Buddhism

What is mindfulness and what can it do for you?

wildmind meditation newsBlayne Pereira, CMI: What is it? Like many buzzwords, it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact (and concise) definition for ‘mindfulness’.

Professor Mark Williams of the University of Oxford, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field, has given a comprehensive description of mindfulness.

“It is a translation of a word that simply means awareness,” he says. “It’s direct, intuitive knowing of what you are doing while you are doing it. It’s knowing what’s going on inside your mind and body, and what’s going on in the outside world as well. Most of the time our attention is not where we intend …

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‘Rebel’ female Buddhist monks challenge Thailand status quo

wildmind meditation newsDenis D. Gray, ABC News: On a rural road just after daybreak, villagers young and old kneel reverently before a single file of ochre-robed women, filling their bowls with rice, curries, fruits and sweets. In this country, it’s a rare sight.

Thailand’s top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks. They can only become white-cloaked nuns, who are routinely treated as domestic servants. Many here believe women are inferior beings who had better perform plenty of good deeds to ensure they will be reborn as men in their future lives.

Yet with the religion beset by lurid scandals, female monastics or “bhikkhunis” are emerging …

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Inviting Mara to tea

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!…
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
—Rumi

One of my favorite stories of the Buddha shows the power of a wakeful and friendly heart. The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who attacked the then bodhisattva Siddhartha Gautama with everything he had: lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Yet, it seems Mara was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

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Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.

When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you, Mara,” and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully driving him away. Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness. We express such wakefulness of heart each time we recognize and embrace our hurts and fears.

Our habit of being a fair weather friend to ourselves—of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched. But just as a relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.

Pema Chödron says that through spiritual practice “We are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.” We befriend ourselves when, rather than resisting our experience, we open our hearts and willingly invite Mara to tea.

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Toward a socially responsible mindfulness

The big news in the Buddhist world recently was a gathering of Buddhist teachers and leaders at the White House – yes, that White House. My heart leaped with joy when I saw photos of members of the group holding up three banners with these words:

The Karma of Slavery is Heavy
I vow to work for racial justice

The Whole Earth is My True Body
I vow to work for climate justice

U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence Not Safety
I vow to work for peace and freedom

The banners were lovingly hand-painted by members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the San Francisco Bay Area. BPF is an organization near and dear to my heart – I worked there for many years, and served as its executive director from 2004 – 2007.

This dharmic-based activism is a good lead-in to something I’ve been intending to write about for a very long time.

Even though I often use the word “mindfulness” to describe the principle at the very foundation of my work, I have to confess that I have a lot of resistance to using the ‘m’ word.

Over the past few years as mindfulness has taken root in the public discourse, I’ve felt grateful that this practice which has long been part of my life is being widely shared and made accessible to many more people. Yet at the same time I am concerned, with others, that its original intention is becoming distorted. We’ve all observed how our capitalist/consumerist culture can take anything and turn it into a commodity.

Many months ago, I had a vision of creating a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto,” a document that I imagined could serve as a rallying point for those of us who hold mindfulness in a larger context and see its potential as a vehicle for personal and collective liberation. Part of the manifesto would be a pledge signed by people who teach mindfulness in secular settings — a vow that we would hold awareness of social and environmental issues as we do this work and not be complicit with unjust conditions.

I thought of a number of people who I deeply respect to be part of a working group on this document and sent them a first draft. I want to especially acknowledge two people who took time to give the document a thorough read and responded with important feedback. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, whom I’ve known since our days working together at BPF, contributed a perspective of inclusivity, reminding me of the importance of writing a document that was relevant to Buddhists from all backgrounds, not just Zen practitioners. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi – a respected Buddhist scholar, Theravadin monk, and founder of Buddhist Global Relief – contributed the gift of integrity. He pointed out places where the document was at odds with the teachings of the Buddha, and helping to contextualize mindfulness both historically and doctrinally.

