Wednesday, 1 May 2019

How’s It Going?

Can you recall, in precise detail, everything that happened for you in the moments just before you started reading this? The mental flowchart of choice-making and intention? The spontaneous co-ordination of your senses? The myriad micro-movements of your body’s muscles, tendons and ligaments?

Probably not. Even if you think you can, try extending the same question to the last five minutes of your life, which will appear as a blur of changing moments, some of which you may be able to account for, but many of which you won’t.

This is quite normal. Life flows. It's always changing. We have an experience. We remember bits of it. Mostly we don’t. Most of what happens vanishes like a dream. We like to think we are in charge of our experience when, in fact, minds are running on auto-pilot much of the time, rendering us oblivious to such facts of existence. Becoming clearer about this – getting real about it – is a central project of mindfulness practice.

You Are Reading This

Consider, for example, your experience of reading this blog. Have there been occasions when you’ve noticed that, although you thought you were reading the words and taking them in, your attention had wandered to something else entirely? And then you realized that you couldn’t remember the last bit you read?

Perhaps you decided to retrace your steps. Maybe you went back a few words or lines and read them again, only to discover that they were vaguely familiar? If you did, well spotted for noticing that your mind had wandered in the first place.

Here’s what happened. You definitely experienced those words, otherwise they would not be familiar, right? But you weren’t aware of them. Experience and awareness are different. The word ‘experience’ comes from the Latin experiri, meaning ‘to try’. The word ‘awareness’ comes from the Greek horan, which means ‘to see’.

Experience implies participating in an event while awareness implies an observation, or overview, of that participation. So, on one level, you engaged with those ‘missing’ words but, on another level, you didn’t. During those moments, the aware part of you failed to show up. This is mindlessness in action.

By contrast, that moment you ‘woke up’ to the fact that you had drifted, you assumed a position of both participant and observer. This is mindfulness in action.

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Social Value of Mindfulness (2)

There is something inherently conscientious about mindfulness. Practitioners often spontaneously clarify or develop ethical sensibilities despite having no prior intellectual knowledge of this side-effect of practice. Such experiences reflect pre-modern formulations of mindfulness.

The English word ‘mindfulness’ is a rendering of the ancient Indian term sati (more on that here), which means ‘recollection’. To recollect, expressed in the negative, is to be non-forgetful and non-distracted. The implication is that sati denotes the empowering of qualities of alertness and care.

This is neatly encapsulated in the Buddhist simile of the gatekeeper. A gatekeeper needs to be watchful and diligent in order to do the job. The job here is understood to be ‘guarding’ the mind, that is, being circumspect with what is passing through the mind, what is being constructed in the mind and what the effects of this will be.

Such a gatekeeper is envisioned as a sort of naturally wise, ethically sensitive, health and safety officer, who helps to keep out the foolishness and carelessness we are prone to while granting ready access to all the beneficial and wholesome mental qualities at our disposal.


In Buddhist psychology, conducting one’s life in a resolutely mindful fashion is called appamada, which translates as ‘non-neglect or non-absence of sati’ or, expressed in its positive, ‘heedfulness’. Sati, established as appamada, is understood to have a social as well as an individual value – others necessarily benefit from one’s own practice of mindfulness.

How so? By being aware of one’s motives, thoughts, words and deeds, and their impact of oneself and others, one becomes clearer about what needs to be done, and what should be left undone. That is, one begins to relate to life appropriately by making clear ethical choices. One becomes more ‘response-able’.

Such a comprehensive taking care of life is what links mindfulness organically to friendliness – the willingness to move close to, respect and connect with. Whatever shows up, we breathe with it, respond intentionally, observe what happens and learn from the experience.

Friday, 1 March 2019

The Social Value of Mindfulness (1)

Sometimes touched upon in contemporary training courses, but more often ignored or overlooked, is the ethical dimension of mindfulness. What, you might ask, has individual mind-training and solitary meditation got to do with ethical action?

In its simplest sense, to meditate is to develop your capacity to be on better terms with yourself. The intention, therefore, is to empower a harmonious and authentic relationship with one’s psycho-physical organism. Meditation is a friendly activity directed towards oneself.

Similarly, regardless of whatever you’re doing the rest of the time, while you are meditating you are neither engaging in nor intending to harm anyone or anything else. Meditation is, even by this minimal measure, a friendly activity towards other beings.

But the ethical dimension of practice goes much deeper. When we pay close attention to our experience, we invariably begin to discover more about the many shades of our mind, some of which are not so bright – the selfish impulses, the harsh judgements and distasteful prejudices that trickle through it and, indeed, cloud over it.

