Mindfulness is what it is

There was a new article on the Guardian about mindfulness today.

Mindfulness is all about self-help. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

Which makes the point that mindfulness is not the complete solution to all the world’s problems. It’s a promising area of research; here’s a few other related critiques.

Hairdressing is all about hair. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

Curing cancer is all about medicine. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

Going to Mars is all about space travel. It does nothing to change an unjust world.

I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge here: A thing is about the thing that it is, and isn’t about something that it isn’t! Excellent, that’s real progress.

There are plenty of teachings, examples, and principles in Buddhism that are really useful for positive social change. There’s the whole democracy thing; accountable decision making processes; practical compassion; sharing wealth to overcome inequality; use of no or very mild punishment; emphasis on education and individual empowerment and agency; getting rid of all forms of discrimination; the idea that even the most powerful are subject to the rule of law, and so on and so on.

Mindfulness is not one of those things; it is a teaching on how to become peaceful and accept.

Mindfulness can operate in a complex set of relationships with broader community and social issues. It is entirely possible, as the author of the article points out, that it can become abstracted from any meaningful context and used in harmful ways. But that’s not the problem of mindfulness, it’s the problem of the lack of other good things, especially ethical values. That’s why the Buddha always insisted that mindfulness, and other advanced meditative practices, take place when grounded on a very pure ethics. Removed from that and misapplied, it becomes Wrong Mindfulness.

So perhaps we can stop blaming mindfulness for not being what it is not.

Narcissim and absence

Look at how we normally talk about the various kinds of mental illness or personality disorder. We say that someone “has” schizophrenia, or that they “suffer from” depression. It seems we think of mental illness as a thing, a malignant entity to which we are subjected; perhaps there is an echo of the old theory of mental illness as demon possession in there. Sometimes we also think of mental illness as a distortion, a “disorder”; the elements of the mind are thrown out of whack.

But perhaps a better way of thinking is that mental problems arise from absence. The things that make a full, abundant life are just not all there.

I’m no psychologist, of course, but in the past decade I’ve had a fair amount of experience dealing with people of various, colorful forms of mental health problems. The one I’ve struggled with the most is narcissism; of all the mental health issues, I think it’s the most destructive. Most of the time, people with mental health problems can’t do too much damage because they undermine themselves. Unless they can manage their problems, they can’t maintain a regular life, and stuff up themselves and those around them. This is always tragic, of course, but at least it is somewhat limited.

Narcissists, perhaps alone among those with serious mental issues, are often not dysfuncional at all, and in fact their conviction and forcefulness makes them very effective in jobs that require authority. Politics, business, celebrities, and yes, religions, are full of narcissists. They are singly focussed on getting and maintaining power, and are often much more successful at it than people with a more balanced approach to things. And when someone with a clinical narcissistic disorder is, say, running a country or a corporation or a Buddhist organization, trouble is never far away.

What struck me recently, though, is how predictable narcissism is. The same thought patterns, same ideas, same obsessions. If you’ve been bullied by one narcissist, you’ve been bullied by them all.

What kinds of things am I thinking of? Well, there could be lots of examples, but here’s one that I’ve noticed. A narcissist will always want power over others, who are inevitably seen as a threat, unless they acknowledge the narcissists unquestionable superiority. One way they assert power is to make some kind of criticism of the other. It doesn’t really matter what, anything will do. Now, there’s nothing unusual about that; just ordinary petty putdowns. Normally, however, this behavior is checked, because if the criticism is incorrect, the criticizer looks bad.

But this isn’t a problem for the narcissist. They just make the criticism and move on. While the other party is responding, they just make another criticism. The lack of factually is irrelevant. A true narcissist can never be wrong, for truth is defined by their utterance. Recall the words of the Bush aide (believed to be Karl Rove) talking to a journalist:

… when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.

This is narcissism in a nutshell. They are not subject to reality; reality is subject to them. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of other examples of this kind of thing in the political sphere.

So the usual patterns of thought, which pretty much all of us use, become ossified, hardened. We define the world by our thoughts; and those thoughts are mean, small, and hard. And incredibly boring.

