Debunking seven myths about the Buddha

Depiction of the Buddha in a carved stone frieze

Some of the misconceptions about the Buddha are so common that you’ll find them in just about every book on Buddhism. The problem is that most of these books are merely rehashes of other books on Buddhism, so that misconceptions get passed on for decades and even centuries.

So here I’d like to debunk some myths about the Buddha. I’m not talking about myths like “The Buddha was a god” (he was a historical human figure) or that the Buddha was fat (that’s an entirely different figure, Budai, who was a Chinese monk). I’m going to debunk things that even many savvy Buddhists believe to be true because they’ve read them so often.

So here we go:

Myth #1: The Buddha Was Indian

The country of India didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, of course, but when people talk about the Buddha being Indian they mean that he was born in a place that is now part of present-day India. However, he was born (according to tradition) in a town called Lumbini, which was in the Sakyan country. Lumbini is in present-day Nepal, not India. Of course the Buddha spent much of his life in what is now India, but he wasn’t Indian. He was Nepalese—or at least he was born in a part of the world that is now known as Nepal.

Myth #2: The Buddha’s Name Was Siddhartha Gotama

In the scriptures the only name given to the Buddha is “Gotama.” This is usually understood to have been his family name, but it was probably his personal name. We know the personal names of his father, mother, son, aunt, cousins, and so on, and it would be weird if we don’t know the Buddha’s own given name.

As far as I know, the only places in the Pali scriptures where the Buddha is given the name Siddhattha (Siddhatta in Pāli) are in some very late texts called the āpadānas, and other late texts like the Jātakas. Here’s a text, for example, where “Siddhatta” is being recalled by a monk who had been a crocodile in a past life when the two had met! These texts seem to have been added to the canon centuries after the Buddha died. Since this one’s recalling the Buddha in a past life, it must have been very late.

So what was the Buddha’s name? In one very early text, in the Sutta Nipāta collection, the Buddha talks about his family:

Their clan name is Ādicca ,
the name of their lineage is the Sakyans.
I have gone forth from that family—
I do not yearn for sensual pleasure.

So it seems that the Buddha’s family name was Ādicca, which means “sun.” That family was, as we know, part of the Sakyan people. He was often referred to as Ādiccabandhu, usually rendered as “Kinsman of the sun.”

Now, Gotama was a brahmin family name. It’s very unlikely that the Buddha would have had a brahmin family name. In the early scriptures, brahmins are usually referred to by their family name. However, members of the Buddha’s family, who were not brahmins, are referred to by their personal names: Ānanda, Nanda, Devadatta, etc. It would be weird if the only member of the family who wasn’t referred to by his first name was the Buddha. So Gotama was probably his first name, and Ādicca his family name. He was likely “Gotama Ādicca,” not “Siddhatta Gotama” (Siddhartha Gautama). Gotama can definitely be a personal name as well as a family name. The Buddha’s aunt’s name was Gotami, and in fact Gautama is still a first name in India today.

Confusion seems to have arisen because of Gotama being a family name (although only for brahmins). People likely started thinking Gotama must be his last name, leaving him without a personal name. The title, Siddhartha, was used to fill that apparent gap.

Myth #3: The Buddha Was Born Hindu

There was no religion called Hinduism at the time the Buddha was born, and so it would be anachronistic to say that the Buddha was born a Hindu. There were many religious traditions that were around at that time. There was one common one that we call Brahminism, which was a hereditary sacrificial tradition based on ancient Indian texts called the Vedas. This is one of the traditions that evolved into contemporary Hinduism. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha followed this Vedic tradition at any time in his life. In fact he probably didn’t. We know that the Sakyans argued that they were superior to the Brahmins, and so it seems unlikely that they followed their religious tradition.

There’s mention in the scriptures that in Kosala and Magadha (territories close to Sakya) there were “Brahmin villages.” According to Bronkhorst (“Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism”) there is evidence that Brahmins tended to cluster together in villages. I thought I’d at some point seen a reference to a Brahmin village in Sakya, although I haven’t been able to track that down. Whether or not there was such a village, the implication is that if Brahminism was present in Sakya it wasn’t ubiquitous and probably wasn’t the dominant religious tradition.

In one discourse a Brahmin talks about visiting the Sakyan capital, Kapilavatthu, and being shocked that brahmins were not honored there. It is “neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that the Sākyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour to Brahmans,” he complains. It’s all too easy for us to think that India is a Hindu country. Therefore it has always been a Hindu country. But in doing so we’re projecting the present (and a rough approximation of the present at that) into a very different past.

In the scriptures there’s simply no mention of the Buddha practicing any religion until after he left home and became a follower of first Alara Kalama and then Uddaka Ramaputta. These teachers were not followers of the Vedas. They seem to have rejected Vedic authority and ran forest renunciate communities based on seeking the truth through meditation. There were presumably philosophical aspects to Alara and Uddaka’s teachings, however, since the Buddha talks about having “memorized” them and having mastered “lip-recital and oral recitation.”

The Vedic tradition was not meditative, but involved rituals of sacrifice and purity in order to influence the gods. There’s no evidence, either, that the Buddha ever worshipped any of the Brahmins’ gods, which are now Hindu gods.

So there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu, or a follower of any tradition rooted in the Vedas, or a worshipper of Hindu deities.

Myth #4: The Buddha Was a Prince

The Sakyan territory was one of a number of republics in the north of the Indian subcontinent. These republics had no kings, and instead were governed by representatives of the people. Some of them may have been democratic, but as far as we know the Sakyans were governed by a council of the heads of the major families that lived there. The Buddha’s father was not a king, but more like a senator.

There are a few reasons why people might have later assumed that the Buddha was the heir to a kingdom. Even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the small republics started being swallowed up by neighboring monarchical kingdoms. After a few generations of being ruled by kings, people may have tended to assume that things had always been like that, and assumed that if his father had been a Sakyan ruler, he must have been a king.

But there’s also a tendency for religious traditions to want to see their founders as having had extraordinary lives and pedigrees, and it’s much more grand to say that the Buddha was the son of a king than heir to the head of one of the leading Sakyan families.

