Friday, January 30, 2015

A QUIET MIND IS ALL THAT MATTERS

What is the most common trouble afflicting the minds of ordinary people? In my years of counselling others, it is this---a troubled and unsettled mind.

Now, a mind can be troubled for many reasons. In some cases, there is an underlying mental illness or mental disorder, and that ordinarily requires the assistance of a health care professional (for example, a psychiatrist or psychologist). However, in my experience a mind that is otherwise free from mental illness or mental disorder is troubled and unsettled because it is no longer quiet.

Here are some of my favourite quotations on the importance of a quiet mind:

‘... in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength …’ - Isaiah 30:15.

 ‘Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.’ - Jesus (Mark 4:39).

‘The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.’ - Ram Dass.

‘Let your mind become clear like a still forest pool.
If you let cloudy water settle, it will become clear.
If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear.
If you take care of each moment, you will take care of all time.’ - Shakyamuni Buddha.

One of my spiritual mentors was the late Dr Norman Vincent Peale. He helped millions of troubled people in his long lifetime. He gave some wonderful advice on how to still the mind and the body. He often said that you cannot still the mind until the body has become still. First, still--- that is, relax---the body, and then the mind will follow. Dr Peale wrote, ‘Sit still, be silent, let composure creep over you.’

Botanic garden in the centre of the city of Nantes, France.
(Photo taken by the author.)

There, my friends, you have some wonderful and very practical advice---psycho-spiritual wisdom at its very best. Sit still. No matter how troubled you may be, just sit still. Then, be silent. Say nothing. If thoughts come into your mind---and they will---just watch them. Observe them. Don’t dwell upon them or resist them, and don’t judge or analyse them. Thoughts (which give rise to the illusory sense of there being a 'psychological "I"') are autonomously generated by your mind as a result of your conditioning, which is the past. Thoughts are not you, the person (that is, the 'physical "I", which is ontologically real) that in truth you are. Just let the thoughts pass away---and they will indeed pass away provided you ... let them be. No matter how many thoughts enter your mind, just let them be. And, as Dr Peale said, ‘let composure creep over you.’

What wonderful words---‘let composure creep over you.’ The word ‘creep,’ as a verb, suggests a gradual, progressive and almost imperceptible process. The achievement of composure will take some time, but it will happen---if you let it happen. Don’t try to force it to happen, for if you do composure will not occur. The Buddha’s words quoted above stress the importance of ‘letting be.’ He is reported as having said, ‘If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear’ [emphasis added].

Say to yourself, many times over, ‘Peace, be still.’ Those very words are calming in themselves, and when said quietly and meaningfully to yourself, they will help your body, and then your mind, to relax and become still.

‘Be still, and know …’ (Ps 46:10). They are wonderful words, especially the first two. Be still. You see, there is really nothing to do. Just---be still. Start with the body, and the mind will become still as well.

Be still. Be silent. And let composure creep over you.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blogspot is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blogspot. For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via sane.org


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Thursday, January 22, 2015

HOW EMPTY IS YOUR MIND?

Is there a ‘secret’ to successful living? I have come to the view that there isn’t. Certainly, there is no one thing that must be done, or not done, in order to live a happy and fulfilled life. However, having said that, there is one thing which seems to me to be of great, even paramount, importance. It is this---live in the now. The now is the portal through which we experience the present moment, indeed every moment.

All too often we ‘live’---if you can call it living---in either the past or the future. We all know that is not the way to live, but we all do it. Many books have been written in recent years about the importance of living in the now … so many books that you would think it is a new idea. It’s not. All the great religious teachers spoke of the importance of living in the now, as did others such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. I love these words from Seneca:

True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.

Marcus Aurelius had much to say about the importance of living in the present moment. He wrote, ‘When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.’ He also gave us this wonderful advice: ‘Confine yourself to the present.’ Yes, more than half of our problems would vanish---indeed, die from atrophy on the altar of life---if only we confined ourselves to the present.

Buddhists have had much to say over the centuries about the importance of living in the now, that is, from moment to moment. How many of you have heard of Layman P'ang? Not many, I suspect, but that’s OK. The important thing is what he had to say about successful living, for it should help you greatly.

