Posts by Vishvapani

Ten tips for setting up a meditation practice

The benefits of meditation come with regular practice, and that means making it part of your life. That’s one of the great challenges of learning meditation, so here are ten tips for establishing a meditation practice.

1. Get some instruction

You can learn the techniques of meditation from books and CDs: there are some good ones around (check out our shop). There are also meditation apps. But it helps a lot to learn from a live class if you can make it to one. Take a course – or go to a class where you can ask questions about the issues. In time, it helps to have friends or teachers who are more experienced meditators than you are.

2. Settle on a practice that suits you

On an meditation course there are three main practices – the mindfulness of breathing, the body scan and mindful movement, and there are many others out there. It’s worth experimenting a bit and then settling on the practice, or combination of practices, that work for you.

3. Find a regular time for practice

You might start off thinking you’ll just try fitting meditation into your day somehow or other, but establishing a practice means finding a time that works for you. For many people, first thing in the morning before the day starts up is a good time; others prefer the evening. There are pros and cons with either so you’ll need to experiment.

4. Set up a meditation place

You can meditate anywhere, but if you sit down amid clutter it has an effect. So set aside a space that evokes the feeling of meditation. Some flowers, a candle or an image on a table can be enough to encourage the feeling that you’re leaving aside the usual preoccupations. It also helps to set aside the cushions or chair that need for meditation, and it’s worth thinking about getting some meditation cushions or a stool.

5. Talk to your family or housemates

To avoid people barging in or turning up the music just as you start to get settled, talk to the people you live with and let them know what you are doing. Don’t worry if they thing you’re weird: if they notice you’re calmer and happier they’ll soon change.

6. Meditate with others

It’s hard to keep anything going on your own, at least to start with. We all need encouragement and guidance. Many people find a setting where they can meditate with others: Buddhist centres, sitting groups, and even virtual settings, like a videoconference or app.

7. Go on retreat

Retreats are a chance to get away from all the things that usually fill up our lives. They vary in length: you can find day retreats or residential retreats for a weekend or longer. Just being quiet and meditating several times a day lets everything settle down so your experience can go deeper. On an intensive retreat you don’t do much apart from meditate, but there are less demanding options as well.

8. Take your practice off the cushion

If you think of meditation as something that only happens in the formal practice time, it will be hard to maintain. So look for ways to keep the thread of mindfulness and meditation alive through the day. The Three Minute Breathing Space gives you time to stop and connect with mindfulness, and you can find many more, informal ways to do the same.

9. Reflect on your values

Most of us get enthusiastic, every so often, about a certain kind of exercise or studying a particular subject. But, looking back, we only maintain a few of these. They are the ones that touch on the values at the core of our lives. If you can make the connection between something that is a deep-seated drive like helping others or understanding the truth, or a pressing concern like not getting depressed or being more effective as a parent, then you’re much more likely to be able to sustain it.

10. Be patient … and persistent

Establishing a regular meditation practice is a long-term project. You may miss days, get discouraged or just forget about meditation for a while. The key thing is to keep going. If you force yourself to meditate when you really don’t feel like it, you’ll probably have a reaction to the whole idea; but if you wait until you do feel like it before you pick your practice up again, it may never happen. But with time, you figure out ways to make your practice happen.

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Capturing the moment

I was sitting in a café with my friend David when he said, ‘There’s something to look at behind you.’

I glanced across, trying not to be obvious. All I saw was an old woman eating her soup. David leaned forward. ‘She’s like a Rembrandt.’

I looked again and noticed her intent concentration. She was very old, her body shrunk to a few feet, and every movement was a painful effort. Slowly, very slowly, she raised her spoon from her bowl to her mouth. And slowly she lowered it again. Her face was creased into a web of lines, as if her skin was fracturing and these lines, held together only by the power of her will, were all that bound her flesh. Her eyes gazed at the bowl and her attention focused the room. In the weakness of her body all that existed for her was this moment and the act of eating. Her clothes were plain and black, and outlined her against the bare wall. The light around her seemed to hover, fixing and framing her image.

‘I wish I had a camera,’ I said.

‘No,’ said David. ‘It’s perfect as it is. You don’t have to make a picture out of it.’

I looked again and saw David was right. Her face, her concentration, and the aching slowness of her movements were all perfect. She was like a Rembrandt painting, and her image embodied, in its way, their grace and stillness. But Rembrandt was simply a guide to this instant, this glimpse of a woman’s dignity in the face of her body’s decay and the palpable approach of death. This moment of quiet grace was the product of her presence and David’s appreciative gaze, through which its beauty had been disclosed.

If I had sat alone in the café I probably wouldn’t have noticed the woman at all. David showed me how to look, and most importantly he showed me that it is a mistake to appropriate such a moment. To see how extraordinary, unique and beautiful is each moment of our lives we need to let go of the grasping mind and see it freshly, with mindfulness.

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Finding our values

My New year’s resolution this year is not to make any New Year resolutions. In any case, I’ve usually forgotten about them February. The real changes I’ve made have come when I’ve been in touch with the motivations that underpin my life and seen clearly what I need to do next.

