Saturday, 21 May 2011

Ed Halliwell - Comment is free

Just came across a series of interesting posts on Buddhism and Mindfulness by Ed Halliwell at the Guardian's Comment is Free. Here are a few excerpts:

Meditation is an emotional rollercoaster
"...A lot of people now come to meditation having read reports on the virtues of mindfulness. Last week there was one claiming it can ward off ageing, and one suggesting meditators make more rational decisions. A month ago mindfulness was declared more effective for pain relief than morphine (maybe, but I still wouldn't fancy the dentist's drill without an injection), while it's also being said to increase grey matter in the brain, ease the fear of dying, and help US army troops operate effectively in a war zone, as well as protecting them from post-traumatic stress. Two new books are out in May, offering meditation plans as a proven path to wellbeing.

Such reports and regimes are genuinely helpful – I've written and enthused about similar ones myself – but collectively they can start to give the impression that meditation is the cure for all life's ills, and that if we could just sit down and follow the breath, problems and pain will fall away. Ten or 20 years ago, meditation suffered from an undeserved association with flaky new-ageism; today there's a danger of another unhelpful image – mindfulness as hassle-free, quick fix.

As anyone who's actually sat down to practise knows, this is a consumer fantasy. Mindfulness has a great many benefits, but they tend to come as a by-product of getting up close to unpleasant experiences like pain, turmoil, and "negative" thought patterns. Striving to avoid unwanted aspects of ourselves and our lives creates stress – by facing them openly in meditation, we give ourselves a chance to relate to suffering more skilfully, with confidence and compassion..."

You don't need the 'right' kind of zafu to be a Buddhist

"...Unlike many western Buddhists, I don't feel a strong connection with the East. I've never been to India or Tibet, don't get excited about Japanese tea ceremonies, and am usually filled with irritation and embarrassment when fellow westerners greet me by saying "Namaste" or in some other way acting as if they're from Bodhgaya rather than Brent Cross or Bangor. While deeply grateful to the lineages through which Buddhist practices are taking root in the west, my attraction to them is primarily their clear and direct transmission of insights and instructions that speak to me practically, ethically and spiritually. The fact that they came from Asia seems unimportant.

So reading Dzogchen Ponlop's new book Rebel Buddha gave me heart. Ponlop is a well-respected Tibetan teacher, steeped in the cultural heritage of his tradition, and yet his central premise is that western Buddhists risk making fools of themselves if their practice is based on attachment to foreign rituals that were adopted wholesale by spiritual seekers in the 60s. "If the Buddha's teaching is to remain relevant," says Ponlop, "we can't hold on to our hippie-era presentation of it... it is senseless to hang on to the forms of a traditional, Asian Buddhist culture and pretend we can fully inhabit that experience in a meaningful way."

Can we feel the future through psi? Don't rule it out
A study suggesting the existence of precognition should be carefully scrutinised – not dismissed out of hand.

George Osborne's cheap shot at contemplation
The chancellor's implication that meditation is wasteful ignores evidence that Buddhist mindfulness is a powerful tool.


Reframing the New Atheism debate
The centrality of consciousness should be acknowledged, rather than seeing the debate as purely scientific or religious

"... New Atheism doesn't acknowledge the centrality of consciousness", suggesting that when we view ourselves and the world in purely material terms, as crude scientism does, we rob ourselves of some of our humanity. Sadly, she didn't elaborate further, and a potential flicker of illumination was lost.
So how might the lie of the land change if we did acknowledge the centrality of consciousness?
This would mean taking an active interest in how our attempts at making objective observations are inevitably coloured by the subjective standpoint from which we view them; and becoming more alert to how our perceptions and perspectives are built from the ground of our personal histories: the parenting we received, our education, our cultural background, our genetics, the time and place we live in and so on. It would mean recognising that we don't see things clearly.
When a TV picture is fuzzy, don't we then examine our receiving equipment, rather than assuming the fuzziness is meant to be part of the transmission? In meditation practice, this process is sometimes called "turning the eyeballs inwards" and it's a central element of the Buddhist non-theistic tradition, which is, it has been said, less interested in whether God exists as whether the perceiver of God exists. Or, to put it another way, how can we judge evidence accurately when we're doing the judging from the position of an ever-changing, non-solid self and not recognising that our standpoint must inevitably influence the observation?"...


Mindfulness: beyond the science 
Each month, a digest of the latest research on mindfulness meditation lands in my inbox. The volume of studies has mushroomed in recent years – the most recent round-up (pdf) alone cites 35 new papers detailing effects on people with conditions such as heart disease and borderline personality disorder, the results of an innovative new mindfulness curriculum for schools, and the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses on the structure of the brain (it seems to reduce density in the amygdala).