And in trying to obtain patronage from actual kings (who could make or break a religious tradition) it would have been a good PR move to say that your founder was also of royal stock.

I can think of one discourse where the Buddha is referred to as a prince, but it’s an odd one. The sutta is in two parts, the first—with the prince reference—being heavily mythological and narrated by some unknown person. The second part is a question from a disciple followed by a very practical response from the Buddha. There’s no reference in the second part to the Buddha being from a royal family. Given that historically the Buddha could not have been a prince, it seems likely that the mythological introduction was added later. Moreover, the word translated as “prince” is “kumāra”, which merely meant “boy.” The Buddha’s father isn’t referred to as a “king” here, so I assume it’s just habit that leads people to translate kumāra as “prince.” The term for a royal prince would be “rājakumāra”.

There’s another discourse, principally about the previous life of a mythical Buddha called Vipassi—see Myth #5—where the Buddha is portrayed as describing his parents as a king and queen. Again, this is at odds with the historical reality, and it’s interesting that once again we have a mythical context for this royal reference. And here again there’s a translation issue. The word for a royal king was “mahārājā,” while the Buddha’s father is called a “rājā” in this sutta. At the Buddha’s time the word rājā was (according to the Pali Dictionary) “primarily an appellative (or title) of a khattiya [member of the aristocratic warrior class], and often the two [khattiya and rājā] are used promiscuously.

Myth #5: The Buddha Saw Four Sights

Just about every book on Buddhism will tell you about the so-called Four Sights that prompted the Buddha to leave home on a spiritual quest. It goes like this: The Buddha was brought up in three palaces and not allowed to go outside. However, he insisted on going on a series of chariot rides to explore the capital, and saw 1) an old person, 2) a sick person, 3) a dead person, and 4) a beatific homeless wanderer. These Four Sights provoked a spiritual crisis, and so he left home in search to find a way to overcome suffering.

This story is certainly found in the scriptures. It’s even told by the Buddha himself. But he tells it about someone else! This is a tale that the Buddha tells about a legendary former Buddha called Vipassi. So these events are clearly not presented as something that happened to the Buddha himself. Sometimes people try to make sense of the story as it applies to be Buddha by psychologizing it: it was as if he saw an old person, sick person, and so on for the first time. But there’s no need to interpret this supposed episode from the Buddha’s life, since there’s no reason to think it ever happened.

The Buddha talks very movingly in one scripture about the spiritual crisis that provoked him to leave home:

I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:

Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.

This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.

Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
[Attadanda Sutta]

This, in my eyes, is much more human and relatable than the legend of the four sights.

We know that the Buddha’s people, the Sakyans, had contentious relations with some of their neighbors, and there were battles over things like access to water for irrigation. They literally were like fish fighting over too small a quantity of water, and that may be what he was referring to here. It was probably this kind of strife that impelled the Buddha to leave home. He certainly didn’t see four sights in any literal way, although he did talk about how he saw through the “intoxication” of youth, wellness, and life, which correspond to the first three sights.

Myth #6: The Buddha Lived in Three Palaces

Although the scriptures have the Buddha talking about how in his youth he lived in three “palaces,” this almost certainly isn’t the case. Excavations of Kapilavastu show the dwellings there to have been rather modest. Sakya wasn’t a rich country, and there seem to have been no palaces. The word translated as “palace” (pāsāda) can mean anything from the residence of a king, to a building on high foundations, all the way down to a “raised platform.” The “palace” translation is probably shaped by the myth that the Buddha was from a royal family. In fact Bhikkhu Sujato translates pāsāda as “stilt longhouse,” which is historically and archaeologically more accurate, although admittedly less grand.

Myth #7: The Buddha Left Home In the Middle of the Night

Legends detail how the Buddha “went forth” in the middle of the night, tiptoeing through the sleeping concubines who were strewn over his harem so as not to wake them up. He left without saying goodbye to anyone—not even his father, step-mother, or his wife, who had a young child to take care of. How rude!

In the scriptures, however, he talks about how he said farewell to his parents. It’s less dramatic, but again more human and believable. We can’t know for sure, but he probably spent a lot of time talking over his desire to leave home.

When I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair and beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness. [Mahasaccaka Sutta and Ariyapariyesana sutta.]

The reference to “parents” is interesting, since the Buddha’s mother is supposed to have passed away not long after giving birth to him. It could be that “parents” refers to his father and stepmother (his dad married his mother’s sister). Or it could be that the legend of the Buddha’s mother dying after his birth is just that—a legend.

Anyway, the story of the Buddha sneaking out in the middle of the night just doesn’t match with what’s in the early scriptures.

People Get Mad About This Sort of Stuff

When I’ve written about this kind of thing in the past I’ve ended up getting a fair amount of hate mail. Some Hindus don’t like it if you say there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu. Some Buddhists don’t like it if you say the Buddha wasn’t a prince, or in fact contradict anything they believe in. I get called names.

One of the emphases in the Buddha’s early teachings was not clinging to views. When we cling to beliefs, he pointed out, we end up disputing and fighting with each other.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have views, but that we should hold them lightly, not fight over them, and be prepared to change our views in response to new evidence. You might want the Buddha to have been a prince, for example, because that’s what you’re used to hearing. And you might get angry when you hear otherwise. But if the scriptural and historical evidence points in other directions then it’s wise for us to change our views.

If you found yourself getting indignant while reading this article, that’s a fair indication that there’s some clinging going on. That’s normal. But clinging leads to suffering. So let go. Adapt. You’ll be happier!

PS. Here’s an article by scholar Peter Harvey, called In Search of the Real Buddha, that covers some of the same ground and debunks some of the other mythology surrounding the Buddha.

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10 myths about meditation

The Times of India: With close to six billion minds active from moment to moment, there are endless streams of thoughts on every aspect of creation.

Some thoughts perceive reality the way it is and some are imagination. While there are myths about many topics, the most popular one is meditation. The word, ‘meditation’ conjures up all kinds of images and notions. If you are wondering whether meditation is meant for you, read on to find out.

