Sunday, July 26, 2015


‘Meditation is a state of mind which looks at everything with
complete attention, totally, not just parts of it.’ J. Krishnamurti.

I have a good friend (let’s call him Steve) who is a scientist---a physicist, to be exact. He taught physics in universities in Australia and Canada. Steve and his wife regularly attend meetings of my home fellowship. He is one of the most learned and scholarly persons I’ve ever known, but he finds it extremely difficult to meditate.

Yes, when it comes to our guided meditation, Steve seems either unable or unwilling to ‘let go’, even to the extent of closing his eyes and staying still for just a few seconds. He fidgets and constantly moves around in his chair and is clearly uncomfortable at the thought of any form of meditation, even meditation of the most naturalistic kind.

Perhaps the reason for Steve's 'resistance' is that, as a disciplined scientist, he always wants to know and control. he is also a skeptic, which goes with the territory, so to speak. A good thing, skepticism. Doubt, not faith, is the name of the game. Steve relies entirely upon facts and evidence, that is, on what he can see and know, and also on inferences and conclusions that can be drawn rationally from the available evidence. 

Now, I admire that, for I, too, am very much the empiricist. I, too, reject supernatural, occult and all other unobservable explanations of the otherwise observable conditions of existence. ‘The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize most,’ wrote Heraclitus. True, very true, but meditation can indeed be ‘something’ that is seen, heard and learned.

Steve recently said to me, ‘I have trouble with mindfulness meditation.’ I say to him, ‘Steve, you do practise mindfulness all the time, but you don’t seem to realize it. Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose. It is being aware, including being aware of your awareness---and even your unawareness. Mindfulness is doing one thing at a time, purposefully and knowingly---like when you're reading a scientific journal article which requires all of your focus, awareness and and attention. That is mindfulness, and you are engaged in a form of meditation more often than you think---even when you're driving your car or washing the dishes. You get my point, don’t you?’ Steve, ever the skeptic, begrudgingly answered, ‘Yes. I suppose I do.’

Many people have a terrible fear of ‘losing control’. Ironically, a lot of these people are already ‘out of control’ in that their lives are controlled by fears, phobias, addictions and compulsions that are seemingly beyond their personal or conscious control. Now, one thing meditation is not is this---it is not ‘mind control’ in the sense of subjugation, sublimation or suppression. Meditation is being choicelessly (that is, non-judgmentally) aware of what is.

In order to properly meditate you must go gently … and take it easy. More importantly, the ‘effort’ involved in meditation is of a relaxed albeit deliberate kind. It has been described as the ‘effort of no-effort.’ ‘Resist not’ is the important principle involved.

Back to Steve. I said to him, ‘When it comes to our group mindfulness, or your own practice of it, you will never lose control, go into some trance, or otherwise lose contact with external reality. At any time you can cease your meditation and go about your ordinary business.’ He seemed a bit happier, but I don’t think I have fully convinced him. He’s a hard case, but I love him. He is a man of integrity---and great intelligence. That may sound patronizing, but it’s damn true.

One more thing. We must never meditate to get something---not even peace of mind or happiness. If you meditate to get something, more often than not you will fail. If you want peace of mind or happiness you need to ‘let go’ of everything that is holding you back from enjoying peace of mind and happiness. The Buddha was right when he spoke of the need to eradicate the causes of our unhappiness in order to be happy. Listen to these nuggets of wisdom from the great Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah [pictured right]:

‘Remember you don't meditate to “get” anything, but to get “rid” of things. We do it, not with desire, but with letting go. If you “want” anything, you won't find it.

‘We practise to learn letting go, not to increase our holding on. Enlightenment appears when you stop wanting anything.’

Krishnamurti [pictured top left] made a similar point when he said, ‘Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.

Letting go is never easy. All too often, we hold on to things, including negative emotions and states of mind, that are making and keeping us sick and unhappy. We get a perverse pleasure from being miserable.

Take charge---and let go.


Monday, July 20, 2015


I turned 60 in March. In some ways I can’t believe I've made it to 60. Until I gave up drinking some 15 years ago I drank enough alcohol for 3 or 4 lifetimes. And I smoked a hell of a lot too until I gave up smoking some years ago. And I suffered from clinical depression for many years as well. I could go on. My major concern now is warding off dementia. (By the way, dementia is not a specific disease. It's an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 to 80 per cent of cases.)

