faith

The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment

Scientific pentagram diagram

Buddhism is full of lists: the three trainings, the four foundations of mindfulness, the five skandhas, the eightfold path, the twelve-fold dependent origination, the 37 limbs of awakening, and so forth. Often these lists are presented in a rather static way, as if we’re just being offered an overview of some area of life. So the four foundations, for example, are often described as simply being four aspects of our experience that we can be mindful of, and the five skandhas as simply a way to break down the idea of a unified self.

The five spiritual faculties

One such list is the five faculties, or five spiritual faculties, as it’s often termed. If you aren’t familiar with the five spiritual faculties, they’re a very common teaching. They are faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. They tend, as I’ve suggested is often the case, to be presented as if they just are, or as if they are five things we simply need to develop in order to become awakened. That’s how they’re often presented in the scriptures, as in the following:

A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment. What five? The faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

My impression of the Buddha is that he wasn’t really interested in providing overviews, but that he was instead very interested in how things work. He had a mind that was perhaps a bit like an engineer’s. His teaching on dependent origination, for example, is all about how one thing provides conditions for another arising and that to another, each of those conditions leading to a greater sense of freedom and joy. So when I see Buddhist lists one of my first thoughts is, how might the items on that list work together as a dynamic system.

The five spiritual faculties as a dynamic system

As it happens, when I was doing some background reading for writing this article, I found that there’s a relatively early text that does just this with the five spiritual faculties. In one Sanskrit commentarial work, “The Discourse on the Analysis of Topics” (or Arthaviniscaya Sutra) they’re presented as a dynamic series, with each of the factors building on the previous one. Although this text is called a “sutra,” a term usually reserved for records of things the Buddha and his disciples said, the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics is actually a commentarial text. It was created by monks a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, as they tried to explain some of the teachings found in the actual scriptures. And in the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics the five spiritual faculties are described as contributing, step by step, to the development of the skillful qualities needed for awakening to take place.

Here’s how that works:

  1. The faculty of faith is an awareness of the possibility of practicing in order to be happier.
  2. The faculty of vigor allows us to actually practice and develop skillful qualities.
  3. The faculty of mindfulness helps us to preserve and maintain those skillful qualities.
  4. The faculty of concentration allows us to stay focused on those skillful qualities.
  5. And finally the faculty of wisdom allows us to “penetrate and reflect on the birth” of those things, and thus to develop insight.

This early text tries to show the five spiritual faculties as working together as a system. And the explanation makes sense, although I’ll shortly show another way of looking at how they can work together.

The five spiritual faculties, moment by moment

Recently I taught a class in a local Buddhist center where I explained how the five spiritual faculties can work, moment by moment, working together more or less simultaneously, in order to help us move from unskillful to skillful states of mind, from states of mind that cause suffering to states of mind that are imbued with a sense of peace, calm, and even joy.

So let’s say that we experience anger, and see how the five spiritual faculties function. Because they work together in a simultaneous way, we could deal with them in any order.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the activity of observing our experience. Without mindfulness no practice can take place, which is why I prefer to start with its role. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see that anger has arisen. So rather than simply being angry, now we’re aware that we’re angry.

These days there’s a tendency to see mindfulness as the only spiritual quality we need. But really it’s nothing more than simply observing. In itself it does nothing, which is why we also need the other spiritual faculties.

2. Wisdom

Often (especially in a Buddhist context) we might think about wisdom as an enlightened quality, as seeing reality as it really is, as something that arises at the end of the path and that we’ve yet to gain. But early Buddhism saw wisdom as consisting also of a very mundane form of understanding spiritual truths. For example, understanding that “There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds” are forms of wisdom.

So, in our example of being angry, our mindfulness tells us that anger is present. Wisdom tells us that this anger isn’t good for us and will likely lead to our suffering. Our wisdom also knows that there are alternatives to anger — curiosity, patience, kindness, and so on — that will make us happier in both the short and long terms.

3. Faith

Faith in Buddhism is not blind belief. It’s more like a sense of confidence and clarity. It’s from a root that literally means “to place the heart upon.” So we can know on some level that anger is going to cause problems for us, but on some other level believe that we need anger to get what we want. So our confidence in our practice is compromised.

But as we continue to mindfully observe actions and consequences unfolding in our lives, and with wisdom to see how those things are connected to each other, we can start to have more confidence that letting go of anger, and instead practicing things like curiosity, patience, and kindness, has both short- and long-term benefits.

So in this example, we’ve now mindfully noticed that anger is present, have wisely seen that anger causes suffering, and now, with faith, have confidence that some alternative to anger is more appropriate. Now, coming from the heart, there’s a desire for change. But we still haven’t actually acted.

4. Vigor

Vigor is virya, also sometimes rendered as “energy.” This is the faculty of taking action. So, now that we have confidence that non-anger is preferable to anger, we now act. We can act by letting go: we might have angry thoughts or be speaking angry words, and we simply let go of those. We can act by opening up to the possibility of acting in ways that are more helpful than anger, so that we have a sense that curiosity, patience, and kindness are there, waiting in the wings, ready to be activated. And some actions involve actually bringing those skillful qualities into being. We speak kindly or apologetically, for example. Or we empathetically try to understand a person we’re angry with.

5. Concentration

Concentration is samadhi, which comes from a root meaning something like “bringing together” or “holding together.” It refers to the mind being unified around one purpose.

Often when we hear the word “concentration” we think of a narrow focus, but that’s not necessarily what samadhi is about. Samadhi is more about having an absence of internal conflict, and therefore continuity of mindfulness.

So, in our example of dealing with anger, our concentration can mean keeping up a sustained effort to respond skillfully. As we all know, that’s difficult to do. There are parts of the mind that want to be angry and that see anger as solving our problems. And those parts of us can be very persistent, and can come back over and over again and hijack our attention. This is why maintaining concentration is necessary. So that’s one thing that concentration can mean in this instance.

But it can also refer to the state of mind that emerges from mindfulness, wisdom, faith, and vigor. As we continue to give priority to the wiser parts of our mind, the more reactive parts become weaker. They’re less able to affect us. They’re less able to control us. We’re less likely to do things we regret by acting unskillfully. And so, over time, we experience less inner conflict. The mind is more harmonized, more (to coin a word) samadhic.