Here is a list of the most common myths, hoping that any confusion that you might have is cleared.

Myth #1 Meditation is concentration
Meditation is actually…

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Rejecting the wanting self


“We have been raised to fear … our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for…many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde

In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions — Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian — teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.

A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly — and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.

The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl — “like a withering tree on a rock in winter” — the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures — delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification — need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.

Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.

As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Buddhist group claims discrimination behind zoning problems

wildmind meditation news

Mary Pulley, Fox 4, Kansas City — A Johnson County Buddhist church has outgrown its building, and they have a new place to worship picked out. But so far they have been denied the right to use it, and a metro Buddhist leader says that zoning isn’t the reason why they can’t move in.

The Lao-Buddhist Association is trying to move its Olathe temple to a location along 119th Street in Olathe. But the Johnson County Board of Commissioners has so far denied the group a conditional use permit. Neighbors say that the area the Buddhists have chosen is zoned residential, but Lama Chuck Stanford of the Rime Buddhist Center says that discrimination is the real reason behind the opposition.

“This is clearly just ugliness of ethnic and religious prejudice,” said Stanford.

Neighbors, who refused to go on camera, told FOX 4 that being opposed to the Buddhist temple doesn’t make him a bigot, while another neighbor told FOX 4 that other commercial proposals in the neighborhood have been declined as well.

Standord notes that Christian churches are common in residential areas, and that comments made by residents during a January zoning board meeting indicate fear and ignorance. At the meeting, people raised concerns about traffic, water pollution and “animal sacrifices,” along with noise from gongs, which Stanford says are no louder than church bells.

“I’m so shocked that this year, in 2011, in Johnson County, their people would be a little more liberal, and better educated, than that,” said Stanford.

The Johnson County Department of Planning, Development and Codes has recommended approval of the Buddhist’s permit. But the Northwest Consolidated Zoning Board voted unanimously to recommend denial of the request.

The Lao-Buddhist Association has submitted a second, scaled-back plan to the board, but neighbors say that if it is passed it will open the door for other commercial properties in the area. The Board of Commissioners will take up the issue next Thursday night.

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The Invisible Presence, by Michael Gurian

The Invisible Presence

Although it’s not clear until you begin reading the book, this is a new edition of a book published in 1994 as Mothers, Sons, and Lovers, and it includes a new preface and study questions. Michael Gurian has published twenty five books over the years, establishing his reputation as a leader in the world of gender studies, as well as founding the Gurian Institute, which conducts research and provides training and education for other professionals.

You may be asking yourselves, as I certainly did, why Shambhala Publications has put out a book on men’s studies and Jungian psychology. This esteemed press is best known for its Buddhism books, especially Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, among many, many others. It turns out that Shambhala published the original edition, back in an era where they did a lot more psychology and philosophy books, including most of Ken Wilber’s books.

* * * * *

Title: The Invisible Presence: How a Man’s Relationship with His Mother Affects All His Relationships with Women
Author: Michael Gurian
Publisher: Shambhala Books
ISBN: 978-1-59030-807-3
Available from: Shambhala,,

One of Gurian’s essential points in the book, and where he begins, is the lack of initiation for boys as they enter manhood. In tribal cultures, and even in the modern world until the previous century, boys were not intimately tied to their mothers the way they are now. Child-rearing was different, and separation from the mother and the family was not only expected, it was enforced. Primal cultures often had a series of initiation ceremonies that progressively removed the son from the family of origin and signaled his emergence as an adult. Sometimes this process even included a new name.

Until the last century or so, with the advent of much-needed child labor laws, boys from “middle class” families often were sent to work or to apprentice with a craftsman — a carpenter, a blacksmith, an accountant (if they were really well-off), and so on. This apprenticeship process, which often took years, was a form of initiation (separation from family, initiation into a trade guild, and his return as an adult — the classic model outlined by van Gennep more than a century ago), even though Gurian doesn’t mention it in the book.

Now boys live at home until college, and often they return when school is finished until they can find a job and their own apartment. Mothers make this separation process even more difficult in trying to maintain their early attachment to their child, which is the opposite of what a young man needs. An adolescent boy is beginning the individuation process, moving away from the mother and into the world of men, and going to college should finalize this separation. Yet this is not happening for a lot of young men.

So what happens to the son when the mother has been dismissing the role of the father, or dismissing the roles of men in general — or worse, disparaging the father with put-downs or insults? How is a boy to find his place in the male world when his mother has negated what he is destined to become, an adult man?

As Gurian demonstrates, that boy does not become an adult man — he remains stuck in an in-between place where he needs the approval of women and men to feel of value, in essence, because there has not been any internalized male ideal (since men are bad, abusive, or useless: “all men are pigs,” “men suck!” “all men want is sex,” or “men have ruined the world”). While this does not happen in the majority of young men’s lives, it does happen much more than we would like to believe.

The other possibility for this individuation failure is an absent father, either through abandonment, divorce, or death. My father died of a heart attack when I was 13-years-old — and there was no good male role models in my life. I was dismayed to see myself in one of Gurian’s lists of characteristics of uninitiated men (p. 38-39). While I have spent years working on this aspect of my life, it seems I still carry some of the scars.

* * * * *

In the third chapter, Gurian looks at how this initiation failure and the impingement relationship with the mother shapes a man’s adult romantic relationships. By impingement (a reference to the work of D.W. Winnicott, a pioneer in parent-child attachment theory) Gurian is referring to the ways that parents fill their own emotional needs through their children. This is a difficult thing to monitor in ourselves — Dr. Dan Siegel spends a whole book on how we can development this skill (Parenting from the Inside Out, 2003) — but we need to be aware of it because it puts the infant or child in the impossible position of taking care of the parent.

For boys, growing up in this environment — which can continue into adulthood, especially when the father is absent due to emotional distancing, work, abandonment, or death, and shows up in comments such as, “Don’t ever leave me,” or “Be my little man” — symbolically forces him to be a surrogate “lover” or partner for his mother. And what little boy does not want to please his mother?

