Thursday, August 30, 2012


Dedicated to the memory of
Julius Henry Marx

For someone who advocates the regular practice of mindfulness and other spiritual practices I have to admit---with all self-honesty and with a little (but not too much) guilt---that I have become a most cranky ‘old’ man.

I remember the day so very well. It was April 13, 1969. (I still have the newspaper---well, the relevant page---to prove it.) It was early on a Sunday morning, and I went outside my parents’ house to collect the newspaper, which would have been somewhere on the nature strip or driveway. The paper was The Sun-Herald. On page 58 there was an article about my all-time favourite comedian Groucho Marx [pictured right and below]. The article (with a byline by Don Riseborough 'in New York') was headed ‘Groucho Gets the Grouches,’ but it was a reworking of a widely syndicated article that I’ve traced to an article entitled ‘Is Groucho Serious? You Bet Your Life!’ published in The New York Times on April 8, 1969 (on page 40) with a byline by Israel Shenker.

I read the article with great interest and gusto, but I was devastated. Yes, devastated---totally. My hero Groucho had turned into a cranky---indeed very angry---and bitter old man. So sad, I thought, that this funny man could say that he was tired of being funny. Now, he was deadly serious, and it seemed to me that he would remain that way. No more funny stuff would issue from his mouth. Fortunately, I was wrong on all that. (I was aged 14 at the time.) Mr Marx would have a couple more showbiz and literary hurrahs before he joined his brothers Chico, Harpo and Gummo in death on August 19, 1977. Regrettably, that did not stop The New Republic---a liberal periodical Groucho liked---writing, not long before his death, that Groucho 'has made more than an old man's share of cranky and bigoted remarks in the past few years' (May 21, 1977, p 61).

Now, back to this article which, by the way, I carried round on my person for several days thereafter, hoping as many people as possible would see it ... as if that might somehow persuade Groucho to be 'funny' again. Groucho railed against the churches, organized religion, and the folly of belief in any sort of afterlife. ‘You only live once, despite what Jesus or somebody said … Go out to the garden and tear a flower in four. It won’t be a flower again.’ He railed against the military-industrial complex, saying, ‘You know there are 1,800 retired admirals and generals hustling business for the various munitions companies. I’d have them shot.’ He railed against crime, of which there was plenty at that time. He railed against militant students---the ones for whom he was a hero, a god---saying, ‘Kids today are detestable, and thank God mine are grown up.’ He railed against the war in Vietnam, saying, ‘It would be different if we were fighting a just war, if there is any such thing. … We have no right to be in Vietnam.’ He railed against nudity in the theatre … and many other things. Most of all, he railed against his own country---the United States of America---which, he felt, had lost its way in the world. (I fear the latter is true even more so today. Lost its way---and lost the plot.) Yes, Groucho railed against almost everyone and everything. Groucho---the Groucho I had loved for years (I still do)---had turned into a cranky and embittered old man.

I, too, have become a cranky ‘old’ man of 57. (At least Groucho was 78---but generally thought to be 73---at the time of the above mentioned articles and interview.) Actually, I think I have been a cranky ‘old’ man for quite some time now. Still, I would like to think I am not quite as cranky and bigoted as Groucho---bless him---appeared to be in his later years, notwithstanding that his political views were generally leftist over a very long period of time.

So, what am I cranky about? Well, many things---far too many to mention in this one post. You see, I've got more than a little list. For starters, I am cranky about the lack of manners in society these days. When manners go, we risk returning to the law of the jungle. Manners---not so much the rule of law---hold society together. I am cranky about the crap that is on commercial television these days (has it ever been any different?), especially so-called reality television. I am cranky about the ascendancy of a most nasty and selfish form of conservatism in politics and religion---especially in the United States of America, but also in Australia and many other countries. Damn you. I am cranky that countries such as China and, yes, the US are not taking climate change seriously enough. Damn you. (At least Australia has a tax on carbon.) I am angry that American political leaders---including the current President (whose record on human rights issues has been most disappointing, indeed worse than that of his immediate predecessor)---don't have the guts to take on the powerful gun lobby in that country. Damn you.

