Category Archives: Buddhism

Meditation 15: What if I’m doing it wrong?

Image of a sitting frogHave you ever thought ‘What if I’m doing it wrong?’ We’ve all had that feeling when learning something new. This is no less true when the new activity is meditation. We may have reached a point where externally everything is polished – we’ve ‘found our seat’ and can meditate comfortably for as long as we would like to – but then another level of difficulty opens up because we are more sensitive to what’s happening ‘inside’.

If that new practice is one of the more open styles of meditation, such as ‘just sitting’ or recollective awareness meditation, there are not the usual meditation instructions to fall back on. It is much more likely that a novice will be worrying, ‘What if I’m doing it wrong?’ when there is a fundamental lack of specific guidance on what it means to be doing it right. When I think I’m doing it wrong, then I’ve assumed that there are certain desirable results (meditative attainments) that are supposed to come from doing it right. By doing it wrong, I worry that I will be denied these results. Is it at all helpful for me to be concerned about this? Have I completely missed the point? Or maybe there is no point – in which case, why am I even doing this?

As I understand it, in the traditional schools of Buddhist meditation one’s progress along the path is marked by meditative attainment, which is typically a matter that is kept between you and your teacher, someone more accomplished and better integrated than yourself. However, Jason Siff writes (in Thoughts are Not the Enemy, Shambhala 2014, p179), ‘I believe attainments are unnecessary concepts. They can easily derail a well-functioning spiritual path and turn it into a dysfunctional nightmare. … Some attainments may be real. Now, when that is the case, there is no advantage to making it known. Someone who really has succeeded in diminishing the force of her desires and ill will, and has substantially reduced her self-importance and pride, would be content being a nobody’.

People, myself included, first come to meditation with the expectation that their hard work will be rewarded. It’s part of our culture in the Western world, where the Protestant work ethic is alive and well despite increasing secularism. New meditators will also expect their time to be productive – even their leisure time: ‘work hard and play hard’. We can’t help but bring our cultural conditioning to new activities, meditation too, and probably without even consciously thinking about it we believe that doing it right will ensure a more efficient path to being productive. But productive of what?

The recent presence of mindfulness in the media, coming mainly from the growth of mindfulness based stress reduction programmes, means that it would be easy for those running meditation groups to sell meditation to newcomers as simply a method for solving problems – to cure whatever ails you. Stephen Batchelor (in After Buddhism, Yale University Press, 2016) points out that ‘…treating meditation as a technique for solving the problem of human suffering, however, is nothing new. Buddhism itself has frequently lapsed into this way of thinking and, in some schools, uncritically endorses such an approach. … This is no different from a sales pitch for an effective diet: if you follow this regime for X amount of time, it is certain that you will lose X amount of weight.’

The beginning meditator will look to veterans for reassurance that they’re doing it right, and that doing it right does have some positive benefits. We are, like it or not, driven by goals. However, there is the possibility that a well-practiced meditator has completely missed the point. Despite their accomplishments in certain meditative techniques they may have failed to have become a more integrated person, or, more generously, their integration may be radically asymmetrical with their desires well integrated, but their beliefs are poorly integrated as they are still operating under the assumptions of ideological dogma.

What light can recent developments in psychology shed on this topic? Conceptualising meditation in our minds as a task to be done correctly is a very heavily left hemisphere dominated approach: understandable in our current culture, but not a sign of good integration between the narrowly-focussed task-oriented language-producing aspects of our minds and the complementary widely aware integrating nonverbal aspects. Iain McGilchrist’s thesis (in The Master and His Emissary, Yale University Press, 2012) is that our current Western culture is the product of our left hemispheres pretty much going it alone (in his analogy, the Emissary has usurped the Master), and, if there is any hope of saving our sick society, it will involve a reintegration of the left and right hemisphere modes of being in the world, where the task-oriented narrow-focus modes of our left hemispheres are integrated by the wider awareness and more fluid modes of our right hemispheres.

I appreciate this from personal experience as much as anyone. I’ve read enough books, listened to enough podcasts, watched enough videos and conversed with enough people. Which of these authorities am I hoping will be able to reassure me that I’m doing it right? As is often the case, there are about as many different opinions as there are people expressing them, and without some kind of absolute conviction that one of them is The Truth there’s a danger of flipping to the other extreme (of relativism) and assuming that all of these different methods are equally useful to me.