But this sets up the young man to remain more loyal to his mother than to his romantic partner when he begins that element of his life. This was classically known as the mother complex, and although it’s a near cliché, it’s also an accurate assessment of what can happen. The girlfriend or wife ends up feeling she comes second to the mother, and she is correct.

Other elements of this pattern can manifest as a need for approval from the romantic partner. A boy-man who grew up with a “smothering” mother (which is how I look at my own childhood with my mother) has no sense of self outside of that external approval. This man is “spineless” or “weak” or “hen-pecked” — all clichés that pathologize something the man had no control over in his life. He did not choose to be parented in that way.

In this respect, I would recommend this book for women as much as for men. Understanding how the man you love was raised will help you understand those aspects of his personality that you might find challenging. (Gurian offers study questions for women at the end of the book.)

* * * * *

In the second half of the book, which is more like two-thirds, Gurian offers a way out of this liminal space between boyhood and manhood, a series of initiation tasks that can help us toward a mature individuation.

In offering his outline and exercises for experiencing our own initiation, Gurian is men identify and move from the adolescent hero (seeking adventure and power, the traditional hero seeking his place in the world) into the mature, masculine hero (who seeks wholeness and wisdom, not ego trinkets). He actually makes this distinction early in the book:

The mature counterpart of the adolescent hero, the Mature Hero, gains his maturity when he makes the journey out of the survival mode, stepping out of the need for ego fixes and ego approval. (p. 37)

He presents the “Heroic Quest” in the second half of the book as a “search for information, understanding, inspiration, and recovery” (p. 119). He asks us to take the tasks he will present very seriously, as ritual, which includes creating a ritual space, some sacred objects, a notebook, and even a special pen devoted to just this project.

Wisely, he also suggests that some men will want to seek support from a therapist or a men’s group, and I would generally agree with this, especially the therapist part. I have found that working with a good, spiritually-inclined therapist is very helpful in sorting out family of origin issues.

Finally, I want to present abbreviated versions of the seven affirmations he presents in the introduction to Part II of the book, which I found supportive for men beginning such a journey:

  1. A man is a loving, wise, and powerful male adult.
  2. The human unconscious is a mythological story.
  3. My outward behavior and inward yearnings are guided by countless personal and family myths I rarely articulate.
  4. My personal myths are not written in stone, just as wounds are not permanently damaging.
  5. Not all damaging personal myths and wounds respond to personal odyssey work.
  6. There is no such thing as a perfect man.
  7. Because our culture has turned away from the magic of the inner story toward the radiant distractions of external stimulation, I must look inward toward the dark center of my being, where my sacred self lives. (p. 128-129)

* * * * *

While I can easily recommend this book with only minor reservations, I did find myself questioning several things as I read the book.

Gurian begins with his acknowledgments, a standard move, but I immediately became skeptical in seeing Carlos Castaneda in the list, a well-known fiction writer still sometimes thought of as an anthropologist. Also on the list are many authors who have made the complexity of Jungian psychology seem little more than the misappropriation of another culture’s mythology.

R.W. Connell, in Masculinities (2nd edition, 2005), is very critical of the archetypal move in mainstream Jungian psychology, by which he refers to the impulse to find archetypes nearly everywhere. In his later work, Jung did this as well, and his followers picked up where he left off.

This results in deeply confused texts such as Marshall Bethal’s The Mythic Male, an errant hunt through Greco-Roman myths, taken utterly out of context…. Iron John is a Jungian work in exactly this vein, except that Robert Bly finds his archetypes in a folk tale recast by the Brothers Grimm…. (p. 13)

I bring this up because Gurian also does this in his book. There are several instances that I marked early in the book, before I gave up due to the sheer number of them. At one point (page 74), he rattles off a series of examples of the devouring Goddess myth from various cultures. But what he does not mention is that these are all pre-rational (or pre-personal) myths, meaning that they come from a time in human history before we developed much of a rational sense of self, a time when humans showed very little compassion or empathy in raising their children (see Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, Chapter Four). Those myths were appropriate to those times, but they bear little relevance to how we live now.

On the other hand, Gurian also makes reference to literature, poetry, and film, and in these instances, his point is carried more clearly and makes more sense to the educated contemporary reader. For example, in one short section of the book, he references Hamlet, Don Juan, and a poem by Robert Duncan. When he makes these references, he is giving the reader a modern, accessible correlate to the point his is trying to make and it works better.

Gurian is not alone in this issue — it’s endemic in popular Jungian psychology, as Connell pointed out. In this respect, Jungian psychology fails as a useful tool for men’s studies. And yet, as I also pointed out, when the author avoids primitive myths and uses modern literature and film, he offers us a mirror of our own struggles raised to the level of art, which is both instructive and comforting (we are not alone).

Later in the book, when he is outlining his initiation program, I found myself referring to some of the things Gurian suggests (as I often do when I see them in New Age books) as “woo.” If you are less rational than I am, it probably won’t bother you.

If you come to this book as a Buddhist, you might also be put off by all the talk about the self. On the other hand, what he is seeking in men is openness to experience and a reduction of ego drives. Both of these allow men to experience and express greater love and compassion — and that can only be a good thing.

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Meditation and the false lure of zoning out

Psychology Today: How to change your brain in ways which support healthier, more satisfying relationships.
by Marsha Lucas, Ph.D.

Here’s the polite version of a question I received recently about my support of mindfulness meditation as a practice for well-being in relationships:

Why are you encouraging people to zone out? Sitting around pretending they’re above it all, and avoiding real feelings? Who wants to be in a relationship with a self-involved bliss-ninny?


There are an awful lot of misconceptions about mindfulness meditation. This one, about how people who meditate are just using it as a place to “hide out” by just getting zoned, escaping into some blissed-out, checked-out place, is why a lot of people mistakenly decide that meditation is useless, or worse.

There are some merits to asking the question, though, because it’s true that some people who meditate use it in ways which aren’t beneficial, sometimes making them pretty obnoxious to spend time with.