This is a way of being human that is so tiny. We are capable of so very much, yet we fulfill so little of our promise. Making a self is hard work; that’s why the Indian traditions speak of “I-making” (ahamkara). Ego is not something that you have, it’s something you create, continually, every moment. And you create it by building boundaries; cutting yourself off from parts of yourself, limiting your possibilities.

If there’s any truth to this, perhaps it might be useful in thinking about how to help people with troubles. Maybe it’s not the ego as such that is the problem; its the absence of all the other things that make up a fully rounded person. Instead of fixing the “problem”, we should encourage growth. Become more, become fuller. The more round, more abundant our lives become, the less we feel the need to build such high walls to protect our selves.


Heinz fruit juice: made with meat

My friends at the Hindu Council have just let me know of a letter they received from Heinz, which admits that some of their juices contain animal products:

The clear apple juice used in the Golden Circle ambient (long life) juice and drink range is made clear using a variety of clarifying agents one of which is from a beef source

It really is kind of gross, when you eat things you just don’t have a clue what’s in it. Juice is the last place you’d expect to find animal products, but there you go.

Site upgrade for SuttaCentral

We just launched the new edition of SuttaCentral:


This is the first major redesign since we relaunched last year. We’re very proud of the new features. It’s been designed to be mobile-friendly from ground up, to be at once more powerful, and also more minimal.

The main changes:

  • The top menu now displays all of the entries for the relevant category at once, so you can get anywhere from anywhere.
  • Each text page (i.e. the actual suttas) has a sidebar. The various tools, navigation and so on is in the sidebar, and the page itself is completely clean.
  • Pali to Spanish lookup, to complement our Pali to English. We can add any number of languages to this, all we need is a Pali to Whatever dictionary in some kind of structured format. If you’ve gt anything like that, let us know.
  • Home page redesign, with a “Quote of the Day” and new introduction.
  • Many minor corrections, such as sorting out the numbering of several Khuddaka texts (including the Dhammapada), and a multitude of typos and the like.
  • Fully responsive design. The previous design was okay on mobiles, but the new site should adapt well for any screen. We’ve included a whole range of tweaks to optimize the experience on mobiles.

There will, of course, be some bugs, so please let us know if you find any: http://suttacentral.userecho.com/


AABCAP Conference: Working Alongside Men with Mindfulness

Update: This important study on men’s well-being has just been published. The major findings: no. 1 cause of harm for men is alcohol; no. 1 cause of happiness is love. Somehow this seems familiar; where have I heard this before…

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Please join us for AABCAP’s 8th Annual Conference where you will meet with old friends and make new friends.

This year our conference aims to explore men’s changing roles in society and how this effects both men and women.

This year we have done something slightly different, we have brought together 13 speakers, all with a Buddhist background, over a 100 years experience of specialisation working with men, to explore the unique challenges that we all, men and women, face as men navigate modern day Australian life. When half the population suffers the other half also suffers.

Talks will cover topics such as men and violence,working with Indigenous men, men and sex, men in relationships, corporate men, men and midlife and ageing and death.
As well, among the many papers we will also provide the opportunity for discussions, panels, and experiential sessions. Our speakers will bring us personal experiences of growing up male, as well their many years professional experience working in mental health with men.

In over 20 years working in Mental Health as a social worker and psychotherapist I have never been invited to a conference that specifically focuses on gender, in particular male gender, and the ways in which gender needs should be considered when working in a therapeutic alliance. Our ethical frameworks in mental health ask for us to be open and accepting of differences in ethnicity, religions, disabilities, and gender. And yet we receive little to no training in these areas.

This conference aims to explore some of the biases that each of us male and female therapists bring to our relationships; from our personal experiences as well our socio-cultural contexts, both of which can keep us from being helpful.

And in the end the idea is to enable conversations that enrich how women and men live more peacefully together.

If you have already registered or are participating perhaps you might like to send this on to your collegues and friends.

Thank you for your ongoing support.

With Metta,

President AABCAP

Click here to register

Should the death penalty ever be used (if yes, in which cases) and why?

