Category Archives: Mindfulness

AWAKENING. THE SCIENCE OF MEDITATION. How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body – Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

“To alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice.”

An altered trait, a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice endures, apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate. As meditation trains the mind, it reshapes the brain.

The most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, rather, a further reach toward our better nature. These deep changes are external signs of strikingly different brain function.

Now we can share scientific confirmation of these profound alterations of being, a transformation that dramatically ups the limits on psychological science’s ideas of human possibility. We offer a cleareyed view based on hard science, sifting out results that are not nearly as compelling as the claims made for them.

As with gaining skill in a given sport, finding a meditation practice that appeals to you and sticking with it will have the greatest benefits. Just find one to try, decide on the amount of time each day you can realistically practice daily, even as short as a few minutes, try it for a month, and see how you feel after those thirty days.

More than forty years ago, two friends and collaborators at Harvard, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson were unusual in arguing for the benefits of meditation. Now, as mindfulness and other brands of meditation become ever more popular, promising to fix everything from our weight to our relationship to our professional career, these two bestselling authors sweep away the misconceptions around these practices and show how smart practice can change our personal traits and even our genome for the better.

Drawing on cutting-edge research, Goleman and Davidson expertly reveal what we can learn from a one-of-a-kind data pool that includes world-class meditators. They share for the first time remarkable findings that show how meditation without drugs or high expense can cultivate qualities such as selflessness, equanimity, love and compassion, and redesign our neural circuitry.

Demonstrating two master thinkers at work, The Science of Meditation explains precisely how mind training benefits us. More than daily doses or sheer hours, we need smart practice, including crucial ingredients such as targeted feedback from a master teacher and a more spacious worldview.

Gripping in its storytelling and based on a lifetime of thought and action, this is one of those rare books that has the power to change us at the deepest level.

Chapter 1

The Deep Path and the Wide

One bright fall morning, Steve Z, a lieutenant colonel working in the Pentagon, heard a “crazy, loud noise,” and instantly was covered in debris as the ceiling caved in, knocking him to the floor, unconscious. It was September 11 , 2001, and a passenger jet had smashed into the huge building, very near to Steve’s office.

The debris that buried Steve saved his life as the plane’s fuselage exploded, a fireball of flames scouring the open office. Despite a concussion, Steve returned to work four days later, laboring through feverish nights, 6:00 pm. to 6:00 am, because those were daytime hours in Afghanistan. Soon after, he volunteered for a year in Iraq.

“I mainly went to Iraq because I couldn’t walk around the Mall without being hypervigilant, wary of how people looked at me, totally on guard,” Steve recalls. “I couldn’t get on an elevator, I felt trapped in my car in traffic.”

His symptoms were classic post-traumatic stress disorder. Then came the day he realized he couldn’t handle this on his own. Steve ended up with a psychotherapist he still sees. She led him, very gently, to try mindfulness.

Mindfulness, he recalls, “gave me something I could do to help feel more calm, less stressed, not be so reactive.” As he practiced more, added loving-kindness to the mix, and went on retreats, his PTSD symptoms gradually became less frequent, less intense. Although his irritability and restlessness still came, he could see them coming.

Tales like Steve’s offer encouraging news about meditation. We have been meditators all our adult lives, and, like Steve, know for ourselves that the practice has countless benefits.

But our scientific backgrounds give us pause, too. Not everything chalked up to meditation’s magic actually stands up to rigorous tests. And so we have set out to make clear what works and what does not.

Some of what you know about meditation may be wrong. But what is true about meditation you may not know.

Take Steve’s story. The tale has been repeated in endless variations by countless others who claim to have found relief in meditation methods like mindfulness, not just from PTSD but from virtually the entire range of emotional disorders.

Yet mindfulness, part of an ancient meditation tradition, was not intended to be such a cure; this method was only recently adapted as a balm for our modern forms of angst. The original aim, embraced in some circles to this day, focuses on a deep exploration of the mind toward a profound alteration of our very being.

On the other hand, the pragmatic applications of meditation, like the mindfulness that helped Steve recover from trauma, appeal widely but do not go so deep. Because this wide approach has easy access, multitudes have found a way to include at least a bit of meditation in their day.

There are, then, two paths: the deep and the wide. Those two paths are often confused with each other, though they differ greatly.

We see the deep path embodied at two levels: in a pure form, for example, in the ancient lineages of Theravada Buddhism as practiced in Southeast Asia, or among Tibetan yogis (for whom we’ll see some remarkable data in chapter eleven, “A Yogi’s Brain”). We’ll call this most intensive type of practice Level 1.

At Level 2, these traditions have been removed from being part of a total lifester-monk or yogi, for example, and adapted into forms more palatable for the West. At Level 2, meditation comes in forms that leave behind parts of the original Asian source that might not make the cross-cultural journey so easily.

Then there are the wide approaches. At Level 3, a further remove takes these same meditation practices out of their spiritual context and distributes them ever more wider, as is the case with mindfulness-based stress reduction (better known as MBSR), founded by our good friend Jon Kabat-Zinn and taught now in thousands of clinics and medical centers, and far beyond. Or Transcendental Meditation (TM), which offers classic Sanskrit mantras to the modern world in a user-friendly format.

The even more widely accessible forms of meditation at Level 4 are, of necessity, the most watered-down, all the better to render them handy for the largest number of people. The current vogues of mindfulness-at-your-desk, or via minutes-long meditation apps, exemplify this level.

We foresee also a Level 5, one that exists now only in bits and pieces, but which may well increase in number and reach with time. At Level 5, the lessons scientists have learned in studying all the other levels will lead to innovations and adaptations that can be of widest benefit, a potential we explore in the final chapter, “A Healthy Mind.”

The deep transformations of Level 1 fascinated us when we originally encountered meditation. Dan studied ancient texts and practiced the methods they describe, particularly during the two years he lived in India and Sri Lanka in his grad school days and just afterward. Richie (as everyone calls him) followed Dan to Asia for a lengthy visit, likewise practicing on retreat there, meeting with meditation scholars, and more recently has scanned the brains of Olympic-level meditators in his lab at the University of Wisconsin.

Our own meditation practice has been mainly at Level 2. But from the start, the wide path, Levels 3 and 4, has also been important to us. Our Asian teachers said if any aspect of meditation could help alleviate suffering, it should be offered to all, not just those on a spiritual search. Our doctoral dissertations applied that advice by studying ways meditation could have cognitive and emotional payoffs.

The story we tell here mirrors our own personal and professional journey. We have been close friends and collaborators on the science of meditation since the 1970s, when we met at Harvard during graduate school, and we have both been practitioners of this inner art over all these years (although we are nowhere near mastery).

While we were both trained as psychologists, we bring complementary skills to telling this story. Dan is a seasoned science journalist who wrote for the New York Times for more than a decade. Richie, a neuroscientist, founded and heads the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Healthy Minds, in addition to directing the brain imaging laboratory at the Waisman Center there, replete with its own fMRl, PET scanner, and a battery of cuttingedge data analysis programs, along with hundreds of servers for the heavy-duty computing required for this work. His research group numbers more than a hundred experts, who range from physicists, statisticians, and computer scientists to neuroscientists and psychologists, as well as scholars of meditative traditions.

Coauthoring a book can be awkward. We’ve had some of that, to be sure, but whatever drawbacks coauthorship brought us has been vastly overshadowed by the sheer delight we find in working together. We’ve been best friends for decades but labored separately over most of our careers. This book has brought us together again, always a joy.

You are holding the book we had always wanted to write but could not. The science and the data we needed to support our ideas have only recently matured. Now that both have reached a critical mass, we are delighted to share this.

Our joy also comes from our sense of a shared, meaningful mission: we aim to shift the conversation with a radical reinterpretation of what the actual benefits of meditation are, and are not, and what the true aim of practice has always been.


After his return from India in the fall of 1974, Richie was in a seminar on psychopathology back at Harvard. Richie, with long hair and attire in keeping with the zeitgeist of Cambridge in those times, including a colorful woven sash that he wore as a belt, was startled when his professor said, “One clue to schizophrenia is the bizarre way a person dresses,” giving Richie a meaningful glance.

And when Richie told one of his Harvard professors that he wanted to focus his dissertation on meditation, the blunt response came immediately: that would be a career-ending move.

Dan set out to research the impacts of meditation that uses a mantra. On hearing this, one of his clinical psychology professors asked with suspicion, “How is a mantra any different from my obsessive patients who can’t stop saying ‘shit-shit-shit’?” The explanation that the expletives are involuntary in the psychopathology, while the silent mantra repetition is a voluntary and intentional focusing device, did little to placate him.

These reactions were typical of the opposition we faced from our department heads, who were still responding with knee-jerk negativity toward anything to do with consciousness, perhaps a mild form of PTSD after the notorious debacle involving Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Leary and Alpert had been very publicly ousted from our department in a brouhaha over letting Harvard undergrads experiment with psychedelics. This was some five years before we arrived, but the echoes lingered.

Despite our academic mentors’ seeing our meditation research as a blind alley, our hearts told us this was of compelling import. We had a big idea: beyond the pleasant states meditation can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting traits that can result.

An altered trait, a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice endure, apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate.

The concept of altered traits has been a lifelong pursuit, each of us playing synergistic roles in the unfolding of this story. There were Dan’s years in India as an early participant-observer in the Asian roots of these mindaltering methods. And on Dan’s return to America he was a not-so-successful transmitter to contemporary psychology of beneficial changes from meditation and the ancient working models for achieving them.

Richie’s own experiences with meditation led to decades pursuing the science that supports our theory of altered traits. His research group has now generated the data that lend credence to what could otherwise seem mere fanciful tales. And by leading the creation of a fledgling research field, contemplative neuroscience, he has been grooming a coming generation of scientists whose work builds on and adds to this evidence.

In the wake of the tsunami of excitement over the wide path, the alternate route so often gets missed: that is, the deep path, which has always been the true goal of meditation. As we see it, the most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, rather, a further reach toward our better nature.

A stream of findings from the deep path markedly boosts science’s models of the upper limits of our positive potential. The further reaches of the deep path cultivate enduring qualities like selflessness, equanimity a loving presence, and impartial compassion, highly positive altered traits.

When we began, this seemed big news for modern psychology, if it would listen. Admittedly, at first the concept of altered traits had scant backing save for the gut feelings we had from meeting highly seasoned practitioners in Asia, the claims of ancient meditation texts, and our own fledgling tries at this inner art. Now, after decades of silence and disregard, the last few years have seen ample findings that bear out our early hunch. Only of late have the scientific data reached critical mass, confirming what our intuition and the texts told us: these deep changes are external signs of strikingly different brain function.

Much of that data comes from Richie’s lab, the only scientific center that has gathered findings on dozens of contemplative masters, mainly Tibetan yogis, the largest pool of deep practitioners studied anywhere.

These unlikely research partners have been crucial in building a scientific case for the existence of a way of being that has eluded modern thought, though it was hiding in plain sight as a goal of the world’s major spiritual traditions. Now we can share scientific confirmation of these profound alterations of being, a transformation that dramatically ups the limits on psychological science’s ideas of human possibility.

The very idea of “awakening”, the goal of the deep path, seems a quaint fairy tale to a modern sensibility. Yet data from Richie’s lab, some just being published in journals as this book goes to press, confirm that remarkable, positive alterations in brain and behavior along the lines of those long described for the deep path are not a myth but a reality.


We have both been longtime board members of the Mind and Life Institute, formed initially to create intensive dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists on wide-ranging topics. In 2000 we organized one on “destructive emotions,” with several top experts on emotions, including Richie. Midway through that dialogue the Dalai Lama, turning to Richie, made a provocative challenge.

His own tradition, the Dalai Lama observed, had a wide array of time-tested practices for taming destructive emotions. So, he urged, take these methods into the laboratory in forms freed from religious trappings, test them rigorously, and if they can help people lessen their destructive emotions, then spread them widely to all who might benefit.

That fired us up. Over dinner that night, and several nights following, we began to plot the general course of the research we report in this book.

The Dalai Lama’s challenge led Richie to refocus the formidable power of his lab to assess both the deep and the wide paths. And, as founding director of the Center for Healthy Minds, Richie has spurred work on useful, evidence-based applications suitable for schools, clinics, businesses, even for cops, for anyone, anywhere, ranging from a kindness program for preschoolers to treatments for veterans with PTSD.

The Dalai Lama’s urging catalyzed studies that support the wide path in scientific terms, a vernacular welcomed around the globe. Meanwhile the wide way has gone viral, becoming the stuff of blogs, tweets, and snappy apps. For instance, as we write this, a wave of enthusiasm surrounds mindfulness, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, now practice the method.

But viewing mindfulness (or any variety of meditation) through a scientific lens starts with questions like: When does it work, and when does it not? Will this method help everyone? Are its benefits any different from, say, exercise? These are among the questions that brought us to write this book.

Meditation is a catch-all word for myriad varieties of contemplative practice, just as sports refers to a wide range of athletic activities. For both sports and meditation, the end results vary depending on what you actually do.

Some practical advice: for those about to start a meditation practice, or who have been grazing among several, keep in mind that as with gaining skill in a given sport, finding a meditation practice that appeals to you and sticking with it will have the greatest benefits. Just find one to try, decide on the amount of time each day you can realistically practice daily, even as short as a few minutes, try it for a month, and see how you feel after those thirty days.

Just as regular workouts give you better physical fitness, most any type of meditation will enhance mental fitness to some degree. As we’ll see, the specific benefits from one or another type get stronger the more total hours of practice you put in.


Swami X, as we’ll call him, was at the tip of the wave of meditation teachers from Asia who swarmed to America in the mid-1970s, during our Harvard days. The swami reached out to us saying he was eager to have his yogic prowess studied by scientists at Harvard who could confirm his remarkable abilities.

It was the height of excitement about a then new technology, biofeedback, which fed people instant information about their physiology, blood pressure, for instance, which otherwise was beyond their conscious control. With that new incoming signal, people were able to nudge their body’s operations in healthier directions. Swami X claimed he had such control without the need for feedback.

Happy to stumble on a seemingly accomplished subject for research, we were able to finagle the use of a physiology lab at Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

But come the day of testing the swami’s prowess, when we asked him to lower his blood pressure, he raised it. When asked to raise it, he lowered it. And when we told him this, the swami berated us for serving him “toxic tea” that supposedly sabotaged his gifts.

Our physiological tracings revealed he could do none of the mental feats he had boasted about. He did, however, manage to put his heart into atrial fibrillation, a high-risk biotalent, with a method he called “dog samadhi,” a name that mystifies us to this day.

From time to time the swami disappeared into the men’s room to smoke a bidi (these cheap cigarettes, a few flakes of tobacco wrapped in a plant leaf, are popular throughout India). A telegram from friends in India soon after revealed that the “swami” was actually the former manager of a shoe factory who had abandoned his wife and two children and come to America to make his fortune.

No doubt Swami X was seeking a marketing edge to attract disciples. In his subsequent appearances he made sure to mention that “scientists at Harvard” had studied his meditative prowess. This was an early harbinger of what has become a bountiful harvest of data refried into sales hype.

With such cautionary incidents in mind, we bring open but skeptical minds, the scientist’s mind-set, to the current wave of meditation research. For the most part we view with satisfaction the rise of the mindfulness movement and its rapidly growing reach in schools, business, and our private lives, the wide approach. But we bemoan how the data all too often is distorted or exaggerated when science gets used as a sales hook.

The mix of meditation and monetizing has a sorry track record as a recipe for hucksterism, disappointment, even scandal. All too often, gross misrepresentations, questionable claims, or distortions of scientific studies are used to sell meditation. A business website, for instance, features a blog post called “How Mindfulness Fixes Your Brain, Reduces Stress, and Boosts Performance.” Are these claims justified by solid scientific findings? Yes and no, though the “no” too easily gets overlooked.

Among the iffy findings gone viral with enthusiastic claims: that meditation thickens the brain’s executive center, the prefrontal cortex, while shrinking the amygdala, the trigger for our freeze-fight-or-flight response; that meditation shifts our brain’s set point for emotions into a more positive range; that meditation slows aging; and that meditation can be used to treat diseases ranging from diabetes to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

On closer look, each of the studies on which these claims are based has problems with the methods used; they need more testing and corroboration to make firm claims. Such findings may well stand up to further scrutiny, or maybe not.

The research reporting amygdala shrinkage, for instance, used a method to estimate amygdala volume that may not be very accurate. And one widely cited study describing slower aging used a very complex treatment that included some meditation but was mixed with a special diet and intensive exercise as well; the impact of meditation per se was impossible to decipher.

Still, social media are rife with such claims, and hyperbolic ad copy can be enticing. So we offer a cleareyed view based on hard science, sifting out results that are not nearly as compelling as the claims made for them.

Even well-meaning proponents have little guidance in distinguishing between what’s sound and what’s questionable, or just sheer nonsense. Given the rising tide of enthusiasm, our more sober-minded take comes not a moment too soon.

A note to readers.

The first three chapters cover our initial forays into meditation, and the scientific hunch that motivated our quest.

Chapters four through twelve narrate the scientific journey, with each chapter devoted to a particular topic like attention or compassion; each of these has an “In a Nutshell” summary at the end for those who are more interested in what we found than how we got there.

In chapters eleven and twelve we arrive at our long-sought destination, sharing the remarkable findings on the most advanced meditators ever studied.

In chapter thirteen, “Altering Traits,” we lay out the benefits of meditation at three levels: beginner, longterm, and “Olympic.”

In our final chapter we speculate on what the future might bring, and how these findings might be of greater benefit not just to each of us individually but to society.


As early as the 1830s, Thoreau and Emerson, along with their fellow American Transcendentalists, flirted with these Eastern inner arts. They were spurred by the first English-language translations of ancient spiritual texts from Asia, but had no instruction in the practices that supported those texts. Almost a century later, Sigmund Freud advised psychoanalysts to adopt an “even-hovering attention” while listening to their clients, but again, offered no method.

The West’s more serious engagement took hold mere decades ago, as teachers from the East arrived, and as a generation of Westerners traveled to study meditation in Asia, some returning as teachers. These forays paved the way for the current acceleration of the wide path, along with fresh possibilities for those few who choose to pursue the deep way.

In the 1970s, when we began publishing our research on meditation, there were just a handful of scientific articles on the topic. At last count there numbered 6,838 such articles, with a notable acceleration of late. For 2014 the annual number was 925, in 2015 the total was 1,098, and in 2016 there were 1,113 such publications in the English language scientific literature.


It was April 2001, on the top floor of the Fluno Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and we were convening with the Dalai Lama for an afternoon of scientific dialogue on meditation research findings. Missing from the room was Francisco Varela, a Chilean-born neuroscientist and head of a cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. His remarkable career included cofounding the Mind and Life Institute, which had organized this very gathering.

As a serious meditation practitioner, Francisco could see the promise for a full collaboration between seasoned meditators and the scientists studying them. That model became standard practice in Richie’s lab, as well as others.

Francisco had been scheduled to participate, but he was fighting liver cancer and a severe downturn meant he could not travel. He was in his bed at home in Paris, close to dying.

This was in the days before Skype and videoconferencing, but Richie’s group managed a two-way video hookup between our meeting room and Francisco’s bedroom in his Paris apartment. The Dalai Lama addressed him very directly, looking closely into the camera. They both knew that this would be the very last time they would see each other in this lifetime.

The Dalai Lama thanked Francisco for all he had done for science and for the greater good, told him to be strong, and said that they would remain connected forever. Richie and many others in the room had tears streaming down, appreciating the momentous import of the moment. Just days after the meeting, Francisco passed away.

Three years later, in 2004, an event occurred that made real a dream Francisco had often talked about. At the Garrison Institute, an hour up the Hudson River from New York City, one hundred scientists, graduate students, and postdocs had gathered for the first in what has become a yearly series of events, the Summer Research Institute (SRI), a gathering devoted to furthering the rigorous study of meditation.

The meetings are organized by the Mind and Life Institute, itself formed in 1987 by the Dalai Lama, Francisco, and Adam Engle, a lawyer turned businessman. We were founding board members. The mission of Mind and Life is “to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice.”

Mind and Life’s summer institute, we felt, could offer a more welcoming reality for those who, like us in our grad school days, wanted to do research on meditation. While we had been isolated pioneers, we wanted to knit together a community of like-minded scholars and scientists who shared this quest. They could be supportive of each other’s work at a distance, even if they were alone in their interests at their own institution.

Details of the SRI were hatched over the kitchen table in Richie’s home in Madison, in a conversation with Adam Engle, Richie and a handful of scientists and scholars then organized the first summer program and served as faculty for the week, featuring topics like the cognitive neuroscience of attention and mental imagery. As of this writing, thirteen more meetings have followed (with two so far in Europe, and possibly future meetings in Asia and South America).

Beginning with the very first SRI, the Mind and Life Institute began a program of small grants named in honor of Francisco. These few dozen, very modest Varela research awards (up to $25,000, though most research of this kind takes far more in funding) have leveraged more than $60 million in follow-on funding from foundations and US federal granting agencies. And the initiative has borne plentiful fruit: fifty or so graduates of the SRI have published several hundred papers on meditation.

As these young scientists entered academic posts, they swelled the numbers of researchers doing such studies. They have driven in no small part the ever-growing numbers of scientific studies on meditation.

At the same time, more established scientists have shifted their focus toward this area as results showed valuable yield. The findings rolling out of Richie’s brain lab at the University of Wisconsin, and labs of other scientists, from the medical schools of Stanford and Emory, Yale and Harvard, and far beyond, routinely make headlines.

Given meditation’s booming popularity, we feel a need for a hard-nosed look. The neural and biological benefits best documented by sound science are not necessarily the ones we hear about in the press, on Facebook, or from email marketing blasts. And some of those trumpeted far and wide have little scientific merit.

Many reports boil down to the ways a short daily dose of meditation alters our biology and emotional life for the better. This news, gone viral, has drawn miliions worldwide to find a slot in their daily routine for meditation.

But there are far greater possibilities, and some perils. The moment has come to tell the bigger tale, the headlines are missing.

There are several threads in the tapestry we weave here. One can be seen in the story of our decades-long friendship and our shared sense of a greater purpose, at first a distant and unlikely goal but one in which we persisted despite obstacles. Another traces the emergence of neuroscience’s evidence that our experiences shape our brains, a platform supporting our theory that as meditation trains the mind, it reshapes the brain. Then there’s the flood of data we’ve mined to show the gradient of this change.

At the outset, mere minutes a day of practice have surprising benefits (though not all those that are claimed). Beyond such payoffs at the beginning, we can now show that the more hours you practice, the greater the benefits you reap. And at the highest levels of practice we find true altered traits, changes in the brain that science has never observed before, but which we proposed decades ago.

Chapter 2

Ancient Clues

Our story starts one early November morning in 1970, when the spire of the stupa in Bodh Gaya was lost to view, enveloped in the ethereal mist rising from the Niranjan River nearby. Next to the stupa stood a descendant of the very Bodhi Tree under which, legend has it, Buddha sat in meditation as he became enlightened.

Through the mist that morning, Dan glimpsed an elderly Tibetan monk amble by as he made his postdawn rounds, circumambulating the holy site. With shortcropped gray hair and eyeglasses as thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, he fingered his mala beads while mumbling softly a mantra praising the Buddha as a sage, or muni in Sanskrit: “Muni, muni, mahamuni, mahamuniya swaha!”

A few days later, friends happened to bring Dan to visit that very monk, Khunu Lama. He inhabited a sparse, unheated cell, its concrete walls radiating the late-fall chill. A wooden-plank tucket served as both bed and day couch, with a small stand alongside for perching texts to read, and little else. As befits a monk, the room was empty of any private belongings.