At the end of the MBSR course we ask the question, does mindfulness practice touch on your underlying values – things you really care about that can continue to motivate you over the years? It’s moving to hear what people say: “I’ve spent my life rushing, now I want to go deeper”; “I really love my children and I want to communicate with them better”; “my depression has meant that I feel I have missed out on years of my life, now I want to really live it.”

Often we’re driven instead by the need to manage arrangements, earn a living and respond to demands and that can get mixed with anxiety and worrying what other people think of us. So here’s a simple exercise to help connect with your core values.

  •  Take a sheet of paper and write on it: ‘Things I love’ then make a list of everything you can think of, keeping your hand moving for several minutes, not thinking or censoring too much
  • Then take another sheet of paper and write: ‘Times I’ve felt fulfilled and truly alive’, and do the same
  • Look at your lists see what patterns or issues emerge and write a list of the most important values or qualities that these lists express.
  • Next time you meditate, turn those words or phrases over in your mind. If you notice a particular resonance or impulse to act, then notice it. Also notice if there’s a judging voice telling you that you really ought to do something because you aren’t a good enough person, and let it go.

Real change comes when we find new ways of being more truly ourselves.

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Defusing the anger bomb

Scene from The Peacemaker in which George Clooney and Nicole Kidman run from an explosion.

What can you do when things are about to blow? Here’s some advance on working with anger – or any other strong emotion – with mindfulness

The 1997 movie The Peacemaker is mostly a routine and forgettable thriller. In fact, it is really pretty bad, but there are two things I remember about it.  The first is the pairing of George Clooney and Nicole Kidman; and second there’s a scene right at the end that has stuck in my mind as an image for how mindfulness can help in a crisis.

There’s a bomb in the UN building that’s going to blow in a few seconds. Nicole Kidman knows how to defuse these things, but she’s panicking. George Clooney – a suave 007-type – takes hold of her shoulders, tells her to take a breath and asks her what she sees. She blinks, describes the type of bomb she’s looking at, and all of a sudden she knows what to do. The expertise and experience which the panic had obscured are available again. Snip, snip, snip … the clock is ticking. There are seconds left. Snip again … and we’re safe.

I’ve never had to defuse a real bomb but I’ve had my moments with metaphorical ones: the times when you feel you are about to blow. That’s when we need emotional bomb disposal skills, and find we can’t access them. We all know the theory: it’s good to keep your head in a crisis; yelling at people pisses them off and doesn’t achieve what we want; patience and tolerance are important qualities … But when it comes to the heat of the moment we are like Nicole Kidman in a panic and our good intentions vanish. The gall rises, the clock ticks … kaboom!

The key is remembering, or rather, remembering to remember. Usually, our focus is on the unacceptable thing that has just happened that has provoked our anger and things go wrong when we just act on that without pausing to notice what’s really happening or consider our response. Paying attention to our responses can eventually become a habit, but to start with we need simple things we can do in the moment. Firstly, it helps to place your attention on something that has a calming effect. That’s where the breath comes in. The generations of mums who told their children to take a breath and count to ten knew what they were doing. For most people, the breath – especially the out breath – tends to be calming and reassuring (though maybe not if you suffer from asthma, for example). Paying attention to the breath in this way also takes our attention away from the thoughts that are screaming in our heads, giving us the all-important distance we need.

In that space it’s possible to remember mindfulness. Like someone defusing a real bomb, you need to stop rather than just acting out the emotion that’s in you. The difference is that you don’t need to snap the leads to inner explosives. We aren’t very good at doing two things at the same time, so it’s hard to both feel angry and at the same time to stand back from our anger, observing and exploring it. Just paying attention to feelings of anger tends to diffuse them.

But mindfulness isn’t just a calming device: it means exploring what’s happening in all its dimensions. So, take a breath to create some space and then ask yourself: what am I looking at? You will probably notice that a whole array of sensations come together to comprise the experience we call ‘anger. There are feelings: irritation, distress, the urgent need to defend oneself. There are thoughts: ‘This isn’t acceptable’, ‘I’m not standing for this!’ ‘Just who do they think I am?’ There are feelings of anger and perhaps frustration and upset just beneath them. And if you stop for a moment you may notice that there are also intense bodily sensations: tightness in the stomach that keeps bubbling up into an impulse to move and act. Pay some attention and there’s a whole volcano down there! Then there’s the situation itself. What has just happened and what it means to me. There’s what the other person said, and what I bring to it myself.

It is helpful to distinguish feelings, thoughts and sensations because they express different needs. The thoughts about the situation may be true and they may be untrue – they probably need some reflection. But even when they are accurate, it helps to separate them from the feelings underlying them. When you need to make a point to someone, it can undermine you if you are feeling upset and haven’t fully acknowledged that. So acknowledge to yourself the painfulness of what has happened, breathe with them and give them some space.

Whatever we are feeling, our emotions often manifest in the body, which is why our stomachs churn when we are upset, our shoulders tighten when we are stressed and our jaws clench when we feel determined. Those are typical responses, at any rate, and each of us experiences emotions in our own ways. Not everyone experiences emotions in this way, but if you do you have a remarkable ally in bringing awareness to what you feel. Our emotions express the impact of things that are important to us, and it isn’t enough to decide consciously to push them down. Noticing the bodily manifestation of those feelings is an excellent way of paying them attention without identifying with them or being bowled along by them.

