faith

The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment

scientific pentagram diagram showing angles, proportions, and other things I don't understand.

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.

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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.

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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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Facing the demon of self-doubt

Krampus, Santa's demonic twin

Someone wrote to me the other day, asking for advice regarding how to deal with a bout of self-punishing doubt:

I just started regularly meditating about a month ago. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self-resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.

What she’d described is what we call the “hindrance of doubt.” There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease with ourselves. They are (1) craving, (2) ill will, (3) anxiety, (4) lethargy, and (5) doubt, which is the sneakiest of them all.

Doubt tells us stories that sap our confidence. This woman’s thoughts of unworthiness and of being “the most selfish person in the world” are doubt’s modus operandi. Sometimes the doubts are about our practice, but more commonly they’re about ourselves.

Doubt is the hardest of the hindrances to recognize, because the stories we’re telling ourselves “hit below the belt” emotionally and leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. We totally believe the stories we’re telling ourselves, and have difficulty questioning their validity.

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It’s very important to learn to recognize the patterns through which doubt expresses itself, and to remind yourself that this is just doubt—that it’s not reality you’re describing to yourself. It’s just a story.

When you do that, you’re less inclined to believe what you’ve been telling yourself. Having a thought like “I am unworthy of love” isn’t actually much of a problem if you don’t believe it, and if you recognize that this is just some frightened part of yourself trying to “protect” you from positive change.

And I do think that the function of doubt is to “protect us.” It may be a fear-based response to some difficulty. By telling ourselves we’re not capable of meeting this challenge, we take away the possibility of failing. It may also arise from a fear of positive change, however. Habits we have that are going to be eliminated act like sub-personalities and try to prevent change from happening. My guess is that this is what was going on with this woman: after a month of meditation, parts of her were fearful of change.

Don’t be afraid of doubt. Recognize that it’s just a story, and don’t take it seriously.

There are huge benefits to doing this. Often when we’ve recognized doubt and chosen not to believe it, there’s an immediate upwelling of energy and confidence in ourselves and our practice. On the other side of doubt lies faith.

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A heart that is ready for anything

When the Buddha was dying, he gave a final message to his beloved attendant Ananda, and to generations to come: “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge.”

In his last words, the Buddha was urging us to see this truth: although you may search the world over trying to find it, your ultimate refuge is none other than your own being.

There’s a bright light of awareness that shines through each of us and guides us home, and we’re never separated from this luminous awareness, any more than waves are separated from ocean. Even when we feel most ashamed or lonely, reactive or confused, we’re never actually apart from the awakened state of our heart-mind.

This is a powerful and beautiful teaching. The Buddha was essentially saying: I’m not the only one with this light; all ordinary humans have this essential wakefulness, too. In fact, this open, loving awareness is our deepest nature. We don’t need to get somewhere or change ourselves: our true refuge is what we are. Trusting this opens us to the blessings of freedom.

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Buddhist monk, Sayadaw U. Pandita describes these blessings in a wonderful way: A heart that is ready for anything. When we trust that we are the ocean, we are not afraid of the waves. We have confidence that whatever arises is workable. We don’t have to lose our life in preparation. We don’t have to defend against what’s next. We are free to live fully with what is here, and to respond wisely.

You might ask yourself: “Can I imagine what it would be like, in this moment, to have a heart that is ready for anything?”

If our hearts are ready for anything, we can open to our inevitable losses, and to the depths of our sorrow. We can grieve our lost loves, our lost youth, our lost health, our lost capacities. This is part of our humanness, part of the expression of our love for life. As we bring a courageous presence to the truth of loss, we stay available to the immeasurable ways that love springs forth in our life.

If our hearts are ready for anything, we will spontaneously reach out when others are hurting. Living in an ethical way can attune us to the pain and needs of others, but when our hearts are open and awake, we care instinctively. This caring is unconditional—it extends outward and inward wherever there is fear and suffering.

If our hearts are ready for anything, we are free to be ourselves. There’s room for the wildness of our animal selves, for passion and play. There’s room for our human selves, for intimacy and understanding, creativity and productivity. There’s room for spirit, for the light of awareness to suffuse our moments. The Tibetans describe this confidence to be who we are as “the lion’s roar.”

If our hearts are ready for anything, we are touched by the beauty and poetry and mystery that fill our world.

