An Interview with Jamie Shavdia
The following article appeared in association with the Zen Gateway website, an online community for Zen practitioners and spiritual enthusiasts alike:
Jamie Shavdia lives and works in London and will be joining The Zen Gateway as a regular columnist. He will be looking at and reporting on a variety of topics around the cross-over between spiritual practices and their therapeutic use.
1. Firstly, can you say a little about the work that you currently do and your background in the field of psychotherapy?
By way of background I am essentially an integrative psychotherapist having trained in various schools of thought, including Mindfulness & Compassion approaches, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Psychology, Counselling and Hypnotherapy. I work mostly with adult clients on a one-to-one basis and in group-based contexts, helping people to overcome their psychological problems and barriers to happiness. I am also a psychological trainer, as various organisations frequently bring me in to run workshops for their students or employees e.g. contributing to the teaching of an academic programme in the case of universities or running practical skill-based workshops for more commercial organisations. This may include training on topics such as mindfulness in the workplace, stress management, dealing with presentation anxiety etc. Mostly I run Mindfulness programmes in the psychological services of universities, in community mental health services and from 2013 these courses have been available to the general public. Given my background, I am somewhat sceptical of a one size fits all approach to human development and I think the future lies more in the increasing convergence of knowledge from different but advancing fields. This is certainly the case in the future of science as its various fields become increasingly specialised and I think this may also be true in the case of psychology and wellbeing.
2. Could you say something about how your spiritual life has helped shape your work?
I am particularly interested in the integration of modern psychology and the ancient wisdom inherent in various spiritual traditions. We are very fortunate to be living in these modern times, despite its pitfalls, as we now have unprecedented access to the knowledge of other world cultures, philosophies, ways of thinking and being. This phenomenon has historically not been the norm and offers much promise for those who recognise this opportunity. Well before I had trained in any of the above secular approaches I was a student in the Zen School of Buddhism from a reasonably young age, under the direction of Ven.Myokyo-ni, a London-based teacher of Zen in the Rinzai tradition. This relationship started early in life and dare I say changed everything, introducing me to the Zen Way which I instantly recognised as having an affinity with. This training underpins my life and work today, and after thirteen years continues to deepen in my personal practice. I have also learnt a lot from Tibetan Buddhism and various Indian spiritual teachers. Despite all of my secular training it has been the spiritual training which has given my work depth and it is this which I keep coming back to. To me mindfulness, although presented in a secular way, is still very much the beginnings of a spiritual path.
3. Why did the medical establishment take an interest in the potential of mindfulness?
Historically the word 'meditation' has been somewhat of a tainted term in medical circles, associated with 1960's 'hippy' counterculture or the more recent 'New Age' movement, however I think this is now changing. Over the last few decades the evidence for the benefits of meditation have been slowly increasing, making meditational practice clinically legitimate, especially in the field of mental health. This research has been quite rigorous making such benefits indisputable, showing how mindfulness and meditation can help many people to prevent relapse into depression, lower stress levels and to deal with anxiety....all of which are rife in our contemporary society. As the field of psychology has developed there has been much interest into the effects of how people pay attention, and moreover how this may play an important part in why some people are more vulnerable to spiralling negative thought patterns and corresponding changes in mood. It soon became clear however that the retraining of attention alone was not enough, which is when mindfulness as a secular extrapolation of Buddhism soon arrived.
4. The presentation of mindfulness in medical literature rarely mentions its Buddhist roots. Why is this?
It's not that they don't credit Buddhism as an original source but rather that in very clinical circles it is still somewhat of a taboo to mention what has really happened here. A major aspect of an ancient religion has been discovered to have health-based benefits and rather than dismiss and not use it, mindfulness has been secularised so to be made available to people of all walks of life, religious or non-religious. 'Mindfulness' is very much a Buddhist term, yet its use has been very convenient in masking the fact that a major type of 'meditation' has now been made accepted into the scientific and medical fold. I feel quite passionate about the fact that meditation and mindfulness are at their roots spiritual practices, even if many people have no idea why. What many people experience on a short mindfulness programme (usually 6 or 8-weeks) is just the tip of a very large iceberg, potentially triggering a practice that may last a life time if taught well. Mindfulness belongs to the people and should be not seen to be owned by anyone. Every human being has the right to it, much like the act of prayer.