These are essential bomb-disposal skills that we all need. Mindfulness doesn’t mean that you don’t speak out, but it might help you say the important thing that will really get through to the other person. It also doesn’t mean that you don’t get upset, though it might mean that you develop a wider perspective on those feelings. Above all, it means that when difficult things happen we have access to all the wisdom and understanding we have developed in our lives and the skills to apply it, whatever is happening.

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Making Wise Decisions

Decisions shape our lives, but psychologists say we are remarkably bad at making them. That’s true of strategic decisions, tactical decisions and decisions made in the heat of the moment. Typically, we are poor at assessing risk, understanding probabilities and anticipating consequences. We overestimate our capacity to make good decisions and underestimate the true influence of emotion, bias and assumptions in what we do.

We need to learn for ourselves how to make good decisions and that’s where the Buddha comes in. His teachings won’t help with the specifics, but they offer insights into the process of how to make a wise decision. And the starting point is clearing our minds of the approaches that lead us to make bad ones.

What not to rely on

One day the Buddha spoke with a group from the Kalama clan who were trying to decide what to believe. They told him that many religious teachers passed through their town, each declaring that he alone possessed the truth. So who on earth should the Kalamas follow? The Buddha responded by listing ten reasons why people typically believe things and said they should question the lot. (For more detail on each of the items on this list see this excellent commentary by Nagapriya).

  1. It’s what people have always believed
  2. It comes from a venerable lineage
  3. It’s what everyone is talking about
  4. It says so in an ancient scriptures
  5. Because the person telling me this seems to be an expert
  6. Because that’s what my teacher says

These are six kinds of authority that often govern how we think and act. You can easily see how they apply to religions with their priesthoods and scriptures. But similar kinds of group-think and deference apply elsehwere as well. Consider professional life, for example. Every profession has its canon of received wisdom, its authorities and experts and is affected by fashions, rumours and loyalties. The Buddha isn’t saying you should reject everything the authorities say but that you shouldn’t believe them just because they are authorities. And we will need to work hard if we are to free ourselves of their undue influence.

Unlike the Buddha, we don’t live in a traditional society where long-standing ways of thinking carry tremendous weight. Plenty of people still believe things because they are in the Bible (and, while we are at it, plenty of Tibetan Buddhists trust the words of their Lama as if they were Gospel), but that’s not the general tenor of modern life. These words have some people to see the Buddha as a proto-modern freethinker and sceptic. But his list continues with a caution against believing something on apparently more rational grounds:

  1. Because of clever arguments
  2. Because it seems to be logical
  3. Because you have worked it out
  4. Because you’ve been thinking about it for such a long time

This is more challenging for most of us, but a little reflection shows that we often make our biggest mistakes when we place undue trust in our capacity to figure things out. We are easily swayed by the seeming eloquent ideas and pride creeps in when we think we’ve worked something out for ourselves. Just think of the pride that came before the crash of 2008. Or the dotcom bubble. Or the great depression. Being clever doesn’t make you right, as a glance at academia demonstrates. Intellect alone produces a wide range of answers, which is why economists and philosophers disagree with one another. In fact, being clever can simply reinforce the delusion that you know the answers when really you don’t.

Perhaps most telling of all is the suggestion that we believe things simply because we have grown accustomed to thinking in a particular way. It’s not just generals who are always preparing to fight the last war.

Clearing the ground in this way is essential if we are to make wise decisions. At the time of the UK’s 2010 election I explored this in a Thought for the Day broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (read or listen). The competitive frenzy of an election campaign surely resembles the ferocious religious marketplace of the Buddha’s day. Our underlying political loyalties may be inherited from parents or picked up from friends, or else we may be drawn by appeals to self-interest or swayed by charisma. We understand that we need to go beyond these, but trying to figure things out rationally only gets you so far.

Making Wise Decisions

So what do you do?  I’ll be returning to this question in future posts, but we can start with what the Buddha says to the Kalamas

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

He’s advising us to reflect on our experience. We need to become aware of ourselves and the forces at work in the situations we encounter. As we can’t trust authority, revelation or analysis we have to come back to our own experience. Setting aside our biases, we must reflect on what we have truly learned from our lives about what really brings benefit and happiness. That’s how we find our values. We need to look honestly and directly at the situation we confront, taking in all the evidence that presents itself and finding a response that expresses those values most fully. That’s a lot harder than just going with the pack, but the mention of ‘the wise’ is also a reminder that we can learn from others as well.

There’s a lot in this, and in future posts I will return to the Buddha’s words to explore their significance further.

Follow this Up

The Kalama Sutta is found in the Anguttara Nikaya 3:65

The Kalama Sutta (Access to Insight)

An excellent, detailed discussion of the Kalama Sutta by Nagapriya

Four Translations and a Commentary

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention

 

 

 

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“The Novice,” by Stephen Schettini

"The Novice," by Stephen SchettiniVishvapani reviews Schettini’s heartfelt and vivid account of becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk and his valuable reflections on what it means for westerners to practice Buddhism

When I first encountered Buddhism in the UK around 1980 there was already a generation of established practitioners, most of whom shared a common background. They were hippies … or should that be ex-hippies? Their faces lit up as they recounted their adventures: how they set out from respectable homes to discover the excitements of London’s Kings Road, join the flower children in the Haight, or make exotic journeys to the East. There were stories of dope deals that went wrong, revelatory acid trips, close shaves with bandits in the Afghan mountains, and spiritual discoveries in India.