I'm not finished by any means. I am also cranky about the lies all our politicians routinely tell us---and how they ‘stay on message’ (oh, how I hate those words) without ever answering the question nor saying anything meaningful. Damn you. I am cranky about the effects that postmodernism has had on educational and literacy standards---the dumbing down of education and all that. Terrible stuff. I saw it happen with my own eyes during the many years that I taught some 9,000 law students, but I was totally powerless to do anything about it. Damn all those responsible. I am cranky about ambulance-chasing lawyers who claim they are only interested in their injured clients. Damn them (the lawyers, that is). I am cranky about the inequitable distribution of income and wealth in this country (Australia) and elsewhere. Like Groucho, a certain thought---followed by certain words---takes form within my mind from time to time---‘I’d have them shot.’ Then, I recoil, as did Groucho, who went on to say in that 1969 interview, ‘That was facetious about having them shot. But it wouldn’t be a great loss if those pot-bellied thieves were put out of their misery.’ No, it wouldn't. Well, Groucho, the thieves in the big end of town are less pot-bellied today---many of them go to the gym and work out regularly---but they are still thieves for all that. And, in the words of W S Gilbert (whom Groucho especially admired), ‘I don't think they'd be missed, I'm sure they'd not be missed!’ Yes, damn them all. Strong stuff? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m sure we all feel that way at times.

Yes, Groucho was serious---and angry. So am I ... even though I will never be in the same league as Julius Henry Marx (his real name). Not even in the same ballpark. Nor even in the same city or county.

Well, what am I going to do about it? Well, for one thing, I will continue to watch Marx Brothers movies as well as episodes of Groucho’s long-running quiz show You Bet Your Life ...

That may not be a cure for my crankiness---indeed, it may even worsen the condition---but I don’t care. I will die laughing, no matter what.

Yes, I am serious. In Groucho's own words, 'I'm the brash, realistic type,' the guy who says the emperor has no clothes on. Shoot me if you wish.

POSTSCRIPT. Since I first wrote this post Australia has had a change of government at the federal level. The carbon tax referred to above has been abolished, and a bunch of climate change skeptics are now in power. The US is now doing better than Australia as respects action on climate chnage. Shame, Australia, shame. IEJ.

NOTE. Here's a tribute to Groucho Marx that I wrote in August 1978 when I was aged 23. IEJ.




Thursday, August 23, 2012


Most thinking people---and even a lot of 'unthinking' people---want to know more about themselves and the human mind. Buddhism has a lot to say about the human mind. That should not come as a surprise, since Buddhism is more a system of psychology than a religion or a philosophy.

Consistent with an overall empiricism, the Buddha, and Buddhism generally, reject the idea that consciousness is an entity at all. Buddhist psychology recognises the following four functions (as opposed to ‘mental entities’, which they are not) of the mind: consciousness (viññāna), perception (sañña), feeling of body sensations (verdanā), and reaction (sankhāra). Now, the Buddha reportedly said:

Whatever suffering arises
Has a reaction as its cause.
If all reactions cease to be
Then there is no more suffering.
    [Sutta Nipata III, 12.]

We experience, for example, a ‘sensation’, which may be physical or mental. If we react to that sensation with ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’---that is, with craving, attachment or aversion---that is karma (kamma). The word karma means 'action'---in this case, mental action in the form of a mindless, involuntary reaction to some input. The result? Pain, suffering or distress. However, if, on the other hand, we simply allow ourselves to be dispassionately and choicelessly aware of the sensation---note, we should not try to ‘know’ (let alone judge or analyse) the sensation per se---then there is no ‘cause’ to produce any pain, suffering or distress. In other words, no reaction, no cause---and no effect. 'Like attracts like.' So, Buddhism takes the cause-and-effect process back one step earlier. In Western popular psychology, the primary emphasis is on avoiding negative thinking and the like, in the belief that as negative thoughts lead to negative results, so positive thoughts will inevitably lead to positive results---an obvious but debatable proposition. However, if we go back a step, and when something happens we simply do not allow a reaction (eg disliking) to arise in the first place---in other words, we simply let the sensation (input) be---then there will be no opportunity for any negative thought to arise at all.

