Dr Ian Ellis-Jones, mindfulness scholar

I found Ian’s blog when researching my just-published book, From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide. If you want to improve your understanding on a wide range of issues, you just can’t go past his blog, where he states:

“Welcome to my blog — a free-spirited exploration of spirituality, mindfulness, philosophy and literature. A member of the Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association, I lectured at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry (now the Health Education and Training Institute) for 14 years and at the University of Technology, Sydney for 16 years. I am now a freelance lecturer, speaker and facilitator, presenting classes at Sydney’s Wellness Empowerment and Training Institute, Sydney U3A and elsewhere.”

Ian has accepted my invitation to a public chat at Bobbing Around.

Bob: Ian, I’ve been looking around your blog and am impressed by the breadth of your interests. Would you say that the common theme is mindfulness?

Ian: At the outset, I want to thank you, Bob, most sincerely for arranging this interview. I am honoured.

Yes, the theme of mindfulness underlies almost all of the many posts — now almost 500 — on my blog. However, I also explore a number of other subject areas including philosophy, metaphysics and ‘mental science,’ psychology, religion and spirituality, addiction recovery, literature and the performing arts. On other occasions, I will rail against things like the dumbing down of education, conformism (‘normopathy’), relativism and other issues. In my 300th post, I listed and discussed the major themes which have been the central focus of my blog since it began in October 2010. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. There is a single way of being — that of ordinary things and persons living out their livingness from one moment to the next in time and space. So, forget about so-called ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ levels of orders of reality.
  2. Truth is a moment-to-moment experience. Truth, or reality, is what is — from one moment to the next. ‘Truth is a pathless land,’ said the Indian spiritual philosopher and teacher J. Krishnamurti, ‘and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.’ Why is that? Well, as I see it, each one of us is always in direct and immediate contact with reality, both internal and external. A ‘path’ presupposes a separation or distance between point A and point B. In truth, there is no such separation or distance. Now, here’s a paradox. There is no path, yet there still is one. What path, you may ask? Listen to what Joy Mills, an eminent Theosophist and friend of mine who died a few years ago, had to say about the matter: ‘There is no way until our feet have trod it.’ What wise words!
  3. Enlightenment is not a ‘thing’ at all. It is a no-thing. No-thing-ness, you could call it. It is the absence of everything that keeps us in bondage to our illusory sense of self. Enlightenment means ‘waking up’.
  4. Belief systems distort the truth. Beliefs are like a brick wall standing between us and our otherwise direct, immediate and unmediated experience of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next.
  5. Self can’t change self. Why? Because ‘self’ is illusory. It has no separate, permanent ontological existence in and of itself. ‘Self’ is a simple image in our mind. The ‘self that wants to change’ is the same as the ‘self that wants to be changed’. However, you, the person that you are, can change.
  6. Only an inner psychological mutation can ‘save’ you. That mutation happens when we cease to live in unawareness and in bondage to self. Self-observation leads to self-knowledge and insight. A complete, inner psychological transformation can happen instantaneously or incrementally. In either case, the experience can be revolutionary.
  7. Acceptance of what is, is the only way to live. Krishnamurti said, ‘On the acknowledgement of what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.’
  8. Live in the eternal now. The only time we ever have is the present moment. We can only live in the present. We can only act in the present. We can only experience in the present. The eternal now is that ‘present’, which is forever renewing itself in and as each new moment.
  9. Life is consciousness. If quantum mechanics has shown us anything — and it has shown us plenty — it has shown that consciousness or mind is fundamental, eternal and all-creative. That which we call mass, together with what we refer to as matter, is derivative, being constructed wholly from the interactions between massless — yes, that’s right, massless — elementary particles. Those massless elementary particles constitute the ‘innerness’ of all physical things, even so-called inert matter. Quantum mechanics provide enormous support for the proposition that mind or consciousness is both fundamental and all-pervasive, that is, that mind or consciousness constitutes the fundamental undifferentiated nature of reality.
  10. Get your mind off yourself. We need to free ourselves — that is, the person each of us is — from all our false selves. We need to be taken out of ourselves. Most of our problems and difficulties occur because we are self-absorbed, self-centered and self-obsessed. We need to experience a Copernican revolution. The world does not revolve around us. As Krishnamurti used to say, selfishness is the essential problem of our lives. Love is the solution.