From the early-morning hours until late into the night, Khunu Lama would sit on that bed, a text always open in front of him. Whenever a visitor would pop in, and in the Tibetan world that could be at just about any time, he would invariably welcome them with a kindly gaze and warm words.

Khunu’s qualities, a loving attention to whoever came to see him, an ease of being, and a gentle presence, struck Dan as quite unlike, and far more positive than, the personality traits he had been studying for his degree in clinical psychology at Harvard. That training focused on negatives: neurotic patterns, overpowering burdensome feelings, and outright psychopathology.

Khunu, on the other hand, quietly exuded the better side of human nature. His humility, for instance, was fabled. The story goes that the abbot of the monastery, in recognition of Khunu’s spiritual status, offered him as living quarters a suite of rooms on the monastery’s top floor, with a monk to serve as an attendant. Khunu declined, preferring the simplicity of his small, bare monk’s cell.

Khunu Lama was one of those rare masters revered by all schools of Tibetan practice. Even the Dalai Lama sought him out for teachings, receiving instructions on Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara, a guide to the compassion-filled life of a bodhisattva. To this day, whenever the Dalai Lama teaches this text, one of his favorites, he credits Khunu as his mentor on the topic.

Before meeting Khunu Lama, Dan had spent months with an Indian yogi, Neem Karoli Baba, who had drawn him to India in the first place. Neem Karoli, known by the honorific Maharaji, was newly famous in the West as the guru of Ram Dass, who in those years toured the country with mesmerizing accounts of his transformation from Richard Alpert (the Harvard professor fired for experimenting with psychedelics, along with his colleague Timothy Leary) to a devotee of this old yogi. By accident, during Christmas break from his Harvard classes in 1968, Dan met Ram Dass, who had just returned from being with Neem Karoli in India, and that encounter eventually propelled Dan’s journey to India.

Dan managed to get a Harvard Predoctoral Traveling Fellowship to India in fall 1970, and located Neem Karoli Baba at a small ashram in the Himalayan foothills. Living the life of a sadhu, Maharaji’s only worldly possessions seemed to be the white cotton dhoti he wore on hot days and the heavy woolen plaid blanket he wrapped around himself on cold ones. He kept no particular schedule, had no organization, nor offered any fixed program of yogic poses or meditations. Like most sadhus, he was itinerant, unpredictably on the move. He mainly hung out on a tucket on the porch of whatever ashram, temple, or home he was visiting at the time.

Maharaji seemed always to be absorbed in some state of ongoing quiet rapture, and, paradoxically, at the same time was attentive to whoever was with him. What struck Dan was how utterly at peace and how kind Maharaji was. Like Khunu, he took an equal interest in everyone who came, and his visitors ranged from the highest-ranking government officials to beggars.

There was something about his ineffable state of mind that Dan had never sensed in anyone before meeting Maharaji. No matter what he was doing, he seemed to remain effortlessly in a blissful, loving space, perpetually at ease. Whatever state Maharaji was in seemed not some temporary oasis in the mind, but a lasting way of being: a trait of utter wellness.


After two months or so making daily visits to Maharaji at the ashram, Dan and his friend Jeff (now widely known as the devotional singer Krishna Das) went traveling with another Westerner who was desperate to renew his visa after spending seven years in India living as a sadhu. That journey ended for Dan at Bodh Gaya, where he was soon to meet Khunu Lama.

Bodh Gaya, in the North Indian state Bihar, is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists the world over, and most every Buddhist country has a building in the town where its pilgrims can stay. The Burmese vihara, or pilgrim’s rest house, had been built before the takeover by a military dictatorship that forbade Burma’s citizens to travel. The vihara had lots of rooms but few pilgrims, and soon became an overnight stop for the ragged band of roaming Westerners who wandered through town.

When Dan arrived there in November 1970, he met the sole long-term American resident, Joseph Goldstein, a former Peace Corps worker in Thailand. Joseph had spent more than four years studying at the vihara with Anagarika Munindra, a meditation master. Munindra, of slight build and always clad in white, belonged to the Barua caste in Bengal, whose members had been Buddhist since the time of Gautama himself.

Munindra had studied vipassana (the Theravadan meditation and root source of many now-popular forms of mindfulness) under Burmese masters of great repute. Munindra, who became Dan’s first instructor in the method, had just invited his friend S. N. Goenka, a jovial, paunchy former businessman recently turned meditation teacher, to come to the vihara to lead a series of ten-day retreats.

Goenka had become a meditation teacher in a tradition established by Ledi Sayadaw, a Burmese monk who, as part of a cultural renaissance in the early twentieth century meant to counter British colonial influence, revolutionized meditation by making it widely available to laypeople. While meditation in that culture had for centuries been the exclusive provenance of monks and nuns, Goenka learned vipassana from U Ba Khin (U is an honorific in Burmese), at one time Burma’s accountant general, who had been taught the method by a farmer, who was in turn taught by Ledi Sayadaw.

Dan took five of Goenka’s ten-day courses in a row, immersing himself in this rich meditation method. He was joined by about a hundred fellow travelers. This gathering in the winter of 1970-71 was a seminal moment in the transfer of mindfulness from an esoteric practice in Asian countries to its current widespread adoption around the world. A handful of the students there, with Joseph Goldstein leading the way, later became instrumental in bringing mindfulness to the West.

Starting in his college years Dan had developed a twice-daily habit of twenty-minute meditation sessions, but this immersion in ten days of continual practice brought him to new levels. Goenka’s method started with simply noting the sensations of breathing in and out, not for just twenty minutes but for hours and hours a day. This cultivation of concentration then morphed into a systematic whole-body scan of whatever sensations were occurring anywhere in the body. What had been “my body, my knee” becomes a sea of shifting sensation, a radical shift in awareness.

. . .


The Science of Meditation. How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body

by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

get it at


Meditation increases prosociality? Meditation under the microscope – Ute Kreplin.

It’s hailed as the panacea for everything from cancer to war.

Inflated study results for the power of meditation fuel magical beliefs about its benefits. Mindfulness websites market it as a ‘happy pill, with no side effects’; it is said it can bring world peace in a generation, if only children would breathe deep and live in the moment.

But what if meditation doesn’t work for you? Or worse, what if it makes you feel depressed, anxious or psychotic?

Does research into its efficacy meet scientific standards? Can we be sure that there are no unexpected outcomes that neither benefit the individual nor society? Is it possible that meditation can fuel dysfunctional environments and indeed itself create a path to mental illness?

One day there will be a more complete picture of this potent and poorly understood practice. For now, our understanding is mostly warped.

Among the promised psychological and physical benefits of meditation are the elimination or reduction of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as bipolar disorder, eating disorders, diabetes, substance abuse, chronic pain, blood pressure, cancer, autism and schizophrenia. It is a panacea for the individual.

There are also apparent interpersonal and collective effects. Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived meditation techniques, such as compassion and loving-kindness meditation, can perhaps increase prosocial emotions and behaviours, yielding greater social connection and altruism, tampering aggression and prejudice.

‘If every eight year old in the world is taught meditation,’ the Dalai Lama purportedly said, ‘the world will be without violence within one generation.’ The quote is widely shared online.

Such a useful activity naturally finds a variety of applications. Meditation techniques have been deployed in the military with the aim of increasing the wellbeing and work effectiveness of soldiers. Snipers are known to meditate in order to disengage emotionally from the act of killing, to steady the hand that takes a life (the element of peacefulness associated with meditation having been rather set aside). Corporations counteract stress and burnout with meditation which, on the surface, is an amiable aim, but it can also help create compliant workers. And in schools, meditation interventions aim to calm children’s minds, offering students the ability to better deal with the pressure of attaining high grades. Here, too, the goal is to reduce misbehaviour and aggression in a bid to increase prosociality and compliance.

Psychological research often upholds this optimism about the efficacy of meditation. Indeed, studies on the prosocial effects of meditation almost always support the power of meditation, the power not only of transforming the individual but of changing society. So it appears well grounded that meditation might improve socially advantageous behaviour. This brings with it the prospect of applications in a variety of contexts, where it might find its use in social conflicts, such as mitigation of war and terrorism. The problem, however, is with the research that bolsters such claims.

Last year, the experimental psychologists Miguel Farias, Inti A Brazil and I conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis that examined the scientiiic literature behind the claim that meditation increases prosociality. We looked at randomised controlled studies, where meditators were compared with nonmeditating individuals, and reviewed more than 20 studies that evaluated the effect of various types of meditation on prosocial feelings and behaviours such as how compassionate, empathetic or connected individuals felt.

The studies we reviewed used a variety of methodologies and interventions. For example, one used an eight-week meditation intervention called ‘mindfulness-based stress-reduction’. Individuals learned how to conduct mindful breathing and to practise ‘being in the moment’, letting go of their thoughts and feelings. Meanwhile the control group, with which the meditators were compared, engaged in a weekly group discussion about the benefits of compassion. Another study compared guided relaxation (participants listening to an audio recording about deep breathing and unwinding) with a control group that simply did nothing in a waiting room. Most studies required participants to fill in questionnaires about their experience of the meditation intervention, and their levels of compassion towards themselves and others. Some studies also included behavioural measures of compassion, in one case assessed by how willing a person was to give up a chair in a (staged) full waiting room.

Initially, the results were promising. Our meta-analysis indicated that meditation did indeed have a positive, though moderate, impact on prosociality. But digging deeper, the picture became more complicated. While meditation made people feel somewhat more compassionate or empathetic, it did not reduce aggression or prejudice, nor did it improve how socially connected one felt. So the prosocial benefits are not straightforward, but they are apparently measurable. The issue is the way in which those benefits were measured.

To fully dissect the studies, we conducted a secondary comparison to see how methodological considerations would change our initial findings. This analysis looked at the use of control groups and whether the teacher of the intervention was also an author of the study, which might be an indication of bias. The results were astounding.

Let’s start with the control groups. The purpose of the control group is to isolate the effects of the intervention (in our case, meditation) and to eliminate unintentional bias. The importance of adequate control conditions was first brought to light by the discovery of the placebo effect in drug trials, which is when a treatment is effective even though no active agent (or drug) is used. To avoid this effect, each group in a drug trial receives identical treatments, except one group receives a placebo (or sugar pill) and the other gets the real drug. Neither the experimenter nor the participants know who is in which trial (this is called a double-blind design), which helps to eliminate unintentional bias. This way they can tell if it’s the active agent that is effective and not something else.

But the use of adequate controls is tricky in studies that look at behavioural change, because it is harder to create a control group (or placebo) when the treatment is not just a pill but an action. The control has to be similar to the intervention but lack some important components that differentiate it from the experimental counterpart. This is known as an active control. A passive control group simply does nothing, compared with the group that has the intervention.

Meditation did indeed improve compassion when the intervention was compared with a passive control group, that is, a group that completed only the questionnaires and surveys but did not engage in any real activity. So participants who undertook eight weeks of loving-kindness meditation were found to have improved compassion following the intervention compared with a passive waiting-room control group.

Our analysis suggests that meditation per se does not, alas, make the world a more compassionate place.

But have we isolated the effects of meditation or are we simply demonstrating that doing something is better than doing nothing? It might be that compassion improved simply because individuals spent eight weeks thinking about being more compassionate, and felt good about having engaged in a new activity. An active control group (eg, participants taking part in a discussion about compassion) is a more effective tool to isolate the effects of the meditation intervention because both groups have now engaged in a new activity that involves cultivating compassion. And here the results of our analysis suggest that meditation per se does not, alas, make the world a more compassionate place.

A well designed control condition allows studies with a double-blind design. Developing an effective placebo for a meditation intervention is often said to be impossible, but it has in fact been done and with considerable success. In the heydays of transcendental meditation research in the 1970s, Jonathan C Smith developed a 71-page manual describing the rationale and beneiits of a meditation technique. He gave the manual to a research assistant, who was unaware that the technique was completely made-up therefore, a placebo and who then proceeded to give a lecture to participants in the control group about the merits of the technique. (When it came to the actual placebo technique, participants were instructed to sit quietly for 20 minutes twice per day in a dark room, and to think of anything they wanted.) The point is, the placebo can work in studying meditation, it’s just not often used.

Double-blind designs can help to eliminate the accidental bias of the participants through the researcher. These biases have a longstanding history in psychology, and are called experimenter biases (when the experimenter inadvertently influences the participant’s behaviour) and demand characteristics (when participants behave in a way that they think will please the experimenter). The importance of avoiding experimenter bias and demand characteristics was discussed as early as the 1960s. Recent work indicates that experimenter biases remain, particularly in the study of meditation.

In light of the discussion around experimenter bias and demand characteristics, it is surprising to find that, in 48 per cent of the studies we looked at, the meditation intervention was taught by one of the studv’s authors, often its lead author.

More importantly, little attempt was made to control for any potential bias that an enthusiastic teacher and researcher might have had on the participants. Such a bias is often not intentional but stems from subconsciously giving preferential treatment or being particularly enthusiastic to participants in the experimental group. The prevalence of authors as teachers was so great that we decided to look at it statistically in our meta-analysis. We compared studies that had used an author with studies that had used an external teacher or other form of instruction (eg, an audio recording).

We found that compassion increased only in those studies where the author was also the teacher of the intervention.

Experimenter bias often goes hand-in-hand with demand characteristics, where participants behave or respond in a way that they think is in line with the expectations of the researcher. For example, participants might respond regardless of their true feelings more enthusiastically on a questionnaire about compassion because the researcher herself was enthusiastic about compassion. The media buzz around meditation which portrays it as a cure for a range of mental health problems, the key to improved wellbeing and to changing one’s brain for the better is also very likely to feed back to participants, who will expect to see benefits from a meditation intervention.

Yet, almost none of the studies we examined controlled for expectation effects, and this methodological concern is generally absent in the meditation literature.

The prevalence of experimenter bias is only one side of the coin. Another troubling but rarely discussed bias concerns data-analysis and reporting. Interpreting statistical results and choosing what to highlight is challenging. Data do not speak for themselves: they are interpreted by academics whose minds are not blank states. Academics often tread a thin line between the duty of impartial data-analysis and their own beliefs, desires and expectations. In 2003, Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School summarised a number of interpretative biases that have become widespread in science reporting: confirmation bias, rescue bias (finding selective fault with an experiment to justify an expectation), and ‘time will tell’ bias (holding on to an expectation discounted by data because additional data might in fact support it), among others. All were overwhelmingly present in the meditation literature we reviewed.

The most common bias we encountered was a ‘confirmation bias’, in which evidence that supports one’s preconceptions is favoured over evidence that challenges these convictions. Confirmation bias was particularly prevalent in the form of an overreporting of marginally significant results. When using statistical testing, a p-value of 0.05 and below typically indicates that the results are statistically significant in psychological research. But it has become common practice to report results as ‘trends’ or as ‘marginally significant’ if they are close to, but don’t quite reach the desired 0.05 cut-off. The problem is that there is little consensus in psychology as to what might constitute ‘marginal significance’, which in our review ranged from p-values of 0.06 to 0.14 hardly even marginal. (It is debatable whether p-values are not the most accurate way to conduct science anyway, but we should stick to the rules if we are using this type of testing.)

The positive view of meditation and the fight to protect its reputation make it harder to publish negative results.

Being liberal with statistical methods that were designed to have clear cut-offs increases the chance of finding an effect when there is none. A further problem with the use of ‘marginal significance’ is reporting it free from bias. For instance, in one study the authors reported a marginally significant difference (p = 0.069) in favour of the meditation intervention relative to the control group. However, on the following page, when the authors reported a different set of results that did not favour the meditation group, they claimed the exact same p-level as non-significant. When the results confirmed their hypothesis, it was ‘significant’ but only in that case.

In fact, the majority of studies in our review discussed the marginally significant as equal to statistically significant.

Confirmation bias is difficult to overcome. Journals rely on reviewers to spot them, but because some of these biases have become standard practice (through the reporting of marginally significant effects, say) they often slip through. Reviewers and authors also face academic pressures that make these biases more likely since journals favour the reporting of positive results.

But in the study of meditation there is another complication: many of the researchers, and therefore the reviewers of journal articles, are personally invested in meditation not only as practitioners and enthusiasts but also as providers of meditation programmes from which their institutions or themselves financially profit. The overly positive view of meditation and the fierce fight to protect its untarnished reputation make it harder to publish negative results.

My aim is not to discredit science, but scientists do have a duty to produce an evidence base that aims to be bias-free and aware of its limitations. This is important because the inflated results for the power of meditation fuel magical beliefs about its benefits. Mindfulness websites market it as a ‘happy pill, with no side effects’; it is said it can bring world peace in a generation, if only children would breathe deep and live in the moment. But can we be sure that there are no unexpected outcomes that neither benefit the individual nor society? Is it possible that meditation can fuel dysfunctional environments and indeed itself create a path to mental illness?

The utilisation of meditation techniques by large corporations such as Google or Nike has created growing tensions within the wider community of individuals who practise and endorse its benefits. Those of a more traditional bent argue that meditation without the ethical teachings can lead into the wrong kind of meditation (such as the sniper who steadies the killing shot, or the compliant worker who submits to an unhealthy work environment). But what if meditation doesn’t work for you? Or worse, what if it makes you feel depressed, anxious or psychotic? The evidence for such symptoms is predictably scarce in recent literature, but reports from the 1960s and ’70s warn of the dark side of transcendental meditation. There is a danger that those few cases that receive psychiatric attention are discounted by psychologists as having had a predisposition to mental illness.

In The Buddha Pill (2015), Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm take a critical look at the symptoms of depression, anxiety, restlessness, mania and psychosis that are triggered directly by meditation. They argue that the prevalence of adverse effects has not been assessed by the scientific community, and it is easy to think that the few anecdotal cases that might surface are due to an individual’s predisposition to mental-health problems. But a simple search on Google shows that reports of depression, anxiety and mania are not uncommon in meditation forums and blogs. For example, one Buddhist blog features a number of reports on adverse mental-health effects that are framed as ‘dark nights’. One blogger writes:

I’ve had one pretty intense dark night, it lasted for nine months, included misery, despair, panic attacks, inability to concentrate (to the point that it was difficult to do simple tasks), inability to socialise (because of bad feelings, but also because I had a hard time following and understanding what others were saying, due to lack of concentration), loneliness, auditory hallucinations, mild paranoia, treating my friends and family badly, long episodes of nostalgia and regret, obsessive thoughts (usually about death), etc, etc, etc.

In Buddhist circles, these so-called ‘dark nights’ are part of meditation. In an ideal situation, ‘dark nights’ are worked through with an experienced teacher under the framework of Buddhist teachings, but what about those who don’t have such a teacher or who meditate in a secular context?

Those who meditate alone can be left isolated in the claws of mental ill-health.

The absence of reported adverse effects in the current literature might be accidental, but it is more likely that those suffering from them believe that such effects are a part of meditation, or they don’t connect them to the practice in the first place. Considering its positive image and the absence of negative reports on meditation, it is easy to think that the problem lies within. In the best-case scenario, one might simply stop meditating, but many webpages and articles often frame these negative or ambivalent feelings as a part of meditation that will go away with practice. Yet continuing to practise can result in a full-blown psychotic episode (at worst), or have more subtle adverse effects. For example, in 1976 the clinical psychologist Arnold A Lazarus reported that a ‘young man found that the benefits he had been promised from transcendental meditation simply did not emerge, and instead of questioning the veracity of the exaggerated claims, he developed a strong sense of failure, futility, and ineptitude’.

In a best-case scenario, individuals will have a psychiatrist or experienced meditation teacher to guide them, but those who practise alone can be left isolated in the claws of mental ill-health. Lazarus warned that meditation is not for everyone, and we need to consider individual differences and be aware of adverse effects in its application in a secular context. ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ he once said about transcendental meditation. Researchers and therapists need to know both the benefits and the risks of meditation for different kinds of people, it is not unvarnished good news.

In The Buddha Pill, Farias and Wikholm write:

We haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change but we are 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 more radical to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realise 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.

There must be a more balanced view of meditation, one that understands the limitations of meditation and its adverse effects. One day there will be a more complete picture of this potent and poorly understood practice. For now, our understanding is mostly warped.

Ute Kreplin is lecturer in psychology at Massey University in New Zealand. Her research has been published in Nature and Neuropsychologia, among others.

Scientific Facts About Mindfulness from a Recovered Ruminator – Ruby Wax.

The real reason I began to practise mindfulness seriously was because of the empirical evidence of what happens in the brain. It wasn’t good enough that mindfulness helped me deal with the depression or that it brought me calm in the storm, ever the sceptic, I demanded hard-core proof. It appeared I didn’t trust my own feelings as much as I did science.

There is so much data to show the practice doesn’t just ameliorate physical and emotional pain, it sharpens your concentration and focus and therefore gives you the edge when others are floundering in the mud. (If that’s what you’re after.)

Here is just some of the evidence that swung the jury in favour of mindfulness (for me):

Connection to Feelings

A number of studies have found mindfulness results in increased blood flow to the insula and an increased volume and density of grey matter. This is a crucial area that gives the ability to focus into your body, and connects you to your feelings, such as butterflies in your stomach, or a blow to the heart. Strengthening your insula enhances introspection, which is the key to mindfulness.


Self Control

Researchers found that increased blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex after just six 30 minute meditation sessions strengthened connections to this area, which is crucial for controlling impulse, and may help explain why mindfulness is effective in helping with self control, i.e. addictions.

Cingulate Cortex

Counteracting High Anxiety

Researchers from Stanford found that after an eight week mindfulness course participants had less reactivity in their amygdala and reported feeling fewer negative emotions.


Quietening the Mind

The brain stem produces neurotransmitters which regulate attention, mood and sleep. These changes may explain why meditators perform better on tests of attention, are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and often have improved sleep patterns.

Brain Stem

Regulating Emotions

The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory and can help with reactivity to stress. Increased density of neurons in this area may help explain why meditators are more emotionally stable and less anxious.


Regulating Thoughts

Changes in the cerebellum are likely to contribute to meditators’ increased ability to respond to life events in a positive way.


Curbing Addictive Behaviour

The prefrontal cortex is involved with self regulation and decision making. Mindfulness has been found to increase blood flow to this area, which enhances self awareness and self control, helping you to make constructive choices and let go of harmful ones.

Prefrontal Cortex

Curbing OCD

PET scans were performed on 18 OCD patients before and after 10 weeks of mindfulness practice, none took medication and all had moderate to severe symptoms. PET scans after treatment showed activity in the orbital frontal cortex had fallen dramatically meaning the worry circuit was unwired. It was the first study to show that mindfulness based cognitive therapy has the power to systematically change brain chemistry in a well identified brain circuit. So, intentionally making a mindful effort can alter brain function and this induces neuroplasticity. This is the first time it was established that mindfulness is a form of experience that promotes neuroplasticity.

Orbital Frontal Cortex

A Quicker Brain

Researchers from UCLA have found that meditators have stronger connections between different areas in the brain. This greater connectivity is not limited to specific regions but found across the brain at large. It also increases the ability to rapidly relay information from one area to the next giving you a quicker and more agile brain.

Training Your Brain, As Well As Your Body

A trained mind is physically different from an untrained mind. You can retain inner strength even though the world around you is frantic and chaotic. People are trying to find the antidotes to suffering so it’s time we started doing the obvious; training our brains as we do our bodies. Changing the way you think changes the chemicals in your brain. For example, the less you workout, the lower the level of acetylcholine and the less you have of this chemical, the poorer your ability to pay attention. Even with age related losses, almost every physical aspect of the brain can recover and new neurons can bloom.