There’s a really powerful comment on the use of the death penalty that’s just appeared on Quora.

The comment is by Quora user Rick Bruno, who describes himself as “Retired cop, marathoner, husband/father/grandfather, wonderer”.

Warning – Graphic Content

Many years ago, when I was still early in my career as a police officer, I attended a training class that was taught by the FBI. The class was about forensics, and about what the state of the art was at that time. Everyone in the class was a police officer with evidence technician responsibilities.

The instructor showed us slides of a multiple homicide, and I have never forgotten those pictures.

It bothers me to relate this, but you need to know the depth of my feeling if you want my opinion.

Here was what happened. A grandfather had made plans to take his daughter and her two children to the zoo. He arrived at their house to pick them up, but the daughter (mom) was still getting ready. So grandpa waited in the living room with the oldest child (a girl of about 7) while the baby (about 18 months) slept in her crib and mom finished getting ready in the washroom.

The father/son/husband of the family found this scene upon his return home from work that afternoon.

At some point a stranger with a machete forced his way into the residence and immediately killed the grandfather. The seven year old was next, she was decapitated. The mother heard the screams, and came running out of the washroom and saw a scene from Hell. He then savagely raped her, and then disemboweled her with the machete. There were blood stains in the baby’s crib, but the baby was missing. There was an electric blender in the kitchen with blood and gore in it. The baby’s body parts were found the next day, partially cannibalized. She had been dumped at a roadside a few miles from her home.

The instructor calmly walked us through the slides, showing the splintered front door jamb, pointing out blood splatter patterns, showing the wounds sustained by the victims, describing defensive wounds on the grandfather and the mother’s hands. Bloody footwear impressions, assorted makeup in the washroom that mom had been applying to herself before she was distracted, toys, baby bottles, a diaper bag ready to go.

You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom. We sat there in the dark, listening to this matter-of-fact lecture, and I wondered if anyone else was experiencing the same rage as I felt building up inside me.

After a while, the instructor asked if there were any questions. Someone asked if the murderer had been caught, as this case was a few years old at the time. The instructor told us the father/husband/son was quickly dismissed as a suspect. Local law enforcement developed a lead and a man who lived a couple blocks away from this family had been arrested a day or two after the crime. The suspect hung himself in his cell before his trial began.

As I said, it still bothers me to relive the slides I saw that day. I have been to many homicide scenes in my career, many accidental deaths involving children. This case was always a yardstick in my opinion of the death penalty.

As a young police officer, this was my first exposure to pure evil. I knew people could be bad to each other, I was not that naive. But I could not help putting my own family into that family’s situation, and seeing their faces. I honestly do not know how the father was able to go on with his life after this. Or if he did.

I hated that monster with every fiber of my being. I still do. I would have volunteered to kill him after his trial. If anyone deserved to die for their crimes, it was this beast.

And so, years went by. The job and life and wisdom and faith too, all changed me. I saw flaws in the system I was sworn to uphold. I saw judges who knew less about the law than a rolled up newspaper. Corrupt judges, inept police officers, dishonest attorneys, mistakes at every level.

One of my law professors told me, “A courtroom is the last place in the world where you will find the truth.” I believe him.

And so, no. The death penalty should not be a part of any criminal justice system. There are too many possibilities that we could screw up justice.

There is real evil in the world. Believe it. But we should not fight it with evil.

It is a sad thing that a Buddhist king, Ashoka, was the first major ruler in history to abolish the death penalty, over 2000 years ago, and yet in the majority of so-called Buddhist countries today the death penalty still exists. It is, however, applied rarely in most Buddhist countries, so surely it can’t be that hard to take the next step and get rid of it altogether.

Rob Beschizza: Climate change is life and death

A home is seen protected from encroaching floodwaters by a levee near Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Here’s a brilliant photo essay on climate change by Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing.

Temperatures rise. Scientists warn and study. Conspiracy theorists cry foul. Politicians scoff and wheedle and suppress, while their bureaucrats calmly plan ahead. In the meantime, life and death go on—just not in quite the same way we’re used to.