate our unsatisfactorinesses and remove the obstacles toward spiritual realization. We need to find another way.
The Law of Effect, though, does provide a powerful prescription for changing behavior. If you want to change a behavior you need to remove what is reinforcing or supporting it. Discover the pleasant state of affairs that is produced by the behavior and eliminate it and the behavior will gradually go away. This is a process called extinction and it is very effective in eliminating unwanted behaviors. So, in our practice, if we want to reduce mind wandering, then we just simply watch it, not punishing it nor giving it any energy. Slowly mind wandering will go through extinction, becoming less frequent. It will sometimes happen so slowly that you won’t notice its changing, but it will inevitably slowly dissipate.
While driving a car, we may want to decrease our impatience with traffic and stop lights. We should first look at removing what’s supporting it and that means reflecting on the impatience to investigate why we feel that way. We may be able to see that it’s supported by the idea that getting somewhere else will make us happy. The thought of it reinforces the desire to get there quickly. But, we should remember that in the past whenever we got to that next place it didn’t make us happy. So, we again became impatient to get to another somewhere else where we feel we’ll really be happy. Hopefully, we can see our delusion that happiness is elsewhere is supporting our impatience. Recognizing this, each time we sense ourselves becoming impatient we bring this thought to mind that where we’re going will not necessarily make us happy, we can only be happy in the present moment. This can begin to extinguish the impatience. There’s no need to be impatient as it’s not going to get us what we want. So, impatience slowly lessens and becomes less frequent. We’ve eliminated a suffering by removing its cause. We’ve extinguished it.
There’s a problem with extinction that modern Psychology has discovered and that is over a period of time the lost behavior can reemerge. This is called spontaneous recovery. To overcome this the behavior must be extinguished again and if spontaneous recovery occurs again, it must be again extinguished. So, patience and persistence must be practiced. Eventually, the behavior will cease and no spontaneous recovery will happen again. So, if impatience while driving occurs again, we need to repeat our extinction process until we stop impatience completely and simply enjoy the present moment.
Psychology has also discovered that learning in one situation will generalize to other similar situations. This can be quite helpful as what we learn is not just effective in the exact circumstances in which we learned it. As a result, if we extinguish impatience while driving we’ll tend to have less impatience at work, with our life partner, with political discussions, and with exercise. Impatience will still be there in these other situations but the generalization from driving results in a lessening in its intensity. Impatience then becomes easier to extinguish in these other situations. If we go through the process we used with driving with our impatience with work and extinguish it, it will also generalize producing a further reduction in impatience with our life partner, with political discussions, and with exercise. Continuing this process will make us much more patient and happier people in virtually every circumstance.
Another method that Psychology has developed for eliminating an unwanted behavior is to replace it with an incompatible behavior. This is called counterconditioning. In this process positive reinforcement, reward, is used to build up a behavior that cannot coexist with the behavior we wish to eliminate. For example, to eliminate a phobia to spiders, a psychologist may attempt to have the patient relax in the face of thinking about spiders, replacing fear with relaxation. Similarly, a child that is hyperactive and engages in problematic behaviors in the schoolroom can be rewarded for paying attention. Since, paying attention cannot occur at the same time as disruptive behaviors, strengthening attention, reduces disruptive behaviors.
For example, we may feel unhappy because our life’s partners have a habit of not picking up after themselves. This feeling of unsatisfactoriness can build up and produce a nasty outburst and upset our partner. But, if when confronted with the mess, we simply remember a wonderful endearing characteristic of our partner, we can begin to replace the unsatisfactoriness with pleasant thoughts. The good feelings then begin to replace the irritation toward our partners. If we continue this practice we will slowly begin to react to the mess with loving feelings and can then confront the behavior with kindness and love, making it more likely to have a positive effect on our partners lack of tidiness. This is the process of eliminating our unsatisfactoriness through counterconditioning. Tangible rewards are not available, but pleasant memories are, and they can be used to reinforce the incompatible behavior.
Positive Psychology has clearly shown that we can replace unsatisfactoriness by strengthening satisfactory states, such as happiness, contentment, joy, and bliss. By simply working to amplify the positive the negative declines. Simple things such as putting a smile on our faces, can brighten our day. Smiling at other people when we pass them in the corridors and streets not only lifts their spirits but also our own and a return smile amplifies the contentment even more. We become so much happier and more content when we focus on the good things in life rather than the bad. When we do, unsatisfactoriness fades away.
The great sage Thich Nhat Hahn teaches us to focus on our non-toothaches. When we have a toothache we’re miserable and suffering and find this very unsatisfactory. We think, if we can just get over this painful condition then things will be good again. But, once it’s gone, we quickly forget and focus on something else that’s unsatisfactory. We need instead to be happy that our teeth are sound, without pain. Simply notice it and rejoice in it. It is a simple miracle that our bodies work so well that we can enjoy great oral health. Simply, occasionally, reflect on our good health and the miracle of being alive with most everything working well. What a beautiful state! What a joy! How can we find our lives unsatisfactory when we appreciate all that is right with our lives.