More Positive Research on Mindfulness

Research from Harvard University suggests that we spend nearly 50% of our day mindwandering, typically lost in negative thoughts about what might happen, or has already happened to us. There is a mind-wandering network in the brain, which generates thoughts centred around ‘me’ and is focused in an area called the medial prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that when we practise mindfulness, activity in this ‘me’ centre decreases. Furthermore, it has been shown that when experienced practitioners’ minds do wander, monitoring areas (such as the lateral prefrontal cortex) become active to keep an eye on where the mind is going and if necessary bring attention back to the present, which results in less worrying and more living.

Medial Prefrontal Cortex

Researchers from the University of Montreal investigated the differences in how meditators and non-meditators experience pain and how this relates to brain structure. They found that the more experienced the meditators were, the thicker their anterior cingulate cortex and the lower their sensitivity to pain.

Researchers from Emory University found that the decline in cognitive abilities that typically occurs as we age, such as slower reaction times and speed of thinking, was not found in elderly meditators. Using fMRl, they also established that the physical thinning of grey matter that usually comes with ageing had actually been remarkably diminished.

Researchers from UCLA found that when people become aware of their anger and label it as ‘anger’ then the part of the brain that generates negative emotions, the amygdala, calms down. It’s almost as if once the emotional message has been delivered to the conscious mind it can quieten down a little.

Mindfulness activates the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system, and increases blood flow to parts of our brains that help us regulate our emotions, such as the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex and the lateral parts of the prefrontal cortex. Our heart rate slows, our respiration slows and our blood pressure drops. A researcher from Harvard coined the changes in the body that meditation evokes as the ‘relaxation response’ basically the opposite to the ‘stress response’. While the stress response is extremely detrimental to the body, the relaxation response is extremely salutary and is probably at the root of the wide-ranging benefits mindfulness has been found to have, both mentally and physically.

Mindfulness and the Body

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin Madison investigated the effects of mindfulness on immune system response. They injected participants with a flu virus at the end of an eight-week course and they found that the mindfulness group had a significantly stronger immune system compared with the others.

Scientists at UCLA found mindfulness to be extremely effective at maintaining the immune system of HIV sufferers. Over an eight-week period, the group who weren’t taught mindfulness had a 25% fall in their CDT 4 cells (the ‘brains’ of the immune system) whereas the group taught mindfulness maintained their levels.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, found that improved psychological wellbeing fostered by meditation may reduce cellular ageing. People who live to more than 100 have been found to have more active telomerase, an enzyme involved in cell replication. The researchers found that the meditators had a 30% increase in this enzyme linked to longevity following a three-month retreat.


Skin disorders are a common symptom of stress. The University of Massachusetts taught mindfulness to psoriasis sufferers and found their skin problems cleared four times faster than those who weren’t taught the technique.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina have found mindfulness to be an effective method of treating irritable bowel syndrome. Over a period of eight weeks, participants either were taught mindfulness or they went to a support group. Three months later, they found that on a standard 500-point IBS symptom questionnaire, the support group’s score had dropped by 30 points. The mindfulness group’s score had fallen by more than 100 points.

Researchers from Emory University investigated whether training in compassion meditation could reduce physiological responses to stress. Participants were stressed by being requested to perform a public speaking task. The researchers found that the participants who had practised the most had the lowest physiological responses to stress, as measured by reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines and also reported the lowest levels of psychological distress.

Researchers investigated the physiological effects of an eight-week mindfulness programme on patients suffering from breast cancer and prostate cancer. In addition to the patients reporting reduced stress, they found significant reductions in physiological markers of stress, such as reduced cortisol levels, pro-inflammatory cytokines, heart rate and systolic blood pleasure. A follow-up study a year later found these improvements had been maintained or enhanced further.

Mindfulness and Emotions

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School investigated the effects of an eight-week mindfulness course on generalized anxiety disorder. 90% of those taught the technique reported significant reductions in anxiety.

Studies from the University of Wisconsin suggest that meditators’ calmness is not a result of becoming emotionally numb in fact they may be able to experience emotions more fully. If asked to enter into a state of compassion, then played an emotionally evocative sound, such as a woman screaming, they showed increased activity in the emotional areas of the brain compared to novices. However, if asked to enter into a state of deep concentration, they showed reduced activity in the emotional areas of the brain compared with novices. The key is that they were better able to control their emotional reactions depending on the mental state they chose to be in.

Optimists and resilient people have been found to have more activity in the front of their brains (prefrontal cortex) on the left hand side, whereas those more prone to rumination and anxiety have more on the right. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that after eight weeks of mindfulness practice, participants had been able to change their baseline levels of activity moving more towards left hand activation. This suggests that mindfulness can help us change our base-line levels of happiness and optimism.

If you suffer from recurring depression, scientists suggest that mindfulness might be a way to keep you free from it. Researchers from Toronto and Exeter in the UK recently found that learning mindfulness, while tapering off anti-depressants, was as effective as remaining on medication.

Researchers from Stanford University have found that mindfulness can help with social anxiety by reducing reactivity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that is typically overactive in those with anxiety problems.

Researchers at the University of Manchester tested meditators’ response to pain, by heating their skin with a laser. They found that the more meditation the subject had done, the less they experienced pain. They also found that they had less neural activity in the anticipation of pain than controls, which is likely to be due to their increased ability to remain in the present rather than worry about the future.

A recent study from Wake Forest University found that just four sessions of 20 minutes mindfulness training a day reduced pain sensitivity by 57% an even greater reduction than drugs such as morphine.

Numerous studies have found that mindfulness on its own or in combination with medication can be effective in dealing with addictive behaviours, from drug abuse through to binge eating. Recently researchers from Yale School of Medicine found that mindfulness training of less than 20 minutes per day was more effective at helping smokers quit than the American Lung Association’s gold standard treatment. Over a period of four weeks, on average, there was a 90% reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked from 18 per day to two per day with 35% of smokers quitting completely. When they checked four months later over 30% had maintained abstinence.

Researchers investigated the impact of mindfulness on the psychological health of 90 cancer patients. After seven weeks of daily practice, the patients reported a 65% reduction in mood disturbances including depression, anxiety, anger and confusion. They also reported a 31% reduction in symptoms of stress and less stress-related heart and stomach pain.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego investigated the impact of a four week mindfulness programme on the psychological well-being of students, in comparison to a body relaxation technique. They found that both techniques reduced distress, however mindfulness was more effective at developing positive states of mind and at reducing distractive and ruminative thoughts. This research suggests that training the mind with mindfulness delivers benefits over and above simple relaxation.

Mindfulness and Thoughts/Cognition

Researchers from Wake Forest University investigated how four sessions of 20 minutes mindfulness practice could affect critical cognitive abilities. They found that the mindfulness practitioners were significantly better than the control group at maintaining their attention and performed especially well at stressful tasks under time pressure. [This is another study demonstrating that significant benefits can be enjoyed from relatively little practise]

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to investigate how mindfulness could help improve thinking in the face of stress. So, they taught it to marines prior to their deployment in Iraq. In cognitive tests, they found that the marines who practised for more than 10 minutes a day managed to maintain their mental abilities in spite of a stressful deployment period, whereas the control group and those practising less than 10 minutes could not.

Researchers from UCLA conducted a pilot to investigate the effectiveness of an eight-week mindfulness course for adults and adolescents with ADHD. Over 75% of the participants reported a reduction in their total ADHD symptoms, with about a third reporting clinically significant reductions in their symptoms of more than 30%.

Researchers conducted a pilot study, to investigate the efficacy of mindfulness in treating OCD. Sixty per cent of the participants experienced clinically significant reductions in their symptoms, of over 30%. The researchers suggest that the increased ability to ‘let go’ of thoughts and feelings helps stop the negative rumination process that is so prevalent in OCDs

I hope the above has not put you to sleep but for me it makes me feel I’m in well researched hands. If it’s good enough for Harvard, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, Yale School of Medicine and Stanford, it’s good enough for me.

SANE NEW WORLD. Taming the Mind – Ruby Wax.

Depression is a whole other beast; it is not situation appropriate. Here’s something you get absolutely free with this illness: a real sense of shame; it comes with the package. And you feel such extreme shame because you think, ‘I’m not being carpet-bombed, I don’t live in a township.’

The Beginning

This book is dedicated to my mind, which at one point left town, and to the rest of humanity, who perhaps at one time or another might have misplaced theirs. Though I personally have gone on a rollercoaster ride of depression for most of my adult life, this book is not exclusively for the depressed. I am one of the one in four who has mentally unravelled; this book is for the four in four. It’s for everyone, because we all share the same equipment: we suffer, we laugh, we rage, we bitch, we’re all vulnerable, delicate creatures under our tough fronts.

In this book I am going to attempt to give a rough guide for where we (the human race) are at right now and offer some suggestions that might make our time on Earth a more joyful experience. I’m not talking ‘everyone in the jacuzzi’ joyful, I’m talking about the almost blissful state you sometimes have when time stops, your body feels like it’s home and the volume of those internal critics in your mind lowers. I know those voices well and so many people I meet recognize this dictator barking orders in their minds, keeping them up at night with that tormenting ‘I should have, I could have’ tape playing relentlessly.

Many of us suffer from the pressures in today’s world that drive us from burnout to depression. We are slaves to our busy-ness with an insatiable drive for money, fame, more tweets you name it, we want it. The problem is, it’s only in the last 50 to 100 years that humans have lived with such abundance. We’ve gone from scarcity (when we were probably somewhat normal and had appetites to match) to the limitless demands we have today.

You could say that multitasking has driven us mad; like leaving too many windows open on your computer, eventually it will crash.

We are simply not equipped for the 21st century. It’s too hard, too fast, it’s too full of fear; we just don’t have the bandwidth. Evolution did not prepare us for this. It’s hard enough to keep up with who’s bombing whom, so we have no room to understand our emotional landscapes; our hearts bleed because we hear of a beached whale while the next minute we’re baying for the blood of someone who stole the last shopping trolley.

The reason I decided to devote myself to this inward journey is because I wanted to find some shelter from the constant hurricanes of depression, which left me depleted and broken. Each episode got longer and deeper.

I don’t want to blame my parents but childrearing was not their specialty.

Friends would come over and there my mother would be, perched on the lampshade, a vulture with a Viennese accent, waiting for someone to drop a crumb. When they did, she would swoop across the room screaming, ‘Who brings cookies into a building?’ Everyone would run away terrified. It got much, much darker later but I am not going to talk about that here. My point is that this is the type of background that usually leads to a career as a comedian or a serial killer; I went for the comedy.

So, after some serious breakdowns, I decided to go back to school to study psychotherapy to figure out exactly what they were charging £80 an hour for. I used to leave my shrink knowing exactly who I was, until I got to the tube station and then I’d forget again. Also, as I knew nothing about psychology, therapists could tell me anything, so how could I tell if they were any good? Once, when I was on the couch, I caught the shrink behind me eating a pastrami sandwich, mustard all over his face.

So I went to study psychotherapy. I got a library card and never discussed my previous life again. I thought, ‘Let’s give something back to the world’ (I probably didn’t but it’s a good line). I’ve noticed that many women like myself choose to study therapy when they meet the wild surf of menopause; the hormones dry up and they realize the chances are low they’re ever going to be hit on again, so they find themselves wanting to care for other people or starting a rest home for stray cats.

A few years later, I decided to go further and learn about what I was really interested in: the brain. My thinking was, if I learnt how my own engine worked it might prevent me getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, shrieking for someone to come and fix me; I would provide my own AA service. I’d be able to lasso this wild beast of a brain, stop it from churning away over the same ground, keeping me up at nights; worrying, rehashing, regretting and resenting.

After much research, I thought mindfulness might help me best as I had heard it gives you the ability to regulate your own mind. (I would say it saved my life but I’ll get to that later in the book.) I decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, to one of the founders of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, Professor Mark Williams, who told me that unfortunately I would have to get into Oxford University in order to study it alongside neuroscience.

I scraped together some old school records and managed to excavate my one or two decent high school grades, but most of all I give great interview, so I got into that masters course. The other 14 students in my class were very brilliant and looked at me on day one as if they were having an encounter with a third kind; but God dammit, I was there.

So after many decades of agonizing investigation, a masters in mindfulness, a degree in psychotherapy and even a small taste of fame, here I am writing this manual on how to tame your mind.

I’ll go into detail later but I want to mention one fact right away; the gold at the end of the rainbow is that:


This is called neuroplasticity. Your genes, hormones, regions in the brain and early learning do not necessarily determine your fate.

Scientific evidence has shown that neurons (brain cells) can rewire and change patterns throughout your lifetime as a result of your experiences and how you think about them.

So your thoughts affect the physiology of your brain and the physiology affects your thoughts.

Think about sex for a minute. That’s Ok, I’ll wait. Once you get an inkling, a whole cascade of hormones is let loose in your body to get you ready to cha-cha. Sometimes it’s the other way around; you’re minding your own business, for no reason a hormone switches on in your brain and suddenly your thinking goes X-rated.

When your mind changes, your brain changes and because our brains are so malleable, the sky’s the limit. I remind you that I got into Oxford in my 50s even though I failed to get a diploma from Busy Beaver nursery school (look it up, that was the actual name) proving really anything is possible. But it takes time to alter your habits of thinking; it won’t happen with a weekend workshop on ‘How to Tickle Your Inner Angel’. It takes intentional concentration and repetition over time. You can change but only if you make the effort not to do the same old thing, the same old way, day in and day out. You, and the way you see the world, are the architect of how your brain is mapped. This is what scientists are giving us in the 21st century; way beyond what Psychic Madge can read in your palm.

You, and the way you see the world, are the architect of how your brain is mapped

The brain is like a pliable three-pound piece of play-dough; you can re-sculpt it by breaking old mental habits and creating new, more flexible ways of thinking. Gloria Gaynor was wrong when she sang, ‘I am what I am’. She will have to change those lyrics but it won’t be so easy to dance to. What rhymes with neuroplasticity?

The Inner You

If you can look inside your brain and roughly understand where everything is and how it operates, you might not be able to completely know yourself but with practice you may be able to fix yourself. Learning how to self-regulate means you can sense the early warnings before a full-on burnout or depression and do something about it. So much is known about this idea of selfregulation; it may (and I hope it does) shortly become the buzzword of this decade. We can, with certain practices such as mindfulness, actually have some control over the chemicals in our brains that drive us to stress, to anxiety and even to happiness. This remarkable organ in our heads holds infinite wisdom but so few of us know how to use it. It’s similar to having a Ferrari except no one gave you the keys.

The reality is that the demanding voice in our heads is not who we are, it plays a very small part in the big scheme of things.

What’s really running you is a million, trillion gigabyte-powered engine room in your brain, managed by your DNA, that instructs hormones, memories, muscles, blood, organs and really everything that happens inside you to ensure that you survive at all costs, and not that stupid inner monologue about why you’re too fat to wear tights.

My aim in this book is to show you how to become the master of your mind and not the slave. If you learn how to self-regulate your moods, emotions and thoughts, and focus your mind on what you want to pay attention to rather than be dragged into distraction, you might just reach that illusive thing called happiness. We all have it we just don’t know where the ‘on’ button is. The organ that allows you to realize the world understands so little about itself. (Yes Oprah, I’m available.)

Why We Need a Manual

What is our point on Earth? Everyone wants to know. So the question is not, ‘To be or not to be?’ The big questions are, ‘What are we meant to be doing while we’re being?’ and ‘How do I run and manage this thing called “me”?’

Our primary problem as a species (I leave out those with religious beliefs they have their own books) is we have no manual, no instructions that tell us how to live our lives. Domestic appliances have instruction manuals; not us. We’re born with absolutely no information, and are reliant on Mommy and Daddy who jam their USB sticks into our innocent hard drives and download their neuroses into us. As I think we’ve agreed, we’re all missing a manual, so I’ve tried to keep it simple.

Part 1: What’s Wrong With Us? For the Normal-Mad

In this part of the guidebook I will examine why we are all in the ‘flying by the seat of our pants’ school of thought when it comes to living our lives. We assume the next person knows what they’re doing; they don’t.

Part 2: What’s Wrong With Us? For the Mad-Mad

For the depressed, anxious, panic-attacked, OCD’d, over-eaters, drinkers, shoppers, compulsive list-makers, etc. The list is endless.

Part 3: What’s in Your Brain/What’s on Your Mind?

I will familiarize you with your ingredients: the hormones, neurons, hemispheres, regions etc. so that in Part 4 you’ll be able to understand what physically happens in your brain when you practise mindfulness; how it can enhance positive feelings, which ultimately bring happiness.

You are your own cookbook. How you work your brain determines if you’re going to become filet mignon or an old kebab.

Part 4: Mindfulness Taming Your Mind. Think of this part as Wisdom for Dummies. I’ll show you how to be able to self-regulate your thoughts and emotions to make you the master and not the slave of your mind.

Part 5: Alternative Suggestions for Peace of Mind

I would never want to be considered evangelical so if mindfulness isn’t for you, I’ll give you alternative practices that can change your brain.

I hope this book helps you let go of the image you have of yourself if it’s getting in your way; I hope I can encourage you to be brave and know that nothing is certain: life flows, changes and ends. Get over your fear. The only way to find any peace is to let it all go and jump into the unknown. Just jump.

About the Author

Arriving in Britain from the United States in 1977, Ruby Wax began her acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She went on to write and perform in her own hugely popular television programmes for the BBC and Channel 4 and was Script Editor on all series of Absolutely Fabulous. Recently she has obtained a Masters degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University and spoke at TED Global. She has become the poster girl for mental illness in the UK.

Part One

What’s Wrong With Us? For the Normal-Mad

What Drives Us Crazy

There may be many observations in this part that do not resonate with you, but we only see the world through our own eyes. I know there are people out there who don’t see the world as I do but sadly they aren’t writing this book. So if anyone does not suffer from what follows, I apologize if it seems I’m painting the whole human race with the same pessimistic brush. I have reached these conclusions only because everyone I have ever met has complained that these are the areas of life that drive them crazy. I know from the bottom of my heart, they are what drive me crazy.

Critical Voices

Why are we so mean to ourselves? What did we do wrong? Why, if we are the best that evolution has tossed up so far, are we so abusive to ourselves? Each of us has a nagging parent implanted in our heads: ‘Don’t do that why didn’t you, you should have but you didn’t’, on an endless tape. (My mother would say she was only telling me what a failure I was because she loved me.) If most of us ever compared our inner leitmotif, we would sue each other for plagiarism, as our internal themes are so alike.

No other species is as cruel as we are to ourselves. We’d never dream of treating our pets the way we treat ourselves. We whip ourselves to keep moving like we would an old horse, until it falls over exhausted; the hooves made into glue. I have asked so many people if they have ever had a voice in their head that says, ‘Congratulations you’ve done a wonderful job and may I say how attractive you look today’. The answer is no one. I’m sure they’re out there, I just never met them.

Once you get an attack of this selfimmolation, you’re on the slippery slope to a very unhappy state. Your brain just churns away chewing over a problem like a piece of meat that won’t go down. There will never be a solution to ‘I should have’ so you attack, guess who? You. This is why one in four of us is mentally ill.

It’s not our fault that we’re slave drivers to ourselves because biologically we all have this inbuilt chip that compels us to achieve and move forward. Before we even had words, we had an innate drive in every cell of our body to press on. (Google ‘selfish gene’.) All organisms, even worms, have this. It is how one cell becomes two, and two becomes three (I could go on but I haven’t got time). Cells keep advancing to the trillion cells that finally make up us. We strive to achieve. The problem is that now we use words and when we don’t ‘cut the mustard’ in our own eyes (which would really hurt) the inner voices begin: ‘I should have’ and ‘I could have’. That old familiar tune.

All of us internalize the voices in our heads from our parents, who probably meant well, but these sentiments stay in there for a lifetime. It’s because most parents want to protect their children that you get an abundance of ‘you shouldn’t . . . you should have’, otherwise the child might put their finger in a light socket and blow up. These corrective voices helped you survive as a child; later in life they can either drive you mad with their constant corrections and instructions or they can help you successfully navigate obstacles throughout your life, giving you a smoother ride.

There are parents who encourage their children with positive reinforcement and calming encouragement: ‘That’s right sweetheart, you did so well, why don’t we try it again and you’ll be even better?’ These children, later in life, may see a close friend passing by who doesn’t acknowledge them and their inner voice says, ‘Oh, too bad, Fiona must be pre-occupied and she looks so lovely, I’ll call her later’.

Those of us with parents trained by the Gestapo-school-of-child-rearing would react to this incident with, ‘Fiona hates my guts, that’s why she’s ignoring me. She found out I’m a moron, which I am.’

My Story

In my case, I would say the voices were somewhat harsh for a baby; they were less like suggestions and more like commando orders. My mother had a fear of dust so she’d have a sponge in each hand and two stuck to her knees (my mother was completely absorbent) and she’d crawl around behind me on all fours screaming, ‘Who brings footprints into a building? Are they criminally insane?’ She probably wanted to protect me, from what I don’t know, but I was hermetically sealed in my house as a child; everything was wrapped in plastic including my father, grandmother and the dog. Both my parents had to escape Nazi Austria in a laundry basket, just before ‘last orders’ was shouted and the borders shut down so no one could leave the Fatherland. This probably is what made her so unconsciously fearful, which she projected onto dust balls. (They’re easier to blow away.) Whatever the case, I picked up the panic in her voice and that sound has never left my head. So even though I’m not in Nazi Austria, the voices in my head are. Not anyone’s fault.

The Search for Happiness

We are all looking for happiness (unless of course we’ve already got it and blessed are those few that have). This is why we have so many self-help books enough now to cover the equator 78 times. Have you read The Secret? I didn’t read it but I know 80 million copies were sold. I did read page one, which informs you that ‘the secret’ was handed down to us by the ancient Babylonians and clearly it worked for them; that’s why there’s so many running around, you can’t move for all the Babylonians living in London. Next, the author tells you that Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven and Einstein were inspired by this book. I’m going to use that idea and give myself reviews from dead people. Apparently the next 200 pages are filled with advice that boils down to, ‘Think happy thoughts and your dreams will come true, just like Tinker Bell promised’. (I’m sorry to all you The Secret fans, I’m just very bitter about the 80 million copies sold. You can understand.)

All of this self-help was stolen from Walt Disney; he was the father of the New Age. ‘Whistle a happy tune; if you believe in fairies, clap your hands.’ From this philosophy flowed The Little Mermaid, Snow White and some early Mickey Mouse. Walt knew the secret of happiness. Too bad he’s on ice; we’ve got to defrost this guy to squeeze out some more wisdom. Walt knew when to make an exit.

Staying Busy

This is a method we have devised in order to distract ourselves from the bigger, deeper questions; we have an obsession to keep busy. There is no time to rest and no time to think about what we really should be doing in our limited time on Earth. I’m not criticizing; I’m as driven as the next person. It almost got to the point where I went into labour while doing a TV show. The floor manager gave me ‘5-4-3-2’, someone cut the cord and yelled, ‘Action’.

Gandhi said, ‘There is more to life than speed’. Unfortunately he didn’t tell us what, he just left us hanging while he pranced around in his nappy.

To compensate for this undercurrent of uselessness, we pretend we’re all terribly important and that we have something to bring to the world. That’s why we have Twitter so we can check how many followers we’ve got. We can count them; 100, 1000 people you’ve never met, telling you what they had for lunch, now knowing you exist. That’s how we see if we matter. We’re like little birds, newly hatched from our eggs going, ‘Tweet, tweet, tweet’, looking for a little attention, a little love, maybe even a worm anything will do as long as they notice we’re here.

In reality we’re all as disposable as wax figures. Once you lose your job or beauty or status, which you will eventually, they melt you down and use you to make the next important person. I went to Madame Tussaud’s and there was Charlie Chaplin next to the loo while Nicole Kidman was melted down and made into 150 candles; an icon one minute, a candle the next. Jerry Hall must be on some birthday cake somewhere.

