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From The Irish Times, September 15, 2009
Buddhism DIY style - Pamela Duncan
Rob Nairn, lecturer and author on Buddhist philosophy, says his job is to develop some sort of access mechanism which will allow people to get to the essence of Buddhism in their own way
OFTEN WHEN problems arise it is said that overcoming them is a case of mind over matter.
According to Rob Nairn, a lecturer and author on Buddhist philosophy and meditation, mindfulness may hold the key to the goal which we all strive for: that of happiness. But this seemingly simple objective can often evade us, especially in this fast-paced modern world.
Nairn, who recently visited Dublin to give lectures on the topic of mindfulness, says the technique may well bring us a step closer to the ultimate, but seemingly elusive goal.
“I define mindfulness as knowing what’s happening while it’s happening,” he says, adding that most people are never present in the moment, distracted as they are by thoughts, worries and stress.
“I would say happiness begins with being able to accept oneself and one’s situation in the world, so that one is not constantly in a state of inner turmoil, striving, strife, conflict. Those are the main things which actually prevent us being happy,” he says.
“If I decide that I can only be happy if I have a lot of money and a beautiful house in the right suburb and all that sort of thing, as long as I don’t have that I will be in a state of conflict. I’ll always feel I’m failing; I’ve got to keep striving. I still haven’t got my goal.
“People might get halfway to their goal – they might have a beautiful house, a lot of other things – but because they haven’t achieved that final goal, they are not content. So they’re still striving, there’s still conflict, they still feel they’re failing, they still feel there’s so much to do, therefore they can’t just settle down and be happy and enjoy what they’ve got.
“But if I say, ‘Alright, whatever I have got is wonderful – I’ve got a house, I’ve got food, I’ve got a car, I’ve got nice friends, I have a lovely job, I live in a beautiful city, I live in a peaceful country, I live in a civilised country . . . I’ve got all I need’, then that mind can be happy.”
Nairn says the technique has been recognised within science, psychology and medicine as beneficial, while mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is used increasingly in the treatment of depression. But he believes we can all benefit by introducing some level of mindfulness into our lives. In this way people can train themselves to let go of many of the stresses which affect them.
Nairn says his teachings are compatible with, not divergent from, modern-day life. “It’s completely geared to living in the world. It’s not the old method of Buddhism which is to withdraw . . . What we’re looking at is to give people methods of living peacefully and happily in the life that’s around us right now.”
Instead of facing that which affects them, many people in modern world rely on distraction – through television, the internet, books or other activities – to help quiet the mind. While Nairn admits this is an “easier method”, he says mindfulness provides a more enduring solution. “The better long-term option is to train the mind not to get involved and to train the mind to come and rest in a different place, and then a certain inner confidence develops,” he says.
Focusing on breathing and counting techniques, Nairn says the first step in achieving mindfulness is settling the mind.
The second is the recognition that, while thoughts will continue to distract, the individual discovers that they do not have to be drawn away by these thoughts. This brings the person back into the moment and allows them to experience mindfulness, which Nairn says is the first step in meditation.
“Mindfulness is something which almost anybody can learn. It’s not a religious thing,” he says, adding that he has given talks to people of all faiths, as well as those who aren’t religious at all.
Nairn’s own interest in a spiritual life started at an early age. Having studied “all the great religions” by the age of 15, he discovered Buddhism which, he says, provided the “workable system of mediation” he had been seeking. “With the others [religions], you had to make this kind of leap of faith so that you believed and you didn’t really know what you believed in, so it didn’t work for me,” he says.
“I often say that Buddhism is a DIY religion. You really get in there and do it yourself, and if you don’t, well, then nothing happens. So it’s very practical.”
However, his spiritual journey did not stop the young man from pursuing a more conventional career. Having studied law, criminology and psychology, Nairn was appointed a magistrate at just 21, the youngest appointment of its type in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
He went on to become private secretary to the Minister of Justice, Law and Order before turning to academia and became a senior lecturer and later a professor in law and criminology.
While many people see his former career as being incompatible with his involvement in Buddhism, Nairn practised both simultaneously, studying Buddhist philosophy and psychology from the early 1960s. He received part of his training by none other than the Dalai Lama 45 years ago, and has taught Buddhism ever since.
“The disciplines are different, but I found they’ve been complementary,” he says, adding that the psychology he learned through criminology has been of particular benefit in explaining traditional Buddhist concepts to a western audience.
According to Nairn, much of the suffering which people experience in life is psychological in nature. “A lot of the earlier experiences in meditation are quite psychological . . . We’re fighting against ourselves all the time: I’m not good enough; I’m not perfect; I’m worthless.
“All those sorts of psychological issues are there in people’s minds. So we need to bring them out, come to terms with ourselves and then inner peace begins to develop. Until we develop that, then external peace won’t be able to get through to us.”
Having moved away from his academic career to dedicate himself to teaching Buddhist philosophy and psychology, Nairn is now responsible for 11 Buddhist centres in four African countries. At the same time he teaches Tibetan Buddhism, while “translating” Buddhist philosophy and meditation for a western audience.
“I see this as my main job – to make it accessible to the Western mind,” he says. “Buddhism developed over nearly 3,000 years in very different cultures,” he says, adding that something which works in Tibet may not translate to modern-day Dublin.
“My job is to develop some sort of access mechanism which will allow people to get to the essence of Buddhism in their own way.”
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times