But although I started to talk in that last paragraph about the long-term functioning of the five spiritual faculties, what I want to emphasize is how they function moment by moment, and how they’re intrinsic to every act of skillful change that we bring about. They function together, supporting each other, very time we work with an unhelpful or destructive habit. And as we exercise them over and over again in this way — at least if we do this in a half-way consistent way — they become stronger. So when the scriptures say something like “A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment,” this is what they’re talking about: change, taking place moment by moment, and those acts of change developing habits that help liberate us from suffering.

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“Trust in the Dharma”

At one of the online meditation sessions the other day we were talking about the powerful attraction of social media. Many people find the lure of social media to be so strong that it’s virtually an addiction. And in fact the designers of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have invested massive amounts of money into finding ways to keep us hooked.

Research shows that social media make us unhappy and that we’re more content without them. Yet we still keep picking up our phones. Social media sucks us in because of our insatiable attraction for novelty. They suck us in because people “liking” or commenting on what we’ve shared gives us a sense of validation . And it’s hard to leave, because there’s always one more thing we can look at and interact with. The hope that this one more thing might be more interesting than what we’ve just seen is what keeps us on the hook.

And this constant manipulation of our attention has a bad effect on us. We find ourselves no longer able to abide moments when there’s nothing to do, no information to scroll through. I see people in the supermarket check-out lines and virtually every single one of them is staring at a screen. I see people waiting at a drive-through coffee shop, and virtually every one of them is glued to their phone. Even while we’re brushing our teeth or using the toilet, we feel bored and find ourselves picking up our phones. Apparently daydreaming is a lost art.

We get so accustomed to consuming information in small bursts that many people report they can no longer focus well enough to read a book. This is especially hard when we’re reading on an electronic device, where the sirens digitally calling to us are just a click or swipe of the screen away. Concentration is a lost art too.

How can we learn to say no?

I’ve pretty much quit social media now (I have a Twitter account I don’t use and I have a business Facebook account but don’t use a personal account). But back in the days when I struggled with social media addiction I found a very simple and powerful tool that helped me to put my phone down and stop Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey from manipulating my attention.

It’s just three words: “Trust the Dharma.”

Those words have resonance and meaning for me that perhaps they don’t have for you, so let me unpack this.

“Trust the Dharma”

The “Dharma” is a word that can mean “teachings” — in this case the Buddha’s teachings. It can mean “truth.” It can mean “principle.” The Buddha recognized that his own formulations were just an illustration of general principles that lead us from suffering to finding peace and fulfillment. Those general principles are Dharma. When his aunt, who was a nun, wanted a brief teaching before going off on a solitary retreat, he said to her:

When you see that certain things
lead to contentment, not to craving;
to being free, not to being fettered;
to letting go of things, not accumulating them;
to having fewer desires, not more;
to contentment, not discontent;
to seclusion, not socializing;
to energy, not laziness;
to being easy to be with, not to being hard to be with,
You can with certainty hold, ‘These things are
the Dharma, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.’

Reminding ourselves of spiritual principles

A simple moment of mindfulness helps us move toward calmness. Paying attention to just one breath helps to calm the mind a little. A single kind thought helps us to be more at peace with ourselves and others. Observing a feeling without judgement creates a sacred pause in which wisdom can arise. These are principles that we can trust.

And so in saying to myself, “Trust the Dharma” I’m reminding myself of those principles.

I’m saying to myself:

  • “Trust yourself. You’re OK without looking at your phone.”
  • “Trust that you’re happier without Facebook right now.”
  • “Trust that this moment, if observed and accepted, holds everything you need in order to be fulfilled and at peace.”

All this, and much more, is contained in those three simple words, “Trust the Dharma.”

Evolution versus the Dharma

We need to remind ourselves of these spiritual principles because we so easily forget them. Our evolutionary history has equipped us with principles that are totally in contradiction to Dharma. Primitive parts of the brain operate on the principle that we need to constantly worry in order to be safe, that we should look after ourselves at the expense of others, and that attack is the best form of defense. Less primitive, but still ancient, parts of the brain tell us that belonging to and being accepted by a tribe is the key to happiness, even if this means joining in with their hatred for other tribes and subjugating our own individuality in order to fit in. They tell us that more is better, and that we should therefore scroll, scroll, scroll our way down those screens, until we find satisfaction.

The pressing urgency of all those genetically scripted imperatives can swamp our awareness of those Dharmic principles. So we need to keep reminding ourselves that they exist. And because Dharmic principles and the programming we’ve inherited often conflict, we have to remind ourselves to trust them. We need to keep reminding ourselves to “trust the Dharma.” Trusting the Dharma is something we have to learn, slowly, over years and decades.

Boredom is the trigger

This phrase, “Trust the Dharma” is triggered by that familiar sense that I’m restless, and afraid of being bored, and therefore want to pick up my phone. And every single time that happens I feel a sense of confidence and calm descend upon me. I trust that mindfully paying attention to my present-moment experience is going to be enough. I trust that standing in line at the supermarket checkout, without touching my phone, is going to be pleasurable. I trust that simply breathing, simply noticing what thoughts and feelings are arising, simply turning my mind to kindness will lead me to calm, joy, and kindness.

It works for me, every single time.

I wonder how it will work for you?

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“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” — St. Julian of Norwich

This was revealed to St. Julian by Jesus in a vision, and recorded by her in her Revelations of Divine Love: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” These words have been of great comfort to me in times of stress and anxiety.

Meditation practice can reduce, but doesn’t erase, anxiety. In fact meditating makes us more sensitive to what’s going on within us, both emotionally and physically. When we meditate we feel more. Meditating can also lead to us being more present with those feelings, so rather than than avoid or bury them we experience them full-on. In these ways, meditation can cause our anxiety to be stronger!

If this sounds like bad news, it should be balanced by the fact that meditation also gives us the ability to stand back from our anxiety and to befriend it, so that it becomes less threatening and is less likely to lead to worry.

(What’s the difference between anxiety and worry? I see anxiety as being an initial unpleasant feeling in the body, produced by parts of the brain that are not accessible to conscious awareness. Worry, on the other hand, is where the mind responds to this initial unpleasant feeling with a succession of “what if” thoughts, that again and again turn toward what we’re anxious about, and in doing so intensify our anxiety.)