Guilt, shame, animosity, resentment, fear and hate… Oh yes, the whole toxic emotional cocktail resides within! Can we be honest, at least with ourselves, about that? Can we be on friendly terms with it all? Being honest and being friendly are what this practice patiently demands of us.

Cause and Effect

The intimacy of meditation can bring into stark profile the confusion, not to mention moral ambivalence, of the average human mind – all those “should I or shouldn’t I?” questions that nibble at the conscience.

As we pay attention, we begin to see and feel how certain movements in the mind, or the recollection of past actions and styles of behaviour, create mental disturbance in the here-and-now. We can experience this presently and directly in meditation.

The paradox is that such an experience is liberating. We become more attuned to cause and effect – how the way we act affects our mind, and vice versa. This leads to making healthy, skilful choices or, at least, to minimizing the painful impact of selfish, ignorant ones. We might already know, in our heads, that it is difficult to have a peaceful meditation practice if we are heavily invested in lying, stealing and abusing others. But to know that in our hearts is revolutionary.

In this way, the influence of mindful awareness extends from the solitude of formal meditation to quietly effecting change in the world. Behaviours adjust naturally towards the benign. Minds gravitate naturally towards the skilful. We come to realise, beyond doubt, that acting in friendly, fair and compassionate ways is better for everyone, including ourselves.

Friday, 1 February 2019

The Proliferating Mind

I sit down to meditate. I commit the next minutes of my life to the practice of mindfulness of breathing. The meditation bell sounds to signal the start. A few moments pass. I notice a mild pang of hunger in my belly. An image of chocolate – its taste, texture and colour – flashes across my mind. I note this and gently, patiently, return attention to the breath.

More moments pass. Sensations in my belly continue to draw my attention. Somewhere far in the background there is a vague knowing that my mind is discreetly launching one of its advertising campaigns to convince me that the desire for food is more fulfilling than meditation. I know from experience this is not true, but I am prone to forgetting, which is what happens next.

Off to the Movies

Before I’m wise to it, the cinema screen of my mind is spontaneously manifesting assorted scenes from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It then proceeds, for no apparent reason, to critique Gene Wilder’s performance in the lead role before tumbling headlong into a miscellany of Gene’s movies – random scenes, bits of dialogue, a hodgepodge of sound and vision. Little do I know it but my mind has galloped off to the movies and mindfulness of breathing is history…

… What an intriguing guy Gene Wilder was... Such a great face… The way he seemed to hold in all that emotion, you never quite knew what was going on with him.... I wonder how he chose his parts… I wonder what he was like in real life… That scene in Blazing Saddles when he raises his voice in that funny way of his reminds me of that weird song he sings on the boat trip in the Chocolate Factory… oh yeah, chocolate… Young Frankenstein was funny, though, wasn’t it?… What about his mate Richard Pryor’s stand-up? He must’ve been outrageous back in the day…

On and on chatters the mind.

… and how about Bill Hicks?… He was dynamite… His skit about the first Gulf War was razor-sharp… The media frenzy around that war was out of control, wasn’t it?… They used to call the Vietnam War “the first television war”, didn’t they?... That documentary on Vietnam narrated by Peter Coyote was a cut above the usual, wasn’t it?... Peter Coyote was in ET, wasn’t he?… I didn’t think I was going to watch all that documentary… But I did, didn’t I?… Ten episodes in all, yeah… It’s a pity the hard drive didn’t record half of one of the episodes… Was it Episode 3 or 4?... I can’t remember…

And on and on.

… What a shame that old Vietnam movie, Go Tell The Spartans, starring Burt Lancaster and that other guy whose name I can’t remember, didn’t get more acclaim at the time… It was ahead of its time… At least a year ahead of Apocalypse Now… Or was it two?... Burt was great… His character in The Swimmer was tragic and deluded... That last scene is kind of eerie… I remember watching that film while eating three bags of salt and vinegar crisps… That’s one bag of crisps too many, isn’t it?… I’m really hungry… Some chocolate would be nice… Willy Wonka had a factory full of the stuff, didn't he?... What an intriguing guy Gene Wilder was…

The interval bell sounds marking the halfway point of the meditation period.

Double Bill

The sound of the bell triggers a momentary retrieval of awareness, though not for long. All this mental monkeying about has gathered energy around itself. It fires up again and blasts off in a new direction…

… This is useless… I haven’t even started meditating… Why do I never learn?... It’s really simple, just watch the breath… Stop wasting your time and focus… Focus focus focus… Why has this happened to me?... Is it just me?... Maybe it’s just me!?... What if I never sort this out?... Maybe everyone can meditate, but I can’t… Concentrate, concentrate!… No, relax, don’t push, then concentrate… Gentle, easy does it… One moment at a time… I’m pretty sure it was Episode 4 that got lost on the hard drive… I definitely watched all of Episode 3… The one after Episode 2, that’s right… I wonder what’s up with the hard drive… It was a cut above average, that series… They called Vietnam “the first television war”, didn’t they?...

