Living the Mindful Life: My Journey to Tibet

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Justin Moore, Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology

Justin Moore sits outside of a monastery in Tibet
Justin sits outside of a monastery in Tibet

Mindfulness is a concept not new to the world, yet over the past twenty to thirty years it has increased in popularity in the west. There are various interpretations of “mindfulness.” Here, mindfulness is defined as the cultivation of ones’ ability to become and remain present and aware, paying attention to our direct experience in the moment. Mindfulness is an integral part in many third wave psychological treatments (“third wave” meaning some of the latest psychological treatments) like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). An ACT approach in psychotherapy is geared towards the evocation of increased mindfulness, acceptance, and psychological flexibility to help a person engage in behavior change linked to their values. A DBT approach in psychotherapy generally focuses on developing a person’s mindfulness capacity, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness skills, and emotion regulation to foster an ability to interact appropriately with the world and themselves. Mindfulness practice has also been incorporated into some school curricula, military training, work settings, and professional sports, with NFL teams like the Seattle Seahawks speaking about the benefits of its practice.

Originally, the concept and practice of mindfulness developed in the Buddhist tradition and many of the scholars who have created third wave psychological treatments have studied Buddhism and cultivated mindfulness from its practice. As a psychology graduate student, learning and using this skill for myself and for the clients I serve has been exhilarating, captivating, and eye opening. I began to notice how living in such a fast-paced society contributed to us spending very little time with ourselves. Like those who developed ACT and DBT, I wanted to study the powerful phenomenon of mindfulness at its source because, to me, deepening one’s understanding requires experience. So, I traveled to Tibet last summer to learn as the Buddhist Monks have for centuries. There, I visited many Buddhist monasteries and temples, learning mindfulness and meditation as the monks have done. I sat side by side with people whose compassion was so powerful you could feel their joy, love, and appreciation for life and humankind. As I traveled hours cliffside on narrow dirt roads to Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth, and Rongbuk monastery, the highest monastery in the world, I thought about how fortunate I was to have a firsthand experience of things I had previously only read about in books.

The_wheel_of_life,_Trongsa_dzong
“The wheel of life, Trongsa dzong” by Stephen Shephard – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I was taught from the wheel of life (Bhavacakra), which is a piece of art found in most Buddhist temples and monasteries. It is said Buddha himself created the wheel of life as a tool to help teach his disciples and others. In hopes to reach a larger audience, this was created to depict familiar entities to evoke connection and understanding of and with complex Buddhist philosophy. At the Potala palace, where the Dali Lama once lived before his banishment from Tibet, and at the Jokhang Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tibet, founded in CE 647, the Monks welcomed me as if we were old friends. There, I saw beautiful artwork that told the story of Buddha, Buddhism, and the path to reach enlightenment. The foundation of their collective journey in Buddhism included having compassion for all beings, including insects, reptiles, mammals, and so on. In their teachings, they imparted knowledge about the interconnectedness of all beings and the importance of self-exploration through techniques like meditation. Meditation allows one to pay special attention to the self, to his or her emotions, thoughts, and his or her physiological responses to the environment. With practice, a space can be created between a person and these experiences so that one may take a step back to understand themselves on a deeper level. One meditation — a meditation on “precious human life” — resonated strongly with me. This meditative practice essentially illuminated the importance of being grateful for what one has and finding a place of contentment.

Sacred_lotus_Nelumbo_nucifera
“Sacred lotus Nelumbo nucifera” by T.Voekler – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the Bhavacakra, many other symbols are used to impart knowledge in this ancient tradition. The lotus is an important image that I saw in many Buddhist paintings, statues, and carvings. It symbolizes purity and freedom. This has been chosen as a representation because it blossoms through the murky, muddy waters into a beautiful flower untouched by the murkiness. Thus, the lotus moved through a dirty environment, clean and dirt free. It is said we too have the potential to rise through the noise and murk of our daily lives: to emerge from our preoccupations with things not present, with pain, jealousy, negativity, anger, and hatred, to reach a level of centeredness and presence to experience the actual moments in our lives as they occur. For me, the journey to Tibet was profound and contributed greatly to my experiential learning of mindfulness, meditation, and the benefits linked to its practice.

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