Now, I haven’t been diagnosed with dementia but in recent times I have observed in myself some cognitive changes that are consistent with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), in particular, some loss of ability to remember recent events. I know one thing, I am definitely not as mentally 'sharp' as I was 20 years ago, or even 5 years ago.

Source: Physiopedia. Carers guide to dementia.

MCI is a slight but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills. It can affect up to 20 per cent of the population at any one time—and half of them will progress to full-on dementia. In other words, a person with MCI is at an increased risk of developing dementia. Of course, years of drinking didn’t help there, but there are certain risk factors not in my favour such as past heavy drinking and smoking, hypertension and elevated cholesterol (albeit both well-controlled these days), and depression (well in the past now, but who knows).

A year or so ago my neurologist gave me a simple dementia test (a cognitive test). I passed the test but I had a little bit of trouble with one or two tasks, the main one being this --- I was asked to name, in 60 seconds, as many words as I could beginning with the letter, say, ‘T’. I started out well --- ‘task’, ‘test’, ‘train’, ‘transport’, ‘truck’, and so on, and so on, but after calling out about a dozen words beginning with the letter ‘T’ there was a long silence on my part. That’s right. I  just couldn’t think of any more words beginning with the letter ‘T’. Well, I did pass the test overall but I scored not at all well on the task just described. Hmm.

So, I am into so-called ‘brain games’ in the form of various word games and puzzles (my favourite one is that old chestnut Jotto, a logic-oriented game), IQ test problems, brisk walking, and various other activities including, of course, mindfulness. 

I’m good on numerical ability (despite hating math at school), classification and general mental ability, and very good on visuo-spatial ability but, despite being a very good wordsmith, it comes as quite as a shock to learn that I’m not good at all when it comes to questions, games and puzzles that test verbal ability (eg ‘Find the odd one out: LEEGA / WARPSOR / RALK / LAHEW … Answer: WHALE [All the others are birds: eagle, sparrow and lark]). Hence, Jotto. (My favourite actress, Lucille Ball, excelled in Jotto and other word games such as Scrabble, so I've read. She would even play Jotto while at the wheel of her car, being able to retain in her head a whole series of 'jots', a jot being a certain number of letters that were in both the guessed word and the ‘secret word’.)

Now, as to the importance of engaging in active leisure activities to help ward off dementia, there are studies suggesting that those who have no leisure activities, or who have very little diversity in leisure activities, or who engage only in passive leisure activities (principally watching TV) are more likely to develop dementia (see, eg, Friedland R P et al, Proc Nat Acad Sci USA, 10.1073/pnas. 061002998). Additionally, it seems that leisure activities may reduce the risk of incident dementia, possibly by providing a reserve that delays the onset of clinical manifestations of the disease (see, eg, Scarmeas N et al, Neurology 2001;57(12):2236-42). 

And diet? Well, dietary patterns have long been associated with decreasing cognitive decline and reducing one’s risk of dementia. In that regard, those who follow the MIND diet (high on natural plant-based foods and low on animal and high saturated fat foods) can lower their dementia risk by as much as 50 per cent. So, like many others, I've made some changes to my diet.

As an aside, there are a couple of prescription medications I take that can cause memory loss. The drugs in question are a statin (a cholesterol-lowering drug) and an anticonvulsant (to treat nerve pain associated with my trigeminal neuralgia).

As respects statins, a study published in the journal Pharmacotherapy in 2009 found that three out of four people using statins experienced adverse cognitive effects ‘probably or definitely related to’ the drug. The researchers also found that 90 per cent of the patients who stopped statin therapy reported improvements in cognition, sometimes within days. In February 2012 the US Food and Drug Administration ordered drug companies to add a new warning label about possible memory problems to the prescribing information for statins.

Then, there is the anticonvulsant drug that I take. Anticonvulsants, that depress signalling in the central nervous system, can cause memory loss.

Now, here’s something close to my heart and the subject-matter of my blog. A 2013 study published in Neuroscience Letters found as little as 15 minutes of daily meditation can significantly slow that progression. Researchers had a group of adults with MCI, all between the ages of 55 and 90, do a guided meditation for 15 to 30 minutes a day for eight weeks, as well attend weekly mindfulness check-ins. Eight weeks later, MRIs showed improved functional connectivity in the default mode network (that is, the part of your brain that never shuts down activity), and slowed shrinkage of the hippocampus, the main part of the brain responsible for memory that usually shrinks with dementia. Participants also showed an overall improvement in cognition and well-being.