Bob: I originally found you because I searched for mindfulness in the bible, and your post on that topic came up as the top hit. Would you agree with me that mindfulness, by various names, is part of all the great religions and philosophies?

Ian: Most definitely. I have studied all the major religions and belief systems and each one of them — even the ‘great monotheistic religions’ of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — encourages us to live mindfully in the now. Having said that, mindfulness is not an inherently religious practice. Indeed, it is not religious in and of itself at all. In other words, you don’t have to be religious to learn to live mindfully.

Bob: Why? What’s so good about mindfulness anyway?

Ian: Mindfulness is simply living with awareness — and with the awareness of our awareness. How often do we get in our car and drive from A to place B? We drive down certain streets and along certain roads. However, is it not the case that, all too often, when we get to our destination, we have no recollection of going down certain streets or along certain roads. Our awareness was intermittent and there was little or no awareness of our awareness.

Mindfulness is the direct, immediate and unmediated perception of what is. By ‘direct, immediate, and unmediated’, I mean that one’s perception of both internal and external reality is no longer filtered and distorted through such things as our beliefs, conditioning, analysis, interpretation, and judgment. Mindfulness helps us to not identify with, or build up a resistance to, those mental images in our brain that deflect us from the task of being and remaining in direct and immediate contact and relationship with what is happening in us and outside of us.

Mindfulness is being grounded in the here-and-now, in what is. Mindfulness has nothing to do with ‘expanded consciousness,’ so-called higher orders or levels of reality, and supposed notions of transcendence. Mindfulness is grounded firmly in everyday reality — the only reality that there is — that is, in the one order or level of reality in which we all live and move and have our be-ing-ness.

To the extent that the practice of mindfulness is concerned with knowing and understanding what is, and observing (among other things) the content of one’s consciousness (our thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.), the practice is a spiritual one. Mindfulness is not a religion, or even a philosophy, but rather a way of being, a way of life, a journey in self-discovery, and an education. Mindfulness, being devoid of all notions of religiosity, is entirely experiential and, unlike most if not all religions, it is empirically based. When the Dalai Lama addressed the concluding session of the International Congress on Mindfulness in 2011, he reiterated that mindfulness is not a religious practice. He also made the point that all of us, whether religious or non-religious, need to practise mindfulness every day. In saying that, the Dalai Lama is simply urging us to live with non-judgmental, choiceless awareness, from one moment to the next.

There are many tangible benefits in the regular practice of mindfulness. Changes in the body associated with the practice of mindfulness include but are not limited to a reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, reduced muscle tension, increased cardiovascular efficiency, improved circulation of blood and lymph, improved gastrointestinal functioning, reduced sensitivity to pain, an enhanced immune system, improved posture, and an overall relaxation of the body and sleep. Changes in the mind include an increased cortical thickness in the grey matter of the brain, a calmer, more patient, stable and steady mind, overall relaxation of the mind, an enhanced feeling of wellbeing, an improved ability to cope with and release stress, enhanced cognitive functioning and performance, improved concentration and attention to detail, faster sensory processing and increased capacity for focus and memory, increased learning and consciousness, increased openness to new ideas, greater responsiveness in the moment, reduced mental distractedness, increased verbal creativity, and delayed ageing of the brain.

As a spiritual practice, living mindfully makes us more aware of who we really are. By self-observation we gain invaluable insight into our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We become more directly aligned to the flow of life of which each one of us is a part. That can only be a good thing. Let me read these words from Sayadaw U Janakābhivaṃsa, a Theravada Buddhist monk from Myanmar and a leading authority on meditation and mindfulness:

‘Why should we observe or watch physical and mental processes as they are? Because we want to realise their true nature. [That] leads us to the right understanding of natural processes as just natural process… When our body feels hot, we should observe that feeling of heat as it is. When the body feels cold, we should observe it as cold. When we feel pain, we should observe it as it is — pain. When we feel happy, we should watch that happiness as it is — as happiness. When we feel angry, we should observe that anger as it really is — as anger. When we feel sorry, we should be mindful of it as it is — as sorry. When we feel sad or disappointed, then we must be aware of our emotional state of sadness or disappointment as it is.’