Layman P'ang
(Páng Jūshì [Ch]; Hōkoji [Jp]) (740–808) [pictured left] was a highly respected lay Buddhist monk in the Chinese Chán (Zen) tradition. A bureaucrat, he worked for the Chinese government of the day. He studied with a Zen teacher named Shítóu Xīqiān (Sekitō Kisen [Jp]). It is written that Shítóu asked of Layman P’ang, ‘How have you practiced Zen since coming here?’ P’ang is said to have replied, ‘My daily activities,’ by which he meant activities such as drawing water and chopping wood. Yes, it’s in those little, daily activities of life---even the most humdrum things of life---that we are to practise truth principles. And that’s where we find truth itself. Don’t look for it elsewhere. You’re wasting your time if you do.

P’ang wrote much on the subject of ‘empty-mindedness,’ that is, on the need to develop what I call ‘a mindful mind of no-mind.’ Sounds
goobligook
? Well, in a way it is. You see, what we are talking about is a state of mind that is transrational. Anyone who meditates regularly will know what I am talking about. Listen to these words of P’ang:

The past is already past. 
Don't try to regain it. 
The present does not stay. 
Don't try to touch it.

From moment to moment. 
The future has not come; 
Don't think about it 
Beforehand.

Whatever comes to the eye,
Leave it be. 
There are no commandments
To be kept; 
There's no filth to be cleansed.

With empty mind really 
Penetrated, the dharmas 
Have no life.

When you can be like this, 
You've completed 
The ultimate attainment. 

There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step fellowships, ‘Let the past stay in the past.’ That’s damn good advice. The past is already past. It’s gone. Yet it is an undeniable fact that most of our thinking pertains to matters in the past. And almost all the rest pertains to hopes, expectations, and fears about the future. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Worse, because so much of our thinking pertains to the past, we are conditioned to act ‘out of the past,’ so to speak. We do not act rationally but rather on the basis of misbeliefs that are grounded in our conditioning, which is the past.

The Dalai Lama [pictured right] was asked what surprised him the most. He said:


Man, because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived.

Wow! That’s the truth, isn’t it? So, the ‘secret’ (except it’s no secret) is to live in the now. We cannot really live ‘in’ the moment because, as Layman P’ang says, the present ‘does not stay.’ It is so very ephemeral. But we can live ‘from’ moment ‘to’ moment, and that is the advice of Layman P’ang and almost every other wise person who has ever considered the matter deeply.

There is more good advice from Layman P’ang. Here’s another gem---‘Whatever comes to the eye, / Leave it be.’ That’s the law of non-resistance. Don’t fight against what is, nor cling to it. Enjoy the reality of the present moment, from one such moment to the next, but learn to let it go. The present moment is ever renewing itself as another present moment, then another, and then another … . To live is to let go, but before we can let go we must---‘let be.’ If we analyse, judge, interpret, evaluate, compare or contrast the present moment we are not letting be. By identifying with the present moment we end up getting stuck in the past because before we know it the present moment in question is the past.

An ‘empty mind’ is not a dull or unintelligent mind. It is a mind that it so open to whatever be the content of the experience of life from one moment to the next it has penetrated the very core and essence of be-ing-ness. It is a mind that contains no 'shoulds' or 'oughts,' that is, beliefs and misbeliefs about how life ought to be. It is a mind that, so far as is possible, is free of all conditioning. In a previous post I wrote about the ‘empty mind’:

It does not mean the absence of mind, or absentmindedness, but rather a mind which is non-discriminating, uncoloured,  fluid, unbound and free from deluded thought ... indeed, a mind where there is no conditioned thinking, desiring or controlling ... a spontaneous and detached state of mind characterized by inward silence and no knowing awareness ... a mind which effortlessly thinks what it thinks ... without there being any interference (judgment, analysis, etc) by some 'thinker' or 'ego' within the mind.


When you live moment-to-moment with such a mindset Layman P’ang says that ‘the dharmas / Have no life.’ I interpret that to mean that the teachings on the right way of living are exhausted, and have no more work to do. In a sense you have become those teachings, for you have come to fully embody them in your daily life. Yes, you have attained enlightenment. That means you have---woken up!

Here’s some more wisdom from Layman P’ang:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.

That’s what is meant by an empty mind.

So, what are you waiting for? Go empty your mind.



Calligraphy [below]: Mushin (empty mind).







Thursday, January 15, 2015

NEW STUDY FINDS THAT MINDFULNESS MAY PREVENT ABSENTEEISM

An 8-month parliamentary inquiry in the United Kingdom has found that public servants may be less likely to burn out if they use mindfulness techniques to control stress, anxiety and depression.

