Category Archives: Mindfulness

THE DARK SIDE OF MEDITATION – Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm.

Aaron Alexis was in search of something.

He started attending a Buddhist temple and learned to meditate; he hoped it would bring him wisdom and peace. ‘I want to be a Buddhist monk,’ he once told a friend from the temple. His friend advised him to keep studying. Aaron did. He learned Thai and kept going to the temple chanting, meditating. But other things got in the way.

On 16 September 2013 Aaron drove into Washington’s Navy Yard. It was eight o’clock in the morning. He’d been working there not long before, and security let him in. He walked away from the car with a large bag and briefly disappeared into a toilet. Minutes later the security cameras caught him holding a shotgun.

Aaron walked briskly and hid behind a wall for a few seconds before advancing through the building. Within 30 minutes 12 people were dead. He killed randomly, first using his shotgun and then, after running out of ammunition, using the handgun belonging to a guard he’d just killed. He died after an exchange of gunfire with the police.

It took only 24 hours for a journalist to notice that Aaron had been a Buddhist, prompting her to write an article that asked, ‘Can there be a less positive side to meditation?’ Western Buddhists immediately reacted: ‘This man represented the Dharma teachings no more than 9/11 terrorists represented the teachings of Islam,’ wrote one. Others explained that he had a history of mental health problems. However, some noted that Buddhism, as other religions, has a history that links it to violence.

And meditation, for all its de-stressing and self-development potential, can take you deeper into the darkest recesses of your own mind than you may have wished for.

This chapter asks difficult questions that are seldom given a voice. They are questions I have wrestled with, both as a psychologist and in my own spiritual practice. Do I have unrealistic positive expectations about what meditation can do? Can it also have adverse effects, finding its way to non-spiritual, even non-peaceful ends?

When something goes wrong, the way it did with Aaron Alexis, we can’t look the other way rationalizing that he wasn’t a true Buddhist or meditator isn’t enough. We need relentlessly to examine the less familiar, hidden facets of meditation a technique that for centuries has been used to cultivate wisdom, clarity of mind, and selflessness. We need to ask ourselves if meditation has a dark side.


I’d come across the idea that without the guidance of an expert teacher meditation can have adverse effects, but I’d thought that this was a metaphor for the difficulties we might encounter as we venture deep into ourselves.

I hadn’t considered that the adverse effects might be literal ones. Then, one day I heard a first-hand account that opened my eyes to my naivety.

At the time l was teaching an open course on the psychology of spirituality. There were a few twenty-year-olds, but the majority of students were in their late fifties and early sixties and represented a combination of retired lawyers, Anglican priests, psychiatrists, and three or four yoga and meditation teachers. Louise was one of them.

In her late fifties and lean with dark, short hair, Louise was a quiet member of the group, who in general spoke up only when she felt she had something important to say. She had taught yoga for more than twenty years, stopping only when something unexpected happened that changed her life for ever. During one meditation retreat (she’d been on many), her sense of self changed dramatically. ‘Good,’ she thought initially, ‘it must be part of the dissolving experience.’ But she couldn’t help feeling anxious and frightened.

‘Don’t worry, just keep meditating and it will go away,’ the meditation teacher told her.

It didn’t. She couldn’t get back to her usual self. It felt like something was messing with her sense of identity, how she felt in her body, the very way she looked at the world and at other people. The last day of the retreat was excruciating: her body shook, she cried and panicked. The following day, back at home, she was in pieces her body was numb, she didn’t want to get out of bed. Louise’s husband took her to the GP and, within hours, she was being seen by a psychiatrist.

She spent the next 15 years being treated for psychotic depression; for part of this time, she had to be hospitalized.

Louise had chosen to give a presentation on the psychology of spiritual experience, as part of her assessment on the course. She talked lucidly about her illness and its possible origins, including a genetic predisposition to mental health problems. She explained that she had gradually taken up yoga practice again, but had never returned to meditation retreats. ‘I had to have electro-convulsive therapy,’ she told the class. That means strong electric shocks going through your skull, a treatment that is not only painful, but leads to memory loss in the short term.

I was stunned. I couldn’t know for sure; perhaps her mental illness could have developed in some other way but, as it happened, those three days of intense meditation are likely to have triggered it. I mentioned this to a friend who, in the 1970s, had taught meditation to 13 to 14-year-olds.

‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I once had two boys who were becoming quite emotionally disturbed; the meditation practice was unleashing emotional material that they couldn’t deal with.’ ‘So what happened?’

‘I told them to stop doing it,’ my friend told me. ‘I had twenty other children to look after. And as soon as they did, they were fine.’

Two in twenty that’s a 10 per cent probability that meditation could have an adverse effect on young adolescents. But this was anecdotal evidence taken from a single meditation class that happened forty years earlier indeed, if the hundreds of scientific articles I’d read on the effects of meditation were to go by, there seemed to be only good news. So, are cases like Louise’s and the boys in my friend’s class the exception?

I looked through the medical and psychological databases in search of articles on the possible adverse effects of meditation. There were some, most of them case studies.

One of the most striking, written in 2001 by a British psychiatrist, told the story of a 25-year-old woman who, like Louise, had a serious mental health problem following meditation retreats. The first time she was admitted to hospital her symptoms included: ‘thought disorder with flight of ideas, her mood was elevated and there were grandiose delusions including the belief that she had some special mission for the world: she had to offer “undying, unconditional love” to everyone. She had no [critical] insight?

This woman, referred to as Miss X, was diagnosed with mania. After six weeks of medication her symptoms were controlled. A psychiatrist saw her regularly for two years and she started twice-weekly psychotherapy. Then, she took part in a Zen Buddhist retreat and was hospitalized again. She couldn’t sleep for five days and, according to a psychiatrist who saw her, displayed a number of unrestrained behaviours: she was irritable, sexually disinhibited, restless, made repeated praying gestures, and attacked a member of staff. Miss X had to be transferred to an intensive psychiatric care unit for three days.

Interesting, I thought, but I was still unconvinced. All these examples could be individuals with a strong predisposition to mental illness. As I looked further into the scientific literature, though, I found other kinds of evidence.

In 1992 David Shapiro, a professor in psychiatry and human behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, published an article about the effects of meditation retreats. Shapiro examined 27 people with different levels of meditation experience. He found that 63 per cent of them had at least one negative effect and 7 per cent suffered profoundly adverse effects.

The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, increased negativity, pain, feeling spaced out, confusion and disorientation?

Perhaps only the least experienced felt these negative experiences. Several days of meditation might overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice. Was that the case? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all the meditators had an equal number of adverse experiences. An earlier study had arrived at a similar, but even more surprising conclusion.

Not only did those with more experience of meditating find themselves with negative symptoms particularly anxiety, confusion and restlessness they also had considerably more adverse effects than the beginners?

Amid the small pile of articles on the adverse effects of meditation, I was surprised to find two by Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis, co-founders of CBT.

In a 1976 article Lazarus reported that a few of his own patients had had serious disturbances after meditating; these included depression, ongoing tension and a serious suicide attempt. Lazarus strongly criticized the idea that ‘meditation is for everyone’. Instead, he argued that ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’, and that researchers and therapists need to know both the benefits and the risks of meditation for different kinds of people.

Albert Ellis shared Lazarus’ misgivings about meditation. He believed it could be used as a therapeutic tool, but not with everyone. ‘A few of my own clients,’ he writes, ‘have gone into dissociative semi-trance states and upset themselves considerably by meditating.’ Overall, he believed meditation could be used only in moderation as a ‘thought-distracting’ or ‘relaxing’ technique:

‘Like tranquilizers, it may have both good and bad effects especially, the harmful result of encouraging people to look away from some of their central problems, and to refrain from actually disputing and surrendering their disturbance-creating beliefs. It may also be perniciously used to enhance self-rating or “ego-strength”, so that people end up by believing “I am a great meditator and therefore am a good and noble person!” I therefore recommend meditation… as a palliative, a distraction method, and advise most of my clients to use it with discretion and not to take it too seriously or view it as a generally therapeutic method.’


I felt like an archaeologist digging up long forgotten artefacts. How could this literature on the adverse effects of meditation, including short but sharp comments from founding cognitive psychotherapists be completely absent in the recent research on meditation? It was conceivable that clinicians and researchers simply did not report the negative consequences of meditation in their articles, but it was more likely that the meditators themselves did not talk about it.

Many who encounter difficulties during or after their practice may feel they’re doing something wrong, or even that their distress is part of the process and will eventually pass. That was the case of Miss X, who had two manic episodes following meditation retreats, but eventually refused continuous treatment, explaining that her mania was nothing more than a release of blocked energy from years of not dealing with her emotions adequately. Many meditators thinking like Miss X could, to a certain extent, explain why negative reports didn’t make it into scientific journals adverse effects could be regarded as mere stones on the road to peace or spiritual attainment.

l was thinking about this when Jo Lal, our publisher, emailed to ask how the book was going. I told her what I had found.

‘Have you heard of Dr Russell Razzaque?’ Jo asked. I hadn’t.

‘We’re about to publish his book Breaking Down is Waking Up. You may find it helpful.’

Razzaque is a London-based psychiatrist whose own Buddhist meditation practice has led him to re-evaluate the meaning of mental illness. He argues that many of the psychotic experiences his patients describe resemble mystical experiences of ego-dissolution that are known to occur after years of meditation practice. Razzaque suggests that mental breakdowns are part of a spiritual growth process, in which we learn to see the self for what it is: an illusion. He describes his own mystical experience in the book:

‘I found myself descending into a deeply meditative state; I somehow travelled through the sensations of my body and the thoughts in my mind to a space of sheer nothingness that felt, at the same time, like it was somehow the womb of everything. I felt a sense of pure power and profound energy as I came upon a sudden brilliant light and a profound feeling of all-pervading joy I was everything and nothing at the same time.’

In the days that followed, however, life wasn’t so blissful. Razzaque found that he couldn’t contain his joyful experience and there was something deep within pulling him in the opposite direction. ‘I could sense the powerful currents in my whirling mind the self-doubts and the dents in self-esteem sucking me towards a ball of depression, the anxieties and fears threatening to balloon into full-blown panic, obsessions or defensive compulsions, and the speed of it all that risked pushing me into a manic state.’

Razzaque managed to keep grounded and, as a result of his difficult experience, felt greater sympathy towards his psychotic patients. Wait a minute, I thought; here we have a trained psychiatrist who can identify his symptoms and fight them off but the majority of people meditating know next to nothing about psychiatric diagnosis; nor are they familiar with seeing patients experiencing unusual states of mind. Can these difficult emotional experiences arising from meditation really be a sign of spiritual awakening?

Others before Razzaque have trodden a similar path and pointed out similarities between the symptoms of psychotic people and spiritual experiences. in the late 1980s Stan Grof edited with his wife a book on spiritual emergencies. They caution clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to be aware of and respect what on the surface may look like mental illness, but is, in fact, the expression of spiritual experiences that are having a profound, though momentarily stressful, effect. The Grofs mention shamanism and near-death experiences, as well as meditation and other spiritual practices, in association with spiritual emergencies.

Their pioneering work came to fruition when a new category was added to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), used by psychiatrists worldwide, that of Religious and Spiritual Problems. This category acknowledges that some mental health problems, such as depersonalization, may arise as a temporary result of spiritual practices.

If you have ever felt a strong state of depersonalization, you wouldn’t forget it easily! The Cambridge Depersonalisation Scale, a questionnaire that measures symptoms, includes unusual experiences, such as: ‘Part of my body feels as if it didn’t belong to me’ or ‘I have the feeling of not having any thoughts at all, so that when I speak it feels as if my words were being uttered by an automaton?’ But other statements, such as ‘I feel so detached from my thoughts that they seem to have a life of their own’ might be quite familiar to mindfulness meditators.

With a category of religious and spiritual problems, clinicians are potentially able to recognize what are genuine manic, depressive or psychotic episodes and what are the non-pathological, although sometimes difficult effects of meditation. But it’s far from a straightforward distinction. David Lukoff, the clinical psychologist who co-authored this new category, admits that his interest in the topic arose in 1971 when he spent two months experiencing his own spiritual crisis, fully convinced that he was the reincarnation of Buddha and Christ with a mission to save the world.

But how many clinicians worldwide, I wonder, even those with a spiritual faith, would not deem someone whose life was dominated by delusion for two entire months to be seriously mentally ill. The problem centres around how we define mental illness as distinct from a spiritual emergency clearly, not all spirituality-related experiences are benign. The late Michael Thalbourne, an Australian psychological scientist, suffered from bipolar disorder, wherein periods of mania would trigger messianic delusions that had a spiritual element:

‘I sometimes get into this very focused state of mind that I can’t shake, where I believe I am Christ,’ he told me once, opening wide his eyes and gazing intensely ‘I don’t just believe I am in communion with Christ, but that l actually am the Christ.’

Michael Thalbourne had a deep personal interest in spirituality, but didn’t look at his mental suffering as a benign stone on the winding road to spiritual growth. It affected both his personal life and his academic career. ‘My university has never given me a proper academic post; they see me as unreliable and potentially dangerous,’ he explained.

The Grofs cautioned that not all difficult experiences associated with spiritual practices are necessarily ‘spiritual’. A psychotherapist or an expert spiritual teacher may have the power to help to turn a difficult experience into a meaningful one, but not always.

With the growing number of people interested in meditation in the West, many will walk away from their weekend meditation retreat or eightweek mindfulness course without expert guidance.

How many of them in their search for a moment of peace and quiet, I thought, can end up having a bumpy ride, not to mention the real danger of a journey into the hell of mental illness.


A number of Western Buddhists are aware that not all is plain sailing with meditation, they have even named the emotional difficulties that arise from their meditative practice, calling them the ‘dark night’.

The concept of a spiritual dark night isn’t originally Buddhist. Coined by the 16th-century Christian mystic St John of the Cross, the phrase originally described an advanced stage of prayer and contemplation characterized by an emotional dryness, in which the subject feels abandoned by God.

Buddhists, in principle, ought not to feel abandoned by God, but their accounts of the dark night associated with meditation are riddled with emotional and physical turmoil. A Buddhist blog sharing experiences of the dark night features a number of testimonies: ‘Nine years on and off of periods of deep depression, angst, anxiety and misery’; ‘there was a nausea that kept coming up, terrible sadness, aches and pain’; ‘l’ve had one pretty intense dark night, it lasted for nine months, included misery, despair, panic attacks… loneliness, auditory hallucinations, mild paranoia, treating my friends and family badly, long episodes of nostalgia and regret, obsessive thoughts (usually about death).’

Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University who has conducted studies on the positive effects of mindfulness, is now trying to map these more difficult experiences, which she calls ‘The Dark Side of Dharma’.

Her interest arose from witnessing two people being hospitalized after intense meditation practice, together with her own experience after a retreat in which she felt an unimaginable terror. Reading through the classical Buddhist literature to try to understand what was happening to her, she realized that these negative experiences are mentioned as common stages of meditation.

‘l was woefully uninformed,’ she admits in an interview.

Meditation retreats easily led people to sense the world differently: the hearing gets sharper; time moves slower. But the most radical change that can occur is in what Britton calls ‘the narrative of the self’.

Try this out: focus on the present moment, nothing else than the present moment. You may be able to do it easily for a very short time. However, if you try extending this ‘presentness’ for one, two hours and keep trying for some days, your usual sense of self, that which has one foot in the past and the other in the future collapses. The practice may feel great for some, but for others it is like being continuously tossed around in a roller coaster. Vertigo, rather than blissful realization of the emptiness of the self, may be the end result.

Other unpleasant things happen, too, as Britton discovered through interviews with numerous individuals: arms flap, people twitch and have convulsions; others go through euphoria or depression, or report not feeling anything at all their physical senses go numb.

Unpleasant as they are, if these symptoms were confined to a retreat there wouldn’t be much to worry about but they’re not. Sometimes they linger, affecting work, childcare and relationships. They can become a clinical health problem, which, on average, lasts for more than three years. Some people ‘seemed to go through these experiences fairly quickly, like under a year, and in other people can last a decade’, Britton reveals.

Britton hasn’t yet published her research, but it confirms the case studies, earlier findings with groups of meditators, and Lazarus’s and Albert Ellis’s comments on the adverse effects of meditation.

These negative effects may very well turn out to be a stage in our spiritual journey, but if we don’t address them properly they can be destructive and harmful. Meditation teachers know about it Britton says but meditation researchers are usually sceptical; they ask about the prior psychiatric history of meditators who develop mental health problems, as if meditation itself had little or nothing to do with it.

I thought the same before starting the research for this book. Its title was originally going to be From Monster to Buddha, intending to highlight the astonishing possibility of personal change arising from meditation. I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing Its primary purpose was much more radical, to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.

But that’s not how we see meditation courses promoted in the West. Here, meditation has been revamped as a natural pill that will quieten your mind and make you happier.

I recently asked students’ in a class I was teaching on the psychology of contemplative techniques what they thought the similarities and differences were between meditation and psychotherapy. A student who was a regular meditator argued that doing psychotherapy was all about past wounds and relationships, while meditation, she said, was ‘free from all that crap; it’s all about being in the present’.

But it’s not. Repressed and traumatic material can easily resurface during intense meditation.

From the moment I accepted this and started talking to regular meditators, I kept finding more and more evidence. I discovered even more online and sometimes in the least expected places. Take Deepak Chopra’s website, for example. There is a correspondence section where readers post their questions or experiences and Chopra answers. A number of these posts concern physical or emotional symptoms that arise from meditation. On 11 April 2014 an individual who had been meditating for one year and finding in it ‘true bliss’ describes having twice experienced a deep emotional sensation, ‘like something is being ripped from me’, that left her wanting to cry and yell. Chopra’s reply is optimistic:

‘It’s both normal and okay. It just means there is some deep emotional trauma from your past that is now ready to come to the surface and be healed. After meditation I would recommend you take a few minutes and sing out loud. Find a song you love that resonates with the emotional tone of your pain. Listen to it at above normal volume so that you can really feel the sonic effect of the song and music. When you feel it has engaged your emotions, start to sing so that your voice translates your feelings into sound. If you do this every time you feel some unresolved residue of emotion after your meditation, it will facilitate the release and healing process.’

What if someone like Aaron Alexis had emailed Deepak Chopra and received a reply like this, would singing along to his favourite song, turned up nice and loud, have healed his past emotional traumas and led into the wisdom he sought, rather than a killing spree? Unlikely.

Furthermore, there is a real danger that what the person who wrote to Chopra asking for advice is feeling is not ‘normal and okay’, and that if she keeps meditating without an expert teacher, it may disturb rather than heal.


‘If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation.’ The Dalai Lama

When best-selling spiritual author Marian Williams tweeted the above quote, it quickly went viral. It probably helped that her friend Oprah Winfrey re-tweeted it to her 24 million followers with the comment, ‘This I believe is true. Have seen it in action?’

The notion that religious or spiritual practice is something of a cure-all isn’t unique to Eastern practices, though. Fundamentally, all religions moot that spirituality can make you a better person.

The evidence for this is ambiguous.

It is true that religions emphasize the caring part of our human nature from the ‘thou shall not kill’ of the Hebrew scriptures, through the Hindu praise in the BhagavadGita of the person who hurts nobody and is compassionate towards all beings, and the Quran’s rule to be kind to orphans, the needy and travellers, to the Buddha’s precept to ‘avoid killing, or harming any living thing’, and the Christian golden rule of treating others as you would want them to treat you. While there is psychological evidence that practising religious people are more charitable, our ability to differentiate between good and bad deeds is already in place before we acquire religious ideas.

Studies have shown that from as young as six months old, we have a preference for those we see helping another, and we’d rather be with someone neutral (who acts neither positively nor negatively) than with an uncooperative individual. And from eight months old, we are able to appreciate when a helpful individual acts against another that has behaved badly. This ingenious research was conducted with computer images and puppets, so the babies could effectively recognize positive and negative moral behaviour in strangers.

The idea that we seem to be biologically predisposed towards morality does not answer the question a 16-year-old once asked me at a public lecture in India: ‘If we are born good and kind, how come there is so much violence and evil in the world?’ Religions have dealt with such ‘problem of evil’ questions for a long time and have come up with various answers the existence of free will, disobedience to God, the work of the devil, and the concepts of illusion, karma or greed.

Psychologists rarely come up with such enticing explanations about the origins of violence and immorality. We simply know that while we are born with the ability to tell a helpful from an unhelpful gesture, a caring from a callous person, we are also rooted in our needs our desire to want things, to achieve and in trying to reach our goals we are able to hurt, and even kill. While some of us have more of a propensity towards doing this than others for example, those with psychopathic traits hurting someone else in order to meet our own needs is something we are all potentially capable of; and to at least some small degree, probably do.

While there is evidence that religion can make people act better towards others, there is also plenty of evidence to the contrary: religion can make you more prejudiced towards the non-religious or gay. But we can detach meditation from groups and religions. You can use meditation to de-stress or explore the self just as easily whether you ascribe to a set of religious beliefs or a religious group or not. The beauty of meditation is just that its separateness from the necessity of divine rules of morality and punishment. But, if we take this view, we return to the question that we asked in Chapter 5: meditation without religion might improve its attraction, but is its lack of attachment to spiritual moral guidelines is also a weakness?

I asked an old friend who runs a sociological research centre specializing in equality and racism issues what he thought of the Dalai Lama’s idea that meditation could eventually eradicate violence. He gave me a puzzled look before answering.

‘There are various factors that explain violence, right? Some psychological, others societal. Put them all together in a statistical regression model: start with level of income, education, access to health, then consider psychological factors such as the presence of childhood abuse; see how much of these explain the likelihood of my neighbour being in a fight at the pub or hitting his partner. Then, add meditation to your statistical model would it add anything in predicting violence compared to the other factors?’

‘Well …’ I started, but he interrupted me.

‘Would it have made a difference if Hitler had meditated?’ he asked grinning.

I saw what he meant. You can’t remove an individual from the larger context and one’s psychological makeup. It would not have made much of a difference if Hitler had meditated like Aaron Alexis did unless he removed himself from the society that raised him to power and he radically changed his ambitions and ideas.

On the other hand practices such as meditation and yoga are rooted in inner peacefulness, and the spiritual traditions upon which they’re built believe that radical personal changes are possible, regardless of the environment we live in.

All in all I felt I had a puzzle with quite a lot of missing or ill-fitting pieces. I couldn’t quite see the larger picture. Very soon, though, I was challenged to look in a completely different way at the question of the extent to which contemplative techniques are associated with violence.


‘KINDLY BE CALM’, read a sign in large capital letters above the reception desk. On the other side of the lounge, there was a picture on the wall of a forty-something bearded man with a pristine smile, wearing the traditional orange robes of Indian yogis. I yawned and rubbed my eyes, trying hard to keep awake. It was past midnight and I’d been travelling for eight hours on a dimly lit motorway, thick with fog, clotted with buses and trucks without rear lights.

‘Don’t go, it’s suicide,’ a friend had told me in Delhi. ‘Get the train in the morning.’

I didn’t listen. l was in awe of the driver’s night vision and his ability to notice the invisible buses and trucks just before crashing. ‘No worry, no worry,’ he said halfway through the trip. ‘My name is Bobby and everyone in India knows that no Bobby has ever been in a car accident.’

Travelling with me in the same taxi was Bishal Sitaula, a friendly and talkative professor of environment and developmental studies from Norway who had arrived from Nepal. He took out his video camera to show me footage of his Nepalese trip.

‘Then I met with this really revered Buddhist monk. Here l’m asking him a question do you want to hear?’ I looked at the screen as he pressed play. The monk had a benevolent smile. Bishal was telling him about a personal moral dilemma. ‘When my wife makes herself pretty, l look more at her. But, when I am walking up the road and see a woman with long beautiful hair and wearing nicer make up than my wife’s, and I stare at her, then, I walk five more metres and stare back at her again is this a sin or bad for my karma?’

The monk continued smiling. I imagined that if the whole world collapsed around him he would still smile.

‘No, no, it’s not a sin to look,’ he replied. ‘You may enjoy looking at a beautiful woman. That is fine. But if you crave and run after her, that is no good, no good; no good for your karma.’

Stopping the video, Bishal laughed loudly and put his arm around my shoulders.

When we arrived at the Patanjali Research Foundation, where I am taking part in a conference on the effects of yoga, I could make out only tiny fairy lights scattered around the complex. in the fog they looked like blurred dragonflies. Inside the accommodation block a sleepy lady handed me a key after I showed her my passport. The bedroom’s floor was paved in black-and-white marble. It was the coldest January recorded in Indian history; in Delhi homeless people were dying because of the low temperatures.

I took out all the blankets from the drawer and laid them on the bed. I had travelled to India on a few occasions, but had never come so far north, only a few miles away from the source of the Ganges and the river village of Rishikesh, home to a number of celebrated ashrams and yogis. It seemed the right place to build the Patanjali Research Foundation, which holds masters and PhD programs on the science of yoga and has the largest research centre in the world dedicated to the study of this millennia-old practice.

Lying under three heavy blankets, I gazed at the puffed steam coming out of my mouth and eventually fell asleep. A few hours later the radio switched on. l opened one eye and looked at my watch on the bedside table: it was 4am. ‘Where’s the damn switch?’ I thought to myself. The music poured out of the speakers within the room and out in the corridor, a smooth stream of sitar and lulling voices. I walked to the reception, but saw no one. As I turned around I noticed a man by the door with a scarf wrapped around his head.

‘The radio inside the bedroom, how do you turn it off?’ I asked.

He smiled.

‘The radio,’ I gestured, pointing at the speakers in the corridor. ‘Off, off.’

He smiled again and tilted his head from left to right repeatedly. ‘No sir, no sir. Wake up, wake up. Yoga,’ he said, still smiling and pointing outside. It was pitch black.

The music continued. At 5.30am I ventured outside. There was daylight, but the thick fog from the previous night hadn’t yet lifted. I followed some people who seemed to know where they were heading, and entered an enormous auditorium, where approximately 2,000 people were sitting on yoga mats. The spiritual guru of the Patanjali Research Foundation, Swami Ramdev, was on top of the stage, alone and wearing nothing but an orange loincloth.

A man sitting next to me whispered into my ear that he was a medical doctor at the foundation and offered to translate what Swami Ramdev was saying.

‘lt’s pranayama. We start with breathing; right breathing can heal anything.’

Yoga with machine guns

For the next hour we breathed together and listened. First, how not to breathe. Then, how to breathe through alternating nostrils, and how to use your belly and diaphragm in a syncopated way.

‘Like this!’ and ‘Don’t do this!’ he said, hyperventilating with a contracted abdomen and eyes wide open, looking like he was having a fit. ‘This breathing cures asthma; this one heals all types of arthritis; if you’re depressed, this will cure it.’

There was clapping from the audience. Steam clouds came out of people’s mouths. The list of diseases that yoga and pranayama can heal was almost endless dementia and cancer among them.

The breathing exercises went on, but my feet and hands were getting colder. After an hour of breathing, the swami stood up and began a series of asanas. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘we’re going to gently warm up.’ But it was far from gentle; more like a kind of yoga-onspeed mixed with aerobics. I looked around and noticed only one man among the audience who could keep up with the guru. For the last posture Swami Ramdev walked around the stage on his hands for about 1 minute. There was more clapping.

We finally moved towards a peace chant, which was interrupted by a few minutes of yoga laughter ‘very good for depression’, and followed by singing from the swami alone. ‘He has the personality of a rock star,’ I overheard someone with an American accent whisper behind me.

When the solo chant ended, Swami Ramdev uttered a shrill cry, which was imitated by most of the audience as they repeatedly raised their fists upwards. It was a strange sight. The cry and fist waving were the kind you’d see in a political or military gathering. As the session ended the translator held my hand: ‘Come, I’ll take you to Swami Ji for a blessing.’

I followed him. There was a queue of people waiting. I looked around: there were numerous posters of the Patanjali Research Foundation and university, mostly in Hindi. My translator pushed me forwards; I was now very close to the Swami. The man in front of me was carrying a beautiful, handcrafted bag. On it, next to the foundation’s name, was written ‘Self and National Character Building by Yoga’. Finally, it was my turn. Swami Ramdev smiled; I smiled back. I slowly tilted my head forwards to greet him as my translator introduced me, but halfway to the full nod, l froze.

‘Bloody hell,’ I caught myself saying. A man came from behind the Swami holding a machine gun about the length of an extended arm. He was pointing the gun at me. My translator guided me away while the Swami smiled and waved goodbye.

‘What was that?’, I thought, my eyes fixed on the gun. ‘He’s a very holy man, don’t you think?’ my translator said, still holding my arm and apparently unfazed by the bodyguard with the machine gun.

Outside I saw Bishal, the professor who had travelled with me the night before. I felt like hugging him. He was in his perennial chatty mood. ‘Hello, my friend! Chilly, huh? Did you enjoy the session?’

I asked Bishal about the sort of war cry at the end of the session and the armed bodyguard. He told me about the political influence of the swami that he’s pressured the parliament to put an end to corruption and some politicians don’t like him. ‘Look, look,’ I interrupted, pointing at the person holding a bag I’d noticed inside the yoga hall. ‘Do you see what’s written on that bag: Self and National Character Building by Yoga. What do they mean by national?’

‘Oh, that. Well, it’s all around the place. This is not only about yoga, but about social transformation.’

‘But why national?’

‘Yoga comes from India, right? It’s India’s trademark. Here, that’s part of their message, that yoga is Indian.’

I stared back in silence. As we made our way back to the accommodation hall, I noticed a large banner with a picture of the guru holding up his fist with an angry face. The writing was in Hindi. ‘And what’s that about?’

Bishal reminded me of a horrendous gang rape that had recently happened in Delhi, inside a moving bus. The girl died shortly afterwards and there had been a public outcry. My friend in Delhi had told me that Indian culture, particularly in the north, was not only sexist, but violent towards women. ‘So the banner literally asks,’ Bishar translated, ‘What shall we do with the rapists? And the red letters say: Death Penalty! Death Penalty!’

‘Are you serious?’

‘I find it strange, too,’ Bishal replied. ‘But they believe in harsh punishment.’

It was my fourth time in India, but the first that the contradictions of this country were pressing on me. Yoga, an instrument of serenity and enlightenment, was serving political purposes. The Patanjali Research Foundation is powerful: it has its own TV satellite channel, factories producing a variety of health products, a university and a leading yoga research centre. They also commission cartoons that portray Swami Ramdev as an enlightened yogi to educate children not just about the technique of yoga, but about its whole philosophy even its nationalistic and punishment views, I suspect.

There were other odd things going on. The foundation’s wireless Internet server was excellent, but it didn’t allow you to access a number of webpages. The first banned site I noticed was Facebook. I checked with a German conference participant and he couldn’t access it either. Most web searches related to drugs were forbidden, as I discovered while trying to read about the uses of morphine as a painkiller. When I asked Nandim, a Master’s student at the university, why they had censored Facebook, he laughed.

‘Very few people from the outside notice it.’

‘Why can’t you use it?’

‘Oh, you know, students were spending too much time on it.’

‘That’s rubbish,’ I said. ‘Students can spend too much time just browsing the web. Why Facebook?’

Nandim looked around before answering.

‘You know… many boys were using Facebook to talk to girls.’

‘So?’ ‘Well, that’s not allowed.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I ask. ‘The university is not sexually segregated; you have men and women.’ ‘Yes, yes, but Swamiji doesn’t like us to be together,’ Nandim said speaking in a hushed voice.

I looked at him puzzled. ‘A couple of incidents happened last year,’ he said. ‘There were boys and girls spending time together, you know, like they were a couple.’

‘Yes, it does happen.’

‘Not here, sir, not here. They were expelled from the university.’