The place from which I look at the benefits of mindfulness meditation is in my work with people who want to create more meaningful lives, including better, healthier, more satisfying relationships. I’m a clinical psychologist who believes that being emotionally present and authentic is the cornerstone of emotional well-being. I’m also trained as a neuropsychologist, who knows that the better integrated a brain is, the better it works. It’s a bit like needing the left hand to know what the right one is doing in order to get anything done. (I don’t just use that phrase lightly – in cases of damage to the corpus callosum, the brain’s bridge between the right and left hemispheres, one hand quite literally doesn’t know what the other is doing, with one buttoning up the shirt and the other following behind, unbuttoning it.)

So from that stance, let’s take a look at the notion that mindfulness meditation leads to people becoming zoned-out, self-involved bliss-ninnies.

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“Don’t people use meditation just to escape?”

Is it possible for people to hide out in meditation? Yes. People who “use” meditation to escape, just like using drugs or alcohol to escape, can closely resemble the “kindly, calm pod person” that Judith Warner wrote about in a New York Times blog post. The added “benefit” of using meditation as your drug of choice is that, unlike zoning out on alcohol or drugs (or TV, surfing the web, and so on), you can also adopt a “more enlightened than thou” stance that some meditators have been known to take, much to the annoyance of those around them.

Even Jack Kornfield, PhD, one of the pioneers and great teachers in the use of mindfulness meditation in the West (and also a psychologist), points out that “[m]editation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.” He goes on to say that “the sitting practice itself… often provide[s] a way to hide, a way to actually separate the mind from difficult areas of heart and body.”

Obviously, this isn’t the approach to mindfulness meditation which I advocate. This will become more clear as we go on.

“The people I know who meditate just ended up being more self-involved.”

This can happen, too. In one variation of this, sometimes people who meditate profess that their practice is making them “more present” when in fact they’re just more self-involved. Judith Warner again:

[P]eople who are embarked on this particular ‘journey of self-exploration,’ as [Mary] Pipher has called it, tend to want to talk, or write, about it. A lot. But what they don’t realize – because they’re so in the moment, caught in the wonder and fascination and totality of their self-experience – is that their stories are like dream sequences in movies, or college students’ journal entries, or the excited accounts your children bring you of absolutely hilarious moments in cartoons – you really do have to be the one who’s been there to tolerate it.

For the truth is, however admirable mindfulness may be, however much peace, grounding, stability and self-acceptance it can bring, as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring.

What she’s describing (okay, complaining about) is not “real” mindfulness, though. Mindfulness isn’t about droning on and on about your own inner exploration, ignoring the feelings of others (or your own), or gushing your newfound love for all of humanity. Mindfulness is about developing a larger capacity in yourself for empathic, attuned, contingent connection.

That last sentence is vital: Mindfulness is about developing a larger capacity in yourself for empathic, attuned, contingent connection.

* empathic = being able to see things from another’s point of view, getting a sense of their intentions, and being able to imagine what something “means” to another person

* attuned = allowing our internal state to resonate with the inner world of another, to “get” someone else’s inner state, allowing us to feel connected

* contingent = responding to another in a way which is informed by what we sense in them, not just what we think or feel

(These definitions as presented here are largely influenced by Dan Siegel, whose latest book, Mindsight,I highly recommend.)

A thumbnail sketch of what this looks like: You talk to me, and I listen with an open heart and an open mind, tuned in to you while also being aware of my own internal state. And my response to you, if I’m being mindful, is contingent on what you’re saying and feeling and communicating – not just my own internal experience. When I talk, I’m speaking with mindful awareness of my internal state as well as being attuned to you, and I pay attention to shifts in myself and in you while I speak, to be able to remain connected, attuned and empathic.

That would be a far cry from being self-involved.

“Seems to me that people who meditate aren’t dealing with their real problems.”

It’s also true that many who meditate may need additional help. As Jack Kornfield put it in his essay, “Even The Best Meditators Have Old Wounds To Heal”:

There are many areas of growth (grief and other unfinished business, communication and maturing of relationships, sexuality and intimacy, career and work issues, certain fears and phobias, early wounds, and more) where good Western therapy is on the whole much quicker and more successful than meditation…. Meditation can help in these areas. But if, after sitting for a while, you discover that you still have work to do, find a good therapist or some other way to effectively address these issues.

Jack, in his honest wisdom, goes on to say that many American vipassana (mindfulness meditation) teachers who have gotten stuck in disconnection, fear, or other unconscious places, have sought out psychotherapy.

(As a brief aside, I would say that the same seeking of good psychotherapy should be true of anyone leading others in a quest to better understand themselves, or to heal emotionally. That includes psychotherapists. It’s my strong opinion that good psychotherapists have done (and continue to do) work in their own psychotherapy, and need to have the capacity for empathic, attuned, contingent communication.)

So, mindfulness meditation isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure for everything that ails you. It is, however, powerfully helpful, whether on its own, or in conjunction with psychotherapy.

I’ve had people come into my practice who have been meditating for years, who have found that they’ve resolved much but can’t seem to crack the core of the issue, and their meditation practice serves them well in the psychotherapeutic work.

I’ve also worked with people who have been in psychotherapy on and off for years with different therapists, benefitting from it but with the next level of growth seemingly out of reach. When we’ve added mindfulness meditation to the mix, they’ve begun to make some remarkable progress which they hadn’t been able to before.

“Can meditation really change people for the better?”

Nothing is a “build it and they will come” guarantee when it comes to personal change. A joke in psychotherapy is, “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.” That’s not just true of psychotherapy, but of any endeavor we take on to create better, healthier, more meaningful lives, and that would include meditation. (As George Carlin said, “Ya gotta wanna.”)

Mindfulness meditation is being shown in a growing mountain of well-done, peer-reviewed scientific research to make demonstrable changes in how your brain is wired — which in turn changes how you perceive the world, how you respond to it, and how you behave.

Meditation isn’t a magic wand that creates enlightenment, but it does have what can look like almost magical effects on connections in the brain — including synaptogenesis (the creation of new connections between neurons), and even neurogenesis (the creation of brand-new neurons in the brain– an ability which neuroscience has only accepted as a real phenomenon in the last 15 years or so).

What I see in people who practice regular mindfulness meditation is that they’re more integrated in how they relate to the world, including themselves. (This is more true of people who are practice developing their mindfulness at all times, not just when they’re formally meditating.)