What I’ve found so far in my practice of meditation (which most commonly involves sitting quietly, with the intention to meditate) is that however much I want do it right, in fact I can’t do it wrong. Whatever progress occurs, it is arrived at indirectly, and if I assume I know what my so-called correct technique is aiming to achieve then I’m fundamentally limited by those assumptions. By sitting quietly and treating my thoughts kindly – not cutting them off or drowning them out – the noisy, narrowly focussed left hemisphere has a chance to settle of its own accord, and then the right hemisphere’s openness to new experience can make itself known. It isn’t a battle to subjugate the left hemisphere (that’s the sort of plan-driven technique that the solo left hemisphere would derive) but a space in which the right hemisphere can integrate with the left within its wider awareness.

To conclude, a quote and more questions. In After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor suggests that ‘…meditation is more usefully compared to the ongoing practice of an art than the development of a technical ability.’ Still, when cultivating an artistic meditative practice, people can also worry about doing it wrong, however cultivating a sensibility is a very different thing to drilling the correct practice of a technique. Is there some way of adapting the reassuring but dangerous phrase ‘you can’t do it wrong’ so that it reflects this view of it being the cultivation of an art rather than the execution of a technique?


Link to a list of previous blogs on meditation

Yielding to Buddhist torturers

The latest film from Martin Scorsese, now in cinemas, is entitled ‘Silence’, and concerns the struggles of Jesuit missionaries in a nascent Christian community in seventeenth century Japan. It’s a harrowing film to watch, because it contains a great many scenes of gruesome torture inflicted by the Buddhist Inquisitor on Japanese Christians and missionaries to get them to apostasize their beliefs, but it’s also a film that I felt raised troubling questions about how we should treat our identities and commitments. Should we be prepared to renounce them to save our lives? For someone of Christian identity, is stepping on an image of Christ just a formal gesture of no great significance, as the wily inquisitor urged? Or is it, simply by yielding to power and surrendering the individual conscience, a deeply undermining act, compared to which martyrdom might even be preferable? silence_2016_film

This film depicts a world that is a long way from any obvious application of the Middle Way – a deeply polarised world of clashing absolute beliefs. After initially tolerating limited European influence, at this stage the Japanese government had entered a phase of isolationism during which they were determined to limit foreign religious influence as well as other kinds of political influence, by any means necessary. Christian villagers are depicted as being crucified, ‘baptised’ with boiling water, summarily decapitated, drowned, or hung upside down in a pit with their neck veins opened, to induce renunciation either from them or from equally unfortunate missionary spectators. Ironically, of course, the Buddhist torture being inflicted on religious minorities in Japan mirrors the equally gruesome and better-known torture inflicted by the Catholic Inquisition on any type of heresy in Europe, at the very same time.

[The remainder of this review contains plot spoilers.]

But many people have lived in such a desperately polarised world, and indeed still do so. The Middle Way should still be practicable in such a world, as it should be in any conditions, but what does it imply? On the whole I found my sympathies with the character of Father Ferreira, an earlier Jesuit missionary who is depicted as having renounced his faith under earlier torture and to be living in Japan and studying Japanese thought. Ferreira urges the younger Jesuit who has come to find him (Rodriguez) to renounce similarly, rather than waiting for Japanese Christians to be tortured to death one by one in front of him. Ferreira recognises that the religious meaning of Christ and of Christian commitment to him is not just a matter of tribal identity, and insists that the loving action in the circumstances is to yield. After a great deal of resistance, Rodriguez finally convinces himself that Christ would understand his action, and apostasizes. In effect, Ferreira recognises the unhelpfulness of absolutizing religious commitment and confusing it with tribal identity. He seems to have made a step in the direction of the Middle Way, by allowing new information from outside to soften his previously rigid beliefs.

However, this also didn’t seem to me to be such an obviously right judgement, because of its political effects. If the state or a religious authority uses absolute power in this way, yielding to it could also be seen as encouraging that type of policy. Defying it, on the other hand, could possibly have the effect of encouraging tolerance. In the circumstances, though, the prospects of changing Japanese policy through defiance would seem to have been pretty remote. Much longer-term social and political change was required to eventually open up Japan. So I continue to see Ferreira as more justified on the whole, though with a full acceptance of the limitations of any judgement I can make from my comfortable armchair in relatively tolerant 21st century Britain.

However, I doubt if this is Scorsese’s own view. In the very final scene, we see Rodriguez’s burial according to Buddhist rites, with any indications of the deceased’s Christian origins strictly forbidden: but Rodriguez is clutching a hidden cross which his wife has presumably planted in his cupped hands. At the beginning of the final credits, there is also a dedication to the martyred Japanese Christians, ‘ad majoram dei gloriam’. Scorsese, as a Catholic, seems to want this in the end to be a triumphalist film about Christian heroism in the face of Buddhist oppression, despite the deep ambiguity of most of the film. I felt this was an artistic betrayal of the more creative ambiguity that the film would have done better to stick with.