On my way back to Delhi, this time on a sunny though heavily congested road, I saw graffiti on the wall of a tunnel. No pictures, only wide letters written in black across the extension of the wall: ‘I HATE MY LIFE.’ I felt a sudden wave of empathy for whomever had doodled it; the land that had given birth to numerous sages and yoga, the soil of nondualistic Advaita Vedanta was riddled with contradictions. At the Patanjali Research Foundation, ideals and techniques for innerpeace-making were fused together with nationalism, violence (guns and the endorsement of capital punishment), censorship and sexual repression. When I returned to my friend’s house in Delhi, he teased me for my naivety.

‘Many of these yogis are millionaires. They live in fancy air-conditioned flats. And the nationalism and violence, give me a break: do you know how many wars we, the very spiritual Indian people, have been involved in during the last fifty years?’

My doubts about meditation and yoga having a role in solving the world’s violence substantially increased after this trip.

When i returned to England, I emailed Torkel Brekkel, an Oxford colleague who specializes in the study of Asian religions. I asked what he knew about violence in the Eastern spiritual traditions. My general understanding was that in a religion such as Buddhism, which has compassion and non-violence as central principles, you would find few, if any, displays of violence among its followers.

‘That’s not the case,’ Torkel replied and added that he had lost count of the times his colleagues, students and journalists had tried telling him that Buddhism, unlike Christianity or Islam, is an essentially peaceful religion. ‘lt’s not,’ he asserted, referring me to some books on the topic, including one he’d recently edited.


During the first decade of the new millennium, while psychologists and neuroscientists were examining the positive psychological effects of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, scholars of religions were looking in the opposite direction; they were examining the violent history of Buddhism. The book edited by Torkel Brekkel is only the most recent in a number of publications looking at the use of violence by Buddhist monks and bodhisattvas (enlightened persons). The titles of the volumes are revealing: Buddhism and Violence, Buddhism and Warfare, Zen at War.

Apparently, the early Buddhist views on violence were astonishingly similar to those of the Christians who tried to follow Jesus’s saying, ‘if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. Like the early Christians, followers of Buddha prided themselves on being different from the fallen world. One early Buddhist text recognizes that violence should be avoided:

tremble at the rod,

all are fearful of death.

Drawing the parallel to


neither kill nor get others to kill.

(Dhammapada, 129)2-7

In another early text, the Yodhajivasutra, the Buddha explains that warriors are to be reincarnated in hell or as an animal, rather than in the company of heavenly deities (devas).

There is a particularly striking story of how the Buddha personally walked into the battlefield and avoided bloodshed. Four years after he attained enlightenment, two armies were facing each other because of a dispute about access to water. The Buddha came between the armies and asked their commanders:

‘How much value do you think water has in comparison with the life of men?’

The commanders agreed that the value of water was infinitely less important than human life.

‘Why do you then destroy lives that are valuable for valueless water?’ the Buddha asked, thus preventing the oncoming bloodshed.’

Many have reiterated this view. Buddhism’s precept of non-violence has inspired people in Asian countries living under its influence, so that ‘throughout its peaceful march of 2,500 years, no drop of blood has been shed in the name of the Buddha’, writes Narada, a distinguished Sri Lankan monk and scholar.

But a cursory glance at the news broadcasts about Buddhist countries challenges this peaceful image. Let’s start with Sri Lanka. in 2013 groups of monks were holding rallies against the Muslim minority; since 1983 many Buddhist monks have been directly involved in military campaigns against a separatist faction in northern Sri Lanka. In the first half of the twentieth century, monks joined and led the struggle for independence against the British. Two thousand years ago, King Duttagamani fought a war to re-establish Buddhism in the country ‘where he used a Buddha’s relic as his banner’. One thousand miles from Sri Lanka in Burma, in May 2013 Buddhist mobs were killing Muslims and burning mosques; one Burmese monk, jailed for inciting religious hatred, likes to call himself the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’. These events, I soon found out, aren’t exceptions to the rule.

Although preaching nonviolence to his followers, the Buddha didn’t try to persuade kings to adopt a pacifist stance. He clearly separated the waters by not allowing former soldiers to become monks and forbidding his followers to preach to soldiers violence was understood as part of life and there was no attempt to eradicate it entirely from the world. The effort was in trying to contain it in Buddhist monks. But even that failed. Just as Christianity developed its ‘just war’ theory wherein, according to St Augustine, an early Christian theologian, war could be an instrument of divine justice on wickedness, Buddhism came to develop its own theory of compassionate killing.

A text written in the fourth century entitled ‘Discourse on the stages of yogic practice’ argues that under certain circumstances even an enlightened person is allowed to kill out of compassion.

‘If a bodhisattva meets an evil person who is going to kill many people… he will think to himself: if by killing this bandit I fall in hell, what does it matter? I must not let him go to hell! Then the boddhisatva will kill him, full of both the horror of the crime and compassion for that person. In doing so, he will not commit any transgression; rather, he will acquire much blessing’

The Buddha himself told the story of how, in a previous life, he had killed out of compassion. As narrated in the Mahaupaya-Kausaya sutra, there was a time when 500 merchants went to sea in search of treasures, but one of them schemed to kill the others and keep all the treasures for himself. A deity discovered this and informed the Buddha who had the following dilemma: if the other merchants learn of the evil merchant’s plot to kill them, the evil merchant will be killed and the 499 merchants will go to hell. However, if nothing is done, the merchants will be killed and their murderer will go to hell. So, the Buddha decided to kill the evil merchant and save the others. He explained to his followers that his action was the result of compassion for the sake of a greater number of living beings.

It’s not difficult to follow the Buddha’s logic, it’s similar to the tram problem first posed by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, and subsequently often used in psychology experiments on moral behaviour.

In this scenario there is a runaway tram that is heading straight towards five workers. A large man is standing on a footbridge over the tracks. If you throw him off the bridge his body will block the tram and the five men will be saved. What would you do? Rationally, you ought to kill the single man on the footbridge to save the greater number of people. But this involves choice, a conscious decision to kill a man, at your will, rather than the tragic but accidental killing of the people on the track. As a result most people’s gut reaction to this moral problem is not necessarily the most reasoned one: it may rationally be better to kill the man, but intuitively you feel it’s wrong and opt against it, letting the five workers die in a tragic accident instead.

Through dilemmas such as these, psychologists have shown that many of our moral decisions are intuitive rather than rational. However, there is a problem with these findings. New studies have found that for people who display lack of empathy such as psychopaths the intuitive answer is to kill the large man, because to them the act of killing is not particularly aversive? There is a kind of indifference or amorality about killing for people with a psychopathic personality.

Although, on the surface, this seems the very opposite of what Buddhist practice is seeking to attain, something similar to this emotional indifference comes across in some Buddhist texts. One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the killed are nothing more than an illusion.

In the Nirvana sutra, there is the story of a prince who murders his father, the king, so he can accede to the throne. Heavy with remorse he consults the Buddha for advice. The Buddha makes him see that he is not responsible for the killing for two reasons. First, the king was killed as the consequence of his karma in a previous life he murdered a holy man. Second, and most important, the Buddha states the unreality of killing: ‘Great King, it is like the echo of a voice in the mountain valleys. The ignorant think it is a real voice, but the wise know it is not. Killing is like this. The foolish think it is real, but the Buddha knows it is not’

Another Buddhist text (Jueguan lun) echoes the idea of the emptiness of killing; if you do it as if it were a spontaneous act of nature, then you’re not responsible for it.

‘The fire in the bush burns the mountain; the hurricane breaks trees; the collapsing cliff crushes wild animals to death; the running mountain’s stream drowns the insects.

If a man can make his mind similar [to these forces], then, meeting a man, he may kill him all the same.’

This idea is reinforced in various other texts. If you are in a selfless and detached state of mind, you can do anything, even ‘enjoy the five sensuous pleasures with unrestricted freedom’ (the Upalipariprccha explains), as your actions will have no negative karmic consequences. In other words bodhisattvas are not morally responsible for their actions because they act without self-interest. The Fifth Dalai Lama used this argument to justify the violence of the Mongol king Gushri Khan, who in the 1630s and 1640s violently unified a large portion of Tibet and converted the people to Buddhism. The Fifth Dalai Lama glorifies this because the Mongol king was an emanation ‘of Vajrapani, the bodhisattva representing perfect yogic power’, who had realized emptiness and ‘would radiate 100 rays of light in the ten directions’.

The idea that Buddhism, unlike other religions, did not force people to convert, but ‘pacified’ the new lands to which it spread, is also a myth. Just like Christianity and Islam made churches and mosques from pagan temples and fought animistic ideas as heretical, something similar happened with Buddhism. Shamanic practices were prohibited in Mongolia from the 1500s, spirit figurines were burned and replaced with Buddhist images of six-armed Mahakala. Those who continued to practise Shamanic rites were subjected to brutal punishments or executed.

These acts were justified because of the spiritual status of rulers, who were recognized as living Buddhas, accomplished in virtue and wisdom, and endowed with unbiased compassion. Mongol laws regulated the privileges of the Buddhist clergy and the punishment of any attacks on monasteries depending on the social class of the offender: if a nobleman, the punishment was exile; if a commoner, the sentence was more likely to be death?

Bernard Faure, a professor at Columbia University, suggests that forced conversion is sometimes brutally visible in religious imagery. In the case of Tibet, there is the myth that its first Buddhist king subdued the demoness who ruled the land by nailing her down to the ground. The holiest of places in Tibetan Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, is symbolically known as the nail that was driven into the vagina of the demoness. ‘The rape imagery,’ Faure writes, ‘could hardly be more explicit.’

The demonization, dehumanization and social discrimination of rivals seem to be as prevalent in Buddhism as in other faiths. In one sacred text often used by the current Dalai Lama (the Kalachacra-tantra), the final battle of the world will be between Buddhists and heretics the heretics are identified as Muslims.

In Thailand, Buddhism needed to tackle other classes of enemies. In 1976 a leading monk declared in an interview that ‘killing communists is not a sin’. These were his reasons:

‘First, killing communists is not really killing; second, sacrifice the lesser good for the greater good; third, the intention is not to kill but to protect the country; fourth, the Buddha allowed killing.’

And he concludes: ‘Our intention is not to kill human beings, but to kill monsters. This is the duty of all Thais.

This extraordinary statement doesn’t come out of the blue. In Thailand, as in other Asian countries, the state protects its Buddhist religion and Buddhist monks protect the Thai state. Thai temples are used as military bases and some soldiers are ordained as monks, they are known as ‘military monks’ and one of their primary duties is to protect, using violence if need be, Buddhist temples.

All of this was new to me. As a reader of books on Eastern spirituality and meditation since my teens, I had never come across any remote suggestion that Buddhism was similar to other religions when it came to justifying and using violent means.

If Buddhist monks and enlightened teachers can be violent towards others, why would Western meditators be any different?

I was coming to the conclusion that meditation is only a process: it can sharpen attention, quiet thoughts and angst, increase positive emotions towards ourselves and others and, in the extreme, it can lead to a deep alteration of our identity a kind of ecstatic annihilation of the ego. But with the wrong kind of motivation and without clear ethical rules, that very spiritual selflessness can serve all kinds of ill purposes.

That happened with Japanese Buddhism not long ago.

Zen soldiers

‘Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good?’ Adolf Hitler

In the late 1950s journalist and author Arthur Koestler travelled to the East and met with a number of leading spiritual teachers. The narrative of his travels was published as The Lotus and the Robot. In the last chapter, entitled ‘The Stink of Zen’, Koestler takes issue with Zen’s amorality and goes as far as criticizing Suzuki, the Zen scholar who made Zen known to a wide Western audience. He quotes from Suzuki’s book Zen and Japanese Culture:

‘Zen is extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism’.

Koestler commented that this passage ‘could have come from a philosophical minded Nazi journalist, or from one of the Zen monks who became suicide pilots’.

His meetings with Zen teachers only reinforced the idea that Zen has no interest in morality or social ethics. When he asked about the persecution of religion in totalitarian countries or Hitler’s gas chambers, the answers generally showed a lack of interest in differentiating between good and ill deeds. He regarded this as a ‘tolerance devoid of charity’ and was skeptical about the contribution Zen Buddhism had to offer post-World War II to the moral recovery of Japan, or any other country. In this short chapter Koestler pointed his finger at a phenomenon of unimagined proportions.

Forty years later it became public knowledge that the ‘stink of Zen’ dominated Japan during World War II; Koestler was right.

It was Brian Victoria, a Zen priest and historian of religions, who brought the evidence to light. He has shown how, during World War II, the Japanese military used Zen Buddhist ideas and meditation techniques and how Zen Buddhist leaders showed explicit support of the war. Victoria’s verdict is as sharp as a samurai’s sword. He reveils that nearly all of Japan’s Buddhist leaders were fervent supporters of Japanese militarism. As a result, he argues, Zen Buddhism so deeply violated Buddhism’s fundamental principles that it should no longer be recognized as an expression of the Boddidharmag. Within a Western religious context, this would be the equivalent of saying that during a certain period (such as the Inquisition), the Catholic Church was not an authentic expression of Christ’s teachings.

Victoria methodically reveals how warfare and killing were regarded as manifestations of Buddhist compassion, selflessness and dedication to the Japanese emperor. The soldier’s code, which all soldiers had to learn by heart in 1941, had a section entitled ‘View of Life and Death’ which read:

‘That which penetrates life and death is the lofty spirit of self-sacrifice for the public good. Transcending life and death, earnestly rush forward to accomplish your duty. Exhausting the power of your body and mind, calmly find joy in living in eternal duty’

This is eerily familiar to us living in a post-9/11 world. The violent rhetoric of religious extremism is probably universal, but, in the case of Zen Buddhism, its very spiritual pinnacle, the attainment of enlightened selflessness was used to train soldiers during World War II, who would sacrifice themselves as if their lives were of no consequence. Thus, an army major advised his soldiers:

‘The soldier must become one with his superior. He must actually become his superior. Similarly, he must become the order he receives. That is to say, his self must disappear.’

Islam or Christianity’s promise of eternal life is here exchanged for the Buddhist idea that, by becoming selfless, life and death become undifferentiated; there is nothing to lose by dying on the battlefield once you realize the emptiness of the self. This spirit is deeply entrenched in Japanese Buddhism, going back at least to the samurai age. Takuan, a famous Zen master from the 1600s, wrote:

‘The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no mind, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the “I” who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning’.

D.T. Suzuki expressed the same view in the twentieth century. He eloquently compared the Zen master’s use of the sword to the production of an artistic masterpiece. Although it is not the intention of the Zen master to harm anybody, the enemy appears and makes himself a victim of the enlightened swordsman, Suzuki suggests; it is as if the sword acts without an agent or through a robot, if we want to use a less poetic image.

It is then no great wonder that Hitler and the Nazis were fond of the Zen. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS (Schutzstaffel), who was obsessed with esoteric ideas and sent expeditions to Tibet and India, believed that all his military had to act with ‘decency’. By decency he meant that they had to remain untouched by human weakness when staring at the thousands of corpses, lying side by side, as they tumbled into the pit at concentration camps. When he was caught and questioned after the war, he didn’t have a shred of insight about the villainy of his actions; like a Zen master, he seemed indifferent.

When Brian Victoria’s book, Zen at War, was translated into Japanese, it had an unforeseen impact. Instead of trying to deny Japanese Buddhism’s ties to militarism, a number of Zen masters admitted this had happened and formally apologized. It was a long journey for Victoria, who had been ordained as a Zen priest in 1964 because he believed Zen Buddhism was free from the violence that had marked Western religions. But he hasn’t lost his faith.

He upholds Buddhism’s non-violent principles and denies the possibility of compassionate killing, arguing that under no circumstances can a bodhisattva legitimately employ violence to the point of actually taking the life of another human being.

However, this leaves us with another, no less difficult question to answer: what do we make of a bodhisattva or, in the Zen tradition, someone who has reached satori (the realization of selflessness) and still commits violence, is this person truly enlightened? Paradoxically, yes. After the war Suzuki, although not retracting any of his former works, argued that enlightenment alone is not enough to make you a responsible Zen priest. A Zen priest also needs to use intellectual discrimination, because enlightenment in itself is just a state of being that cannot tell right from wrong.

This is not what we’re used to hearing. Enlightenment in the East is regarded very much like saintliness in the West whomever reaches such a state of being is expected to be the pinnacle of selflessness and love. Followers revere their spiritual teachers, often treating them like the living embodiment of nirvana or God. The idea that the highest attainment of spiritual development may not be enough to tell right from wrong is disturbing.

Two hypotheses come to mind: either enlightenment does not necessarily make you act in an unselfish or a peaceful way; or perhaps those whom we think of as enlightened aren’t as holy as they seem. Mystics of all times have warned against the dangers of spiritual infatuation. The Spanish Christian mystic Theresa of Avila went as far as suggesting that we should never trust the goodness of the holy people who are still living? In the Christian tradition it is a sin of vanity to believe you are holy. In the Buddhist tradition it would probably be proof that the egoless master still has some ego to shed. But in the East it’s widely accepted that some people are real embodiments of compassion or God, and it’s not unusual for the masters themselves to proclaim that. Recently, in India, one man was revered by millions and looked upon as the living God.

The most selfish man on Earth

I first heard of Sai Baba through a friend who was doing a Master’s degree in the sociology of religion. Having been raised by Marxist parents, Joana was curious about religion and went off to southern Italy to do fieldwork with a community of Sai Baba followers. It was very much like any other Hindu devotional community, she told me, with lots of chanting, praying and some meditation but there were a couple of unusual things. First, there were various gifts bracelets, watches that, apparently, the guru had produced from thin air and offered to his followers. Second, the guru often showed up in people’s dreams, an event that had been the catalyst for conversion to Sai Baba’s doctrine for many of the people Joana interviewed during her fieldwork. Joana herself, despite being an atheist, had dreams about Sai Baba while staying with the community. This frightened her, but it didn’t turn her into a believer?

The first time I considered the idea that an enlightened person could be flawed was in relation to Sai Baba. l was talking to Carlos do Carmo Silva, a philosopher of religion based at the Catholic University of Lisbon. A tall, thin and unassuming man in his late fifties, he has produced work on the parallels and tensions between Buddhist and Christian mystical attainment that is the most insightful I’ve ever encountered. l was asking what he thought of Sai Baba’s claim to being an ‘avatar’, the very embodiment of God on earth.

‘Perhaps he is,’ he said gazing upwardly. ‘But other times he can be the most selfish man on Earth.’ I looked at him, puzzled. He didn’t offer an explanation for this contradiction and I wasn’t expecting him to, he often challenged me to think out of the box.

His words popped into my mind when a few months later a BBC documentary on Sai Baba accused the guru of sexually abusing some male teenage American devotees. Shocking as the revelations were, the way an Indian minister treated the BBC journalist who confronted him with the allegations was no less brutal. The auras of devotion and power surrounding the guru were astounding.

The sexual abuse allegations probably did not harm Indian devotion to Sai Baba, but they did have an effect on Western devotees. Many centres in Europe and the USA closed down. I didn’t think about it any further, though, until one evening in Oxford I was invited to comment on a lecture by the Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson. He was speaking about some work he had done on children who claimed to remember past lives, but I knew that Haraldsson had written a book about Sai Baba’s miracles. At the end of the event, I asked him if he had personally met the Indian holy man.

‘Oh, yes, on quite a number of occasions. I spent some time at his ashram during which we spoke on a daily basis.’ ‘And what do you make of him?’

‘I do think he has some unusual powers. I can’t tell if all the stories are real, but I think some of them are,’ he confided.

‘What about the sexual abuse allegations; what do you make of them?’

Haraldsson looked down at me (he is quite a tall man) and shrugged.

‘Well, he’s obviously a gay man …’

I stared at Haraldsson and said nothing. We stayed quiet for a moment and then changed subject.

Violence comes in many shapes. Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult forms of violence to confront; often the abuser is a powerful figure, either within a family or an organization. Spiritual organizations are not immune to this. The recent scandal of sexual abuse among the Roman Catholic clergy has stirred waves in the Western world, but Buddhist monks in the East, including leading priests, have also been found guilty of this.

Recently in the USA Sasaki, a revered Zen priest known to be Leonard Cohen’s Buddhist teacher, has been accused of sexual abuse by a number of female followers. On various occasions Sasaki asked women to show their breasts, and explained that this was part of a Zen koan or a way of showing non-attachment.

Another woman complained that the master massaged her breasts during a private session and was asked to massage his genitals; The accusations against Sai Baba were very similar, but the target of the abuse was at the time a young male adolescent.

I thought again of what Carlos do Carmo Silva, the philosopher, had said: the holiest man on earth can also be the most selfish. I also remembered German psychologist Harold Wallach telling me that he had met advanced meditators who were ‘assholes’. As hard and paradoxical as it sounds, it is very likely that no human being is immune to being cruel or taking advantage of others at times, no matter how spiritually evolved.

By the time l’d uncovered all this material, I was feeling disillusioned and somewhat nauseated. The old aphorism ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ played loudly in my mind. Meditation and spiritual teachers are coloured with a sweetened aura that distorts the reality of individuals, societies and history.

The unrealistically positive ideas associated with meditation only make people more vulnerable to either the adverse psychological effects or its enlightened-amoral teachers.

The other danger was that the cover up about the dark aspects of meditation, implicitly or explicitly endowed by scientists studying its effects, could destroy the good it had to offer. I painfully understood Koestler’s feelings of disillusion at the end of his chapter on Japanese Buddhism:

‘For a week or so I bargained with a Kyoto antique dealer for a small bronze Buddha of the Kamakura period; but when he came down to a price that I was able to afford, I backed out. I realized with shock that the Buddha smile had gone dead on me. It was no longer mysterious but empty.’

But I also realized, with a sense of relief and humility, that meditation need not be a panacea to cure every ill, nor a tool to moral perfection; perhaps we shouldn’t treat it very differently from prayer, which can quiet our minds, give us some comfort, and lead us towards a deeper place where we can explore who we are or be closer to God.

Perhaps meditation was never supposed to be more than a tool to help with self-knowledge; one that could never be divorced from a strong ethical grounding, who we are and the world we live in. In Patanjali’s sutras, when he describes the various aspects of yoga, meditation is only one of them. The first one, the very basis of a healthy and eventual selfless being is self-restraint (yama), which he defines as ‘non-violation, truthfulness, non-stealing, containment, and non-grasping’. And to be sure that these are the definite and nondebatable foundations he adds:

‘These restraints are not limited by birth, time or circumstance; they constitute the great vow everywhere.’

Only with this strong foundation, can the other limbs of yoga (as Patanjali calls them) emerge, including the asanas, pranayama, meditation and the blissful experiences of unity with the ground of being.


Re-reading this chapter I felt unhappy not to finish on a more hopeful note. Despite its dark side and the limitations of the current scientific research, I still think meditation is a technique with real potential for personal change, if properly guided and taught within a larger spiritual-ethical framework.

I was also aware that read on its own, religious extremists and proselytizers could use it to belittle Buddhism and Hinduism. I thought of looking for someone who, coming from the West, had embraced the Eastern meditation tradition without denying its darker side. I found that person in Swami Ambikananda, a South African woman who took religious Hindu vows and who teaches meditation and yoga, while also running a charity in the southwest of England. She has translated a number of Indian sacred texts from the Sanskrit; I’d read her clear and poetic translation of the Katha Upanishad, which has the very first recorded teaching on yogag.

She welcomed me at her house in Reading, about an hour west of London. It felt odd to call her Swami Am-bi-ka-nan-da, seven full syllables of a name; her direct and expansive personality seemed to require no more than two. I wondered what birth name she’d been given, but it felt odd to ask. She was dressed in the orange cloth of the Indian ascetics, but her way of speaking and gesticulating was definitely Western feminine. We walked into her living room and she invited me to sit down on a cushion on the floor.

‘We have no chairs here,’ she explained. ‘I hope you don’t mind.’

‘I don’t. Is it okay if I write down some notes?’

She offered me tea. I was happy to see her again. We’d first met at the day course on the psychology of meditation I gave with Catherine Crane. Her questions and comments stood out, very much like her orange garment. When I told her l was writing this book and looking into the potential dark side of meditation, she asked whether I had heard of Aaron Alexis; I hadn’t yet.

‘There is a new dogma about meditation: when it fails its limitations are never questioned,’ she told me. ‘We are told that they weren’t doing it right. But it may be neither the practice nor the person that is wrong. The truth about our human condition is that no one thing works for everyone. The spiritual journey is about the unmasking of oneself, being more authentically “self” and whatever path leads us there is grand for each of us, but that particular path is not necessarily good for all of us.’

She was aware of the dangers of contemplative practice and open about it. I asked how she had become interested in meditation and Indian spirituality.

‘My father was a Marxist atheist and my mum a devout Catholic. This was confusing but not too much, until I turned 11 or 12. Then, I heard about the doctrine of limbo. I don’t think the Catholic Church believes in it anymore you know, this place where the souls of unbaptized children were supposed to go and stay for eternity. That was it for me; I became an atheist. I didn’t think too much about the soul or religion for a while, until I had twins and then became depressed.

One day a friend thought it was a good distraction to take me to a lecture by a swami, so I went. The people there were very serious, try lighting a cigarette in a yoga lecture like I did! but there was something I liked about Swami Venkatesananda and kept meeting him. But I only got to the yoga and meditation later.’

‘How did that happen?’

‘I was visiting Swami Venkatesananda in Mauritius and had bought a pile of books on Indian spirituality and philosophy. One day he told me he needed some help in clearing up some junk and pointed at a ravine where people threw all kinds of stuff old fridges, cars, you name it. I said, yes, I’ll help you. He then picked up the whole pile of books I had just bought and threw them down the ravine. “Why did you do that?” I asked him. He told me the time had come to stop reading and to try out yoga and meditation. That’s how I started.’

I asked Ambikananda whether or not she believes meditation can change a person, and, if she does, how much meditation it would take to change. She told me about meeting Krishnamurti, the Indian-born writer who was heralded as the New World messiah by the Theosophical Society, but eventually walked away from the movement to become a kind of spiritual free thinker.

‘He told me two minutes a day was enough. I laughed; it takes me two hours of meditation to get two worthwhile minutes! But he was right that it’s not only about meditation; your intention counts. My teacher used to tell me: “Hunt down the self ruthlessly; this isn’t for the faint hearted.” There is an acknowledgment in all religious traditions whether it’s the spiritual work of Ignatius of Loyola or the process of St Theresa of Avila, or the Way of the Buddha, or the yoga path of Patanjali that you need more than meditation to change.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘To start with, you need to have a healthy ego; what kind of self are you surrendering if you don’t have a stable sense of who you are?’

‘What about the clinical use of mindfulness to treat depression and anxiety? I suppose you don’t have a healthy sense of self there …’

I’m uncertain about the exact value of mindfulness,’ Ambikananda told me. ‘Since it has moved out of the monastic environment into the wider secular world, meditation is being sold as that which will not only make use feel better but will make us better people more successful, stronger, convincing …’

I interrupted her. ‘But are you aware that some researchers are claiming that mindfulness meditation per se can turn you into a better, more compassionate person?’

‘No, no, no,’ she stressed. ‘Meditation needs to be embedded in its context, there are moral and emotional guidelines to be followed; Patanjali spells them out clearly in his work on yoga.’

‘But the whole purpose of meditating isn’t it meant to make you an enlightened and deeply moral individual; moral in the sense of unselfish and compassionate. Isn’t that what happens?’

‘Morality can be divorced from spirituality. My ego can dissolve while I meditate, but when I get up it’s reconstructed. You can meditate 22 hours a day, but in those two hours you have left, you are a human being living in matter, and this aspect of reality’ (she touched the ground) ‘doesn’t care too much if you’re enlightened or not.’

I told Swami Ambikananda about the evidence I’d uncovered concerning the adverse aspects of meditation and its violent history in the East; she simply nodded. Even the claims of sexual abuse by some spiritual teachers didn’t surprise her. ‘I had one of the few truly celibate Indian spiritual teachers,’ she admitted.

Ambikananda then told me the story of once travelling through the Himalayas in search of a levitating holy man. She was staying at the ashram of her teacher in Rishikesh, at the foot of the Ganges, when a friend told her about a flying hermit, who lived in a cave only a day’s journey away.

‘It took us about three days, walking in the Himalayas to find him. We were going in the wrong direction for more than a day. But we managed to find our way and met the flying baba. He asked for some rupees and went into a trance state. After a few minutes I couldn’t believe my eyes: he was really lifting off the ground! I felt rather irritated; this is not supposed to happen. I got some branches from a nearby tree and moved them beneath and above him to make sure it was not a trick. I couldn’t see the trick and asked him to do it again; he did it and still I couldn’t see how. When I asked if he could also do it standing, he said he couldn’t; he had to be sitting down. I wanted to see him doing it a third time, but he refused. He said he’d teach me if I stayed for a few days and gave him some more rupees. ‘And did you?’ I asked.

‘I wouldn’t stay alone with that man for anything in this worldl’ she said laughing. ‘He made it very clear that besides money he wanted sexual favours.’

After our talk Swami Ambikananda gave me a lift to Reading railway station. I thanked her for her time and asked again about Aaron Alexis, the man who was a regular meditator and killed 12 people.

‘Do you think it had anything to do with meditation?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t dispute that he had serious mental health problems; but meditation probably didn’t help him either. Meditation is about looking into the abyss within, it wasn’t created to make you or me happy, but to help us fight the illusions we have and find out Who we truly are. My teacher used to tell me: “This’ Is your battle, you fight it with everything you ’ve got.” He also used to say that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. I certainly do my best,’ she said, laughing.

Meeting this lively and grounded South African woman turned Hindu priest made me feel less pessimistic about the use of meditation and yoga in the West. If we admit its frailties and limits, that it takes other things for these techniques to make real positive change the right intention, a good teacher and moral framing they can still prove effective engines of personal change.

I wanted to test the effects on a population who might not often get the chance to try out yoga and meditation practice, but who might need the benefits more than your average person. Back in Oxford I rang the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. ‘Sam, let’s go ahead with the research project. If you provide the yoga and meditation classes to prisoners, I’ll handle the science part.’



The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

by Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm

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Meditation can work for everybody – Eric Klein * The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? – Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm.

“When the body can be still, the mind can be still. Spirituality is what you do with those fires that burn within you.” Sister Elaine

Seven Reasons Why Meditation Doesn’t Work, And how to fix them.

by Eric Klein

We didn’t have air conditioning, when we were living in Chicago in the 1970s. So, on hot, humid summer nights, Devi and I would ride our bikes to the shores of Lake Michigan. After securing our bikes, we‘d head for the water.

The water was nice and cool. But, to enjoy it we had to move through the twigs, paper cups, and assorted debris that had accumulated at the water’s edge.

It’s the same with meditation. The deep waters of your inner mind are pure, clear, and refreshing. But, to get there you need to move through some inner. . . um. . . debris.

This debris isn’t life threatening. Just a bit messy. It’s made up of ideas, memories, sensations, misconceptions, and reasons. Reasons why meditation doesn’t work at least for you.

Here are some of the common reasons that people give. You may find some of them familiar, if you’ve gone for a swim in the waters of meditation. Even if you’ve just dipped your toe in.

1) “Meditation is self-centered.”

As meditation has become more mainstream, pictures of people (slim, beautiful people) sitting in lotus postures show up in all kinds of advertising for spas, exotic vacations, skin cream, perfume, and jewelry.

It’s easy to get the impression that meditation is just the latest fashion accessory. Like a big spiritual mirror that you gaze into while putting on organic makeup to cover any imperfections.

But, meditation is the opposite. Meditation is about taking your self much less seriously and much more lightly. And in the process opening more fully and creatively to life.

The practice of meditation reveals that most of what’s scurrying around in the mind isn’t that significant much less real. And that all the ideas about the self are more limiting than liberating. Meditation frees you from being overly preoccupied with protecting and preserving the self.