Sometimes I can be with my anxiety mindfully. I can accept it. I can recognize that I don’t have to turn it into worry. And to prevent my mind getting caught up in worrying thoughts, I can keep myself grounded in my experience of the body. I can especially be aware of sensations low down in the body, like the movements of the belly or sensations of contact with the ground, my seat, or whatever else is physically supporting me. I can relax the physical tension that accompanies anxiety and worry by really letting go on the out-breath. I can offer my anxiety (or the anxious part of my mind) reassurance and kindness. I can say to it, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at peace.” The point here is not to make the anxiety go away, but to be a compassionate presence for it while it’s in existence.

But there are times when I turn to those words of St. Julian (or of Jesus, depending on your perspective).

One thing they remind me of is that all things pass. I’ve had intense worries in the past. I remember one time being in utter despair because of financial problems (although really those fears were more to do with concern that I wouldn’t get support from others). I even had some suicidal thoughts, although I knew I had no intention of following through on them. But where are those particular financial problems now? The debt I was struggling with at that time has just gone. (I may have new debts, but they are new, and not a continuation of the same problem I had before.) Where is the isolation that I feared before? That’s gone too. Where is the anxiety I experienced in the past? It’s no more than a memory, and not even a very vivid one. I can recall feeling despair, but in recollecting it I feel compassion for my old self rather than falling into despondent once again. The past is gone. Memories are just thoughts. They’re like dreams or mirages.

So even though there are things going on in my life right now that prompt anxiety to arise — health concerns, housing concerns, financial concerns — I know that from the perspective of my future self they too are going to have a dream-like or mirage-like quality. And so I can remind myself, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian had been concerned with the question of sin: why did God allow it, since if he hadn’t then all would have been well from the beginning. The reason is to do with sin, pain, and faith. Sin, she tells us, is another kind of mirage: “I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being.” She did believe that the experience of pain was real, however, even if it was impermanent. “Nor could sin be known but by the pain it is cause of. And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time.”

The value of pain, in Julian’s view, was that it could cause faith to arise. It causes us to reach out to God. Had we not had sin, and therefore not had pain, then we would, in some sense, have been god-like. And so God allowed sin.

Buddhism doesn’t use the word “sin,” but it does say that our pain is caused by spiritual ignorance. And one key manifestation of this ignorance is that we see things that “hath no manner of substance” as being real and substantial. And as in Julian’s view, it is pain (dukkha) that impels us to seek happiness and peace — that drives us toward awakening.

Julian’s view of “sin” was quite remarkable, and it would be misleading not to point out her belief that because God allowed sin to exist, he therefore shows no blame to any who shall be saved. We don’t, after all, choose to have spiritual ignorance, or to be born with sin.

To Julian, “all shall be well” because we’ll find God in heaven. To me, “all shall be well” not just because pain will pass, but because we’ll awaken to the nature of reality, and will see that pain itself (such as the pain of anxiety) “hath no manner of substance.”

Anxiety isn’t just dream-like or mirage-like when we look back on it from the future. It has those illusory qualities right now, whether we see that or not. Right now, when we look closely at our anxiety, we’ll see that it’s not really there. It’s just patterns of sensation in space. When we can see our experience in that way, then “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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Mindfulness is something worse than just a smug middle-class trend

wildmind meditation news

Separating meditation from faith is a dubious business, morally and sometimes in its effects

Melanie McDonagh, The Spectator: The chances are that by now either you or someone you know well has begun to practise ‘mindfulness’ — a form of Buddhism lite, that focuses on meditation and ‘being in the now’. In the past year or so it’s gone from being an eccentric but harmless hobby practised by contemporary hippies to a new and wildly popular pseudo–religion; a religion tailor-made for the secular West.

Think how hostile an awful lot of companies are to organised religion; to any talk of ‘faith’. Now consider that in both America and the UK, it’s probably easier to count on your fingers the number of institutions that aren’t engaging in ‘mindfulness’ than those that are; giving ‘mindfulness’ teachers special spaces to have classes and encouraging staff to take part.

The mindful include Google, Kensington and Chelsea council, the European Central Bank and the US Marines. The NHS is funding mindfulness sessions for depression as an alternative to pharmaceutical interventions. There’s an all-party mindfulness group in parliament, which Ruby Wax helped launch. Richard Layard, Britain’s ‘happiness guru’, is all for it. Madeleine Bunting has suggested in the Guardian that it should be mandatory in schools. Indeed, if you find yourself on a train with a fellow traveller gazing at you benevolently, it’s possible that they’re not insane but just radiating mindful compassion.

It’s been touted as a cure for pretty well everything, from depression, stress, anxiety and chronic pain to eczema. And for those who can’t manage the group sessions, there’s a handy app called HeadSpace which enables you to do mindfulness on the go from your smartphone and now offers a bespoke service. The app was invented by Andy Puddicombe, a fortysomething former Buddhist monk with a degree in circus arts. According to the New York Times,‘Puddicombe is doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food.’ Certainly mindfulness is doing for Puddicombe what food has done for Jamie Oliver, because he’s now worth about £25 million.

So what exactly is mindfulness? On the back of a week of sessions, I can assert with some confidence that it’s about being very much in the present moment. You’re encouraged to become aware of your breathing, your body and your surroundings. Plus you’re meant to view people and things in a compassionate, non-judgmental spirit. Think meditation, think Buddhism, and you’re there, so long as you don’t forget the breathing.

It’s ubiquitous, non-invasive and involves sitting quietly and not judging anyone. Guided, communal meditation, let’s say. Anyway, you may be thinking, what do you actually do when you’re being mindful? What actually happens? Well, normally you sit in a semi-circle in a group — anything from five or so to a couple of dozen of you, though some sessions led by the gurus of the movement can muster hundreds. It’ll be a nice quiet place, possibly with candles. Most sessions start off with an exploration of how stressed we all are. The teacher fills a chart with examples — your Tube journey? Your week at work? — and invites participants to stick up their hands if they’re stressed. Everyone does. Then there may be a bit of neurology with diagrams on the chart, showing how we’re all using the fight-or-flight bit of our brain inappropriately, as opposed to the new neurological pathways we can make by reprogramming our brains to chill out through meditation. Then there’s the conscious breathing. It may be preceded by contemplating a leaf or a glass of water before you start focusing on your breath coming in and going out. At which point, as Dorothy Parker would say, you find me and Morpheus in the corner, necking. But the routine varies. At one session, one girl, invited to imagine herself as a tree, plaintively cried: ‘Please can I not be a tree? I was dreading on the way here that I’d have to be a tree.’