Title: The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned
Author: Stephen Schettini
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
ISBN: 978-1-60832-005-9
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

All that is in The Novice. Stephen Schettini grew up in London and Gloucester in an English-Italian family with at least its share of emotional repression and Catholic guilt. At the time, he just wanted to get away and felt increasingly estranged from his family’s petty bourgeois ambitions. With his philosophical leanings and alienation from society, Schettini was a natural recruit to the counter-culture and he eventually hitchhiked along the hippy trail that led stretched from Europe to India. His story was so familiar that it seemed clichéd until it struck me that I couldn’t think of another book that tells it, and that Schettini tells it well. His writing is lucid and vivid, at least once the story gets going, and he doesn’t let the impulse to reminisce get in the way of his tale.

In India, Schettini‘s path diverged from that of the Buddhists I had met, who had enjoyed their adventures and come home. He heard that the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees were living in Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills, and set off to find what they had to offer. The turning point came when Schettini met and studied with Lama Yeshe, “the hippy Lama,” who exuded warmth, taught in English and knew enough about the Western culture to pepper his teachings with humorous asides about supermarkets and consumerism. Something clicked for Schettini when he encountered Tibetan Buddhism: the promise of an inner peace that would resolve his emotional turmoil; a new identity that would end his isolation; a philosophy that answered his questions; and benign, seemingly all-knowing lamas upon whom he could rely.

Schettini soon became a monk and found himself in Switzerland studying with the famous scholar, Geshe Rabten, and sharing an intense existence with several other young monks. Two members of this tight-knit group have become prominent figures in western Buddhism. Alan Wallace is a leading figure in the dialogue between science and Buddhism, and Stephen Batchelor is a writer and teacher whose approach is amply expressed in the title of his latest book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (which is also part-autobiography and covers some of the same ground as The Novice).

The intellectual trajectories of Schettini’s fellow-monks suggest the struggles that awaited Schettini himself as he moved from immersing himself in Tibetan culture and religion and hoped to integrate it with the rest of his life. Geshe Rabten’s regime emphasized study, but this turned out to mean memorizing ancient texts and mastering traditional arguments. Debate was on the curriculum, but it involved deploying those arguments skillfully, rather than subjecting an issue to the kind of fundamental inquiry that is found in western philosophy. The monks developed a camaraderie mixed with competitiveness that stopped some way short of intimacy. But the wider community around Rabten included proprietorial lay-women, wealthy donors who were treated as favourites and, later, a younger monks with a starry-eyed faith in the infallibility of their teacher.

Wishing to get to know the Tibetans better, Schettini left Rabten and traveled to Sera monastery in southern India, where he was the only westerner. Living among Tibetans and speaking their the language, the sheen that had made them seem semi-mythic beings faded and Schettini saw their limitations. The monks were immersed in a dogmatic system that closed off the possibility of even posing certain questions, and some thoughts were literally unthinkable within the limitations of the Tibetan language. Meanwhile, they lived in insanitary conditions, and refused to take basic precautions against infection and disease. Schettini returned to Switzerland, skeptical of many aspects of the tradition and was astonished by the naivety of Rabten’s students, who seemed so “dazzled by exotic thinking and ritual” that they accept the Teacher’s decisions without question. Before long he quit.

The remaining 25 years of Schettini’s story are recounted briskly. Unlike Batchelor, whose time as a Tibetan monk takes up just a couple of chapters of his book, Schettini was too snagged by the self-doubt and insecurity underpinning his decision to become a monk to explore other philosophies or Buddhist traditions. In order to live happily in a way that was authentic he needed to uncover the buried emotions that had been with him all along. Schettini realized that the very difficulties he had once fled were, in fact, the keys to his happiness. He needed to face them, and face himself rather than fleeing or blaming the monastic establishment.

Schettini wrote and rewrote the book that became The Novice over many years as he wrestled with his past. But the product is far more than a therapy journal. In reflecting on his life and the religion he encountered Schettini tried to “pick out the gold from the dross.” The personal philosophy he arrives at is a kind of wary spiritually-aware humanism. He mistrusts institutions and dogmatically-held beliefs, holding that “the more deeply we are motivated by emotion, the more insistently we pass it off as reason” and that “denial is a force to be reckoned with and our principal obstacle.”

This is wise, but I read Schettini’s reflections with sadness. I am sad that the reality of Tibetan Buddhism fell so far short of the image that beguiled him and many others. And I am sad that his eventual stance is so circumspect. I believe there is more gold in Buddhism than Schettini acknowledges, however much dross may accompany it. Indeed, I think there are more possibilities in the human condition than he mentions, and that Buddhism speaks to many of them: possibilities of mental development, compassion, and moral excellence. Religious institutions may often be rigid, but that isn’t a reason to give up on creating better ones.