They haven’t found a magic way to hit the “bliss” button – not if they’re being really truthful with themselves. They might experience bliss more often and more fully, but it’s likely that they’re also experiencing all of their emotions more often, and more fully. What they’ve found is a way to be more whole, more integrated, to not just listen to their rational intellectual side “versus” their non-rational, emotional side.

I see a lot of very bright, high-functioning people in my psychotherapy practice who are so far one-sided or the other — over-reliant on the rational, or hyper-attuned to the emotional — that they can’t get a handle on what their “real” problem is. Mindfulness meditation helps them see a more integrated picture, warts and all, and then they’re also better equipped to deal with it in an honest, authentic, insightful way.

Let’s take a look at how that applies to a relationship problem. If you use only your rational brain, and ignore your feelings and those of your significant other, it’s unlikely to go well (in fact, you’ll probably make things worse). On the other hand, if you lead solely with your emotions, you could similarly end up never solving the problem (and blowing things up). It’s much like the right-hand-buttoning, left-hand-unbuttoning dilemma.

But: If you are able to integrate both your intellect and your emotions — and be attuned to your significant other’s feelings and thoughts as well (in a real way, not the way that Judith Warner described) — you can be positively brilliant in dealing with the issue.

“Yeah, but is there any real change?”

Yes — “real” as in “measurable by scientific methods”. This is what the research in neuroscience is pointing to. Researchers have been looking at the structure and activity in the brains of those who practice regular mindfulness meditation, and they see changes and benefits.

Which of those findings excite me the most, as someone who works to help people create more meaningful lives and relationships?

How about this: Increased activity, connectivity — even size — in brain areas (most especially, an area called the middle prefrontal cortex) known to support the integration of the rational, problem-solving areas (e.g., the frontal cortex) and those known to be centers for emotions (e.g., the amygdala).

The brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to be more integrated, and the clinical evidence supports these changes as well, such as the nine benefits of mindfulness meditation I discussed in a previous post.

If your brain is better integrated, you’re neither ignoring the facts nor discounting emotions. You’re better able to know what’s true for you, and to be better attuned to the person you’re with. You can evaluate more clearly what you’re feeling, rather than having knee-jerk reactions or jumping to conclusions. While it doesn’t mean you always do, you’re more likely to be able to stay present with whatever’s going on.

So, does that sound like a zoned-out, self-involved bliss-ninny?

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Ten most popular posts on Wildmind this year

Top TenJust to help you keep track of what’s hot on Wildmind at the moment, we’ve put together this list of the ten blog posts that have received the most visitors this year. Enjoy!

10. Naming negative emotions makes them weaker Wired Magazine reports on research that’s of relevance to meditators — especially those that use the vipassana technique of “noting,” where we name the most prominent aspect of our experience, saying inwardly, for example, “anger, anger” when we recognize that that emotion is present.

9. Top 10 Myths About Meditation Bodhipaksa debunks the ten most common meditation myths.

8. The Buddha as Warrior It might seem strange to think of the Buddha as a “warrior” when he is rightly seen as above all a figure of peace. Lieutenant (jg) Jeanette Shin, the US military’s first Buddhist chaplain, looks at the Buddha’s martial background.

7. Infinity in the palm of your hand Would you like to see the world in a new way? A way that’s more authentic and satisfying? A way that taps into your infinite potential and helps others to realize theirs?

6. “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” (Krishnamurti) Bodhipaksa explores the uncomfortable notion that we are all trapped in a world of delusions.

5. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” (Anaïs Nin) Bodhipaksa explores a quote by Anaïs Nin.

4. The joys of Zen Coffee There are many paths to Awakening, including the path of Zen Coffee, Gloria Chadwick’s hip new take on Zen mindfulness.

3. Love, Sex, and Non-Attachment Is it possible to be in a committed sexual relationship and follow the Buddha’s teaching on non-attachment? Does loving someone deeply by definition mean we’re attached to them? Sunada doesn’t see these ideas as contradictory, and explores what an enlightened relationship might look like.

2. The 12-Step Buddhist Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-Step Program offers a path of escape from the cycle of dependency, but it’s a path that’s heavily reliant on belief in a deity. Can Buddhism provide an alternative approach to addiction? Buddhist and incarcerated drug-offender Rich Cormier investigates “12-Step Buddhism” as outlined in a new book by Darren Littlejohn.

1. Top 10 celebrity Buddhists When we started putting this list together it seemed like it was going to be nothing more than a shallow, trivial — although perhaps welcome — distraction from all the news about disastrous wars and sordid political scandals, but as we dug deeper into the web we found that we felt at times inspired by reading about the practice of famous Buddhists, some of whom have had their trials. We hope that you too will be inspired — and entertained — by Wildmind’s Top Ten List of Celebrity Buddhists.

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Four reasons Buddhists can love evolution

Charles Darwin

Evolution — at least in the United States — has a deeply troubled relationship with religion. Or at least it does with some religions.

As you can see from the Pew Trust chart below, Buddhists on the whole (81% of them) think that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth.

In fact of all the religious traditions included on the chart, Buddhists are the most accepting of evolution, with evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the least accepting.

Those of us who value an objective and evidence-based (read “scientific”) understanding of the world are greatly disturbed by attempts to displace sound science from the classroom, to introduce spurious ideas such as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design,” and to give the impression that evolution is somehow scientifically controversial, when in fact it’s backed by an overwhelming amount of evidence from all branches of science.

graph of belief in evolution, by religious affiliation

Many of us see the intrusion of religion into the public sphere as being a serious erosion of the principles of the US constitution, which protect us from government-sponsored religious coercion by ensuring that no religion can use government to foist itself upon us. We see the fear of Evolution that some religious practitioners have as being a potentially serious threat to our own religious freedoms.

But evolution, on the other hand, holds no fear for Buddhists, and in fact it fits with the Buddhist world view rather well. And this year being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of “The Origin Of Species,” this is perhaps a good time to explain why it is that Buddhism quite happily accepts evolution as an explanation for the origins of human life, and to explore how Buddhists relate to science in general and evolution in particular.