Then we share our experiences. Finally we get round to compassion. In one slightly unsettling session, we were invited to pick a person to project compassion at. I selected the Turkish lady opposite; she looked a little uneasy. At another class we were invited to recite: ‘May I/you be well; be happy; be free from suffering’ — and we concluded by saying it for someone we dislike. I would have been fine, in a love-your-enemy way, if the teacher hadn’t declared that the person she really hated was Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary. Which was a bit rich in a practice meant to teach you to go easy on judgmentalism.

That’s the format, then, and the heart of it is sitting in silence, thinking about your breath going in and out. I must say I’m not very good at this sort of thing. I’m the most judgmental person I know. My mind hops about like a flea. I dropped off during every single one of my mindful breathing sessions. But that’s fine; apparently it just shows how tired we all are. As for the distracting thoughts, they’re fine too, so long as you let them go, possibly like little clouds.

And for some people, all this is to the good. It makes them less stressed, more usefully focused on the here and now. Dr Anthony Seldon has made mindfulness part of the way of life at Wellington College, where he is headmaster. ‘Properly done,’ he observes, ‘it’s the opposite of mindlessness. It helps people to be self-aware, to collect themselves, to be thoughtful before they decide what to do.’ So obviously handy during exams, though he says the benefits go way beyond that.

The evidence seems strong that mindfulness helps with depression, although some dissident psychiatrists suggest the method-ology behind the positive studies hasn’t been as rigorous as it might be. ‘Many of the studies are small, are pilot studies and are carried on those who are not very ill,’ says Professor Patricia Casey of University College Dublin. ‘So they would be at the mild end of the spectrum. Studies have not sufficiently frequently investigated how mindfulness compares with other therapies including pharmacological interventions. Neither have researchers paid much attention to what the active ingredient is — is it being looked after, or looking after oneself?’

I would suggest also that if mindfulness helps with mental health, then let’s not forget that so does organised religion. This ‘active ingredient’ isn’t some new miracle cure: it’s the same grounding effect that Christianity has, or Judaism, or any prayerful religion. We’ve all, over the years, seen studies show that religious people are happier, and that both meditation and prayer are beneficial to the brain. Mindfulness can join the queue. Seldon’s 21st-century boys may find it beneficial to meditate, but their 20th-century counterparts may have found it just as calming to sit in the chapel for morning prayers and just as bonding to sing hymns together. Mind you, at Wellington, they do both.

One of the difficulties mindfulness will face as it sweeps across the globe is that it quite clearly in fact is a religion, however much it might shy away from the word. It’s remarkable the number of classes advertised with the caveat ‘No religious content’, which of course makes it palatable to the growing number who shy away from religion. It’s ritual for those who don’t pray; communal practice for the individualist. It’s non–doctrinal, non-prescriptive, non-demanding in terms of conduct apart from an insistence on not being judgmental. It seems to be the perfect religion for a Britain which is in full flight from its state church. Most other religion substitutes — the Sunday Assembly gatherings for atheists, for example, which Andrew Watts wrote about in this magazine back in February — are self-consciously modelled on Christian services. But mindfulness is squarely based on Buddhism. In fact, from the focus on breathing to the insistence on compassion, it really is Buddhism. At one interesting class I attended in a Buddhist temple — gold images galore — the teacher declared cheerfully that this mindfulness session was going to be a cut above the rest because it got you to the fons et origo of the thing, viz. Buddhist teaching.

Taking an established religion — Buddhism in this case — and picking bits from it piecemeal can be a more dangerous business than it might seem. However much people may dislike the idea, the major world religions have developed incrementally over time to be a comfort and support for humans in their quest for meaning. Even the seemingly eccentric bits can serve a vital purpose, hidden from non-believers. One rejects ‘the boring bits’ of an established religion at one’s peril. Mindfulness, based as it is on meditation, is not simply a path that leads nowhere in particular. It can lead you to that dangerous place, the heart of yourself. And there you may find a great, scary emptiness, or worse, your own personal demons.

Not everyone is strong enough to confront their inner self: in that case, meditation can be an affliction, not a therapy. That phenomenon is being studied at the so-called ‘Dark Night Project’ at Brown University Medical School, where Dr Willoughby Britton deals with the psychic disturbance that meditation can sometimes cause. And that’s of a piece with Buddhist as well as Christian understanding of contemplation; that you can undergo what St John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. The contemplative life, in Christianity, isn’t for everyone. It is understood that only a few, those with a vocation for it, have the strength to take it on.

There are other aspects of mindfulness which strike me as problematic, not to say unchristian. An important element of the practice is to eschew judgmentalism; to observe and accept ourselves and our surroundings with compassion. Which sounds dandy, except that there are some things about ourselves and our situation which we jolly well shouldn’t be non-judgmental about, which we should be trying to change. One of the best things about the collective culture is that we have a strong moral sense; we consider selfish behaviour unacceptable and hold others to account. Where Buddhism causes us to go within ourselves, to meditate inwardly, Christianity takes you out of yourself — to God and from there to others. Would a ‘mindful’ Britain have the same emphasis on helping others?

This brings me to what really annoys me about being mindful, which is that as far as I can gather, it’s Mostly About Me. Sitting concentrating on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbour in this practice of self-obsession? Given a toss up between going to church, where you rub shoulders with the old, the lonely, the poor, and anyone who cares to pitch up, and a mindfulness session where, for about 25 quid a pop, you can mingle silently with congenial souls in flight from stress, I know which seems more good and human to me. Mindfulness may be the new religion — but it’s no substitute for the old one.

Original article no longer available

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Tuning in to the love that fills and surrounds you

Take a breath right now, and notice how abundant the air is, full of life-giving oxygen offered freely by trees and other green growing things. You can’t see air, but it’s always available for you.

Love is a lot like the air. It may be hard to see – but it’s in you and all around you.

In the press of life – dealing with hassles in personal relationships and bombarded with news of war and other conflicts – it’s easy to lose sight of love, and feel you can’t place your faith in it. But in fact, to summarize a comment from Ghandi, daily life is saturated with moments of cooperation and generosity – between complete strangers! Let alone with one’s friends and family.

Love is woven into your day because it’s woven into your DNA: as our ancestors evolved over the last several million years, many scientists believe that love, broadly defined, has been the primary driving force behind the evolution of the brain. Bands of early humans that were particularly good at understanding and caring for each other out-competed less cooperative and loving bands, and thereby passed on the genes of empathy, bonding, friendship, altruism, romance, compassion, and kindness – the genes, in a word, of love.