It is over forty years since westerners started to investigate Asian spiritual traditions in large numbers, and many of the institutions they created in their efforts to establish Buddhism in the West are likewise several decades old. It is high time to let go of illusions about both the mystical East or the glorious prospects for western Buddhism and reflect seriously and honestly on what has been learned. The Novice is a heart-felt, frank, informative and eloquent contribution.

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention

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The technology of happiness

For years westerners have assumed that Buddhists must be a miserable lot: their teachings dwell so much on suffering. But recent scientific research suggests what Buddhists have believed all along. Buddhism — or at least Buddhist meditation — leads to happiness.

Media headlines in the last few years have trumpeted new research into the effects of meditation on brain activity, behavior and even resistance to disease. The findings are still provisional, but as the philosopher Owen Flanagan commented in New Scientist magazine: “The most reasonable hypothesis is that there’s something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek.”

The background is a growing dialog between Buddhist teachers and leading figures in fields such as neuroscience. The most important meetings, organized by the Colorado-based Mind and Life Institute, have brought western scientists together with the Dalai Lama. Destructive Emotions, by Daniel Goleman, offers a graphic account of one of these meetings.

   Conscientious Buddhist practice results in the kind of happiness we all seek

The dialogue showed that Buddhists’ 2,500-year-long exploration of consciousness offers much to scientists who are examining the relationship between the mind and the brain, and seeking treatments for conditions such as depression. Historically, western psychology has focused on mental disorders but some researchers are now looking at positive emotions and experiences. Buddhist meditation expands the scope of what these can entail, and accomplished meditators offer possible living examples of these states.

However, according to Goleman, the dialog also raised many questions: can meditation change brain circuits associated with emotions? Do different meditation practices produce distinct brain effects? Does the development of certain brain areas through meditation help to prevent illness? Which areas of the brain are developed in experienced meditators? How long does it take before meditation produces significant brain changes?

Some participants in the Dharamsala meeting followed up the talk with research. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Wisconsin used new scanning techniques to examine the brain activity of experienced meditators. Their first subject was a western monk in a Tibetan tradition, referred to as Oser (not his real name). He was attached first to a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner, and then — using electrodes attached to the scalp — to an EEG, which measured Oser’s brain activity while he went through a series of meditation practices. In these he developed concentration, then compassion, devotion fearlessness and the open state of dzogchen, as well I as practicing visualization.

   The abbot of a leading Tibetan monastery registered the highest activity in the brain centers associated with positive emotions that had ever been measured.

The fMRI showed changes in Oser’s brain activity as he switched meditations. The EEG showed that during the meditation on compassion his brain activity shifted dramatically to the left. The underlying theory is that, in people who are stressed or depressed, the right frontal cortex of the brain is overactive and the left frontal cortex under-active. Such people sometimes show heightened activation of the amygdala, a key center for processing fear. But habitually calm and happy people show greater activity in the left frontal cortex, produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, recover faster from negative events and have higher levels of certain immune cells.

Following these initial tests a string of experienced Buddhist practitioners were tested at the Wisconsin lab. The abbot of a leading Tibetan monastery registered the highest activity in the brain centers associated with positive emotions that had ever been measured.

To assess whether similar results could be achieved by new meditators and those outside a religious context, Davidson joined forces with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is well-known for teaching mindfulness meditation to those with chronic or terminal illnesses. Their team recruited stressed-out volunteers from a local biotechnology firm. The volunteers were all tested with EEGs at the outset, and then separated into two groups — 25 into the meditation group and 16 into the “control” group.

The meditators took an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation developed by Kabat-Zinn, then both meditators and “control” volunteers were tested again. They were also given a ‘flu shot and had blood tests to check for antibody response. Four months later they all had EEG tests again. The meditators’ brains showed a pronounced shift in activity toward the left frontal lobe, while the non-meditators’ brains did not. The meditators also had more robust responses to ‘flu jabs.

   fMRl scans suggest that the configurations of meditators’ brains can differ from those of non-meditators

The fMRl scans, which offer a detailed image of the brain, even suggest that the configurations of meditators’ brains can differ from those of non-meditators. Scientists already knew that areas of the brain controlling any particular activity develop the more an individual participates in it. In the case of mindfulness meditation, preliminary findings indicate that it strengthens the neurological circuits around the amygdala, suggesting that meditators create a buffer against the instinctively generated messages of fear and panic.

In a separate study, Paul Ekman of San Francisco’s Human Interaction Laboratory, assessed meditators’ ability to detect another’s moods by measuring their response to involuntary changes in facial muscles. These spontaneous shifts – which can be as fleeting as one 20th of a second – are tell-tale indicators of our true feelings, and without training most people have little ability to detect them.

Yet when Dr. Ekman tested two Tibetan practitioners, one scored perfectly on reading three of six emotions, and the other scored perfectly on four. An American teacher of Buddhist meditation got a perfect score on all six. Overall these experienced Buddhists performed better than any other group — even the previous best performers: secret service agents.This suggests increased perceptiveness and sensitivity to other people’s thoughts and emotions.