See also


First up is that Buddhism has no creation myth to defend. It’s true that in the Pali Aggañña Sutta the Buddha tells a story about the creation of the world, in which he claims that the the universe goes through periods of evolution and involution (similar to the ideas of the “Big Bang” and what’s sometimes called “The Big Crunch” where gravitational forces draw all the matter in the universe back to a central point).

But the sutta is a parody on the claims of the religious Orthodox of the day — the Brahmins — to be a superior class of human being, with special privileges in society and a special relationship with the gods. The parody shows the gods to be deluded beings just like ourselves and the Brahmins to be Pretenders to social and religious pre-eminence. The Aggañña Sutta is clearly not to be taken literally as a origins myth.

If you need convincing of that fact, you’ll need to take a look at a broader range of Buddhist teachings, including the famous Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. In this parable the Buddha points out that religious practitioners who concern themselves with the origins of the universe and other topics are missing the point of religious practice.

Religion, a very fundamental sense, is not about God, myths, rules, or even beliefs. Instead it’s about moving from a state of suffering to a state of non-suffering. The rest of a religious tradition is merely (in theory, anyway) a tool to help us achieve the end of suffering.

The Buddha in fact said that he only taught one thing, suffering and how to end it. Contemplating the origins of the universe or any other such topic is merely a distraction. Just as a man shot with a poison arrow would die if instead of pulling out the arrow he speculated endlessly about who made the arrow, why it was shot, what kind of wood was used, etc, so too suffering beings continue to suffer as long as they focus on anything but understanding how suffering arises and how to deal with it. And even that is only useful insofar as those beings actually put their understanding into practice.

It’s likely that the Buddha had no special knowledge of the origins of the universe, but even if he had known he wouldn’t have discussed the matter: “And why are [these things] undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.

“Conjecture about the origin of the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” [Acintita Sutta]. Certainly, some fundamentalists seem seriously out-to-lunch, so perhaps the Buddha was right in claiming that dwelling repeatedly on things you can never prove from your own experience can drive you a bit crazy.


Buddhism has an emphasis on seeking truth, and has no interest in getting people to “believe” anything. Belief is not a path to salvation. No amount of belief that the arrow isn’t poisoned, or belief that it was sent as a test of your faith, or that it’s a relatively new arrow and not the old arrow that carbon dating shows it to be will save you from suffering. It’s our actions that cause us suffering or help us to escape suffering.

Buddhism encourages us not to believe what we’ve been told is the truth, but instead to seek the truth through our own experience. The Kalama Sutta, often called the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, is the most important source that affirms that we must each seek the truth though our own experience. The Kalamas were a clan who were rather confused because they had lots of teachers, both orthodox Brahmins and more experimental shramanas, coming to their area and giving contradictory teachings. Who was right? Who was wrong? The Kalamas were interested in the Buddha’s take on how to cut their through the thicket of views and establish what was true. The Buddha said,

Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’

That may not seem to leave much! You can’t trust sacred scriptures, tradition, or even so-called “common sense.” So what did the Buddha say could be trusted as a source of truth? He said,

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

So there are two things here. First, we have to trust our own experience. What leads to happiness and what leads to suffering? Second, we can trust “the wise” – but with the unspoken proviso that we have to establish who are “the wise” on the basis of — again — our experience.

It’s precisely fundamentalism’s “belief in beliefs” and its taking the writings of bronze age nomadic herdsmen as the infallible and literal word of God that leads them into the trap of having to deny the evidence of their own senses. As Barbara O’Brien writes on her blog, “I mean, who you gonna believe? A 5,000-year-old book or your own lying eyes?”

For Buddhists, the outmoded scientific understanding of 5th century BCE India is simply not a problem. We’ve already been encouraged to reject anything that conflicts with evidence. And since the evidence from biology, physics, and chemistry suggests overwhelmingly that the universe is billions of years old and that life has evolved, even if Buddhist scriptures did conflict with evolution (which they don’t) we’d have an ethical obligation to discard them.


When Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution through natural selection 150 years ago, virtually everyone — scientists and preachers alike — believed that species were fixed and immutable. What would the Buddha have said about the fact that species do in fact change and evolve over time? He’d have said, “Of course. All conditioned things are subject to change.” There simply is no problem in Buddhism with accepting that species evolve.

The monotheistic religions tend to take what’s called an “eternalistic” view of the universe. God is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow still manages to act). The soul is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow can be either saved or damned).

This view of things (or at least certain important things) is an attempt to find security in an unstable and impermanent world. Existentially, we find we suffer because we lose the things we love, including ourselves. How do we respond to the raw fact of impermanence? We can either argue that the self is in fact eternal and unchanging, or we can do as Buddhism does and accept and embrace change.

Buddhism sees the problem of change not as being change itself, but in how we relate to it — the problem is that we cling to impermanent things. When we cling to something impermanent (anything from status, or a new car, or a relationship, all the way to life itself) we will inevitably suffer as the thing we depend upon changes. The problem is not change, but clinging.

Buddhism would see the attempt to see species as immutable to be a form of clinging — clinging to the categories that the mind creates. In the mind of the eternalist it becomes a form of blasphemy to question the labels that the mind imposes upon reality. Buddhism is very astute at recognizing that all labels are merely arbitrary and static snapshots of our perception of an ever-changing process of change. Even the categories and labels that Buddhism uses are seen as being, ultimately, false. Thus we have texts like the Heart Sutra that negate important Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths (“There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path”) as well as numerous other teachings.

In the Pali texts it’s clear that the same approach is taken. The Dharma (the teachings and practices) are seen as a raft, to be abandoned when we reach the far shore of direct perception of reality. We of course need the raft just now, but it’s important also that we recognize that the raft is something to be abandoned. If we cling to it we’ll never be able to step onto the shores of true spiritual awakening.

So in short, Buddhism has no fear of impermanence. The evolution of species is just another example of impermanence and of the lack of inherent selfhood.