We run because we don’t want to look inside and see that there might not be anything there and that searching for meaning is a waste of airtime. We stay busy so we don’t have to think about how futile the running is; like dung beetles building a house made of manure, they don’t stop and think, ‘Hey, where’s this going?’

When I have a day off and wake up, I jolt up from the pillow, panicking that I may have nothing of any importance to do. Maybe this is why I, and people I know like me, have to keep busy compiling an endless ‘Things to Do’ list. For us, busyness is our God, we worship busyness. People ask me if I’m busy, I tell them, ‘I’m so busy I’ve had two heart attacks’. They congratulate me on this achievement.

We hold those who are on the tightest of schedules in reverence; the busier you are, the higher your status as a human being. For those of us who suffer from this phenomenon, we have sped up to such a frenzy of things ‘to do,’ we make ourselves ill just to avoid having to look inside and see that we might not have any point at all.

So who is ultimately the winner? The busy, running people? Or maybe it’s someone who sits on a rock and fishes all day or someone who has the time to feel the breeze on his face? Who is the real winner? Please, dear God, I hope it’s not the guy with the fish.

Here are some common answers to the question, ‘Are you busy?’

‘I am run off my feet.’ (Let’s picture it, someone somewhere was dashing at such a rate he/she literally cracked at the ankle and just kept going.)

‘I don’t know if I’m coming or going.’ (Someone once opened a door and just stayed there for the next five years trying to figure, ‘in or out?’)

If you have used either of these responses then you probably are an A-list person who is ‘living the life’ even though you are too busy to have one.

There are women in my neighbourhood in London who have nothing to do for a living and they are booked to the hilt. They do Pilates five times a week so they can make their pelvic floor strong enough to lift the carpet. Dyson could use them as hoovers. Then they’ll shop with their personal shopper (that takes up a few hours), have their hair blow-dried (that’s another hour), lunch (that’s a four hour filler). Then they have to pick up the kids, do their homework for them and then it’s time to get ready and go off to attend a charity event. You know what that entails? They go to a really fancy hotel and pay £2000 a plate to save a tuna.

Never Enough

These Pilates women complain that their husbands work until midnight and they’re left having to get their spawn into a nursery school that only takes kids whose IQs have six digits. I have (in vain) tried to tell them that marriage is a ‘negotiated deal’. I’ve even made them a little flowchart so they can get some perspective. I tell them, ‘if your husband is earning more than £150,000 a year, plus bonuses, as the wife you have no rights. You take care of the house and the kids. You must give him sex whenever and wherever he wants. And you have to stay thin and young till death do you part.

‘If your husband is making around 275,000 a year, you still take care of the house and kids but you may bitch about him up to 27 hours a week to your friends. If he does not help on the weekends, you can withhold the sex.

‘If he makes below £10,000, you can let the house and kids to go to hell.’ That’s all for when the husband is making all the money. If the wife is making all the money, say, she’s earning £150,000 a year, which is equivalent to £575,000 in ‘Man Money’, she will still have to do everything because evolution has not given men eyes to see details such as a hoof print on the carpet. But man does have a very important function and that is to stand there and gaze toward the horizon to make sure there are no wildebeests.

Shopping is Our Search for Love

This need to have more is not limited to the wives of footballers or head honchos of big organizations. We all, in our own way, never stop ‘wanting’, that’s why we need 20,000 feet of mall; big steaming mounds of galleria won’t be enough to satisfy. The shopping never stops; the label says it all. Our self-esteem drives us to buy a designer handbag that costs the GNP of Croatia which is why people with nothing will spend their last shekel on Dolce and Gabbana or a £300 pair of Nikes. If you have the tattoo of ‘CC’ on your handbag, you can get a nod of respect from everyone that passes, even though you’re homeless. I once saw a tramp in Miami pushing all his belongings in a shopping cart he stole from Bloomingdale’s. He was wearing newspaper and had a cap on his head that said, ‘Born to Shop’.

What we throw on our back is our new means of identity. People who wear Prada usually hang out with other Praderites and the same with all other brands; people seek their own level, their own tribe. Picture it, a whole gaggle of Guccis at the watering hole and some Primarks eating a carcass.

P.S. Proof of our insanity is that we actually buy Ugg boots. Where in the brain do we feel a need to look like an Eskimo, as if they ever had any fashion sense?

The ‘Fix’ of Happiness

Some people think to reach a state of joy, you need to dress in sheets for a lifetime with a dot on your head, on top of a mountain. Some wave crystals, eat turf, pray, chant and dance with the wolves. Contentment might even be possible, I’m sure it’s feasible to sit on a bench and feed a squirrel without getting antsy.

But the trouble is, we always want more. We’re the A-list of all species so we go for the Golden Chalice: happiness. It had to be a crazy American who said that we all have the right to pursue happiness. That’s why you hear them demanding a double latte caramel macchiato every morning with their smiling teeth just before they chirp, ‘Have a nice day’.

There are some lucky people who feel they experience happiness when they gaze at a cloud or walk on the beach but the rest of us only get that special tingly buzz when we’ve bought, won, achieved, hooked or booked something. Then our own brains give us a hit of dopamine, which makes us feel good. We don’t need substances; we are our own drug dealers.

The problem is, the hit of ‘happiness’ usually lasts as long as a cigarette so we have to continually search for the next fix. It’s as though as a species we have no brakes, only breakdowns. Mother Nature’s little joke on us is that the original object of desire isn’t so much fun when we get it, so unless we can up the stakes all the time, we can’t get that burst of internal fireworks we call happiness. Most animals just eat their fill and walk away but not us, we keep glutting ourselves even though the next bite never tastes as good as the first one.

The Hierarchy of Western Wants (According to Me)

– Food and/or water

– Mattress

– Roof

– House

– Normal car

– Second house

– Pool

– Porsche

– Flying economy class

– Business class

– First class

– Private jet

– Private jet with jacuzzi

– Meeting Oprah

This failure to get what we want leaves us in a state of permanent desire. Magazines understand that they make us salivate for the unobtainable; the chase is better than the kill.

People who collect art pay £15 million for some semen on a cracker and then never notice it once it’s on their wall.

They’ll be back licking the pages of Sotheby’s catalogue for what they crave next. If we’re not wanting, we’re waiting. Waiting for what, we don’t know, but something and it’s going to happen soon. Waiting for our screenplay to be commissioned about a clown who falls in love with a squirrel and then decides to become a car dealer. Waiting for the money to roll in for an idea about inventing soup in a solid form; it’s all about to happen next week, next year, we don’t mind how long, as long as we’re in a suspended state of waiting.

A new phenomenon that arises from our insatiable appetites is the sense of entitlement; now everyone thinks they deserve to be a winner. This is why so many deluded people with absolutely no sense of shame have the audacity to try out for X Factor when they have the voice of a toad. Self-help books will tell you that the only thing standing in your way is you. ‘You can be beautiful if you think you are’, they say. This is why you see the truly selfdeluded paint their nails with tiny diamantes embedded in bloodbath-red extensions, as if no one will notice that they are the size of Tibet.

Negative Thinking

Once we humans have the basics for survival, i.e. food, water and mascara, you would think we should be on our knees, kissing the ground in gratitude for our aliveness, for being able to see through our eyes, hear through our ears, and best of all, eat. Let us have a moment’s silence to thank the Big Bang for making it possible that eventually we could experience the taste of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey Ice Cream.

But even with all these miracles we still suffer and it’s all because of our negative thinking.

Animals don’t have negative thoughts; they’re out there having the time of their lives, swinging from branches, mating with nearly everyone who comes up behind them. And us? We ruminate on things, worry, regret, resent; who picked the short straw, do you think? Most awful of all is that we can project to the future and figure out that we will eventually lose our looks and dare I say it, die.

See how there’s always a grenade at the bottom of the cookie jar? It’s so like the story of my life whenever I achieve a little something and am complimented, shortly thereafter I am swiftly kicked in the ass by karma. The more you have (looks, money, fame) the more you suffer when you lose it. There is always a bill to pay. Luckily, they bless people like Liza Minnelli with a dollop of unawareness so when they begin to crinkle and melt into oblivion, they’re the last to know and they just keep on kickin’ those ‘hoofers’ on ol’ Broadway, even though you hear the sound of their arthritic hips cracking in the effort. (This probably sounds judgmental but I get evolved later in the book so just bear with me now.)

Those of us who aren’t on the brink of starvation or elimination or living in squalor are condemned to a life of worrying about trivia. It all went downhill when we crawled out of the jungle. We just don’t know what to think about next after fulfilling basic needs; so we makeover our kitchens. In my neighbourhood all the surfaces in this year’s kitchens are buffed silver metal resembling what you’d find in mortuaries. You’re scared to open a drawer in case a toe hangs out with a label dangling from it. Now they are digging down below the kitchens to make more floors until they’re hitting volcanic rock. Some have lap pools they will never lap in. I know someone who is building an underground vineyard.

Bathrooms of Grandeur

My theory is you can tell how mentally deranged someone is by viewing their bathroom. If they believe they need a chandelier, an Italian marble tub and a toilet that performs more than three functions (now some of them play Rachmaninoff when you lift the lid and squirt you with lilac perfume after you pee) they are not a well person and have strayed far, far away from sanity.

Freud should have come up with a therapy where you interrogate the clients about how they envision the decor of their bathrooms rather than asking about sex. Sex tells you nothing. How you want your lavatory to look is the gateway to the unconscious. A bathroom is a place where you should have no airs or graces because it’s just you and it. There is no room in there for narcissism, this is merely a toilet, where you really see yourself for what you are and get a whiff of reality. On the toilet no one is a star. Remember that and you will go far in life.

Our Need to Be Special

Our status used to be based on bloodlines, on whether you were a Princess or a Pea. (See Battle of the Sperm.) Now we determine each other’s worth by asking, ‘What do you do?’ If you say ‘nothing’, people move away from you as if you’re a corpse. Our identity is on our business cards, and new titles emerge every year to define increasingly abstract roles. Job descriptions like ‘consultancy’ are ambiguous. (If everyone’s a consultant, who is left needing one?) These days ‘motivational speakers’ are also considered big shots. We confuse bravery with bravura. I’ve seen motivational speakers who are brought in to companies to tell you about rowing across the Atlantic with one arm. How is this helping the company? That person isn’t brave, he’s nuts. And these speakers are starting to get competitive; apparently someone has claimed he climbed Mount Everest using only his nostrils.

Each of us thinks somewhere inside we have a purpose. Long ago we didn’t have this existentialist angst; we were hunters or gatherers. A hunter hunted, a gatherer gathered (Jewish people pointed rather than doing either). Back then there was no such thing as individuality so you couldn’t distinguish ‘you’ from anyone else unless you wore a hat or had more hair but basically we were all the same: grunting and foraging.

In those days you didn’t need a manual. You were born, drove an ox around a field, multiplied and died. No one complained; plagues came and went smallpox, influenza, you name them you had them and everyone had the same attitude, ‘Shit happens’. Now it’s an outrage: ‘How dare some virus wipe us out? Do they know who we are? We’re superior beings, the creme de la creme of all that live and breathe; top of the food chain’.

It all went wrong when some deluded optimist wrote the words, ‘All men are created equal’. This is clearly not the case; some people are losers. He never even lived to see the can of worms he released once he wrote that with his feather. He just signed his autograph and let the chaos begin. (I’m going to name names. It was Thomas Jefferson another American.)

The Big Team Happy Days

We were at our happiest when we used to drive our yoke necklaced oxen around a field because then we were all working together as a big tribe, a team. Ok, it was tough but we had some laughs out there in the blizzard conditions. We needed to form tribes in order to fight off neighbouring tribes who tried to steal our oxen. Without an ox you’re nothing. After that, the numbers of people in a tribe diminished because along came the gun and then you didn’t really need a lot of people, just one guy with a good trigger finger. That’s why now we don’t have this sense of teamwork; we’re all alone hunkering in our corners, clutching our weapons.

The only time we do get a sense of belonging to a tribe is when we’re facing a disaster like a hurricane, Godzilla or a war. In the UK the only time everyone unites is when they’re reminiscing about the Second World War; when they get fuelled up on the Blitzkrieg spirit, they all start blubbing away singing those ‘We’ll Meet Again’ songs they heard on the wireless. Every Christmas, my husband’s parents would dress up as Luftwaffe and RAF pilots and run around the living room going, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches!’ and screaming, ‘We shall never surrender’, as they smashed into the TV set.

In my opinion, our downfall began when we started to think of ourselves as ‘individuals’. I read somewhere, don’t ask me where, that hundreds and hundreds of years ago there was no word for ‘I’. There was only the word for ‘we’. No one was lonely back then. The trouble started when the individual came into the picture. Remember the wheel? Back millions of years ago when we made the wheel? We don’t know who made it. There was no wheel by Chanel. Remember when we all worked together to make fire? We don’t know who lit the first match he was just some guy and he didn’t need his name in lights. Now agents and managers have to get involved and skim 20 per cent off the top for just standing there.

Simple animals have all the luck. They’re delighted to still work as a team. They’re delighted to be part of a gaggle, or flock, or swarm. Goose in the back row of the flying formation? He’s proud to be there. He’s overjoyed. It’s his job in life. Not us anymore. Our earliest instinct is to bond together and socialize; our very DNA gives us instructions on how to mingle. Natural selection is like a beauty contest, no one remembers who came in second. Nature is so cruel: one tiny weakness, a blemish, a flipper instead of an arm and you’re out of the running, gone.

You know who I blame for all this? Freud. If he hadn’t mentioned an ego, we would never have had one. Because of him it’s all about me. Me, I need to be the next Kate Moss. Me, I need to run Virgin. Me, I need to be in Hello and I’ll do anything to get on television. ‘You want me to eat my mother-in-law? Toss her on the barbeque.’

So this is the human condition: we’re living longer, getting taller, and are a push of a finger away from every other person on the planet and yet we do not know how to run ourselves.

Maybe we’re not supposed to know and when we’re finished filling the world with parking lots, muffin shops and Starbucks, our point on Earth is finished and with one big cataclysmic boom we’ll be gone.

Millions of years of natural selection, and this is what we’ve come to. We want to be the most famous, the richest, the thinnest and the busiest. Darwin would shit himself in the pants.

The Problem with Change

I have given you a taster of the good news already: WE CAN CHANGE. But here I ought to point out, as we are focusing on the problems of living in modern times, that when you do change, those around you won’t like it. People will not let go of their image of you, even though you have thoroughly redecorated your inner self. They want you to stay as they remember you so that they feel they aren’t changing either, that they are still gloriously youthful. This is why we don’t want to see an old movie star because it makes us think of our own mortality. Sometimes they will cast an ‘older’ woman (in her 50s!) but they’ll make sure she dies of something terminal halfway through. No one wants to see an ageing face on the screen, especially in HD. (I once saw myself in HD, I looked like a close-up of an elephant.) We run to doctors to fight off Mr Gravity for another year but it’s hopeless. We should tell ourselves, ‘The Christmas tree is dead already, stop trying to decorate it with fancy tinsel, it won’t help.’

I’m not leaving myself out of this; I give thanks every day to surgeons who have helped me look this pert long after pertness should have died. I’m sure my insides are like the old Dorian Gray, while my face looks all shiny and new. I once said to Jennifer Saunders wasn’t it amazing that you couldn’t tell I’ve had any work done on my face? She said that I was delusional and that it was obvious. I will never tell anyone how old I am. The year I was born will never pass these lips without water-boarding. Actually, I don’t even remember the year I was born. I set my burglar alarm to remind me. I’ve had my house robbed many times, the police come over and I can’t remember what I set the alarm at: 1971? 1932? 1995? Could be anything.

So many people want to label you as funny or aggressive or a mess. We are condemned by other people to stagnate in the image they have of us; held ransom by their expectations like a butterfly pinned on cardboard. I’m still asked by taxi drivers, as if this wouldn’t hurt me, why I am no longer on television? In the past, I used to have to choke back the bile as I felt that stab in my heart. I used to answer with, ‘Because I have terminal cancer’. That usually shut them up pretty quickish. I stopped doing that because I’ve learnt that if you let out your anger on someone, it comes back to you like acid reflux and you’ve poisoned yourself and feel toxic and nauseated while the taxi driver probably just goes back to his home and wife and has a lovely life.

I had to change, I didn’t have a choice as my career in television was pulled out like a rug from under me and I was replaced by a younger (but not as funny) version of me. Anyway I let it go and yes, it’s painful at first when no one looks at you. Fame is very addictive and as our spotlight fades, most people are desperate to cling on and we’ll do anything. ‘Please do a documentary about my gall bladder operation. I’ll even play a corpse.’

Eventually it’s quite liberating to not be noticed and you rejoin the human race. When you go on the tube and no one recognizes you, it’s a wake-up call; you realize how up your own ass you have been and that now it’s time to come out and smell the Circle Line. There’s a downside to becoming a normal person; when you tell the ticket guy at the exit that you forgot to buy a ticket and you think he’ll go, ‘Ha ha you’re the one from TV’, and let you off, you discover that this time he doesn’t and he tells you to get a ticket or you’ll be arrested.

When I decided to re-invent myself (which we all have to do in life at least five times, because we were meant to be dead by 30) and I went back to school to learn how to be a therapist, my friends said that the clients would think it was a joke. They would expect TV cameras to be following me into the room and either freak out or start auditioning. I was under the impression that the woman (me) who had that job in television was effectively dead.

The point is, we’re all changing all the time. You once found it hard to tie a shoelace and now you don’t even have to look. The change is so subtle; you think that whatever you feel like right now is how you always felt. Our brain can trick us into thinking life stands still. In the end this causes the human race the most heartache.

Blinkered Vision

As you get older you don’t see many things as unique any more. Whatever we experience in the present, we automatically go back through the filofax in our minds to figure out what it reminds us of. We do this for the sake of survival so, say, we have had a bad experience with a man with a moustache, now we don’t trust anyone with a moustache. And, because we see everybody through the filter of who they remind us of, whoever we meet is therefore labelled with that image, frozen in ice for all time. We’re not aware of how biased our memories make us and how they affect our view of the world.

And as we get older, our lenses get more and more narrow and blurrier until we only see our own tiny pinpoint view; this limited vision eventually makes bigots of us all. This is why so many marriages fall apart. You meet someone, think that you know them, marry them and then ten years later you divorce them because they turned out not to be who you thought they were. They never were. I realized many years after I married that I chose my husband because he has the eyebrows of Jeff Bridges. Now, I have to live daily with the disappointment that it’s actually him I’m with and not Jeff. God knows who he thought I was.

It goes further. We then unconsciously create situations that back up our beliefs, just to prove our point of view is right. We all know those women who keep dating the same kind of guy just to keep up their image of themselves as ‘victim’ and to reinforce the fact that ‘all men are bastards’. They give you stories about how he seemed so perfect on the ‘Serial Killer’ website and yet, after leaving a grenade on the pillow, he never called again. Why?

It’s amazing how we will suffer pain and abuse to keep our lives predictable. We’ll let our inner voices brutalize us, rather than live with the possibility that we might be wrong about how we see things. We’ll think, ‘Well at least it’s a pain that’s familiar’.

Uncertainty is our biggest fear so we keep up the idea that our vision of the world is reality. We use our minds to construct a picture of the world, judging it, making sure it fits with our past image of things and then anticipating how our past behaviours might affect the future. We never see the world as it really is but only how we see it. And because we’re trapped in our own interpretation, we are prepared to go to war with other people caught in their view of reality and never the twain shall meet. All this is the sound of people embedded in their own lives, believing their reality is the only reality, thinking the things they think matter; it’s the sound of solipsism. This could be why the world is in such a bad shape. It is the nub of all our problems and until we realize how limited our views are, we’ll never agree on anything. We have to try to see what other people see, through their eyes, only then can we come up with some cohesive resolution. This is my statement on world peace: take it or leave it.

My Story

I don’t mind change. I come from a long line of unpredictability as my ancestors didn’t stick around for long in any one place. Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of immigrants that I’m always ready to jump ship, to change my location fast in case we’re exterminated again. My fellow immigrants don’t get sentimental about things like furniture or heirlooms; this is because we’re constantly scuttling across borders, fleeing with pianos on our backs.

My fantasy is living in a simple hotel room, with no knick-knacks, only a phone for room service. I never get it when I see people waving their national flag, getting all weepy, singing some dirge about their homeland. Everyone sobbing for the old country (which is just a wet piece of peat moss) going on and on about how many generations back their people lived on this potato farm (said with an lrish accent) and how they loved it even though they’ve probably emigrated to another country. To me it’s dirt, to them it’s land: same thing. My people this, my people that. I have no real people except when I was in the mental institution and then it was full of them. They were my people, because they did not answer with ‘fine’ when you asked how they were. We didn’t need a flag.

My career ended with a bang in that I ended up in an asylum. We’re always surprised when something ends; everything ends, so why do we never think it’s our turn? One of my last interviews was with Ben Stiller who just answered my questions with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and I knew I had a car crash on my hands. Actually the very last interview show I did was with a star (who shall remain nameless) whose publicity agent only allowed me to go shopping with her in her friend’s shop where she wandered around saying things like, ‘This is nice’. Then we went to her Pilates class where I was allowed to film her doing a sit-up. She finally spoke at the end of the show in a coffee shop and I got a 45-minute speech about politics in Palestine or Panama or Bosnia; it was all my fault, the whole Bush administration was my fault. I knew the show needed some comedy so on the way out of the coffee shop I bought her (only in New York) a plastic donkey into whose behind you could put a lighted cigarette and watch the smoke come out of its mouth. She held it and looked at me as if to say, ’You are lower than a worm’. That was the last time I interviewed anyone. As I watched them try to edit in one useable sentence to save the show from the ‘Ben Stiller as a corpse’ and ‘Joan of Arc/nameless star’ interviews I knew it was over; I would be bidding a fond farewell to this profession.

On the way down the escalator of showbusiness, I finally hit the basement when I made a double suicide pact with Richard E. Grant by doing a show I hope you missed called Celebrity Shark Bait. Here’s a clue; the sharks weren’t the celebrities. We did it for the money and a chance to see Cape Town and we put the swimming with great white sharks in the back burner of our minds. Besides us on this show, there was also a girl (forgot name) from some soap (forgot name) who wore very low cut tops to show off her white, milky breasts. They filmed her most days and Richard and I were told they didn’t need us, so we told estate agents we were looking for a house to buy and snooped into people’s homes. Meanwhile, Milky Breasts was now being filmed (I’m not making this up) in a freezer where they hang dead pigs from hooks all around her while she stood freezing in her bikini. The point of this was to prepare her for the cold water. PS. We were going to wear dry suits for the dive so there was no point in the pig scene except to see her nipples.

The day came for the shark dive; an obese lesbian gave us instructions on the do’s and don’ts of how to behave in the shark cage. The woman, who had ‘Shark Lady’ printed on her red jacket, told us not to worry as she had been doing this for over 25 years and it was perfectly safe. As she tossed large chunks of tuna into the sea for chumming (getting some blood in the water to attract the great white sharks and drive them into a feeding frenzy) we noticed she only had two fingers. It turns out Milky Breasts wouldn’t get in the water she was too scared and so Richard and I were lowered down as bait. Suddenly something about 20 feet long glided at us, looked at us with dead eyes and swam away. The shark must have known our television careers were over and went off looking for an A-list celebrity. We became hysterical at the bottom of the cage, I laughed until urine came out of my rubber wet suit collar. Months later we saw the show. We were used as cutaways to the Breasts and when we were lowered in the cage they dubbed in screaming, thus not only humiliating us but making us look like wimps; two old has-beens sunk in the bottom of a tube. I decided to let go of showbusiness and begin again, slowly weaning myself off fame.