Critics have been lambasting the film for being too long – the trademark criticism of an impatient age. I didn’t find it too long, but I did sometimes feel that the torture scenes were overdone. Despite these limitations, it is still a film well worth seeing for anyone interested in confronting the full anguish of our religious past. Although Scorsese’s artistic instincts seem to be in conflict with his dogmatism, most of the time the artistic instincts win out.

I’d especially recommend this film for any Buddhists who are inclined to idealise their religion by considering it intrinsically different from any other in the mix of its historical attitudes to violence and oppression. For example, Sangharakshita wrote:

Not a single page of Buddhist history has ever been lurid with the light of inquisitorial fires, or darkened with the smoke of heretic and heathen cities ablaze, or red with the blood of the guiltless victims of religious hatred. Like the Bodhisattva Manjushri, Buddhism wields only one sword, the Sword of Wisdom, and recognises only one enemy – Ignorance. That is the testimony of history, and is not to be gainsaid[1].

Such completely inaccurate idealisations are unfortunately still found amongst Western Buddhists, together with the assumption that the conceptual content of your metaphysical beliefs somehow makes a difference as to how rigid they are and how much conflict and oppression they create. But it’s not whether you call your ideal ‘God’ or ‘Enlightenment’ that makes the difference here, but whether you absolutise it. Scorsese’s film has the merit of making this point abundantly clear.  


[1] Sangharakshita, Buddhism in the Modern World

Picture: film poster copyright to the film-maker/distributor but copied from Wikipedia under fair use criterion. Please see this link for fair use justification.


The MWS Podcast 112: Sharon Salzberg on an introduction to Loving-kindness Meditation

Our guest today is the internationally renowned Buddhist meditation teacher and best-selling author Sharon Salzberg. Sharon co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. She’s been leading meditation retreats around the world for over three decades and in many ways has become the leading advocate for the practice of metta or loving-kindness meditation in the West. Her books include Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, A Heart as wide as the world, The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, Real Happiness at Work and Room to Breathe: An at Home Meditation Retreat. She’s here to talk to us today about loving-kindness meditation, her forthcoming book Real Love and a new online initiative she’s recently started called The Boundless Heart.

MWS Podcast 112: Sharon Salzberg as audio only:
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The mystical flip

‘Mysticism’ is for me a term with many positive connotations: though I know that there are some (primarily secularists) for whom it is a term of disparagement. I see it as primarily an attitude that recognises mystery, and thus the extent of our uncertainty and ignorance, very often in the sphere of religion and very often supported by states of temporary integration such as the Buddhist dhyana. I’ve written about the positive qualities of mysticism in a previous blog post, but here I want to focus on a problematic feature that has often accompanied it, and perhaps contributed to the negative views that some have formed. I call this problematic feature the ‘mystical flip’, and I’ve encountered it particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, and related emptiness and non-duality type talk, but I’ve been surprised recently also to find it in a Christian context, reading Thomas Merton.

The mystical flip seems to start with refined and subtle experiences, perhaps in contemplation or meditation, where people dwell much more fully than usual in right-hemisphere dominated openness. If you want to know why this kind of state is right-hemisphere dominated, watch this TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor: Bolte Taylor effectively describes a mystical experience that is created by the disabling of her left hemisphere. In this state, we lose the goal-orientation and the belief in linguistic representation that is characteristic of left hemisphere dominance. If they’re not accompanied by the disabling features of a stroke, such experiences can be helpful temporary integrated experiences. However, at some point they must finish, and we must go back to left hemisphere dominance.

In our normal mode, what do we make of this? Well, many people seem to immediately draw the conclusion that they’ve seen a higher ‘truth’. In this higher state there are no goals and no linguistic representations. Nevertheless, of course, back in the normal state there are goals and representations. pancake-tossWhen talking about what they regard as mystical truths, then, the mystics claim that in some ultimate state there are no goals and representations, but when talking normally they flip back to admitting that normally, in the ‘conventional’ state, there are. This, then, is the mystical flip. Other terms for it, in various traditions, could be Nagarjuna’s Two Truths doctrine, or the divine versus human view, or the Spinozan ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ (from the standpoint of eternity) versus the standpoint of time.