There comes a point when I wake up to what’s happening – the wandering, the reminiscing, the brooding. The sheer nonsense of it all. I catch the mind blundering about its virtual universe, storyboarding its own demented manoeuvres. Finally, I am awake to what is actually going on. I have recollected my intention to practise mindfulness of breathing. And, right then, the bell rings to signal the end of the meditation period!

No Refunds

If such an experience during meditation is in any ways familiar to you, know that you are not alone. Human minds are prone to conceptual proliferation. The content may vary but the process is the same. In the example above, note the webs of thought that spin outwards and loop in inconsequential patterns. Note the chains of association and petty judgements. Note the implicit self-absorption and self-referencing. Note the lack of awareness of this self-view. Note the lack of empowerment of the intention to be present to what is occurring in the here and now with equanimity. In terms of meditation, note the complete waste of time.

Conceptual proliferation is the tendency of the mind, once triggered by some perception or other, to ‘spread outwards’ into strings of thought that appear solid and real, not ephemeral and ever-changing. This gives rise to a strong sense of ‘me’ (the thinker and believer of the thoughts) that is separate from the world ‘outside of me’.

This invariably leads to a sense of tension or pressure because there is some longing for something I haven’t got or frustration at things not being the way I want them to be. Since this process is happening out of awareness, no insight is possible. Therefore, the mind learns nothing and keeps tangling itself up in its own nets. When ‘I’ finally wise up to what’s happening, at best it’s been a farce. If the thought-content is less innocuous, it may well feel more like a horror movie. Whatever the emotional impact, it’s always a waste of time.

Start Again

When you spot conceptual proliferation in action, this is a ‘good’ moment, that is, a moment of strong mindfulness. Stay attentive. Watch the show without getting lost in it. Refuse to be seduced. Become aware of emotional responses to the wordplay and imagery of the mind. Feel the feelings. Explore how emotions build themselves up through thoughts. Can you feel the restlessness of the mind in the body? Can you sense the compulsive energy to leap from thought to thought? Keep watching. Keep feeling. If you lose track, start again, one moment at a time. Ease and clarity can flourish under such conditions.

Another route out of conceptual proliferation is to track back through the chain of thought that led to the whole blossoming of nonsense in the first place. When you notice your mind has wandered off, review the thoughts that have arisen to find where they arose from. It will likely be some sort of association with a bodily sensation, sound, smell, random memory or idea. When you find what it is, stay with that, just recognising it and feeling its resonance. Just for a few moments. Then let go and return to the breath. Start again. Spending an entire sitting period ‘starting again’ is, in meditation terms, time well spent.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Ain’t That Enough

One reliable guide for how to be on more realistic and, therefore, better terms with life is Ajahn Chah, a Thai Forest monk who was famous for his training of senior western meditation teachers.

Regarding the central human concern of how to live wisely, he used an analogy of doing good mathematics: subtracting when you need to subtract, adding when you need to add, and so on. Knowing what is appropriate, and when, is what gives you the right answer, suggested Ajahn Chah.

The problem, as he saw it, was that humans are prone to forgetting how best to operate in given
circumstances due to our tendency for always wanting to multiply – to have more, more, more.

Time, money, power, status, fun, freedom, friends… the list goes on. How easy it is to always want more. But when there is no sense of enough, there is no lasting contentment to be found. And so we suffer.

Conversely, when we have the thought “okay, this is plenty”, when we value the measure of “enough”, then we are no longer on-the-take with life and able to live with ease.

What is the pay-off, according to Ajahn Chah, for developing such a humble and non-acquisitional attitude to life?

He put it like this: “Your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful and rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many marvellous and strange things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.”

Friday, 30 November 2018

Wherever You Go

You have probably heard the old adage, ‘Wherever you go, there you are’. A few years ago, on a week-long meditation retreat, I received a lovely teaching on this from a handful of stones.

The retreat was themed around the Zen koan ‘What Is This?’, which is a traditional method for inspiring curiosity, wonder and insight into the nature of phenomena (no less). The daily schedule of the retreat comprised of periods of sitting and walking meditation interspersed with meal breaks. The encouragement was to practise diligently, in silence, throughout the day.

On the first morning, during a walking period, I came across a small pile of stones beside a garden path. Next to the pile, a number of these stones had been arranged, presumably by another retreatant, into a smiley face. I didn’t give it much thought at the time and carried on walking.