Through practice, you discover that there really is no hard and fast line between “me” and “life”.

You discover that you are part of life, not apart from life in any way. Thus, the practice of meditation shifts you from self centered to lite centered living. Whether your attention is turned within or without it’s all life.

2) “I don’t have time to meditate.”

The scattered mind never has time for what matters most. It’s busy, busy, busy. Driven by emotion fueled thoughts. The day is filled to overflowing with activities, demands, meetings, and requirements. There’s barely time to sit down for a meal much less to spend a few moments in silence and stillness.

In the mad rush to get more done, the mind becomes more fragmented and speedy.

When things do slow down like in a traffic jam or on a grocery line it’s intolerable. The mind rails against the waste of time and against slowing down. “There’s too much to do!!” it cries.

But, everyone has exactly the same amount of time each day: 1440 minutes.

It’s the experience of time that differs. The more scattered and sped up the mind the more time seems to slip through your fingers like sand. Through meditation, the mind learns to slow down. As it does so, the feeling of pressure lifts. And with it another veil lifts as well.

The veil that concealed the richness of the moment, lifts. Through meditation you touch and are touched by the richness of the present moment. You experience fullness of time which reveals that this moment yes this very moment) is always enough.

3) “My back hurts when I meditate.”

This is likely a technical, postural issue that can be handled with some simple information about how to sit. Here are some practical guidelines.

You can sit on the floor or on a chair.

The key is to keep your spine straight but not still. Allow the chin to be parallel to the ground. When seated on the floor, elevate your body on a firm cushion or folded blanket. This reduces strain on the back. Experiment with different heights of cushion.

If you sit on a chair, make sure it is firm and not too cushiony. You don’t want to sink into it. You want to sit upright.

Once you have assumed a seated posture find your physical center of gravity.

You do this by gently rocking from side to side. As you rock from left to right, feel into the core of your body. You will notice a physical sensation I call passing through the center of gravity as your body shifts from side to side.

Slow down the shifting and feel more deeply into that center of gravity as you pass through. Then reduce the side to side movement and gradually settle your body so that it is aligned along the center of gravity. Do this all by feeling inwardly and sensing that place of balance.

As you settle the body in the center of gravity feel your spine gently lengthening. The back of your skull lifts slightly and the chin is parallel to the ground. The base of the body is grounded.

Your posture is aligned along the center of gravity and the spine is effortlessly extended. Place eyes gaze gently at the root of the nose between the eyebrows

Sitting is a skill that becomes easier with practice.

4) “I’m not religious.”

It’s easy to assume that meditation is religious. When you think about monks, yogis, nuns, and other professionally religious people, concepts like meditation come to mind. And it’s true, that meditation or similar practices have been central to those on a religious quest.

But, does that mean that meditation is religious? Not really. Religions are based on articles of faith, on beliefs.

Meditation requires no beliefs. It’s based on practice and results. In this way, meditation is more like a science experiment than a religious exercise. You don’t need to believe anything in order to conduct an experiment. You just need to follow the protocol. Do the practice. It’s a self validating process. Follow the steps and see the results.

The practitioners who developed the meditation methods used their minds and bodies as laboratories. They conducted experiments in consciousness. They recorded their results. And passed them onto their students for validation testing.

Some of these experiments have stood the test of time. People have conducted these meditation experiments for thousands of years, with reliable results. It’s these tested and validated practices that have been passed from teacher to student for thousands of years.

So, whether you’re religious or not, doesn’t matter in terms of meditation. If you are religious, meditation will enrich your understanding of your faith. If you’re not, you‘ll discover that which is deeper than believing or not believing.

5) “My mind won’t get quiet.”

If you stop the average person on the street and ask them, “Is your mind basically quiet or filled with thoughts?” most will tell you, “Basically quiet.” But, sit them down on a meditation cushion for a few minutes without anything to distract them and bam most people are shocked to discover how noisy it is in there.

It’s not that meditation made their minds noisy. Rather, the practice revealed the noise that was already there. This revelation of the running, ranting mind is a movement forward on the path. Many people drop the practice at this point thinking, “I can’t meditate.” But, they are meditating! The practice is working by revealing the actual state of the conditioned mind. Don’t stop now. The key is to keep practicing. To stay with the process which will lead to the quieting of the mind chatter.

The mind isn’t quieted by willing or by effort. You can’t quiet the mind through will power. That would be like pushing down on a spring. The harder you push the more the spring pushes back. You quiet the mind in the same way that you allow a glass of muddy water to become clear. You just let the particles settle. When you don’t stir up the water the mud settles on its own.

It’s the same in meditation.

Meditation lets the mud, the noisy thoughts settle. The glass of muddy water becomes clear as gravity draws the mud together. The mind becomes clear as you shift from thinking about thoughts to being aware of what is arising. Just by being aware, present, and mindful of the activity of the mind it settles down.

6) “Meditation is . . . boring.”

I remember when my parents would take me, as a child, to watch the sunset. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see the beauty. To me, the sunset was boring.

Being bored is a symptom of not paying attention. If you pay attention deeply to anything it becomes very, very interesting. Meditation, which is the practice of cultivating deep attention, dissolves boredom. As the mud of the mind settles, as you discover the richness of the present moment even something as simple as a breath becomes the doorway to gratitude, wonder, and joy.

But, on the other hand, meditation is actually quite boring. I mean, you’re sitting there breathing in and breathing out. What could be more boring? In, out, in, out. Or you’re repeating the same mantra over and over. It is kind of boring by design. As the surface mind gets bored, it settles down.

And in that settling, an awareness of all encompassing, and ever present silence emerges. A sense of undisturbed stillness. This stillness and silence infuse everything with aliveness and presence. Not boring at all”

7) “I don’t want to be weird.”

There are two reasons that practicing meditation can feel weird. One is neurological, the other more psychological.

Let’s start neurologically: doing anything unfamiliar can feel weird. Your neurological patterns get used to doing things a certain way. Putting your left leg in your pants before your right ones Brushing one side of your teeth before the other. Sitting in a certain chair and in a certain posture) to watch television. The list goes on.

So, when you change a pattern of behavior even in a positive direction it feels weird. Inside your brain, new neurons are firing.

New connections are being made. And old connections, old patterns, are being restrained. Subjectively it feels weird. The new neurological circuits aren’t totally grooved in yet. so you’re clumsy at the new pattern. And this clumsiness is where the weird feeling can turn more psychological.

Being clumsy can be embarrassing (even if you’re all by yourself). Even if you’re sitting there by yourself with your eyes closed you can still be “watching” what you’re doing and wondering, “Am I doing this right? Is this weird?”

Have you ever danced in front of the mirror? If you judge what your dancing it’s no fun. To enjoy the experience, you need to cut loose from any fixed ideas of what dancing should look like and even more so what you should look like.

It’s the same with meditation. Whether you want to or not, you have an idea about the kind of person who meditates. If you don’t think of yourself as that kind of person then when you meditate, you’ll feel weird. You’ll get in your own way.

But, if you relax, take a breath, and realize that your ideas about meditation are just that ideas. You don’t have to live up to these self imposed ideas of meditation. You can just cut loose and enjoy the process. When you do, you find a whole new and wonderful kind of weirdness.

But, one of the blessings of meditation is finding out that you indeed are weird. You’re weird in the best possible sense of the word. Because, the most ancient meaning of the word weird has to do with following your unique fate, your path through life. You’re weird if you follow your path and listen to the direction of your inner soul.

So, meditation, in this most basic, ancient sense, helps you be weird. Meditation helps you find your path. Through practice, you discover how to live your true life more fully and more joyfully.

Those are the seven reasons.

Along with ideas on how to move through them.

Because, there’s no reason to let a bit of debris stop you from enjoying a refreshing swim in the deep, clear, refreshing waters of your inner mind.

Ready for the next: step?

Our recommendation is for you to subscribe to the Wisdom Heart newsletter. You’ll receive information and inspiration on how to bring meditation alive in your life. Practical ideas that you can use for peace of mind and the clarity to live with greater fulfillment and purpose.

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The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm


My interest in meditation began at the age of six when my parents did a course on Transcendental Meditation. I didn’t realize it then, but I was effectively being introduced to the idea that meditation can produce all manner of changes in who we are and in what we can achieve. Mind-over-matter stories are both inspiring and bewildering, hard to believe yet compelling. They have stirred me deeply enough to dedicate almost two decades of my life researching what attracts some people to techniques like meditation and yoga and whether, like many claim, they can transform us in a fundamental way.

This book tells the story of the human ambition for personal change, with a primary focus on the techniques of meditation and yoga. Hundreds of millions of people around the world meditate daily. Mindfulness courses, directly inspired by Buddhist meditation, are offered in schools and universities, and mindfulness-based therapies are now available as psychological treatments in the UK’s National Health Service.

Many scientists and teachers claim that this spiritual practice is one of the most efficient and economic tools of personal change. Yoga is no less popular. According to a recent survey by the Yoga Health Foundation, more than 250 million people worldwide practise it regularly. Through yoga we learn to notice thoughts, feelings and sensations while working with physical postures. Often, yoga practice includes a period of lying or sitting meditation.

Psychologists have developed an arsenal of theories and techniques to understand and motivate personal change. But it wasn’t psychology that produced the greatest surge of interest of the twentieth century in this topic, it was meditation. By the 1970s millions of people worldwide were signing up to learn a technique that promised quick and dramatic personal change. Transcendental Meditation was introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and quickly spread after the Beatles declared themselves to be followers of this Indian guru. To gain respectability Maharishi sponsored dozens of scientific studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, in academic fields ranging from psychophysiology to sociology, showing that its regular practice changed personality traits, improved mood and wellbeing and, not least, reduced criminality rates.

The publicity images for Transcendental Meditation included young people levitating in a cross-legged position and displaying blissful smiles. I recall, as a child, staring at the photographs of the levitating meditators used in the advertising brochures and thinking ‘Can they really do that?’ My parents’ enthusiasm for meditation, though, was short-lived. When I recently asked my mum about it, she just said, ‘It was a seventies thing; most of our friends were trying it out.’

Like my parents’ interest research on meditation waned rapidly. Photos of levitating people didn’t help to persuade the scientific community that this was something worth studying. We had to wait almost thirty years before a new generation of researchers reignited interest in the field, conducting the first neuroimaging studies of Tibetan monks meditating, and the first explorations of the use of mindfulness in the treatment of depression. For yoga, too, there is increasing evidence that its practice can reduce depression?

Meditation and yoga are no longer taboo words in psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience departments. There now are dedicated conferences and journals on the topic and thousands of researchers worldwide using the most advanced scientific tools to study these techniques. Many of the studies are funded by national science agencies; just looking at the US federally funded projects, from 1998 to 2009, the number increased from seven to more than 1205. The idea of personal change is increasingly central to these studies. Recent articles show improvements in cognitive and affective skills after six to eight weeks of mindfulness, including an increase in empathy?

These are exciting findings. Meditation practices seem to have an impact on our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Yet, these studies report only modest changes. But many who use and teach these techniques make astonishing claims about their powers. At the Patanjali Research Foundation in northern India, the world’s largest yoga research centre, I hear miraculous claims about yoga from the mouth of its director-guru, Swami Ramdev: ‘Yoga can heal anything, whether it’s physical or mental illness.’

Teasing fact from fiction is a major aim of this book.

The first part explores ideas about the effects of meditation and yoga, contrasting them with the current scientific evidence of personal change. The second part puts the theories to the test, we carry out new research and scrutinize both the upsides and downsides of these practices. We have dedicated a full chapter to the darker aspects of meditation, which teachers and researchers seldom or never mention.

Although this isn’t a self-help book, it attempts to answer crucial questions for anyone interested in contemplative techniques: can these practices help me to change? If yes, how much and how do they work? And, if they do change me, is it always for the better?

These questions have shaped a significant part of my own life. In my teenage years I believed that to seek personal growth and transformation was the central goal of human existence; this led me to study psychology. I wanted to learn how to promote change through psychological therapy, although it was only later, while undergoing therapy training, that I considered the subtlety and difficulties of this process. My undergraduate psychology degree turned out to not shed much light on our potential for transformation; it rarely touched on ideas about how to make us more whole, healed, enlightened, or just a better person.

But rather than giving up, I read more about the areas of psychology I wasn’t being taught like consciousness studies and started doing research on the effects of spiritual practices. When I decided it was probably a good idea to do a doctorate, I browsed through hundreds of psychology websites in search of potential supervisors; I found one at Oxford whom I thought was open minded enough to mentor my interests, and I moved to the city in 2000.

This is the pre-history of my motivation to write this book. Its history begins in the early summer of 2009, when Shirley du Boulay, a writer and former journalist with the BBC, invited a number of people to take part in the re-creation of a ceremony that blended Christian and Indian spirituality. Images, readings and songs from both traditions were woven together, following the instructions of Henry le Soux, a French Benedictine monk who went to live in India and founded a number of Christian ashrams that adopted the simplicity of Indian spirituality (think of vegetarian food and a thin orange habit)?

I met Catherine Wikholm, the co-author of this book, at this event. She had studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University before embarking on her psychology training, and was at the time doing research relating to young offenders. Catherine and I were both drawn to an elegant woman in her fifties called Sandy Chubb, who spoke in a gentle but authoritative manner. Sandy showed us a book she had recently published with cartoonish illustrations of yoga postures. I thought it was intended for children and asked her if kids enjoyed yoga. Sandy smiled and told us the book was meant for illiterate prisoners. That was the mission of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a small charity she directed: to teach yoga and meditation in prisons. Trying to escape my feeling of embarrassment, I praised the idea of bringing contemplative techniques to prisoners. ‘It must help them to cope with the lack of freedom,’ I suggested. Sandy frowned slightly.

‘That’s not the main purpose,’ she said. Although going to prison is a punishment, Sandy told us, with the help of meditation and yoga, being locked in a small cell can help prisoners realize their true life mission.

‘Which is?’ Catherine and I both asked at the same time. ‘To be saintly, enlightened beings,’ Sandy answered.

Catherine and I kept silent. We were mildly sceptical. But also intrigued. Sandy seemed to claim that meditation and yoga techniques could radically transform criminals. I went back to my office that same evening to search for studies of meditation and yoga in prisons and found only a handful. The results weren’t dramatic but pointed in the right direction, prisoners reported less aggression and higher self-esteem? Reading closely, I noticed there were serious methodological flaws: most had small sample sizes and none included a control group a standard research practice that ensures results are not owing to chance or some variable the researcher forgot to take into account.

I wanted to know more. If Sandy’s claims were true, if meditation and yoga could transform prisoners, this could have tremendous implications for how psychologists understand and promote personal change in all individuals, not just those who are incarcerated. Having no experience of prisons, I contacted Catherine to ask if she’d be interested in working with me on this topic.

‘l’d love to!’ she said, more enthusiastic than I imagine most would be at the prospect of interviewing numerous convicted criminals and in the process spending weeks behind bars. Having started working for the prison service in her early twenties, Catherine had a strong forensic interest, particularly in the treatment of young offenders. She was passionate about the rehabilitation of prisoners in general and was curious as to whether yoga and meditation might represent an alternative means of facilitating positive, meaningful change for those who were unable or unwilling to engage with traditional rehabilitative efforts, such as offending behaviour programs.

So Catherine and l arranged to meet with Sandy at the Prison Phoenix Trust. Walking through Oxford’s trendy Summertown, where the Trust is based, we wondered what the meeting would bring. On arriving at the offices, we received a warm welcome. Sandy gave us the guided tour of their floor of the building, which comprised four rooms: the office, where she and her colleagues had their desks; a dining room for communal meals; a meditation room with cushions on the floor; and, along a corridor, a room that was wall-to-wall lined with metal filing cabinets. These, Sandy explained, were full of the letters the Prison Phoenix Trust had received from prisoners, estimated at numbering more than ten thousand.

If we were intrigued before, we were now completely hooked. Our minds filled with questions, we sat down with Sandy as she began to reveal the unusual story of how a small charity had persuaded prison governors to let them teach meditation and yoga to a broad range of prisoners, including thieves, murderers and rapists.

This story made quite an impression on us. So much so, in fact, that it inspired us to dedicate much of the following two years to designing and implementing a study of the measurable effects of yoga and meditation on prisoners. The findings of our research (which we’ll reveal later on in the book) not only sparked a flurry of media interest, but inspired us to spend the two years after that writing this book.

Our initial focus on the potential of meditative techniques to transform the ‘worst of the worst’ broadened out, as we became increasingly interested in exploring its full potential. Might Eastern contemplative techniques have the power to change all of us? As we engaged with more and more research literature, the inspiring stories of change we uncovered compounded our broadened view of the potential of yoga and meditation. Our own personal experiences, such as those of my ongoing research and Catherine’s clinical psychology doctoral training and subsequent acquaintance with mindfulness-based therapies and their application within the NHS in turn increased our curiosity.

What began as a perhaps unlikely marriage of my interest in spirituality and Catherine’s in forensic and clinical psychology has evolved into a wider exploration of the science and delusions of personal change. Just as we worked on our research together, so we have written this book together. To reflect the dynamic process of our writing, with the combining of our ideas and to avoid any messy jumping back and forth between us as narrators we have chosen to write this book in first-person narrative, as a singular, joint ‘I’. Although inevitably it may sometimes be apparent which one of us is narrating at a particular point, if simply by virtue of our gender difference, we have sought to write as a shared voice. The personal stories, interviews and accounts depicted in this book are all drawn from our real experiences. However, when discussing any examples relating to therapeutic work, we have anonymized all names and identifying details.

Over the course of the book, we will examine the scientific evidence that actually exists for the claims of change that meditation, mindfulness and yoga practitioners, teachers and enthusiasts propagate.

We also bring together our own experiences as psychologists, one more research-oriented and one more practice oriented, as well as the stories of some of the thought-provoking characters we’ve encountered along our journey. All that is to come. But for now let us begin by letting you in on the unique story that started it all.

The Prison Phoenix Trust



‘If we forget that in every criminal there is a potential saint, we are dishonouring all of the great spiritual traditions. Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before becoming Saint Paul, author of much of the New Testament. Valmiki, the revealer of the Ramayana, was a highwayman, a robber, and a murderer. Milarepa, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist gurus, killed 37 people before he became a Saint. We must remember that even the worst of us can change.’ Bo Lozoff (American prison reform activist and founder of the Prison Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation)

Knocking on the door of a house in a quiet street in Oxfordshire, notepad and pen in hand, I stood and waited on the front step. A minute later the door opened. A smartly dressed, elderly lady smiled at me from inside.

‘Tigger?’ I asked. ‘Yes, do come in,’ she replied.

Still full of life at ninety years old, Tigger Ramsey-Brown was a pleasure to interview. I was there to find out from her more about the story of her late younger sister, who had founded the Prison Phoenix Trust. Over cups of tea in her sunny conservatory, Tigger began vividly to recount the story of her sister and how she had started the Trust around thirty years previously.

In the beginning

Tigger pointed out that if we were going to go right to the start, this story actually begins somewhat earlier, with the marine biologist and committed Darwinist Sir Alister Hardy. At one time a Professor of Zoology at Oxford University, Hardy had happened to teach Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist. Knighted for his work in biology, Hardy had a strong interest in the evolution of humankind, developing novel theories such as the aquatic ape hypothesis (which proposes that humans went through an aquatic or semi-aquatic stage in our evolution).

But he was also particularly interested in the evolution of religion and religious experience. Hardy viewed humans as spiritual animals, theorizing that spirituality was a natural part of our human consciousness. He mooted that our awareness of something ‘other’ or ‘beyond’ had arisen through exploration of our environment and he wanted to explore this further.

However, aware that fellow scientists and academics were likely to consider his interest in researching spirituality unorthodox, he waited until he retired from Oxford University before he delved deeper and founded the then-called Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU) at Manchester College, Oxford. (It is now the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre and is based in Wales.)

The goal of Hardy’s research was to discover if people today still had the same kind of mystical experiences they seemed to have had in the past. He began his study by placing adverts in newspapers, asking people to write in with their mystical experiences, in response to what became known as ‘The Hardy Question’: ‘Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’

‘Thousands of people replied to the adverts, writing about their dreams and spiritual experiences. These responses were compiled into a database to enable researchers to analyze the different natures and functions of people’s religious and spiritual experiences. This is where Ann came in,’ Tigger told me. And so it was that in the mid-1980s in Oxfordshire, a woman named Ann Wetherall spent her days collecting and categorizing people’s dreams, visions and other spiritual experiences.

Looking for a link

Over time, as she examined the letters, Ann began to wonder if there was a common denominator in the accounts.

She noticed that it didn’t seem to matter whether someone was religious or atheist, but, more often than not, it was people who were feeling hopeless or helpless who reported a direct experience of spirituality.

Ann hypothesized that imprisonment might be a context that particularly inspired such despondent feelings and that it therefore might also trigger spiritual experiences. She got in touch with convicted murderer turned sculptor Jimmy Boyle, one of Scotland’s most famous reformed criminals. Boyle helped her to get an advert published in prison newspapers, asking for prisoners to write in about their religious or spiritual episodes. She got quite a response prisoners in their dozens wrote in to her describing their unusual experiences. Many of them had never mentioned these to anyone before and had wondered if they were going mad.

‘Ann wanted to write back and reassure them that they weren’t, and that these were valid spiritual experiences, which could be built on but the Alister Hardy Foundation did not reply to letters,’ Tigger explained. ‘That’s why Ann broke away from the research, so that she could start corresponding with the prisoners who were writing in, and offer support.

Because of their confinement in cells and separation from the outside world, Ann thought that prisoners’ experience was perhaps rather similar to that of monks. While for prisoners this withdrawal from society was not voluntary, she believed that they too could use their cell as a space for spiritual growth.’

‘What was her interpretation of spiritual growth?’ I asked.

‘Not only becoming more in touch with a greater power, but also becoming more aware of inner feelings and thoughts, as well as more connected and sensitive to other people’s needs,’ Tigger explained.

‘And the means of bringing about this kind of change?’ I asked, already pre-empting the answer…

‘Through meditation, of course.’

From spiritual experience to spiritual development

Tigger explained that she and Ann had spent their childhoods in India, growing up among Buddhist monasteries. Because of this upbringing, Ann had had a lifelong involvement with meditation, and believed that prisoners could benefit from learning it. In her letters back and forth to prisoners, she began sharing with them what she knew about meditation, in order to encourage and support their spiritual development.

Over the next couple of years, Ann’s correspondence with convicts came to strengthen her belief that prisoners had real potential for Spiritual development. ‘She thought they had a terrific spirituality, a hunger that wasn’t being met,’ Tigger explained, as our conversation moved onto Ann’s decision to set up a charitable trust, the Prison Ashram Project (now the Prison Phoenix Trust).

Founded in 1988, the organization was at first very small, comprising just Ann and three other volunteers, who wrote to prisoners, encouraging them to use their spiritual experiences as a springboard for future spiritual development.

‘You are more than you think you are’ was the project’s frequent message.

As the name suggests the Prison Ashram Project had the central premise that a prison cell can be used as an ashram, a Hindi word that refers to a spiritual hermitage, a place to develop deeper spiritual understanding through quiet contemplation or ascetic devotion.

Hermitage is not only an Eastern practice in Western Christian tradition, a monastery is a place of hermitage, too, because it is partially removed from the world. Furthermore, the word ‘cell’ is used in monasteries as well as in prisons, and there are a surprising number of similarities between the living conditions of monks and prisoners. Both live ascetic lives filled with restriction and limitation. Both monks and prisoners are able to meet their basic needs (but little more), both desist from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of wealth, and both follow a strict daily schedule.

Despite these parallels, however, there is undeniably a big difference in how monks and prisoners come to live in their respective cells. For monks living communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone, living ascetically is an intentional choice, aimed at enabling them to better focus on spiritual goals. But for prisoners withdrawing from the world is not their choice; rather, it is imposed upon them as punishment. Which leads to the question: can involuntary confinement really open a door to inner freedom and personal change? Ann Wetherall believed so.

Being confined to a cell for much of the day, even against free will, could be a catalyst for spiritual development. The conditions were conducive; all that anyone needed was a radical shift in thinking. Rather than punishment, incarceration could be reconceived of as an opportunity for positive transformative experience. Prisoners had lost their physical liberty, but they could nevertheless gain spiritual freedom. Ann thought that meditation was the ideal tool with which prisoners could build spiritual growth, requiring only body, mind and breath.

So far, so good. But as Tigger talked something seemed to me to be a distinct obstacle to peaceful meditation behind bars: the undeniable fact that prisons are busy, noisy places. Granted, there might be some similarities between prisons, monasteries and spiritual retreats, I thought, but surely finding peace and quiet in a prison would be a bit of a mission impossible. Wouldn’t that render any attempt to meditate a bit futile?

‘No.’ Tigger smiled. ‘Ann believed this actually increased the importance and worth of meditation practice; the practice would enable prisoners to find a sense of peace despite their surroundings.’

Crossing continents

As it turned out Ann was not the first to think of encouraging prisoners’ spiritual development through in-cell meditation. A couple of years after setting up the Prison Ashram Project, she heard about Bo Lozoff, a spiritual leader and prison reform activist doing similar work in the USA.

Curiously, his organization was also called the Prison Ashram Project. Bo first had the idea that a prison cell could be a kind of ashram when his brother-in-law was sentenced to prison for drug smuggling. At the time Bo and his wife Sita were living at an ashram in North Carolina. There, their daily routine involved waking early, wearing all white, working all day without getting paid, abstaining from sex and eating communally. Visiting his brother-in-law in prison, Bo realized there were remarkable parallels between their day-to-day lives.

Around the same time he came across a book by renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass, entitled Be Here Now. The combination of these two events inspired Bo and Sita to set up their own Prison Ashram Project in 1973, in cooperation with Ram Dass.

Just like Ann, they had begun corresponding with prisoners, offering encouragement and instruction in meditation and also in yoga. They also sent prisoners copies of Ram Dass’s book, along with the book that Bo himself went on to write: We’re All Doing Time A Guide for Getting Free. The central concept of this book is that it’s not only prisoners who are imprisoned, but that we are all ‘doing time’ because we allow ourselves to be so restricted by hang-ups, blocks and tensions. The message is that through meditation and yoga we can all learn to become free.

The birth of the Prison Phoenix Trust

Not long after meeting Bo, Ann changed her charity’s name to the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT), in part because she was concerned that the word ‘ashram’ might prove an obstacle for the prison service. She was keen to step things up a notch from written correspondence and start setting up meditation and yoga workshops in prisons themselves. However, even with the new name, prison governors and officers were wary of the charity’s efforts. The Trust tried to get into prisons through the Chaplaincy; however, here too there was a surprising amount of resistance.

It’s worth remembering that in the late 1980s, prison chaplains were almost all Anglican. At that time the Anglican Church was still suspicious of practices such as meditation, which when compared with contemplation or silent prayer seemed ‘unChristian’. Many ministers thought that meditation centred on a spirituality that might be Hindu, Buddhist or even evil (stemming from the notion that to silence the mind also means making it available for the devil).

A 2011 article in the Daily Telegraph highlighted an extreme example of Christian opposition to yoga and meditation, reporting how a Catholic priest named Father Gabriele Amroth, appointed the Vatican’s chief exorcist in 1986, had publicly denounced yoga at a film festival where he had been invited to introduce The Rite (a film about exorcism, starring Anthony Hopkins): ‘Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,’ the priest is reported as stating, to an audience of bemused film fans?

Of course, not all devout Christians share such concerns that Christianity and Eastern spiritual practices are incompatible. Offering me another biscuit Tigger revealed the next chapter of her sister’s tale, wherein Ann would join forces with ‘a very forceful and very amazing character’.


‘Spirituality is what you do with those fires that burn within you.’ Sister Elaine

Thousands of miles away from Oxford and Ann’s fledgling charity lived a Catholic nun. As well as being a nun, Sister Elaine was a Zen master. She grew up in Canada, where in her youth she became a professional classical musician for the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. At the age of thirty, however, she realized her true calling and joined the convent of Our Lady’s Missionaries in Toronto. In 1961, after several years at the convent, she was sent to Japan for her first assignment as a Catholic missionary. Her mission was to set up a Conservatory and Cultural Centre in Osaka, where she would teach English and music to Japanese people, as well as to baptise as many of them as possible.

In order to get to know the Japanese people better, she began to practise Zen Buddhism. She started zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study, under the guidance of Yamada Koun Roshi, a well-known Zen master from the Japanese Sanbo Kyodan order. Perhaps surprisingly, it did not matter to him that Sister Elaine was a Catholic nun with no intention of becoming a Buddhist. Yamada Koun Roshi did not draw a division between different people or religions, and similarly neither does Sister Elaine, who maintains, ‘There is no separation. We make separation?

Devoted to her new discipline, Sister Elaine went on to spend some time living with Buddhist nuns in Kyoto, where the daily regime involved ten hours a day of sitting in silence.

To call the koan study lengthy would be an understatement; it took her nearly two decades of studying with her Zen teacher before she was made a roshi. This title, which translates literally as ‘old teacher’, marks the top echelon of Zen teachers. There are an estimated only 100 roshis worldwide. Very few of them are Westerners, but in 1980 Sister Elaine finally became one of them, an accredited Zen teacher of the Sanbo Kyodan order. Her achievement made her the first Canadian, and certainly the first Catholic nun, to be recognized as one of the world’s highest-ranking teachers of Zen.

In 1976, after 15 years in Japan, Our Lady’s Missionaries back in Toronto transferred Sister Elaine to the Philippines. This was during the worst years of the Marcos regime, and Sister Elaine was to be involved with animal husbandry. However, she did more than merely raise livestock. Once in the Philippines she set up a zendo (Zen meditation centre), for the Catholic Church in Manila. Word spread about her work and a leading dissident, Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales, who had headed the New People’s Army against the Marcos dictatorship, came to hear of her. Held as a political prisoner at the Bago Bantay detention centre, Morales asked Sister Elaine to come to prison to teach meditation to him and a group of fellow prisoners, each of whom had, like him, been tortured. His hope was that the practice could help them to cope with the stress of imprisonment and find inner peace.

Despite the hostility of the authorities and worrying reports of other prison visitors ‘vanishing’, Sister Elaine spent four-and-a-half years teaching meditation to those prisoners every week. During that time she witnessed a remarkable change: the prisoners transformed from being angry, tense men, trembling from torture, to being calm. This convinced her both of the therapeutic power of silent meditation and of the potential for prisoners to develop spiritually while incarcerated.

Sister Elaine’s life makes for quite an unusual story, and her work in the Philippines caught the attention of the media and subsequently of Ann Wetherall. Leaning forward in her seat, Ann’s sister, Tigger, told me of the unexpected events that would subsequently unfold.

Ann’s legacy

In 1992, four years after founding the Prison Phoenix Trust, Ann discovered she had terminal cancer. Coming to terms with this news, Ann felt fearful for the prisoners she was involved with; what would happen to her charity after she was gone? She had heard of Sister Elaine and wrote to her, asking if she would consider taking over as director after she died. Sister Elaine flew over from the Philippines to spend a week with Arm to try to come to a decision. Shortly after returning home, she phoned Ann to accept her offer, telling her ‘don’t die until I get there’.

Sadly, Ann passed away while Sister Elaine was on her way back to England. Over the six years Sister Elaine was director, the idea that yoga and meditation are beneficial for prisoners became increasingly accepted among prison governors and officers. They might not have been as interested in the potential spiritual development of prisoners, but many acknowledged the range of other, more down-to-earth benefits: prisoners doing yoga and meditation were reportedly calmer, slept better and felt less stressed and so were easier to work with.