When the first round of feedback came, I was unsure how to move forward or if it even made sense to continue with this effort. However, the more I considered the insightful comments that were offered, the more I realized that this process might be worth sharing with you. Even if there isn’t a “Socially Responsible Mindfulness Manifesto” to show yet, there is a lot of good thinking about what this might look like and what purpose it can serve. Stay tuned.

And I still passionately believe in the reason for the document in the first place: If mindfulness is indeed a ‘movement,’ I want to be part of a movement that supports people to wake up to the connections between us, that helps us to see that personal stress reduction is not separate from fair wages and safe working conditions, that does not hide from questions about power and privilege.

Both Mushim and I thought it might be beneficial to share the email conversation that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I had about this subject. My thanks to Mushim for putting this in a dialogical format that helps to illustrate the important points. I certainly learned a lot from this engagement!

Maia: For socially-engaged spiritual activists, secular mindfulness practices seem to offer a liberatory potential, in terms of helping to create more embodied and mindful social justice movements. What’s your take on this idea?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: From a Buddhist perspective, “the most emancipatory context” for the practice of mindfulness is one dedicated to the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice—which from the early Buddhist perspective is the attainment of emancipation from sams?ra—and for me it is questionable that the use of mindfulness practice in secular settings has this aim. I don’t begrudge the efforts to find new applications of mindfulness, and I agree that these applications should be bolstered by an ethical framework and used for salutory purposes. But I think one has to be cautious about assuming that these modernist applications are identical with—or even congruent with—the practice of mindfulness in its original context.

Maia: Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally [emphasis mine] to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Some might say that the practice of mindfulness allows us to increase our awareness of aspects of wellness and disease as they manifest within our individual bodies and emotions, and also within our social systems as well. From that place of increased awareness, we are in a better position to take skillful action to address the causes of disease. Do you think that the practice of mindfulness meditation automatically or inevitably leads to social responsibility?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There is the rub: the idea that mindfulness is inherently nonjudgmental. In the Pali texts, mindfulness is always conjoined with the faculty of judgment (dhammavicaya), through which one engages in assessment, evaluation, and discrimination, and thereby endeavors to eliminate what is harmful and to arouse and strengthen what is wholesome and beneficial.

Maia: Because of a cultural tendency to focus on private wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing (a tendency more often present in people with economic and other kinds of privilege), we may overlook one of the teachings of the Buddha: the teaching of interdependence. In the words of Thai Buddhist activist and author Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa,

“Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.”

From our perspective, Buddhadharma was never intended as an escape from reality, rather it is a way of being present to reality. This includes the reality of unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and environmental destruction. Therefore, our understanding of mindfulness in the Buddhist sense is not limited to personal wellbeing; it is inclusive of social, economic, and environmental concerns. What’s your take on this?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Technically, I don’t think this wider sphere of concern is the domain of mindfulness but of its companion, sampajañña, “clear comprehension.”

Maia: Our primary concern is that the concept and practice of mindfulness is all too often co-opted to serve as a diversion from dealing with issues of social, economic, environmental, gender, and racial injustice.

Dr. Funie Hsu (postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis School of Education) eloquently articulates this concern: “The particular brand of mindfulness that is gaining widespread acceptance serves to bolster long-standing systems of power: making them more efficient, potent, and acceptable under the pretext of inner peace.”

We are deeply concerned about this tendency to use secular mindfulness to move away from difficult questions about power and privilege.

It appears to us that mindfulness can be used as a spiritual bypass – or it can be a vehicle to raise awareness of injustice and structural oppression in all its forms, including classism, racism, and sexism. Do you think that mindfulness has the potential to create spaces for authentic (and often difficult) conversations about these realities as well as for meaningful and effective responses to them?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I’m not so sure that the above is the function of mindfulness itself. It seems to me that recognition of these forms of injustice and oppression is incumbent on us as citizens in today’s world, but I’m uncertain whether and to what extent this is actually fostered by mindfulness in the meditative sense. It seems to me that this awareness develops by paying close attention (through active cognitive engagement, not meditatively) to events happening around us. Perhaps mindfulness practice establishes the ground for greater sensitivity and responsiveness in relation to the suffering of others, but I’m not sure that the practice itself “raises awareness” of these things.