5. Does it matter that it is presented in a purely secular form?
Mindfulness in its current secular and dare I say faddish form is still unfortunately stuck in a materialistic paradigm, developed in order to be aligned with the medical and scientific establishment. Mindfulness is a way of being with the body, which sends and receives sensation, allowing us to expand our perception of reality, both inner and outer. As previously stated, it is very beneficial to mental health, stress reduction, prevention of depressive relapse and such like, however this is only the beginning of a much deeper experience and eventual transformation, should that be a path a course participant wishes to take. Energetically applied and sustained mindful practice opens a door to the eventual dissolving of the ego we refer to as 'me' or 'I'. If we can allow this process to unfold we may relink with our true essence beyond the cognitive ego. By this point we are clearly in religious and spiritual territory. Secular mindfulness as currently presented does not usually allow for this level of depth, however after attending a mindfulness course I often find my students fall into one of two camps. There are those that just wish to tick along practicing at a gentle pace to maintain their mental health 'gains' and those that realise there is a much deeper ocean to now explore, perhaps discovering something that goes beyond the remit of 'gains' and what 'I' get out of it. If such a yearning occurs, many choose to make the leap into some kind of spiritual practice, perhaps becoming more dedicated to their current religion but hopefully gaining a deeper understanding of it. Christianity I think can be truly deepened by Zen practice and vice versa. I don't believe it really matters, as long as there is an understanding and meaning behind their devotion. I believe the current fascination with secular mindfulness is a manifestation of a much deeper social phenomenon, as our universal mind is searching for ways in which to wake up from our own restricted unconsciousness.
6. The Buddha and his teachings are described as physician and medicine; however there is a difference in medical models between the religious/spiritual approach and the scientific/ symptom based approach. How can this gulf be bridged?
If a course participant decides to continue deepening their meditation through sustained daily life practice, the real fruits which may be attained cease to be about just the individual and rather about coming home to something far larger than the fictitious 'I'. Mental health 'symptoms' are something that happen to little 'me', but religion offers the possibility of a re-connection with something much bigger. To study Zen is to study the egoic self, in order to see into its transient nature. The big question then remains regarding what is left if we are neither the thought process nor the body in absolute terms. This places us all in a wider spectrum, helping us to not just understand but also experience our place in nature. This meditative practice helps to restore a sense of awe, mystery and poetry to our seemingly irrelevant lives.
CONSCIOUSNESS AS SOURCE
If we are not careful our perception of our everyday lives can appear increasingly dull and listless. Many people today are living their lives amidst this unconscious pattern, completely oblivious to where they have sprung from. We get up, commute, work, commute again, eat…and then with just enough time left we collapse in front of the TV before bed. This is no life. This is the worst kind of unconscious existence. The days repeat themselves and through increasingly automatized thought patterns and behaviours, we can become stuck in a repetitive loop. There are untold versions of any given life yet whichever version you find yourself in, never forget your Source…as you would literally be nothing without it.
As we have evolved, the human condition has become increasingly absorbed in the brain process of thinking, and we have lost awareness with our original Source that exists pre-thought. As a species there is something in our cerebral functioning that leads us to look in the wrong direction, preferring to roam the landscape of our external world for fulfilment. We salivate with desire in the pursuit of success in order to validate our relatively singular, egotistical existence. In our ego-based version of reality a subtle level of fear propels us forward, so to protect ourselves from life failure or even the unconscious fear of death. We want more money to buy increasing amounts of shiny objects or perhaps we want to fuel the constant creation of projects that may boost ‘my’ status. We are somehow consistently just slightly missing the mark, and real fulfilment never comes nor lasts. We have moved from a state of ‘being’ to a state of ‘having’ and then in a perverse form of status anxiety we have moved from ‘having’ to ‘showing off to others that we have’. In this blindness our Source is forgotten, yet it has never left us, not even for a moment. This Source has taken many names, but ‘Consciousness’ itself will do for now, as fighting over a label only serves to diminish the deeper point.