Psychology has found that positive reinforcement is extraordinarily powerful in changing behavior. So, we should reward ourselves for making strides in our practice and in our lives, rather than punishing ourselves for our failures. During contemplative practice when our minds wander, we shouldn’t get upset that we lost focus, rather celebrate the fact that we returned to focus. When we realize that our mind is wandering we punish ourselves by getting upset with ourselves, what we are effectively doing is punishing returning to focus. As we’ve seen, this leads to making it less likely that we’ll return to focus in the future. But, if we rejoice when we realize our minds are wandering and congratulate ourselves for returning to focus, we increase the likelihood that the next time our minds wander we’ll be more likely to detect it and get back to focusing on our practice. This is far more satisfactory
The other day I was riding my bicycle and got extremely tired before completing my scheduled ride. So, I stopped and rested even though I only had a couple of miles to go. Rather than getting angry and upset at myself for not pacing my ride properly, I congratulated myself for knowing my body and recognizing that a rest was necessary. So, I replaced an unsatisfactory state of self-anger with a satisfactory state. Rather than suffer about my failure, I celebrated my good sense. So, use positive reinforcement and reduce unsatisfactoriness, building happy and satisfying states.
It’s useful in this regard to contemplate happiness. Look carefully at when we’re happy, joyful, or content look carefully at exactly what we’re feeling in our bodies. This will help us at becoming better at recognizing these positive states when they are present. When they are there investigate what were the conditions that led up to these good feelings and thereby begin to learn what really makes us happy. We’ll probably be surprised that it is mostly not what we think will make us happy, but often something simple and everyday, particularly with family and friends. Recognize what truly makes us happy, we can learn how to increase our happiness. Doing so markedly reduces unsatisfactoriness. So eliminate suffering by building happiness, joy, and contentment.
Sometimes our suffering is too strong to simply replace it. Psychology also has a method to use in this case. It’s a process of slowly replacing similar but less intense unsatisfactoriness with counterconditioning and letting it generalize to more intense situations that can now be addressed. This is called systematic desensitization.
We might try this with political discussion where the issues produce so much anger that trying to replace them with good feelings is almost impossible, perhaps discussing abortion. Instead, look for issues of discussion that are contentious but less emotional, perhaps taxes. First practice relaxing by taking a deep breath and focusing on relaxing the facial muscles and smiling. Once, we’ve developed this ability to evoke relaxation and a smile at will we can begin to apply it to replacing anger. After all, it’s impossible to be relaxed and smiling and angry at the same time. Now, we should try this while discussing taxes, while the other people are presenting their viewpoints, produce the relax and smile response and as we’re presenting our viewpoint also produce the relax and smile response. Slowly, anger will be replaced with pleasant feelings so while discussing taxes we are no longer angry.
Next, we move to a more contentious subject, perhaps welfare. The previous counterconditioning for the taxes discussion generalizes to the welfare discussion making it substantially less emotion provoking, so it can be more easily addressed. Then repeat the process of conditioning relaxation and smiling while the other people are presenting their viewpoints on welfare and as we’re presenting our viewpoint. Slowly, anger will be replaced with pleasant feelings so while discussing welfare we are no longer angry. The final step, after these and perhaps more intermediary steps, will be to repeat the process with the most anger producing discussion, perhaps abortion. The previous counterconditionings will have generalized to this discussion and the level of anger may be reduced to the point where it is manageable. We then repeat the process of strengthening the relaxation and smiling response while discussing abortion. Eventually, we’ll be able to take on the worst of the worst and do it while relaxing and smiling. Our unsatisfactoriness will have been eliminated by replacing it with a pleasant state.
These are some of the methods that Psychology has developed that can help us to eliminate our sufferings, unsatisfactorinesses. Applying extinction, counterconditioning, and systematic desensitization to our unsatisfactorinesses can be an effective means of getting rid of them. As we’ve discussed this is fundamental to unmasking our true nature, our Buddha Nature. So, the principles of modern Psychology can be useful tools on our contemplative and spiritual development. We can use the skills developed by following the principles of Psychology to eliminate our unsatisfactorinesses leading to spiritual awakening.
‘if we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy’. – Alan Watts
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
Exercise on the Eightfold Path
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“it’s possible to merge awareness and physical exercise together as one. This allows you to experience the present moment during your physical activity.” – Adam Brady
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 exercise 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 exercise on the eightfold path can not only improve health but also can contribute to spiritual development. As a bonus it can make exercising more enjoyable.
As we well know, engaging in regular physical exercise is important for our physical and mental health. Similarly, practicing mindfulness is important for our physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Together they are a dynamite. But what needs to be done to combine them? With a little reflection, a myriad of opportunities to practice are available while exercising. The details will vary with the type of exercise and the individual, but these same opportunities are available regardless of the nature of the exercise.
An important component of developing the “Right View” is the recognition that all things are impermanent, they come and they go and never stay the same. When exercising it is easy to note that everything about the workout is impermanent. The body is stressed by exercise and this is a good thing as this is what leads to the beneficial effects of exercise. When moderately stressed muscles heal, they grow stronger. Sometimes the stress is pleasant and other times not so. But no matter what it will change, perhaps getting better or perhaps getting worse, but it will not stay the same. During exercise, the physical and mental state of the individual is constantly changing. The body fatigues and grows tired. Pain and discomfort may come and go. By recognizing how fleeting these feelings are, we witness the impermanence of all things. We grow to not only better understand the body and how it benefits from exercise but also see the operation of impermanence. This produces relaxation and acceptance of the body as it is, even as it’s changing, not only improving the exercise but reinforcing “Right View”.