Studies also show that brain-training games help to sharpen the mind and potentially prevent cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. As for speaking more than one language, it would appear that being bilingual helps delay the onset of several forms of dementia. Previous studies of people with Alzheimer’s in Canada showed that those who are fluent in two languages begin to exhibit symptoms four to five years later than people who are monolingual. 

A leading theory as to why bilingualism can affect dementia suggests the key may be the constant suppression of one language, and switching between the two. If switching languages is the reason, it could also explain why the researchers saw no additional benefits of speaking more than two languages. So, I’m trying to re-learn French, a subject in which I excelled at high school (7th in the State [New South Wales, Australia] in the HSC in 1972), but now a language I’ve virtually forgotten in the ensuing 43 years. And I'm finding it damn hard! Whereas 40 years ago I could learn, say, a dozen new French words each evening, and remember them all a week later (and longer), it's not so today. I've forgotten most of the words by next morning. It's all very depressing, especially in light of something I've read, namely, that picking up a new language's vocabulary is supposedly much easier for adults than learning the rules that govern its grammar or syntax. (As for the latter, egad!) Additionally, it is said that older learners of another language are less likely to have good pronunciation or accent.

Well, there we have it. Am I worried that I may get dementia? Yes and no. Yes, for obvious reasons. No, because I live my life one day at a time, never thinking the worst nor fearing it. I'm ready for whatever life dishes out.

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Friday, July 17, 2015


Psychologists and neuroscientists from the University of Oxford and University College London plan an unprecedented trial of how mindfulness affects mental health.

Seven thousand teenagers from 76 secondary schools in Great Britain are to take part in an unprecedented trial into the effect of mindfulness on mental health. This will be the largest trial of its kind ever conducted. The Wellcome Trust is funding the £6.4m study.

One teacher involved in the project admitted it could be a challenge to sell mindfulness to young people. ‘It is not especially cool,’ said Paula Kearney, a geography teacher at the UCL academy in north London who has trained her pupils in mindfulness. ‘I have had a lot of ‘Miss, I’m not going to do this, this is ridiculous’.’ But other pupils have spoken of its benefits.

Dr Willem Kuyken (pictured left), a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, who is leading the study, said the spread of mindfulness among children could do for the British population’s mental health what fluoride in the water did for its teeth. He said the trial was focusing on children partly because of evidence that half of all mental health disorders begin before the age of 15. He wants to test whether mindfulness can increase resilience to ‘a core vulnerability’ displayed by teens: difficulty sustaining attention in the face of thoughts and impulses that can become overwhelming.

‘Just as going for a run is a well-known way of protecting general physical health, mindfulness exercises develop mental fitness and resilience,’ Professor Kuyken said. But ‘enthusiasm is running ahead of the evidence and that is no basis for policy decisions. None of the previous research has been definitive and there is now a pressing need for a high quality robust trial to assess effectiveness.’

Starting next year, 3,200 11- to 14-year-olds---representing a cross-section of British youth---will be trained in secular mindfulness techniques in a 10-week course which involves a 30-minute lesson every week and up to 20 minutes’ daily practice at home. They will be taught simple meditations, such as the ‘7/11’ breathing exercise where you breathe in for 7 seconds and out for 11, or a walking meditation. Another 3,200 will receive standard personal, health and social education lessons. Over the following 2 years both groups will be monitored for their susceptibility to depression and associated mental disorders.

A further 600 11- to 16-year-olds will be tested by neuroscientists led by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (pictured right) at UCL before and after mindfulness training for how it affects their self-control and emotional regulation. Some will have their brain activity scanned while others will respond to computerised tests. Blakemore said the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, self-control, emotion regulation and self-awareness, undergoes a substantial reorganisation in early adolescence. She wants to find out exactly when during this period mindfulness has most effect.

‘The brain is susceptible to negative and stressful environments and that might be one reason why we see an increase in the development of mental illnesses in early adolescence,’ Professor Blakemore said. ‘But the brain is also susceptible to interventions which improve resilience, which we are hoping includes mindfulness.’

Source: The Guardian. 15 July 2015.


Monday, July 13, 2015


This book is a gem---a colouring book for adults.

The book, entitled The Mindfulness Colouring Book: Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People, and created by French illustrator and graphic designer Emma Farrarons, is filled with pages of beautiful black-and-white line drawings.