The next day, I was walking along the same path when I noticed the stones again. Something had changed. Taking a closer look, I discovered that the mouth had been reshaped into an expression of surprise. Wanting to stay true to my meditative intentions of abiding in moment-to-moment awareness, I simply noted an inner flutter of amusement and carried on walking.

Getting Stoned

On the third morning, I became aware of a mild urge to steer myself along the path towards the stones. My curiosity had got the better of me. Sure enough, the stones had been reshaped again. The surprised face was as before but, above it, additional stones had been arranged into the shape of a question mark.

Given the 'what is this?' theme of the retreat, I couldn’t help acknowledging how creative someone was being with these stones. Whoever it was, they weren’t supposed to be distracting themselves from their practice by playing with stones, but neither was I supposed to be distracting myself by seeking light entertainment in the garden.

The next day, against my better judgment, I felt compelled to return to the stones. They had not changed. I noted my disappointment. On the fifth day, I was up that path before I knew it, as if on auto-pilot, eager for a peek at the stones. I found them unchanged again. More disappointment.

On the sixth day, I checked three times. No alterations forthcoming. Perhaps the mystery stone-arranger had decided to get more serious about their retreat, I don’t know. As for me, well, I was obliged to reflect upon my walking practice as a descent into an embarrassing quest for mindless novelty.

Koan Get It

On the last day of the retreat, I was determined to resist the lure of the stones. Not determined enough, as it turned out. Walking in the garden, I felt that familiar urge, more powerful than ever, to pay them one last visit. “Oh, go on, have a look,” whispered my inner novelty-seeker, “Once more won’t hurt. It’s the last day, you won’t get another chance, you know you want to. Have a little break from the mindful walking, go on, you deserve it…” On and on went this prattle and hype. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Off I went up the garden path.

As I approached the spot, still some metres away, I could see that the stones had, in fact, been rearranged. The surprised face had gone, as had the question mark. Other shapes had taken their place. Ridiculous as it may sound, I felt my heart jolt with excitement. I picked up my pace, my neck extending forwards like a curious cat.

I reached the spot and stood over the stones. Now I could see them clearly. The first thing I noticed was that some of the stones had been arranged into a big arrow pointing directly to where I stood. The second thing I noticed came accompanied by a little burn of embarrassment and shame. Above the arrow, the stones had been neatly arranged into three words: YOU ARE HERE.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Inner Gatekeeper

Modern and ancient perspectives on mindfulness broadly agree on its function as a protective mental quality.

This humble mental quality allows us to have a ‘clear view’ of the moment-to-moment flow of events in order to be ‘on guard’ for potentially negative and injurious psychological states. It is important here to distinguish between protectiveness and defensiveness, which is a ‘not wanting to know’. The quality of mindfulness always inclines towards ‘wanting to know’.

Mindfulness as a protective factor was first outlined in the ancient Buddhist simile of the gatekeeper:

“Imagine a fortress, at a frontier, which has a wise and experienced gatekeeper. The function of this gatekeeper is to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does. This is for the protection of those within and to ward off those without.

“In the same way, someone who is mindful is alert and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, such a one maintains what is helpful and benevolent, abandons what is unhealthy, and looks after oneself well.”

You can find a translation of the original discourse, which includes this simile, here.

Here, being ‘mindful’ connotes ‘taking care’. This is also the word’s most common English rendering despite its recent and gradual shift in meaning towards something more akin to ‘awareness’.

Staying Well

Not by coincidence, protective care-taking is the rationale for modern mindfulness-based psychotherapies, which predominantly aim to prevent the relapse of mental distress.

Take one example: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This is a well-established, evidence-based treatment for depressive relapse first developed in the 1990s. Here, the researchers were seeking a ‘final solution’ to the repetitive nature of depression.

They found that, for people who had been depressed in the past, a small change in mood led to a large change in negative thinking, which could easily trigger a downward spiral into further depression.

They then discovered that this could be prevented if people were able to recognise their thought patterns relatively early on, so that they were able to ‘stand back’ and get some perspective on their experience.

It was the combination of these two discoveries that led them to adopt a fully-fledged mindfulness-based programme, which they would later name MBCT.

Such a programme, in effect, allows you to deliberately access and empower your internalised gatekeeper, cool-headed and wise, who quietly monitors your interactions with the world to enhance your sense of ease and to diminish your potential for suffering.

As a result, life smoothes out and becomes an easier ride.

How’s It Going?

Can you recall, in precise detail, everything that happened for you in the moments just before you started reading this? The mental flowchar...