A good example of this is practicing while running. I’m older and my knees are worn out so I practice this while speed walking. Noting the sensations from the foot each time in strikes the ground and as it lifts off the ground, it’s apparent that the sensations are constantly changing and never the same. Impermanence is on display. The same goes for the surrounding sights which are constantly changing. It’s impossible to hold onto any of the myriad of sensations occurring. They are constantly arising and passing away. Impermanence is on display.
Another important component of “Right View” is the recognition that everything is interconnected. This is readily apparent during exercise. During yoga practice all of the aspects of the body work together. As the muscles are stressed they increase the heart rate and respiration. With each pose the muscles produce heat, causing sweating and dilatation of the blood vessels at the surface. Moving into each pose produces changes in balance which produce automatic changes in other muscles to compensate and maintain balance and equilibrium. The senses are engaged in monitoring for pain and fatigue and guiding the exercise. Try paying attention to all of the parts of the body and how they are affected in performing a forward bend, a tree pose, or a lower cobra. By paying attention to these processes during this practice, how the entire body is engaged can be witnessed even if the exercise is targeted at only particular muscles. Interconnectedness is completely apparent. The awareness of this interconnectedness allows for better exercise while reinforcing “Right View”.
One practice I employ with exercise is to identify the limiting component. For me it’s breathing that seems to limit what I can do. My ability to play basketball is limited by the ability to get oxygen to the muscles while sprinting down the court. For others, it’s their knees or other joints, or cardiac capacity, or body temperature. There’s always something that keeps the individual from going faster, or being stronger or more accurate. The ability of the entire body to excel is limited by this factor. All other aspects of physical function are restrained by it. All other aspects are interconnected with it. as it all works together.
This interconnectedness is particularly apparent in team sports. In these contexts, participants affect one another, everyone on the team and everyone on the opposing team. In fact, that interconnectedness is part of the allure and enjoyment of team sports. As every athlete knows, performance is also affected by the individual’s psychological state. At times, exercisers just don’t feel like doing it but force themselves. While at other times, they feel great and can’t wait to get into it. In both cases this psychological state markedly alters the exercise. It’s all interconnected. Hence, the “Right View” of interconnectedness is readily apparent during exercise. Make it part of the exercise to pay attention to and recognize this interconnectedness. It’s on display.
Still another important component of “Right View” is the recognition of the presence of suffering and unsatisfactoriness in all activities. Exercising is a wonderful opportunity to observe this unsatisfactoriness and its roots. While cycling we want everything to be a certain way and when it isn’t, we are unhappy. We want to go faster, or with have greater strength for peddling up hills, or with greater endurance to ride further. The cyclist wants the weather to be just right, the wind to die down, to always be at the back, or for it to be cooler. We want the body’s discomforts to go away. In other words, rather than enjoy cycling, we make it unsatisfactory by not accepting how things are. All things, big and small, are almost always less than optimum. If we focus on this and crave it to be different, then we suffer. But, if we simply accept these conditions as they are, we can ride our bicycle with appreciation and enjoyment with unsatisfactoriness on display. Note, how this constantly arises in thoughts during exercise. Recognizing this can lead to greater understanding of how we make ourselves unhappy, and how by simply accepting things as they are produces better performance and greater enjoyment. Practicing this will reinforce “Right View.”
While exercising, playing sports, or being an observer there are frequent opportunities to practice “Right Intentions.” Here reducing or preventing harm and promoting greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being for all participants can be practiced. This is particularly important for team sports. It is useful, beforehand, to set this intention to make engaging in the game be beneficial for all participants. “Right Intentions” involves targeting what to do while exercising to increase peace, well-being, and happiness, including the abandonment of unwholesome desires.
If exercise particularly in competitive sports, is engaged in with anger, impatience, selfishness, and resentment it is likely to produce harm to everyone involved. Sports, such as football, can be dangerous and can produce physical harm to others. Obviously, games like football are particularly good candidates to play with “Right Intentions.” This way injury or harm can be minimized. It would seem obvious, but taking the time beforehand to establish “Right Intentions” may determine if the game is fun and wholesome or negative and harmful.
When I was young playing basketball with friends an opponent grabbed me as I ran toward the basket. I got angry and retaliated by shoving my friend away forcefully. He fell back so hard that he was momentarily paralyzed. This scared everyone and especially me. It made me recognize the potential harm that I could cause by acting on anger. If I had simply accepted that I was fouled and let it go, no harm would have occurred and play could have continued. The recognition that anger can only lead to more harm is wisdom that can lead to minimizing harm and promoting the greater good. Seeing the situation as it is, and seeing opponents with eyes of compassion leads to skillful actions promoting the happiness and well-being of all.