While, like Ann, Sister Elaine believed that meditation was the key to stilling the mind, incorporating yoga into the classes was important: when the body can be still, the mind can be still.

Aged 75, Sister Elaine left the Trust not to retire, but to return to her native Canada to found a similar organization called Freeing the Human Spirit, based in Toronto.

In the years since Sister Elaine’s departure, the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT) has continued to develop its work, with classes now running in the majority of UK prisons. Reflecting on the Trust’s progress, Sandy Chubb, the PPT’s subsequent director, remarked to me with a smile, ‘Yes, gone are the days when yoga teachers were branded yoghurt pots.’

Hearing the stories about Ann and Sister Elaine, so vividly recounted to me by Tigger and others, including the Trust’s current director Sam Settle, it made sense to me that yoga and meditation could lead to personal change in prisoners. Certainly the PPT had a whole lot of anecdotal evidence attesting to its benefits. Over the course of 25 years, PPT letter-writers have received more than 10,000 replies from prisoners reporting the positive effects of these techniques. The benefits range from increased self-esteem, better sleep and reduced dependence on drugs, medication or cigarettes, to improved emotional management and reduced stress.

Anecdote or evidence

I was invited to come and have a look through the filing cabinets that contained these letters, the amount of correspondence astounded me. Yet despite all those positive responses, as a psychologist I couldn’t help but be a little sceptical, testimonials are all very well, but what was the empirical evidence that yoga and meditation can help incarcerated criminals change for the better? Searching scientific databases I discovered there was very little rigorous research out there into the measurable psychological effects of these practices on prison populations.

The majority of studies that did exist focused specifically on meditation with some interesting results. Research into the effects of Transcendental Meditation on criminals had been taking place since the 1970s. For example, a study by US researchers Abrams and Siegel found that those prisoners who received a 14-week course of TM training showed a significant reduction in anxiety, neuroticism, hostility and insomnia compared with the control group. This would seemingly constitute early evidence for the rehabilitative effects of TM. However, the study was criticized on the grounds that it had inadequate controls, limiting the conclusions we can draw from the findings and calling into question the authors’ somewhat liberal interpretation of their statistical results.

More recent studies using other meditation techniques also yielded some promising evidence. In these studies, researchers concluded that meditation led to such positive results as improved psychosocial functioning”, a reduction in substance abuse, and decreased recidivism rates?

However, while all that sounds really promising, most of this research also had serious shortcomings. For example, sample sizes were usually very small, there was not a control group, or the research drew evidence only from questionnaire measures.

I realized that if we were to draw any realistic conclusions about whether or not yoga and meditation are effective in bringing about measureable psychological changes in incarcerated criminals, we needed better research evidence. And so the seeds were sown for our Oxford Study, the journey and findings of which we reveal in Chapter 8. While this was in the planning, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding about the PPT’s rationale for encouraging prisoners to practise yoga and meditation, and their conceptualizations of personal change.


While the PPT does believe that yoga and meditation can lead to beneficial psychological effects in prisoners, what they’re really interested in is the possibility of a radical ‘self-change’. This involves a significant shift in perspective. Sandy Chubb told me that in her experience (of teaching yoga in prisons), prisoners are lovely to work with. This didn’t surprise me all that much we all tend to be co-operative when we’re getting to do something we want to do.

What did surprise me was the comment that followed: Sandy told me that ‘prisoners are all perfect’.

Perfect is certainly not the adjective most of us would choose to describe murderers, rapists and paedophiles; for many it’s perhaps even the antonym of the word they would use. I needed Sandy to clarify. ‘What’s perfect about them?’ I asked.

The answer appears to lie in Sandy’s spiritual worldview. Like many others who believe in a universal spirituality, Sandy recognizes the divine nature of each of us including criminals and is convinced of the interconnectedness of all things. She smiles serenely when she tells me what to her is a simple, obvious truth: ‘We are a whole creation that works dynamically.’

The concept of unity or non-duality is a central premise in some Eastern spiritual belief systems, and one that effectively eliminates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that most of us have in relation to convicted criminals. Early into my interview with Sam Settle, the current director of the PPT and a former Buddhist monk, I encountered the same belief: ‘lf prisoners realized that we are all connected,’ Sam told me, ‘then they would not commit crimes.’

So while reducing re-offending is not an asserted aim of the PPT, it is considered likely to occur as a side-effect of spiritual growth. The hypothesis is that it is criminals’ mistaken idea of separateness that allows them to act in a harmful way towards others. From Sandy and Sam’s perspective, there is no ‘other’, and there are no ‘bad’ people; we are all part of the same perfect whole and meditation and yoga can help people to realize this.

Later in the book I will discuss how many people share this perspective, people who believe that not just individual but worldwide change is possible, if only there are enough people meditating.


While we could dismiss some of these ideas about the transformative potential of meditation and yoga for prisoners as utopian, Romantic, or LaLa-Land spirituality, we can also consider them in a purely secular sense, in terms of psychological and behavioural changes.

But, even if we cast aside, for now, the spiritual dimension, the notion that yoga and meditation can produce meaningful change in prisoners might still be considered somewhat ‘out there’. The very idea of the possibility of personal change is itself a loaded topic, especially in the context of prisons. Young repeat offenders are often labelled hopeless cases, written off by the time they have barely left their teens, undermining the ethos of rehabilitation that should be central to the prison system. However, for many offenders there are myriad factors that may obstruct attempts to rehabilitate not only in terms of overcoming backgrounds of adversity, but also in terms of their perceived (lack of) prospects for the future.

The institution of home

For many who have lived in prisons from an early age, the prospect of going outside is daunting.

I once worked with a prisoner, ‘John’, who was serving his tenth prison sentence at the age of only 21 years old. He attended every session of the offending behaviour program I was facilitating, only to in the final session suddenly become aggressive and disruptive to the point where he had to be removed from the group. Talking to him afterwards, trying to understand why he had sabotaged something that could have helped him towards securing an earlier release date, he admitted he was scared of being released. ‘There is nothing for me outside,’ he said, visibly upset.

When John was a young child, one of his parents murdered the other; he went on to spend the rest of his childhood in numerous short-term foster care placements. Angry and distrusting of people, he would repeatedly run away from them. He committed his first offence aged ten and received his first custodial sentence aged 15. The frequency of his impulsive crimes meant that he had spent the majority of the past six years behind bars. There were no family or friends waiting for him on the outside. The uncertainty of how to build a meaningful life, alone, in the ‘real world’ was overwhelming. Prison was all he felt he knew.


All staff members working in prisons from officers, to psychologists, to governors are acutely aware that changing prisoners can be extraordinarily difficult but it’s not impossible. In my own work with young male offenders, I lost count of the number of times I heard ‘he’ll never change’ from prison officers, who generally would have little idea of that individual’s backstory and the factors that contributed to his offending behaviour. Often the prisoners in question were boys still in their teens, some of them coming from such difficult backgrounds that it would have been a miracle if they hadn’t ended up in prison.

The desire to reform is often unsupported, sometimes owing to budget restrictions, but other times owing to a lack of belief. Changing is hard. And it’s even harder without a helping hand.

The support of others, whether friend, therapist or institution can be fundamental in whether or not we succeed in bringing about a desired change. Feeling that others believe in us can significantly boost our sense of self-efficacy. Feeling that others don’t believe in us at all undermines our self-belief so that we may start to feel a dramatic waning of our own confidence and motivation to try to change.

Changing attitudes

It was a Thursday afternoon and I was on my lunch break, in between research interviews at a West Midlands prison. I was accompanied by an officer in his late fifties, who had been assigned to facilitate the interviews; escorting prisoners from the wings to the interview room. As our break drew to a close, the officer suddenly deviated from his impromptu monologue on the joys of pigeon fancying, my knowledge of which had substantially increased over the hour, to ask whether I really thought that yoga and meditation would do anything at all for prisoners.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘we think it might. There’s evidence that it works outside of prisons to reduce stress and increase positive emotions. So it may help prisoners to manage their emotions better and improve their self control, which might also reduce their aggression.’

‘Ha!’ said the officer. ‘I doubt it.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think any of these can change,’ he told me. ‘I’m a firm believer that leopards never change their spots.’

It wasn’t just yoga and meditation the officer was dismissing as futile. He went on to say that he thought nothing could be done to change prisoners for the better; each and every one of them was a hopeless cause. ‘No matter what,’ he told me, ‘they will always revert back to what they are. It’s like a man who used to be a philanderer; he could get married to a woman and be faithful for, let’s say, ten years, but in the end, he’ll always cheat again.’

My attempts to debate failed miserably. When I maintained that I did think we could rehabilitate prisoners, he delivered his closing argument: ‘Well I’m older than you and I’ve met quite a lot of different people, so I think I know.’

Fortunately, this old-style officer is not representative of the majority of prison staff I have encountered. Over the last twenty years, a number of accredited offending behaviour programs (psychological group interventions that aim to reduce re-offending) have been developed that have been shown to be effective in bringing about improvements in prisoner behaviour, such as reducing aggression?

Despite this positive progress, with the reduction-rate for recidivism being generally around 10 per cent for program-completers, there is still clearly room for new and additional approaches particularly as many prisoners are reluctant or unable to engage with psychological treatment at all.

Arriving at a recent meeting at HMP Shrewsbury, l was escorted by a female officer who gave me a quick overview of the prison. She told me that the population was mostly sex offenders and that it was the most overcrowded prison in the country, adding, ‘We’re full of bed blockers.’

‘Bed blockers?’ I asked.

She explained that these are prisoners who had been through the sex offenders treatment program, but for one reason or another hadn’t been moved on to a different prison. The result was that they were taking up spaces that other, as yet untreated, offenders could use.

However, the main problem at Shrewsbury was not the ‘bed blockers’, who had accepted their offences and received treatment, but the many sex offenders who were in denial, and so could not be treated. Owing to the nature of their offences, such prisoners may be limited in what activities they can undertake during their sentences. Typically, for their own protection, sex offenders are segregated from ‘mainstream’ prisoners and even with good behaviour are not deemed suitable for outside work.

HMP Shrewsbury was one of the prisons that participated in our own research study. This prison had by far the biggest number of prisoners keen to do yoga and meditation, many more than we could actually manage to interview during the time we had allocated there.

As I interviewed prisoner after prisoner, all expressing a desire to do the yoga classes, it seemed to me that it could be possible that these techniques if effective could represent an alternative way to encourage positive personal change in prisoners whom the system might otherwise not be able to reach. Why? Because practising meditation and yoga doesn’t involve asking probing questions about offences of which prisoners may be deeply ashamed, feel in denial of, or simply not yet ready to address.

Sandy confirmed the particular utility of yoga and meditation for this demographic: ‘Not only is silence therapeutic and inclusive, it’s also safe for people with addiction and sex-offending histories.’ On the surface yoga is a physical activity, with desirable physiological benefits; it’s unthreatening, non-blaming and doesn’t require the admission of guilt. In this way it is possible that prisoners who would otherwise avoid explicit attempts to ‘change’ their behaviour, may nevertheless engage with a technique that could anyway bring about deep, personal transformation.


The concept of a prison cell as an ashram is an idea that captures the imagination, and the paradox of finding spiritual freedom through the loss of physical freedom is intriguing. Might there actually be truth in this unusual idea, can daily yogic sun salutations and deep breathing really make convicted rapists and murderers less violent and impulsive?

While it’s unlikely that yoga and meditation could replace traditional rehabilitative approaches, it seems possible that they may have a unique ability to reach prisoners on a different level: to make them feel more at peace, and more valued and connected. Bo Lozoff summarizes the aim of organizations that teach contemplative techniques to prisoners worldwide when he says that we should ‘allow for transformation, not merely rehabilitation’.

In other words the change that charities such as his and the PPT seek to encourage goes far beyond the cessation of offending behaviour; we are talking about a radical change in worldview. The PPT’s current director Sam Settle describes this transformation as ‘the forgetting of one’s self as one lives the forgetting of me’. In essence moving from focusing on oneself as a separate individual to seeing oneself as part of a larger whole.

Whether or not we share these ideas about the possibility of the transformation of convicted criminals from sinner to saint, from ‘monster’ to Buddha on a theoretical and anecdotal level, there does seem to be reason to think that yoga and meditation can bring about positive personal change in prisoners.

In Chaoter 8 we reveal how we put that theory to the test, but first let’s take a look at what science can tell us about the potential of Eastern techniques for bringing about meaningful change not just for prisoners, but for any of us.



‘Change is an odd process, almost contradictory: you want it, but don’t want it,’ said my clinical supervisor, playing with his curled beard and looking at me. What was he talking about? I had started my training in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) eight weeks earlier and was discussing my first client, ‘Mary’, a woman in her thirties, whose husband had died while on a family holiday. He had killed himself jumping off a cliff, right in front of his wife and their young child. Six months after the incident, Mary found herself depressed and sleepless.

‘I felt shock and disbelief,’ she told me, remembering. ‘I felt like I had been disembowelled and bricks sewn inside. I had to register his death the next day and felt terrible anger at having to describe myself as a widow, 24 hours after I had been a wife. Bureaucracy shouldn’t require that, you know?’ I nodded but felt tense, eager to show empathy. For the past eight weeks, l’d spent most . . .



The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

by Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm

get it at

Dr Miguel Farias writes about the psychology of belief and spiritual practices, including meditation. He was a lecturer at the University of Oxford and is now the leader of the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at Coventry University.

Dr Catherine Wikholm is a Clinical Psychologist registered with the Health Care and Professions Council (HCPC) and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS). She completed her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University, before embarking on her psychology training and gaining a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology, Masters in Forensic Psychology and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Catherine was previously employed by HM Prison Service where she worked with young offenders. She went on to work alongside Dr Miguel Farias at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, on a randomised controlled trial that looked at the psychological effects of yoga and meditation in prisoners. The findings of this research study sparked the idea for ‘The Buddha Pill’, which she co-wrote while completing her doctorate. Catherine currently works in a NHS child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) in London, UK.

OUR SUPEREGO. Soul without Shame. A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within – Byron Brown.

We all want to be free and happy. Many of us believe that we can attain these qualities through external success, and so we tend to see our obstacles as out there in the world, in people and situations. When we recognize that the promise of fulfillment and what stands in its way are both within us, we begin the inner journey.

It is a journey into our own consciousness and experience, a path of discovery and realization of the inner riches of human potentiality. Even though it is a thrilling adventure, the inner journey, as with any real adventure, is not an easy one, for it is full of challenges and difficulties, obstacles and barriers.

The inner obstacles have been known and discussed for thousands of years by many of the wisdom teachings and teachers. However, some of these primary obstacles could not be understood in a precise and detailed manner until the development of modern depth psychology. Now with this understanding the inner journey is assisted in ways not possible in previous times. One of these obstacles to inner work and spiritual realization is the painful and difficult one of the inner critic, the coercive agency within us that criticizes, judges, compares, condemns, blames, and attacks us and others mercilessly and constantly.

Depth psychology has demonstrated that we always develop a part of our selves to take the role of inner conscience, traditionally referred to as the superego. But this ego structure of conscience is built mostly through identification with the judging, critical, blaming, and punishing attitudes in the environment we grow up in. It becomes a harsh judge and a cruel source of punishment, instead of being the light of true conscience. It tends to develop into a rigid part of our mind that embodies inflexible rules and commandments, impermeable to understanding and deaf to reality.

The superego becomes one of the main sources of inner suffering, through low self-esteem, guilt, shame, devaluation, and self-recrimination.

It acts whenever it recognizes in our experience of ourselves, or in the perception of others, something of which it does not approve. Besides the pervasive suffering it causes in our experience, the rigidity and judgment of the inner critic make it difficult for us to go deeply into ourselves. This is because we are attacked by it every time we uncover something of which it disapproves. So in the inner journey, we either unnecessarily suffer, or to avoid this suffering we veer away from parts of our own experience. In both cases, our inner work becomes difficult and limited, and frequently comes to a halt.

Because of the greater understanding of the genesis and structure of the inner critic available in modern depth psychology, we can now deal with it more effectively than ever before. We can recognize it for what it is, address it in ways that liberate us from its cruel inner attacks, and henceforth journey inwards with greater freedom and more enjoyment of the thrill of discovery.

This book is unique in providing the reader with the understanding and methodology to do just that.

In very clear and available language, it details how to recognize the inner critic and how to effectively deal with it. Byron Brown’s presentation is useful for any individual who wishes to be free from the inner suffering and coercion of this ancient foe of our humanity, but it is specifically directed to those individuals interested and engaged in the inner journey toward realization and enlightenment.

Byron has been a student of mine for many years, and a teacher with considerable experience in the Diamond Approach to the inner journey. He has expressed his own understanding of how to work with the judge, culled from many years of his own inner work, and his work with students and groups, in a way that reveals its roots in the actual essential states of inner realization. As a result, this book is not only a study of the inner critic and how to deal with it, but a clear presentation of how this work can be done in a way that actually helps reveal our true and spiritual nature. In other words, it demonstrates how the work on the inner critic can become a path toward realizing true conscience, the essential conscience of which the inner critic is merely a limited imitation.

Byron has also succeeded in demonstrating how the work with the inner critic and the arising of inner spiritual states are related, and how they contribute to and support each other. His extensive understanding of the subject matter derives not only from his own inner work and work with students in the Ridhwan School, but also from the many classes he developed and taught, devoted specifically to working with the inner critic.

I believe the reader will find this book a unique opportunity to deal with an age-old problem, with intelligence and efficiency. The application of its knowledge will contribute significantly to one’s inner development.

A. H. Almaas


During the many years l have been teaching people how to work with self-criticism, I have witnessed a great deal of suffering resulting directly from the negative ways people treat themselves. I have also seen their surprise and concern as they come to recognize how serious this situation is. Perhaps most important, I see their hunger for a sense of personal integrity based on compassion and understanding rather than a belief in deficiency based on self-blame.

There is nothing more poignant and heartwrenching than to witness a friend treat himself badly out of a well-intentioned desire to do the best thing. It is painful to see his self-punishment, to recognize its inappropriateness, and to know you are helpless to stop it. You are helpless because the friend sees his actions as the logical and necessary outcome of who he is. Even when he recognizes the pain and struggle caused by the self-blame, he is not necessarily any closer to stopping it from happening.

You might see that he believes he is responsible for something he is not and want him to recognize that. You may try to talk to this friend about it or give him books to read. But these things will have little lasting impact on his internal world unless they awaken his hunger to know himself beyond his hopes and fears.

To challenge your own patterns of self-judgment is an equally difficult task. Simply to recognize how harsh and intolerant you can be toward yourself is uncomfortable enough. But to expose and explore this part of yourself also means questioning basic assumptions about your upbringing and the society in which you live. This may mean setting personal priorities counter to those held by friends, family, and colleagues, something that is hard to do alone.

For this reason, you can benefit greatly from doing inner critic work with like-minded souls in workshops or ongoing groups. You see that you are not alone in your patterns of self-blame, and you receive external support for challenging these patterns. Working with others can counteract the isolation that you fear will come as you begin questioning the standards of those around you as well as your own expectations.

For those who do not have the opportunity to be in a group that supports this focus, working with the inner critic can be a lonely and often discouraging process. A book can give some background, suggest ways of working, and offer some guidelines, but it cannot replace the personal contact of other people or the feedback of a teacher or therapist.

This book presents a perspective that frees you from the pervasive orientation of self-improvement, an approach that often reinforces rather than liberates you from the suffering of self-blame. I hope it will offer support for your own growth by validating the importance of challenging self-judgment on the path to selfunderstanding.

Byron Brown


This book introduces you to the lifelong process of disengaging from self-judgment and, through and beyond that work, to knowing yourself as a living soul. Specifically, it will lead you on an experiential process of unraveling the judgment in your inner life. The abundant information here is not arranged as a theoretical treatise but as an interactive process and a practical guide to help free you from self-attack. Throughout the book, personal examples from individuals and from my work with students are included to illustrate the principles presented, as well as exercises and practices to encourage discovery of your own understanding of the material. The knowledge offered will have little impact unless you actively explore its relevance to your own experience.

Working with the judge and discovering the truth is a journey of liberation. As you come to recognize that you are in a prison guarded by the judge, you appreciate the soul’s powerful longing for freedom.

Every external form of bondage in human history reflects the psychic confinement of the soul resulting from ignorance and unquestioned beliefs. You are a slave to your own ideas of who you are and how you need to be.

The ability to defend against the judge’s attacks and disengage from its activity offers you the possibility of discovering who you are independent of ideas. Actively standing up for the truth of your experience breaks the habitual patterns of your familiar identity. Where expectations and standards ruled, there can be openness and allowing. Fear of retribution can give way to self-trust and curiosity. From hopelessness and defeat can arise acceptance and confidence. And confinement and tension can be transformed into spaciousness and ease.

A Journey of Truth

And truth guides the journey. In combination with the grounding and practicality of your personal will, truth acts as an objective conscience for action in the world. One of the original functions of the judge was to act as your conscience. The judge learned standards of right and wrong from parents and society. Then, by using guilt and shame, it helped you as a child to behave and act appropriately according to that moral code. Unfortunately, this process suppressed your spontaneity, aliveness, and instinctual power in order to make you socialized and acceptable. You needed the judge’s firm support and direction as you developed your own ability to perceive, evaluate, and understand.

However, the outcome of that development was not grounded in your true nature. As an adult, you have continued to rely on the judge’s internalized standards of right and wrong. Only true maturation can replace the judge with a living conscience. This capacity of the soul depends on the recognition of your essential nature and the development of your ability to be authentically yourself.

Disengaging from the judge thus serves two functions:

To free you from the confinement of old, limiting patterns and beliefs and, at the same time,

To demand that you actively practice living in a way that eliminates the need for the judge.

You cannot simply throw off a structure that has defined and supported you unless you have something more effective with which to replace it. You must learn to function, interact, and make choices freed from the standards of the judge, which means living in alignment with the truth and reality of your own life at the present time. This creates a living conscience that is not based on rules. Such a conscience allows the fullness of your living soul to express itself. This happens when you have transformed the self-centeredness of instinctual impulses, the selfdestruction of compulsive patterns, and the rigidity of internalized authority. This is not a small task. It is the work of learning to be a responsible, mature human being. You cannot plan how to do it, you cannot only read about how to do it, you cannot simply follow someone else’s instructions. You must learn how to live spontaneously by recognizing and following the guidance of what you know to be true.

A Journey of Recovery

Working with the judge is a journey of recovery. Disengaging helps free you from the harsh oppression of the judge and also accelerates your movement into experiencing the aliveness of the soul. This is the doorway to recovery of your soul nature. You have the opportunity to recover a fresh and dynamic aliveness at the heart of your life. And aliveness means the presence of passion and spontaneity, two qualities noticeably absent in the world of judgment. It also means the experience of yourself as a life source. Life flows from and through you, taking on both familiar and unfamiliar forms. The soul’s aliveness is the sense of something conscious and unpredictable, awake and mysterious.

My desire is to support you to be directly in contact with your own lived experience without the judge as intermediary. The central practice in this process is to return to your experience of yourself in this moment. As you learn to know yourself each moment with curiosity and openness, you allow the process of self-discovery to open new doors. You find your own natural resources that have gone unrecognized because of the judge’s controlling influence. When you actively disengage, you begin to recognize what is called presence as a ground of support for being who you are from moment to moment. You are offered tastes of being a soul that is alive, dynamic, and immediate, a soul that is open, changing, and responding, but also a soul that is rooted in the reality of the truth.

The various flavors of presence arise to enrich your experience: Awareness wakes you up to the ever-changing elements of each day, and personal will brings you back to your direct experience of what is true at the present time. Acceptance encourages vulnerability to the ups and downs of your inner world, and strength gives you the courage to expand your boundaries and go beyond what you think is possible. Joy and curiosity help you appreciate and celebrate the mystery of you and your world, while compassion tenderizes you as it allows contact with the fullness of your heart, including its pain, grief, and longing. Spaciousness transforms the anxiety about lack into the allowing of openness, and value offers sweetness and satisfaction to your soul as you learn to appreciate your true nature. Peace stills the inner activity that undermines the quietness and simplicity of being yourself, allowing the truth of you and your life to be more apparent.

The soul’s journey does not take you away from the physical, emotional, and social realities of your life. It is not about otherworldly experiences. Recovery of the soul enriches the life you have by bringing in the dimension of presence and its qualities, the invisible essence of what it means to be alive. Spirituality is the heart of human life, the subtle dimension of being a soul. It gives your experience fullness and immediacy so that you feel more in contact with each moment as you live each day.

How This Book Is Structured

This book addresses the human dilemma of the soul through answering two questions:

What is this soul that you have lost touch with, and what prevents you from recognizing it?

These two questions are basic to all spiritual work, and answering them can be approached in many ways. Here, we look at the barrier by working with selfjudgment and how it blocks you from knowing yourself as soul. We explore the soul itself by focusing on some of its essential aspects that have largely been disowned or forgotten.

The following pages present a step-by-step method for confronting self-judgment. You will learn to recognize the presence of the judge, notice its effect on you, discover how it functions, explore how you support its activity, uncover its motivation, and most important, find ways to free yourself from its influence. This process is necessary for you to have the freedom to discover who you are beneath the myriad beliefs you have accumulated about yourself over the years.

The information in the book is presented in an order most useful for working on your own: gradually developing the awareness and skills to support a true and effective defense against self-judgment. If you were working with the ongoing support of a teacher or group, the presentation of the material might have a different emphasis.

The first half of the book focuses on understanding judgment and how it affects you. The second half moves you into taking steps to defend against the activity of self-judgment. Twelve chapters address the judge process, each one concluding with a summary of its significant points and one or more exercises for supporting you in pursuing the work on your own.

The second focus of this book is the reconnection with your soul, the forgotten potential of who you truly are. Complementary to the work on the judge is the process of rediscovering inherent qualities of your true nature that you lost touch with as you grew up, in particular those relevant to freeing you from self-judgment.

Traditional spiritual work tends to focus on aspects of your nature considered spiritual (meaning beyond worldly life), such as universal love, self-realization, transcendent unity, ultimate emptiness, or spiritual insight. These are important for knowing the deeper dimensions of human experience. However, you have other essential qualities, often overlooked, that are more relevant for life in the world.

Working with the judge is a particularly down to earth affair and needs the support of more basic, familiar soul qualities, freed from beliefs and personal history.

In the soul chapters, you are invited to contact the clear simplicity of awareness, the energetic expansion of strength, the solid reliability of will, and the gentle warmth of compassion. These qualities and others provide a contrast to the experience of yourself supported by the inner critic and at the same time give you access to inner resources for challenging its power. Each quality presented has a particular relevance for an aspect of your work with the judge. The soul quality chapters alternate with the judge chapters, and each contains a practice to help you reconnect with that quality.

These two dimensions, dealing with the judge and contacting soul qualities, mutually support and reinforce each other.

Seeing through the judge’s attitudes and beliefs allows you to observe yourself and your experience with fresh eyes and begin to recognize your deeper soul nature. You make space to know yourself in a different way. At the same time, directly sensing an aspect of your true nature provides a vivid and definite alternative to the reactive nature of self-judgment.

In addition, a story that follows a young couple, Frank and Sue, as they live through one Saturday together threads through the book. Their day is told in short episodes on the page just before the opening of each successive chapter. Every episode touches on the material in that chapter and helps place the subject matter of the book in the context of real life. When a judgment is arising in the characters’ minds or in their own words, it is generally preceded by the symbol * to help you learn to recognize the prevalence and variation of this element of both inner and outer activity. When Frank or Sue is engaged in inner dialogue, whether a judgment or not, the words are in italics. You may find it useful to reread an episode after you finish reading the chapter it precedes.

The Beginning of a Process

This is a lifelong journey of discovering the truth in your life as you liberate your soul. Recognizing, appreciating, and disengaging from your judge is a vital way of ensuring that it becomes your journey. This book is only a beginning, but it will provide a useful foundation for opening the prison door and stepping into the heart of life.


This book speaks to more than just your mind. It is addressed to your soul. At different times, the material will resonate in your body or your heart or in your very being. The chapters are packed with information, insights, and inquiries. It is not light reading. This is a book to work through slowly, allowing it to stimulate you, unsettle you, move you. Take it in small bites so you can absorb the tastes and textures. Go away and come back. Stop and reread.

As you read, you will find yourself responding to the ideas that are relevant to where you are in your own journey. You will draw from what is presented the nourishment you need at the moment for your own development. This means that much of what you read will pass into your mind and out again without any significant impact. This is natural. However, it also means that you can come back to any part of this book in one month, six months, or a year and you will resonate with material that was not important for you the first time.

I particularly recommend that as you read, you pay attention to your body and your energy. Notice how they are affected by your reading. If you become aware of having a hard time concentrating or feeling restless, stop and take a break. Perhaps something has struck home and stirred a physical or an emotional response. When one part of you is strongly affected, it can prevent you from taking in any more. The focus of this book on connecting with your experience in the moment makes it ideal for learning to track yourself in this way.

Making space for your responses to the process of reading will create a greater impact and also allow the material to nourish and awaken more aspects of your soul.

Do not expect instantaneous change or development; be patient with yourself as you respect your soul’s need to go at its own pace. Integrating into your life the various elements of this self-discovery process can take many years. The exercises and practices in this book are designed to expose you to different dimensions of inner experience in a gradual way. The resulting effect is cumulative: each facet of the work is reinforced by all the others.



Sue was awoken by Frank returning to bed from the bathroom. It took quite a while before she finally acknowledged that she couldn’t go back to sleep. He, meanwhile, seemed to have fallen asleep right away. The clock radio was glowing 3:30 when Sue twisted her head to the left and opened her eyes. She remembered too late what she had heard on the radio from some sleep expert: you should never look at the time when you wake up in the middle of the night because that seems to make it harder to go back to sleep. This reminded her of how often recently she had been waking up in the middle of the night. Fortunately, this time it was Saturday and she didn’t have to get up early, but she was frustrated with herself and dreaded lying awake for the rest of the night.

* So what has been your problem lately anyway, Sue? You didn’t used to have difficulty sleeping. Something’s wrong here. You know you are eating too late, and you are getting into that bad habit of black tea after dinner. I think it must have something to do with either lack of exercise or being anxious about my work. I will have to get some of that melatonin at the vitamin store tomorrow . . .

As her mind continued working, Sue was getting more and more unsettled in her body. She could feel the heaviness of sleep still in her system, and her eyes were aching. A sense of low-grade agitation was developing in her limbs, as though a subtle current of energy had been turned on and she could no longer relax. She desperately longed to shut it off and drop back into sleep.

With some effort, Sue stopped her mental obsessing and focused her attention on her arms and legs and began controlled breathing to try to relax. At first, she felt more tension than relaxation from trying to concentrate. Then, as she continued, the outline of her body slowly transformed into a vivid presence charged with a slightly prickly energy. This shifted into a pulsing flow moving through her; it was both soothing and enlivening. And then for a moment, Sue experienced herself floating in the middle of a dark, spacious field with a vibrant perimeter. She was feeling herself in an immediate and unfamiliar way, when suddenly a familiar voice broke in:

* But you’re supposed to be going to sleep!

The internal voice brought her back to being Sue lying in bed not sleeping. Where had she been? Not asleep but not anyplace familiar. She found herself yawning as she puzzled over what had just happened. Sue turned over, pulled up the covers, and was soon fast asleep.

YOU ARE A SOUL. And if you allow it, your life can become a journey of unfolding for your soul. The fact is, you do not recognize yourself as soul. You do not know the source of your own aliveness. You are not aware of the potential for freedom and responsiveness that is your true nature. In order to see your inner critic in a proper perspective, in relation to the totality of who you are, you must have some sense of being a soul. What does that mean?

What Is the Soul?

Whenever people say the word I, they generally are referring to a person who was born of certain parents, has a certain history, and acts and behaves in certain familiar ways. This is often referred to as the ego or personality.