Nonetheless, even though the resting state of your brain – its “home base” when you are not stressed, in pain, or feeling threatened – is grounded in love, it’s all too easy to be driven from home by something as small as a critical comment in a business meeting or a frown across a dinner table. Then we go off to a kind of inner homelessness, exiled for a time from our natural abode, caught up in the fear or anger that makes love seem like a mostly-forgotten dream. After a while, this can become the new normal, so we call homelessness home – like becoming habituated to breathing shallowly and forgetting the richness of air that would be available if we would only breathe deeply.

So we need to come home to love. To recognize and have confidence in the love in your own heart – which will energize and protect you, even when you must also be assertive with others. To see and have faith in the love in others – even when it is veiled or it comes out in problematic ways. To trust in love that’s as present as air, to trust in loving that’s as natural as breathing.

How?

Take a breath. Notice how available air is, how you can trust in it. Notice the feeling of being able to rely on the air.

Bring to mind someone who loves you. Feel the fact of this love – even if it is, to paraphrase John Welwood, a perfect love flowing through an imperfect person. Can you feel your breath and body relaxing, as you trust in this person’s love for you? Can you feel your thoughts calming, your mood improving, and your heart opening to others? Let it sink in, that trusting in love feels good and refuels you. Then if you like, do this same reflection with other people who love you.

Bring to mind someone you love. Feel the reality of your love; know that you are loving. As in the paragraph just above, absorb the benefits of recognizing and trusting in your love. Try this with others whom you love.

Scan back over your life and notice some of the many times when there was love in your heart – expressed one way or another, including generosity, kindness, patience, teamwork, self-restraint, affection, and caring. Appreciate as well that there have been many times when you wanted to love, were looking for someone or something to love (friends and good causes, too, not just romantic partners), or longed for more love in your life. These are facts, and you can trust in them – trusting in the lovingness of your heart.

In situations, open to your own lovingness. Privately ask yourself questions like: As a loving person, what is important to me here? Trusting in love, what seems right to do? Remember that you can be strong – and if need be, create consequences for others – while staying centered in love or one of its many expressions (e.g., empathy, fair play, goodwill). What happens when you assert yourself from a loving place?

Tune into the lovingness in others, no matter how obscured by their own homelessness, their own fear or anger – like seeing a distant campfire through the trees. Sense the longing in people to be at peace in their relationships, and to give and get love. What happens in a challenging relationship when you stay in touch with this lovingness inside the other person? Notice that you can both feel the lovingness in others and be tough as nails about your own rights and needs.

Don’t sentimentalize love or be naïve about it. Trusting in love does not mean assuming that someone will love you. It means confidence in the fundamentally loving nature of every person, and in the wholesome power of your own lovingness to protect you and touch the heart of others. It means coming home – home by the hearth of love.

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“A little bit pregnant”

Woman holding her hands in a heart-shape over her pregnant belly.

In the Buddha’s day, many people got enlightened quickly. Some people would say this is because the Buddha was such a great teacher, and to some extent that’s got to be true. What better than to have an expert around? But most of the monks and nuns and householders would have had very little contact with the Buddha. After all, he couldn’t be everywhere!

What they did have, that was every bit as helpful as the presence of the Buddha, was the belief that enlightenment was possible. Having the Buddha around was helpful, perhaps, not so much because he was a “personal trainer” who was around to say just the right thing. It was more that he was a living example of what was possible. And as a result of the confidence this brought about, people awakened.

Even when people at the time of the Buddha talked about getting awakened in future lives, they didn’t talk in terms of the “countless lifetimes” that the Mahayana later came to regard as being necessary. They usually expected to get enlightened very soon, perhaps in the very next life. But the focus was very much on awakening here and now.

Nor did people at the time of the Buddha talk about deferring their own awakening until all others were awakened. This is another peculiar Mahayana idea that I believe makes enlightenment seem further away. It in fact makes enlightenment impossible. You just have to look at the Buddha’s own life to see how hollow this concept is; after all, the Buddha didn’t defer his own awakening! It might sound very noble and compassionate to say that we won’t get enlightened before others do, but surely the most compassionate thing we can do is to wake up right now, so that we can help others free themselves from suffering.

Now the first stage of enlightenment is traditionally held to be not far away from where we are. This use of “stages” of enlightenment can be confusing for people. We don’t always know there are stages to awakening. We think it’s all or nothing. Once I was teaching a class and I mentioned the traditional stages of awakening, and someone said, “Can you be a bit awakened? Isn’t being a bit awakened like being a little bit pregnant?” Actually, pregnancy’s a good metaphor. There is a big difference between having just conceived and being nine months pregnant, and between that and giving birth, and between that and having a toddler or a teenager. In other words, just as having a child is a process, so too awakening is a process. We’re all involved in this process of conceiving Buddhas, in giving birth to Buddhas, in giving birth to our own awakened selves.

So there are these stages in the process of awakening, of which the first stage is called “stream entry.” Like getting pregnant, this first stage, stream entry, is not that difficult. Well, stream entry is a bit more difficult than getting pregnant, at least for most people. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, encourages us to take stream entry as a “doable” goal for this life. It’s a significant goal because it’s irreversible. Up until stream entry our movement in the direction of awakening is reversible. We make progress, and then we fall back. We begin to wake up, and then we fall back into a sleep. Perhaps the dreams are interesting! But at stream entry there’s an unstoppable momentum behind the change, because you’ve really seen the truth of the marks for yourself. You’ve seen something, and you can never unsee it.

We’re all, I’d say, half way to that point of no return. Stream entry is a doable goal. It’s quite concrete, and quite achievable. Even non-Buddhists seem to be able to attain this.

Now people still try to see stream entry as being more distant than it is! It’s quite extraordinary how we try so hard to make goals unattainable. Some people take the idea of stream entry and raise it up to a kind of perfection. They imagine the stream entrant as being close to perfect: not capable of being unethical, never getting into bad moods, never getting anxious, never annoying anybody, never having cravings. But that description is more like full Buddhahood (with the exception of annoying people — the Buddha really annoyed a lot of people). To get to full awakening, we have to break ten fetters, and these include ill will and craving, and those are going to be there for two out of the four stages of awakening. To get to stream entry we only have to break three fetters, so we still have greed, hatred, and a lot of delusion to overcome.