I’ve found that playing golf is a wonderful opportunity to practice. It has always amazed me how players make themselves so unhappy while engaging in something that’s supposed to be fun. I’ve seen players go into a rage after hitting a poor shot, screaming profanities, pounding their club into the ground or throwing or even breaking the club in rage. This can create a negative atmosphere that sweeps all the players up into a negative mood and destroys the fun and happiness that is the point of playing the game. “Right Intentions” can help here. I’ve learned to approach the game as just that, a game that is to be enjoyed, to laugh at my own incompetence, and joke with the other players about our plight.
We go around the course laughing and having a ball. What a difference it can make, I’ve had other players remark how much they admire me, not for my play which is horrible, but for my enjoyment of the game regardless of how well or more often terribly I play. It changes the atmosphere and infects those that I play with. Just setting the intention ahead of time to have fun regardless, to promote happiness, makes a world of difference. The ripples of good feelings that are created, may spill over from golf to home or work life enhancing life in general.
Playing sports with courtesy, with tolerance and understanding, with kindness and good will needs to be continuously worked on. It’s a practice. “Right Intentions” are a key. They become the moral compass. They tend to lead in the right direction even though at times there are stumbles. It is often difficult or impossible to predict all of the consequences of actions. It is also very difficult avoid all harm. But forming “Right Intentions” and aspiring to create good and happiness will produce more harmony, good will, and happiness and for the practitioner it will produce progress along the eightfold path.
Exercising is another situation to practice “Right Actions.” To some extent taking care of our bodies is “Right Action” as it benefits our health and well-being, which relieves suffering and increases happiness. While working out “Right Actions” includes following the “Middle Way.” Exercising overly aggressively could produce injury while exercising too lightly is probably a waste of time. While exercising in social contexts such as in a gym or jogging with friends, there can be a tendency to show off. This can be harmful to others by promoting jealousy or decreasing their feelings of self-worth or causing them to try too hard potentially leading to injury.
I used to jog with a group that met at lunchtime. We would all wait around until everyone was there to begin our run. But as soon as we began, one particular runner always leapt ahead and ran well in front of the group for the entire run. At first many of us would try to keep up. This would simply lead to him running even faster to stay ahead. This was not good. We were exercising, not racing. It detracted from the good feelings and camaraderie of the group and caused many of us to run too fast for our ability and to suffer. After a while we learned to ignore him and enjoy running with the rest of the group. This was “Right Actions.” It did make me wonder what suffering was driving him to turn a healthy and fun social run into a race and what I might do to help relieve that suffering. But he always ran ahead and alone making it impossible to communicate.
In some sports lying and cheating occur frequently. Fishing and golf are wonderful examples. outright lied about. Golfers frequently do things such as surreptitiously move their ball to a better lie, or report a lower score than they actually had. This is not “Right Actions.” Scrupulous honesty on the long-term leads to greater happiness and well-being even in these kinds of small and often accepted dishonesties.
While engaging in competitive sports we should have the “Right Intentions” of promoting good and happiness, and relieve suffering in ourselves and others. We can do so by competing patiently and courteously with attention and good sportsmanship. Unfortunately, the prevalent attitude is that “winning is everything.” This works contrary to “Right Actions.” With “Right Actions” promoting happiness, and relieving suffering in everyone involved “is everything.” We can only control our own actions while competing. So that is where we practice. But, when we compete with “Right Actions” it affects our competitors, making the game more enjoyable, healthier, and productive for everyone.
Verbal and non-verbal interactions are frequently present while exercising, playing sports, or even as a spectator. There are many opportunities to practice “Right Communications”. It involves communicating in such a way as to promote understanding and to produce good feelings. It is non-violent and non-judgmental communications. While engaging in exercise or sports it is important to think before communicating, is the communication true, is it necessary, and is it kind.
While playing golf we communicate verbally and non-verbally and try to do so with “Right Communications”. When someone makes a great shot, we celebrate with them, possibly teasing them as to why they can’t do that every time, and when they make a terrible shot kidding them that it was better than they usually do, or compare it to our own terrible shots. Note that teasing may not on the surface seem to be true, necessary, and kind. But it can lighten the atmosphere and the back and forth can promote good feelings. Non-verbally, we sometimes celebrate ridiculously, dancing around like a clown, when making a good shot, again promoting enjoyment.
“Right Communications” often involves deep listening. It is impossible to respond appropriately to another if you haven’t listened carefully to exactly what the other said or looked carefully at their expressions or body language. In playing doubles tennis, watch and listen to your partner. They may show anger or slump after a poor shot. In this case “Right Communications” may involve encouraging the partner or pointing out that the shot that they were attempting was a great idea, or make light of it by saying something to the effect that the shot looked more like something you would do. What would be the right approach depends on the individual and the context. But watching and listening carefully can help to understand what communication may produce the most good and happiness.
Even as spectators it is useful to practice “Right Communications”. I’ve observed parents at youth soccer games yelling at referees, players, and coaches. My 13 year old grandson worked hard to become a referee for children’s soccer matches and earn extra money. But he has dropped it because of the abuse that these parents heaped on him for every decision. No matter what decision he made parents on one side or the other would chastise him. I’ve also seen the impact on the children as their parents yell at the referees or at them for their performance. It’s a truly sad display of wrong communications by the adults.