Art therapy is nothing new, nor is the idea of colouring---'colouring-in', I always called it---for adults, but this colouring book is the best I’ve seen, and it now sits on top of the Australian independent bestseller list.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown that mindfulness improves one’s powers of concentration, focus and attention, and the converse seems true as well---that is, any activity requiring those three things enhances one’s powers of mindfulness. Additionally, such an activity can serve as a powerful anti-stress remedy, and study after study has shown that mindfulness is a most effective anti-stress remedy.

I love this adult colouring book. For a baby boomer such as myself, the book is not only great therapy, it’s also a chance to re-experience one of the great joys of my childhood.

Book: The Mindfulness Colouring Book: Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People, by Emma Farrarons. Publisher: Pan Macmillan. Imprint: Boxtree Ltd. 2015. ISBN 9780752265629.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Equanimity---what an incredible word!

Equanimity refers to calmness, composure, evenness and stability of mind and emotions. It refers to a state of mind which is and remains undisturbed in spite of changing events, occurrences and phenomena. Listen to these wise words from the great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (pictured right):

All that happens is as usual and familiar as the rose in spring and the crop in summer.

Life is tough even at the best of times. We must expect pain and suffering, for they are inevitable. We must expect to lose friends and loved ones as we pass through life. We must expect to lose possessions. And we must be prepared to meet our own death with courage and dignity. Yes, we must expect to lose all that we hold dear---even our memories of good times, for they too will pass.

All things are impermanent. Only the essence of life itself---which goes on and on despite ever-changing forms--is permanent for the essence or source of life is not a ‘thing’. It is a ‘no-thing’. Things come and go. They appear and vanish. They arise and decay. So will you. So will I.

There is a wonderful Jewish folk tale that I love. King Solomon (pictured left) is said to have instructed one of his most trusted minister Benaiah Ben Yehoyada to bring to him a certain ring. ‘It has magic powers,’ said the king. ‘If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.’ Actually, Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wanted to teach Benaiah a lesson in truth and humility.

Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. One night, while taking a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem, he passed by a certain merchant. Benaiah said to the merchant, ‘Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget their joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget their sorrows?’

The merchant picked up a gold ring from among his wares on display and engraved something on the ring. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, he smiled. The merchant had engraved three Hebrew letters along the band of the ring: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words ‘Gam zeh ya’avor’ — ‘This too shall pass.’

So, when you are going through a difficult period in your life, say to yourself, ‘This too shall pass’. Do likewise when you are experiencing joy and happiness. That is a bit harder to do.

That, my friends, is equanimity.


Sunday, July 5, 2015


There is a saying---some say it is a Buddhist proverb---that states, ‘Your breathing is your greatest friend. Return to it in all your troubles and you will find comfort and guidance.’ How true that is.

What happens when you are stressed? Well, a number of things. Among them, your heart rate increases, and so does your breathing which ordinarily becomes more shallow as well.

Here is something the Eastern masters have taught for centuries that can help you to deal effectively with stress. At the first sign of your becoming stressed, become aware of your breathing. Do not attempt to change it. Do not attempt to slow it down or deepen it. Just be aware of your breathing where your breath is most prominently felt (eg nostril, mouth, throat). Be aware of the warmth or slowness of your breath. Be aware of its rate and frequency. Be awareness of its shallowness. Again, do not attempt to change any of these things. Simply be aware, and stay aware, of your breathing for 5, 10 or 15 minutes---that is, for as long as it takes for your breathing to slow down as well as deepen.

That’s right. Stay aware of your breathing until it slows down and deepens of its own accord. It’s amazing---well, it’s not so amazing really---that your awareness of your breathing will result in your breathing slowing down and deepening. Some readers may find this idea counter-intuitive, but it’s not. Awareness is non-resistance. Awareness is non-judgmental self-observation. Awareness is letting be …. and letting go. And awareness effects positive changes in your body and mind.

Listen to these words of wisdom from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh (pictured):

'Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.'

Now, if at any point in time during your awareness of your breathing you become mentally or emotionally distracted by some troubling thought, feeling, idea, memory or sensation, gently---note that word ‘gently’---bring your awareness back to your breathing.

One more thing. Don’t forget to breathe. Some people, when they become consciously aware of their breathing, forget to breathe. Watch that. It is self-correcting---a good thing it is---but it’s still better to avoid it.

Yes, conscious awareness of your breathing will bring you relaxation and comfort. Try it.