At a guess I’d say a reasonably diligent practitioner — not a monk, but someone with a job and family, for example — could go all the way to stream entry in 15 to 20 years. Some people think that’s a long time and get demoralized. But what are you going to do with your life anyway? And it might take much less time. Insight can come out of the blue. It involves a slight shift of consciousness. It could happen right now, right this very moment!

Although meditating is important, awakening probably won’t happen for you when you’re meditating. It’s more likely to happen when your mind is wandering, or when you drop something, or when you hear something and suddenly you see things in a different way. In the scriptures it’s recorded that some people awoke when they were depressed, or even on the point of suicide. For me it happened when I was putting my daughter to bed.

I think it’s supremely important to believe that enlightenment is possible for us, and that it’s not too far away. If you believe something’s impossible for you, it effectively becomes impossible. Once awakening happens, the thing that strikes you most about it is how easy it all was. Once it’s happened — once you’ve seen the truth that your “self” is not a “thing,” but a beautifully unfolding process — you wonder why it took you so long. The truth was sitting there in plain view the whole time, but for some reason you never looked.

So I’d urge you to open to the idea that awakening could happen anytime. That it’s just around the corner. That it’s a slight shift in perspective away. Once you accept that, anything can happen.

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Can you have faith, but disbelieve the Buddha?

Women bowing to a Buddhist shrine

Facebook’s a funny place. You’ll post a link to a really brilliant, informative, insightful, and useful article on meditation and get no response, and then post a picture of a dog meditating and get swamped with thousands of “likes” and comments.

Recently when I idly shared a cartoon on reincarnation from speedbump.com. In it, a young boy says to his grandfather, “Yeah, well, I didn’t believe in reincarnation when I was your age either.”

It’s funny. I liked it so much I bought a signed print from the artist.

Anyway, back to Facebook. Someone asked me what my own view on rebirth was, and I replied to the effect that on balance I’m not a believer. I made clear it’s not that I deny the possibility of rebirth — it just seems vanishingly unlikely that any kind of consciousness can exist outside of a brain, or be transferred from one brain to another. I guess you could say I’m an agnostic, and a skeptical one at that.

But this admission suddenly created a discussion in which it was suggested that I was lacking and downplaying faith, and had “modern rationalist prejudice” against the idea of rebirth.

I don’t really want to write too much about rebirth here — I’ll save that for another post — but I would like to say something about the nature of faith (saddha in Pali, or shraddha in Sanskrit) in Buddhism, and how having it doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything the Buddha said.

I’d also like to point out that saddha (faith) has very little to do, in the Buddhist tradition, with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience.

Early Buddhist texts tell us that when you attain the first level of spiritual awakening (stream entry) you have have unshakable faith in three things: the Buddha, his teaching (the Dhamma), and the spiritual community (the Sangha). But it’s important to examine how each of these things is described.

First, faith in the Buddha.

The disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’

The faith being advocated here is confidence that the Buddha is a realized teacher: that he has attained spiritual awakening and that he’s able to guide us to that same awakening.

Now, we can’t directly verify for ourselves that the Buddha was awakened. But we can read his words, and see the effects of Buddhist practice in others, and in our own lives, and on that basis develop confidence that there was something special about him — that he had some extraordinary insight. And we can have confidence that his teaching, in principle, can led to us having the same insight. This isn’t blind faith. It’s faith rooted in experience.

Second, faith in the Dhamma (teachings, path):

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’

I’m not going to parse this entire passage, but here, faith is confidence that the Buddha’s teaching is something that can be verified (“inviting verification … to be seen here and now … to be realized”).

The core of this confidence is recognition of the Dhamma as a verifiable process. We can’t — and this is important — verify the Dharma in its entirety right now. It has to be verified in our experience, and that takes time. Again, there’s no blind faith involved.

Third, faith in the Sangha, or spiritual community:

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well…who have practiced straight-forwardly…who have practiced methodically…who have practiced masterfully — [the various types of awakened individuals] — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’

This seems a straightforward kind of confidence: confidence that it’s a good thing to master the teachings and become spiritually awakened, that it’s a good thing to respect and honor people who have done so. This is an aspirational attitude, and also a devotional attitude, which is very important in Buddhist practice. It’s why you’ll see Buddhists bowing in front of Buddha statues (and to each other!). We need to respect and honor goodness and wisdom when we see it. But again, there’s no blind faith involved.

So this is the kind of faith that someone who is a stream entrant has, that someone who has reached the first level of awakening has. These types of faith are called “factors of stream entry” and they’re not only seen as characteristics of the stream entrant, but as means to gain stream entry itself. It has very little — nothing, really — to do with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience. It’s all “provisional trust” in something that you intend to, and can, verify.

I’d like to come back and talk a little about the teaching of rebirth. The scriptures are full of references to rebirth and to afterlives in heaven or hell. Although some have argued that the Buddha only taught rebirth as an accommodation to the culture he lived in, I see that in itself as a leap of faith! We know something of what the Buddha said, but we can never know what he was thinking if it was different from what he is recorded as having said. It seems reasonable to accept that the Buddha believed in rebirth.

Does that mean that I should, out of faith, believe in rebirth? I don’t think it does. For one thing, I can’t verify the existence of rebirth in my own experience. I don’t remember any previous lives, and there are always going to be questions hovering over the accounts of people who say they do. I can’t 100% verify their accounts. In fact I can’t verify their accounts at all, since all I’ve ever had to go on are other people’s accounts of their accounts.

For another thing, the Buddha said other things that we know to be incorrect — or at least he’s recorded as having said those things. There is no mountain hundreds of thousands of miles high, around which four continents are arranged. Those continents do not float on water, which in turn does not rest on air. Earthquakes therefore are not caused by the air which lies under the water which lies under the continents.

The Buddha’s area of expertise was spiritual psychology. Evidently, he didn’t know any more about geography, geology, and cosmology than any other educated Indian of his time. Although I recognize the Buddha as a sure guide to overcoming greed, hatred, and spiritual delusion, I’ve no reason to believe that he had any special insight into what happens after death.

Most importantly, though, it makes no difference to my practice to be skeptical of the reality of rebirth. I’m going to make the most of this life, whether or not I’ll be reborn. In fact, I’d argue that thinking it’s probable that this is the only life I’ll have gives me more of a sense of urgency about practicing. In fact the Buddha’s recorded as saying that his disciples can have the assurance that “if there is no fruit [in future lives] of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.”