The great leaders of social transformation, both in theory and action, for the most part do not practice the meditative mode of mindfulness, and the foremost exponents of meditative mindfulness in a Buddhist setting hardly promote large-scale social transformation. Contrast for example the African American Christian clergy involved in human rights campaigns, or the Christian and Jewish clergy who have led the campaigns against US military involvement around the world, with the Buddhist meditation masters. The former, with perhaps a few exceptions, don’t practice meditative mindfulness, while the latter show only a marginal concern with social justice issues.

Perhaps a type of awareness different from Buddhist meditative mindfulness is what is needed to foster recognition of these issues. Of course, adding meditative mindfulness to the arsenal of techniques may be helpful in some respects, but let’s not assume that it is intrinsically the sufficient antidote. It seems meditative mindfulness can swing either way, even among earnest practitioners: toward or away from greater awareness of justice issues. The catalyst must therefore be something other than mindfulness itself, perhaps an awakening of the sense of conscience and responsibility for the fate of others.

As part of this conversation, Bhikkhu Bodhi showed us a document he created on “Modes of Applied Mindfulness.” He gave his permission for it to be shared, recognizing that it is a work in progress. I am including it here because I find it a very helpful way to see the nuances inherent in bringing mindfulness into diverse domains, and that each mode has its openings and limitations.

Classical

Function: to facilitate insight

Ultimate aim: enlightenment, liberation from birth and death

Problem: may lead to narcissistic self-absorption, indifference to inequities of social- economic institutions and policies and ecological destruction

Secular Therapeutic

Function: to help people deal with physical ailments, psychological traumas and stress, addictions and conflicts, alienation and hopelessness

Ultimate aim: to enable people to become more peaceful, hopeful, equanimous, patient; less reactive, more considerate and compassionate

Problem: people may be conditioned to deal solely with their individual challenges without being moved to confront larger structures of social and economic injustice

Secular instrumental

Function: to help people become more effective in their roles and assignments: more effective as corporate leaders, workers, athletes, students, soldiers, etc.

Ultimate aim: to enhance productivity within the boundaries of existing social and economic institutions

Problem: May acclimatize people to unwholesome roles, sustain corporatist, militaristic, consumerist programs

Socially transformative

Function: as a Buddhist practice, to provide a means of fostering structural transformation toward the social ideals of the Dharma: greater social and economic justice, environmental stability, peace, equality, etc.

Ultimate aim: to promote realization of a just, peaceful society and world

Problem: to ground these ideals on textual sources and develop a theoretical foundation for an ethic of Buddhist engagement in the world.

Possible tensions between this application of mindfulness and its classical role that need exploration and resolution.

Please share your thoughts on “socially responsible mindfulness” in the comments below — do you find this a helpful construct? Not so helpful? If you teach mindfulness practice in secular settings, what’s your take on addressing social justice issues that may arise in the course of your work?

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Mindfulness has lost its Buddhist roots, and it may not be doing you good

wildmind meditation newsMiguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, The Conversation: Mindfulness as a psychological aid is very much in fashion. Recent reports on the latest finding suggested that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective as anti-depressants in preventing the relapse of recurrent depression.

While the authors of the paper interpreted their results in a slightly less positive light, stating that (contrary to their hypothesis) mindfulness was no more effective than medication, the meaning inferred by many in the media was that mindfulness was superior to medication.

Mindfulness is a technique extracted from Buddhism where one tries to notice present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgement. The …

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Eight ways not to think about meditation

wildmind meditation newsBarry Morris, The Practical Buddhist: In Zen, meditation is about sitting, standing, or walking in total awareness. Steve Hagen, Lead teacher at the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, MN and author of the best book on meditation I’ve ever read, Meditation Now or Never, puts it this way:

“Meditation, and it’s Japanese translation ‘Zen,’ is the practice of awareness, openness, and direct experience of here and now.