The inquiry, which was conducted by the British All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, found frontline public servants could be less likely to fall ill with stress, or quit altogether, if they engage in mindfulness.


A number of small pilot studies on the potential impact of mindfulness in the public sector are already underway in the UK. One hundred frontline health workers in Surrey were given mindfulness training last year and showed a fall in sickness absence, according to the UK Department of Health. Several prisons are running pilots to see how mindfulness can help convicted criminals avoid re-offending while 300 teachers in a network of academy schools in the northwest of England have also been trained.

‘[Mindfulness] could be rolled out to prison staff, GPs and in key professions where there is big burn out,’ said Chris Ruane MP, co-chair of the group. ‘If we prove conclusively that mindfulness can stabilise those individuals it would be a great benefit to society.’

‘Absenteeism costs the public sector a lot and giving people mindfulness training could save money in the short and long term,’ added co-chair Tracey Crouch MP. She added that interest in the practice is growing in Westminster and that she knew of two British Cabinet ministers who use mindfulness techniques. Sixty MPs and 55 peers have also had training in mindfulness.

The report represents the most significant political pressure yet to bring mindfulness into the mainstream.

Note. Acknowledgements are due to The Guardian for material in this post.




IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blog. For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via sane.org




Sunday, January 11, 2015

THE MYTH OF SELF-IMPROVEMENT

At this time of the year many people make a resolution, which is often short-lived, to embark upon some sort of self-improvement program or to give up some bad habit. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for personal transformation, but there is a right, and a wrong, way to go about it, both in thought, word and deed.

One of my all-time favourite spiritual teachers Alan Watts [pictured below left], in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, has this to say about the wrong way to embark upon self-improvement:



I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good ‘I’ who is going to improve the bad ‘me.’ ‘I,’ who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward ‘me,’ and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently ‘I’ will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make ‘me’ behave so badly.



The reason the good ‘I’ can’t change the bad ‘I’ is because they are one and the same. Worse still, both ‘I’s’ are illusory. When I use the word 'illusory' I am not saying these 'I's' do not exist. They do exist---but only as self-image in our mind. The 'I's' are, however, illusory in the sense that they are not what they appear to be. All the 'I's' and 'me's' in your mind are brought about by thought, and they have no reality in and of themselves. They appear to be 'solid,' 'fixed,' and 'permanent,' but they are not. They are, as the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti used to say, the product of thought which divides.

Yes, despite appearances to the contrary, and our own misbelief, these ‘I’s” do not have any separate, independent, discrete and permanent existence from the person each one of us is. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume came up with what is known as the ‘bundle theory,’ which postulates that our mind constructs hundreds of waxing and waning selves. None of these selves ever come together as a single unified entity. They are no more than a bundle of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations. Neuroscience has shown that Hume, along with a considerable number of other eminent philosophers, was right.

Alan Watts explains how the phenomenon of self occurs:

The notion of a separate thinker, of an ‘I’ distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, ‘I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.’

Over time our sense of self hardens, but it is never more than image---self-image---in our mind. And the bottom line is this---‘I’ can’t change ‘me.’ You see, the ‘I’ that wants to stop smoking or drinking is the ‘me’ that wants to keep smoking or drinking. What’s more, all such ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ are in the past. They are all the result of past thinking and past conditioning. They can never result in the attainment of something in the now, let alone the future. When we work and rely upon only our ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s we will never, never succeed in our endeavours. As William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, said, ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’

The only program of self-improvement that has any chance at all of being successful is one where the person that each one of us is makes a decision to invoke the power of one’s own personhood. That power is not of self; it is a ‘power-not-oneself.’ Self can’t change self, for all our mental selves are in and of themselves not only powerless but also contradictory and in opposition to each other. Hence the need to rely upon a power-not-oneself---the power that comes from being a person among persons.


Now, what is a person? Well, the well-known English philosopher P F Strawson [pictured right] wrote much on the subject. Strawson articulated a concept of ‘person’ in respect of which both physical characteristics and states of consciousness can be ascribed to it. Each one of us is a person among persons---a mind-body complex. We are much, much more than those hundreds of little, false selves---all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me,’ that is, the person each one of us is. Only the latter is ontologically real. Personal freedom and real personal transformation come when we get real, that is, when we start to think, act and live from our personhood as a person among persons. We need to get our mind off our ‘selves’ and rise above them if we are to get real. And remember this---there is no human problem that is not common to other persons among persons.