If that was good enough for the Buddha, then that’s good enough for me.

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Meditation hindrances and how to work with them

Buddha statue overlooking mountains in Himachal Pradesh

I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.

During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.

Having the list of hindrances was helpful because when I mediated and watched the antics of my mind, I had a way of working in meditation to move beyond them… sometimes.

The hindrances distract our minds with mundane thoughts that can, and often do, become obsessive. If we are obsessing about mundane issues, we are distracted from our spiritual work and spiritual progress.

Let’s explore the hindrances:

1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)

Our meditations often reveal what we desire and crave. We sit down to meditate, to still the mind and find calm and tranquility and we start thinking about a person we are attracted to, or the aroma of the bread baking in the oven in our kitchen, or the concert we have tickets for – you know what’s on your list.

When we compulsively crave sensual pleasures (sex, food etc.) we are alienated from the depth of the here and now and from those people, places, thoughts and activities that are in the present moment. So there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but when it becomes compulsive we distract ourselves from being present to the moment, being present to our lives.

When we become aware of  sensual desire we can bring our awareness back to the focus of the meditation. We can look at what we desire and see through our projections and unrealistic expectations. We can look at what discomfort might be beneath the compulsive desire. For instance, when we are distracted by thinking about someone we are attracted to, we may be distracting ourselves from looking at something that is troubling us in our relationships, or disappointment in not achieving a goal, or something we are concerned about. We might ask ourselves “What am I distracting myself from?”

Guarding the doors of the senses is a way of working with sense desire. This involves recognizing what situations, images and thoughts create sensual desire and avoiding them. For instance, when on a retreat or when meditating in a group, avoiding conversations just before the meditation.

2. Ill-will (byapada)

Ill will, or aversion, like sensual desire, obstructs our ability to be mindful and free and alienates us from kindness. We feel constricted and reactive rather than open-hearted and expansive.

Ill will can be sparked by:

  • remembering what we heard a friend say about us that was hurtful
  • going over an angry interchange with a relative
  • wishing we had something that someone else has (a material possession, a relationship, confidence, teaching ability etc.).

We can work with this hindrance by questioning the ill will, noticing the effects on our bodies, how it affects our energy and what it might be covering up such as frustrated ambition, fear, embarrassment or protection from feeling disappointment.

When we are aware of ill will, being attentive to it and stopping ourselves from fanning its flames will help it to dissolve and build confidence in our ability to be present and mindful.

When working with ill will, I realized I have sometimes reacted to someone or a situation, and come to see that the ill will was centered in my own story line or way of interpreting someone’s action or comment. Working with ill will offers the opportunity to have compassion toward myself and other people.

Practicing and cultivating loving kindness, empathy, equanimity and meditating on karma are good antidotes for ill will.

3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)

Sloth is a lack of energy and alertness to keep interested in the focus of meditation. We feel drowsy and sleepy and it feels as though our vitality and effort are limited.

Torpor is a lack of mental energy. The mind is dull or easily drifts in thought. This hindrance may be a result of discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, hopelessness or resistance.

Sloth and torpor may be overcome by consciously arousing more energy by walking meditation; sitting up with a more erect, energized posture; opening the eyes; washing the face with cool water; opening a window or bringing curiosity and finding interest in the object of meditation.

Bringing curiosity to why we are feeling sloth and torpor, understanding how particular thoughts, beliefs, and evaluations feed into the hindrance can be helpful.

Being mindful of what we eat before meditation and how what we eat affects our energy in meditation, reflection on impermanence and the importance of practicing here and now, reflecting on a dharmic topic that inspires us are all ways to work with this hindrance.

4. Restlessness and worry, anxiety or remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)

This hindrance manifests as being unable to settle and concentrate due to a physical feeling of wanting to move the body and is accompanied by memories and thoughts about things we are worried about or feel remorseful for.

We may feel agitated and restless, unsettled and uncomfortable. It takes courage, patience and discipline to stay with discomfort and explore our thoughts and actions to understand what triggers them (frustrated desire, pent-up aversion, fear and resentment, or dissatisfaction).

I have found reflection, writing in a journal and talking with spiritual friends helpful in working with this hindrance. Walking meditation, yoga and exercise are also helpful when dealing with restlessness and worry; and confession is beneficial when dealing with regret and remorse.

Remembering how it feels to be still and calm may help. Remembering to consciously breathe or focusing on the ongoing rhythm of breathing, can calm the body. The more attention that is given to breathing, the less attention is available to fuel the restlessness or worry.

Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening, judgments of what is “good and bad” seldom lead to calm. Attachment to a self-image can be agitating. It can be liberating to realize that we don’t have to believe every thought we have.

5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)

This hindrance manifests as uncertainty about meditation (“Does meditation really work?”) and in one’s ability (“I’m not good at meditating.”) and culminates in a lack of confidence.

Some doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand, encourages deeper investigation and can be healthy.

Doubt that hinders meditation is a doubt in the practice, in the Dharmic teachings, in one’s teachers, and/or in oneself. When doubt involves uncertainty about the practice or the teachings, it is helpful to study and reflect on the Dharma itself.

Questioning deeply held beliefs, attending to unresolved feelings, challenging ingrained convictions about self-identity, remembering something that inspires us in the practice (such as a teaching, a person, or some experience you have had in the practice) can all help to dissipate doubt.

Working with the hindrances can help us to answer the following queries:

  • Where do I put my attention?
  • What thoughts and actions cause my mind to fixate its attention on what I want or don’t want?
  • How can I apply mindfulness rather than allowing this mental activity to continue?
  • How can I work with this impulse of preoccupation and obsessive thinking?
  • How can I bring curiosity and exploration, understanding, kindness and non-reactivity to my meditation practice?

Working with the hindrances can strengthen our faith, our firm conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and remind us of why we meditate and practice ethics and how much we value our practice.

Faith gladdens the heart, clears away the hindrances and breathes life into our efforts to continue our path to freedom.