   A real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation

Another test performed by Ekman measured the “startle reflex” involuntary muscle spasms in response to a loud noise or alarming sight. Ordinarily, no-one can control these responses but, when Oser was exposed to an extremely loud noise while in an open-state meditation, his startle response virtually disappeared.

Ekman was amazed: “This is a spectacular accomplishment. We have no idea of the anatomy that would allow him to suppress that startle reflex.” The monk himself commented, “If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky.”

Before ordinary Buddhists grow self-congratulatory, we might ask how our brain waves would measure up to the lamas’? Nonetheless, these results offer a new way of envisaging the effects of meditation. For Owen Flanagan, “Buddhist … practitioners are deeply in touch with their glowing left prefrontal cortex and their becalmed amygdala.” Scientific findings also suggest secular applications for meditation, for example as part of medical treatment.

These research programs are still in their infancy, and further results will give a fuller picture of the effects of meditation on the brain. But even when there is more data, could this research “prove” the Buddha’s teaching? That would be going too far. Writing in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama comments, “I have great respect for science. But scientists, on their own, cannot prove Nirvana. Science shows there are practices that can make a difference between a happy life and a miserable life. A real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation.”

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention

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Bid for freedom

man playing poker

Is it possible to combine spiritual practice with professional poker, to remain detached and equanimous in the midst of a game full of bluffing, where the aim is to take away other people’s money? In 2005 Vishvapani talked this over with Andrew Black, one of the world’s finest poker players — and a devout Buddhist.

The World Series of Poker at Binions Casino in Las Vegas is down to its last five players. After eleven days at the table, little sleep, and ferocious competition, they are the last survivors of the five thousand people who each paid $10,000 to enter this no-limit hold ’em tournament. The winner will walk away with $7.5 million.

Behind designer shades and $21 million in chips sits Irishman Andy Black, nicknamed The Monk following his five years out of the game living a Buddhist life in the U.K. with the Triratna Buddhist Community. With a million in chips already bet on this hand, Steve Dannenmann, another of the five players, pushes forward his entire stock: “All in,” he says. Black lifts his sunglasses and studies the board. “I call.” He matches the huge bet on the table and the players reveal their cards.

Black has a pair of nines, which gives him the edge over Dannenmann’s pair of sixes and ace high, but there are two more cards to be played. The next card helps nobody. Now only an ace or a six on the last card can beat him. The dealer turns the card… and it’s another ace; Black loses the hand and his position is destroyed. A few hours later he finally exits the tournament to a standing ovation from the crowd, who have been captivated by his skill and demeanor. Black has won $1.75 million, but he has lost a tournament that was almost in his grasp, and, visibly upset, he refuses all media interviews.

 Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker, but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice.   

A few weeks after his Vegas exit, I traveled to Dublin to discover why he has returned to the game he had left behind, and how he squares it with his dharma practice. What about the manipulative mind games, the lives ruined by gambling, and the focus on winning money and defeating your opponents? What about the sheer, unabashed vulgarity at the end of the tournament, when millions of dollars were emptied onto the table and gleefully clutched by the whooping victor?

Such high-minded criticisms are a sore point for Black. The day before we met, he received a letter from the man who was to have ordained him into the Western Buddhist Order. It said that he couldn’t get behind Black’s ordination request while he was playing poker. Sitting down to talk in a Dublin restaurant, Black is upset. The thirty-eight-year-old is far from the image of reserved, poker-faced cool: his open, expressive face and expansive manner are set off by sharp eyes and a diabolic goatee. He opens a book to a quote from the ancient Buddhist scripture describing the lay bodhisattva Vimalakirti: “He lived at home but remained aloof from the realm of desire. He made his appearance at the fields of sports and the casinos, but his aim was always to mature those people who were addicted to games and gambling.”

Black looks at me with a flash of defiance. “I used to think, ‘I can’t do that because I am not an enlightened master.’ But look at the mahasiddhas. We like to tell stories about these wild, aggressive tantric masters who do crazy things. Well, they’re dead! If someone tries to do that today, you get this reaction!”

I haven’t come here to judge Black or to determine the ethics of poker: I know that competition poker is a sport, though it connects with a wider world of gambling. I can see its appeal as a contest that demands no athletic prowess and sets people against one another in a battle of minds plus chance. But I am fascinated to know, in the face of Black’s protests, how a dharma practitioner can survive in that world. I can’t help but wonder if he is simply succumbing to attachments and encouraging them in others.

One day I looked around a poker table and thought, We’re all hungry ghosts.

Black has had a long journey to get here. Growing up as a Catholic in a Protestant area of Belfast at the height of the Troubles, he had few friends, worked hard, and went to Trinity College, Dublin, to study law. Then he discovered poker. “I was submerged in poker: I would bring conversations around to it and hone my skills by trying to outwit people in daily interactions.” His early career culminated at the 1997 World Championship, where he got down to the last fourteen and was sitting at the table with Stu “The Kid” Ungar, reputedly the greatest-ever card player. Ungar lavished Black with attention — and then took his chips. Black had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. He was devastated. Four months later, he made his way to the Dublin Meditation Center. Initially he hoped that meditation would improve his game, but the teachings he encountered began to resonate on a deeper level for him.

