Friday, November 27, 2015


Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Shinjuku and Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.
Photo taken by the author.

As a lawyer I was trained to think logically and rationally. Part of ‘thinking like a lawyer’ is being able to draw appropriate conclusions and inferences from objective facts. Later, when I taught law for many years--I still do—I tried to instil in my students the importance of fact-finding, logic and reason.

Yet, after many setbacks and failures in my life, I am compelled to say this --- real, lasting happiness and peace of mind require the exercise of an altogether different type of mindset. Indeed, the logical and rational mind, and education itself, can be a real stumbling block on the path to satori (‘waking up’, ‘awakening’). The real problems in my life have never been solved by the application of logic and reason alone, and in some instances I am convinced that the problems were made worse by their application.

One real problem with applying logic and reason alone is that one is still working on the same level of the problem itself. As Albert Einstein pointed out, ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’ What is needed, at least at times, is something supra-rational-- not irrational, but supra-rational. The ‘key’ to solving many problems in our lives transcends ordinary reason and logic. Many advocate the use of intuition, but uninformed intuition can be a real stumbling block as well. What are the characteristics of the supra-rational mind? Please read on.

Now, most of you would have heard of the Zen kōan, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ The full version of the kōan goes something like this. The much-respected master of the major Kyoto temple of Kennin-ji was Mokurai (1854-1930) [pictured left]. He had a young protégé named Toyo who was only 12 years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit Mokurai’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen (personal guidance with a Zen master) in which they were given kōans to stop mind-wandering. Toyo wished to do sanzen also.

‘Wait a while,’ said Mokurai. ‘You are too young.’ However, Toyo insisted, so the teacher finally consented. So, in the evening little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai's sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.

‘You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,’ said Mokurai. ‘Now show me the sound of one hand.’ Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. ‘Ah, I have it!’ he proclaimed. The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas. ‘No, no,’ said Mokurai. ‘That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You've not got it at all.’

Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. ‘What can the sound of one hand be?’ He happened to hear some water dripping. ‘I have it,’ imagined Toyo. So, when he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water. ‘What is that?’ asked Mokurai. ‘That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.’ In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind, but the sound was rejected. He heard the cry of an owl. That also was refused.  The sound of one hand was not the locusts. And so it went on.

For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year Toyo pondered what the sound of one hand might be. At last Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. ‘I could collect no more,’ he explained later, ‘so I reached the soundless sound.’ Finally, Toyo had realized the sound of one hand clapping.

So, what is the sound of one hand clapping? If you say, ‘There can be no clapping with only one hand. It takes two hands to clap. Thus, there is no sound of one hand clapping,’ you are using your rational and logical mind. Yes, you are right in a sense, but you are ‘dead’ right as well … with the emphasis on that word ‘dead’. The purpose of kōans---if 'purpose' be the right word, which it probably isn’t---is to still the active, rational, intellectual, analytical mind. The mind then finds itself (note those words, ‘finds itself,’ for that is the way it happens) in an existential cul-de-sac of sorts where there is no way out but enlightenment. That is the only way we will ever be able to experience a direct, immediate and unmediated apprehension or realization of truth.

As I’ve said before on this blog, a kōan is not a method or technique. It is the complete absence of any method or technique. It is the absence of any meaning or purpose as those terms are ordinarily understood. It is seeing and experiencing things-as-they-really-are---without any filters, beliefs or conditioned thinking of any kind. It is waking up to what really is, and that can be an earth-shattering experience.

There is a ‘sound’ that is not even a ‘no-sound’. It is not merely the absence of sound, it is the active presence of stillness, quietness and tranquillity. You can ‘hear’ this ‘no-sound’ when the active, rational and logical mind is stilled. In such a state of heightened awareness there is no analysis, comparison, judgment or interpretation. The kōan has done its work. Remember, there is never a logical, rational answer to any kōan. However, a kōan can be solved, but never from the same level of consciousness that created the kōan in the first place.