It’s quite simple to see that “Right Communications” are needed. If the parents had stopped and thought if what they were communicating was true, necessary, and kind, if they had listened deeply or watched with compassion, there may have been a completely different atmosphere at the games, my grandson may still be refereeing, and the children would feel good about playing and would be having fun. Such behavior is not confined to youth soccer. Simply observe fans at sporting events even at the professional level, yelling obscenities and insults at opponents or even at their own team’s players. Indeed, even the players are taunting, hurling insults, and “trash talking” to each other. It is clear that there is a great need to teach fans and players, not only good sportsmanship, but also “Right Communications”. We may not be able to change others but at least we can conduct “Right Communications”.
There are many ways that people can make a living with exercise and sports, from a professional athlete or coach to a personal trainer, to a general manager or executive. This can be itself “Right Livelihood”. It is if it is directed to creating good, helping people, keeping peace, and moving society forward in a positive direction. College coaches using student athletes to further their careers without regard to the furtherance of the players well-being or teaching player “dirty tricks” to harm or injure their opponents would definitely not be “Right Livelihood”.
One should reflect deeply on what they’re doing to ascertain whether it promotes good. It is not ours to judge the “rightness” of the livelihood of athletes, coaches, sports executives etc. This is a personal matter where intention matters, that must be reflected upon deeply. The process itself of evaluating “Right Livelihood” may heighten awareness of the consequences of participating in their careers and make them better able to see and correct where they may be going wrong. This can help move the individual along the Buddha’s path.
Exercise also presents a fine context to practice “Right Effort”. In fact, exercise has its maximum benefit when it is fairly strenuous but not too strenuous. If it’s overdone the body will provide appropriate feedback with aches and pains, hopefully not injuries. If it’s done lazily, the body will not improve. So, exercise is almost a perfect situation to teach “Right Effort”. It involves acting according to the “Middle Way.” That is, not trying too hard and getting hurt, but also not being lackadaisical. “Right Effort” is a relaxed effort. The “Middle Way” is where effort should be targeted.
Experienced yoga practitioners know this all too well. Yoga can be very beneficial when practiced with “Right Effort” but can be injurious when done improperly. Poses must be held at the appropriate level, slightly backed off from the individual’s limit without going beyond. Struggling to go deeper, beyond the practitioner’s capability, is a formula for injury. Entering too lightly is a formula for wasting time and receiving no benefit. So, not only is yoga practice a good place to practice “Right Effort” it, in fact, provides feedback demonstrating what the “Right Effort” level should be.
Athletes know that to perform optimally they must relax and not press too hard. This is one of the reasons why meditation practice has proved so beneficial for athletes. It allows them to relax into the present moment and react appropriately to their body’s capabilities. I’ve found that with swimming, if I try too hard to go fast, I actually go slower. On the other hand, when I simply swim with moderate effort but with a relaxed body, it produces and efficient stroke and an appropriate body position in the water for optimum speed. So, “Right Effort” with exercise pays off with optimum performance, physical benefit, and progress on the eightfold path.
Exercise requires an accurate understanding of the state of our bodies and the environment in the present moment in order to determine what level of exercise are needed to promote good performance and enjoyment. In other words, it requires “Right Mindfulness”. Unfortunately, for most of us mindless exercise is probably the norm. While exercising many people listen to music, talk on their cell phones, watch television, or carry on a conversation. But paying attention to what is being experienced while exercising or engaging in sports can turn the exercise into a meditative practice. It creates a richly textured experience of physical and mental activities. It heightens the experience and makes it much more enjoyable.
A prototype is walking meditation, where the individual practices “Right Mindfulness”. The meditator pays close attention to the sensations from the body while slowly walking. Observing each step, feeling the foot hit the ground and pull off the ground, observing each breath, feeling the air on the skin and the touch of the clothing, feeling the muscles contract and relax, experiencing the sights, smells and sounds in the environment. It’s an amazingly pleasant and productive practice.
With exercise, the same technique can be used but greatly speeded up. Jogging can be a speeded-up version of walking meditation. I use “Right Mindfulness” while swimming laps in a pool by doing a body scan. I start on the first lap with paying attention to the sensations from the toes, on the second lap I move to the tops of my feet, next to the bottoms of the feet, to the ankle, shin, knee, thigh etc. The feeling of the water and the movement of each body part is an exquisite practice. I was tired of the boredom of swimming until I developed this practice. It makes the drudgery of lap swimming mindful, interesting, and pleasurable, not to mention that my stroke becomes more efficient and the laps go by quickly. “Right Mindfulness” can be applied to virtually every exercise and sporting activity and will not only make it better but help the participant along the Buddha’s eightfold path.
“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. It is difficult to practice during the complex activities involved in exercise. But during repetitive automatized exercises such as jogging concentration on the breath can be practiced.
Engaging in exercise on the eightfold path 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 seeing what needs to be accomplished. I am learning to be relaxed with a smile on my face when I engage in exercise and enjoy the workout.
Can we attain enlightenment through exercise? Probably not! But we can practice the eightfold path that the Buddha taught leads there. The strength of engaging exercise 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 exercise leads to greater harmony and happiness and as such should definitely be included in our spiritual practice.