That’s what we need to know about meditation. It’s not about becoming more relaxed, healthy or even enlightened. In fact, the moment we think we’re going to get something out of meditation, we take ourselves …

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125 U.S. Buddhist leaders to meet at the White House

wildmind meditation newsMichelle Boorstein, Washington Post: Are we about to enter the era of the political Buddhist?

On Thursday about 125 U.S. Buddhist leaders from across the spectrum will gather in Washington for what organizers say may be the biggest conference ever focused on bringing their faith communities into public, civic life. After the conference, the group will meet with officials at the White House, which longtime writers on U.S. Buddhism say is a first.

The daylong conference represents, some experts say, the start of a civic awakening not only among U.S. Buddhists, …

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Study finds being exposed to Buddhist concepts reduces prejudice and increases prosociality

wildmind meditation news

Eric W. Dolan, PsyPost: Researchers from Belgium and Taiwan have found that being exposed to Buddhist concepts can lead to increased prosocial behavioral intentions and undermine prejudice towards others.

Buddhism contains a variety of teachings and practices – such as meditation – intended to help individuals develop a more open-minded and compassionate personality. Unlike the three dominant monotheistic religions, it does not draw a sharp line between believers and unbelievers.

In three separate experiments of 355 individuals, the researchers found that being exposed to words related to Buddhism could “automatically activate prosociality and tolerance, in particular among people with socio-cognitive open-mindedness.”

The study adds to a growing body of research about priming, a phenomenon in which merely being exposed to certain words or concepts changes the way people think or behave. It was published in the April issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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When Westerners familiar with Buddhism read religious words like “Dharma” and “Nirvana” – which they were exposed to under the guise of completing a word puzzle – they reported lower negative attitudes toward outgroups compared to participants exposed to positive non-religious words like “freedom.”

Westerners with a Christian background also became more tolerant after being exposed to Buddhist concepts, though only among those with a predisposition for valuing the welfare of all people and an aversion towards authoritarianism. Implicit association tests showed that these participants were less prejudiced against African people and Muslims than participants exposed to Christian concepts or neutral concepts.

Westerners with a Christian background also scored higher on measures of prosociality after being exposed to Buddhist concepts. Surprisingly, participants did not score higher on measures of prosociality after being exposed to Christian concepts.

The effect of being exposed to Buddhist concepts was not restricted to cultures in which the religion was seen as particularly exotic, the researchers said. Being exposed to Buddhist concepts also fostered increased tolerance and prosociality, compared with neutral and Christian concepts, among participants living in Taiwan.

“To conclude, we think that this work provides, for the first time, experimental evidence in favor of the idea that in both the East and the West, across people from both Christian and Eastern Asian religious traditions, Buddhist concepts automatically activate positive social behavioral outcomes, that is, prosociality and low prejudice, in particular among people with personal dispositions of socio-cognitive openness,” the researchers wrote.

“Unlike Christian and other monotheistic religious systems that paradoxically seem to encourage not only prosociality but also prejudice, Buddhist ideas favor both prosociality and outgroup tolerance, and these ideals seem particularly efficient (in leading to action) for people with relevant personality dispositions.”

“Emotional (compassion) and cognitive (tolerance of contradictions) mechanisms explain, to some extent, how Buddhist concepts, across cultural and religious contexts, enhance prosocial and tolerant attitudes and behavioral tendencies. Religious and cultural characteristics ‘travel’ and influence people’s attitudes and behavior in a globalized world even at the implicit level of consciousness,” the researchers concluded.

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Does Hawaii represent the future of religion in the US?

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This fascinating map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (click to enlarge) shows the second largest religious tradition in each of the states of the US. Buddhism is in second place in 13 states. Hawaii, with a large population of Japanese descent, perhaps isn’t a surprise. California is perhaps incapable of giving surprises. Alaska? I did not see that coming.