Consistent with Buddhism's methodological and ontological emphasis on the need for direct observation, Buddhist psychology asserts that the ‘best’ way of obtaining psychological knowledge about oneself is by direct, objective observation of one’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions as well as one’s bodily sensations---without any identification of ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’. Thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations arise and pass away by natural laws of cause and effect. They wax and wane. They arise and vanish. In Buddhism, reality---what is---is that which comes and goes, waxes and wanes, arises and vanishes. However, with careful observation and choiceless (non-judgmental) awareness we are able to discern and understand those laws. Now, in order for there to be an immediacy and directness about our moment-to-moment experience of life, three events need to occur more-or-less simultaneously. Those three events are: touch (or sensation), awareness, and mindfulness. If those three events are not simultaneously experienced, what will be experienced will be nothing but the past, for the reality of the immediate experience will already have subsided. Indeed, any consciousness of it will be in the form of an after-thought or a memory, as we glance back to re-experience, and (sadly, yes) evaluate, a past experience. I am reminded of something the Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson (pictured below) wrote in his landmark 1934 journal article ‘Mind as Feeling’:

Progress in psychology may therefore be made by the actual discovery of the emotional character of sentiments or motives, i.e., of what is in our minds, as contrasted with what is before our minds. [In Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962), p 75.] 

Specifically, the Buddhist 'system of deliverance' treats what Buddhism often calls an 'illusory [or a 'false'] mind' (that is, a mind characterized and dominated by wandering, oppositional and discriminatory thoughts) with a view to bringing into manifestation a 'true [or 'pure'] mind' (being a mind which is not in opposition to itself). It has been said that, for the first time, the Buddha taught that not only was self-deliverance (or self-liberation) possible, it could be attained independently of an external agency. He said, ‘I have delivered you towards deliverance. The Dhamma, the Truth is to be self-realized.’

Buddhism has something distinctively unique and, I think, very meaningful to say about ‘disease of the mind’, and it is this: the root cause of our disorder, distress, sorrow, anxiety, stress, tension, insecurity, discontent, frustration, and general ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (dukkha) is attachment, craving, grasping and clinging of various kinds (collectively, upādāna), especially, clinging to ‘mind stuff’ in the form of, among other things, ideas, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions and prejudices. All of this ‘mind stuff’ we then turn back on itself and on ourselves. That is tantamount to insanity but we are all very good at doing it---most of our waking hours (if not whilst asleep as well). Instead of living by reason and direct experience (sanity), we are driven by emotional compulsion. Worse, we cling to the ‘self’ as self, and we even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, and that we are those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning consciousness (the latter simply being the function consisting of apprehending the bare phenomenal world, that is, cognition):

Whenever there is a functioning sense-organ (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body and mind), a sense-object (visual form, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought) entering into the field of the sense-organ then, with these brought together, there is the manifestation of the part of consciousness referring to the specific sense-organ. [Majjhimanikāya, i, 190.]

Now, when it came to attempting to explain the conventionally accepted concept of ‘person’, the Buddha referred to various ‘elements’ at work in a person---the ‘five aggregates’ (the skandhas [Sanskrit] or khandhas [Pāli, ‘aggregates’ in English], also known as the ‘five hindrances’), namely, the ‘illusions’ arising from matter or bodily form, emotion or feeling, recognition or perception, mental formations (eg fixations and conclusions of the mind such as attitudes, beliefs and opinions), and consciousness. (Consciousness is regarded as an ‘aggregate’ more because ‘it’ tends to intensify ego-fixation as opposed to its being a ‘thing’ in itself.) The ‘mental’ is anything but a unitary agent. Consistent with the overall pluralism, we are talking about a plurality of complex interacting forces, that is, distinct but connected, pluralistic complexes grounded in spacetime.