When Munindraji, a vipassana meditation teacher, was asked why he practiced, his response was, “So I will see the tiny purple flowers by the side of the road as I walk to town each day.”

With an undefended heart, we can fall in love with life over and over every day. We can become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with each other and to all of creation. We can find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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Tuning in to the love that fills and surrounds you

Baby swaddled in white fabric

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.

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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.

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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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We’re so stressed

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Keith Upchurch, Herald-Sun, NC: Stress is twisting many Americans in knots, and Durham is no exception.

The pressures of life — especially money concerns — rank high on the list of stressors. But many people are find-ing relief in exercise, music, support groups and prayer, while others are turning to drugs to help them escape reality — temporarily.

Angell Copper, for example, says he has been stressed out for most of his life. The 22-year-old Hillsborough resident has spent time in foster homes and prison, but he’s trying to find ways to deal with his anger and anxiety over having no money or job.

Copper said he was convicted of having marijuana on a high school campus and for a probation violation. Surprisingly, he said going to prison was one of the best things that happened to him, because he got counseling for his anger, which he said is under better control than in the past.

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Still, having an empty wallet and no job keeps his stress level high.

Before going to prison, he said, “I’d wake up mad every day, because you’re stressed out over bills and all that other stuff, you know. I think that’s why a lot of black people turn to drugs and weed and stuff like that, because it’s an everyday circle, and you can’t stop stress. And it’s just whacked. Stress is real whacked.”

Copper is taking medication for his anxiety, but he believes he could find more relief if he had someone to talk to.

“I’ve been from foster care to prison, and now I’m out,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to make it, and I have a lot of stress, because I have no money, and it’s hard. I just want to cry sometimes, but I try to stay strong, because I have a child, and I can’t let him see me stress out — you know what I mean?”

Copper said prayer helps.

“Just to know that a higher power is there to help you, and that he’s never going to leave you helps,” he said. “So I hold dear to that, because I do love God.”

Pamela Finney of Durham said she’s also stressed because she can’t find a job.

“I relocated from New Jersey about three years ago to be closer to my family,” she said. “But now I’ve been here trying to find a job, and they tell you to go online for jobs,” but that hasn’t worked.

To cope, she turns to cigarettes and a support group.

“That helps a lot,” she said.

For Kelly Morris of Durham, stress comes and goes, but paying bills is his biggest stressor. “I’ve still got a job,” he said. “It’s just hard to make ends meet even with a job.” To cope, he “takes one day at a time” and prays.

But for retired scientist Phil Lawless, 67, life isn’t that stressful, because he no longer has the pressure of work and has enough money for his golden years. He retired about 18 months ago.

“Being able to retire at the time I did means that I wasn’t affected so much by the recession,” he said. Now, he spends a lot of his free time reading and traveling.

“I get to sleep late,” he said. “And my wife is retired too, so we don’t have to get up early in the morning.”

Another retiree, Fred Clark of Durham, also said he doesn’t feel much stress, because the recession hasn’t affected him as much as others. To keep stress at bay, Clark goes to the Q Shack restaurant in Durham every Wednesday to hear blue grass music. He also works out at a health club three times a week.

For some, family is a stressor, but for others, it offers a safe haven from stress.

Maria Manson of Durham has a job and three children under 5, but she said she doesn’t feel unduly stressed, because “I have a good life.” She said her children keep her from becoming stressed, “because they’re so much fun.” But when life gets too tough, she finds relief by relaxing, watching a movie and “thinking about the positive things in life.”

The theme of finding relief through faith was a common thread though many of those who spoke with The Herald-Sun about stress in their lives.

Vietnam War veteran William Caine, 63, is disabled. He’s had open heart surgery, head surgery and now faces a hip replacement. “So stress reaches its peak quite often,” he said. “But I manage to deal with it, thank the Lord.”

“My faith is always there, boss man,” he said. “Faith is there every second of the day.”

Caine also gets a boost from his grandchildren.

“That’s the best thing in my life right now,” he said. “They’re the best thing in the world.”

Becky Tenaglia, a pre-school director, feels the stress in her back and neck. A main stressor for her is not getting enough sleep. She also feels the pressure of trying to balance the many demands of her work and family.

But like so many others, her faith makes a world of difference.

“I’m not sure how I would get through life with God, without prayer,” she said. “Faith is extremely important. When stress is so high, the only thing you can do is pray for help.”

Original article is no longer available

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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.

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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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