While traveling around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin was struck by the fact that he could understand facial expressions of people from different cultures, but not their languages or gestures. Darwin also believed that our sense of moral compassion came from a natural desire to alleviate the suffering of others. He was an ardent abolitionist. Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco … said … that these views are nearly identical to those of Tibetan Buddhists. “I am now calling myself a Darwinian,” Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama saying, after Ekman read him some passages of Darwin’s work. [From New Scientist]

That’s quite something, that the Dalai Lama considers himself a Darwinist. From an evolutionary point of view, ethics and compassion have evolved. They are a natural part of the evolved universe. This is important to the Dalai Lama because he has a profound belief that goodness is inherent to our nature.

The English Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, (who happens to be my own teacher) makes explicit this link between the Darwinianly evolved universe and the path of spirituality. He argues that we have inherited faculties such as self-awareness and compassion, but that our evolution is incomplete. Biological, or Darwinian evolution, he calls “The Lower Evolution,” while he compares and contrasts the spiritual path by referring to it as “The Higher Evolution.”

The Lower Evolution is not a conscious process, has no end-point (it is “non-teleological”), and operates on groups rather than on individuals. The Higher Evolution is not something that just happens to us: it’s the result of our own efforts to shape our consciousness, to make something of ourselves. The Higher Evolution is teleological — it has an end point. We find ourselves suffering, and the sense of self-awareness we have inherited allows us to ask why this is, and what we can do about it. The end point of The Higher Evolution is the attainment of non-suffering. And The Higher Evolution is an individual rather than a collective process. We can practice with others, we can learn from others, and we can even sometimes teach and guide others, but in the end it is we as individuals who must bring about the changes within ourselves that lead to non-suffering.

An old friend of mine once made a very interesting comparison between the Lower and Higher Evolutions. Biological evolution takes place through selection pressure. There are limited resources in the world and creatures must compete for them. Those creatures that are most successful at competing for resources will survive and will pass on their genetic adaptations to future generations. And so species evolve in response to selection pressure.

In the “environment” of the mind we have a “population” of mental habits and mental states. Some of those (greed, hatred, delusion) cause us suffering. Others, by contrast (compassion, awareness) tend to make us happier. Once we commit ourselves to the goal of suffering less, and as we maintain an awareness of that goal in our consciousness, we create a selection pressure of sorts.

Those habits that cause us suffering will tend to lose the battle for inner resources because we will choose not to feed them. Those mental habits that tend to being happiness will tend to thrive and grow because resources (our mental energy) is being poured into them.

Here’s what’s said to be a Cherokee legend, even though it isn’t:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This is evolution in action — not the Darwinian evolution of species but the Higher Evolution of the individual consciousness. Biological evolution has given us the tools of self-awareness and understanding that allow us to “evolve” ourselves into more spiritually advanced — and happier — beings. But it’s up to us to do the work of feeding only the helpful wolf.

Evolution is, for Buddhists, not something to deny or to be afraid of, but something to accept (as long as the evidence is in its favor) and to make use of.

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Susan O’Brien: “Mindfulness is remembering to come back, over and over again.”

(L to R) Susan O'Brien, Michael Grady, and Sara Schedler

The other day I was being interviewed by a journalist and he asked a question about meditation that comes up very often: “So, when you’re meditating are you going into a trance?”

I said to him that it was exactly the opposite, that when you meditate you’re coming out of a trance. Actually, I could have said that when you’re meditating you’re continually coming out of trances. In normal, non-meditating life we’re constantly slipping in and out of trance states without even realizing it. You’ll recognize what I mean when I give some examples:

  • You’re in a conversation with someone and you’re so busy thinking about what you’re going to say in response to something they said thirty seconds ago that you’ve entirely missed the last thirty seconds of the conversation.
  • You’ve found yourself lost in an imaginary conversation in which you’re really letting someone have a piece of your mind.
  • You’ve just arrived at the place you were driving to and you can’t remember anything about the journey there.
  • You can’t remember where you put something that you had in your hand just two minutes ago.
  • You spend time thinking about your failures, telling yourself how nothing ever goes right.

All of these examples are instances where we’ve been in a trance state, so caught up in our thoughts—so “en-tranced”—that we’ve been in an altered state of consciousness. Common names for these trance states are: distractedness, daydreaming, spacing out, obsessing, and wool-gathering. We don’t think of these as trances because we think that trances are connected in our minds with some kind of mystical and perhaps scary mystical states of consciousness. But actually these trance states are happening to us all the time. We slip in and out of them—and from one trance state to another—without even noticing.

In meditation, what we’re doing is noticing when we’ve been distracted—when we’ve been en-tranced—and mindfully returning our awareness to some mental “anchor,” such as the breath. In other words, our meditation practice involves noticing, and letting go of, trance states. Meditation involves coming out of trance states and instead mindfully observing our experience.

The problem with trance states is that we have surrendered any sense of direction. Trance states (or distractions, in simple language) are like fast-flowing rivers. When we’re caught up in one we’re swept along by the force of the stream of thoughts. We’re so caught up in thinking that we don’t even realize that we are thinking. Mindfulness starts with realizing, “Oh, yes, there’s some unhelpful thinking going on.” We scrabble for the bank, and then, all going well, we can sit by the side of the fast-flowing water, observing it as it passes us but not getting drawn in. Although often of course we start to lose our mindfulness; a particularly compelling thought is passing by and we lean closer in, and then before we know it we’ve fallen in and we’re being swept away, without (once again) realizing what’s happened.

The Greeks had a myth of the Waters of Lethe, which separated the world of the living from that of the dead. Lethe is the Greek word for forgetfulness, and this metaphor of thought being like a river works best if we think of the river as having this quality of inducing forgetfulness. When we fall into the river—when we become absorbed in a distracting thought—we forget our original purpose, we forget that we were meditating, we forget that we have a choice about whether to continue with the particular thought that we’re obsessed by, and we even forget that we’re thinking. Perhaps that’s why the word sati, which we translate as “mindfulness” has the root meaning of “remembering.”

Mindfulness is the opposite. It literally means “remembering.” And we cultivate mindfulness by, as Susan O’Brien says, “remembering to come back, over and over again.”

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