In short, mindfulness is simply living naturally and realistically — and with choiceless awareness of what is… from one moment to the next.

Bob: I’ve also noticed that you agree with what I say about the ego. Can you please comment?

Ian: Well, as you know, the ego can be used in a number of different senses. Sigmund Freud, in his psychoanalytic theory, gave it a special meaning but others have defined the ego differently. I have read books on reincarnation that refer to the so-called ‘reincarnating ego’ (whatever that is). For me, the ego is more than our sense of self. The ego is the sum total of everything that is not really us. Each one of us is a person among persons. A person is a mind-body continuum that is ontologically real. However, we mistakenly believe that our many likes, dislikes, views and opinions, and attachments and aversions are the real person that each of us is. Of course, none of those things are the real you, the real me. I call all those things — that is, our likes, dislikes, views and opinions, and attachments and aversions — false selves.

I don’t claim any credit for the idea. Many philosophers, psychologists and religionists have expressed that idea or something very similar. Swami Vivekananda wrote, ‘The world is a demon. It is a kingdom of which the puny ego is king. Put it away and stand firm.’ In a similar vein, Paramahansa Yogananda wrote, ‘To humble the ego or false self is to discover one’s eternal identity.’ He also spoke of the ‘old habit-bound self’ and ‘false identifications’ with body sensations as well as thoughts, feelings, and other mental images. Buddhism makes it clear that the so-called ‘self’ is only an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ of perceptions and sensations. We need to stop holding on to our little separate selves, that is, these false selves. We must let them go. Our ‘true self’ is the person that each one of us is. However, we are constantly manufacturing these false selves, which generally take the form of self-images in our mind. There is, for example, the ‘angry self’, the ‘anxious self’, the ‘hypersensitive self’, the ‘proud self’, and so on. There is also the ‘judgmental self’, the ‘conscious self’, and even something called the ‘transcendental self’. The latter gives us a false sense of self and the illusion of a separate identity. All of these things hold us back.

First and foremost, Buddhism is a form of ‘therapy’ — self illusion therapy or ego delusion therapy, you could call it. The basic premise of Buddhism is that all of our problems and difficulties in this life arise out of our mentality. More specifically, the root of all our problems and difficulties lies in our illusory sense of a separate selfhood, in our misplaced concept of I-ness, that is, in a false view of who we really are. To borrow a couple of phrases from the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous, the result of our misbelief in a separate ‘self’ is ‘self-will run riot’. The regular practice — note that word practice — of Buddhism and mindfulness is able to relieve us of the ‘bondage of self’.

Bob: My main preoccupation is with environmental matters: huge rates of extinction, climate change, etc. What if any is your interest in such matters?

Ian: I am deeply concerned about what we are doing to our planet and to living things. The root cause of all this damage is ignorance, greed and selfishness. Deep down, it is a spiritual problem. What really upsets me is those politicians and others in authority who purport to deny what is otherwise fact — namely, the reality of climate change. The people who tend to be climate change skeptics generally come from the right of politics. Funny, that, isn’t it? Well, it’s not that surprising really. I am appalled at the ascendancy of a most nasty and selfish form of conservatism in politics and religion, especially in the United States but also in Australia and many other countries.

Bob: If there is a solution, what is it? What can we as individuals, and humanity as a whole, do, at least in principle?

Ian: There is no simply solution to the problems you mentioned, but we need to listen to the scientists, be prepared to live more simply, live less selfishly, and take direct action. People at the grassroots level are doing what their governments are not. Increasingly, more and more people are developing a sense of the interconnectedness of all life or, if you like, ‘InterBeing’. This term comes from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I love that word, ‘InterBeing.’ The bottom line is this: there is only one life manifesting itself in all things and as all things. What flows from that is we owe each other certain ethical duties. Those ethical duties (for example, the golden rule) do not depend for their existence on any religion. They flow naturally and inevitably from the very nature of existence itself.

Bob: I like the way you emphasise knowledge over belief. In a world of fake news, superstition and dogma, what can we do to ensure right understanding?