“The message is that mindfulness may amplify satisfaction, because one is satisfied when positive experiences of physical activity become prominent. For those experiences to be noticed, one must become aware of them. . . this can be achieved by being mindful.” – Kalliopi-Eleni Tsafou
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Our True Nature is Buried Behind Suffering
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“In Buddhism, we say every sentient being has the ability to be awakened, and to understand deeply. We call this Buddha nature. The deer, the dog, the cat, the squirrel, and the bird all have Buddha nature. But what about inanimate species: the pine tree in our front yard, the grass, or the flowers? As part of our living Mother Earth, these species also have Buddha nature. This is a very powerful awareness which can bring us so much joy. Every blade of grass, every tree, every plant, every creature large or small are children of the planet Earth and have Buddha nature. The Earth herself has Buddha nature, therefore all her children must have Buddha nature, too. As we are all endowed with Buddha nature, everyone has the capacity to live happily and with a sense of responsibility toward our mother, the Earth.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
Siddhartha Gautama realized his true nature 2500 years ago. It was called his enlightenment and he became the Buddha, the enlightened one. This true nature that he realized he called Buddha Nature. Millions of followers and practitioners over the centuries have studied and practiced the teachings of the Buddha in the quest to attain the enlightenment that the Buddha realized. But their quest is misguided as he taught that there is actually nothing to attain.
The Buddha, when asked what he gained from enlightenment, what he had attained, had a simple one-word answer “nothing.” How could this be? He got nothing! All of the seekers over the centuries have been attempting to attain a state that doesn’t exist. If that’s true then Buddhism is the greatest spiritual hoax of all times. This leads to the conclusion that the notion of enlightenment itself is a delusion? Practitioners and believers have been pursuing a state that simply doesn’t exist!
In an extremely important teaching, that is rarely talked about, taught, or studied, the Buddha clarified what he realized. As it turns out the key is the word ‘realized’, and not ‘attained’. There’s a tremendous and crucial difference.
The Buddha laid out what he realized in the teaching called the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. The word ‘Tathagatagarbha’ is a Sanskrit tongue twister that can be translated as ‘Buddha Nature’. So, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra is simply a teaching on Buddha Nature, a teaching on what he realized upon his enlightenment. He taught:
“when I regard all beings with my buddha eye, I see that hidden within the klesas [negative mental traits] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity there is seated augustly and unmovingly the Buddha’s wisdom, the Buddha’s vision, and the Buddha’s body.”
This statement is quite remarkable! He is saying that Buddha Nature, what he realized, is hidden by our bad desires. In other words, it’s already there, just covered up!
He further teaches:
“Good sons, all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of klesas, have a Buddha Nature that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different from my own. Moreover, good sons, it is just like a person with supernatural vision who can see the bodies of Buddhas seated in the lotus position inside the flowers, even though the petals are not yet unfurled; whereas after the wilted petals have been removed, those Buddhas are manifested for all to see. In similar fashion, the Buddha can really see the Buddha Nature of sentient beings. And because he wants to disclose the Buddha Nature to them, he expounds the sutras and the Dharma, in order to destroy klesas and reveal the buddha nature.”
He teaches that this true nature is exactly like his own. In other words, we all share the same nature as the Buddha. We’re effectively all Buddhas. We just haven’t realized it yet.
The Buddha also teaches that this true nature is eternally present. It doesn’t come and go, but has always been there and always will. A little thought should reveal that something that is the true nature of an individual must always be there. It is the core of existence. If it can go away, then it cannot be true nature. This constancy and ever-present characteristic of Buddha Nature is a clear clue as to how to identify it. To realize our true nature, we need to look at ourselves and identify what is always there and always has been. When we find it, we will have realized our true nature.
The teaching states that this true nature is present in all sentient beings. In the teachings, sentient beings include humans and non-human animals. So, the true nature is common to man and all animals. This, by itself, is remarkable and suggests that killing an animal is destroying a being with Buddha Nature. This clearly suggests that humans should not kill animals and eat meat, but rather choose to sustain themselves with non-animal, vegetarian, food sources. This, as it turns out is more difficult to do than apparent. This issue will be revisited in a later chapter.
The Buddha expounds in the Sutra that his teachings are simply there to help us eliminate these negative desires, so we can see what’s behind, our true nature; the same nature as his, the unchanging and eternal nature, the true nature of all sentient beings. The teaching indicates that we do not realize this true nature because we are blinded by our baser nature, by our greed, desire, anger, and stupidity. So, all we need to do to realize our true nature as a Buddha is to do is destroy these negative mental traits. But, as we will see, this can be very hard to accomplish.
The Sutra continues:
“Good sons, such is the Dharma of all the buddhas. Whether or not buddhas appear in the world, the Buddha Nature of all beings are eternal and unchanging. It is just that they are covered by sentient beings’ klesas. When the Buddha appears in the world, he expounds the Dharma far and wide to remove their ignorance and tribulation and to purify their universal wisdom.”