Consciousness exists before form, and by form I mean objects, people, bodies, and even thoughts and emotions. In a sense Consciousness is nothing…no-thing…and therefore not a thing of itself. Nothing, however, is not necessarily nothing-at-all, but rather that it exists at a level beyond the confines of our limited thinking minds. Consciousness is awareness itself, being the observing or witnessing of all phenomena as it comes and goes, coming to be and ceasing to be. It both exists and does not exist simultaneously, outside the realms of time and space. As that which observes of all phenomena it never changes, because it was never born and therefore can never die. Zen Buddhists along with many other spiritual movements over history, have had a relinking with this Consciousness at the very heart of their practice, which in many ways is the original meaning of religion itself (coming from the Latin root religio). With deepening connection to Source which can only be experienced, one can live as a true human being, increasingly transcending the restricted realm of thought-based perception alone. As the deepest level of Nature, Consciousness informs everything in the most fundamental sense. Therefore all phenomena spring out of this Source, both coming and going, impermanent and always in flux. Fuelling all phenomena it is unknowingly missed because how can something become aware of itself? Therefore we miss it every time.
The problem we humans face is that as Consciousness manifests into different phenomena in its formless state, we believe we are what Consciousness becomes or attaches itself to. Given that this occurs so strongly in the case of thoughts and emotions, our rigid belief in a fictitious little self, ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ arises as we interact with the world. In our persistence, we come to be addicted to the story and narrative within this continuous thought stream, as we follow the path of me (and my life story). ‘I’ do not realise and am blinded to the reality that I am Consciousness itself and therefore not the little fictitious ‘I’. This is the reverse of what ‘I’ the ego has come to know to be true. In returning to this Consciousness, the origin is revealed and a state of inner stillness arises, dissolving egoic struggle and thought based white noise. Therefore to transcend the thinking mind whilst alive and to die in each moment is to be conscious and truly alive once again, as if awoken from a bad dream.
In Zazen (sitting meditation) we are training our awareness to both sharpen and settle down at the same time, staying focused on one thing amidst the chaos of the inner and outer world. A whirlwind of egoic thought may still pass through the mind, where internal dialogue and images come and go, and the fires of the emotions (despite their temporary ferocity) do the same. Yet in the meditative observing state, we are none of these things. As we meditate through this chaos, acknowledging, accepting and not engaging with it, eventually the mind can settle down and we may provide the circumstances and conditions for something bigger than our internal movie to arise. This is our true inherent Source, our innate Buddha, or from a more secular school of thought, we may call this Nature or Life itself. Most people as they live their lives are blind to this truth and it is there whether we know it or not. Just as the Sun is covered by thick cloud it exists magnificently nonetheless on an overcast day.
I believe I am doing things but actually Nature is doing everything, and without ‘me’ (the thinker) there is only Nature manifesting itself in various transient forms (a state of no-I). This Nature existed before we did as a species, even before Life on Earth. This is how fundamental it is. Through our dedicated practice it may be possible to make this realisation, however this state of no-I is impossible to conceive through the realms of the intellect. ‘I’ existing as the thinker cannot conceive of what no-I is. It is vital to understand that the ego as a cognitive outcome operates under limited rules and assumptions, making the mistake of linear time and the limitations of physical space. Consciousness itself is not bound by these same rules. This is the foundation on which Buddhahood sits. Having said this there is no ‘thing’ (as we know it) to get or achieve. As soon as we create an idea about what this is, we may create a mental block, as we turn it into a thing which it is not. In the end all we can do is continue to practice our seated meditation on a daily basis along with a balance of daily life practice. This provides both the body and mind with the appropriate conditions for this to process to unfold. Buddhist training temples exist to provide such circumstances for exactly this purpose, however our own normal lives should be considered as an equal training ground in which to practice. To realise this allows us to see our common humanity and shared existence in the deepest sense. This is an authentic and true form of freedom, freedom from attachment to form. From this understanding, if truly felt and realised, is a limitless joy.
So we must keep in our heart always whether on the cushion or in our daily lives, to meditate on this Nature, this Consciousness as Source, even if it is only in the periphery of our awareness. Find the silent gaps and cracks in the thinking process, the in-betweens and the short periods of no thought, as a deep silence exists underneath, which may eventually lead us home. In a calm meditative state Consciousness always exists but we all too often forget this as we get swept away by life in the narrower sense of the term. We can bring this remembrance to the altar but we forget that the same is true in the supposed monotony of our daily lives and the office grind. As we walk, move, think and feel we become over embodied, meaning we believe too much that we are limited at being situated in the body only. Our true identity is everywhere and from the same Source Consciousness, with no divisions. As I approach the end of writing this article I wonder whether I am writing this article for you or are we in fact writing it in some way together…may all beings be happy.