Ian: Beliefs of all kinds are an impenetrable barrier to truth. We are in direct and immediate contact with truth but beliefs are like a brick wall between us and things-as-they-really are. Using a different metaphor, beliefs are like distorting lenses which filter and distort reality as it tries to pass through the lens. Eschew beliefs. Bugger beliefs. We don’t need them. We need to see things-as-they-really-are. Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils (āvarnas). ‘If you want to know and understand, don’t believe,’ he said. He was right.

All belief is conditioning, but knowledge is experiential. We need to safely ‘navigate’ our way through life, but beliefs actually stand in the way and hold us back. What we really need is knowledge and understanding. There is so much we can know that there is simply no need to believe anything at all. In any event, the very act of formulating a ‘belief’ causes an otherwise present reality to die away, because the very nature of a belief is a mental construct based on an already past reality. That is, by the time a particular belief has been formulated, the reality upon which that belief is purportedly based is no longer a present reality. It is now the past. Beliefs lock us into the past. Beliefs imprison. They do not liberate. They are chains that bind us. Now, there is nothing wrong with convictions that are supported by and grounded in facts that are sufficiently probative to support the conviction in question, but to believe something without proof — now that is downright silly and even dangerous!

Buddha encouraged his followers to ‘come and see,’ that is, to test and investigate for themselves whether or not his teachings worked, as opposed to placing reliance on blind faith. As much as possible, we all need to investigate for ourselves and then make up our own minds based upon the evidence. The essence of empiricism, whether Buddhist empiricism or otherwise, is this — one ‘looks and sees,’ one ‘perceives,’ one ‘observes.’ We must always seek to explain the observable in terms of the observable. That means rejecting the unobservable, including the so-called ‘supernatural,’ as the cause of the observable. Of course, when it comes to the news — say, something that is alleged to have happened some distance away from us — it is not practical for us to rush out and ‘come and see’. However, we need to use critical thinking and not take at face value the views and opinions of others, even the views and opinions of the so-called learned or holy ones. I abhor superstition and dogma of all kinds. I have a realistic philosophy of life, while recognising that there are some things that can be described as being transnatural or transrational. In that regard, Sir Julian Huxley, in an essay entitled ‘The New Divinity’ in his book Essays of a Humanist, had this to say about the word ‘divine,’ after first reminding his readers that ‘the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret [our] experiences of this quality’:

‘For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural but transnatural — it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his awe.’

Bob: Finally, if I was a mindreader, what question would I have asked you? Can you answer it, please?

Ian: That’s an interesting question. One question that is often asked of me is — actually, it’s more of a statement — ‘You assert that truth, which you equate with reality, is what is. Surely it is a case of what is truth for one person may not be truth for someone else.’

Now, some people — especially subjectivists and relativists — love to say, ‘Well, I believe the sky is blue, but it is open to you or anyone else to believe that it is green or red or whatever colour you believe.’ Yes, in the words of W. S. Gilbert, this disease (yes, disease) means this, ‘And I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!’ We are all right, none of us is wrong, we are all equally precious, and we are all winners. Winners in what, I ask? A contest to determine who is the most stupid? (Sorry.)

I reply, ‘What has belief got to do with any of this?’ I can still hear the voice of my old philosophy lecturer. He would say, ‘The sky is blue. The sky does not become any bluer because you believe it to be blue. Further, the proposition — the sky is blue — does not become any truer because you believe it to be true.’

One more thing. Here’s another problem with subjectivism and relativism. If things are as one believes or thinks them to be, then that implies that each person, or in the case of cultural relativism each culture, is infallible in their judgments and opinions. In other words, they cannot err. And it would also mean that there can never be any real difference. Thus, if I think the sky is blue, and you think the sky is red, there is no disagreement or real contradiction. It is simply a case that ‘The sky is for me blue,’ and ‘The Sky is for you not blue.’ Those two propositions are not in contradiction to each other. Isn’t that wonderful? After all, we don’t want conflict or disagreement, do we? Nonsense, I say! Bring it on! I’m ready!

You may think I am a little dogmatic about all this, but am I? Who is the one who asserts infallibility — that people cannot err in their judgments and opinions? Not the objectivist or the realist, but the subjectivist and the relativist, of which there are, in my opinion, too many these days (thanks to post-modernism and what has followed it). If only they would think things through — logically!

That’s my rant for the day.

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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