Now, here are the steps involved. You begin by making up your mind and make a decision to do X [X being whatever positive thing you wish to see actualized in your life]. Great power arises from the making of a decision. Then nail that decision up in your mind and don’t look back. A big part of not looking back means that when any thought, feeling, perception or sensation arises that is to the contrary of the doing of X, you proceed to reaffirm and thus strengthen your original decision and resolve to do X by performing some action---the important word is action---that is not only consistent with the doing of X, it will actually help to bring about X. In the words of the American essayist and minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Do the thing and you will have the power.’ The power is in the doing---the power of the person that you are. It’s the ‘act as if’ principle taught by the great American philosopher and psychologist William James. He said, ‘If you want a quality [of personhood], act as if you already had it’ [emphasis added]. Now, who must act? You, the person that you are, must act.

For example, if your decision is to give up smoking, and a thought arises that a cigarette would be nice right now, you immediately do something that is consistent with being a non-smoker. For example, you go somewhere, or mix with someone, where smoking is simply out of the question. Forget all about so-called will-power, for there is no such thing. The ‘will’ is simply your ability to make a decision; it has no power in and of itself. We will always do whatever is our strongest want. It’s want-power---fortified with enthusiasm---and not will-power that we need. Another problem with so-called will-power is this---it is simply the imposition of one illusory ‘self’ over another. It’s the old problem all over.

One more thing, motivation is essential for successful personal transformation. Motivation is motive plus action, the latter being the doing of all that is necessary for X to actualize. What is your motive for doing X? (There may, of course, be more than one such motive.) Your motive must relate to you as a person. For example, if you want to give up smoking, your motive may be to be a healthier person or a wealthier person (as smoking is, among other things, damn expensive). Keep your motive upfront in your consciousness. Your motive is your want-power. For all intents and purposes they are one and the same.

So, remember this. Self can’t change self, but the person each one of us is can indeed change---and change for the better---if we want, that is, really want, change more than anything else and are prepared to go to any length to get it.









Thursday, January 8, 2015

HOW 2014 BECAME THE YEAR OF MINDFULNESS

If, as they say, mindfulness is sexy then it’s the only sex I appear to be getting these days. Just kidding---or am I?

Now, keeping myself fully erect (oh dear), the purpose of this ever-so-brief post is to bring to your attention the fact that late last year The New Republic had a most informative article on mindfulness. It’s well worth a read.






Wednesday, January 7, 2015

MINDFULNESS AND THE OVERCOMING OF UNPLEASANT SENSATIONS

‘Unpleasant sensation is the greatest obstacle on the road of vipassanā [insight meditation or mindfulness]. Only when the meditator is able to overcome that obstacle can he forge forward to attain the rewards beyond unpleasant sensation.’

Those words come from what I consider to be one of the best books ever written on the subject of insight meditation (vipassanā)---The Yogi & Vipassana (Buddhist Meditation: The Sunlun Way). The author of the book, Sunlun Shin Vinaya, [pictured left], was for many years the presiding abbot of Kaba-Aye Sunlun Monastery, Yangon (Rangoon), in Myanmar (Burma). 

Most people have sought to meditate in one form or another at some point in their lives. For example, you may have sought to relax your body or your mind, but rest assured that is a form of meditation. Now, we all know what happens sooner or later. Yes, we experience some unpleasant sensation in either our body or our mind. And you know what we almost invariably do next. We resist the sensation. We fight against it. We try to expel the sensation. The result? Yes, we only drive the unpleasant sensation deeper into our consciousness.

In his book The Yogi & Vipassan Sunlun Shin Vinaya gives us some very good information and advice on the subject of unpleasant sensations:

And it is possible to overcome unpleasant sensation. Since unpleasant sensation too is subject to the law of impermanence it must come to an end some time. This end can occur in various ways. Its intensity can subside; but this would not be a true ending. Some measure of unpleasant sensation would remain. The real overcoming of unpleasant sensation takes place when the meditator dwells in the sensation watching the sensation without thinking any thought connected with the sensation, and it is consumed, it ends, it snaps, it is shed, or extinguished. It is said to be consumed when it gradually subsides till there is no remainder. It ends when the meditator follows it till there is no more of it like a road followed to the end, like a length of string felt along the whole length till not more is felt. It snaps when it breaks off suddenly as when a taut rope is snapped. It is light which has used up its oil and wick.