The teaching here becomes redundant. The repetition suggests that the Buddha believes that this is a very important point that bears repeating. But, again he points to the fact that our true nature is, has been, and always will be present whether or not there is a great teacher like the Buddha to see it. It doesn’t depend upon an enlightened being to reveal it. It’s simply always there, just hidden by our bad desires. The presence of a Buddha is simply that of a teacher to spread the teachings to help everyone who is willing to listen and practice to realize their own true nature.
The Sutra continues:
“Good sons, if there is a bodhisattva who has faith in this teaching and who practices it single-mindedly, he will attain liberation and true, universal enlightenment, and for the sake of the world he will perform buddha deeds far and wide.”
In this teaching, he reiterates that we need to follow the teachings in order to remove the bad desires and reveal our Buddha Nature, not attain it, simply realize it! Once realized, the individual becomes a Buddha who should continue to spread the teachings by word and example. The optimistic message here is that everyone can realize their true nature and become a Buddha. We need just need to practice them single-mindedly, with determination and dilligence.
This Tathagatagarbha Sutra is a hidden gem of the Buddha’s teachings. It reveals to us a fundamental flaw in most people spiritual endeavors. We believe that we are trying to find something that is not already there, to attain a state that we don’t already have, to fundamentally change. The Sutra clearly states that this is the wrong path. We already have what we are seeking. We already have true, Buddha, nature. We simply need to realize it. In addition, the Sutra reveals that we don’t see it because of our greed, desire, anger, and stupidity, our baser tendencies. Get rid of them and all will be obvious. So, the Sutra shows us the way to realize our enlightened nature.
“Even in the midst of suffering, it is possible to bring your awareness to the good qualities within yourself and allow them to manifest in your consciousness. Practice mindful breathing to remind yourself of your Buddha nature, of the great compassion and understanding in you.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Lower Depression is Associated with Buddhism in Thailand
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The lay life of Thai Buddhism focuses on living ethically in the worldly life. While it is okay to enjoy the conveniences and joys of the material world, one should live ethically and not cause suffering to others. Lay people should also still be mindful of the law of impermanence and that all things must come to an end. The key to true happiness comes from within, through personal practice, not through material enjoyment.” – Nicholas Liusuwan
Religion and spirituality have been promulgated as solutions to the challenges of life both in a transcendent sense and in a practical sense. What evidence is there that these claims are in fact true? The transcendent claims are untestable with the scientific method. But the practical claims are amenable to scientific analysis. There have been a number of studies of the influence of religiosity and spirituality on the physical and psychological well-being of practitioners mostly showing positive benefits, with spirituality encouraging personal growth and mental health. A growing body of studies, however, have suggested that Western religious practices may be contributing to depression. But there is very little research on Eastern religious practices, such as Buddhism and its effects on depression.
In today’s Research News article “Buddhism and Depressive Symptoms among Married Women in Urban Thailand.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7037506/), Xu and colleagues recruited a multistage cross sectional sample of urban Thai adults and had them complete a questionnaire measuring sociodemographic characteristics, depression, religious preference, and frequency of participation in religious practices.
They found that 91% of the respondents were identified as Buddhist. They also found that Buddhist participants reported significantly lower levels of depression than the non-Buddhist participants. In addition, they found that the greater the frequency of participation in Buddhist practices the lower the levels of depression.
It should be kept in mind that the present study was correlational and causation cannot be determined. Nevertheless, the results suggest that in and Eastern society, Thailand, the practice of Buddhism is associated with better mental health. Studies in Western cultures have generally found that being spiritual has greater positive benefits for mental health than being religious. The fact that the frequency of Buddhist practice was associated with lower depression suggests that spirituality might also here be the most impactful factor on mental health. Additionally, Buddhist practice frequently employs meditation, chanting, and other techniques that promote mindfulness. Since, mindfulness is associated with lower levels of depression, it is possible that the present findings of lower depression in Buddhist practitioners was due to these practices promoting mindfulness.
So, lower depression is associated with Buddhism in Thailand.
“In their long history of existence the Thais seem to have been predominantly Buddhists, at least ever since they came into contact with the tenets of Buddhism. All the Thai kings in the recorded history of present-day Thailand have been adherents of Buddhism. The country’s constitution specifies that the King of Thailand must be a Buddhist and the Upholder of Buddhism.” – Karuna Kusalasaya
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
Xu, T., Xu, X., Sunil, T., & Sirisunyaluck, B. (2020). Buddhism and Depressive Symptoms among Married Women in Urban Thailand. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(3), 761. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17030761
A growing body of research has documented salutary associations between religious involvement and poor mental health outcomes, such as depressive symptoms and psychological distress. However, little scholarly attention has been given to the association between Buddhism, a non-Western religious faith, and depressive symptomatology in Thailand. Using random survey data collected from urban Thailand, this study examines the association between religious involvement and depressive symptoms among married women in Bangkok. Findings from multiple linear regression models reveal that (1) Buddhist respondents report significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms than their non-Buddhist counterparts, (2) the frequency of participation in religious activities is significantly and inversely associated with the level of depressive symptoms, and (3) the inverse association between religious participation and depressive symptoms is more salient for Buddhists who frequently practice their faith (i.e., significant interaction effect). Research limitations and directions for future research are discussed.
