How do you get to Nirvana? Practice

by Ed Halliwell, The Guardian, Aug 27, 2009

Buddhism is not a theory, but a body of practical teachings, and without practice it is just an excuse for smugness

London, UK -- 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.

That is why Buddhism offers a path – a route to clear seeing, well-being and skilful action that has been tried and tested by lineages of practitioners over thousands of years, and which recognises that contentment cannot usually be attained just by seeing what would bring it about. Without a lasting commitment to practice, we may get flashes of insight, and even be able to make some wise choices, but these are unlikely to be sustained, and we will mostly remain stuck in our old modes of operating. Worse, we may become blindly convinced that our existing viewpoint is the most enlightened one available.

I've just returned from three weeks at Dechen Choling, a French retreat centre where the manifestation of Buddhist principles is attempted in social microcosm. As well as many hours of formal practice and teaching each day, we ate together in silence, shared work chores, exercised, cared for one another, and celebrated as a community. After years of attending such programmes, I am still struck by how participants gradually become gentler, kinder, more connected and confident, dropping some of the hard exterior that serves as protection (and isolation) in their home environments.

Several times over the past weeks I found myself in tears, touched by the generosity, dedication and courage of others, and because I saw in stark contrast my failure to live the teachings in everyday life: I all too easily revert to speed, aggression, fear and sneakiness when things get tough. Unless I continue to practice wholeheartedly, I quickly get seduced by the false promises of the conventional world. I can even turn the teachings of Buddhism into an ego trip, mindlessly parroting the words but losing sight of their meaning. Sometimes when I meditate, I am really just sitting cross-legged.

The challenge, of course, is to maintain a greater vision in the 'real' world – as the language of psychology would have it, turning a temporary 'state' into an enduring 'trait'. And there is good news from our friends in neuroscience: the mind seems to be more plastic than previously thought possible. In their book How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman explain how even short periods of daily practice can produce lasting effects (ignore the attention-grabbing title – the techniques work just as well for atheists). As with learning to play a musical instrument, meditative disciplines promote neural and bodily changes, fostering new skills that can be profoundly life-enhancing.

It is excellent that opinion-formers are outlining the benefits that ancient Buddhist wisdom could bring to politics. Madeleine Bunting says that the RSA's Matthew Taylor is heralding a fresh enlightenment based on a paradigm of human nature that transcends the individual self. But let's not get carried away. Realisation of no-self means recognising that we are inextricably tied to our greater social environment, and will only make lasting progress if the changes are deep and widespread. For that to happen, we would need more than talk, more than intention, more even than the unwavering commitment of a determined minority. We would need nothing less than a major shift in consciousness on a grand scale, instigated and sustained by an ongoing dedication to mind training from vast numbers of people. Daunting? Yes, but there's only one way to start, and that is with ourselves.