Of course it probably doesn’t take much for a religion to be in second place in the US. Christianity, as you’d expect, is the majority religion in every state. Another resource shows that the percentage of the population identifies as Buddhist in each of these states is in the order of 1% to 2% — although this map doesn’t include Hawaii, where estimates of the percentage of Buddhists range from 6% to 9%. It’s striking that in Hawaii, only 29% of the population identifies as Christian, and 51% are unaffiliated.

Nationally less than 1% of the population is Buddhist, according to Pew Research.

I wonder what this map will look like 100 years from now? My guess would be that Christianity will still be the majority religion, but with a much smaller majority, many more non-believers, and some states with up to 10% of the population practicing some form of Buddhism. I’m convinced that Buddhism is the religion of the future, being practical, compatible  (in essence) with a rational approach to the world, flexible, and offering a wide variety of approaches to spirituality.

In fact, I think that the future of religion in the US looks very much like Hawaii.

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The realm of giving and generosity

The specific meaning of “dana” is giving, which is related to the quality of “caga” (in Pali), or generosity. The one involves doing, while the other involves being.

While this distinction is useful in its comprehensiveness, in actuality generosity and giving, being and doing, are intertwined and inextricable. Being is itself a kind of doing, as you cannot help but radiate certain qualities out into the world. And every doing – at each endlessly disappearing and regenerating instant of NOW – is a microscopic slice of being.

Giving and generosity can be expressive or restrained. For example, we might give to our child or someone else we love fondness and affection (expressive), and we might also give the holding of our temper or our hand in anger (restrained).

The essence of generosity is that we give outside the framework of a tight, reciprocal exchange. Yes, we may give the coffee guy $2.50 for a latte, and we may trade back rubs with our partner, but neither is particularly generous in its own right. On the other hand, tossing the change from $3 into the tip jar is indeed generous, as would be doing an extra great job on that back rub when it’s your turn.

While “dana” often means something fairly narrow and specific – alms for a monk or nun, or donation to a teacher – in the broadest sense, we are generous and giving whenever we be or do in the territory these words point to:

Serve
Contribute
Donate, grant, award, bestow, make a gift of, bequeath Praise, acknowledge
Love, care, like
Sacrifice, relinquish
Devote, dedicate
Be altruistic
Forgive
Forbear, restrain yourself for the sake of others

Let’s consider some concrete examples; you give whenever you:

Pat an arm in friendship, sympathy, or encouragement
Put money – or a banana or chocolate – in the donation bowl
Relax your position and open up to the viewpoint of another person
Offer anything out upon the internet or in a newsletter, etc.
Try to help someone
Wave someone ahead of you in line
Try to cheer someone up
Make a gift
Write a thank you note
Love
Listen patiently when you’d rather be doing something else
Cultivate qualities in yourself that will benefit others
Change a diaper – at either end of the lifespan
Give some money to a homeless person
Express gratitude or appreciation
Vote
Volunteer your time
Tell somebody about something great

In particular, you are generous whenever you “give no man or woman cause to fear you” – in other words, when you live in a virtuous, moral way. In Buddhism, the Five Precepts are the common, practical guide to ethical conduct: do not kill, steal, lie, intoxicate yourself, or cause harm through your sexuality. Quoting Bhikkhu Bodhi, referring to the Anguttara Nikaya: “By [the meticulous observance of the Five Precepts], one gives fearlessness, love and benevolence to all beings. If one human being can give security and freedom from fear to others by his behavior, that is the highest form of dana one can give, not only to mankind, but to all living beings.

Last, perhaps as an antidote to the too-common practice of treating those closest to us the worst of all, the Buddha stressed the importance of honoring and caring for one’s parents, one’s spouse and children, and one’s employees and dependents. For example, in one sutta (discourse), offering hospitality to one’s relatives is one of the great auspicious deeds a layperson can perform.

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