The Buddha, who saw a human being as simply an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena of existence, had this to say about the matter:

The instructed disciple of the Noble Ones does not regard material shape as self, or self as having material shape, or material shape as being in the self, or the self as being in material shape. Nor does he regard feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness in any of these ways. He comprehends each of these aggregates as it really is, that it is impermanent, suffering, not-self, compounded, woeful. He does not approach them, grasp after them or determine 'Self for me' ['my self']--and this for a long time conduces to his welfare and happiness.

The instructed disciple of the Noble Ones beholds of material shape, feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness: 'This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self.' So that when the material shape, feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness change and become otherwise there arise not from him grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation, and despair. [Adapted from the Samyutta Nikaya, trans L Feer, in J Kornfield with G Fronsdal (eds), Teachings of the Buddha (Boston and London: Shambhala, 1993), pp 23-24.]

The Buddha makes it clear that the so-called ‘self’ is only an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ of perceptions and sensations. It is, in the words of Manly Palmer Hall, ‘a summary of what is known and what is not known’. We are not a ‘self’; we are persons among persons. The Buddha also acknowledged the important distinction between our perceptions or sensations of things (the fact that on certain occasions certain things are perceived by us) and the things themselves, stating that ‘the senses meet the object and from their contact sensation is born’.

Consistent with his rejection of any ‘unitary’ view of the human mind, Buddha refers to the ‘four establishments’ (cattāro satipaţţhānā), that is, one remains established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings, the observation of the mind in the mind, the observation of the objects of the mind in the objects of the mind, and the observation of the body in the body. For example, when one’s mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’

There is a refreshing directness about the Buddha’s approach. You see, we never know ‘ideas’ or ‘feelings’ but rather independent things or states of affairs. In other words, what is ‘thought,’ ‘felt,’ ‘sensed,’ etc, are real-world objects or situations. Buddhist psychology ‘works’, not by calling upon people to retreat from the world or to treat the world as an illusion, but by pointing out that the solution to one’s problems is to be found in the directness, immediacy and actuality of ‘things’ themselves. Don’t retreat, but engage. Don’t fear, just look and see and come to understand.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blogspot is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blogspot. For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via

Friday, August 17, 2012


‘The arising of form and the ceasing of form – everything that has been heard, sensed, and known, sought after and reached by the mind – all this is the embodied world, to be penetrated and realized.’ Buddha, from the Samyutta Nikāya.

Gautama Buddha (‘the Buddha’) did not claim to be God, or a god, nor a ‘son’ or ‘agent’ of any such god, nor even a prophet. When asked about himself, he simply said, ‘I am awake.’ The essence of being ‘awake’ is this---always stay mindfully present from one moment to the next ... and 'come and see.'

The Buddha encouraged his followers to ‘come and see’ (ehipassiko) [Sanskrit: ehipaśyika ‘which you can come and see’---from the phrase ehi, paśya ‘come, see!’], that is, to test and investigate for themselves whether or not his teachings worked, as opposed to placing reliance on blind faith. Yes, investigate for yourself and then make up your own mind based upon the evidence.  Buddhism is a very down-to-earth set of teachings. At the risk of over-simplification, the essence of Buddhism is: what you see is what you get. That is all there is, but it is more than enough! The essence of Buddhist empiricism is this---one ‘looks and sees’, one ‘perceives.’ In other words, knowing (jānam) must be based on ‘seeing’ (passam). The Buddha spoke only of observable causes without any metaphysical pre-suppositions. He sought always to explain the observable in terms of the observable. That means rejecting the unobservable as the cause of the observable.