Still haunted by his defeat, Black realized that poker was making him unhappy. “One day I looked around a poker table and thought, ‘We’re all hungry ghosts'” — the craving-filled beings from Buddhist mythology whose grasping is perpetually frustrated. In 1999, Black moved to the U.K. to live with other Buddhists from Triratna and work in Windhorse Trading, a large Triratna-run “Right Livelihood” business that offers supportive, shared working conditions for dharma practitioners. Then he spent two years going door to door asking for regular donations to the Karuna Trust, a charity supporting projects in India that help people considered “untouchables,” many of whom are now Buddhist converts. Rather than manipulating prospective donors, he found he attracted contributions by being straightforward and making a connection with them.

Black sees this as a training period in which he learned about the dharma, meditation, and teamwork. But the pull of poker remained: “I learned a lot about myself, and I was happy to be away from it. But something in me was unmet. Returning to poker, I feel that this is really my life. I’ll be honest: I’m obsessed by it, but that obsession brings a lot of focus, which you need in order to excel at anything. If I bring in my spiritual training, I believe this can be a powerful arena for practice.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling. “I intensively prepare tactics and analysis before a game, but when I’m playing I just try to be in the present moment. All poker is about making good decisions. I find I make wrong decisions when I act out of tune with my gut sense of how things are: what this person is like, their situation at this moment, and the element of chance. My experience of Buddhist practice means that I also include how I am, how I am treating the other players, and how I respond to both winning and losing. You can disregard that feeling, just like in life, but in poker you get immediate payback. It’s always the same lesson: when your actions are not in accordance with how things are, you suffer.”

Losing is one of poker’s hard lessons. As well as being highly intelligent, Black is a clearly a very emotional man. “Because of the element of chance, you can do everything right and still lose. You get hit by unbelievable body blows, which are dictated by statistical probabilities. I work with this by saying, ‘This will happen.'”

I ask what it was like to lose that hand at the World Championship. Black’s face creases: “It was so painful, you have no idea. Afterward, while I was playing, I was trying to hold the pain without being overwhelmed; to remind myself that what had happened is now the past and I am in the present. Even now, I’ll be sitting in meditation turning over the same six or seven hands. That’s my practice.”

Black saw his return to the tables in summer 2005 as a one-year experiment in combining dharma practice and poker. But his unexpected success at the World Championships has made this a high-profile adventure.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling.

In the years since Black left, the game’s popularity has exploded on the Internet and TV, turning it into a multibillion-dollar industry. His exploits were followed around the world, and in Dublin he’s a local celebrity.

Black attracted some attention during the World Championships with an unexpected display of principles. A break in play was called, and when the players returned, one was missing. The announcement of the break had been unclear, and everyone realized that the missing player had simply misunderstood when to return. But the organizers insisted that play recommence and the missing player be eliminated. Incensed, Black protested and tried to enlist the other players’ support. They shifted uncomfortably but kept quiet. Black was in tears — visible to the TV audience — as he stalled for time until the player returned.

The incident prompted admiration and discussion about sportsmanship in poker. The game includes bluffing and deception, but does that mean that, within the rules, anything goes? Black believes that ethics still apply, but not simplistically. “There’s a line, and you know when you step over it. You have to look at each case individually, examine your own motivation, and you still need dialogue and communication to help you understand. I assume that even so I am still making mistakes and engaging in all sorts of rationalizations, but I think that’s a realistic model for trying to act well. It’s different from the view that you should withdraw from the world and purify your motivations before engaging.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players. “Sometimes people try to upset you by being aggressive and insulting. I will say, ‘There’s no need for that.’ The next stage is to say, ‘Is this doing you any good?’ If there is the slightest element of judgment in me, it doesn’t work. I have to connect with the person, and not come from a higher position. I have to genuinely feel ‘I’m concerned that this is doing you no good.’ When I do connect with people in that way, I see their relief that they don’t have to be like this.”

Central to Black’s plan for maintaining the practice dimension during poker tournaments is sharing the experience with his friend Donal Quirke, whom he knows through the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Dublin center. “I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey. I can’t do that on my own. I respond to the image of the Buddha’s disciples heading off two at a time, connecting intensively with each other and going through things together.” In Vegas, Black and Quirke meditated together in the mornings and sometimes read dharma texts during breaks in the tournament.

I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey.

Where Black is an exuberant, commanding personality, Quirke is steady and quiet. He was with Black in Vegas, acting as coach and confidant, discussing the day’s play and how Black’s game could improve. He plans to accompany Black on the World Poker Tour, that will culminate in the 2006 World Championship. As a man clearly steeped in dharma practice, what does Quirke make of the world he is entering? “Vegas is a challenging realm, suffused with ego and greed, and I found those aspects of me were heightened. In the breaks, reading dharma aloud with Andrew, just hearing the words, ‘Thus have I heard,’ was like diving into a pool for both of us. I know it had an orienting effect on Andrew as well. But poker’s fascinating: coming back from Las Vegas, I was watching it on latenight TV. Though of course, you could ask, is anything gained by a group of people sitting around trying to take money off each other?”