The soul, in fact, is the true “I.” It is the present-moment experience of yourself as the agent in your life, the sense of a livingness that is here now. Can you say what you are if you don’t refer to who you have been?

The soul is the you who experiences your life, the one who perceives, acts, learns, and changes. It is not the body that was born many years ago; it is not the self-image of a person who has particular skills and capacities; and it is not the mind that thinks and worries about everything that happens. The soul includes all of these, but as the experiencer, it is more fundamental and less defined than any of them. Who is it that experiences being an ego, being a body, or being a mind? Who at this very minute is reading these words? Can you define who or what that is? This I call the soul.

All aspects of your experience emerge out of your soul. Not only is the soul the experiencer, it is also what is experienced and the locus of your experience. In other words, your soul is what underlies and unifies every part of you and your experience. The deep longing to be whole, to feel integrated, to be yourself without division, is a longing to experience the soul.

The closer you are to sensing your own immediate aliveness, the closer you are to soul. The soul is the substance of living consciousness. To feel it is to recognize the miraculous and mysterious quality of what you are, a flowing presence, dynamic, alive, and ever-changing. To feel you are a soul is to know the unboundedness of life. The soul extends beyond the usual boundaries and categories of the human mind, beyond the familiar notion of a human life. It is not limited by history, concepts, or the physical body. It defies exact definition or analysis. As such, the soul is better felt, sensed, and known in the heart than it is through the structures and perceptions of the mind.

Have you ever wished for ease and spontaneity in your heart? Have you ever felt limited by the idea of having to be or act a particular way? If so, imagine what sense of yourself would allow spontaneity, ease, and freedom. Who would you be, and how would you feel? You are imagining a fundamental quality of your soul nature.

The nature of the soul is pure consciousness, experienced as a field of awareness in relation to physical reality. This field of awareness contains your mind and your body without being bounded by either.

Normally, you experience yourself as a physical body that has a mind with awareness as one of its capacities. But your soul is more like an expanse of awareness particles condensed in your location into a solid physical presence known as a body. And these awareness particles permeate every cell, sensation, and thought you have. The most external expression of your consciousness or soul is your body, which brings your awareness into intimate contact with the physical world as you know it. How different it would be to experience your whole body made out of this consciousness with your awareness consciously inhabiting and living through every cell in your body!

The Presence of the Soul

To be in touch with your actual consciousness, which is the substance of your soul, is to be aware of your existence in each moment, to be aware of presence. Presence means the sense of immediate existence or being. And presence is a primary quality of the soul. You cannot be aware of your own soul nature unless you are present to your own experience, unless you know your reality as it exists right now. Presence is your direct knowingness of being alive in the present moment. That knowingness is not an idea or a thought but an actual felt awareness. It is what gives your body its felt sense. The soul’s presence is substantial without being physical, and that substance gives the physical body a sense of living fullness.

Presence is to the soul what wetness is to water: one is an inseparable quality of the other. However, if you only look at water or only touch it with rubber gloves, you may not know that water is wet. Similarly, the presence of the soul cannot be erased or separated out, but it can go unrecognized if you are not in touch with it. Ignorance of the presence of your own soul is a deep and painful loss that stirs the longing to know yourself more intimately. This longing may be expressed as the search for meaning and truth, the desire for self-realization, or the pursuit of freedom and liberation. All are fulfilled through experiencing the living presence of the soul, the true nature of who you are.

The soul’s presence comes in many subtle but distinct flavors that underlie the richness of life. These are the basic elements of human existence, such as strength, clarity, compassion, joy, love, intelligence, value, will, acceptance, and vulnerability. These essential aspects make up your true nature, that in you which is innate or God-given and not dependent on your parents, your appearance, your behavior, or your achievements.



Soul without Shame. A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within

by Byron Brown

get it at

The Mindful path to Self-Compassion. Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions – Christopher K. Germer Ph.D.

Why is it so hard to extend the same kindness to ourselves that many of us gladly offer to others?

Maybe it’s because in our conventional way of thinking in the West we tend to view compassion as a gift, and bestowing it on ourselves seems selfish or inappropriate. But the ancient wisdom of the East tells us that loving-kindness is something everyone needs and deserves, and that includes the compassion we can give to ourselves. Without it, we blame ourselves for our problems, for our inability to solve them all, for feeling pain when painful events occur-all of which usually end in our feeling even more pain.

The idea of self-compassion may seem so alien that we would not know where to begin even if we decided it might be a good capacity to develop. Modern neuroscience and psychology are just beginning to explore what meditative traditions have accepted for ages: that compassion and loving-kindness are skills-not gifts that we’re either born with or not, and each one of us, without exception, can develop and strengthen these skills and bring them into our everyday lives.

This is where The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion steps to the fore. In this book Dr. Christopher Germer lays out the architecture of this skill development: the vision of freedom compassion can offer, the essential role of self-compassion, the path to realizing it rather than just thinking about it, and the practical tools, such as mindfulness, we need to effect that transformation.

Buddhist psychological analysis regards qualities like loving-kindness as the direct antidote to fear. Whether hampered by the inhibiting fear of feeling we are not enough and could never be enough, or the raging fear that courses through us when we see no options whatsoever, or the pervasive fear we sometimes feel when we must take a next step and cannot sense how or where, in the midst of fear we suffer.

Loving-kindness and compassion, in contrast to fear, reaffirm the healing power of connection, the expansiveness of a sense of possibility, the efficacy of kindness as a catalyst for learning. Whether extended to ourselves or others, the intertwined forces of loving-kindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle, and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference, in our own lives and those of others. The true development of self-compassion is the basis for fearlessness, generosity, inclusion, and a sustained loving-kindness and compassion for others.

Whether you have already begun to seek relief from suffering through meditative traditions like mindfulness or you are simply open to anything that might free you from chronic emotional pain and mental rumination, this book will serve as an inspiring road-map.

In the following pages you will find a scientific review, an educational manual, and a practical step-by-step guide to developing greater loving-kindness and self-compassion every day.


Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts.



Life is tough. Despite our best intentions, things go wrong, sometimes very wrong. Ninety percent of us get married, full of hope and optimism, yet 40% of marriages and in divorce. We struggle to meet the demands of daily life, only to find ourselves needing care for stress-related problems like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, or a weakened immune system.

How do we typically react when things fall apart? More often than not, we feel ashamed and become self-critical: “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I cope?” “Why me?” Perhaps we go on a mission to fix ourselves, adding insult to injury. Sometimes we go after others. Rather than giving ourselves a break, we seem to find the path of greatest resistance.

Yet no matter how hard we try to avoid emotional pain, it follows us everywhere. Difficult emotions-shame, anger, loneliness, fear, despair, confusion, arrive like clockwork at our door. They come when things don’t go according to our expectations, when we’re separated from loved ones, and as a part of ordinary sickness, old age, and death. It’s just not possible to avoid feeling bad.

But we can learn to deal with misery and distress in a new, healthier way. Instead of greeting difficult emotions by fighting hard against them, we can bear witness to our own pain and respond with kindness and understanding. That’s self-compassion, taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.

If you’re used to beating yourself up during periods of sadness or loneliness, if you hide from the world when you make a mistake, or if you obsess over how you could have prevented the mistake to begin with, self-compassion may seem like a radical idea. But why should you deny yourself the same tenderness and warmth you extend to others who are suffering?

When we fight emotional pain, we get trapped in it. Difficult emotions become destructive and break down the mind, body, and spirit. Feelings get stuck, frozen in time, and we get stuck in them. The happiness we long for in relationships seems to elude us. Satisfaction at work lies just beyond our reach. We drag ourselves through the day, arguing with our physical aches and pains. Usually we’re not aware just how many of these trials have their root in how we relate to the inevitable discomfort of life.

Change comes naturally when we open ourselves to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.

Imagine that your partner just criticized you for yelling at your daughter. This hurts your feelings and leads to an argument. Perhaps you felt misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, or unlovable? Maybe you didn’t use the right words to describe how you felt, but more likely your partner was being too angry or defensive to hear what you had to say. Now imagine that you took a deep breath and said the following to yourself before the argument: “More than anything, I want to be a good parent. It’s so painful to me when l yell at my child. I love my daughter more than anything in the world, but sometimes I just lose it. I’m only human, I guess. May I learn to forgive myself for my mistakes, and may we find a way to live together in peace.” Can you feel the difference?

A moment of self-compassion like this can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life. Freeing yourself from the trap of destructive thoughts and emotions through self-compassion can boost your self-esteem from the inside out, reduce depression and anxiety, and even help you stick to your diet. And the benefits aren’t just personal. Self-compassion is the foundation of compassion for others.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we won’t be able to empathize with others if we can’t tolerate the same feelings, despair, fear, failure, shame-occurring within ourselves? And how can we pay the slightest attention to others when we’re absorbed in our own internal struggles? When our problems become workable again, we can extend kindness to others, which can only help improve relationships and enhance our overall contentment and satisfaction with life.

Self-compassion is really the most natural thing in the world. Think about it for a minute. If you cut your finger, you’ll want to clean it, bandage it, and help it heal. That’s innate self-compassion. But where does self-compassion go when our emotional well-being is at stake?

What’s effective for survival against a saber-tooth tiger doesn’t seem to work in emotional life.

We instinctively go to battle against unpleasant emotions as if they were external foes, and fighting them inside only makes matters worse. Resist anxiety and it can turn into full-blown panic. Suppress grief and chronic depression may develop. Struggling to fall asleep can keep you awake all night long.

When we’re caught up in our pain, we also go to war against ourselves. The body protects itself against danger through fight, flight, or freeze (staying frozen in place), but when we’re challenged emotionally, these reactions become an unholy trinity of selfcriticism, self-isolation, and self-absorption. A healing alternative is to cultivate a new relationship with ourselves described by research psychologist Kristin Neff as self-kindness, a sense of connection with the rest of humanity, and balanced awareness. That’s self-compassion.

In this book you’ll discover how to bring self-compassion to your emotional life when you need it most-when you’re dying of shame, when you grind your teeth in rage or fear, or when you’re too fragile to face yet another family gathering. Self-compassion is giving yourself the love you need by boosting your innate wish to be happy and free from suffering.

Dealing with emotional pain without making it worse is the essence of Buddhist psychology. The ideas in this book draw from that tradition, particularly those concepts and practices that have been validated by modern science. What you’ll read is essentially old wine in new bottles, ancient insights in modern psychological idiom. You don’t have to believe in anything to make the practices work for you, you can be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a scientist, or a skeptic. The best approach is to be open-minded, experimental, and flexible.

Clinical scientists discovered meditation in the 1970s, and it’s now one of the the most thoroughly researched of all psychotherapy methods . Over the past 15 years, research has focused primarily on mindfulness, or “ awareness of present experience, with acceptance.” Mindfulness is considered an underlying factor in effective psychotherapy and emotional healing in general. When therapy goes well, patients (or clients) develop an accepting attitude toward whatever they’re experiencing in the therapy room, fear, anger, sadness, joy, relief, boredom, love, and this benevolent attitude gets transferred to daily life. A special bonus of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at home in the form of meditation.

Mindfulness tends to focus on the experience of a person, usually a sensation, thought, or feeling. But what do we do when the experiencer is overcome with emotion, perhaps with shame or self-doubt? When that happens, we don’t just feel bad, we feel we are bad. We can become so rattled that it’s hard to pay attention to anything at all. What do we do when we’re alone in the middle of the night, twisting the sheets around us in bed, sleep medication isn’t working, and therapy is a week away? Mostly we need a good friend with a compassionate heart. If one isn’t immediately available, we can still give kindness to ourselves, self-compassion.

I encountered self-compassion from two directions, one professional and one personal. I’ve practiced psychotherapy for 30 years with patients ranging from the worried well to those overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, or trauma. I also worked in a public hospital with people suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the power of compassion, how it opens the heart like a flower, revealing and healing hidden sorrow.

After therapy, however, some patients feel like they’re walking into a void with the voice of the therapist trailing far behind. I wondered, “What can people do between sessions to feel less vulnerable and alone?” Sometimes I asked myself, “Is there any way to make the therapy experience rub off more quickly-to make it portable?” Selfcompassion seems to hold that promise for many people.

Personally, I was raised by a devout Christian mother and a father who spent 9 years in India during early adulthood, mostly interned by the British during World War II because he was a German citizen. There my father met a mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer, who later escaped the internment camp and traveled across the Himalayan mountains to Tibet to became the 14th Dalai Lama’s English tutor. As a child, my mother read me magical tales of India, so it seemed natural to go there myself after I graduated from college. From 1976 to 1977, I traveled the length and breadth of India, visiting saints, sages, and shamans, and I learned Buddhist meditation in a cave in Sri Lanka. Thus began a lifelong interest in meditation and over a dozen return trips to India.

I currently practice meditation in the insight meditation tradition found in the American centers established by Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield. Those rich and nuanced teachings inform this entire book, and any unwarranted deviation from them is my responsibility alone. I also owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to my colleagues at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, with whom I’ve been in monthly conversation for almost 25 years, and to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and compassion into modern health care. My other teachers are my patients, who have generously offered their life stories to give substance to the concepts and practices that follow. They made this a labor of love. Their names and other details have been changed to ensure confidentiality, and some clinical vignettes are composites of a few individuals.

This book is divided into three parts, and the chapters build on one another.

Part I, Discovering Self-Compassion, shows you how to develop mindfulness and describes precisely what we mean and don’t mean by self-compassion.

Part II, Practicing Loving Kindness, gives in-depth instruction in one particular self-compassion practice-loving-kindness meditation, to serve as a foundation for a compassionate way of life.

Part III, Customizing Self-Compassion, offers tips for adjusting the practice to your particular personality and circumstances and shows you how to achieve maximum benefit from the practice.

Finally, in the appendices, you’ll find additional self-compassion exercises and resources for further reading and more intensive practice.

This book will not be a lot of work. The hard work is actually behind you-fighting and resisting difficult feelings, blaming yourself for them and their causes. You’ll actually learn to work less. It’s an “un-selfhelp book.” Instead of beginning with the notion that something about you is broken and needs to be fixed, I hope to show you how to respond to emotional pain in a new, more compassionate, and loving way. I recommend you try the exercises for 30 days and see how it goes. You might notice yourself feeling lighter and happier, but that will simply be a by-product of accepting yourself just as you are.


Part I

Discovering Self-compassion

Being kind to yourself

The suffering itself is not so bad; it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain. ALLEN GINSBERG, poet

I’m afraid of what you’re about to tell “me, ’cause it probably won’t work!” Michelle blurted out, fully expecting to be disappointed by what I had to say. Michelle had just finished telling me about her years of struggle with shyness, and I was taking a deep breath.

Michelle struck me as an exceptionally bright and conscientious person. She had read many books on overcoming shyness and tried therapy four times. She didn’t want to be let down again. She’d recently received an MBA from a prestigious university and gotten a job as a consultant to large firms in the area. The main problem for Michelle was blushing. She believed it signaled to others that she wasn’t competent and that they shouldn’t trust what she had to say. The more she worried about blushing, the more she actually blushed in front of others. Her new job was an important career opportunity, and Michelle didn’t want to blow it.

I assured Michelle that she was right: whatever I suggested wouldn’t work. That’s not because she was a lost cause, far from it, but rather because all well-intentioned strategies are destined to fail. It’s not the fault of the techniques, nor is it the fault of the person who wants to feel better. The problem lies in our motivation and in a misunderstanding of how the mind works.

As Michelle knew only too well from her years of struggle, a lot of what we do to not feel bad is likely to make us feel worse. It’s like that thought experiment: “Try not to think about pink elephants the kind that are very large and very pink.” Once an idea is planted in our minds, it’s strengthened every time we try not to think about it. Sigmund Freud summed up the problem by saying there’s “no negation” in the unconscious mind . Similarly, whatever we throw at our distress to make it go away relaxation techniques, blocking our thoughts, positive affirmations, will ultimately disappoint, and we’ll have no choice but to set off to find another option to feel better.

While we were discussing these matters, Michelle began to weep gently. I wasn’t sure whether she was feeling more disheartened or in some way the truth of her experience was being articulated. She told me that even her prayers were going unanswered. We talked about two types of prayers: the kind where we want God to make bad things go away and the kind where we surrender “Let go and let God.” Michelle said it had never occurred to her to surrender her troubles to God. That wasn’t her style.

Gradually we came around to what could be done for Michelle that might actually decrease her anxiety and blushing, not deep breathing, not pinching herself, not drinking cold water, not pretending to be unflappable. Since Michelle wasn’t the kind of person to relax her efforts, she needed to find something entirely different. Michelle recognized that her anxiety decreased the more she accepted it, and it increased the less she accepted it. Hence, it made sense to Michelle to dedicate herself to a life of accepting anxiety and the fact that she was simply an anxious person. Our therapy was to be measured not by how often she blushed, but by how accepting she was of her blushing. That was a radical new idea for Michelle. She left our first session elated, if a bit perplexed.

She sent me an e-mail during the following week, happily announcing that “it worked.” Since we hadn’t discussed any new practices, I wasn’t sure what Michelle meant. Later I learned that she had begun saying to herself “just scared, just scared” whenever she noticed she was anxious. Labeling her fear seemed to take Michelle’s mind off how flushed her face felt, and she was able to chat briefly with colleagues in the lunchroom without incident, for example. She was relieved to feel more like “a scared person getting lunch” than like a “weak, overly sensitive, ridiculous person who didn’t know what she was talking about.” I marveled at how Michelle had taken the concept of “acceptance” and invented a useful technique in such a short time.

At our next meeting, however, Michelle was discouraged again. Her forays into the lunchroom once again became a battle against the blush. Her original wish to “stop looking anxious” reasserted itself. Acceptance had begun to “work” for Michelle, but she’d let go of her newfound commitment to cultivate acceptance. She mistakenly believed she’d found a clever bypass to her problem.

Unfortunately, we can’t trick ourselves. There was a part of Michelle that was saying, “I’m practicing acceptance in order to reduce anxiety.” But that’s not acceptance. Within modern psychology, acceptance means to embrace whatever arises within us, moment to moment, just as it is. Sometimes it’s a feeling we like; sometimes it’s a bad feeling. We naturally want to continue the good feelings and stop the bad ones, but setting out with that goal doesn’t work. The only answer to our problems is to first have our problems, fully and completely, whatever they may be. Michelle was hoping to skip that part.

This story has a happy ending, which was reached slowly over the course of 2 years. Michelle discovered how to live in accord with her sensitive nervous system. Relapses reliably occurred when Michelle tried not to blush, but she hardly blushed at all when she was ready to let blushing take its course. As Michelle made her peace with blushing, she found she could apply the same principles to other stress symptoms that inevitably arose during her day, tension in her chest, headaches, heart palpitations and her life became much easier.

This is a book about how we can benefit by turning toward our emotional pain. That’s a tall order. Any thinking person is likely to ask, “Why would I want to do that?” In this chapter, you’ll see why it’s often the best thing to do. The rest of the book will show you how to accomplish this improbable task. First you’ll learn how to bring mindful awareness to what’s bothering you. Then you’ll discover how to bring kindness to yourself, especially when you’re feeling really bad. That combination, mindfulness and self-compassion can transform even the worst times of our lives.


From the moment of our birth, we’re on a quest for happiness. It may take no more than mother’s milk to satisfy us in the first days of our lives, but our needs and desires multiply as we age. By adulthood, most of us don’t expect to be happy unless we have a nice family, a good job, excellent health, lots of money, and the love and admiration of others.

But pain still strikes even under the best of circumstances. Billionaire Howard Hughes found himself desperate and alone at the moment of his death. And our circumstances inevitably change; one person’s marriage may fall apart, another may have a child with a developmental disability, and yet another may lose everything in a flood. People differ from one another in the amount of suffering they endure over a lifetime, or in the type of suffering, but none of us gets off without any. Pain and suffering are common threads that unite all of humanity.

Pain creates a conflict between the way things are and how we’d like them to be and that makes our lives feel unsatisfactory. The more we wish our lives were different, the worse we feel. For example, if a car accident lands someone in a wheelchair for life, the first year is usually the toughest. As we learn to adapt, we typically return to our former level of happiness. We can measure our happiness by the gap between what we want and how things are.

The Hedonic Treadmill

In 1971, Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell proposed that we’re on a pleasure-seeking treadmill, vainly trying to achieve happiness by seeking what’s just around the corner, a better relationship, an easier job, a nicer car. The problem is that our nervous systems quickly adapt to anything familiar. Once you get a nice new car, how long do you enjoy it before thinking about renovating your home? Studies show that most lottery winners are ultimately no happier than nonwinners, and paraplegics usually become as content as people who can walk. For better or worse, we adapt to both good and bad life events. This general adaptation theory has held up empirically for decades, with some recent modifications that you will read about in Qhapter 5.

When we’re on the hedonic treadmill for too long, though, it can lead to exhaustion and disease. In his immensely entertaining and informative book on the causes and consequences of stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky describes how animals are perfectly adapted to respond to physical crises. Consider a zebra running from a lion that wants to rip out its stomach; when the danger passes, the zebra goes back to grazing peacefully. But what do humans do? We anticipate danger lurking around the corner. Sapolsky asks, “ How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date?” Our bodies react to psychological threats the same way they react to physical threats, and a sense of constant danger raises our overall stress level and the risk of heart disease, immune dysfunction, depression, colitis, chronic pain, memory impairment, sexual problems, and much more.

The exact mechanism by which psychological stress leads to disease is unclear, but preliminary evidence shows that it may be related to your telomems DNA protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes. Cells age-they stop dividing-when they lose their telo-meric DNA. Life stress has been shown to shorten the telomeres in the immune system, and fewer immune cells can lead to disease and shorten your lifespan.

Most of us believe that our happiness depends on the external circumstances of our lives. Therefore, we spend our lives on a treadmill, continually arranging to have pleasure and avoid pain. When we experience pleasure, we grasp for more of it. When we experience pain, we avoid it. Both of these reactions are instinctive, but they’re not successful strategies for emotional wellbeing.

The problem with pleasure seeking is that the pleasure will end at some point and we’ll become disappointed: we fall out of love, our bellies become full, our friends go home.

The problem with avoiding pain is that it’s just not possible to do, and it often gets worse with our increased efforts to try. For example, eating to reduce stress can cause obesity, and working excessively to overcome low self-esteem can land you in the grave.



The Mindful path to Self-Compassion. Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions

by Christopher K. Germer Ph.D.

get it at

CFT: Focusing on Compassion In Next Generation CBT Dennis Tirch Ph.D * Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies – Mary Welford * Compassion Focused Therapy – Paul Gilbert.

Compassion Focused Therapy offers therapists new options.

Dennis Tirch Ph.D

Compassion is currently being studied and used as an evidence based ingredient in effective psychotherapy more than ever before. This might not seem surprising, given that practicing compassion has been at the center of emotional healing in global wisdom traditions for at least 2,600 years. Empathy and emotional validation have been identified as some of the most important components of psychotherapy effectiveness for decades. However, compassion, as a process in itself, has only recently come to be seen as a core focus of psychotherapeutic work. A growing body of research continues to demonstrate how cultivating our compassionate minds can help us to alleviate and prevent a range of psychological problems, including anxiety and shame (Tirch and Gilbert, 2014). Rather than being a soft option, the deliberate activation of our compassion system can generate the courage and psychological flexibility we need to face life’s challenges, and step forward into lives of meaning, purpose and vitality.

Paul Gilbert (2009) has drawn upon developmental psychology, affective neuroscience, Buddhist practical philosophy, and evolutionary theory to develop a comprehensive form of experiential behavior therapy known as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). Gilbert describes compassion as a multifaceted process that has evolved from the caregiver mentality found in human parental care and child rearing. As such, compassion includes a number of emotional, cognitive, and motivational elements involved in the ability to create opportunities for growth and change with warmth and care. CFT involves training and enhancing this evolved capacity for compassion.

Gilbert defines the essence of compassion as “a basic kindness, with deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it” (2009, p. xiii). This definition involves two central dimensions of compassion. The first is known as the psychology of engagement and involves sensitivity to and awareness of the presence of suffering and its causes. The second dimension is known as the psychology of alleviation and constitutes both the motivation and the commitment to take actual steps to alleviate the suffering we encounter (Gilbert and Choden, 2013).

Over the last few years, the research base for compassion psychology generally and CFT specifically has been growing at a remarkable rate, with a rapid increase in the number of research and clinical publications addressing compassion. For example, the last ten years have seen a major upsurge in exploration into the benefits of cultivating compassion, especially through imagery practice (Fehr, Sprecher, and Underwood, 2008). Neuroscience and imaging research has demonstrated that practices of imagining compassion for others produce changes in the frontal cortex, the immune system, and overall well-being (Lutz et al., 2008). Notably, one study (Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross, 2008) found that even just a brief loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connectedness and affiliation toward strangers.

Several compassion-focused intervention components have been found to enhance psychotherapy outcomes, and to serve as mediator variables in outcomes. For example, one study (Schanche, Stiles, McCullough, Svartberg, and Nielsen, 2011) found that self-compassion was an important mediator of reduction in negative emotions associated with personality disorders. In a study of the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (Kuyken et al., 2010), researchers found that self-compassion was a significant mediator between mindfulness and recovery. In fact, in a meta-analysis of research concerning both clinical and nonclinical settings, compassion-focused interventions were found to be significantly effective (Hofmann et al., 2011).

CFT is also seeing increasing empirical supported through outcome research. An early clinical trial involving a group of people with chronic mental health problems who were attending a day hospital (Gilbert and Procter, 2006) found that CFT significantly reduced self-criticism, shame, sense of inferiority, depression, and anxiety. In other outcome research, CFT has been found to be significantly effective for the treatment of personality disorders (Lucre and Corten, 2012), eating disorders (Gale, Gilbert, Read, and Goss, 2012), psychosis (Braehler, Harper, and Gilbert, 2012) and in people presenting to community mental health teams (Judge, Cleghorn, McEwan, and Gilbert, 2012). As CFT continues to become more widely disseminated and growing numbers of clinicians and researchers acquire understanding and skill in its methods and philosophy, increasing outcome research will further test the model, leading to innovation and improvement.

The following brief tips can help psychotherapists begin to appreciate how useful a compassion focus can be in practicing ACT, CBT or, in fact, any form of psychotherapy. Furthermore, we can see how remembering to practice compassion for ourselves might help to restore the energy and attention we bring to our work, of sharing compassion with our clients. Feel free to experiement with the following:

1. “It is not your fault…”

From a perspective of compassion, we remember how much of the pain and suffering in life is not of our choosing, and couldn’t really be our fault. In CFT we practice the “wisdom of no-blame” which means that taking responsibility for the direction you choose in life is essential, while languishing in shame, social fears and self-blame seldom leads to effective action. We know we didn’t choose our place in the genetic lottery. We didn’t choose to have a tricky human brain that is set up with a hair-trigger threat detection system and confusing loops of thoughts and actions. We didn’t choose our parents, our childhood or the myriad of social circumstances of life. By realizing that much of what we suffer with is simply not our fault, we can begin to activate compassion for ourselves and others, as we contact and engage with the tragedies of life.

2. Holding ourselves and others in warmth and kindness

When humans are in the presence of warmth, acceptance and affiliative emotions, we are likely to be at our most flexible, empathic, responsive and healthiest mode of operation. From the day we are born and throughout our lives the presence of kindess, support and emotional strength will have powerful impacts on every aspect of our health and behavior. In CFT, we use methods drawn from ancient visualization practices, and also modern techniques drawn from method acting to create the conditions and context that can allow for the experience of compassion. So, when we practice compassion for ourselves and others, we remember to slow down, to have a warm and caring expression on our face, and to use open and centered body language. Adopting a slow pace of our breathing and a warm tone of voice, we do all that we can to invite an experience of compassion. Images that evoke compassion are also used to bring us into contact with our compassionate mind. Can you imagine the most elegant cognitive reframe shouted at you with a cruel voice, such as a depressed client telling themselves, “The evidence doesn’t add up that you are a loser, so stop being so stupid about everything and suck it up and deal with life!” Perhaps even worse, can you imagine the condeming inner monologue of a mindfulness practitioner saying something like, “You’re not supposed to be judgemental about judging your thoughts! My God, you are terrible at this!” No matter how clever the content of our minds may seem to be, an emotional tone of acceptance, kindess and compasion is an essential ingredient to our experience of well-being.

3. Practicing compassion as a flow

We all can feel distressed in our work as psychotherapists, when we repeatedly encounter the suffering of others, which activates sympathetic emotional pain that we experience within our own minds, hearts and brains. Practicing deliberate, consistent compassion for ourselves and for others can help us to prevent empathic distress fatigue, and can build our inner architecture of compassionate strength. When you find yourself feeling that your reservoir of empathy, wisdom and warmth is slightly drained, deliberately breathe in compassionate intentions for yourself. As you exhale, direct compassionate intentions towards your client. This can be done silently, secretly, and consistently. As we breathe in, we wish for our suffering to cease and for ourselves to find peace and happiness. As we breathe out, we wish for our clients suffering to cease also, and we wish them happiness, wellness and an end to needless struggles. When this simple gesture becomes a therapist’s habit, they can quickly activate affiliative emotions to help them work towards their own compassionate mission of alleviating and preventing the suffering that they find in themselves and in others.


Dennis Tirch, Ph.D., is a compassion-focused psychologist, the author of The Compassionate Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, and a faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., is currently a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, and director of the Mental Health Research Unit at Derbyshire Mental Health Trust.


Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies
Mary Welford.


You can work through a never-ending list of things you could do to improve your wellbeing. Getting more sleep, taking regular exercise, eating a healthier diet, developing a positive mental attitude and drinking less alcohol are just some of the things you may benefit from. Advice comes from the TV, newspapers, self-help books, friends, relatives, colleagues, healthcare professionals and even the chats we have with ourselves! But it’s hard to motivate ourselves to make helpful changes. It’s even harder to maintain them.

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is here to help. This approach offers life-changing insights into our amazing capacities and also the challenges we face in our everyday lives. By understanding ourselves, we become motivated to act out of true care for our wellbeing. This changes the relationship we have with ourselves and others. Practicing CFT won’t mean you suddenly turn into a ‘perfect’version of yourself. It does however mean that you become more aware of the choices you have and you’re motivated to make ones that are more helpful to you. And yes, you find plenty of advice in here to guide you on your way too!

About This Book

Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies contains a wealth of important information that can help you to understand yourself, and others, better. It also introduces you to practices that you can integrate into your everyday life, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day…. I’ve used as little jargon and off-putting technical terms as possible, and so you don’t need to approach this book with a background knowledge of psychology. Simply put, if you’re in possession of a human brain and you’d like to discover more about CFT, this book is written for you.

That said, two factors may motivate you to continue developing your understanding of CFT once you finish this book: CFT is rooted in a scientific understanding of what it is to be human. As such, the approach constantly evolves to reflect the science. In the same way as it’s helpful to keep up with advancing technology, it’s also good to keep up with advancing our understanding of ourselves. We humans are highly complex.

This book simply doesn’t have the room to do CFT complete justice –not if you want to be able to lift it up! When you finish reading, you may want to move on to explore the comprehensive work of Paul Gilbert (the originator of the CFT approach), his colleagues and collaborators.

Foolish Assumptions In writing this book

I’ve had to make a few assumptions about you. I’ve assumed that: You’re interested in improving your wellbeing. You appreciate that CFT is based on an incredible amount of research –but you don’t necessarily want to plough through it all! You realise that I’ve had to make some tough decisions about what to include and what to leave out. Hopefully most of the choices I’ve made are right (but thankfully I won’t criticise myself if I’ve made a mistake; I hope you don’t either!). You recognise that I’m not trying to pass CFT off as my own creation. Instead, I set out to describe the work of Paul Gilbert and colleagues (of whom I am privileged to be one).