So I’m not nostalgic about leaving things. As far as my career or my university or my hometown went, I was on the bus out of town at the right time because I knew to walk away before I was pushed out. I never wanted to be the last one to leave the party. If you don’t move on, you get stuck and it becomes pathetic when you’re left clutching onto your past, remembering your school days, singing the old songs and boring everyone to death.

The ultimate freedom lies in knowing everything, including you, is in a state of flux; you’re never still, you’re always ‘nexting’; billions of your cells are born, billions die. In seven years you will be a whole new version of you and the old you, a pile of dandruff flakes.

Have We Overloaded? How Much Should We Know?

Our little brains are on a daily drip-feed of everything from fashion tips to traffic updates to terrorist attacks. Is there a limit? I’d like to know. I wish there was some kind of service that tells you how much your particular mind can take. What is your capacity? When is there too much information to hold in one head? Why can’t those of us filled to capacity hold up our hand and say, ‘I can take no more, please don’t tell me anything else’? I can only retain my Visa number. I cannot also remember my password for PayPal and Twitter, my brain floweth over. I had my brain tested a few months ago by a psychologist and he said that I had very little ram space so I can only hold about three numbers at once and I can’t build an argument because I forget where I started. I have other problems with numbers. I once called my husband from South Africa and told him I’d got a house for a steal, for 10,000 rand (£1000). I was three decimals off: it was 10 million (£100,000).

How much information are we supposed to be able to take in? I’m sure we’re only equipped to know what’s happening on our street and maybe the local deli, but if there’s a 3.6 earthquake in Kow Loo Toik, do I have to know? If the islands off Papua New Guinea flood, what am I supposed to do? Fly over there; get in a canoe with a hand pump and start draining? Ok, if you show me a photo of a maimed person, I will write you a cheque immediately, but most of the time what are we supposed to feel about these global disasters? I would probably like to know if my next-door neighbour gets shot but maybe I’m not so upset if it’s someone three blocks away. How close am I to the bullets? That’s what I want to know. I feel terrible saying this but it’s what I’m thinking.

When there was a hurricane in New York, there were huge headlines and 240 photos of every drop of rain, wet people being interviewed, for their first smell of fame (you can see a glint in the eye) aware they will be seen all over the world as they said something so original: ‘I was in my house and I heard wind and I ran out of my house’. New Yorkers were crying, screaming, kvetching (that’s what Jews do) that their cars stalled, their hair was blown off.

Yet, at the same time, Haiti was nearly devastated; 66 people died and hardly a flicker of coverage. You saw some black people wading in some water but no closeups.

I’m sceptical as to why people need to know about worldwide atrocities. I know people who watch CNN all day, particularly when working out on the StairMaster, buffing their butts while those headlines of disaster slap them in the face with an up-to-the-minute report on another high school shooting. You can see a lip-lubed anchor woman running over to an injured cheerleader, shoving the microphone in her face demanding, ‘How do you feel about the incident?’ giving her a little kick as she sinks into unconsciousness. ‘How do you feel?’ She has the look of a cat before it kills a mouse as she turns to the camera and says, ‘Well, Jerry, that’s all on the up-to-theminute report on the tragedy happening down here, back to you.’

In some deep, dark way we all become salacious around a disaster; our mouths water slightly when there’s a real emergency. Hurricanes, typhoons, wars, shootings, epidemics; we’re a little aroused because now we really have something to think about rather than our monotonous lives; something to take the focus away from our to-do list. We have a little break to think, ‘Well thank God it’s not me’. Then we forget again after a few days and get on with worrying about the pick-up at the dry cleaner and buying another light bulb. You can see the look of disappointment on people’s faces when the report comes that the hurricane has dipped from 3000 knots to a light breeze. We all love a disaster; nothing tastes as good. The savage still lurks underneath no matter what we’re wearing.

We the Emotionally Inept

We have created rockets to the moon, computers that can well, you name it, they can do it and Starbucks on every corner of the world, but the other part of us, the emotional bit, is still wearing nappies. Emotionally we are on all fours, grazing our knuckles on the ground, looking out naively from under our one big eyebrow. Many of us don’t even like to say the ‘E’ word (emotion) because some of us think it is a glitch in this otherwise perfect human machine. Emotions are to be eradicated as quickly as possible like a blemish or a laugh line.

But it is these lurking emotions that cause us the most trouble and we haven’t risen above them. We’re still slaves to them when they rear their ugly heads.

We used to hold in high esteem those who got the highest grades at school and they went on to be hugely successful. (Times have changed. There’s not some little guy at the top selling soap powder any more, now you need an MBA from Harvard just to put on your pants.) We’ve learnt that the brightest might be the very ones who screw us the hardest. They know the math; they feel they can rob the bank. We used to trust these guys, we thought they were like Superman. To relax on weekends they go helicopter skiing in Alaska, not just a double black run for them, they have to leap from a plane. To unwind, I chew a chicken bone in front of the television; they jump down a cliff.

Want my advice? If you’re checking out whom you want to do business with, ask what they do to relax on the weekends. If they say helicopter skiing, walk away, they are mentally not right. The most cognitively brilliant people usually have had to sacrifice their emotional selves. They live in a fog of facts rarely creating a new one, just regurgitating everything they’ve ever learnt and we’re supposed to think that’s smart. That’s a walking Wikipedia not a human being. This also might mean they’re not top of the class on the morals front. They feel nothing so they can squeeze you dry without a wisp of remorse.


This is my weak area. Even if in terms of success, I’m cooking on gas, if I suddenly see someone with more, I get that kick in the stomach, that stab in my heart that means I want him dead. I am the first to step forward and admit, I want what the next guy has. No matter what it is, I want it. Sometimes I get the lust for things I don’t even want. I’m so ashamed of this but in the throes of envy, if I accidentally pick up Tatler, Hello or Harpers and I see Lord and Lady Pomkelson Pompel Pomp sipping champers, with their smiling teeth yapping at some opening of something (I would shoot myself if I were actually there), I can’t help feeling that old gutter-rat sense of envy bubbling below the surface. If you ever hear me say, ‘I’m so happy you got that job I always wanted’, believe me, I not only want you dead but your whole family wiped out. I used to tear out pages of Hello magazine going, ‘Die, die, die’.

I’m always checking how many tweets other people have compared to me to make myself crazy. I look at Stephen Fry’s Twitter when I’m feeling particularly suicidal. He always inspires me when I need my envy stoking up. It’s like that spot on your gums that hurts when you stick a pin in it but you can’t stop doing it.

If only humans had a cookbook to see what our ingredients are. We could look up ‘envy’ and see that we all have it; it comes with the human package. It’s just one of those things that kept us alive when we roamed the ancient Savannah. It’s part of the survival-of-the-fittest kit, so that if one Homo erectus had an attractive pointed stone, we all wanted it and so we made our own pointed stone or even better smashed in his skull with a stick and stole his. It is in our biology, this reptilian feeling of wanting what the next guy has. We can see it in the ‘hubris’ of Greek drama. In every one of those Grecian plots, if someone got too big for their boots, divine justice would drop by and make them poke out their own eyes or accidentally screw their mother and then take poison. And now, we throw parties for people who have been promoted; though some of us afflicted ones hope they choke.


Your emotionally underdeveloped area may be anger, a very common ailment in the human psyche. It’s left over from when we were basic grunt, kill and mate apes. This is how it manifests itself now; you see yourself as a perfectly civilized person, law-abiding, popular with friends and a respected citizen. Then something in you flips and triggers some alien rage that turns you from Jekyll to Hyde in a second: could be a traffic warden, could be your secretary who forgot to give you a message, could be your husband/wife who got lost again because he/she can’t read a roadmap. Suddenly you’re unrecognizable: lips back, teeth bared, a terrifying vomiting bark emitting from your throat as you verbally bully your victim to dust. You want to hammer them but the fear of prison holds you back by a thread. Usually after the incident you get the backwash, the poison you shot out comes right back at you and you suffer the hangover of shame and guilt until they drain from your system or you ask God to forgive you.


Don’t be too hard on yourself; we are born with this one too. If we want something, we have the inbuilt skill to manipulate the situation in our favour. We can gazzump someone’s chances of getting the job, partner, money, you name it. We have the ability to outfox. We know how to smile but underneath we are plotting to overthrow them; talking behind their back, pretending to be happy for them and then hacking their phones. We are still animals under the skin; shifty and devious for survival’s sake. Evolution has even provided facial expressions to throw people off the trail so we can succeed with our deception.

Facial Expressions

Before we had words, we spread the news using our facial expressions and to this day no matter where you are on the planet, even if you’re born blind, by ten months you’ll know how to pull up both sides of your mouth and smile; a real one, not that thing airline stewardesses do when they give everyone ‘bye bye bye bye bye’ like they have a bad stutter. Nature in its brilliance made sure the first expression a baby learns is a smile because if it didn’t smile we would have tossed that screaming glob of fat (who can’t even go to the loo by itself) away. To this day people will tolerate and even love you if you smile. People in showbiz have this pummelled into them, singing to themselves, ‘Smile though your heart is breaking, smile even though you’re faking smile and the world smiles with you.’

Whether you live in Bora Bora or Detroit, the facial expression for anger remains the same. It can be recognized by a drawing back of the lips and showing teeth, which demonstrates to others that you could eat them if pushed. The exposed teeth were to show how sharp they were. How white they were was irrelevant. The growling was dropped once we learnt to swear. We show disgust by flaring our nostrils and putting our mouths in an ‘ick’ shape to show others around us that, let’s say, the fish is off. Fear is easy to spot: the open-mouthed screaming and bulging eyes gives a big clue for those nearby to run. Surprise is an intake of breath with an open mouth, warning others that something is not as it should be. It could be something bad or good; it’s sort of the human version of a yellow light.

Laughter begins as a half scream from the shocked response of seeing something unexpected, a man slipping on a banana. You’re about to express alarm but when you realize the danger has passed, that he’s still alive, your lips draw up and your eyes crinkle to show others that there is no emergency. Humour comes from shock followed by relief, expressed by a barking noise. It indicates that this is a joke, not an actual catastrophe and the bark is so ludicrous, so infectious, that others around you also bark and clap their hands, all joining in the celebration that the pie in the face was not serious. Everyone is so relieved they bark some more.

We’re born with the 47 facial muscles that create our expressions. All of our emotional states are viscerally connected to our facial muscles so we can read each other loud and clear, underneath language. Watch a silent movie and get back to me.

We developed facial expressions not just to read each other but also to deceive each other. For example, if you found food and you didn’t want anyone to get it, you could fake a look of disgust then everyone leaves and you get the meat. Those who were best at deception survived and the suckers fell by the wayside. This remains the same today. This schadenfreude face is one of the ugliest of all expressions. It means, I’m-so-happy-sorry-but-mostly-I’m-happy-you’ve-been-demoted-or-evenbetter-fired.

If you watch a face it will tell you everything. For instance you cannot fake a smile. There is a muscle under the eye called the periocular that will not become active if you aren’t genuinely smiling. The mouth is easy to upturn but if you don’t find something funny, that periocular muscle just doesn’t move; your eyes are dead as a trout’s.

Learning to read faces should be compulsory in schools so you can decipher what people are really thinking. Imagine if we could spot politicians right off the bat when they’re lying, they’d all be out of work in a week. Someone should have walked out of Bernard Madoff’s office and screamed, warning others (with his mouth wide open and fear in the eyes and then flared his nostrils to show disgust): ‘This man is a maniac!’ Then all those people wouldn’t have lost $50 bn. If we were taught in school how to read faces, we could have spotted those sociopathic mortgage lenders and noticed they had the eyes of lizards.


I wish we could express this emotion like kids do. If someone gets something you want, you just hit them over the head and snatch it back. That’s why children are so un-neurotic. They are doing what we only dream of.

The Road to Wisdom

First thing on the road to wisdom is to face ourselves honestly. People used to call it baring your soul, I call it looking in the mirror and cutting the bullshit.

Here’s how I read the situation. You may see it a totally different way but I’m the one writing this book so it’s pretty much going to be my opinion.

Because of this faulty plumbing, we’re anxious, angry, fearful, stressed and depressed and we try to put the blame on what’s going on in the world. We blame it on climate change, the Muslims, the Jews, the banks and whoever happens to be president or prime minister. The names change, they come and go; we hate them all. We love them in the beginning, then turn on them and say, ‘It’s all their fault we’re in a mess’. But I say to you, we put them in there, we voted for them.

The problem lies in us, we are always in conflict, and so that is how we see the world. Inside our heads there is always war. Bob Geldof says, ‘We are the world’. We are, he didn’t mean it in a nasty way but I do. It’s all our fault; no one else is in the driver’s seat, just us. Many people want to change the world; they don’t want to change themselves.

Wisdom isn’t something they ever write about in Vogue or can sell at Harvey Nichols. I wish it were, it would be so convenient while shopping for shoes. We used to have people we could ask these more existential questions. Where are they now? Out of work, like everyone else.

‘Life is meaningless, God is dead.’ Oh please, I’m depressed enough. Imagine if Sartre did stand up, the whole room would slash their wrists. Most of us don’t have old Shaman grandmothers sitting on their haunches, breasts pointing to the floor, handing down their knowledge. My grandmother couldn’t even tell me where she left her teeth, let alone any wisdom.

We spend a whole lifetime hunting for some wisdom. In childhood, it’s ‘happy days’, our biggest challenge is hitting the potty, after that the shit hits the fan. By the time you hit your 20s you’re fuelled with the stress that you have to end up as someone special. Clearly some give up and just take root on their sofas but most young folks feel they have to turn on the turbo and go for the gold. In your 30s you’re fighting to keep what you’ve got and by your 50s you know it’s going to get taken away. And this is where the road divides and you either turn into wine or into vinegar.

If you live long enough, a miracle might happen. If you make it to 83 and a 1/2, just when you look like a walking Lucian Freud painting, you might become wise. But it has to be that late in the day: you cannot be a babe and wise, it’s against the laws of nature. But if you make it to 83 1/2 and you don’t get overwhelmed by fear that makes you withdraw into your past, boring everyone senseless, and if your mind stays flexible and curious and you ask people questions and listen to their answer, and if you let all your narcissism, resentment, regret and envy drain out of you and you finally realize that the world will be fine without you, then you’re wise.

My Search for Normality

Perhaps I’ve come across as too negative in the book so far. I assume that what I’m writing about is our general malaise; what all people feel deep inside. I might be wrong, I’ve gotten things wrong before and I’ll admit I’m not an expert on what ‘normal’ people feel if they indeed exist. So I apologize if you’re sitting there going, ‘What the hell is she on about? We don’t think about any of these things. We live a happy and healthy life. Let’s give this book to Uncle Psycho.’

I didn’t mean to insult any of you. On the contrary, I am a great admirer of people who believe they are normal, I am fascinated by them. I’ve always thought, is it possible to feel the way Tony Robbins looks? Confident, positive, flowing with love for himself with his big wall-to-wall teeth and large genitalia. (I am guessing about this but he has a very large nose and I connect the two.) What makes him so sure he’s right? Does he really believe the script that is pouring out of his mouth? Is that normal?

I obsessively eavesdrop in public places (bars, trains, buses, restaurants) with my ear almost in the fruit salad in my search for who might be normal. I listen in to a conversation in a bar where a seemingly normal group of good old boys, teammates who work together, making valves for garbage disposals, are all out to celebrate the up-and-coming plumbing awards for which they have gathered. They seem so content with their lot; a happy pack at the watering hole, clinking glasses, toasting one another for the fact that they’re up to win ‘Plumbing Team of The Year’, fantasizing their names are being called out, hitting the air with their fists as they hear in their heads the music playing, ‘You’re the Best’, then each one of them makes a little slurry speech about how they couldn’t have done it without their team, posing for an imaginary photo, giving each other slaps on the back. Is that normal?

I’ve listened in to a girl at the next table in a restaurant, panting with excitement as she asks her friend to be her maid of honour at her wedding and the friend bursting into tears and blibbing on about how she’ll be the best maid of honour that ever lived and can’t wait to help choose the napkin colour. Is that normal?

I sit in a hotel lobby and listen in to two cigars with fat men on the ends yabbing about the price of housing, throwing out percentages of the increase or decrease of the market with complete confidence about how right they are. How does anyone accurately know how much a house price is going to rise or fall and who cares? Is that normal?

Everyone’s an Expert Except Me

At dinner parties, I hear people looked in debate about how to resolve the crisis in the Middle East like they’re experts. ‘Here’s what I would tell the Taliban.’ The president couldn’t figure it out with his advisors but these ‘if you ask me’ people presume to know. They base their extensive knowledge on the same newspaper everyone else reads; yet they have the answer. Where does that confidence come from? Around the world everyone is an ‘expert’. There must be at this very second 64 billion experts having coffee and giving their opinions on climate change, nuclear disarmament, obesity and the war on drugs.

I sat next to a man telling me what the Flemish were thinking during the Second World War. I was dripping in sweat thinking, ‘Should I know that information? Will he think I’m an idiot when he finds out I know nothing about the topic and is there going to be a quiz?’ I don’t even know where Flemmark is. I have to sit there, dying inside with self-loathing, while the Flem expert whips out more information like a swinging dick.

This exhibiting of ‘the one big dick’ memorized fact is how we unconsciously determine who the alpha is at the dinner table. Lecturing on Flemland to people who have no idea is the same as the chief gorilla beating his chest to show who is boss. This Flem guy somehow senses that I know nothing and I’m sinking in a mound of selfhatred, so he feels triumphant he’s won that round until he meets a bigger expert on Flem matters.

People find their scrap of knowledge and unquestioningly live their lives gathering their little pile of research then boring people senseless with the details.

To be honest, the main reason I listen in is to find someone, someday that might come out with some Earthshattering revelation and I will scream, ‘Aha! Bingo! That is the answer to why we exist.’ It hasn’t happened yet but I’m always on the look-out. My suspicion is that we’re all wondering what ‘normal’ feels like; all believing the next guy knows but not us. This may just be the way I think so forgive me if you don’t agree. I do know that we all want to be happy and we spend a great deal of our lives hunting for the key. No matter how powerful or successful we get, we still can’t figure out how to deal with a mind that keeps us up at night, driving us to exhaustion. This isn’t just for those who are considered mad, it’s for all of us. I wish we could just come out and say how we really feel;

I know I’d be so relieved.


SANE NEW WORLD. Taming the Mind

by Ruby Wax

get it at

The Calm Button, a Sober look at Mindfulness. Mrs D Is Going Within – Lotta Dann.

Mindfulness is paying attention to the moment without being lost in your head.

These mindfulness techniques might sound ridiculously simple. Seriously, just feeling the vibrations of the steering wheel makes a difference? Yes, it really does.

Lotta Dann explains how she uses mindfulness techniques.

It’s not so much about the steering wheel or my breath or the sensations in my toes, these are just readily available grounding tools.

It’s about recognising the actions of my thinking mind and not being sucked in by them. It’s about awareness, and most importantly it’s about kindness.

Practising mindfulness is the ultimate act of self-care. I care that I don’t get wound up. I care that I don’t have butterflies in my tummy. I care that I don’t make a busy day worse by thinking negatively about it. And in return all the people around me benefit, and I feel like I’m connecting with them more intensely.

Also, since I’ve begun thinking so often about my breath, I’ve become very connected to the whole of myself in a wonderful, subtle way. There’s something about focusing on this vital bodily action that is incredibly enriching, and noticing it regularly has fostered in me a deeper level of self-love.

This is not the same as me looking in the mirror and thinking: ‘Boy, do I look shit hot today!‘. Or seeing myself being mentioned online and thinking, I am so clever! Actually, it’s not about thinking about myself at all. It’s about feeling myself and, as someone who has never really been connected to their physical self at all (how could I be when I was all noise and booze?), slowing down and focusing on my breath regularly has led to me settling and becoming very connected with the whole of myself.

A lot of it comes down to me realising this: I am not my thoughts. I am way more than my thoughts. I am my heart and my soul and the blood pumping in my veins and a miraculous collection of atoms and molecules that takes up space on this earth.

My thoughts, on the other hand, are little energy puffs created out of the restless frontal cortex of my mind. They are influenced by the current state I am in, and are often not factual.

If I’m tired, I think more negatively. If I’m sick, I think more negatively. If something tricky is going on, I think more negatively.

For the first time in my life, I am able to separate out my thinking mind from the rest of me, to recognise when it is dominating, and to get it to just stop.

This is my simple little mindfulness mantra, and it repeats itself often in my mind. It comes to me in a voice that is kind and wise it’s my foxy Internal Observer! and she says,

Just stop!

Just stop with all the mental habits that are winding you up.

Just stop with all the worrying about your life, other people’s lives, life in general.

Just stop with all the ruminating over how things should or shouldn’t be.

Just stop with all the thinking about yourself that you do.

Just stop with all the planning about how things should be in the future.

Just stop with all the judgement about what’s going on.

Just stop with all the comparing yourself to others.

Just stop with all the speculating about what other people are thinking.

Just stop with all the endless mindchatter.

Just stop.

Of course, I still do all of the above who doesn’t? but if I catch myself letting it go on for too long I think, ‘Just stop’, and some sort of switch gets flicked in my mind. I relax my thinking into focusing on what is actually happening right in front of me in the exact moment I’m in.

This is mindfulness! Paying attention to the moment without being lost in my head.

The freedom, the freedom, when I practise this regularly is so great. It’s like being able to push a CALM button in my brain so that everything turns lovely. And there are no downsides.

Practising mindfulness hasn’t led to me forgetting things or mismanaging things or underperforming at things. On the contrary, it’s loosened me up overall so that I can perform better when I do need to focus on tasks.

Mindfulness has turned out to be the magic ticket I was looking for.

Mrs D Is Going Within

Lotta Dann


I am an alcoholic. An A-grade, first-class boozer. I could couch myself in more delicate terms maybe, and call myself a wine-lover or an enthusiastic drinker, but I prefer the more blunt and honest approach. Alcoholic, that’s what I am.

The truth is that for almost all of my adult life alcohol has been my constant companion. I drank determinedly and heavily, religiously, almost from the age of fifteen to the age of thirty-nine. When I first tried alcohol as a fresh faced teenager, I overdid it and ended up vomiting the entire contents of my stomach into the bath (sickly-sweet bubbly wine and marshmallows, to be precise, an image that has never left me), but that didn’t put me off. No way! I was hooked from the get-go, completely drawn to the fun, danger and allure of this magical drug.

I loved the way it felt in my body, trickling up my spine and entering my brain. I loved the way it loosened my limbs and loosened my mood. I loved that it shifted reality, made everything more gnarly and more fun. Teenage me, a heady mix of nerves and rebellion, thought that this wonderful, powerful liquid was the golden ticket to life. And, since I lived in a society where drinking regularly was not only the norm but a celebrated and even encouraged thing to do, it was easy for my teenage crush to steadily morph into an adult love affair. Regularly drinking was how I rolled, and as far as I was concerned imbibing alcohol almost every single day was a very ordinary, grown-up and acceptable thing to do. Five o’clock is wine o’clock right? It certainly was in my world.

I drank through my student years and my early jobs in journalism. I drank as I travelled the country and the world. I drank when l was achieving great things; I drank when I was idle and miserable. I drank in stressful jobs; I drank when unemployed. I drank alone and in groups. I drank when l was single, throughout happy romances, and during dysfunctional relationships.