Scientific studies show the effects of mindfulness, but can they do justice to the transformation felt by many who practise it?  If practising mindfulness can help people – and it appears to – then all this evidence can only be a good thing. Whereas for years meditation's public image was stuck in the 1960s, tainted with hippie self-indulgence or new-age flakiness, now it's being taken seriously by everyone from top academics to US congressman and government departments.

But while it's the gold standard for evidence in our culture, can scientific data tell the whole story? In our book The Mindful Manifesto, Jonty Heaversedge and I describe how mindfulness is now being presented as a secular healing tool, but we also felt it important to acknowledge how for thousands of years it has been linked with spiritual training. Scientific studies might show that mindfulness improves well-being in material terms, but can they do justice to the inner transformation that occurs for many people who practise it? Isn't something lost by presenting its effects purely as a physical or mental health benefit..."

 Buddhism in education 

 "...As faith schooling from various traditions continues to grab headlines, the prospect of a specifically Buddhist education hasn't been much mooted. School-based practices inspired by Buddhism, on the other hand, are starting to gain momentum. Last weekend, Goldie Hawn was enthusing about the British launch of her meditation in schools programme, while, on a slightly lower key note, mindfulness teaching has already been introduced in several private institutions – Wellington College and Tonbridge School among them. There are also initiatives to introduce meditation in the state sector, under the guidance of psychologists such as Mark Williams in Oxford.

It's been said that Buddhism will establish itself in the west as a psychology rather than a religion, and that seems to be the case here - many of those introducing meditation to schools wouldn't identify as Buddhists. And the rationale has been mostly scientific – among other benefits, meditation has been shown to foster attention skills, reduce aggression, and increase pro-social behaviour and relational abilities (among children and adults), as well as protecting against anxiety and depression..."


The mindful enlightenment Buddhist practices can help bring about a new kind of social enlightenment.

"A fresh kind of enlightenment is in the air. Madeleine Bunting recently reported on the bold vision for progress being set out by Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society Of Arts. Calling for a new "revolution of the mind", the RSA is grounding its arguments in empirical studies from neuroscience and psychology.
Evidence from these disciplines is making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds, wired for empathy and able to access a consciousness that, if developed, could help release us from the shackles of emotion that so often bind us. Building on its 18th-century precursor, the defining feature of this enlightenment is an understanding that to tackle the world's most pressing problems, we don't just need more action, we need more awareness...."

Let's be honest about placeboRather than dismissing treatments that use placebo as hocus pocus, we should learn what we can from this powerful effect

Investigating the Buddhist mindsetDoes the Dalai Lama's support for a 'centre for investigating healthy minds' compromise its scientific respectability? 

A prescription for meditation
Research shows Transcendental Meditation, despite its celebrity baggage, can be an effective way of fighting depression.

'World's next top lama' to visit Europe
The Karmapa, 24 years old and likely spiritual successor to the Dalai Lama, is coming to the UK in June.

Suffering doesn't have to be worthless 
Does suffering improve us? If we can steer a middle way through suffering, neither wallowing in it nor ignoring it, it can help us grow.

Buddhism beats depression 
Should the health service sponsor Buddhist techniques to beat depression? Why not, if they work

How do you get to Nirvana? Practice   
"These can feel like giddy times for a Buddhist. It is not long since just mentioning meditation tagged you as a gullible new-ager or self-indulgent hippie. Buddhism, if considered at all, had a reputation for promoting withdrawal from this pain-filled world. But in the space of a few short years, core dharma has permeated western society's most influential institutions.

Madeleine Bunting charts the cracks in our once-cherished concepts of individual identity, and notes how the Buddhist teaching of egolessness resonates with corresponding insights from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Ideas that chime with Buddhism are being championed by the Royal Society of Arts and the New Economics Foundation, and reported in mainstream media. Before cif belief, I never dreamed I would synchronise my journalistic career and meditation practice, finding national newspaper space to write from a Buddhist perspective.

Buddhism is reaching beyond academia, think tanks and the media. Most GPs are aware of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and cognitive therapy (MBCT), well-researched approaches to health problems which feature meditation as their core component. MBCT is endorsed by the National Institute For Clinical Excellence, and thousands of people are being referred to mindfulness training on the NHS. In Scotland, the government has funded more than 200 healthcare professionals to teach MBCT. As Mark Vernon says, "people right now are slowly eating raisins in a workshop somewhere near you."