You may be selective about which parts of the book you read. As such, I’ve written this book in a way that allows each chapter to ‘stand alone’ so that you can pick and choose the content you want to read, and when you want to read it. You’re prepared to give new things a go! If you’re a therapist or studying CFT, I also assume that you recognise the importance of learning the approach ‘from the inside out’, and as such that you’ll work through the book with this in mind.

Beyond the Book

In addition to the material in this book, I also provide a free access-anywhere Cheat Sheet that offers some helpful reminders about the many benefits of CFT. To get this Cheat Sheet, simply go to and search for ‘Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies Cheat Sheet’ in the Search box.

Where to Go from Here

If you’re new to CFT, you may find it helpful to start with Chapter 1 before you decide how to tackle the rest of the chapters (you may even decide that you want to read the book from start to finish –but you don’t have to take that approach, as you find plenty of helpful cross-references to other useful chapters as you work through each chapter).

However you decide to begin, do this at a pace to suit both your understanding and emotional experience. If you have some experience of CFT, you may choose to skip to a particular topic due to a need or question you may have. If this is the case, use the table of contents and the index to help you find your way to the required information. Regardless of how you find your way around this book, I hope you appreciate the journey.

Finally, CFT aims to assist you to develop a compassionate understanding and relationship with yourself and others. If you find the approach helpful, it’s likely to become a way of life. To support your journey, you can access a number of courses to assist you. These course can also connect you with a wider group of people. You can find suitable courses advertised on a range of websites, including, and

Part 1

Getting Started with Compassion Focused Therapy

IN THIS PART Discover what CFT is all about and how it can be helpful. Explore what compassion is, including the skills and attributes of compassion. Find out about the challenges we face and how our minds are organised.

Chapter 1
Introducing Compassion Focused Therapy

– Understanding how Compassion Focused Therapy works
– Discovering the benefits of compassion
– Exploring the effects of shame and self-criticism
– Beginning your journey
– Reaching out to others with compassion

People are more similar than different. We’re all born into a set of circumstances that we don’t choose, and in possession of a phenomenal yet very tricky brain. We’re all trying to get by, doing the best we can. The sooner we wake up to this reality the better.

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is here to help. This approach aims to liberate you from shame and self-criticism, replacing these feelings with more helpful ways of relating to yourself. It helps you to choose the type of person you want to be and to develop ways to make this choice a reality. In this chapter, I introduce you to CFT, offering you an understanding of how it works and helping you to understand the benefits. I also point out the steps you may take along the way as you work with the information in this book. Finally, I take a moment to help you connect to the wider community around you as you begin this journey.

CFT advocates that you don’t rush to ‘learn’ about the approach but instead allow space to experience and ‘feel’ it. So take your time with this book as you apply it to your life, and really discover the benefits.

Getting to Grips with Compassion Focused Therapy

CFT was founded by UK clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, OBE.

The name of the approach was chosen to represent three important aspects:

Compassion, in its simplest yet potentially most powerful definition, involves a sensitivity to our own, and other people’s, distress, plus a motivation to prevent or alleviate this distress. As such, it has two vital components. One involves engaging with suffering while the other involves doing something about it. Chapter 2 delves into the ins and outs of compassion in more detail.

Focused means that we actively develop and apply compassion to ourselves. It also involves accepting and experiencing compassion from and for others.

Therapy is a term to describe the processes and techniques used to address an issue or difficulty.

CFT looks to social, developmental and evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to help us understand how our minds develop and work, and the problems we encounter. This scientific understanding (of ourselves and others) calls into question our experiences of shame and self-criticism and helps us to develop the motivation to make helpful changes in our lives.

CFT utilises a range of Eastern and Western methods to enhance our wellbeing. Attention training, mindfulness and imagery combine with techniques used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and Person Centred, Gestalt and Narrative therapies (to name but a few), resulting in a powerful mix of strategies that can help you become the version of yourself you wish to be.

CFT is often referred to as part of a ‘third-wave’ of cognitive behavioural therapy because it incorporates a number of CBT techniques. However, CFT derives from an evolutionary model (which you find out more about in Chapters 3, 4 and 5) and it uses techniques from many other therapies that have been found to be of benefit. As such, CFT builds upon and integrates with other therapies. As therapies become more rooted in science, we may see increasing overlap rather than diversification.

Compassion can involve kindness and warmth, but it also takes strength and courage to engage with suffering and to do something about it. CFT is by no means the easy or ‘fluffy’ option. Head to Chapter 6 to address some of the myths associated with compassion.

You may be reading this book because you want to find out more about this form of therapy. Alternatively, you may want to develop your compassionate mind and compassionate self out of care for your own wellbeing. The why or your motivation for reading this book has a big effect on the experience and, potentially, the outcome. Personally, I hope that whatever your motivation, you consider applying the approach to yourself in order that you can learn it ‘from the inside out’.

Defining common terms

You may find that some of the terms used in CFT are new to you. Here are a few common terms that I use throughout this book, along with an explanation of what they mean:

Common humanity: This refers to the fact that, as human beings, we all face difficulties and struggles. We’re more alike than different, and this realisation brings with it a sense of belonging to the human family.

Tricky brain: Our highly complex brains can cause us problems. For example, our capacity to think about the future and the past makes us prone to worry and rumination, while our inbuilt tendency to work out our place in a hierarchy can have a huge impact on our mood and self-esteem. In CFT, we use the term tricky brain to recognise our brain’s complexity and the problems this complexity can lead to. We consider our tricky brain in more detail in Chapter 3.

Compassionate mind: This is simply an aspect of our mind. It comes with a set of attributes and skills that are useful for us to cultivate (I introduce these attributes and skills in Chapter 2). This frame of mind is highly important for our wellbeing, relationships and communities. But just as we have a compassionate mind, we also have a competitive and threat-focused mind –which is highly useful, if not a necessity, at certain times (Chapter 4 takes a look at our threat-focused mind).

Compassionate mind training: This describes specific activities designed to develop compassionate attributes and skills, particularly those that influence and help us to regulate emotions. Attention training and mindfulness are used as a means to prepare us for this work, and we look at these practices in Part 3.

Compassionate self: This is the embodiment of your compassionate mind. It’s a whole mind and body experience. Your compassionate self incorporates your compassionate mind but also moves and interacts with the world.

Compassionate self cultivation: Your compassionate self is an identity that you can embody, cultivate and enhance. Compassionate self cultivation describes the range of activities that help you develop your compassionate self. Head to Chapter 10 for more on the cultivation of your compassionate self.

Engagement in the compassionate mind training and compassionate self cultivation activities provided in this book is often referred to as ‘physiotherapy for the brain’, as their use has been found to literally change the brain! Compassionate mind training and compassionate self cultivation are integral to CFT, but there’s so much more to CFT.

For many, getting to a point at which you can see the relevance and benefits of compassionate mind training and compassionate self cultivation, and overcome blocks and barriers to compassion, is the most significant aspect of your compassionate journey.

Exercises: These are activities for you to try. Sometimes they help to illustrate a point or provide a useful insight. Other exercises can give you an idea of what helps you to develop and maintain your compassionate mind.

Practice: Once you’re aware of which exercises are helpful to you, you can then incorporate these into your everyday life. Regular use of these exercises becomes your practice.

Observing the origins of CFT

CFT is closely tied to advances in our understanding of the mind and, because scientific advances never stop, the therapy continues to adapt and change based upon it. Much of this book focuses on sharing the science to help develop a compassionate understanding of yourself and a sense of connection with fellow travellers on this mortal coil.

CFT is also born out of a number of clinical observations:

– People demonstrating high levels of shame and self-criticism often struggle with standard psychological therapies. For example, using CBT, many find that they’re not reassured by the generation or discovery of alternative beliefs and views and that this doesn’t result in changes to the way they feel. Individuals may say ‘Logically, I know I’m not bad/not to blame, but I still feel it’ and ‘I know it’s unlikely that things will go wrong, but I still feel terrible’.

– What we say to ourselves is important, but how we say it is even more important.

Ever called yourself ‘idiot’ in a light-hearted and jovial manner? You probably did so without feeling any negative effects. But, have you ever called yourself an idiot in a harsh and judgemental manner? You probably felt much worse on that occasion, perhaps resulting in an urge to withdraw or isolate yourself.

Consider phrases such as, ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘count your blessings’.

Sometimes these phrases can be said in a life-affirming way, but using a condescending, frustrated or angry tone represents a whole different ball game. This helps illustrate that your emotional tone is important. Therapy can result in improvement in mood, self-esteem, sense of control and achievement, alongside a reduction in difficulties.

However, life events can trigger relapse. How we relate to ourselves, especially when life doesn’t go the way we hope, is pivotal to our ongoing wellbeing. Post therapy, many people report that they never disclosed to their therapist the things that caused them the most distress. This resulted from their sense of shame and the way they believed others (the therapist) would feel about them.

In addition to this, consider how many people simply don’t seek help at all because they fear what others think. People struggle to feel loved, valued, safe or content if they’ve never experienced these feelings. For some people, these feelings are alien concepts and, most of all, alien experiences, difficult to generate by discussion alone. As such, it’s important to develop the emotional resources and skills to deal with difficult emotions without turning to alcohol, food, drugs, work, excessive exercise or particular fixations.

– Most of us struggle with emotions such as anger, anxiety and vulnerability, but many also find positive emotions extremely difficult, even frightening. For some people, care, kindness, love and intimacy are terrifying, and to be avoided.

– People experiencing depression often worry that something bad will happen when their mood lifts.

– Likewise, feelings of connection and trust often stir up feelings of isolation and rejection, and a fear of loss.

These difficulties can interfere with the goals we set ourselves unless we address them.

CFT is an accumulation of years of research, clinical insights and teachings drawn from a broad range of areas. Much of this research and study is summarised and published in scientific papers, textbooks and self-help books by Paul Gilbert and colleagues. A number of websites also provide additional resources. You can find details of these in the Appendix. This book provides you with a starting point for your CFT journey and offers a framework upon which you can hang your future CFT practice –use these resources to develop your practice further.


It has long been established that compassionate, respectful and supportive relationships are key to our wellbeing and integral to effective psychotherapies. A key goal of many therapies is the development of a better relationship with yourself. However, different therapies place emphasis on different methods to account for and produce change, for example: CBT focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviours and helps you generate new thoughts and behaviours in order to change your feelings. Interpersonal therapy focuses on your relationships and how they affect you. Psychodynamic therapy aims to bring the unconscious mind into consciousness, helping you to experience and understand your true feelings in order to resolve them.

In contrast, CFT begins with your experience of compassion from your therapist (in person or through books like this one). This relationship with your therapist is pivotal. It then focuses on the personal development and cultivation of compassion to help you to make beneficial choices for yourself and for others.

With this in mind, this book contains quite a bit of me –as an author, as a psychologist and, most of all, as a human being who struggles too. I hope that the bits of me enhance your experience of reading the words I have chosen to write for you.

Making the Case for Compassion

If we view compassion as ‘a sensitivity to our own and other people’s distress plus a motivation to prevent or alleviate it’, we can easily appreciate the many individual, group and societal benefits to developing and maintaining compassion in our lives. It makes intuitive sense and it’s the reason why compassion has been a central component of many religious and spiritual traditions across the centuries.

Research studies support the benefits of bringing compassion into your life. Higher levels of compassion are associated with fewer psychological difficulties. Compassion enhances our social relationships and emotional wellbeing: it alters our neurophysiology in a positive way and can even strengthen our immune systems. Research also suggests that CFT can be successfully used to address difficulties associated with eating, trauma, mood and psychosis.

However, for me, you can observe the power of the CFT approach in training clinicians. As they discover this approach to help their clients, they often report that the application of CFT in their personal lives can be transformative, leading many clinicians to develop and maintain their own personal practice. I believe that personal practice is vital for any clinician. I attribute much of my wellbeing and my ability to engage with other people’s suffering to the application of this approach in my life.


CFT won’t rid you of life’s difficulties. You won’t find yourself day after day serenely swanning around, impervious to life’s difficulties. We practise compassion because life is hard. Compassion can assist us to make helpful choices and, when ready, create a space in which we can work through strong emotions, and grieve for things we’ve lost and wish had been different. With compassion, we relate to our anger, anxiety and sadness with kindness, warmth and non-judgement. This allows us to consider the reasons such emotions are there, work through them and face the issues they are alerting us to. The development and cultivation of compassion isn’t a quick fix. It’s a way of living our lives.

Understanding the Effects of Shame and Self-Criticism

Shame and self-criticism are common blocks to wellbeing, and CFT is designed to overcome them. The following sections help you consider how shame and self-criticism can affect you and what you can do to address and overcome these issues.

The isolating nature of shame

Shame is an excruciatingly difficult psychological state. The term comes from the Indo-European word ‘sham’meaning ‘to hide’, and, as such, the experience of shame is isolating. When we feel shame, we feel bad about ourselves. We believe others judge us as inadequate, inferior or incompetent.


The next exercise helps you to explore the nature of shame and how it may affect you.

Begin by finding a place you can sit for a short time that is free of distractions. Allow yourself to settle for a few moments. It may help to lower your gaze or close your eyes during the exercise. Bring to mind a time when you felt ashamed (nothing too distressing, but something you feel okay to revisit briefly). Allow the experience to occupy your mind for a few moments.
Slowly ask yourself the following questions, allowing time after each question to properly explore your experience:
– How (and where) does shame feel as a sensation in your body?
– What thoughts go through your mind about yourself?
– What do you think other people thought/would think or make of you if they knew this about you?
– What emotions do you feel? What does it make you want to do?

Allow the experience to fade from your mind’s eye. Recall a time you’ve felt content or happy, perhaps on your own or with someone else, and let this memory fill your mind and body.

Depending upon the situation you brought to mind, a sense of anxiety, disgust or anger may have come to the fore. You may feel exposed, flawed, inadequate, disconnected or bad. Maybe you experience the urge to curl up, hide or run away, or perhaps feelings of anger and injustice leave you with the urge to defend yourself or confront someone.


Often, shame results in a feeling of disconnection. We don’t like ourselves (or a part of ourselves) and we don’t want to experience closeness to others because this may result in rejection. Our head goes down and we want to creep away. In addition, shame can affect our bodily sensations, maybe leading to tension, nausea or hotness. When you combine these negative views of yourself with predicted negative views from others, you create a very difficult concoction of experiences.

Shame brings with it a range of difficult experiences. Strong physical sensations, thoughts and images are just some of them. Emotions such as anxiety, sadness and anger can race through you as you feel the urge to withdraw, isolate or defend yourself.

Some of the things we feel shame about include:
– Our body (for example, its shape, or our facial features, hair or skin)
– Our body in action (for example, when sweating, urinating, defecating, burping, shaking, walking or running)
– Our health (for example, illnesses, infections, diseases or genetic conditions)
– Our mind (for example, our thoughts, including any intrusive images in our heads, our impulses, forgetfulness and our psychological health)
– Our emotions (for example, anxiety, anger, disgust, sadness, jealousy or envy)
– Our behaviour (for example, things we’ve said and the way we’ve said them, our use of alcohol and drugs, our compulsions, our eating patterns, or our tendency to avoid other people)
– Our environment (for example, our house, neighbourhood, car or bedroom)
– Other people (for example, our friends, family, cultural or religious group, or community)

Exploring why we feel shame

Human beings are social animals and need the protection, kindness and caring of others. Our brains are social organs. We like to feel valued, accepted and wanted by those around us in order to feel safe. There’s no shame in this. These needs represent a deep-rooted part of us that’s been highly significant in our evolution and survival. Shame begins in how you feel you live in the mind of another –and it is a social regulator. In other words, we’re programmed to try to work out, ‘What are they thinking about or feeling toward me?’, ‘Do they like me?’ and ‘Who can I trust?’

Just to add a further layer of complexity, we also try to work out, ‘Do I like myself or this aspect of me?’ and ‘Can I trust myself?’ If we perceive rejection from our social group or reject an aspect of ourselves, shame can be the result.

Although difficult to experience, shame can trigger us to make helpful changes and others to come to our aid in order to soothe the difficulties we experience. But what happens if we feel shame about things we are unable to change (such as our appearance, an aspect of our personality or our culture)? What happens if shame is attached to historical events that we blame ourselves for and can do nothing about? What happens when nobody comes to our assistance or we’re unable to accept the help offered to us?


Dr. Mary Welford, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, lives and works in the South West of England. She is a founding member of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, Chair to the charity from 2009-2015 and authored the Compassionate Mind Guide to Building Self Confidence.



Compassion Focused Therapy For Dummies

by Mary Welford

get it at



Paul Gilbert

Research into the beneficial effect of developing compassion has advanced enormously in the last ten years, with the development of inner compassion being an important therapeutic focus and goal.

This book explains how Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)—a process of developing compassion for the self and others to increase well-being and aid recovery—varies from other forms of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

Comprising 30 key points this book explores the founding principles of CFT and outlines the detailed aspects of compassion in the CFT approach. Divided into two parts—Theory and Compassion Practice—this concise book provides a clear guide to the distinctive characteristics of CFT. Compassion Focused Therapy will be a valuable source for students and professionals in training as well as practising therapists who want to learn more about the distinctive features of CFT.

Paul Gilbert is Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Derby and has been actively involved in research and treating people with shame-based and mood disorders for over 30 years. He is a past President of the British Association for Cognitive and Behavioural Psychotherapy and a fellow of the British Psychological Society and has been developing CFT for twenty years.

Part 1


1 Some basics

All psychotherapies believe that therapy should be conducted in a compassionate way that is respectful, supportive and generally kind to people (Gilbert, 2007a; Glasser, 2005). Rogers (1957) articulated core aspects of the therapeutic relationship involving positive regard, genuineness and empathy—which can be seen as “compassionate”. More recently, helping people develop self-compassion has received research attention (Gilbert & Procter, 2006; Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007; Neff, 2003a, 2003b) and become a focus for self-help (Germer, 2009; Gilbert, 2009a, 2009b; Rubin, 1975/ 1998; Salzberg, 1995).

Developing compassion for self and others, as a way to enhance well-being, has also been central to Buddhist practice for the enhancement of well-being for thousands of years (Dalai Lama, 1995; Leighton, 2003; Vessantara, 1993).

After exploring the background principles for developing Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), Point 16 outlines the detailed aspects of compassion in the CFT approach. We can make a preliminary note, however, that different models of compassion are emerging based on different theories, traditions and research (Fehr, Sprecher, & Underwood, 2009).

The word “compassion” comes from the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with”. Probably the best-known definition is that of the Dalai Lama who defined compassion as “a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it”, i.e., sensitive attention-awareness plus motivation. In the Buddhist model true compassion arises from insight into the illusory nature of a separate self and the grasping to maintain its boundaries—from what is called an enlightened or awake mind.

Kristin Neff (2003a, 2003b; see, a pioneer in the research on self-compassion, derived her model and self-report measures from Theravada Buddhism. Her approach to self-compassion involves three main components:
– 1 being mindful and open to one’s own suffering;
– 2 being kind, and non self-condemning; and
– 3 an awareness of sharing experiences of suffering with others rather than feeling ashamed and alone—an openness to our common humanity.

In contrast, CFT was developed with and for people who have chronic and complex mental-health problems linked to shame and self-criticism, and who often come from difficult (e.g., neglectful or abusive) backgrounds.

The CFT approach to compassion borrows from many Buddhist teachings (especially the roles of sensitivity to and motivation to relieve suffering) but its roots are derived from an evolutionary, neuroscience and social psychology approach, linked to the psychology and neurophysiology of caring—both giving and receiving (Gilbert, 1989, 2000a, 2005a, 2009a). Feeling cared for, accepted and having a sense of belonging and affiliation with others is fundamental to our physiological maturation and well-being (Cozolino, 2007; Siegel, 2001, 2007). These are linked to particular types of positive affect that are associated with well-being (Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; Panksepp, 1998), and a neuro-hormonal profile of increased endorphins and oxytocin (Carter, 1998; Panksepp, 1998).

These calm, peaceful types of positive feelings can be distinguished from those psychomotor activating emotions associated with achievement, excitement and resource seeking (Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005). Feeling a positive sense of well-being, contentment and safeness, in contrast to feeling excited or achievement focused, can now be distinguished on self-report (Gilbert et al., 2008). In that study, we found that emotions of contentment and safeness were more strongly associated with lower depression, anxiety and stress, than were positive emotions of excitement or feeling energized. So, if there are different types of positive emotions—and there are different brain systems underpinning these positive emotions—then it makes sense that psychotherapists could focus on how to stimulate capacities for the positive emotions associated with calming and well-being.

As we will see, this involves helping clients (become motivated to) develop compassion for themselves, compassion for others and the ability to be sensitive to the compassion from others. There are compassionate (and non-compassionate) ways to engage with painful experiences, frightening feelings or traumatic memories.

CFT is not about avoidance of the painful, or trying to “soothe it away”, but rather is a way of engaging with the painful. In Point 29 we’ll note that many clients are fearful of compassionate feelings from others, and for the self, and it is working with that fear that can constitute the major focus of the work.

A second aspect of the CFT evolutionary approach suggests that self-evaluative systems operate through the same processing systems that we use when evaluating social and interpersonal processes (Gilbert, 1989, 2000a).

So, for example, as behaviourists have long noted, whether we see something sexual or fantasise about something sexual, the sexual arousal system is the same—there aren’t different systems for internal and external stimuli. Similarly, self-criticism and self-compassion can operate through similar brain processes that are stimulated when other people are critical of or compassionate to us. Increasing evidence for this view has come from the study of empathy and mirror neurons (Decety & Jackson, 2004) and our own recent fMRI study on self-criticism and self-compassion (Longe et al., 2010).


CFT is a multimodal therapy that builds on a range of cognitive-behavioural (CBT) and other therapies and interventions.

Hence, it focuses on attention, reasoning and rumination, behaviour, emotions, motives and imagery.

It utilizes: the therapeutic relationship (see below); Socratic dialogues, guided discovery, psycho-education (of the CFT model); structured formulations; thought, emotion, behaviour and “body” monitoring; inference chaining; functional analysis; behavioural experiments; exposure, graded tasks; compassion focused imagery; chair work; enactment of different selves; mindfulness; learning emotional tolerance, learning to understand and cope with emotional complexities and conflicts, making commitments for effort and practice, illuminating safety strategies; mentalizing; expressive (letter) writing, forgiveness, distinguishing shame-criticizing from compassionate self-correction and out-of-session work and guided practice—to name a few! Feeling the change CFT adds distinctive features in its compassion focus and use of compassion imagery to traditional CBT-type approaches.

As with many of the recent developments in therapy, special attention is given to mindfulness in both client and therapist (Siegel, 2010). In the formulation CFT is focused on the affect-regulation model outlined in Point 6, and interventions are used to develop specific patterns of affect regulation, brain states and self-experiences that underpin change processes.

This is particularly important when it comes to working with self-criticism and shame in people from harsh backgrounds. Such individuals may not have experienced much in the way of caring or affiliative behaviour from others and therefore the (soothing) emotion-regulation system is less accessible to them. These are individuals who are likely to say, “I understand the logic of [say] CBT, but I can’t feel any different”. To feel different requires the ability to access affect systems (a specific neurophysiology) that give rise to our feelings of reassurance and safeness. This is a well-known issue in CBT (Leahy, 2001; Stott, 2007; Wills, 2009, p. 57).

Over twenty years ago I explored why “alternative thoughts” were not “experienced” as helpful. This revealed that the emotional tone, and the way that such clients “heard” alternative thoughts in their head, was often analytical, cold, detached or even aggressive. Alternative thoughts to feeling a failure, like: “Come on, the evidence does not support this negative view; remember how much you achieved last week!” will have a very different impact if said to oneself (experienced) aggressively and with irritation than if said slowly and with kindness and warmth. It was the same with exposures or home-works—the way they are done (bullying and forcing oneself verses encouraging and being kind to oneself) can be as important as what is done.

So, it seemed clear that we needed to focus far more on the feelings of alternatives not just the content—indeed, an over focus on content often was not helpful.

So, my first steps into CFT simply tried to encourage clients to imagine a warm, kind voice offering them the alternatives; or working with them in their behavioural tasks. By the time of the second edition of Counselling for Depression (Gilbert, 2000b) a whole focus had become concentrated on “developing inner warmth”(see also Gilbert, 2000a).

So, CFT progressed from doing CBT and emotion work with a compassion (kindness) focus and, then, as the evidence for the model developed and more specific exercises proved helpful, on to CFT.

The therapeutic relationship

The therapeutic relationship plays a key role in CFT (Gilbert, 2007c; Gilbert & Leahy, 2007), paying particular attention to the micro-skills of therapeutic engagement (Ivey & Ivey, 2003), issues of transference/countertransference (Miranda & Andersen, 2007), expression, amplification, inhibition and/or fear of emotion (Elliott, Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2003; Leahy, 2001), shame (Gilbert, 2007c), validation (Leahy, 2005), and mindfulness of the therapist (Siegel, 2010).

When training people from other approaches, particularly CBT, we find that we have to slow them down; to allow spaces, and silences for reflection, and experiencing within the therapy rather than a series of Socratic questions or “target setting”. We teach how to use one’s voice speed and tone, nonverbal communication, the pacing of the therapy, being mindful (Katzow & Safran, 2007; Siegel, 2010) and the reflective process in the service of creating “safeness” to explore, discover, experiment and develop.

Key is to provide emotional contexts where the client can experience (and internalize) therapists as “compassionately alongside them”—no easy task because as we will discuss below (see Point 10) shame often involves clients having emotional experiences (transference) of being misunderstood, getting things wrong, trying to work out what the other person wants them to do and intense aloneness.

The emotional tone in the therapy is created partly by the whole manner and pacing of the therapist and is important in this process of experiencing “togetherness”. CF therapists are sensitive to how clients can actually find it hard to experience “togetherness” or “being cared about”, and wrap themselves in safety strategies of sealing the self off from “the feelings of togetherness and connectedness” (see Point 29; Gilbert, 1997, 2007a, especially Chapters 5 and 6, 2007c). CBT focuses on collaboration, where the therapist and client focus on the problem together—as a team.

CFT also focuses on (mind) “sharing”.

The evolution of sharing (and motives to share), e.g., not only objects but also our thoughts, ideas and feelings, is one of humans’ most important adaptations and we excel at wanting to share. As an especially social species, humans have an innate desire to share—not only material things but also their knowledge, values and the content of their minds—to be known, understood and validated. Thus, issues of motivation to share versus fear of sharing (shame), empathy and theory of mind are important evolved motives and competencies. It is the felt barriers to this “flow of minds” that can be problematic for some people and the way that the therapist “unblocks” this flow that can be therapeutic.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 1993) addresses the key issue of therapy-interfering behaviours. CFT, like any other therapy, needs to be able to set clear boundaries, and use authority as a containing process. Some clients can be “emotional bullies”, threatening the therapist (e.g., with litigation or suicide) and are demanding. Frightened therapists may submit or back off. The client, at some level, is frightened of their own capacity to force others away from them.

For other clients, during painful moments, therapists might try to rescue rather than be silent. So, clarification of the therapeutic relationship is very important. This is why DBT wisely recommends a support group for therapists working with these kinds of clients. Research has shown that compassion can become a genuine part of self-identity but it can also be linked to self-image goals where people are compassionate in order to be liked (Crocker & Canevello, 2008). Compassion focused self-image goals are problematic in many ways.

Researchers are also beginning to explore attachment style and therapeutic relationships with evidence that securely attached therapists develop therapeutic alliances easier and with less problems than therapists with an insecure attachment style (Black, Hardy, Turpin, & Parry, 2005; see also Liotti, 2007). Leahy (2007) has also outlined how the personality and schema organization of the therapist can play a huge role in the therapeutic relationship—for example, autocratic therapists with dependent patients, or dependent therapists with autocratic patients. So, compassion is not about submissive “niceness”—it can be tough, setting boundaries, being honest and not giving clients what they want but what they need. An alcoholic wants another drink—that is not what they need; many people want to avoid pain and may try to do so in a variety of ways—but (kind) clarity, exposure and acceptance may be what actually facilitates change and growth (Siegel, 2010).

Evidence for the benefits of compassion

Although CFT is rooted in an evolutionary, neuro- and psychological science model, it is important to recognize its heavy borrowing from Buddhist influences. For over 2500 years Buddhism has focused on compassion and mindfulness as central to enlightenment and “healing our mind”. While Theravada Buddhism focuses on mindfulness and loving-( friendly)-kindness, Mahayana practices are specifically compassion focused (Leighton, 2003; Vessantara, 1993).

At the end of his life the Buddha said that his main teachings were mindfulness and compassion—to do no harm to self or others. The Buddha outlined an eight-fold path for practice and training one’s mind to avoid harming and promote compassion. This includes: compassionate meditations and imagery, compassionate behaviour, compassionate thinking, compassionate attention, compassionate feeling, compassion speech and compassionate livelihood.

It is these multimodal components that lead to a compassionate mind. We now know that the practice of various aspects of compassion increases well-being and affects brain functioning, especially in areas of emotional regulation (Begley, 2007; Davidson et al., 2003).

The last 10 years have seen a major upsurge in exploring the benefits of cultivating compassion (Fehr et al., 2009). In an early study Rein, Atkinson and McCraty (1995) found that directing people in compassion imagery had positive effects on an indictor of immune functioning (S-IgA) while anger imagery had negative effects. Practices of imagining compassion for others, produce changes in the frontal cortex, immune system and wellbeing (Lutz, Brefczynski-Lewis, Johnstone, & Davidson, 2008). Hutcherson, Seppala and Gross (2008) found that a brief loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connectedness and affiliation towards strangers. Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek and Finkel (2008) allocated 67 Compuware employees to a loving-kindness meditation group and 72 to waiting-list control.

They found that six 60-minute weekly group sessions with home practice based on a CD of loving kindness meditations (compassion directed to self, then others, then strangers) increased positive emotions, mindfulness, feelings of purpose in life and social support, and decreased illness symptoms. Pace, Negi and Adame (2008) found that compassion meditation (for six weeks) improved immune function and neuroendocrine and behavioural responses to stress. Rockliff, Gilbert, McEwan, Lightman and Glover (2008) found that compassionate imagery increased heart rate variability and reduced cortisol in low self-critics, but not in high self-critics.

In our recent fMRI study we found that self-criticism and self-reassurance to imagined threatening events (e.g., a job rejection) stimulated different brain areas, with self-compassion but not self-criticism stimulating the insula—a brain area associated with empathy (Longe et al., 2010). Viewing sad faces, neutrally or with a compassionate attitude, influences neurophysiological responses to faces (Ji-Woong et al., 2009). In a small uncontrolled study of people with chronic mentalhealth problems, compassion training significantly reduced shame, self-criticism, depression and anxiety (Gilbert & Procter, 2006). Compassion training has also been found to be helpful for psychotic voice hearers (Mayhew & Gilbert, 2008). In a study of group-based CFT for 19 clients in a high-security psychiatric setting, Laithwaite et al. (2009) found “…a large magnitude of change for levels of depression and self-esteem…. A moderate magnitude of change was found for the social comparison scale and general psychopathology, with a small magnitude of change for shame,…. These changes were maintained at 6-week follow-up”(p. 521).

In the field of relationships and well-being, there is now good evidence that caring for others, showing appreciation and gratitude, having empathic and mentalizing skills, does much to build positive relationships, which significantly influence well-being and mental and physical health (Cacioppo, Berston, Sheridan, & McClintock, 2000; Cozolino, 2007, 2008).

There is increasing evidence that the kind of “self” we try to become will influence our well-being and social relationships, and compassionate rather than self-focused self-identities are associated with the better outcomes (Crocker & Canevello, 2008).