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The path of nonviolence: six principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr

Sunada drew my attention to this detailed exposition by Dr. King on the principles and practice of nonviolence. I thought it was worth reposting in its entirety, especially given the levels of violence being directed against the Occupy protestors, and the need for the movement to remain nonviolent:

First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight … The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent … The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil … We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. ‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,’ Gandhi said to his countrymen. The nonviolent resister … does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it ‘as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber…’ “What is the nonviolent resister’s justification for this ordeal to which he invites men, for this mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek?” The answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love …

A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship… a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

–Martin Luther King. Jr., in Stride Towards Freedom

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“When In Doubt, Make Belief,” by Jeff Bell

When In Doubt, Make Belief

Have you ever driven away from your house and found yourself wondering whether you’d remembered to close the garage door? Probably.

Have you ever gone back, checked to make sure that the door was closed, driven away, and then had to come back yet again to make doubly sure? And then repeated the entire exercise again? Probably not, but if you have, then you may be one of the millions of people who struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.

Jeff Bell is a well-known author, speaker, and radio news anchor. He’s found himself checking the garage door not once, but twice, or three, or more times, on each occasion driving away with less, not more, reassurance about the security of his garage door. He lives with OCD, which is the topic of his latest book, When In Doubt, Make Belief. If at this point you’re thinking, “Well, I may have gone back to to check the garage door, but I’ve never had to do it repeatedly, so I guess this book isn’t for me,” I suggest you think again.

Title: When In Doubt, Make Belief
Author: Jeff Bell
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 9781577316701
Available from: Amazon.com (paperback), Amazon.com (Kindle edition), Amazon.co.uk.

When Jeff wrote his first book — an OCD “coming out” memoir, if you will — he was overwhelmed by the interest shown by the public and the media. At first he assumed the interest was due to the “freak factor” — people interested in his bizarre psychological condition — but he soon realized that the fascination was fueled not by the strangeness but by the familiarity of the condition. We all experience irrational doubt. We all experience obsessions and compulsions. At times, each of us has acted irrationally and against our best interests because of fear, anxiety, and other powerful habits that drive our actions. Bell has something to say to each of us.

One universal topic he explores is the tendency to see life in black-and-white terms, with everything appearing as part of a dichotomy: good or bad, right or wrong. Who has not fallen into this way of thinking? Bell introduces examples of black-and-white thinking that will resonate with every reader: e.g. someone accuses us of thoughtlessness, and then black and white thought patterns tell us that if one person thinks we are thoughtless, then that must be so, and therefore everyone must think that we are thoughtless, and therefore no one likes us, and therefore we’re going to be unpopular for the rest of our lives. Sound familiar? We may not think like that all the time, but we’ve all thought like that at some point.

Bell also discusses, in terms that are very familiar to me as a Buddhist, the difference between healthy (intellect-based) and unhealthy (fear-based) doubt. Intellect-based doubt is founded on reason, logic, and rational investigation, and leads us towards a constructive engagement with our experience, to greater awareness, and to growth and learning. Fear-based doubt is supported by irrational assumptions and black-and-white thinking. Rather than leading to clarity, it causes a spike in anxiety, catastrophic thinking (a never-ending series of “what-if” questions), and leads us to engage in actions that are neither appropriate nor helpful. Ultimately, fear-based doubt is a vicious cycle, where doubt creates and perpetuates itself.

Although some of the pathological patterns of OCD are common to us all, Bell takes pains to remind us that OCD is a specific biochemical brain disorder, and not a psychological condition that people slip into and out of.

Fortunately, Bell does much more than simply describe the pathology of doubt. He outlines four general principles — reverence, resolve, investment, and surrender — that contain 10 practical steps by which we can get out of doubt. These 10 steps are deeply grounded in spirituality. He encourages us to:

  1. Choose to see the universe as friendly
  2. Embrace the possibility in every moment
  3. Affirm our universal potential
  4. Put our commitments ahead of our comfort
  5. Keep sight of the big picture and the Greater Good
  6. Claim and exercise our freedom to choose
  7. Picture possibilities and direct our attention [away from destructive thinking and towards constructive thoughts]
  8. Act from abundance in ways that empower
  9. Accept and let go of what we cannot control
  10. Allow for bigger plans than our own to unfold.

For Bell, belief is the opposite of doubt. The 10 strategies outlines above are ways of changing our decision-making from being doubt driven to being belief-driven. It’s important for us to believe in ourselves, to learn to trust, respect, and have compassion for others, and to have faith in life itself. Belief, the way Bell uses the term, seems to encompass what Buddhists would term shraddha (an emotional attitude of confidence and trust) and samyak-drshti (accurate views regarding ourselves and the world we live in). Belief, for Bell, is a choice. It is something we can create (hence the title of the book). The very first step he outlines in “making belief” — choosing to see the universe as friendly — is a conscious choice to see the universe as supporting us to the full extent that we are willing to draw upon it. The universe, then, is seen not as endlessly trying to trip us up, but as an endless series of opportunities for pursuing our own greater good. This is an inherently spiritual outlook, and I believe that any spiritual seeker would benefit from exploring Bell’s plentiful, and hard-won, insights.

Here’s one more example of Bell’s spiritual insight: “The key to living with uncertainty is learning to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty.” When faced with doubt, many of us panic. Gripped by panic, we grasp after this short term palliatives that promise to relieve us from our doubt but simply perpetuate it. These are what Bell calls “false exits” from the vicious cycle of doubt. This perspective will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, or the existentialist-inspired Buddhist writer, and author of “The Faith to Doubt,” Stephen Batchelor.

When In Doubt, Make Belief is a clearly laid out book, full of honest introspection on the part of the author, and bringing in the lived experience of a wide variety of people (some OCD sufferers, some not) as quotations and in the form of interviews with the author. The book contains diagrams neatly summarizing the principles and practical steps that create a belief-based life. Each chapter ends with a handy summary of the main points. For a man who has been crippled by doubt for much of his life, Bell has done a marvelous job of attaining clarity.

Bell honestly acknowledges, however, that he is still working with the issues he raises, and that he is not always able to put into practice his own strategies. In fact, he discusses the kind of internal dialogues he has with his doubt — personified as Director Doubt — dialogues in which Bell is forever being accused of being a fraud for not having completely eliminated OCD from his life. In response to this inner bullying, Bell reminds himself (and us) to concentrate on progress rather than perfection. He explains how he assesses each day in terms of how he has demonstrated his passion for life, how he has demonstrated kindness to others, and how he has demonstrated “grace of self.” I can’t help feeling that all of us would benefit immensely from asking ourselves those three questions at the end of each day.

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