I used booze to bond with friends, to fit in to groups, to prove that I was a good hostess, and to make myself comfortable in social situations. I drank it to mark achievements, drown sorrows, cure boredom and dull sadness. I drank when celebrating, congratulating, relaxing and memorialising, and when grieving, stressing, being let down or heartbroken. I drank in bars, at work, on aeroplanes, in parks, at the beach, up mountains and sitting on the sofa. I even drank in bed. The only time I didn’t drink was when I was pregnant or laid up with a tummy bug (sad but true).

Alcohol was just there for me all the time, impacting every experience I had, sometimes elevating my experiences, sometimes smoothing them out, sometimes ruining them. (I have a bunch of best, forgotten memories from events where I got completely blotto and lost the plot, not pretty.)

I can’t even begin to imagine how many litres of alcohol I have consumed in my life. I shudder to think about how much booze my internal organs have been forced to process. Beer, wine, gin, whiskey, peach schnapps You name it, I have drunk plenty of it. Mostly though, and certainly towards the end, it was pretty much only wine. Glass after glass after glass of wine. Wine was my constant companion, my trusted friend, my go-to solution, my crutch.

Until it wasn’t.

Towards the end of my drinking days I completely lost the ability to moderate my intake. I struggled to have any alcohol-free nights. Once I started drinking I wouldn’t stop until all the alcohol in the house was gone. I needed more and more to feel ‘full’. Where one bottle of wine in a sitting used to be enough, soon I needed one bottle plus another glass (or four). Time and time again I made promises to myself that I failed to keep, promises like, ‘I’m only having one tonight.’ I was frequently sloppy, slurry and messy. I’d stumble and fall. There was vomiting.

I was permanently exhausted, hungover and wracked with guilt. Every day was an endless cycle of regretting drinking, recovering from drinking, convincing myself I didn’t have a drinking problem, planning on drinking, acquiring alcohol and drinking again. Once it hit my system, I was a goner and I just wanted more, more, more. I was a slave to the drug of alcohol, locked in a miserable binge-and-regret cycle. What had started out as a fun, edgy habit ended up in a dark and dysfunctional place where I had very little pride, strength or self-respect left.

I quit drinking on 6 September 2011 after a particularly miserable Monday-night binge at home, during which I hid an empty bottle of wine from my husband to conceal how much I’d had while he’d been out. This was something I’d never done before. it wasn’t so much the events of that evening which forced my point of change, although the dysfunctional behaviour of hiding the bottle was a horrifying new development. Rather, it was the accumulated knowledge gained over the preceding months, during which I’d been trying desperately to gain control of my habit. I couldn’t gain control, and it all finally came to a head on the night that I hid that empty bottle.

I woke at 3 am that morning full of despair and guilt and frustration and desperation. This was my personal rock bottom, me at my lowest ebb, a miserable, teary mess. Finally, l accepted that the only way I was going to gain any control was by removing alcohol from my life completely. So I quit, thinking that if I just broke my nasty little drinking habit and learned how to live alcohol-free then life would carry on the same as before.

Boy, was I wrong. First of all, breaking my ‘nasty little habit’ was bloody hard work. My brain freaked out when it realised I’d taken away its beloved fix. ‘I WANT MY WINE!’ it would scream as 5 pm approached. Every. Single. Day.

And every single day I’d have to grit my teeth and resist the urge to drink. It was hell. I’d snap and be grumpy with my family. I’d guzzle sugary drinks. I’d clean the house like a mad woman to distract myself. (Never has my house been as clean as it was when I first quit drinking.) I’d force my thoughts forward through the evening, visualising myself getting into bed sober then waking up in the morning without a hangover. I knew that if I could get through the dreaded ‘witching hours’ of 4 pm to 7 pm without drinking I’d be so happy and proud of myself. Sometimes I’d go to bed at six-thirty just to get the day over with.

Slowly, as the days and weeks passed, the intense physical cravings lessened, and l was able to relax a little.

But beating the cravings was just the beginning.

Next, I had to work on entirely reshaping my identity. No longer was I ‘fun Lotta’, the upbeat party girl who was always game for a laugh. No longer was I ‘cruisy Lotta’, the awesome hostess who always had wine on ice to offer her guests. No longer was I ‘naughty Lotta’, with the twinkle in her eye, getting amongst it into the wee small hours. So who was I instead? My biggest fear was that I would become ‘Lotta the boring, sober loser’.

In my early days of sobriety, I struggled through social events, feeling terribly awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin, but-as with everything in sobriety, slowly things took a turn for the better. I discovered that not only did no one care whether I drank or not, but not everyone else was getting hammered all the time. Who knew?! I’d been so locked in to my own boozy mindset that I hadn’t noticed how many people take it extremely easy. Furthermore, as I started hanging out without a glass in my hand, I began to realise that, surprise, surprise, alcohol is not the magical, golden ticket to fun I once thought it was.

My entire life, I had given alcohol the power to make events successful, but when I removed it I began to learn that a fun party is a fun party not because my glass contains a brain-bending liquid, but because it’s full of elements that make it fun for me, things like a crowd of people I love, a great location, a good atmosphere, music I dig, and me in a good mood and happy in my outfit. I also realised that no amount of booze can improve a boring or nerve-wracking party, all booze does is make you drunk at a boring or nerve-wracking party.

In fact, the longer I went without drinking, the more I started to understand that all of my hardwired beliefs and romantic notions about alcohol were complete and utter bullshit. This revelation was HUGE for me and, quite honestly, fascinating.

Here I was at the age of 39, having spent over twenty years worshipping at the altar of my idol, alcohol, and only now was I discovering that it wasn’t actually the glorified substance I thought it was. My false god fell off its pedestal, and I started to see it for what it really was: expensive, destructive, foul-tasting shit that did nothing to enhance my life and everything to dull it. I discovered that alcohol wasn’t essential for good times; good times are good because they contain naturally enjoyable elements. I discovered that it wasn’t the best thing to help me relax at the end of a busy day; relaxing is about being finished with work, putting on comfy pants, lighting a scented candle, connecting with family or unwinding with enjoyable activities.

And the biggest mindshift of all? That alcohol wasn’t a ‘treat’ to ‘reward’ myself with, but a costly drug that stifled my inner spark and messed me up.

As I slowly clocked up the sober days, and as each of these revelations emerged, I started to feel so great about being free of the stuff. I also started sleeping better, looking better, listening better, concentrating better, parenting better, writing better, singing better, dressing better. Just being a much better version of myself than I had been before. Fantastic!

Initially, I thought that I’d escaped my drinking days largely unscathed and was on the path to a settled and happy second half of my life, particularly because my story lacks the usual litany of dramatic incidents and monumental cock-ups that can follow in the wake of an alcoholic.

But I soon realised this was not the case. I may not have had a criminal record or any failing organs to my name, but did I have widespread emotional deficiencies as a result of my long-term alcohol abuse? Yes indeed.

From the moment I put down the bottle, I was all over the show with my moods. Without a daily liquid suppressant, every tricky emotion burst out of me with ovewhelming intensity. I felt raw, drained, teary, super sensitive, uncomfortable, alarmed and confused, sometimes all within the same hour! It was like I’d crawled out of a dark cave, one in which I drank alcohol all the time and never matured properly, and into the bright sunlight.

I started to see that alcohol had been a great leveller for me, one that I had used to keep myself on an even keel so that no big highs or lows ever came my way. My regular alcohol habit had dulled all of my feelings and emotions into a fuzzy, boozy mess. I wasn’t expecting it, but boy was the shift to living sober a dramatic one. Without my beloved smooth-all, I started living on high alert, feeling every emotion very acutely.

My anger was rage. (Ask my sister about the time I punched the wall in the midst of an argument.) My sadness was despair. (Ask my friend about the time I sobbed all over her about something that had happened twenty years prior.) These extreme emotional outbursts were deeply uncomfortable. I hated being angry, and I thought that sadness was the worst thing in the world, a feeling to be avoided at all costs. Now that I was sober, these emotions were not only unavoidable, but it also quickly became apparent that I was woefully illequipped to deal with them. I couldn’t be like, ‘l’m having a bad day so I need to do X, Y, Z to look after myself,’ or, ‘l’m fuming, Ineed to X, Y, Z to manage this.’ I didn’t have an X, Y, Z! I had no emotional coping mechanisms, no tried-and-tested methods of dealing with stuff. The only tried-and-tested method I had was to be found in a bottle.

Time has helped somewhat. As I’ve pushed on through over three years of being sober, I’ve naturally calmed down and the dramatic lurching from one emotional state to another has quietened. I’m still way more heightened than I was when boozing, but I’m no longer all over the show like when I first quit. I’m much more accepting of my emotions nowadays and am a little more in tune with them coming and going. I’m simply more used to feeling. I still don’t like tricky emotions, but have grown to tolerate them, much as you would an annoying neighbour or insect bites.

But I still need to do some serious work. The truth is, I’ve never sat with myself ‘in the raw’ for long enough to gain any real insight into how I function as a human being. Emotionally, I am very unformed and unresolved. Sure, I’ve lived a full life and have built up a decent amount of experience and wisdom just from having been on the planet for many years, but having booze as my constant companion in life has prevented me from properly developing any robust coping strategies. I thought I was quite a well-adjusted, mature and wise woman, but putting down the bottle has proved otherwise. I now know that using alcohol for most of my adult life to enhance, distract, avoid, numb and blur reality has messed with my brain chemistry and left me an emotional fledgling.

In many ways, I am writing this book as a typical woman in her forties. My body is that of a typical middle-aged woman (saggy but also soft and strong). My life is full of the typical trappings of middle age (family, mortgage, reading glasses, teacup collection). I’ve experienced many things and have a bunch of memories to show for it. But I lack something important. I lack a solid perspective on myself, how I work, how I process and deal with things. I lack any fundamental knowledge or good tools to help me navigate the remaining years of my life. I’m sober and that is fantastic, but putting down the drink was just the first step. Now I need some next-level help to get me through.

As it stands, I have only two tools in my toolbox that have helped me get to this point in my sobriety. The first tool is massively powerful and the most important, and that is my awesome online recovery community. Thanks to my blog, Mrs D Is Going Without, which I started when I first quit drinking, and now Living Sober, the government-funded recovery website I run, I’m constantly surrounded by a wonderful tribe of like-minded people who know exactly what I’m going through.

Through my blog, Living Sober and my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, I’m in daily contact with thousands of equally brave and amazing people who are also working hard to reshape their lives and get sober. We all share openly and honestly about what we’re going through, our trials and triumphs, and how we are navigating our sober lives in a world awash with booze. The connections I have made online are incredibly strong and heartfelt. Knowing I can always find a wise and sympathetic ear online when the going gets rough is gold.

The second tool that I have whole-heartedly embraced is the concept of ‘sober treats’. All the money that I used to spend on wine, I now spend on special things to treat myself with when I’m feeling low, fresh flowers, scented candles, fancy soaps, delicious chocolates and glossy magazines. These items may sound trite or superficial, but with every purchase I send myself a little self-care message that I am worth being treated well and that I am brave and amazing for quitting booze. It’s an important message.

So my toolbox isn’t empty. It’s just a bit light. At the moment, I don’t even have any regular exercise in there, and everyone knows that is super important.


Recovery community, Sober treats

I need more tools, a better range of tools, deeper tools, more robust tools, because the problem is, life keeps coming at me. Tricky stuff keeps happening, big stuff, hurtful stuff, complicated stuff, painful stuff, confusing stuff, and my tools aren’t proving tough enough. I need more techniques for when I’m struggling. My online community is fabulous, but I don’t share everything with them (some things are just too private), and a scented candle only goes so far. I’m lucky to have an extremely supportive husband in Corin, a great family and some wonderful friends, but I still desperately feel the need to develop some better coping strategies.

Because, honestly, things aren’t going great. Lately I’ve been experiencing low-grade anxiety, and the sober treats that fall into the ‘sweet’ category are getting way out of hand, so much so that I’m often caught in a cravings-binge-self-loathing cycle with sugar that is scarily reminiscent of my drinking days.

Sober me needs some serious work. And I’ve got to do it now, or maybe I will end up back in a bottle, once again using wine as my main emotional coping mechanism.

And that would be extremely dumb.

Chapter 1

What the bloody hell is the problem?

It’s 5 pm on a Tuesday. In an hour I need to take my middle son to his Cubs meeting, but before that we’ll have dinner. I’ve got sausages in the frying pan, potatoes roasting in the oven, broccoli and carrots chopped and ready to cook. My three boys are happily playing video games (or watching YouTube videos of other people playing video games, which is apparently a fun thing to do). While it’s quiet, I’m tidying up the house, repositioning things so that they are in their rightful place, something I seem to do endlessly. Corin will be arriving home from his job as TVNZ’s political correspondent later. It’s an ordinary Tuesday evening. So why do I feel nervy and on edge, like something is wrong?

I can feel it in my belly, there are butterflies there. I mentally run through a list of things that might explain why I am feeling this way. (‘There always has to be a clear reason for any emotion,’ is how I think.) Butterflies usually equal nerves. Am I nervous about something? Have I got a scary work meeting coming up or a talk to do? Did I just receive a snippy email or nasty text message that I’ve forgotten about? I stop my tidying and lean over to place both hands on the corner of the kitchen table. I try to reach back into my mind. Nope, can’t remember anything specific. So what is going on? Is my health worrying me? Is there a social event looming that I’m dreading? Nothing. Well, what the bloody hell is the problem, then? Why the butterflies? I can feel them dancing around in my belly and hate that I can’t pinpoint why they’re there. What on earth are they trying to tell me?

I despise this sense of impending doom, this feeling like I’ve got something to worry about.

It’s not an unfamiliar sensation and often, like right now, I can’t put my finger on what that something is. I take a deep breath and push myself off the table then carry on tidying things away. As I head back over to the kitchen bench, picking up some shoes on the way and chucking them in the basket, I’m still edgy and worrying about what’s wrong. Surely there must be a simple and clear answer to why I’m feeling wound up. Did I sleep badly last night? Am I due for my period? Have my food choices been crap lately and that’s what’s bringing my mood down? No silver bullet springs to mind to explain why I have this nervous tummy. lt’s annoying.

I keep ruminating on what’s wrong as l chuck a couple of glasses into the dishwasher then turn on the elements under various pots and pans. The edginess stays with me as I move about the kitchen, getting dinner plates out of the pantry and putting them on the bench. I need a solution.

It’s a pretty fraught conversation, this one I’m having in my head.

The only solution I have is to distract myself. I’m very good at this. I reach into the ‘secret’ cupboard (the one that everyone knows about), where treats for lunchboxes are stashed, to grab two mini bags of salty chips and tear them open. I’ve been sober for so long that wine isn’t on my radar any more and, thankfully, I’m not having a fierce internal debate about whether to have a glass (or five) of merlot to smooth out the edginess but the chips are a nice, salty distraction for sure.

My phone rings (more distractions-yay!) so I grab it to check out what has arrived. (Must check notifications on my phone immediately or the device will explode.) It’s an email from a North American rehab wanting me to publish their infographic about addiction on my blog. Do I want to do that? It apparently details the struggles a child faces when their parent is an addict. Still holding my phone, I grab a tea towel and open the oven door then give the roasting spuds a good shake. They look ready so I turn the oven off and leave the door ajar, then quickly reach into the cupboard for another mini bag of chips. I gobble them down while thinking about emails and infographics and addicted parents and my work in general.

I decide to quickly check lnstagram (a couple of new followers, someone’s salad, a dog on a beach), then Twitter (two likes on my last tweet, endless boring tips on how to live well, local politicos bickering), then my Facebook page (a couple of new comments, someone has shared a mocktail recipe), and finally my blog to see if there are any new comments (a reader has shared a quote attributed to Helen Keller about the world being full of suffering but also the overcoming of it). I then head to the Living Sober website and navigate to the community section to make sure all the members are playing nice (they are-they’re all rallying kindly around someone who relapsed last night, and yet again I’m heartened by how kind and non-judgemental the community is).

When I finally tear myself away from my online world I look over and realise l’ve overcooked the broccoli. Shit! I drop my phone on the bench and grab the pot off the stove, yelling ‘Dinner!’ at the boys. The butterflies in my tummy come back into focus and I’m aware my shoulders are tense. I’m definitely on edge. I think about the member who relapsed, it’s a bummer, as she’d been doing so well, and mull over the Helen Keller quote, before mentally starting to write an email response to the American rehab. I’m going to have to turn down their request because info graphics aren’t my thing. I’m busy trying to word my response so that I don’t sound uncaring or flippant. I wonder what other bloggers say when they turn down such offers.

There’s no sign of my boys.

‘Get off your screens now!’ I yell, and start worrying once more about this edgy feeling I have. As I drain the hot water off the veggies, I decide it must be my work that has me worried. Not the Living Sober job, that is running very smoothly. It’s the media advisory work I’m doing on the side. I’m having trouble managing one relationship in particular, and I’m feeling stressed about the whole situation. I don’t know what to do to improve things, and I feel that I’m being totally misunderstood. It’s very unsatisfactory. This must be what’s got me on edge.

I’m still alone in the kitchen. ‘Dinner, now! GET! OFF! YOUR! SCREENS!’

As I begin to plate up, I start a conversation in my mind with the colleague I’m having trouble working with. It’s a pretty fraught conversation, this one I’m having in my head, but at least when I’m having it I’m not thinking about the butterflies in my tummy.

Sausages on the plate.

I imagine the colleague being rude and dismissive towards me and I’m being defensive and emotional back.

Broccoli on the plate.

The imaginary conversation is not going well; it’s heating up. I’m getting more and more upset.

Carrots on the plate.

‘We think your work is shit!’

Potatoes on the plate.

‘You don’t value what I’m doing!’

‘Mum Mum Mum MUM!’ I’ve hardly noticed that the boys have finally arrived in the kitchen.

‘What?’ I snap at my ten year old, then instantly feel bad. The poor guy doesn’t realise he’s interrupted a tense imaginary work meeting.

‘Did you sign the form for the class photo?’

Did I?

‘ls there any tomato sauce?’ Mr Twelve queries.

Is there?

‘Knock-knock!’ says Mr Seven.

‘Who’s there?’ I say, handing over the tomato sauce while wondering about class photos and still feeling like I’m locked in an imaginary fight with my colleague. My phone rings again. I grab it. It’s a text from Mum, who lives in the South lsland: Call me.

It’s always a sure sign I’m in a gritty phase when I’m eating bagels covered with butter and jam.

Mum tells me my step-father has terminal lung cancer. Holy shit. The news hits like a bomb and I simply don’t know what to do with this awful, gut-wrenching sadness. It hurts, this emotional pain. It hurts down deep. Grief is not something I’ve had a lot of experience with. I’m struggling big time to know what to do with this. Forget about work woes and nervy tummies, this is the really big stuff of life. I feel utterly wretched that this kind and gentle man who has been an unwavering presence in my life for over twenty years is going. I feel deeply for my mother, who is heartbroken at the prospect of losing her best friend and dear mate. I just feel so deeply sad. I’ve had people close to me die before but back then my coping mechanism was booze (and lots of it). Obviously, that particular remedy is gone now. So what to do with this pain? I desperately read up about grief, searching for material on the internet that will give me tips on how to deal with it, watching YouTube clips and TED Talks. Mostly, though, I just keep wishing it away. Wishing he wasn’t sick. Wishing this wasn’t happening to our family, that we weren’t preparing for him going. Why does it have to be this way? I really do wish this wasn’t happening.

I feel deeply, heartbreakingly, devastatingly sad. I use the tools I do have, talking to my online community (they are very kind) and diving head first into my sober treats. Well, one type of sober treat, in particular: food. Basically I eat as much as is humanly possible. It’s like I can’t possibly be full enough. I binge on foods full of sugar and fat. It’s always a sure sign I’m in a gritty phase when I’m eating bagels covered with butter and jam. Quite why I consider these foods to be treats is beyond me, they might be yummy immediately, but the after-effects are grim. I feel fat and unhealthy and weak.

I have other ways to distract myself from the sadness: cooking, cleaning, working and worrying about tricky colleagues also keep me occupied. My mind has kicked into overdrive, fretting about the less-than-satisfactory relationship I feel I have with that colleague, and the tenuous position I feel I’m in with regards to the work.

In real life, nothing new about this situation has developed, but it sure has escalated inside my head. By now, I’ve spent so many hours carrying out a crazy imaginary feud with my colleague that the argument has dug out well-worn pathways in my mind and I’ve lost sight of what’s real and what’s not. It almost feels comforting to keep returning to this fierce dialogue in which I’m battling for my point of view to be heard, and so I do go back to it, again and again and again.

And, more than ever, I busy myself online. Every new lnstagram follower, Twitter notification, Facebook like or blog comment is a welcome distraction. So, too, is parenting my three boisterous sons. They’re extremely busy, and even more so than normal as we’re heading into the end of the school year. There are endless forms to fill in, gifts to be bought, plates of food to be prepared and activities to get to.

But, during the moments in the day when I’m not able to distract myself with sugar, technology or the kids, my mind wanders like buggery and my thoughts are busy and noisy. In the shower, driving the car, washing the dishes, any time when I’m alone and doing something menial, I’m actually miles away, lost in thought, feeling annoyed that my work relationships aren’t easier or feeling sad and wishing my stepfather wasn’t dying. It’s exhausting and depressing. It’s no bloody fun at all.

Chapter 2

I’m far from a ‘happy, joyous, free’ housewife, that’s for sure

Eight days before Christmas, just a few short weeks after his diagnosis, my step-father dies. We travel to the South Island for the funeral, which is a small gathering in my mother’s garden. I wear sunglasses during the service and try to distract myself by thinking about other things (I literally try to get lost in thought, remembering happy times), but it’s hard to tune out the poems being read and speeches being made. I cry a lot.

Once the formalities are dealt with, I slip into social mode. There are a few tricky dynamics with some people, which is a little stressful. There is booze flowing, of course, because booze always flows at social events in this country of mine, but I’m not bothered by that. No one is getting sloppy and I have relaxed an awful lot since I first stopped drinking. (Back when I first quit, I used to take every alcoholic drink consumed by another person as a huge slap in the face, but nowadays I feel much more chilled out about having it around. Other people can have it; I’m not interested in the stuff. Booze really has lost its allure for me.) However, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t dearly love to escape the deeply uncomfortable sadness that is overcoming me right now, and thankfully there is cake!

After the funeral there’s no time to pause and gently recover from the shock and emotional outpourings, as we’re straight into Christmas. We launch into the silly season head first, racing around visiting friends and relatives, socialising up a storm. All this interacting and negotiating with other people is tiring, and there are complicated relationships simmering away that I feel hyper-aware of. Why do relatives always have such brilliant button-pushing abilities?

After a couple of weeks of hardout socialising, Corin, the boys and I go camping for a week. I’m hoping the deckchair lifestyle will give me a chance to finally de-stress, regroup and unwind, but it doesn’t. Pausing all the busyness only serves to highlight how unrelaxed i am. There’s still so much noise whirring around in my mind. I’m far from a ‘happy, joyous, free’ housewife, that’s for sure.

I’m also still busy working online. My social media spaces require constant updating and checking for feedback (at least, I choose to constantly check them for feedback), and I’m permanently on duty as moderator at Living Sober. The website is super busy of course, because this time of year is particularly hard for people who are trying to give up booze. (They don’t call it the ‘silly season’ for nothing.) Members are turning to the site in their thousands and leaning on each other for help navigating social events and family tensions. Things hum along smoothly, the community vibe is unfailingly kind and supportive, but then a bunch of bastard spammers set their spam bots on us and we get hit with hundreds of bogus sign-ups and comments. It’s a spam attack like I’ve never experienced before, intense and nasty. It gets so bad, the techies have to take the entire site down for a few days while they fix the problem. I’m having to liaise with them and ease the concerns of worried community members from my ‘office’ at the campsite (my deck-chair outside the tent). This is not the completely stress-free holiday I might have hoped for.