Taken together there are good grounds for the further development of and research into CFT.

Neff (2003a, 2003b) has been a pioneer in studies of self-compassion (see pages 3–4). She has shown that self-compassion can be distinguished from self-esteem and predicts some aspects of well-being better than self-esteem (Neff & Vonk, 2009), and that self-compassion aids in coping with academic failure (Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat, 2005; Neely, Schallert, Mohammed, Roberts, & Chen, 2009). Compassionate letter writing to oneself, improves coping with life events and reduces depression (Leary et al., 2007).

As noted, however, Neff’s concepts of compassion are different from the evolutionary and attachment-rooted model outlined here and, as yet, there is no agreed definition of compassion—indeed, the word compassion can have slightly (but important) different meanings in different languages. So, here compassion will be defined as a “mind set”, a basic mentality, and explored in detail in Point 16.

2 A personal journey

My interest in developing people’s capacities for compassion and self-compassion was fuelled by a number of issues:
• First, was a long interest in evolutionary approaches to human behaviour, suffering and growth (Gilbert, 1984, 1989, 1995, 2001a, 2001b, 2005a, 2005b, 2007a, 2007b, 2009a). The idea that cognitive systems tap underlying evolved motivation and emotional mechanisms has also been central to Beck’s cognitive approach (Beck, 1987, 1996; Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 1985), with a special edition dedicated to exploring the evolutionary-cognitive interface (Gilbert, 2002, 2004).
• Second, evolutionary psychology has focused significantly on the issue of altruism and caring (Gilbert, 2005a) with increasing recognition of just how important these have been in our evolution (Bowlby, 1969; Hrdy, 2009) and now are to our physical and psychological development (Cozolino, 2007) and well-being (Cozolino, 2008; Gilbert, 2009a; Siegel, 2007).
• Third, people with chronic mental-health problems often come from backgrounds of high stress and/ or low altruism and caring (Bifulco & Moran, 1998), backgrounds that significantly affect physical and psychological development (Cozolino, 2007; Gerhardt, 2004; Teicher, 2002).
• Fourth, partly as a consequence of these life experiences, people with chronic and complex problems can be especially, deeply troubled by shame and self-criticism and/ or self-hatred and find it enormously difficult to be open to the kindness of others or to be kind to themselves (Gilbert, 1992, 2000a, 2007a, 2007c; Gilbert & Procter, 2006).
• Fifth, as noted on page 6, when using CBT they would typically say, “I can see the logic of alternative thoughts but I still feel X, or Y. I can understand why I wasn’t to blame for my abuse but I still feel I’m to blame”, or, “I still feel there is something bad about me”.
• Sixth, there is increasing awareness that the way clients are able to think about and reflect on the contents of their own minds (e.g., competencies to mentalize in contrast to being alexithymic) has major implications for the process and focus of therapy (Bateman & Fonagy, 2006; Choi-Kain & Gunderson, 2008; Liotti & Gilbert, in press; Liotti & Prunetti, 2010).
• Last, but not least, is a long personal interest in the philosophies and practices of Buddhism—although I do not regard myself as a Buddhist as such. Compassion practices, such as becoming the compassionate self (see Part 2), may create a sense of safeness that aides the development of mindfulness and mentalizing.

In Buddhist psychology compassion “transforms” the mind.

Logic and emotion

It has been known for a long time that logic and emotion can be in conflict. Indeed, since the 1980s research has shown that we have quite different processing systems in our minds.

One is linked to what is called implicit (automatic) processing, which is non-conscious, fast, emotional, requires little effort, is subject to classical conditioning and self-identify functions, and may generate feelings and fantasies even against conscious desires. This is the system which gives that “felt sense of something”.

This can be contrasted with an explicit (controlled) processing system, which is slower, consciously focused, reflective, verbal and effortful (Haidt, 2001; Hassin, Uleman, & Bargh, 2005).

These findings have been usefully formulated for clinical work (e.g., Power & Dalgleish, 1997) with more complex models being offered by Teasdale and Barnard (1993).

But the basic point is that there is no simple connection of cognition to emotion, and there are different neurophysiological systems underpinning them (Panksepp, 1998).

So, one of the problems linking thinking and feeling (“I know it but I don’t feel it”) can be attributed to (different) implicit and explicit systems coming up with different processing strategies and conclusions.

Cognitive, and many other, therapists and psychologists have not helped matters by using the concept of cognition and information processing interchangeably as if they are the same thing. They are not.

Your computer and DNA—indeed every cell in your body—are information processing mechanisms but I don’t think that they have “cognitions”.

This failure to define what is and is not “a cognition” or “cognitive” in contrast to a motive or an emotion has caused difficulties in this area of research.

Various solutions have been offered to work with the problems of feelings not following cognitions or logical reasoning, such as: needing more time to practise; most change is slow and hard work; more exposure to problematic emotions; identifying “roadblocks” and their functions (Leahy, 2001); a need for a particular therapeutic relationship (Wallin, 2007); or developing mindfulness and acceptance (Hayes, Follette, & Linehan, 2004; Liotti & Prunetti, 2010).

CFT offers an additional position

CFT suggests that there can be a fundamental problem in an implicit emotional system that evolved with mammalian and human caring systems and which gives rise to feelings of reassurance, safeness and connectedness (see Point 6).

The inability to access that affect system is what underpins this problem. Indeed, as noted (page 6), some people can cognitively (logically) generate “alternative thoughts” but hear them in their head as cold, detached or aggressive. There is no warmth or encouragement in their alternative thoughts—the emotional tone is more like cold instruction.

I have found that the idea of feeling (inner) kindness and supportiveness as part of generating alternative “thoughts” is an anathema to them. So, they just cannot “feel” their alternative thoughts and images.


Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., is currently a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, and director of the Mental Health Research Unit at Derbyshire Mental Health Trust.



Compassion Focused Therapy

by Paul Gilbert

get it at


Authoritative Websites on CFT

Centre for Mindful Self Compassion

Mindful Self Compassion for Teens

Chris Germer

The Mindfulness

The Compassion

Center For Healthy Minds

Mindfulness Research

Mindfulness Exercises

Compassionate Living

Foundation For Active Compassion

Mindsight Institute

Center For Nonviolent Communication

Awareness In Action

Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Charter For Compassion

Compassionate Mind Foundation

Christopher Germer, PhD, Author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Mindful Awareness Research Center at University of California Los Angeles

University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness

Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy

University of California at San Diego Center for Mindfulness

Mind And Life Institute

Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice

Mindfulness page maintained by David Fresco

Mindfulness page maintained by Christopher Walsh

Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom

Centre for Mindfulness Studies

Recommended Reading:

  • Highly Recommended: Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions.New York: Guilford Press.
  • Bennett-Goleman, T. (2001). Emotional alchemy: How the mind can heal the heart.New York: Three Rivers Press.
  • Brach, T. (2003) Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam.
  • Brown, B. (1999). Soul without shame: A guide to liberating yourself from the judge within. Boston: Shambala.
  • Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
  • Feldman, C. (2005). Compassion: Listening to the cries of the world.Berkeley: Rodmell Press.
  • Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind. London: Constable.
  • Goldstein, E. (2015). Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Goldstein, J., & Kornfield, J. (1987). Seeking the heart of wisdom: The path of insight meditation. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Hanh, T. N. (1997). Teachings on love.Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  • Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart.New York: Bantam Books.
  • Marlowe, S. (2016). My new best friend. Summerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
  • Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.
  • Salzberg, S. (1997). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness.Boston: Shambala.
  • Salzberg, S. (2005). The force of kindness: change your life with love and compassion. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Why Buddhism Is True. The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment – Robert Wright * The Foundations of Mindfulness: Satipatthana Sutta * The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English – Bhante Gunaratana.

A Note to Readers.

Robert Wright.

Any book with a title like Why Buddhism Is True should have some careful qualification somewhere along the way. We might as well get that over with:

1. I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example—but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy. That said, I am talking about some of Buddhism’s more extraordinary, even radical, claims—claims that, if you take them seriously, could revolutionize your view of yourself and of the world. This book is intended to get you to take these claims seriously.

2. I’m of course aware that there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines. But this book focuses on a kind of “common core”—fundamental ideas that are found across the major Buddhist traditions, even if they get different degrees of emphasis, and may assume somewhat different form, in different traditions.

3. I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. For example, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, a collection of early Buddhist texts, asserts that there are eighty-nine kinds of consciousness, twelve of which are unwholesome. You may be relieved to hear that this book will spend no time trying to evaluate that claim.

4. I realize that true is a tricky word, and asserting the truth of anything, certainly including deep ideas in philosophy or psychology, is a tricky business. In fact, one big lesson from Buddhism is to be suspicious of the intuition that your ordinary way of perceiving the world brings you the truth about it. Some early Buddhist writings go so far as to raise doubts about whether such a thing as “truth” ultimately exists. On the other hand, the Buddha, in his most famous sermon, lays out what are commonly called “The Four Noble Truths,” so it’s not as if the word true has no place in discussions of Buddhist thought. In any event, I’ll try to proceed with appropriate humility and nuance as I make my argument that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.

5. Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about other spiritual or philosophical traditions. There will sometimes be logical tension between a Buddhist idea and an idea in another tradition, but often there won’t be. The Dalai Lama has said, “Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a better Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” —Robert Wright


1 Taking the Red Pill

At the risk of overdramatizing the human condition: Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix? It’s about a guy named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who discovers that he’s been inhabiting a dream world. The life he thought he was living is actually an elaborate hallucination. He’s having that hallucination while, unbeknownst to him, his actual physical body is inside a gooey, coffin-size pod—one among many pods, rows and rows of pods, each pod containing a human being absorbed in a dream.

These people have been put in their pods by robot overlords and given dream lives as pacifiers. The choice faced by Neo—to keep living a delusion or wake up to reality—is famously captured in the movie’s “red pill” scene.

Neo has been contacted by rebels who have entered his dream (or, strictly speaking, whose avatars have entered his dream). Their leader, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), explains the situation to Neo: “You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch—a prison for your mind.”

The prison is called the Matrix, but there’s no way to explain to Neo what the Matrix ultimately is. The only way to get the whole picture, says Morpheus, is “to see it for yourself.” He offers Neo two pills, a red one and a blue one. Neo can take the blue pill and return to his dream world, or take the red pill and break through the shroud of delusion. Neo chooses the red pill.

That’s a pretty stark choice: a life of delusion and bondage or a life of insight and freedom. In fact, it’s a choice so dramatic that you’d think a Hollywood movie is exactly where it belongs—that the choices we really get to make about how to live our lives are less momentous than this, more pedestrian.

Yet when that movie came out, a number of people saw it as mirroring a choice they had actually made. The people I’m thinking about are what you might call Western Buddhists, people in the United States and other Western countries who, for the most part, didn’t grow up Buddhist but at some point adopted Buddhism. At least they adopted a version of Buddhism, a version that had been stripped of some supernatural elements typically found in Asian Buddhism, such as belief in reincarnation and in various deities.

This Western Buddhism centers on a part of Buddhist practice that in Asia is more common among monks than among laypeople: meditation, along with immersion in Buddhist philosophy. (Two of the most common Western conceptions of Buddhism—that it’s atheistic and that it revolves around meditation—are wrong; most Asian Buddhists do believe in gods, though not an omnipotent creator God, and don’t meditate.)

These Western Buddhists, long before they watched The Matrix, had become convinced that the world as they had once seen it was a kind of illusion—not an out-and-out hallucination but a seriously warped picture of reality that in turn warped their approach to life, with bad consequences for them and the people around them. Now they felt that, thanks to meditation and Buddhist philosophy, they were seeing things more clearly.

Among these people, The Matrix seemed an apt allegory of the transition they’d undergone, and so became known as a “dharma movie.” The word dharma has several meanings, including the Buddha’s teachings and the path that Buddhists should tread in response to those teachings. In the wake of The Matrix, a new shorthand for “I follow the dharma” came into currency: “I took the red pill.”

I saw The Matrix in 1999, right after it came out, and some months later I learned that I had a kind of connection to it. The movie’s directors, the Wachowski siblings, had given Keanu Reeves three books to read in preparation for playing Neo. One of them was a book I had written a few years earlier, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life. I’m not sure what kind of link the directors saw between my book and The Matrix. But I know what kind of link I see.

Evolutionary psychology can be described in various ways, and here’s one way I had described it in my book: It is the study of how the human brain was designed—by natural selection—to mislead us, even enslave us. Don’t get me wrong: natural selection has its virtues, and I’d rather be created by it than not be created at all—which, so far as I can tell, are the two options this universe offers.

Being a product of evolution is by no means entirely a story of enslavement and delusion. Our evolved brains empower us in many ways, and they often bless us with a basically accurate view of reality. Still, ultimately, natural selection cares about only one thing (or, I should say, “cares”—in quotes—about only one thing, since natural selection is just a blind process, not a conscious designer). And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation.

Genetically based traits that in the past contributed to genetic proliferation have flourished, while traits that didn’t have fallen by the wayside. And the traits that have survived this test include mental traits—structures and algorithms that are built into the brain and shape our everyday experience. So if you ask the question “What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day?” the answer, at the most basic level, isn’t “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality.” No, at the most basic level the answer is “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation.”

Whether those thoughts and feelings and perceptions give us a true view of reality is, strictly speaking, beside the point. As a result, they sometimes don’t. Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Some of my happiest moments have come from delusion—believing, for example, that the Tooth Fairy would pay me a visit after I lost a tooth.

But delusion can also produce bad moments. And I don’t just mean moments that, in retrospect, are obviously delusional, like horrible nightmares. I also mean moments that you might not think of as delusional, such as lying awake at night with anxiety. Or feeling hopeless, even depressed, for days on end. Or feeling bursts of hatred toward people, bursts that may actually feel good for a moment but slowly corrode your character. Or feeling bursts of hatred toward yourself. Or feeling greedy, feeling a compulsion to buy things or eat things or drink things well beyond the point where your well-being is served.

Though these feelings—anxiety, despair, hatred, greed—aren’t delusional the way a nightmare is delusional, if you examine them closely, you’ll see that they have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities.

So if what I’m saying is true—if these basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion—there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.

Sounds logical, right? But here’s a problem that I started to appreciate shortly after I wrote my book about evolutionary psychology: the exact value of exposing a delusion to the light depends on what kind of light you’re talking about. Sometimes understanding the ultimate source of your suffering doesn’t, by itself, help very much.

An Everyday Delusion

Let’s take a simple but fundamental example: eating some junk food, feeling briefly satisfied, and then, only minutes later, feeling a kind of crash and maybe a hunger for more junk food. This is a good example to start with for two reasons. First, it illustrates how subtle our delusions can be. There’s no point in the course of eating a six-pack of small powdered-sugar doughnuts when you’re believing that you’re the messiah or that foreign agents are conspiring to assassinate you. And that’s true of many sources of delusion that I’ll discuss in this book: they’re more about illusion—about things not being quite what they seem—than about delusion in the more dramatic sense of that word.

Still, by the end of the book, I’ll have argued that all of these illusions do add up to a very large-scale warping of reality, a disorientation that is as significant and consequential as out-and-out delusion.

The second reason junk food is a good example to start with is that it’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. Okay, it can’t be literally fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings, because 2,500 years ago, when the Buddha taught, junk food as we know it didn’t exist. What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best.

One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next powdered-sugar doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more.

The old Rolling Stones lyric “I can’t get no satisfaction” is, according to Buddhism, the human condition. Indeed, though the Buddha is famous for asserting that life is pervaded by suffering, some scholars say that’s an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as “suffering,” dukkha, could, for some purposes, be translated as “unsatisfactoriness.”

So what exactly is the illusory part of pursuing doughnuts or sex or consumer goods or a promotion? There are different illusions associated with different pursuits, but for now we can focus on one illusion that’s common to these things: the overestimation of how much happiness they’ll bring.

Again, by itself this is delusional only in a subtle sense. If I asked you whether you thought that getting that next promotion, or getting an A on that next exam, or eating that next powdered-sugar doughnut would bring you eternal bliss, you’d say no, obviously not. On the other hand, we do often pursue such things with, at the very least, an unbalanced view of the future. We spend more time envisioning the perks that a promotion will bring than envisioning the headaches it will bring. And there may be an unspoken sense that once we’ve achieved this long-sought goal, once we’ve reached the summit, we’ll be able to relax, or at least things will be enduringly better.

Similarly, when we see that doughnut sitting there, we immediately imagine how good it tastes, not how intensely we’ll want another doughnut only moments after eating it, or how we’ll feel a bit tired or agitated later, when the sugar rush subsides.

Why Pleasure Fades

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain why this sort of distortion would be built into human anticipation. It just takes an evolutionary biologist—or, for that matter, anyone willing to spend a little time thinking about how evolution works. Here’s the basic logic. We were “designed” by natural selection to do certain things that helped our ancestors get their genes into the next generation—things like eating, having sex, earning the esteem of other people, and outdoing rivals. I put “designed” in quotation marks because, again, natural selection isn’t a conscious, intelligent designer but an unconscious process.

Still, natural selection does create organisms that look as if they’re the product of a conscious designer, a designer who kept fiddling with them to make them effective gene propagators. So, as a kind of thought experiment, it’s legitimate to think of natural selection as a “designer” and put yourself in its shoes and ask: If you were designing organisms to be good at spreading their genes, how would you get them to pursue the goals that further this cause?

In other words, granted that eating, having sex, impressing peers, and besting rivals helped our ancestors spread their genes, how exactly would you design their brains to get them to pursue these goals?

I submit that at least three basic principles of design would make sense:

1. Achieving these goals should bring pleasure, since animals, including humans, tend to pursue things that bring pleasure.

2. The pleasure shouldn’t last forever. After all, if the pleasure didn’t subside, we’d never seek it again; our first meal would be our last, because hunger would never return. So too with sex: a single act of intercourse, and then a lifetime of lying there basking in the afterglow. That’s no way to get lots of genes into the next generation.

3. The animal’s brain should focus more on (1), the fact that pleasure will accompany the reaching of a goal, than on (2), the fact that the pleasure will dissipate shortly thereafter. After all, if you focus on (1), you’ll pursue things like food and sex and social status with unalloyed gusto, whereas if you focus on (2), you could start feeling ambivalence. You might, for example, start asking what the point is of so fiercely pursuing pleasure if the pleasure will wear off shortly after you get it and leave you hungering for more. Before you know it, you’ll be full of ennui and wishing you’d majored in philosophy.

If you put these three principles of design together, you get a pretty plausible explanation of the human predicament as diagnosed by the Buddha. Yes, as he said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied. And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure.

Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.

Scientists can watch this logic play out at the biochemical level by observing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is correlated with pleasure and the anticipation of pleasure. In one seminal study, they took monkeys and monitored dopamine-generating neurons as drops of sweet juice fell onto the monkeys’ tongues. Predictably, dopamine was released right after the juice touched the tongue. But then the monkeys were trained to expect drops of juice after a light turned on. As the trials proceeded, more and more of the dopamine came when the light turned on, and less and less came after the juice hit the tongue.

We have no way of knowing for sure what it felt like to be one of those monkeys, but it would seem that, as time passed, there was more in the way of anticipating the pleasure that would come from the sweetness, yet less in the way of pleasure actually coming from the sweetness.

To translate this conjecture into everyday human terms: If you encounter a new kind of pleasure—if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it—you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in. But later, once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar-doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it; the amount that comes after the bite is much less than the amount you got after that first, blissful bite into a powdered-sugar doughnut.

The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise—or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising. To the extent that you bought the promise—anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself—you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.

Kind of cruel, in a way—but what do you expect from natural selection? Its job is to build machines that spread genes, and if that means programming some measure of illusion into the machines, then illusion there will be.

Unhelpful Insights

So this is one kind of light science can shed on an illusion. Call it “Darwinian light.” By looking at things from the point of view of natural selection, we see why the illusion would be built into us, and we have more reason than ever to see that it is an illusion. But—and this is the main point of this little digression—this kind of light is of limited value if your goal is to actually liberate yourself from the illusion.

Don’t believe me? Try this simple experiment:
(1) Reflect on the fact that our lust for doughnuts and other sweet things is a kind of illusion—that the lust implicitly promises more enduring pleasure than will result from succumbing to it, while blinding us to the letdown that may ensue. (2) As you’re reflecting on this fact, hold a powdered-sugar doughnut six inches from your face. Do you feel the lust for it magically weakening? Not if you’re like me, no.

This is what I discovered after immersing myself in evolutionary psychology: knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form that evolutionary psychology provides it, doesn’t necessarily make your life any better. In fact, it can actually make it worse. You’re still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure-seeking—what psychologists sometimes call “the hedonic treadmill”—but now you have new reason to see the absurdity of it. In other words, now you see that it’s a treadmill, a treadmill specifically designed to keep you running, often without really getting anywhere—yet you keep running!

And powdered-sugar doughnuts are just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, the truth is, it’s not all that uncomfortable to be aware of the Darwinian logic behind your lack of dietary self-discipline. In fact, you may find in this logic a comforting excuse: it’s hard to fight Mother Nature, right?

But evolutionary psychology also made me more aware of how illusion shapes other kinds of behavior, such as the way I treat other people and the way I, in various senses, treat myself. In these realms, Darwinian self-consciousness was sometimes very uncomfortable.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has said, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” What he meant is that if you want to liberate yourself from the parts of the mind that keep you from realizing true happiness, you have to first become aware of them, which can be unpleasant.

Okay, fine; that’s a form of painful self-consciousness that would be worthwhile—the kind that leads ultimately to deep happiness. But the kind I got from evolutionary psychology was the worst of both worlds: the painful self-consciousness without the deep happiness. I had both the discomfort of being aware of my mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.

Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Well, with evolutionary psychology I felt I had found the truth. But, manifestly, I had not found the way. Which was enough to make me wonder about another thing Jesus said: that the truth will set you free. I felt I had seen the basic truth about human nature, and I saw more clearly than ever how various illusions imprisoned me, but this truth wasn’t amounting to a Get Out of Jail Free card.

So is there another version of the truth out there that would set me free? No, I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think there’s an alternative to the truth presented by science; natural selection, like it or not, is the process that created us.

But some years after writing The Moral Animal, I did start to wonder if there was a way to operationalize the truth—a way to put the actual, scientific truth about human nature and the human condition into a form that would not just identify and explain the illusions we labor under but would also help us liberate ourselves from them. I started wondering if this Western Buddhism I was hearing about might be that way.

Maybe many of the Buddha’s teachings were saying essentially the same thing modern psychological science says. And maybe meditation was in large part a different way of appreciating these truths—and, in addition, a way of actually doing something about them.

So in August 2003 I headed to rural Massachusetts for my first silent meditation retreat—a whole week devoted to meditation and devoid of such distractions as email, news from the outside world, and speaking to other human beings.

The Truth about Mindfulness

You could be excused for doubting that a retreat like this would yield anything very dramatic or profound. The retreat was, broadly speaking, in the tradition of “mindfulness meditation,” the kind of meditation that was starting to catch on in the West and that in the years since has gone mainstream.

As commonly described, mindfulness—the thing mindfulness meditation aims to cultivate—isn’t very deep or exotic. To live mindfully is to pay attention to, to be “mindful of” what’s happening in the here and now and to experience it in a clear, direct way, unclouded by various mental obfuscations. Stop and smell the roses. This is an accurate description of mindfulness as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.

“Mindfulness,” as popularly conceived, is just the beginning of mindfulness. And it’s in some ways a misleading beginning. If you delve into ancient Buddhist writings, you won’t find a lot of exhortations to stop and smell the roses—and that’s true even if you focus on those writings that feature the word sati, the word that’s translated as “mindfulness.”

Indeed, sometimes these writings seem to carry a very different message. The ancient Buddhist text known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness—the closest thing there is to a Bible of Mindfulness—reminds us that our bodies are “full of various kinds of unclean things” and instructs us to meditate on such bodily ingredients as “feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.” It also calls for us to imagine our bodies “one day, two days, three days dead—bloated, livid, and festering.”

I’m not aware of any bestselling books on mindfulness meditation called Stop and Smell the Feces. And I’ve never heard a meditation teacher recommend that I meditate on my bile, phlegm, and pus or on the rotting corpse that I will someday be.

What is presented today as an ancient meditative tradition is actually a selective rendering of an ancient meditative tradition, in some cases carefully manicured. There’s no scandal here. There’s nothing wrong with modern interpreters of Buddhism being selective—even, sometimes, creative—in what they present as Buddhism. All spiritual traditions evolve, adapting to time and place, and the Buddhist teachings that find an audience today in the United States and Europe are a product of such evolution.

The main thing, for our purposes, is that this evolution—the evolution that has produced a distinctively Western, twenty-first-century version of Buddhism—hasn’t severed the connection between current practice and ancient thought. Modern mindfulness meditation isn’t exactly the same as ancient mindfulness meditation, but the two share a common philosophical foundation.

If you follow the underlying logic of either of them far enough, you will find a dramatic claim: that we are, metaphorically speaking, living in the Matrix. However mundane mindfulness meditation may sometimes sound, it is a practice that, if pursued rigorously, can let you see what Morpheus says the red pill will let you see. Namely, “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

On that first meditation retreat, I had some pretty powerful experiences—powerful enough to make me want to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. So I read more about Buddhist philosophy, and talked to experts on Buddhism, and eventually went on more meditation retreats, and established a daily meditation practice.

All of this made it clearer to me why The Matrix had come to be known as a “dharma movie.” Though evolutionary psychology had already convinced me that people are by nature pretty deluded, Buddhism, it turned out, painted an even more dramatic picture. In the Buddhist view, the delusion touches everyday perceptions and thoughts in ways subtler and more pervasive than I had imagined. And in ways that made sense to me. In other words, this kind of delusion, it seemed to me, could be explained as the natural product of a brain that had been engineered by natural selection.

The more I looked into Buddhism, the more radical it seemed, but the more I examined it in the light of modern psychology, the more plausible it seemed. The real-life Matrix, the one in which we’re actually embedded, came to seem more like the one in the movie—not quite as mind-bending, maybe, but profoundly deceiving and ultimately oppressive, and something that humanity urgently needs to escape.

The good news is the other thing I came to believe: if you want to escape from the Matrix, Buddhist practice and philosophy offer powerful hope. Buddhism isn’t alone in this promise. There are other spiritual traditions that address the human predicament with insight and wisdom. But Buddhist meditation, along with its underlying philosophy, addresses that predicament in a strikingly direct and comprehensive way. Buddhism offers an explicit diagnosis of the problem and a cure. And the cure, when it works, brings not just happiness but clarity of vision: the actual truth about things, or at least something way, way closer to that than our everyday view of them.

Some people who have taken up meditation in recent years have done so for essentially therapeutic reasons. They practice mindfulness-based stress reduction or focus on some specific personal problem. They may have no idea that the kind of meditation they’re practicing can be a deeply spiritual endeavor and can transform their view of the world. They are, without knowing it, near the threshold of a basic choice, a choice that only they can make. As Morpheus says to Neo, “I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

This book is an attempt to show people the door, give them some idea of what lies beyond it, and explain, from a scientific standpoint, why what lies beyond it has a stronger claim to being real than the world they’re familiar with.

2 Paradoxes of Meditation

I’m not supposed to tell you about my first big success at meditating. The reason is that there isn’t supposed to be success at meditating. As any good meditation teacher will tell you, if you talk about meditation in terms of success or failure, you’re misunderstanding what meditation is.

Here I must depart from orthodoxy. I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it. And if people don’t achieve that something, well, that would constitute failure, right? As in: the opposite of success. Granted, it may be best for people who are meditating to not think about succeeding, but that’s because thinking about succeeding gets in the way of success! And, granted, if you do achieve meditative “success,” that may lead to a new frame of mind that is less caught up in the pursuit of success than your old frame of mind—less relentlessly focused on achieving certain kinds of distant material goals, more aware of the here and now.

In sum: you can best achieve success at meditation by not pursuing success, and achieving this success may mean caring less about success, at least as success is conventionally defined. If this sounds unbearably paradoxical, maybe you should quit reading here, because this won’t be the last time we find paradox in Buddhist practice or Buddhist teachings. Then again, there’s paradoxical stuff in modern physics (an electron is both a particle and a wave), and modern physics works fine. So you might as well keep reading.

Anyway, before I violate protocol by telling you about my first big “success” as a meditator, I have to commit another violation of protocol by noting what a naturally bad meditator I am. That you shouldn’t talk about how bad you are at meditating is a straightforward corollary of the axiom that there’s no such thing as succeeding or failing at meditating. And if I’m violating the axiom, I might as well violate its corollary, so here goes.

Suppose you ranked all the people in the world in terms of their likelihood of picking up mindfulness meditation easily—sitting down, focusing on the breath, and slowly sinking into a state of calm, dispassionate observation. At one end of the spectrum you’d have Bobby Knight—the college basketball coach famous for his red, furious face and for once flinging a chair onto a basketball court. At the other end you’d have, I don’t know, the Dalai Lama or maybe the late Mister Rogers. On this spectrum, I would be much closer to Bobby Knight than to the Dalai Lama or Mister Rogers. I’ve never thrown a chair onto a basketball court, but I threw a chicken leg at a dinner guest when I was four and a baseball bat at a brother-in-law when I was twelve.

Happily, my penchant for throwing things at people has waned with age, but the underlying volatility hasn’t entirely disappeared. And volatility doesn’t smooth the path toward mindfulness.



Why Buddhism Is True. The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

by Robert Wright

get it at


The Foundations of Mindfulness: Satipatthana Sutta


The philosophy of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths.

The truth of suffering reveals that all forms of becoming, all the various elements of existence comprised in the “five aggregates” or groups of existence — also called the “five categories which are the objects of clinging” (pañc’upadana-kkhandha) — are inseparable from suffering as long as they remain objects of grasping or clinging. All corporeality, all feelings and sensations, all perceptions, all mental formations and consciousness, being impermanent, are a source of suffering, are conditioned phenomena and hence not-self (anicca, dukkha, anatta). Ceaseless origination and dissolution best characterize the process of existence called life, for all elements of this flux of becoming continually arise from conditions created by us and then pass away, giving rise to new elements of being according to one’s actions or kamma.

All suffering originates from craving, and our very existence is conditioned by craving, which is threefold: the craving for sense pleasures (kama-tanha), craving for continued and renewed existence (bhava-tanha), and craving for annihilation after death (vibhava-tanha). This is the truth of the origin of suffering.

The attainment of perfect happiness, the breaking of the chain of rebirths and suffering through the realization of Nibbana, is possible only through the utter extirpation of that threefold craving. This is the truth of suffering’s cessation.

The methods of training for the liberation from all suffering are applied by following the Noble Eightfold Path of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Living, Right Exertion, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration of Mind. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of three types of training summed up in: virtuous conduct (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (pañña). This is the truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering.

The prevalence of suffering and absence of freedom and happiness is due to man’s subjection to the three roots of all unskill and evil, and all unwholesome actions (akusalakamma), viz. lust, hatred and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha).

Virtuous conduct casts out lust. The calm of true concentration and mental culture conquers hatred. Wisdom or right understanding, also called direct knowledge resulting from meditation, dispels all delusion. All these three types of training are possible only through the cultivation of constant mindfulness (sati), which forms the seventh link of the Noble Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is called a controlling faculty (indriya) and a spiritual power (bala), and is also the first of the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhanga).[2] Right Mindfulness (samma-sati) has to be present in every skillful or karmically wholesome thought moment (kusalacitta). It is the basis of all earnest endeavor (appamada) for liberation, and maintains in us the sense of urgency to strive for enlightenment or Nibbana.