It sounds almost counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? We are told to dwell in the sensation, that is, to watch the sensation ‘without thinking any thought connected with the sensation’, until the sensation is consumed. In time the sensation will ‘end’ and ‘snap.’ Yes, it will be ‘shed’ or ‘extinguished.’  Yes, if we stay with--but not cling to, identify with, or own--the unpleasant sensation, and watch it choicelessly (that is, non-judgmentally, simply observing the sensation in and as the sensation ['Sensation exists']), the sensation will gradually subside. It will lose its power, intensity, grip and command in your consciousness. Such is the power of non-resistance. Such is the power of choiceless awareness and bare attention. And such is the nature of reality, for that which arises will in time cease. The 'secret' here is not to experience in depth the actual arising, duration or ceasing of the sensation but merely to ride with it. There is a world of difference between the two.

Why not put this into practice the next time you experience some unpleasant sensation, unpleasant thought, or unpleasant feeling?




Thursday, January 1, 2015

A NEW YEAR OF TIMELESS RENEWAL---THROUGH THE PORTHOLE


I call it the ‘porthole experience’ or ‘porthole effect.’

Have you ever been in a cabin on a ship and looked through one of those traditionally circular portholes on the hull of the ship? At any moment in time you see in and through the porthole just a small fragment---and a moving one at that---of reality. Not only that, but what you see at any particular moment in time very quickly disappears from view, and becomes the past, only to be replaced by a new and different fragment of reality. And on it goes.


The porthole experience or effect illustrates that life is constant flux and constant movement. In that regard, it was the American spiritual psychologist Vernon Howard who said, ‘Real life is a timeless renewal in the present moment.’ That’s a great description of the porthole experience. In addition, the porthole experience illustrates that we experience life fragmentally, that is, in and through successive ‘portholes,’ metaphorically speaking.

Here’s a truth. So-called ‘time’ and ‘space,’ which are really one (‘space-time,’ they call it), are all so very relative. They are no more than mediums---more correctly, a single medium---in which all things exist and have their being, and are not 'things' in themselves. Life, however, is ceaseless movement and is essentially timeless and spaceless. Life is whatever happens at any point in time in the medium of spacetime. Here’s another truth. Everything---and I do mean every thing---is contained within ‘the now.’ All duration or time is total and complete in the now. There is an ‘eternal’ quality about the now. It is forever new. And what of the so-called present, past, and future? Are they separate and distinct? Not really. Let me explain.


The so-called present moment has its unfolding in and as the now. The so-called past, in the form of memories, inherited characteristics and tendencies, the so-called karmic consequences of past actions---all that is no more than the expression of a present reality, being a present ‘window link’ to the eternity of the now. It’s the same as respects the so-called future---that is, any ideas about or hopes for the future are present ideas and hopes. 

The omnipresent and ever-present present---what we call the present moment or the now---is simply that which presents itself before us, in and through successive ‘porthole’ experiences, as the now---the Eternal Now, to use a popular expression. So, the present embraces past, present and future. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich says as much in his book The Eternal Now. Tillich writes, 'The mystery of the future and the mystery of the past are united in the mystery of the present. Our time, the time we have, is the time in which we have "presence."' 


The now is the only moment we truly have. The now is the portal---the porthole, if you like---through which we experience the present moment, indeed every moment … but only one moment at a time. Each and every new moment of the day---every day---is a ‘new year,’ so to speak, and it’s a porthole through which we experience the ceaseless flow of life … moment by moment. One porthole experience after the other … then another … and so on. The ‘secret’ of life is to focus your undivided attention and awareness on only the content of the particular porthole. All too often we strain to look back on what was just a moment or so ago the content of our porthole, or we strain to look forward to what is yet to come into view in our porthole. That is not the way to live mindfully. It is living … yes, mindlessly. Life---the experience of the moment---dies on us if we look back or look forward.

To live mindfully means to constantly ‘die’ and ‘rise again’ into newness of life … one porthole experience after another. Most of us tend to drift through life mindlessly, but it need not be like that. We need to be alive to each new ‘porthole’ experience of the present moment.

Happy New Year, everyone!



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