Distracting myself with bad foods and the internet isn’t cutting it any more.

I’m tight. Mentally, I’m tight. Emotionally, I’m tight. My shoulders are tight. My breath is tight. There are butterflies in my belly regularly and I’m pretty sure it’s a symptom of low-grade anxiety. I constantly try to reassure myself by thinking that all of this is normal, spammers attack, people die, families are complicated, everything is OK. I’m generally in good health. My husband is good. My kids are good. Everything is as it should be. It’s OK. Really, it’s OK. Yet I remain tight and on edge. Why do I feel so unsettled? Why is my brain whirring along nineteen to the dozen all the time? Why have butterflies clustered in my belly? Why do l have endless heated discussions with people in my head? Why am I not moving through my days in a blissful state of Zen-like calm? Why am I so goddam tight inside and out?

On top of all this worrying, I also feel slightly fraudulent because of the nature of my work. I’m a recovery advocate; I spend all my time talking online about how great it feels to be sober (and really it does, believe me, I am a million miles from the boozy hell I was living three years earlier), yet I’m hardly the model of a super-calm, fully resolved, perfectly Zen housewife.

In fact, in some ways, the longer I go in sobriety, the harder things seem to get. Not the not drinking part, that’s easy. Like We said, I no longer crave booze or have the knee-jerk reaction to reach for a substance to blur the edges of my brain. But, while time has removed my urge to drink, it has also made me more aware of my inability to calmly process and deal with all the stuff that keeps going on in my life. It’s almost as if the novelty of sobriety has worn off, which is a real bummer. I used to experience lovely waves of happiness and pride every time I ground through tough times without drinking, and those proud feelings would act as a fantastic buffer to the tricky emotions. Just thinking, Yay, me! I got through that without drinking! used to be a wonderful antidote to any shitty times, but the longer I’m sober, the more ordinary it becomes and subsequently the less proud of it I remember to feel. Not drinking is a given now; it’s the normal way that I live. In many ways, this is fantastic, how great that I have got to this place in my sobriety, but it’s also a bit of a downer because that pride really did help to counterbalance the sharp edges of life.

Much like when I reached the point where I realised I had to stop drinking, I slowly come to the conclusion that something has to change. Distracting myself with bad food and the internet isn’t cutting it anymore. I need some new tools in my toolbox, some new techniques. I need a new plan.

But what?

Everybody and their dog (if their dog has a Twitter account) is banging the drum about mindfulness.

The internet leads me to the answer. No surprises there, given how much time I spend online and how constantly bombarded I am with other people’s ideas and messages. On my various social media accounts I follow hundreds of addiction experts, fitness boffins, health gurus, researchers, authors, rehabs and other organisations devoted to wellness and recovery. They all keep going on about tools and practices that are necessary if you want to maintain a happy lifestyle. Twitter in particular keeps giving me snappy one-liners that until now I’ve been ignoring. But, given I’m so wound up and struggling with things, I’m finding it hard to ignore the endless wellness chatter.

Take yoga, for example. Yoga is touted everywhere online as the answer to everything, and I mean everything.

#yoga is powerful for helping people with #depression

#yoga is helpful for improving arthritis pain

Need to improve your balance? #yoga is the key

#yoga lowers stress and anxiety

#yoga can teach us about happiness and contentment

How #yoga can help clean your house

OK, I made that last one up, but there is a theme here. Yoga is the miracle cure, according to the internet. I’m not convinced. In fact, I heartily disagree. I’d like to never have to think about yoga again, except it keeps bloody well being tweeted about. Can it really be that good?

Another thing that keeps being mentioned in Twitter’s 140-character bursts is ‘gratitude’. There’s a lot of talk in recovery circles about gratitude and how beneficial it is if practised daily. Sober bloggers often write gratitude posts listing all the good things in their lives. Lots of people in my personal Facebook feed have been doing ‘seven days of gratitude’ lists, and all the wellness boffins on Twitter are obviously in favour of it.

The daily practice of gratitude is one of the conduits by which your wealth will come to you #gratitude

A moment of #gratitude makes a difference in your attitude

Begin with #gratitude and watch the #miracles flow your way

Never let the things you want make you forget the things you have #gratitude

Listing what I am grateful for is a practice that contributes to a sense of joy and peace #gratitude

All right, Twitter. I hear you. Clearly gratitude is a helpful thing, but how do I incorporate it into my life so that it actually makes a difference? I’d love it if I could just write out one list of all the things I am grateful for and then be miraculously filled with joy and peace for evermore. Maybe I’ll start now.

I’m grateful that I no longer drink alcohol. I’m grateful that l have a lovely family. I’m grateful that l have a nice house to live in.

I’m grateful that l have the internet to connect me to a world of stimulating people who want to help me live better even though I don’t always get what they’re on about.

I do get that gratitude is something that needs to be practised in an ongoing way for it to have any real benefit, but how on earth do you bring it into your life on a regular basis? I have no idea how to do that.

The big kahuna, though, seems to be mindfulness. This is the thing I find is most often talked about by all sorts of people in all of my internet spaces. I think mindfulness might be like meditation but slightly different, but I’m not entirely sure about that. In fact, I really don’t know much about mindfulness at all, other than that it gets a lot of air time. Like, a lot. It is the hot trend among wellness experts. Everybody and their dog (if their dog has a Twitter account) is banging the drum about mindfulness. They’ve been going on about it for so long it’s virtually impossible to ignore. Problem is, I think it sounds freakish and wishy-washy and not like something I’d be keen on at all.

Thoughts may be treated like sounds: you hear them, you recognise them, you let them go #mindfulness

Thoughts may be treated like sounds? What the hell does that mean?

Real but not true: freeing ourselves from harmful beliefs #mindfulness #meditation

Say whaaaaat? How can something be real but not true?

When practising #mindfulness there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no to-do list

Huh? So it’s nothing at all? What is it then, if it’s nothing? How can something be nothing?

#mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that

Awareness of the present experience? How can life be anything but awareness of the present experience? I’m aware of everything I’m doing all the time. At least I think I am. Aren’t I overly aware, in fact, isn’t that my problem? Is mindfulness just going to make me even more hyperaware of everything and therefore even more wound up and unsettled? What’s the point then?

In meditation, do not seek anything at all. Simply become comfortable in the void. Become the formless consciousness beyond the mind #mindfulness

What the? This is bonkers talk. Formless consciousness beyond the mind? And this stuff about meditation, is that what mindfulness is? is mindfulness actually meditation? Sitting crosslegged with your eyes closed and chanting? That’s just for hippies, isn’t it? Monks on mountaintops?

Honestly, the thought of meditation terrifies me. I think it sounds boring, introspective, boring, scary, boring, indulgent, hard work, and did I mention boring? And well, frankly, a challenge. How on earth am I going to fit it into my life?

I am busy. I run a website that has me online seven days a week. I am also a recovery advocate, blogger, full-time housewife and mother to three boisterous boys. I like watching Dr. Phil (he’s so wise!), listening to pop music and catching up with girlfriends over coffee or dinner or a movie. I’ve got no time for mountaintops or chanting.

Part of me just wants to keep ignoring all this waffle about mindfulness, but the other part of me, the part desperately seeking a solution to my fraught state of mind, won’t let me. I need something to help soothe my uncomfortable emotions and quieten the butterflies in my tummy.

Maybe this trendy new mindfulness thing is the way to go. Lately even the mainstream media appears to be jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon. Headlines like ‘Mindfulness Therapy as Good as Medication for Chronic Depression’ and ‘Meditation Really Works’ stare at me every day from local news websites. And the tweets keep showing up in my feed.

Mindfulness offers support for working with intense and difficult emotions

Well, that sounds good. So, this thing that is mindfulness is nothing, but something, and could help me deal with emotions? That can’t be a bad thing. I need help here, because I’m not coping brilliantly. I really do think my coping mechanisms are weak, to say the least (not that surprising, given I spent most of my adult life using alcohol as my main emotional management tool). Fingers crossed I’ll live to be a ripe old lady, which means I’ve got decades of sober living ahead of me, and big life stuff is going to keep happening, and my moods are going to keep happening, and I’m always going to be busy because life is bloody busy. I need new tools, and maybe mindfulness is the answer.

The secret to feeling total relief and inner peace? Embrace everything just as it is. #mindfulness and #meditation for beginners

Well, that sounds like just the ticket. Total relief and inner peace is exactly what I’m after. But again, precisely how do I ‘embrace everything just as it is’? What does that even mean? I’m doing that already, aren’t I? isn’t that just called living? I’m dealing with everything that comes at me, I’ve no choice but to embrace it. It happens; I deal with it. isn’t that embracing everything just as it is ? Then again, I’m far from inner peace, so maybe I’m not.

All right, Twitterati. You’ve got me. My interest has been piqued. I’m going to explore these practices that you’re all banging on about. This is a firm decision. I’m going to make this my next project. My first big project was getting sober; the next is going to be developing some new wellness strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing better with life. I’m going to learn how to navigate tough situations, people and emotions in robust ways. I’m going to make a concerted effort. I’ll sign up for courses, read books, listen to podcasts, make lists. You name it, I’ll do it.

I’ll learn all these new wellness strategies and they’ll solve all my problems. Then, like magic, once I’ve learned them all I’ll be a flexible, grateful, mindful guru and the most Zen housewife you have ever seen. All will be peaceful in my world and in my brain. l’ll be a perfect human! Easy, right?

Chapter 3

‘To be honest, I’ve been worried lately that you’re getting depressed’

I inform Corin of my decision over dinner the next evening. The boys have gobbled down their food in record time and left the table, so it’s just the two of us now, chewing slowly like cows (or that’s how we always feel compared to our sons). Corin’s just finished telling me about his stressful day at work, which was filled with pressing deadlines, demanding bulletin editors and grumpy politicians, when I say, ‘Well, anyway, I’ve got news. I’m embarking on a new project. I need to get some more tools together to help me deal with stuff. So I’m going to start exploring uh mindfulness and maybe yoga and stuff.’ I’m feeling energised and determined, but also a bit embarrassed. I still think mindfulness sounds a little kooky, and Corin knows I have a strong dislike for yoga.

‘OK,’ he replies, slowly chewing his cudsorry, lasagne. He sounds interested even though I’m pretty sure he’d never explore such things himself. ‘I think it’ll be good for you to have something new to put your energies into.’ He reaches for his water and then drops a bombshell. ‘To be honest, I’ve been worried lately that you’re getting depressed.’

Holy heck! This comes like a bolt from the blue. I’m so taken aback I don’t even know how to react. I’ve thought of myself as many things lately, but I hadn’t gone so far as to consider myself depressed. But Corin is right. I am more prone to low states of mind now that I’m sober, and things have been particularly bad lately with my step-dad’s death and my work pressures.

‘I’m not depressed, I don’t think,’ I tell him, ‘but I’m not great. I’m wound up. Sort of anxious, I suppose. I feel in a bit of a rut in general.’ I feel like a failure admitting this because shouldn’t everything be great all the time now that I’m not necking wine like it’s going out of fashion? Sadly, this isn’t the case. Aside from the obvious sadness and grief I’ve been dealing with lately, I am struggling a bit more overall with my general emotional state. My anger still comes out pretty strongly at times, I often have anxious butterflies in my tummy, and my shoulders are regularly tight from stress. Sometimes

I experience a strange restlessness where I feel ‘itchy’ and a bit directionless. I used to think it was boredom (and I’d often say that I drank because I was bored), but I don’t think this ‘boredom’ I’m experiencing is actually boredom. I think it’s a symptom of something else but who knows what. A ‘hole’ inside me that I need to fill?

But how? I tend to fill it nowadays with salty chips or sugary treats, checking my online spaces over and over (and over and over), playing Scrabble online, writing blogs, watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians or The Walking Dead (so in love with Daryl), or having fierce imaginary discussions with tricky people in my life.

I’m sick of all of it. I’m sick of going around and around the internet in a directionless manner.

I’m sick of working myself up by getting into fights with people inside my head, when no actual resolution is occurring in real life.

I’m sick of mindlessly pigging out on ‘treat’ foods that are not actually treating my body well at all.

I’m sick of feeling distracted all the time.

I’m sick of flaring up and bickering with the kids when they are trying to bicker with me.

I’m sick of feeling sad about things that are out of my control, and worried because I know there are many more sad things to come.

I’m sick of arriving places in my car and realising that I don’t remember any of the journey because I’ve been so lost in thought along the way.

I’m sick of it all, and I want something to change.

I do, of course, feel incredibly proud of myself for kicking booze to the curb, but that feeling has lost some of its shine. I’m starting to understand what the famous saying ‘Putting down the drink is just the beginning’ means. Taking alcohol out of your life is monumental and wonderful, a hugely enriching and positive thing to do, but then the real work begins. Now it’s time for me to do some concerted ‘next stage’ work on myself.

I desperately want to become more peaceful inside of myself, deep down in my core.

The only thing is that, since l’ve never done this before, I don’t know the first place to start. In the absence of any better ideas, mindfulness (and related ‘wellness’ strategies) seem my best (and maybe my only) starting point.

Oh, gawd. Just thinking about a life filled with gratitude lists, downward dogs, quiet contemplation and focusing inwards sounds stupid and uncomfortable and boring. I’m deeply sceptical. How can these things possibly improve my day to day experience? They’re not going to stop loved ones from dying, make Facebook any less alluring, turn my kids into perfect angels, or remove all the tricky people from the world. But, goddammit, something has to change.

It’s true. I’m really not in a great space right now, something Corin has just confirmed with his statement about me being depressed. I haven’t got any other bright ideas, so these wellness strategies are it. Anyway, I like to have a forward looking plan. Plans are good. Just having this plan has lifted my mood somewhat.

Corin is right. I need something new to put my energies into. A new project!

It’s a bit too McMindfulness

The next day, I’m in town having coffee with a new friend at a hipster cafe. I don’t know him that well but he’s pretty cool, and it’s always nice to meet face-to-face with other people in recovery, as most of my sober friends are online. Sipping my decaf flat white I decide it’s safe to share with this like-minded soul a little about how I need to sort my mental shit out. I mention the m-word.

‘Oh, mindfulness!’ He’s instantly down with the vibe, like, what took you so long?!, and starts raving about a meditation app he uses called Headspace.

‘Are you actually meditating?’ I ask, struggling to picture this young bearded dude taking time out to go inwards, but he nods easily. I’m desperate to pry further and ask, ‘What do you do? When do you do it? How does it work? What is it like?’ But I don’t want to be too pushy, so instead I get my phone out to try to find this app. Sure enough, there it is-in all its orange and blue cartoony glory. Headspace: Meditation made simple. I download it and sign up for the free ten-day trial. I don’t feel like laying out any dosh just yet.

At home after my coffee date, I log in to Headspace. It’s incredibly slick and modern looking, all pale pastel colours and blobby, colourful cartoon figures juggling and waving and saying, ‘Welcome!’ I figure the juggling must be a metaphor for busy modern lives, all those figurative balls in the air, rather than because the app is aimed at circus performers.

I click on a link to an animated video called ‘How It Works’. It’s short, under two minutes long, and very cutesy and slick. Cute cartoons do cute things with cute sound effects while a cute-sounding English man speaks to me about what the app will do for me. He tells me to think of it like a ‘gym membership for the mind’ and that I can learn the basics of meditation by listening to him for just ten minutes a day for ten days in a row. And I can do that for free! Well, that sounds doable. I like free.

I watch some of the other animated videos, and they’re all just as cutesy and slick and voiced by the same super-laid-back English guy. I’m not sure the pastel figures and their cute noises are really doing it for me. it’s a bit too McMindfulness. I feel babied. And who is this Zensounding dude doing all the talking anyway?

I go back to the main menu and see a link called ‘Who’s Andy?’, who indeed?! When I click on it, up pops a photo of a trendy dude with a youthful, tanned face and smooth bald head, smiling broadly. This is Andy, the voice of all things Headspace. Apparently he’s a meditation and mindfulness expert, presenter, writer of three bestselling books, and has been featured in numerous magazines and on TV. He’s also an ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk and a trained circus performer, yes, a circus performer! Is there no end to this man’s talents? This could explain the juggling balls.

I decide to listen to Day One of the trial right now. Go, me! This is great. I’m already mentally adding it to my toolbox.


Recovery community, Sober treats

Mindfulness (Headspace)

Andy tells me to sit comfortably in a chair with my eyes open, then instructs me to shut them gently and start focusing on my breath. I lower my eyelids and immediately feel worried that my posture isn’t correct because the sofa I’m sitting on is too low. My bum is lower than my knees. That’s bad posture, isn’t it? Maybe this isn’t the right spot for me to sit and chill.

While I’m shuffling around worrying about my posture and trying to sit more upright, Andy is saying, ‘Notice the gentle rising and falling of your chest as you breathe.’ I do that for a nanosecond then I start wondering how much this bald ex-monk is going to charge me for a subscription after the free ten-day trial is over. I start thinking about our household budget and whether I can justify spending money on meditation apps, then I start thinking about how much money I used to spend on wine and wonder where the hell all that money is now, and then I start thinking about buying lottery tickets again, and then I start fantasising about what I would do if I won millions of dollars (always a fun fantasy).

I manage to drag my thoughts away from new carpet to catch Andy telling me to listen to the sounds in the room. I hear the drier going in the laundry, and I don’t even know what he says after that because I go off on a huge mental tangent about all the housework I need to do (the toilet is disgusting, my boys keep peeing all over the seat and the floor, what if someone popped in unannounced right now and needed to use the loo?), then I segue into thinking about the door-knockers who come by to try to get me to sign up to their power company or whatever, and what a terrible job that must be, and how I ducked into the pantry one time to avoid being spotted by one of them and stayed there for ages worried that they hadn’t left so I ate some chippies while I was in there, and then I wonder why I keep buying mini bags of chippies when I can’t resist eating them and I should buy kale chips instead but there’s no way my kids are going to eat kale chips in their school lunchboxes, and suddenly I realise the audio is nearly over and Mr Ex-Circus Performer is telling me he looks forward to me coming back tomorrow for the Day Two audio.

I never do.

I don’t know why. It is just a bit cutesy or boring or something. Just not for me. I don’t feel drawn back to it. I get into the flow of life once more, super busy with all my usual jobs in the real world and online. A couple of times I contemplate sitting back down on the sofa in the study to listen to Andy’s free Day Two audio but I never do.


Recovery community, Sober treats

Mindfulness (Headspace)

‘If you queef, we quit!’

I’m not sure yoga will ever make it into my toolbox, either. There’s a good reason I’m anti-yoga right now. I had a bad experience with it. Like, super bad.

Back when we were living in Auckland, my sister and I attended some yoga classes together for quite a few weeks. It was her suggestion, and I thought it sounded like a good healthy, sisterly and potentially enjoyable thing to do. Boy, was I wrong! It was lovely to be attending evening classes with my sister, that much is true, but everything else about the experience was sheer hell.

I hated it. The instructor was a heavy-accented, humourless woman who ran her classes like a military operation. She had a fancy studio built in the garden at the front of her suburban home. We had very strict instructions about where we could park outside her house, very strict instructions about how to store our belongings, and very strict instructions about how to use her gear. She disliked noise of any kind and would silence us with a sharp ‘Shhhhl’ She was really into upside-down poses (not just downward dogs, but handstands and stuff) and balancing poses and tricky poses that were just bloody hard work, and she was militant about how perfectly we had to achieve each pose. Of course, I was far from perfect, so in order to get me perfectly positioned she used to approach me constantly, touching me to shift me around. Maybe she was approaching others as well; I can’t remember. I just felt excessively manhandled. I felt like I could never get it right, because she’d forever be moving my hands a little to the left, my feet a little to the right, my shoulders around or my hips up. I felt singled-out, unfit, inflexible, out of place and usually annoyed that, at seven in the evening, I was there feeling uncomfortable in a silent and sterile garden studio instead of sitting on my sofa guzzling wine.

That was the other major problem with attending evening classes of any sort back then, a problem I can’t blame on a perfectionist yoga instructor. At that time, I was deep in my alcohol addiction and not inclined to work any part of my body other than my arm as it lifted a wine glass to my mouth. Evenings were for enthusiastic wine consumption, not leaving my house to suffer physical discomfort and humiliation.

Actually, to be honest, I’ve never really been inclined to work my body much. I’ve got short legs, flat feet, big boobs and no natural inclination towards exercise at all. My mum still tells stories about how she used to wait at the finish line of my primary school running races to cheer me on as I crossed last and usually in tears. I’ve never experienced an intoxicating endorphin rush from working out. There have been phases in my life when I’ve managed to go to the gym regularly and get a little bit fit, but it’s always felt like a chore. It’s just never been something I’m that into. Some people get sober and transfer their addiction to marathon running, how great would that be for the thighs? That has not been the case for me, though.

So yeah, downward dogs aren’t my thing, and although I’m far more inclined to go out in the evenings now that I’m sober (night-time driving is one of the many joys of sobrietyl), an absence of wine does not automatically lead to a sportier mindset or more flexible limbs. Despite what the Twitterati say, I’m not feeling inclined to sun salute. Not, that is, until a real life person starts bugging me to do it as well.

I’m visiting a neighbourhood friend for lunch one week day and as we’re scoffing bacon and egg pies from the local bakery we watch her six month old baby, who is lying on the rug playing with her toes. Trying to eat her toes, to be precise.

‘I love this age,’ my friend says. ‘She’s sleeping through the night finally, but not running around creating havoc yet.’

‘And so flexible!’ I say. ‘Imagine being able to lick your own toes like that. Actually, don’t. Gross.’

‘Oh, I couldn’t even if I wanted to,’ my friend says. ‘All the sitting and breastfeeding I do has made me so stiff and inflexible. I’m feeling awful. Oh, that reminds me! I keep meaning to ask, do you want to try a yoga class at the Rec Centre with me?’

‘No.’ I shudder. ‘I hate yoga. It’s too scary and uptight for me.’

‘It is not!’ My friend laughs. She has finished her pie and is now down on the floor changing her baby’s nappy. ‘It’s all local mums there so it can’t be that fancy. Why don’t we just try it once and see if we like it?’ she says. ‘We can stop if we don’t.’

‘I hate yoga!’ I repeat firmly, still eating my pie. ‘I did it in Auckland and the teacher was so strict, it was awful. And I could never do a downward dog without fanny-farting,’ I admit.

She laughs. ‘You mean queefing?’

‘Queefing?’ I splutter so hard pastry flies out of my mouth. ‘What the hell is that?’

‘That’s the proper name for fanny-farting.’

We both crack up. The baby thinks we’re hilarious and starts giggling along with us. Little does she know what joys await her

‘Seriously, though,’ I say, trying to get my composure back, ‘I’m not a major queefer.’ I snort. ‘I just did it once or twice and had recently had babies. I just hated every minute of the whole yoga thing.’

‘Try it with me. It might be totally different and really good.’

‘Or it might be hell.’ I’m all set to keep resisting her suggestion but suddenly remember my new project and my promise to myself to work on changing things for the better. ‘Well, I suppose a lot of people in addiction and recovery rave about yoga,’ I admit. ‘They’re always tweeting about it and sharing photos of ridiculous poses under waterfalls.’

‘There you go!’ My friend is making for the rubbish bin with the dirty nappy.

‘OK.’ I cave. ‘I’ll try it. Once. But if it’s awful and I fanny-fart my way through it I’m not going back!

‘Deal. If you queef, we quit!’

I can’t believe I’m actually going back. But yay, me, for adding yoga to my toolbox. The Twitterati would be proud.