I wonder if Quirke thinks Black will be able to sustain his attempt to make poker a practice? His answer is surprising. “There’s my friend Andrew Black, who I’ve known over the years. But in the poker world there’s another person called Andy Black. I think dharma practice is about not trying to control and manipulate, but that isn’t how you win poker tournaments. You need to want to win, and Andy Black is a master of control. But it’s complex. Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker — on his day he’s one of the best in the world — but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice. I don’t think he can just forget Andy Black. He needs to meet this guy, honor him, play the best poker he can, achieve what he can, and then let it go.”

You can’t help liking Black, and I found myself envying him — not so much the money or success, but the intensity of his engagement. As he told me: “One approach to the spiritual life is that you renounce things. Another is to place yourself in the middle of attachments and purify yourself there. We’re all imperfect beings struggling along the path, learning as we go. At some point I’ll find I’ve gone as far as I can in the poker world, but at the moment it’s incredibly exciting. Lets see how I’m doing in a year.”

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“Available Truth: Excursions into Buddhist Wisdom and the Natural World,” by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano

Available Truth Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Nyanasobhano, an American actor/playwright turned Theravadin Buddhist, writes essays and reflections on the Buddhist path that stand well apart from the general run of writing on Buddhism for their sheer literary quality. His first book, Landscapes of Wonder was a triumph of lyrical meditation and close observation of nature. Then came Longing for Certainty, and Available Truth is his third collection. Here he is, at the start of this book, displaying his gifts in evoking the experience of waking up and feeling refreshed:

“In the kitchen a spoon rings faintly against a dish like a notice of some imminent music, and even the familiar smells of breakfast float up to us as if they carry a meaning worth contemplating. Cool air surrounds us as we sit beside a sunlit window and eat, and when we move our hands the air moves, too, in rolling, silent currents. We feel strangely expectant and alive — not restless but simply poised to apprehend whatever wonders may appear.”

Nyanasobhano’s sentences are long but carefully modulated to match the sinews and rhythms of thinking. He has a gift for observing and describing both what he sees and what goes on in his mind as he sees it. But there are also indications, even in this simple passage, that Nyanasobhano intends to do more than simply observe and describe. The peculiar convention of writing from the point of view of “we,” which he does in each of his books and all of the essays in this volume, is a clue to what Nyanasobhano is up to.

Try replacing “we” in that passage with “I” and it becomes a diary; read it with “he” and it is fiction; “you” makes it either colloquial or else a kind of teaching voice. “We” suggests that he is taking the reader along with him as he contemplates his experience, confident that this is most likely ours as well. He is drawing us into a way of thinking that may start with the beauties of nature, but leads quickly to moral and spiritual challenges.

I have mixed feelings about this way of writing, and I suspect that Available Truth will draw mixed responses. Mostly I am an admirer, but when Nyanasobhano’s method does not work it is grating. When his experience and mine diverge the repeated insistence that “we” think this, or “we” do that is patronizing, as when he uses it to extol the life of the monk (him) against the layperson (the rest of us): “Even though we may be laypeople … it is yet uplifting to have something to do with good monks or nuns.” (p.25) That “we” has become a way of is pretending that our experience is the same and drawing us into his views.

But when it does work, as in the chapter on love and compassion, Nyanasobhano’s writing eloquently evoking what he calls “the weather of our life.” “A cool and distant sadness touches us”; “we become aware of a grave and gentle feeling that we might fairly call compassion”; “are we just indulging in a sentimental sadness in the gray, lonely afternoon?” (pp. 34-36). The clear and candid descriptions of his experience offer an entrance into the perspective of someone who is deeply steeped in Buddhist teachings and honestly trying to put them into practice.

Nyanasobhano describes not just his perceptions and the feelings they evoke, but the responses to them that are prompted by his Buddhist practice. That isn’t always an easy combination. What, for example, do you make of this passage?

“A plaintive voice from the window seems now to signify and embody universal sorrow, and a brief rustling in a flower bespeaks unlimited fear and danger. Mosquitoes whining round our ears illustrate the nearness of affliction, and yet remain mosquitoes still — facts and beings of a sensed moment. So symbols and realities mingle, reflecting back and forth the truth of things and making the Dhamma real for us.” (p.178)

I appreciate the subtle mingling of perception and response, but I also want to murmur that Nyanasobhano might do better to just enjoy the evening and stop using it as source material for his reflection. Or else I want him to get past his ponderous circling around experience and speak his conclusions with a bold and confident prophetic “I” like his precursor in American essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But Theravadin monks contemplate nature with the Buddha’s directive ringing in their ears that they must not become attached to what they see. There’s an unavoidable strain in that stance, which fills Available Truth. It’s an inspiring, irritating and bracing read and I heartily recommend that you decide for yourself what you think of it.

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.


VishvapaniVishvapani is writing a biography of the Buddha, to be published in August, 2010 by Quercus. For nine years he edited Dharma Life, (where this article was originally published) a highly-praised Buddhist magazine exploring the encounter of Buddhism and the modern world.

He is now a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK, and he is also the founder of Mindfulness in Action, which offers Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction workshops, as well as mindfulness training and workshops for individuals and organizations. Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist Practice When Things Get Tough, edited by Vishvapani, was published in 2006.

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention


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