I'm glad they are, because if Buddhist practices are to work, they must be what they say on the tin – practices. Reading about them or studying them scientifically may be helpful as inspiration, but unless the disciplines are applied (repeatedly), the effect will be minimal. It's one thing to decide that compassion is a good thing, that mindfulness could make us healthier, or that there is no separate self, but quite another to develop compassion, mindfulness and selflessness. Our bodies and brains are products of millions of years of evolution that have programmed us to behave in certain ways, and as most of us discover painfully, it is not so easy to change habits we carry from the past...."

Self-help can be no help 
Quick fixes often make the underlying problems worse. Letting go of the desire for self-improvement is the answer 10 comments

The drugs don't work
The number of people on antidepressants is soaring – we may be more miserable, but let's swap the pills for support and care


Between the rational and the mystical
What is agnosticism?: We neither need an external, creator God, nor to close ourselves off from the spectacular majesty of existence

Dawkins strips away religion's dead wood  

Dawkins is doing religion a favour – by exposing faith and spirituality to criticism, he paves the way for their renewal.

"I doubt it was his intention, but in 100 years time Richard Dawkins could be hailed as a prime architect of 21st-century religion. Though strident to the point of comic fundamentalism, the New Atheist diatribe has not only laid bare the irrationalities of believers, but forced those of us who favour scientific-spiritual accommodation to sharpen our arguments. And that can only aid the development of spiritual forms fit for the modern world.

When I first picked up The God Delusion, I was a bit disappointed to find it was rather polite about my own tradition. Right up there in chapter one, Dawkins sensibly suggests that Buddhism might be seen as an ethical or philosophical system rather than a religion, and so not a major focus for his ire. We've got off lightly from other anti-religionists too – Sam Harris even goes on Buddhist meditation retreats.

The International Buddhist Film Festival, which opened in London last week, has at least provoked a bit of poking at our flabby underbelly. On Radio 3, Martin Palmer accused western Buddhists of creating their own version based on "the religion we don't want, which is Judeo-Christian, and the religion we would love to have, which isn't quite religion, which … doesn't have too many rules, and the rules it does have, like the Tibetan ban on homosexuality, are conveniently forgotten." Mark Vernon, relaying Palmer's comments on his blog, agreed, describing western Buddhism as "deeply partial, a pick 'n' mix religion". Their criticisms would appear to be supported by a glance at the IBFF schedule, which includes films – such as Donnie Darko and Hamlet – for which the label Buddhist seems pretty tenuous.

But Buddhism has always changed shape according to place and time. Impermanence, as one of the three marks of existence, must apply also to Buddhism itself. It accepts, even demands, that every culture must find its own unique expressions of awakening. To prevent them becoming pieces of stale ideology, its discoveries must be tested anew by each practitioner, rather than being swallowed from scripture. Whenever Buddhism is embraced in a new location, it has mixed with pre-existing wisdom – hence, for example, why Zen looks so different from Tibetan Vajrayana.

In Buddhism there should be no room for dogma – the ultimate criteria for performing an action is its role in alleviating the suffering of oneself and others. A course of action could reduce suffering in one circumstance and magnify it in another, so the rules are there to be broken and the traditions are there to be changed, provided, of course, you can do it skilfully. When asked to sum up the essence of Buddhism, Japanese teacher Shunyru Susuki replied "Not always so". The pliability of the teachings means that mistakes can be learned from, and culturally created doctrines or codes of behaviour that are unwise, outdated or harmful – the aforementioned approach to homosexuality for example – can be freely consigned to the bin.

Does that make western Buddhism a pick 'n' mix religion? Perhaps it does – but if we pick and mix well, we might create something good. Indeed, if we pick wise insights from the past and mix them with the ever-accumulating knowledge from our own cultural heritage, then what we might have a viable model for 21st-century spirituality. It needn't even be called Buddhism, which is, after all, just a word.

As a path that simultaneously emphasises both constant change and a relentless search for truth, perhaps Buddhism is in a good position to develop more mature forms. However, the rational onslaught must inevitably spur other traditions to self-question and adapt too. And this is where Richard Dawkins may well be one of religion's greatest allies. The old code that sacred beliefs cannot be challenged for fear of causing offence has been shattered – and it needed shattering. If the sacred dimension just means articles of faith that provoke outrage when assaulted, then religion and the religious would be better off without them. Dawkins and his ilk may have their sights trained on eliminating religion, but what they are actually doing is exposing its dead wood, the anachronisms that have been protected from critical thinking, and that needed cutting away.

Claims to special privilege in society, indoctrination of belief as fact, repressive or violent acts as a means of evangelism, and the upholding of outdated worldviews on scriptural grounds – all these and many other examples of the misuse of spiritual traditions do them no favours and should be dropped. If that is pick 'n' mix religion, can I be first in the queue at the sweet counter?

More articles by Ed Halliwell at  and 

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