The Buddhist Diamond Sutra is a good example of a text that consists almost entirely of constant mystical flips. Here is one example:

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata [Buddha] conceives the idea: I must set forth a teaching. For if anyone says the Tathagata sets forth a teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to say what I teach. As to any Truth-declaring system, Truth is undeclarable, so “an enunciation of Truth” is just the name given to it.  (21)

At one and the same time, such texts constantly insist that they have the truth from one perspective and that they do not from another, but there is rarely, if ever, any attempt to bridge the gap between the two perspectives.

Here is another example I discovered recently in Thomas Merton:

We are plagued today with the heritage of that Cartesian self-awareness, which assumed that the empirical ego is the starting point of an infallible intellectual progress to truth and spirit, more and more refined, abstract, and immaterial…. But in actual fact, Hui Neng says, there is no attainment, and therefore to busy oneself about seeking a “way” to attainment is pure self-deception. Zen is not “attained” by mirror-wiping meditation but by self-forgetfulness in the existential present of life here and now. (Mystics and Zen Masters, 25-6)

Merton here does the mystical flip not so much in terms of ‘truth’ as in terms of ‘self’, being apparently unable to engage with any third alternative between self-obsession and self-forgetfulness.

Of course, I’d rather that people were able to do the mystical flip than that they were just stuck on one side of it or the other. But it is, at best, a transitional stage in recognising and applying the Middle Way, and it certainly seems to me like a big mistake to identify texts, however hallowed, that merely do mystical flips as ones that tell us anything much about the Middle Way. The Middle Way is how you stop doing mystical flips, or at least slow them down or limit them. It requires you to reframe the ways you are talking about ‘absolute’ and ‘conventional’ perspectives so as to avoid getting into such a false duality in the first place.

The key ways I would suggest that we can avoid mystical flips amount to the five principles of Middle Way Philosophy as I identified them in an earlier post and in the first six of my introductory video series. Scepticism, the first principle, tells us why both absolute and conventional positions are uncertain, whatever experiences they may appeal to. Provisionality tells us how we can practically cultivate an attitude that doesn’t identify entirely with either the absolute or the conventional positions. Incrementality suggests ways of breaking down the absolute dualities involved and re-conceptualising them as increments. Agnosticism confirms us in our determination not to be sucked into either of the absolute sets of assumptions. Integration relates these to a process whereby we unite divided beliefs and energies in our experience rather than merely taking the side of one against the other.

In terms of the brain hemispheres, the Middle Way doesn’t just involve flipping from one dominance to the other, but rather using the right hemisphere perspective to inform and integrate the conceptual and goal-driven world of the left. Any spiritual perspective that simply leaves out the left hemisphere is inadequate to the vast majority of our experience and thus unable to transform it positively. But right-hemisphere experience can help us recognise the limitations of any particular set of goals and representations we may have grown accustomed to.

There is no need at all for anyone to get stuck at the stage of doing mystical flips. But unfortunately they seem to be very much reinforced by traditional authority in many traditions, as well as by the perception that there is no alternative. If we can avoid mystical flips we might also manage to avoid ethical flips (between absolute and relative positions) or scientific flips (between absolute belief in scientific results and disparaging science for its fallibility). There is an alternative.



On our recent summer retreat at Anybody’s Barn, I introduced an evening activity of drawing our own mandalas. This is a practice I experienced first in the Triratna Buddhist movement, but well worthy of wider adoption. There was some initial resistance, but everyone involved seems to have then found it a rewarding exercise, enabling them to reflect synthetically on the various factors supporting integration in their own lives or holding them back. It’s that process of reflection that’s valuable about it, rather than producing a work of art, but using visual symbols rather than words can also help to open up new perspectives.

What is a mandala? The terms derives from the Sanskrit word for ‘circle’, and mandalas are circular diagrams in which the spatial alignment of symbols in relation both to each other and to the centre can represent their relationship to an integrative process. The traditional Buddhist interpretation of mandalas is to see them as diagrams of enlightenment: but just by breaking down ‘enlightenment’ spatially one is already beginning to see it as an incremental process, a journey towards the centre, in which one may make asymmetrical progress. It’s for that reason that when Jung encountered mandalas he immediately identified them with excitement as diagrams of integration – a universal psychological process rather than one dependent on particular absolute Buddhist concepts. He found mandalas in many other cultural contexts, as well as in his dreams and in the dreams of his patients. Unfortunately, as with most such symbols, you’ll also find mandalas absolutised as symbols of cosmic order of some kind. The Wikipedia page on mandalas even starts off by saying they are symbols of the universe! But they most usefully represent our experience, not claims about ultimate reality.