The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta, is the tenth discourse of the Middle Length Collection (Majjhima Nikaya) of the Discourses of the Enlightened One. It is this version which is translated in the present publication. There is another version of it, in the Collection of Long Discourses (Digha Nikaya No.22), which differs only by a detailed explanation of the Four Noble Truths.

The great importance of the Discourse on Mindfulness has never been lost to the Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. In Sri Lanka, even when the knowledge and practice of the Dhamma was at its lowest ebb through centuries of foreign domination, the Sinhala Buddhists never forgot the Satipatthana Sutta. Memorizing the Sutta has been an unfailing practice among the Buddhists, and even today in Sri Lanka there are large numbers who can recite the Sutta from memory. It is a common sight to see on full-moon days devotees who are observing the Eight Precepts, engaged in community recital of the Sutta. Buddhists are intent on hearing this Discourse even in the last moments of their lives; and at the bedside of a dying Buddhist either monks or laymen recite this venerated text.

In the private shrine room of a Buddhist home, the book of the Satipatthana Sutta is displayed prominently as an object of reverence. Monastery libraries of palm-leaf manuscripts have the Sutta bound in highly ornamented covers.

One such book with this Discourse written in Sinhala script on palm-leaf, has found its way from Sri Lanka as far as the State University Library of Bucharest in Rumania. This was disclosed while collecting material for the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, when an Esperantist correspondent gave us a list of a hundred books on Buddhism found in the Rumanian University Libraries.

Mindfulness of Breathing (Anapana-sati)

The subjects dealt with in the Satipatthana Sutta are corporeality, feeling, mind and mind objects, being the universe of right Buddhist contemplation for deliverance. A very prominent place in the Discourse is occupied by the discussion on mindfulness of breathing (anapana-sati). To make the present publication of greater practical value to the reader, an introductory exposition of the methods of practicing that particular meditation will now be given.

Mindfulness of breathing takes the highest place among the various subjects of Buddhist meditation. It has been recommended and praised by the Enlightened One thus: “This concentration through mindfulness of breathing, when developed and practiced much, is both peaceful and sublime, it is an unadulterated blissful abiding, and it banishes at once and stills evil unprofitable thoughts as soon as they arise.” Though of such a high order, the initial stages of this meditation are well within the reach of a beginner though he be only a lay student of the Buddha-Dhamma. Both in the Discourse here translated, and in the 118th Discourse of the same Collection (the Majjhima Nikaya), which specifically deals with that meditation, the initial instructions for the practice are clearly laid down:

Herein, monks, a monk, having gone to the forest or the root of a tree or to an empty place, sits down with his legs crossed, keeps his body erect and his mindfulness alert. Ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath.” Breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.” “Experiencing the whole (breath) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself.

These are instructions given by the Enlightened One to the monks who, after their alms round, had the whole remaining day free for meditation. But what about the lay Buddhist who has a limited time to devote to this practice? Among the places described as fit for the practice of meditation, one is available to all: suññagara, lit. “empty house,” may mean any room in the house that has no occupant at that moment, and one may in the course of the twenty-four hours of the day find a room in one’s house that is empty and undisturbed. Those who work all day and feel too tired in the evening for meditation may devote the early hours of the morning to the practice of mindfulness of breathing.

The other problem is the right posture for meditation. The full “lotus posture” of the yogi, the padmasana, as we see it in the Buddha statues, proves nowadays rather difficult to many, even to easterners. A youthful meditator, however, or even a middle-aged one, can well train himself in that posture in stages. He may, for instance, start with sitting on a low, broad chair or bed, bending only one leg and resting the other on the floor; and so, in gradual approximation, he may finally master that posture. There are also other easier postures of sitting with legs bent, for instance the half-lotus posture. It will be worth one’s effort to train oneself in such postures; but if one finds them difficult and uncomfortable at the outset it will not be advisable to delay or disturb one’s start with meditation proper on that account. One may allow a special time for sitting-practice, using it as best as one can for contemplation and reflection; but for the time being, the practice of meditation aiming at higher degrees of concentration may better be done in a posture that is comfortable. One may sit on a straight backed chair of a height that allows the legs to rest comfortably on the floor without strain. As soon however, as a cross-legged posture has become more comfortable, one should assume it for the practice of mindfulness of breathing, since it will allow one to sit in meditation for a longer time than is possible on a chair.

The meditator’s body and mind should be alert but not tense. A place with a dimmed light will be profitable since it will help to exclude diverting attention to visible objects.

The right place, time and posture are very important and often essential for a successful meditative effort.

Though we have been breathing throughout our life, we have done so devoid of mindfulness, and hence, when we try to follow each breath attentively, we find that the Buddhist teachers of old were right when they compared the natural state of an uncontrolled mind to an untamed calf. Our minds have long been dissipated among visible data and other objects of the senses and of thought, and hence do not yield easily to attempts at mind-control.

Suppose a cowherd wanted to tame a wild calf: he would take it away from the cow and tie it up apart with a rope to a stout post. Then the calf might dash to and fro, but being unable to get away and tired after its effort, it would eventually lie down by the post. So too, when the meditator wants to tame his own mind that has long been reared on the enjoyment of sense objects, he should take it away from places where these sense objects abound, and tie the mind to the post of in-breaths and out-breaths with the rope of mindfulness. And though his mind may then dash to and fro when deprived of its liberty to roam among the sense objects, it will ultimately settle down when mindfulness is persistent and strong.

When practicing mindfulness of breathing, attention should be focused at the tip of the nose or at the point of the upper lip immediately below where the current of air can be felt. The meditator’s attention should not leave this “focusing point” from where the in-coming and out-going breaths can be easily felt and observed. The meditator may become aware of the breath’s route through the body but he should not pay attention to it. At the beginning of the practice, the meditator should concentrate only on the in-breaths and out-breaths, and should not fall into any reflections about them. It is only at a later stage that he should apply himself to the arousing of knowledge and other states connected with the concentration.

In this brief introduction, only the first steps of the beginner can be discussed. For more information the student may refer to the English translation of the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification, chap. VIII) by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, or to Mindfulness of Breathing by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, and to The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera.[3]

The lay Buddhist who undertakes this practice will first take the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts; he will review the reflections on the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, transmit thoughts of loving-kindness (metta) in all directions, recollect that this meditation will help him to reach the goal of deliverance through direct knowledge and mental calm; and only then should he start with the mindfulness of breathing proper, first by way of counting.[4]


The Buddhist teachers of old recommend that a beginner should start the practice by counting the breaths mentally. In doing so he should not stop short of five or go beyond ten or make any break in the series. By stopping short of five breaths his mind has not enough room for contemplation, and by going beyond ten his mind takes the number rather than the breaths for its objects, and any break in the series would upset the meditation.

When counting, the meditator should first count when the in-breath or the out-breath is completed, not when it begins. So taking the in-breath first, he counts mentally ‘one’ when that in-breath is complete, then he counts ‘two’ when the out-breath is complete, ‘three’ after the next in-breath, and so on up to ten, and then again from one to ten, and so he should continue.

After some practice in counting at the completion of a breath, breathing may becoming faster. The breaths, however, should not be made longer or shorter intentionally. The meditator has to be just mindful of their occurrence as they come and go. Now he may try counting ‘one’ when he begins to breathe in or breathe out, counting up to five or ten, and then again from one to five or ten. If one takes both the in-breath and out-breath as ‘one,’ it is better to count only up to five.

Counting should be employed until one can dispense with it in following the sequence of breaths successively. Counting is merely a device to assist in excluding stray thoughts. It is, as it were, a guideline or railing for supporting mindfulness until it can do without such help. There may be those who will feel the counting more as a complication than a help, and they may well omit it, attending directly to the flow of the respiration by way of “connecting the successive breaths.”


After the counting has been discarded, the meditator should now continue his practice by way of connecting (anubandhana); that is, by following mindfully the in and out breaths without recourse to counting, and yet without a break in attentiveness. Here too, the breaths should not be followed beyond the nostrils where the respiratory air enters and leaves. The meditator must strive to be aware of the whole breath, in its entire duration and without missing one single phase, but his attention must not leave the place of contact, the nostrils, or that point of the upper lip where the current of air touches.

While following the in-breaths and out-breaths thus, they become fainter and fainter, and at times it is not easy to remain aware of that subtle sensation of touch caused by the respiration. Keener mindfulness is required to keep track of the breaths then. But if the meditator perseveres, one day he will feel a different sensation, a feeling of ease and happiness, and occasionally there appears before his mental eye something like a luminous star or a similar sign, which indicates that one approaches the stage of access concentration. Steadying the newly acquired sign, one may cultivate full mental absorption (jhana) or at least the preliminary concentration as a basis for practicing insight.

The practice of mindfulness of breathing is meant for both mental calm and insight (samatha and vipassana). Direct knowledge being the object of Buddhist meditation, the concentration gained by the meditative practice should be used for the clear understanding of reality as manifest in oneself and in the entire range of one’s experience.

Though penetrative insight leading to Nibbana is the ultimate object, progress in mindfulness and concentration will also bring many benefits in our daily lives. If we have become habituated to follow our breaths for a longer period of time and can exclude all (or almost all) intruding irrelevant thoughts, mindfulness, self-control and efficiency are sure to increase in all our activities. Just as our breathing, so also other processes of body and mind, will become clearer to us, and we shall come to know more of ourselves.

It has been said by the Buddha: “Mindfulness of breathing, developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, of great advantage, for it fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness; the four foundations of mindfulness, developed and repeatedly practiced, fulfill the seven enlightenment factors; the seven enlightenment factors, developed and repeatedly practiced, fulfill clear-vision and deliverance.” Clear vision and deliverance, or direct knowledge and the bliss of liberation, are the highest fruit of the application of mindfulness.

Satipatthana Sutta

Thus have I heard. At one time the Blessed One was living among the Kurus, at Kammasadamma, a market town of the Kuru people. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhu thus: “Monks,” and they replied to him, “Venerable Sir.” The Blessed One spoke as follows:

This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the four foundations of mindfulness. What are the four?

Herein (in this teaching) a monk lives contemplating the body in the body,[1] ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness,[2] ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.

I. The Contemplation of the Body

1. Mindfulness of Breathing

And how does a monk live contemplating the body in the body?

Herein, monks, a monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree or to an empty place, sits down with his legs crossed, keeps his body erect and his mindfulness alert.[3]

Ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.”

“Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself.

Just as a skillful turner or turner’s apprentice, making a long turn, knows, “I am making a long turn,” or making a short turn, knows, “I am making a short turn,” just so the monk, breathing in a long breath, knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.” “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself.

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally.[4] He lives contemplating origination factors[5] in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors[6] in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors[7] in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,”[8] to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached,[9] and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.

2. The Postures of the Body

And further, monks, a monk knows, when he is going, “I am going”; he knows, when he is standing, “I am standing”; he knows, when he is sitting, “I am sitting”; he knows, when he is lying down, “I am lying down”; or just as his body is disposed so he knows it.

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in the body.[10] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.

3. Mindfulness with Clear Comprehension

And further, monks, a monk, in going forward and back, applies clear comprehension; in looking straight on and looking away, he applies clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, he applies clear comprehension; in wearing robes and carrying the bowl, he applies clear comprehension; in eating, drinking, chewing and savoring, he applies clear comprehension; in walking, in standing, in sitting, in falling asleep, in waking, in speaking and in keeping silence, he applies clear comprehension.

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…

4. The Reflection on the Repulsiveness of the Body

And further, monks, a monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity, from the soles up, and from the top of the head-hairs down, thinking thus: “There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, midriff, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine.”

Just as if there were a double-mouthed provision bag full of various kinds of grain such as hill paddy, paddy, green gram, cow-peas, sesamum, and husked rice, and a man with sound eyes, having opened that bag, were to take stock of the contents thus: “This is hill paddy, this is paddy, this is green gram, this is cow-pea, this is sesamum, this is husked rice.” Just so, monks, a monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity, from the soles up, and from the top of the head-hairs down, thinking thus: “There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, midriff, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine.”

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…

5. The Reflection on the Material Elements

And further, monks, a monk reflects on this very body, however it be placed or disposed, by way of the material elements: “There are in this body the element of earth, the element of water, the element of fire, the element of wind.”[11]

Just as if, monks, a clever cow-butcher or his apprentice, having slaughtered a cow and divided it into portions, should be sitting at the junction of four high roads, in the same way, a monk reflects on this very body, as it is placed or disposed, by way of the material elements: “There are in this body the elements of earth, water, fire, and wind.”

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…

6. The Nine Cemetery Contemplations

(1) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body dead one, two, or three days; swollen, blue and festering, thrown in the charnel ground, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.

(2) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…

(3) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons…

(4) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton blood-besmeared and without flesh, held together by the tendons…

(5) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together by the tendons…

(6) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions_here a bone of the hand, there a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull…

(7) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bleached bones of conchlike color…

(8) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground reduced to bones, more than a year-old, lying in a heap…

(9) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”

Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.

II. The Contemplation of Feeling

And how, monks, does a monk live contemplating feelings in feelings?

Herein, monks, a monk when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows, “I experience a pleasant feeling”; when experiencing a painful feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful feeling”; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling,” he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling.” When experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, he knows, “I experience a pleasant worldly feeling”; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, he knows, “I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling”; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful worldly feeling”; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful spiritual feeling”; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling”; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling.”

Thus he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally, or he lives contemplating feelings in feelings externally, or he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in feelings, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in feelings, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in feelings.[12] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Feeling exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating feelings in feelings.

III. The Contemplation of Consciousness

And how, monks, does a monk live contemplating consciousness in consciousness?

Herein, monks, a monk knows the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the shrunken state of consciousness, as the shrunken state;[13] the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state;[14] the developed state of consciousness as the developed state;[15] the undeveloped state of consciousness as the undeveloped state;[16] the state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, as the state with something mentally higher;[17] the state of consciousness with no other mental state superior to it, as the state with nothing mentally higher;[18] the concentrated state of consciousness, as the concentrated state; the unconcentrated state of consciousness, as the unconcentrated state; the freed state of consciousness, as the freed state;[19] and the unfreed state of consciousness as the unfreed state.

Thus he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness externally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in consciousness, or he lives contemplating dissolution-factors in consciousness, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in consciousness.[20] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Consciousness exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness.

IV. The Contemplation of Mental Objects

1. The Five Hindrances

And how, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in mental objects?

Herein, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?

Herein, monks, when sense-desire is present, a monk knows, “There is sense-desire in me,” or when sense-desire is not present, he knows, “There is no sense-desire in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sense-desire comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sense-desire comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sense-desire comes to be.

When anger is present, he knows, “There is anger in me,” or when anger is not present, he knows, “There is no anger in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be.

When sloth and torpor are present, he knows, “There are sloth and torpor in me,” or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows, “There are no sloth and torpor in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be.

When agitation and remorse are present, he knows, “There are agitation and remorse in me,” or when agitation and remorse are not present, he knows, “There are no agitation and remorse in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen agitation and remorse comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and remorse comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and remorse comes to be.

When doubt is present, he knows, “There is doubt in me,” or when doubt is not present, he knows, “There is no doubt in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen doubt comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen doubt comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned doubt comes to be.

Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects.[21] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.

2. The Five Aggregates of Clinging

And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging.[22]

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging?

Herein, monks, a monk thinks, “Thus is material form; thus is the arising of material form; and thus is the disappearance of material form. Thus is feeling; thus is the arising of feeling; and thus is the disappearance of feeling. Thus is perception; thus is the arising of perception; and thus is the disappearance of perception. Thus are formations; thus is the arising of formations; and thus is the disappearance of formations. Thus is consciousness; thus is the arising of consciousness; and thus is the disappearance of consciousness.”

Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects.[23] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging.

3. The Six Internal and External Sense Bases

And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases.

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases?

Herein, monks, a monk knows the eye and visual forms and the fetter that arises dependent on both (the eye and forms);[24] he knows how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be.

He knows the ear and sounds… the nose and smells… the tongue and flavors… the body and tactual objects… the mind and mental objects, and the fetter that arises dependent on both; he knows how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be.

Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects.[25] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases.

4. The Seven Factors of Enlightenment

And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the seven factors of enlightenment.

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the seven factors of enlightenment?

Herein, monks, when the enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is present, the monk knows, “The enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is in me,” or when the enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of mindfulness comes to be; and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of mindfulness comes to be.

When the enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is present, the monk knows, “The enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects comes to be.

When the enlightenment-factor of energy is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of energy is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of energy is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of energy is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of energy comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of energy comes to be.

When the enlightenment-factor of joy is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of joy is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of joy is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of joy is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of joy comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of joy comes to be.

When the enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of tranquillity comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of tranquillity comes to be.

When the enlightenment-factor of concentration is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of concentration is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of concentration is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of concentration is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of concentration comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of concentration comes to be.

When the enlightenment-factor of equanimity is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of equanimity is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of equanimity is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of equanimity is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of equanimity comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of equanimity comes to be.

Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-factors in mental objects.[26] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the seven factors of enlightenment.

5. The Four Noble Truths

And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the four noble truths.

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the four noble truths?

Herein, monks, a monk knows, “This is suffering,” according to reality; he knows, “This is the origin of suffering,” according to reality; he knows, “This is the cessation of suffering,” according to reality; he knows “This is the road leading to the cessation of suffering,” according to reality.

Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-factors in mental objects.[27] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the four noble truths.

Verily, monks, whosoever practices these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for seven years, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge (arahantship) here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.[28]

O monks, let alone seven years. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for six years… five years… four years… three years… two years… one year, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

O monks, let alone a year. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for seven months… six months… five months… four months… three months… two months… a month… half a month, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

O monks, let alone half a month. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for a week, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

Because of this it was said: “This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness.”

Thus spoke the Blessed One. Satisfied, the monks approved of his words.


The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English
by Bhante Gunaratana.


THERE ARE several books on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Some of them are direct translations of the original Pali discourse of the historical Buddha, some explain the sutta in great detail with commentaries and subcommentaries, some are rich scholarly treatises. And if you are interested in improving your theoretical knowledge of meditation, any of these books can be highly recommended.

When I teach meditation I always try to make sure the listeners can receive the message easily and put it into practice even without a teacher around to consult; as always, my concern in this book is the actual practice, right here in our lives. And when I write, I strive to write everything in plain English. Meditation is becoming very popular these days for many good reasons.

Unfortunately, there are not enough accessible teachers to fully meet the demand of these burgeoning explorers. Some would-be students read good meditation books, some attend meditation retreats, and some listen to many good talks on meditation. After reading books on meditation, listening to talks on meditation, and attending meditation retreats, quite a number of students of meditation write me at the Bhavana Society with questions on matters they would like clarified. I thought of writing this book to answer some, not all, of the questions.

Of course, nobody can write one book or series of books answering all the questions people ask! And what’s more, as people delve more deeply, their enthusiasm prompts them to ask more questions. The present book is my humble attempt to answer some of the questions related to meditation.

I sincerely thank Ajahn sona, one of our students at the Bhavana Society, for his valuable help in getting this book started. I am grateful to Josh Bartok and Laura Cunningham at Wisdom Publications for making many valuable suggestions to complete this book and for shepherding it to completion, and to Brenda Rosen who contributed enormous time and effort to develop the manuscript.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Bhavana Society
High View, West Virginia


THE FOUR FOUNDATIONS OF MINDFULNESS is a talk or perhaps a collection of talks said to have been given by the historical Buddha.

Mindfulness or insight meditation is based on the Four Foundations. Now very well known in the West, this comprehensive set of meditation topics and techniques is probably the preeminent style of meditation taught today in the Theravada Buddhist world. Mindfulness has also been the focus of my books. In Mindfulness in Plain English, I present a practical step-by-step guide to mindfulness meditation. If you are new to insight practice, this book is a good place to start. In Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, I show how mindfulness is used to progress along the Buddha’s eight-step path to happiness.

You could say that the Four Foundations are the details of the seventh step of the Buddha’s path. In fact, the last three steps—effort, mindfulness, and concentration, which we in the West call “meditation”—are all covered in the Four Foundations. In Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, I explain the principles and techniques of deep concentration meditation. Concentration meditation or samatha is parallel and complementary to mindfulness meditation or vipassana, since the Four Foundations are the basis of all concentration.

Now, in this book, I write directly about the Four Foundations, the underlying principles of mindfulness practice. In simple and straightforward language, I share what the Buddha said about mindfulness in his instructional talks or suttas and how we can use these principles to improve our daily lives, deepen our mindfulness, and move closer to our spiritual goals.

The basic premise of mindfulness is simple. The body does many things without our awareness. When germs invade, our white blood cells attack the invaders without our knowledge. However, we can train ourselves to become aware of the things we do consciously with the body, such as walking, standing, talking, eating, drinking, writing, reading, playing, and other physical activities. We can also develop moment-to-moment awareness of our emotions, sensations, thoughts, and other mental activities.

Mindfulness trains us to do everything we do with full awareness. You may be wondering, “Why is full awareness important?” As anyone who tries mindfulness practice quickly discovers, the more aware we are of our actions and of the feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that give rise to them, the more insight we have into why we are doing what we are doing. Awareness allows us to see whether our actions spring from beneficial or harmful impulses.

Beneficial motivations include generosity, friendliness, compassion, and wisdom; harmful actions are caused primarily by greed, hatred, and delusion. When we are mindful of the deep roots from which our thoughts, words, and deeds grow, we have the opportunity to cultivate those that are beneficial and weed out those that are harmful. The Buddha is very clear that the primary aim of all his teachings is “the end of suffering.”Mindfulness helps us to recognize that beneficial actions bring peace of mind and happiness to our everyday lives.

They also help us progress on the Buddha’s path toward nibbana—liberation, complete freedom from suffering. Similarly, mindfulness teaches us that actions motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion make us miserable and anxious. They imprison us in samsara, the life-after-life cycle of repeated suffering.

When we practice mindfulness, before we speak we ask ourselves: “Are these words truthful and beneficial to me and to others? Will they bring peace, or will they create problems?” When we think mindfully, we ask: “Does this thought make me calm and happy, or distressed and fearful?” Before we act, we ask: “Will this action cause suffering for me and for others?” Being mindful gives us the opportunity to choose: “Do I want joy and contentment or misery and worry?”

Mindfulness also trains us to remember to pay attention to the changes that are continually taking place inside our body and mind and in the world around us. Normally, we forget to pay attention because the countless things that are happening simultaneously distract our minds. We get carried away by the superficial and lose sight of the flow. The mind wants to see what is next, what is next, and what is next. We get excited by the show and forget that it is, indeed, simply a show.

The Buddha taught: “That which is impermanent is suffering.” The truth of these words becomes clear when we simply pay attention. Eventually, the mind gets tired of moving from one impermanent thing to the next. Losing interest in the futile pursuit, the mind rests and finds joy. In Pali, the word for “to remember” is sati, which can also be translated as “mindfulness.”

Remembering is simply paying direct, non-verbal attention to what is happening from one moment to the next. Resting comfortably in awareness, we relax into things as they are right now in this very moment, without slipping away into what happened in the past or will happen in the future. Normally, because we do not understand, we tend to blame the world for our pain and suffering. But with sati, mindful remembering, we understand that the only place to find peace and freedom from suffering is this very place, right here in our own body and mind.

Memory is very natural to our body, almost automatic. Our hearts pump blood without our reminding them to do so. The mind can also be taught to act the same way. Training the faculty of mindfulness is like breathing oxygen continuously to remain alive. As mental events occur, mindfulness helps us see whether they hurt our mind and body.

We have the choice: Do we merely suffer from pain, or do we examine the pain to understand why it arises? If we ignore the causes, we continue to suffer. Living with awareness requires effort, but following the Buddha’s example, with practice anyone can master it. Mindfulness practice has deep roots in Buddhist tradition.

More than 2,600 years ago, the Buddha exhorted his senior bhikkhus, monks with the responsibility of passing his teachings on to others, to train their students in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. “What four?” he was asked. “Come, friends,” the Buddha answered. “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings …in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind …in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas …in order to know dhammas as they really are.”

The practice of contemplating (or as we might say, meditating on) the Four Foundations—mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas (or phenomena)—is recommended for people at every stage of the spiritual path. As the Buddha goes on to explain, everyone—trainees who have recently become interested in the Buddhist path, monks and nuns, and even arahants, advanced meditators who have already reached the goal of liberation from suffering, “should be exhorted, settled, and established in the development of these Four Foundations of Mindfulness.”

In this sutta, the Buddha is primarily addressing the community of bhikkhus, monks and nuns who have dedicated their lives to spiritual practice. Given this, you might wonder whether people with families and jobs and busy Western lives can benefit from mindfulness practice. If the Buddha’s words were meant only for monastics, he would have given this talk in a monastery. But he spoke in a village filled with shopkeepers, farmers, and other ordinary folk.

Since mindfulness can help men and women from all walks of life relieve suffering, we can assume that the word “bhikkhu” is used to mean anyone seriously interested in meditation. In that sense, we are all bhikkhus.

Let’s look briefly at each of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as a preview of things to come.

By asking us to practice mindfulness of the body, the Buddha is reminding us to see “the body in the body.” By these words he means that we should recognize that the body is not a solid unified thing, but rather a collection of parts. The nails, teeth, skin, bones, heart, lungs, and all other parts—each is actually a small “body” that is located in the larger entity that we call “the body.”

Traditionally, the human body is divided into thirty-two parts, and we train ourselves to be mindful of each. Trying to be mindful of the entire body is like trying to grab a heap of oranges. If we grab the whole heap at once, perhaps we will end up with nothing! Moreover, remembering that the body is composed of many parts helps us to see “the body as body”—not as my body or as myself, but simply as a physical form like all other physical forms. Like all forms, the body comes into being, remains present for a time, and then passes away. Since it experiences injury, illness, and death, the body is unsatisfactory as a source of lasting happiness.

Since it is not myself, the body can also be called “selfless.” When mindfulness helps us to recognize that the body is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless, in the Buddha’s words, we “know the body as it really is.” Similarly, by asking us to practice mindfulness of feelings, the Buddha is telling us to contemplate “the feeling in the feelings.” These words remind us that, like the body, feelings can be subdivided.

Traditionally, there are only three types—pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings. Each type is one “feeling” in the mental awareness that we call “feelings.” At any given moment we are able to notice only one type. When a pleasant feeling is present, neither a painful feeling nor a neutral feeling is present. The same is true of an unpleasant or neutral feeling. We regard feelings in this way to help us develop a simple non-judgmental awareness of what we are experiencing—seeing a particular feeling as one of many feelings, rather than as my feeling or as part of me.

As we watch each emotion or sensation as it arises, remains present, and passes away, we observe that any feeling is impermanent. Since a pleasant feeling does not last and an unpleasant feeling is often painful, we understand that feelings are unsatisfactory. Seeing a feeling as an emotion or sensation rather than as my feeling, we come to know that feelings are selfless. Recognizing these truths, we “know feelings as they really are.”

The same process applies to mindfulness of mind. Although we talk about “the mind” as if it were a single thing, actually, mind or consciousness is a succession of particular instances of “mind in mind.” As mindfulness practice teaches us, consciousness arises from moment to moment on the basis of information coming to us from the senses—what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—and from internal mental states, such as memories, imaginings, and daydreams.

When we look at the mind, we are not looking at mere consciousness. The mind alone cannot exist, only particular states of mind that appear depending on external or internal conditions. Paying attention to the way each thought arises, remains present, and passes away, we learn to stop the runaway train of one unsatisfactory thought leading to another and another and another. We gain a bit of detachment and understand that we are not our thoughts.

In the end, we come to know “mind as it really is.”By telling us to practice mindfulness of dhammas, or phenomena, the Buddha is not simply saying that we should be mindful of his teachings, though that is one meaning of the word “dhamma.”He is also reminding us that the dhamma that we contemplate is within us. The history of the world is full of truth seekers. The Buddha was one of them. Almost all sought the truth outside themselves. Before he attained enlightenment, the Buddha also searched outside of himself. He was looking for his maker, the cause of his existence, who he called the “builder of this house.” But he never found what he was looking for. Instead, he discovered that he himself was subject to birth, growth, decay, death, sickness, sorrow, lamentation, and defilement.

When he looked outside himself, he saw that everyone else was suffering from these same problems. This recognition helped him to see that no one outside himself could free him from his suffering. So he began to search within. This inner seeking is known as “come and see.” Only when he began to search inside did he find the answer. Then he said: Many a birth I wandered in samsara, Seeking but not finding the builder of this house. Sorrowful is it to be born again and again. Oh! House builder thou art seen. Thou shall not build house again. All thy rafters are broken. Thy ridgepole is shattered. The mind has attained the unconditioned.

The great discovery of the Buddha is that the truth is within us. The entire Dhamma that he taught is based on this realization. When we look inside, we come to understand the significance of the Four Noble Truths—the Buddha’s essential first teaching.

Where do we find suffering? We experience it within ourselves. And where is the cause of our suffering, craving? It, too, is within us. And, how can we reach the end of it, the cessation of suffering? We find the way within ourselves. And where do we develop skillful understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration, the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path—the method for ending suffering? We develop all of these qualities within our own body and mind.

The roots of suffering are within us. And the method for eliminating suffering is within us as well. When we practice mindfulness, we follow the Buddha’s example and look inside. We become aware that our own greed, hatred, and delusion are the causes of our unhappiness. When we replace these poisons with generosity, loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, patience, cordiality, gentleness, and wisdom, we find the happiness and peace of mind we have been seeking. As I always remind my students, “The meditation you do on the cushion is your homework. The rest of your life is your fieldwork. To practice mindfulness, you need both.”

The other meaning of dhammas is simply “phenomena.”When we follow the Buddha’s advice and “dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas,”we come to understand that each individual phenomenon within reality as we experience it, including physical objects, feelings, perceptions, mental activities, and consciousness, comes into being, remains, and then passes away. In the same way, the deep-rooted negative habits of the unenlightened mind that bind us to one unsatisfactory life after another, known as the fetters, are impermanent. With effort, each fetter—including greed, hatred, and belief in the existence of a permanent self or soul—can be recognized and removed.

In essence, the dhamma path is quite straightforward. We eliminate our harmful habits one by one and cultivate beneficial qualities based on our understanding of each of the Buddha’s teachings. In the end, the last fetter falls away, and we achieve liberation from suffering. So how do we get started with mindfulness meditation? I always recommend meditation focused on the breath as the best way to begin mindfulness training.

In Mindfulness in Plain English, I explain the basics of breath meditation and other essential mindfulness practices. Similar instructions for sitting meditation and walking meditation can be found in this book in the chapters on mindfulness of the body.

In the section that follows this introduction, I suggest ways to include the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta in a simple daily practice. While many people are drawn to meditation because of its wonderful benefits for relaxation, relief from stress and pain, and the general health of the body and mind, in the context of the Four Foundations, it’s important to keep another set of goals in mind.

With dedicated effort and regular practice, we can look forward to five significant spiritual accomplishments: First, meditation helps us become fully aware of what is going on in the mind and body here and now. All too often, we sleepwalk through our days, musing about the past or daydreaming about the future. Mindfulness teaches us to cut through the fog and bring our focus to the present moment.



The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English

by Bhante Gunaratana

get it at

Science Explains How The Beach Can Change Our Brains And Mental Health – Elizabeth. 

We are all too well acquainted with the sense of calmness and relaxation that proceeds after spending a day at the beach.

Taking time off to be near water, regardless whether it is a lake, the sea or an ocean, makes people blissful and tranquil. Doctors have noticed this sensation as early as the 18th century, and have started prescribing a visit to the beach as a cure for many illnesses.

The proximity of water, or more precisely the smell, the sound and the vast view influence our brain and make us feel restored and full of energy.

To really paint the picture, we can say that it actually brings the whole organism in a state of peace and harmony.

Curious Magazine