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Chapter 4

Minecraft and mindfulness do not mix well

Heading home from my friend’s I decide I’m not going to give up on my quest to try mindfulness. Just because McMindfulness from bald Andy the ex-monk didn’t work for me doesn’t mean there aren’t other programmes around that will. I’ve got an hour or so before school pick-up, so I jump on Facebook and, in among the usual cat videos and recipes forjelly swirls, I see someone recommending a meditation programme run by Oprah and Deepak Chopra. Maybe this is for me? I read a book of Deepak Chopra’s once (I think it was on weight-loss), and of course Oprah is the guru of all things. Maybe together these guys can sort my head out? I find their website and register via email for something, I’m-not-quite-sure-what. Nothing is free, but then sometimes they offer stuff for free. It’s all rather confusing. Maybe I’ll get another email when whatever-it-is is ready?

I see on the website that there’s a free app, so I download it to my iPad. It’s not as slick, modem and cartoony as Headspace, Oprah and Deepak favour a more mellow approach. (Their logo is a lotus flower. Enough said.) The app tells me I have access to a free audio as a welcome gift. (After that do I have to pay? Still not entirely sure how this all works.) Three o’clock is fast approaching, so I plan to listen to it later.

I race down to school to get the boys, then the next hour or so is taken up with attempting to stop them bickering, listening to their stories, feeding them snacks, doing spelling practice and getting their dinner underway. At four-thirty they’re allowed some screen time, and I fight them for the iPad so I can listen to Oprah. Here’s me being mindful again!


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Mindfulness (Oprah and Deepak)

I take the iPad into the sunroom and sit myself down on an old cane chair to listen. Turns out the free audio doesn’t feature Oprah, but rather a man with an Indian accent who must be Deepak. He is saying ‘I will embrace all the beauty around’ over and over and over, and in the background there is some music playing.

I sit on the too low cane chair, worrying once again that this seat is not giving me the right posture, the floral cushion sinks awfully low on the old springs so that, once again, my knees are higher than my butt. I decide to ignore this and instead shut my eyes and try to relax and focus on the audio.

The music on Deepak’s app reminds me of the sort of underwater music you’d hear at the beauty therapist, all whales and chimes and floaty sounds. Talk about clichéd! But that’s not the biggest problem I have. The biggest problem is the sound of a gamer playing Minecraft on YouTube that is coming from the computer in the next room, where my ten-year-old is sitting. Minecraft and mindfulness do not mix well, and despite Deepak’s best efforts I am finding it hard to embrace anything other than my annoyance. Deepak’s calm voice and whale music are constantly interrupted by the excited gamer next door.

‘I will embrace all the beauty around …’ What I need is a crap-ton of wood…

‘I will embrace all the beauty around …’ Oh, yeah. This is awesome!

‘I will embrace all the beauty around …’ I need to break this down into dust

‘I will embrace all the beauty around …’ Man, I need to get some crafting tables

‘I will embrace all the beauty around …’

It’s impossible to focus, and I’m frustrated as all hell. I yell at my son to turn his computer down (not a very Zen yell). He does, but I can still hear it. The beauty therapist music grates, the gamer grates, and I decide I’m hungry, so I give up on listening to Deepak telling me to embrace the beauty all around and instead go butter some crackers.

That was over almost as soon as it began.


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Mindfulness (Oprah and Deepak)


I spend the rest of the evening feeling dissatisfied and pissed off. I do battle with the kids.

I do battle inside my own head, telling myself to get over myself, that my problems are very First World and that I should just cheer the hell up.

But I can’t. Two things I’ve tried now haven’t helped, Headspace nor Deepak and the whales. These failed attempts at something, I’m not-sure-what are only serving to exacerbate my feelings of dissatisfaction and put me in an even grumpier mood. Why can’t these things work, goddammit? I want a quick fix!

I don’t get a quick fix.

I get my period instead.

It arrives right before bedtime, along with a nice crampy tummy. Blah. I eat some biscuits, pop some painkillers and get into bed with my iPad to spend a mindless hour or so surfing the internet, in the same Facebook-lnstagram-Twitter-blog-website loop as always. Eventually, I fall asleep, but when I wake in the night to use the loo I pull a muscle in my hip, making my entire right lower back sore. It keeps me awake, as does my crampy tummy, and I lie there worrying about getting old and worrying that I’m tense and wound up and just worrying, worrying, worrying. I’m so sick of all this worrying.

I get up to fetch some more painkillers, which help with my cramps and muscle pain, and I fall back to sleep for a couple of hours.

When I wake again, I’m super grumpy, still wound up and hassled about the world and my life. Before I even get out of bed, I reach for the iPad to check all my online spaces. We received an email overnight from a friend who lives out of town asking me how I am, so from my prone position I reply to her, moaning about how much parenting I do and how intense it is and how I’m still sad about my step-dad being gone and life is just a bit hard and gritty right now. Woe is me.

Eventually I drag myself out of bed. While I’m grunting my way through making the school lunches, Corin employs his psychic abilities and senses that I’m not in tip-top shape. He offers to take the boys to school on his way to work. Yes! I get them packed up and out of the door while I’m still in my PJs, and once they’ve gone and the house is quiet I stand in the kitchen for a while before deciding to get back into bed. I never do this. I feel like a total slacker, but to hell with it.

As I lie there with the electric blanket on, thinking about my failed plan to learn mindfulness (or something), I suddenly remember someone on my blog mentioning Tara Brach’s guided meditation podcasts, and I think Of course! because I love Tara Brach.

She is a psychologist and author who posts loads of free hour-long talks online that l have listened to and find really good, talks about forgiveness and kindness and so on. Some of her talks have been hugely helpful to me in times of extreme angst, but I’ve never listened to her twenty-minute guided meditations before because, well, meditation isn’t something I do (the talks are active listening and that’s why I like them). But maybe now is a good time to start. So, still lying in bed (and trying not to feel guilty because it’s nine-thirty on a Friday morning and I really should be at the gym or fermenting veggies or something), I pull a Tara guided meditation up on my iPad and start listening.

Must achieve an intense, vibrating, awed silence! Must!

Tara starts talking and I think about how I love her voice and what a lovely person she would be to have over for dinner, then I wonder what sort of food she eats, then I think about how good it is that I’m lying down and not sitting on a toolow chair, but then I worry that lying down isn’t the right thing to do either. So much bloody worrying all the bloody time!

I catch Tara telling me how to breathe, so I follow her instructions. I don’t chant ‘Ommm’ like she tells me to, but I hear all the people in the room with her on the recording chanting and that is lovely, but then I start wondering about all those people and what their lives are like over in the United States, and then I hear the rubbish truck down the road tipping bottles out of neighbours’ bins and I realise we forgot to put our recycling out last night-dammit, I hate it when that happens! Then I start mentally planning a trip to the dump this weekend, there’s a huge pile of crap in the garage that needs to go out. Then I remember I should be listening Tara, and I try to quiet my mind, but soon I start planning some work stuff and it goes like this until I say out loud ‘Sorry, Tara’ and turn the meditation off with four minutes and fifty-eight seconds still to go. Fail.

I’m still feeling like being in bed is a good thing, though, and the electric blanket is incredibly toasty and warm, so rather than get up I look over to the pile of books sitting beside my bed. Right at the bottom of the pile, underneath a Chelsea Winter cookbook and some random parenting book my sister lent me, is a dusty copy of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I bought it at a school gala and started reading it ages ago, but for some reason never finished it. I grab it and resume reading where I left off. Oh, look at that! She is writing about trying to learn how to meditate while at an ashram in India, and about her monkey brain and how she has to fight against her thoughts and ego, and her busy, busy mind and the battles that go on in her head. (Hello?! Yes, Liz, that’s me too! Maybe we could be besties! ) And then suddenly she writes about an intense moment that occurs for her while she is trying to meditate when all the chattering, negative thoughts in her mind scatter and a regal silence follows. She calls it an ‘intense, vibrating, awed silence’. I put the book down and stare at the ceiling.

Oh. My. God. I want this so bad. I want an intense, vibrating, awed silence. I want it desperately!

Liz’s vivid description combined with my desperation give me a little surge of energy and renewed determination, enough to get me out of bed, into the shower and dressed. I must keep going with my plan. Must achieve an intense, vibrating, awed silence! Must!

I go down to the study, sit at the computer, open up Google and type ‘learn mindfulness’ in the search bar. I land upon a site called Mindful ( They have a free regular newsletter, so I fill in the required fields to register for it. I know this sounds like nothing much, but it actually does feel quite significant, like l’m doing something positive to alter my state of mind. Even just this teeny-tiny step has me feeling encouraged.

Instantly I receive an email confirmation with a friendly ‘Welcome!’, and attached to it is a document called ‘5 Techniques for a Mindful Day’. At the top it says: ‘Mindfulness is a natural human ability. It’s also something you can improve with practice. When you create ways in your day to slow down and be fully present, you can reconnect with this basic but transformative quality.’

OK, bring it on! I want to create ways in my day to slow down and be present. I do! The techniques read as pretty uncomplicated.

Technique One is about sitting and getting your posture right and relaxing.

Technique Two is about settling into a comfortable position and scanning your entire body, slowly lingering on the different sensations in each area as you go.

Technique Three is a ten-minute tea-making ritual-slowly making a good cup of tea and being aware of every step, being a part of it all, even when the water is boiling. Just ‘be with the water boiling’, and then sip and really notice the taste and sensation of the tea. (Not sure how to ‘be with the water boiling’ but anyway …)

Technique Four is a stress-busting technique that has you stopping, breathing, observing your thoughts and emotions. Stop, breathe, observe, proceed.

Technique Five is about mindfully listening, about being fully present with another person.

I read through this list, then before leaving the computer I navigate to the public library website and its online catalogue to search for some books. First I go for three on mindfulness that have been recommended to me by blog readers (they know all my woes). The first is an anthology of essays on mindfulness, the second a sort of memoir-journalism crossover by an American TV reporter (apparently he had a panic attack live on air before he discovered the joys of meditation, sounds juicy) and the third is some sort of eight-week plan to turn me into a chilled-out, happy camper. I find them all, place reserves and organise for them to be sent to my local library branch (the eight-week guide is popular, I’ll have to wait a while for that one). Then, on a whim, I reserve some books on sugar because I know that’s a big area of concern for me as well.

Next, I go to YouTube and find a clip of Dan Harris’s live-on-air panic attack. It is pretty uncomfortable to watch. Poor dude! No wonder he turned to meditation after that embarrassment.

After all this effort, well, OK, not that much effort, but some, I decide to go and lie on the sofa and start watching the Real Housewives of Somewhere fight about who-said-what-to whom. At 3 pm I get the kids from school, then work like a demon until 8 pm when, lo and behold, I’m back on the sofa binging on chocolate. Is this a happy sober life?

I do manage some nice thinking-about-nothing-but-mybelly-button moments.

I wake at six-thirty the next morning feeling sick and guilty about all the chocolate I ate the night before. The idea pops into my head that I could try the ‘body-scan’ technique from the mindfulness newsletter I got yesterday. I could lie still on my back and go around my body thinking about all the different areas, bringing awareness to each. (Is that what you do?) That would be something proactive, wouldn’t it? But then Corin rolls over and flicks on the radio, and our youngest son arrives to snuggle in with us, all full of chatter about his dreams, then our middle son arrives, and he gets into bed as well even though he’s quite big now, and suddenly we’re all squirming bodies and noise and my mindful moment is lost.

But after getting everyone off to school and work and doing some jobs around the house I realise I’m at a point in my day where I could choose to sit at the computer and do some work or I could (gulp) actually sit down and do a body-scan. Holy shit. This is it. I’m actually going to do it!

First, I print off the mindfulness newsletter from yesterday and head into the TV room to sit on the edge of the sofa. Is this a good spot to sit in? No, I don’t think so, too squishy. Maybe cross-legged on the floor would be better? I grab one cushion to plonk my burn on, and two more to put under each knee, then hold my newsletter up and read about what to do.

I’ll start with Technique One, I tell myself, because it’s only three minutes long and if I can’t sit for three minutes then I have a serious problem. The newsletter tells me that meditation begins and ends in the body, and that I need to take the time to pay attention to where I am and what’s going on, and that starts with being aware of my body. ‘That very act can be calming, since our body has internal rhythms that help it relax if we give it a chance.’ Oooh, internal rhythms. That sounds groovy.

I read on. They tell me to take a seat (have done that already and the cushions are nice and soft, although maybe I should have bigger ones under each knee?), straighten my upper body, not stiff, just straight, I straighten but try not to stiffen, flexing my back up and down, and wonder, Is this straight or stiff ?, position my hands and arms comfortably, then drop my gaze, close my eyelids and relax. I drop the newsletter and let my hands rest on my knees, then I lower my eyelids and relax.

For about a nanosecond. Or maybe a bit longer. Five nanoseconds.

After my five nanoseconds, I grab the newsletter again to read what it says to do next. Nothing! That was it! Just take time to settle myself into a comfortable seated position and relax, that was Technique One. It definitely didn’t take me three minutes, but what the hell. The newsletter says I could stop now or move into some mindfulness practice. Well, hell, let’s go for broke, eh!

Technique Two is the body-scan one. This is just an extension of what I’m already doing: sitting comfortably, so I feel supported and relaxed, then bringing awareness to my whole body, piece by piece. They give me a helpful order to do this in: toes, feet, legs, pelvis, abdomen, lower back, upper back, et cetera, et cetera, right through my whole body. They tell me to linger on each body part and notice the different sensations. If I find my mind has wandered, I have to bring it back to the last body part I was on.

So I launch into it and I try really hard to focus on each body part. Really, I do. But my mind is wandering like buggery. I try to pull it back each time, and I do manage some nice thinking about-nothing-but-my-belly-button moments, but by the time I arrive at my back the only sensation I am aware of is a dull ache, so I call it quits.

I’m a little bit proud of myself for actually doing something concrete, but overall my main feeling is that I was doing it all wrong and it was a big failed attempt. It just didn’t really feel like anything much, I certainly didn’t achieve an intense, vibrating, awed silence a la Liz Gilbert. I must be doing it all wrong, I decide as I get up off the floor and get on with some jobs around the house.

But something interesting happens a short while later. It’s a tiny little moment, but it feels rather significant.

It’s just a small thing, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I’m outside later in the day, hanging out the washing and thinking about an email I just received from a writer in the UK. She’s setting up an alcohol-free reviewer group to help authors get feedback on their manuscripts, and wants me to join it. Should I? The sun is shining and I’m distracted by the annoying hot stones under my feet. They’re hot, like, super hot. Too hot-to-stand-on-in-bare-feet hot. But I’ve got bare feet, so I’m jiggling around, trying to keep my feet moving so they don’t get too sore while also thinking about my emails.

Suddenly I remember the body-awareness thing from my time on the cushion earlier, so I stop thinking about the UK author’s request and think about my feet instead. I let myself become super aware of my hot feet, and my mind kind of goes quiet. I focus on my hot feet, like, really focus. I think about my hot feet and concentrate on feeling the heat, and my mind is quiet.

It’s a tiny little moment, but it feels rather significant and, to be honest, nice. It’s nice to not be thinking about work stuff and just feeling my feet.

I decide the hot stones aren’t that bad and play a little game to see how long I can stand still without needing to move. I discover I can bear the heat for longer than I thought, and the hot stones are actually rather lovely.

I finish hanging out the washing and head inside, aware of the fact I did something a little different and it feels kinda nice. Subtle but freeing somehow to not just be thinking about work stuff.

A little later, I’m standing at the kitchen sink washing some dishes and I’m worrying about a friend’s relationship with her husband, which seems a little strained. Suddenly I catch myself worrying and again remember about the body awareness thing. I look down and, instead of continuing to worry about the state of my friend’s marriage, I look hard at what my hands are doing. They’re busy with the pots and pans in the full, soapy sink. Look at my busy hands efficiently washing pots! I probably wash dishes with my bright, green rubber gloves three or four times a day, yet I’ve never really noticed how they look moving away in the suds.

I slow my hands down and notice the fingers covered in green rubber moving in and out of the water, holding a red dish brush. They look rather nice! Add the yellow dish-cloth into the mix and I’ve got a wonderland of colour. Sounds weird, but it’s quite cool and also satisfying.

I slow down and observe my hands closely. I start to kind of enjoy washing the dishes. It’s far more enjoyable than worrying about the state of someone else’s marriage.

Is this mindfulness? I think it might be.

It feels nice. These are only small steps that I’m taking, but there’s definitely something there. Certainly enough that I feel confident to mentally put mindfulness back in my toolbox. I might only be scratching the surface, but it’s happening. It is.


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Nobody wants to see a lumpy, knicker wearing housewife trying to go all Zen in her living room

The next day I do nothing. Well, nothing mindful anyway. Nothing towards my goal of pure, blissful nirvana. I run around like a blue-arsed fly, busy with the kids, busy with the house, busy online, busy thinking, busy snacking, busy, busy, busy. Who knows where my mind is at, but it’s not focusing on hot stones or rubber gloves, that’s for sure.

I have an empty 40 minute window in the middle of the day when I could choose to do something mindful, meditation, whatever it is I’m trying to do, but I don’t. I fill those 40 minutes with some fiddling around trying to resize a photo for my blog, replying to a couple of emails (there’s one from the colleague who I am finding it tricky to work with, which activates my stress a bit), and interacting with members on Living Sober.

Then Friday rolls around. It’s yet another busy day, as per usual, but after I post a mocktail recipe on my Facebook page I again find myself with a 45 minute window of free time before school pick-up. This time I resist getting sucked into an online vortex of celebrity gossip and local news. Instead, I grab my printed mindfulness newsletter and put my cushions back down on the floor and try to sit on them with my legs crossed. It’s hard, because my jeans are tight like, super tight! So I get up and wrestle them off before sitting back down with just my knickers on. Then I realise I need to wee so I pop to the loo quickly, then return and sit back down crosslegged again. I start by repeating the three minute posture practice from a couple of days ago, which just involves taking the time to sit properly, back straight but not stiff, arms by my sides and hands resting where they fall on my legs, gaze lowered, relaxing.

It’s sort of nice being back in that position. Actually, that’s a lie. It’s not really. Cross-legged sitting is hell, and it’s quite hard to focus on my posture because I’m hyper aware that if anyone came to the window right now they’d get a full view of me in my smalls. And nobody wants to see a lumpy, knicker-wearing housewife trying to go all Zen in her living room. Although, on second thought, maybe that’d get rid of the door-knockers once and for all!

I try hard to push self-conscious thoughts out of my mind and instead get my posture sorted, then start to do the body-scan, going around each area of my body, bringing consciousness to each body part. I do OK going around each part (still a bit of an ache in my back when I get there, so I straighten myself a little and it feels better). By the time I’ve made my way around my entire body (with a lot of mind wandering in between), I’ve forgotten the possibility of being caught out in my knickers, am warm from the sun coming through the windows, and feel rather relaxed. I decide to give my stiff knees a break by stretching my legs out in front of me and lying back on the rug. One of my library books has arrived and l have it next to me, so pick it up to read a bit. It’s an anthology of essays called The Mindfulness Revolution, edited by Barry Boyce. (I later find out he is also editorin-chief of the site whose newsletter I subscribed to.)

In the introduction Barry says, ‘By taking time away from the pressures and needs of daily life to work only on mindfulness, with no other project at hand, we refresh our ability to be mindful when we return to our everyday activities.’

Ah, OK So this is like the other day when I sat to do a formal meditation type thing for a bit, then later found myself really noticing the hot stones under my feet and the look of my hands in the soapy sink. It’s good that Barry is reassuring me that my goal doesn’t necessarily have to be an intense, vibrating, awed silence or some other kind of far-fetched meditation achievement. My goal can just be bringing attention to my body when I’m taking time to sit and breathe, then remembering to do it later when I’m feeling busy. But is he telling me that I have to do the formal sit down every day in order to remember to notice the little things when I’m back at work?

I feel stressed about this, which kind of defeats the purpose of it all. I don’t want to feel pressured to have to find time every day to sit and focus on my breath or body (or whatever). Honestly, I don’t really want to do this. It’s boring! It feels like a hassle to have to find the time to do it every day on top of all the other demands on my time. Can’t I just skip the formal sit-downs and try to remember to focus on my body parts while I’m busy doing things (rather than being lost in thought)?

I’m not sure I can. I’m not sure about any of this. I’ve still got this notion that I need to be striving hard to do something formal every day, and it’s making me feel pressured, like if I don’t do it I’m failing in my mission to really nail this mindfulness stuff.

There’s no way I’m going to sit on the floor cross-legged when I could be judging movie stars’ outfits.

Whatever is required, I do nothing much of it at all over the weekend. Saturday, I do zero of a sit down-and-be-quiet-and-mindful nature. There’s a moment in the afternoon when everyone else in the family is watching TV and it occurs to me that I could take myself into the study, shut the door, sit cross-legged and focus on my breath and do a body-scan but I dismiss that thought and instead find myself at the laundry sink scrubbing stains out of white rugby shorts.

Sunday, I manage to sit myself down crosslegged on the bedroom rug and listen to my breath and start with a bit of a body-scan, but I only last for about 90 seconds because it just feels dumb. But I’ve committed myself, and the stubborn part of me is telling me to keep going until something happens. I know other people can get something out of this and I’m determined to see what it is they’re on about.

Monday rolls around and it’s Oscars day. I love the Academy Awards! There’s no way I’m going to sit on the floor cross-legged when I could be judging movie stars’ outfits.

I watch E! channel’s red-carpet coverage while clipping in and out of my library book, and a passage grabs my attention for long enough that I stop wondering why Gwyneth Paltrow has planted a giant pink flower on her shoulder. This passage is from a chapter written by a Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, and he’s saying, ‘Have you ever stopped to consider what a thought is, not the content but the very nature of thought itself?’

No, Joseph. Now that you ask, I haven’t.

‘Few people really explore the question,

“What is a thought?” What is this phenomenon that occurs so many times a day and to which we pay so little attention?’

Right now, on glancing up at the TV, I’m thinking, Why has J-Lo dressed herself up like a Disney princess? But her ginormous, poofy dress doesn’t hold my attention for long. This talk of the nature of thought has piqued my interest. I tear my eyes from the screen to read on.

Not being aware of the thoughts that arise in our minds or of the very nature of thought itself allows thoughts to dominate our lives. Telling us to do this, say that, go here, go there, thoughts often drive us like we’re their servants. Unnoticed, they have great power. But when we pay attention, when we observe thoughts as they arise and pass away, we begin to see their essentially empty nature. They arise as little energy bubbles in the mind rather than reified expressions of a self.

How utterly fascinating. He’s right. I have never explored the nature of thought itself. I have had people say to me ‘thoughts aren’t facts’ but I’ve never really known what they meant. I once asked a very wise woman with over twenty years of sobriety under her belt what her best tool was for dealing with life in the raw and she replied, ‘Not believing everything I think.’ I remember nodding sagely at her as though I knew exactly what she meant, but in truth she might as well have been speaking Chinese for all I understood. Maybe she was already attuned to this concept that thoughts are nothing more than empty little energy bubbles? Well, this is all new to me! I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of some sort of radical concept here, but in no way have I got my head around it yet.

Are thoughts truly empty? I feel like my thoughts are rich and full and interesting. They’re me. I am my thoughts. My thoughts lead me and guide me and make sense of the world for me. My thoughts help me to process stuff, to explain things to my kids, to communicate with people and to write. It’s my thinking that helped me realise I had a problem with alcohol and got me sober, for goodness’ sake! And I wouldn’t be exploring all this mindfulness stuff if I hadn’t thought to do it.

What else am I if I’m not my thoughts?

Mrs D is Going Within: How a frantic, sugar-binging, internet-addicted, recovering-alcoholic housewife found her Zen

by Lotta Dann

get it at

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