It struck me recently that Jung’s adoption of mandalas as universal symbols, even though they were first identified explicitly in Buddhist culture, is a good analogy for the Middle Way. Jung used the idea of the Middle Way independently long before he engaged with Buddhism (see this earlier blog), but in a similar universal way to reflect a general human psychological process. If Buddhists have no problem with the idea that mandalas are universal, there seems no reason why they should not also accept the Middle Way as universal on a similar basis. Just as mandalas should not be defined in restrictive ways that prevent us from recognising the similarity of mandala forms across cultures, the Middle Way should also not be defined in restrictively Buddhist ways that prevent us recognising the absolutisations that may impede us in a variety of human situations rather than only those that applied at the time of the Buddha.

The integration depicted in a mandala is what I would call an integration of meaning: that is, that it depicts symbols that can be mutually recognised and synthesised in terms of a common understanding, even if they appear to be opposed.Middle Way Philosophy 3 Of course that integration of meaning can also provide us with inspiration for an integration of belief: that is, we can reflect on the potential compatibility of some aspects of apparently opposed beliefs associated with the symbols. But a mandala itself doesn’t tell us how to reframe our understanding of opposed beliefs so that we can integrate them : it merely provides inspiration for doing so. The way in which mandalas can depict integration of meaning is the reason I used a mandala on the cover of my book Middle Way Philosophy 3: The Integration of Meaning.

One of my favourite Buddhist mandalas is the Five Buddha mandala, because this depicts five symbolic Buddhas that represent different types of wisdom. These types of wisdom are in constant tension with each other. For example, the Blue Buddha, Akshobhya, represents non-discriminating or mirror-like wisdom according to which all Mandala of the Five Buddhas Vaddhaka versionbeliefs are ultimately empty (because none can be absolutely justified). On the opposite side of the mandala to Akshobhya, though, is the Red Buddha Amitabha, who represents discriminating wisdom as well as compassion. At the same time as recognising the lack of ultimate justification for our beliefs we need to recognise that as embodied beings we can adopt provisional beliefs about our specific environment, and indeed have particular loyalties to the people we know in our embodied experience. Thus we do not need to flip between absolute scepticism and particular loyalty: we can integrate those perspectives, and the White Buddha Vairocana can represent that integration in the middle. Similarly, the Green Buddha Amoghasiddhi represents the wisdom of success, as opposed to the wisdom of sameness in the Yellow Buddha Ratnasambhava. On the one hand we are actually attached to particular desires and wish to be successful in achieving them, whilst on the other we can recognise that from a different perspective, those desires and their fulfilment may not be significant and may be generously renounced for a wider perspective. The White Buddha can simultaneously represent the integration of these perspectives. That’s only a brief taste of the richness of the Five Buddha mandala. Vessantara’s Meeting the Buddhas is a useful guide to this symbolism.

The Buddhist tradition has developed mandala symbolism in the most extraordinary ways, including not just paintings but also in a multitude of other forms: ageless monuments (at Borobodur and Mandalay – which is named after mandala) at one extreme and temporary sand mandalas at the other. Beyond Buddhism, mandalas are also widely used in Hinduism. In Christianity, you can find mandala forms in Celtic crosses and rose windows. Hildegard_von_Bingen_Liber_Divinorum_OperumPictured here is a Christian mandala from Hildegard of Bingen’s fascinating mystical writings, which are accompanied by a number of illustrations as she was an artist as well as a writer. Interestingly here it is the human body that is the focus of integration at the centre of the mandala, and the depiction of God (who appears to be both males and female) encompasses the mandala as a whole rather than only its centre. The stretched figure, representing the universal man, is reminiscent of Christ on the cross, which is used at the centre of a number of Christian mandalas. Jung remarked that Christ being crucified between two thieves itself forms a mandala, especially as one of the thieves is traditionally said to have repented and responded positively to Christ whilst the other reviled him. There is thus a pattern of opposites in the two thieves to be symbolically integrated in Christ, who can represent the role of the acceptance of suffering in widening our perspectives to accept new conditions.

In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what tradition you approach mandalas through so much as that you make integrative use of it. Whatever the traditional role for such diagrams, they are not ends in themselves and do not usefully represent any kind of ultimate truth. Rather they represent a process by which you yourself can be inspired to reframe your experience. Around the outside of the mandala I drew on the recent retreat were to be found Facebook, bathroom cleaning, negative events in world politics, and the temptations of cake, all of which represent things that could be integrated, but are quite hard to deal with! Nothing is too mundane to be included and ultimately be open to integration.

Pictures: Five Buddha Mandala by Aloka, used on the cover of ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: the Integration of Belief’ with the kind permission of Vaddhaka; Hildegard of Bingen picture from Liber Divinorum Operum (Wikimedia).