The author in front of the Daibutsu---The Great Buddha of Kamakura
Japan, June 2011

The Buddha taught that it is through the regular practice of mindfulness (sati) from one moment to the next, that we experience---note that word experience---life directly ... without those mental filters and psychological barriers which we tend to erect between ourselves and the objects of experience. Alan Watts, a well-known authority on Buddhism (and Zen Buddhism, in particular), has written that ‘the method of Buddhism is above all the practice of clear awareness, of seeing the world [that is, ‘things’] yathābhūtam – just as it is [they are]’, for it is recorded in the Pāli texts that the Buddha said, Bhūtam bhūtatopassati (‘See a thing as it really is’). He was talking about things (bhūta) that can be directly experienced. Now, in order to do that successfully, the Buddha made it unambiguously clear---as I hope I have as well in many previous posts---that we must not put any barriers between ourselves and external reality – barriers such as beliefs, views (especially speculative ones), thoughts, ideas, theories, opinions, and doctrines.

I have no time for any religion which says, ‘Believe [this]’ or ‘Believe in [this person]’. No time at all. That sort of religion is foolish stuff, unworthy of thinking people. There is nothing to believe. Absolutely nothing. There is nothing worth believing. Absolutely nothing. There is no one worthy of your belief. No one---not even Buddha. Anyhow, why believe? Think about it for a moment. How could it ever make a difference in your life? The sky does not become any bluer because you ‘believe’ it to be blue, nor does the proposition, ‘The sky is blue,’ become any truer because you believe it to be true. Is it not more important---indeed, entirely sufficient---to know and understand … to ‘come and see’? I say to you this day---come alive! Come and see things as they really are!

And don’t even believe that. Just do it. Come, see!


Thursday, August 9, 2012


Pregnancy hormones can dampen moods, and about 20 per cent of pregnant women, experience major clinical depression.

However, new research in the form of a University of Michigan Health System pilot feasibility study indicates that mindfulness yoga---which combines meditative focus with physical poses---may beneficially assist this group of women. This is the first study to to show evidence that mindfulness yoga may offer effective treatment for depressed new mothers-to-be.

The pregnant women the subject of the study had been identified as psychiatrically high risk women---that is, those who showed signs of depression. They were also between 12-26 weeks pregnant. Those who participated in the 10-week mindfulness yoga intervention (involving 90-minute mindfulness yoga sessions with poses for the pregnant body, as well as support in the awareness of how their bodies were changing to help their babies grow) saw significant reductions in depressive symptoms. They also reported stronger attachment to their babies in the womb. The findings have been published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.

‘We hear about pregnant women trying yoga to reduce stress but there’s no data on how effective this method is,’ says lead author Dr Maria Muzik (pictured left), assistant professor of psychiatry and assistant research scientist at the Center for Human Growth and Development. ‘Our work provides promising first evidence that mindfulness yoga may be an effective alternative to pharmaceutical treatment for pregnant women showing signs of depression.’

Funding for follow up work on this subject was recently provided by a grant from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Resource: Muzik M, Hamilton S E, Rosenblum K L, Waxier E, and Hadiall Z.  Mindfulness yoga during pregnancy for psychiatrically at-risk women: Preliminary results from a pilot feasibility study’, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, online July 2012.



IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blogspot is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blogspot. For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via

Friday, August 3, 2012


The American comedian and writer Groucho Marx (pictured left) said it all in an interview in 1970—after three failed marriages:

'I've tried being single. It doesn't work. You sit at a table alone, eating.'

Well, Groucho, a new study has found that mindfulness meditation can help older adults battle feelings of loneliness while also boosting health.

The study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, has shown that 8 weeks of training in mindfulness meditation (a total of 2.5 hours a week) is linked with decreased loneliness.

The study included 40 participants aged between 55 and 85, some of whom participated in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program.

‘We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way,’ said study lead J David Creswell (pictured right). ‘We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults,’ Creswell said, adding that the research suggests that mindfulness meditation training could be ‘a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.’

Using blood samples collected, the researchers also found that the older adult sample had elevated pro-inflammatory gene expression in their immune cells at the beginning of the study and that the MBSR reduced this pro-inflammatory gene expression, which the researchers said could ‘reduce older adults' inflammatory disease risk.’

Resource: Creswell, JD, Irwin, MR, Burklund, LJ, Lieberman, MD, Arevalo, J, Ma, J, Breen, E, & Cole, S. ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial.’ Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Available online 20 July 2012.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blogspot is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blogspot. For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via