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“I had always thought a birthday was a day for me, but I believe it’s a day for everyone that is around me. It is a day where everyone shows you love; it’s a day where people want to make you happy. It is a day where smiles and laughter are ubiquitous. My special day brings out the very best in others.” – Anand
Birthdays are a special time, one day a year set aside to celebrate the existence of a particular person. It is fairly arbitrary day other than the person was born on a day when the Earth was at the same point in its orbit of the sun. It’s also fairly arbitrary as it is a single point in an ongoing developmental sequence ranging from conception to death; the point of emergence from the mother’s womb. So, it should be seen simply as an annual remembrance and celebration of the individual’s life and growth. As such, it is a worthwhile yearly reflection on life’s continuous changes, as Thich Nhat Hahn likes to say “Happy Continuation Day.”
The celebration of a birthday can be special. It’s a time when the individual is recognized by other humans, particularly family and friends. Expressions of love and caring that may be unspoken the rest of the year come out into the open. It’s an opportunity to revel in this recognition, caring, and connection. It is best to do so mindfully; to be sensitive and aware of each present moment, to look deeply at the feelings of the moment, and to listen carefully to everyone involved, hearing not only what is said but the nonverbal expressions. These are usually positive but sometimes they’re negative, but regardless should simply be experienced mindfully without judgement.
It is important to be mindful to experience the joy and happiness of the day. It should be fully experienced looking mindfully at the internal feelings and sensations that constitute this joy. But, it needs to be recognized that this, like everything, is impermanent and will briefly arise and fall away. It should not be clung to and attempted to be held onto. That is a prescription for unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness. It should be simply enjoyed as it is when it is present, appreciating the gift of the moment and having no regrets when it vanishes. That is the truly mindful way, that leads to satisfaction with life as it is.
So, enjoy your special day. If you focus on appreciating and savoring, but not clinging to, the happy moments in life your entire life will become happier. Enjoying them fully, mindfully, reinforces and strengthens these feelings making them more likely to reappear in the future. Similarly, letting go of regret that the good feelings have gone away and any negative emotions occurring makes them less likely to reappear. It’s simply watering the seeds of happiness so they’ll grow and flourish and allowing negatives to wither. Birthdays are opportunities to do just that.
If we reflect, though, it will become apparent that we are constantly being reborn. In fact, every moment we a reborn anew, different than we were, physically, mentally, and spiritually. In fact, awakening in the morning each day is a daily reminder of rebirth. This rebirth is subtle, though, and hard to detect on a moment to moment basis. That is one reason that the birthday celebration is so important. A year passing produces highly detectable changes in our bodies, our minds, and our life situations, greatly emphasizing this continual rebirth. Looking at it mindfully and carefully we can see the impermanence of everything, including ourselves. Some things have gone away, some new things have entered, and the rest has changed to some degree or another. This can lead to and appreciation, wonder, and celebration of the ongoing, ever changing, experience of life. What a wonderful opportunity to see ourselves and life as it truly is.
Birthdays are also wonderful times for mindful deep reflections on what has happened to us over the year and what was responsible for it. If we look deeply, we can readily see how much has happened and how interconnected we are to others. Our experiences were not produced by ourselves alone but were contributed to in very fundamental ways by a vast array of people, people close to us and only remotely connected. The individual may have a significant achievement or event during the year; a graduation, a promotion, a marriage, a birth of a child. A little mindful reflection will show how this occurred as a result of the confluence of efforts by a large number of others, our teachers and support group, our coworkers and family, our spouse and their family, in fact, our entire society and those who have gone before. Mindfulness can reveal that nothing occurs in isolation, but rather is the result of an almost infinite matrix of interconnected people and phenomenon. The Birthday is an excellent opportunity to reflect upon and deeply understand this truth of the interdependence of our existences.
We can equally benefit from celebrating the birthdays of others. Mindfully reveling in, sensing, and appreciating the good feelings we have toward them is another chance to experience the joys in life. Sensing the love in ourselves toward another is best done mindfully, observing the internal feelings and sensations that constitute this love. Enjoying the feelings of love for another makes it more likely that we’ll express love toward others, increasing the love in the world and our own personal happiness. Seeing the changes in them over the years is another lesson in impermanence. We are not the only one constantly changing and being reborn. It’s happening to everyone. Seeing this helps us to understand in an unvarnished experiential way the true nature of existence.
Birthdays are an opportunity to grow, understand, and become happier. Take advantage of that opportunity. But, do so mindfully. Have a mindful Happy Birthday.
“You also were inside before you were outside. That means that before you were born, you already existed—inside your mother. The fact is that if something is already there, it does not need to be born. To be born means from nothing you become something. If you are already something, what is the use of being born? So, your so-called birthday is really your continuation day. The next time you celebrate, you can say, “Happy Continuation Day.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
“Chogyam Trungpa always had everyone sing “Cheerful Birthday,” not “Happy Birthday,” saying that Happiness was a state of mind that had Sadness or Unhappiness on its flip side. Cheerfulness, he said, better described a fundamental way or attitude of being. So, growing up in the Buddhist tradition, we always sang Cheerful Birthday to you… .” – Waylon Lewis
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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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
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