When you know and ‘hear’ the sound of one hand clapping---mindfully---you have come to experience a veritable awakening. There is a peace that passes understanding, and a power that makes all things new. It lives and moves in the one who ‘hears’ not just with their ears but with their whole be-ing-ness … and also their whole no-thing-ness, that is, pure, unadulterated, unconditioned consciousness.

Yes, when we come to know the no-thing-ness underlying and interpenetrating all reality, we can truly say that we have experienced an awakening, for the latter is not a ‘thing-in-itself’. Indeed, it is a ‘no-thing’, that is, the complete absence of thought, conditioning, materialism and all other limitations of time and space. It is living with choiceless, unadorned awareness.

I am reminded of what Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, had to say about mindfulness. He said, ‘Mindfulness is about falling awake rather than asleep.’ Falling awake. Yes, and also staying awake. That is mindfulness. And that is enlightenment. It is also the ‘sound of one hand clapping’ ... mindfully.

Calligraphy: Ensō by Mokurai. The ensō or Zen circle symbolises absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe and mu (the void, no-thing-ness). 






Friday, November 20, 2015


New research has shown that mindfulness meditation significantly reduces emotional pain.

A research team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center discovered that subjects who practised mindfulness meditation had a 44 per cent greater pain relief than placebo. Brain scans revealed that this form of meditation substantially created various patterns of activity than those from placebo for pain management.

Neurobiology and anatomy assistant professor Dr Fadel Zeidan [pictured], lead investigator of the study, said they were completely surprised by the results, as they assumed some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo. ‘[The] findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion,’ Zeidan said.

The team analysed 75 healthy, pain-free individuals randomly assigned to mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation, placebo analgesic cream, or control. They used pain ratings and brain imaging to determine meditation effects.

After the introduction of pain on skin and brain scanning, the mindfulness meditation group reported that emotional pain was reduced by 44 per cent and pain intensity by 27 per cent. The morphine or placebo cream, on the other hand, slashed emotional pain by 13 per cent and pain sensation by 11 per cent.

Past research indicated that the opioid morphine decreased physical pain by 22 per cent, which mindfulness outperformed in this new study published in the November 18, 2015 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.
Mindfulness meditation reduced pain through the activation of the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex, two brain regions linked to self-regulation of pain. Placebo cream, on the other hand, reduced pain via reducing brain activity in areas that process pain, particularly the secondary somatosensory cortex.

Meditation also deactivated the thalamus, which served as a pathway determining if sensory details are allowed to reach higher brain centers. Zeidan explained that shutting down this area caused pain signals to simply go away.

The lead researcher said this is the first time mindfulness meditation emerged as ‘mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects’ associated with placebo cream or pretend meditation.

Based on the findings, as little as four 20-minute sessions of mindfulness meditation every day could enhance treatment of pain. However, as the research focused on healthy and pain-free participants, further studies need to be done to see impacts on patients of chronic pain.

Journal article:
Zeidan F, Emerson NM, Farris SR, Ray JN, Jung Y, McHaffie JG and Coghill RC. ‘Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain Relief Employs Different Neural Mechanisms Than Placebo and Sham Mindfulness Meditation-Induced Analgesia.’ The Journal of Neuroscience,18 November 2015, 35(46): 15307-15325; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2542-15.2015

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Please read the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on or linked to this blog 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 blog or elsewhere. For immediate advice or support call (in Australia) Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact (in Australia) the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via In other countries call the relevant mental health care emergency hotline or simply dial your emergency assistance telephone number and ask for help.

Monday, November 16, 2015


Guest blogger and author: Alister Gray.

‘Watch yourself without any identification, without any comparison, without any condemnation; just watch, and you will see an extraordinary thing taking place.’ -- J. Krishnamurti


When I was asked by Dr Ian Ellis-Jones to write a guest post for his blog, I was confronted by a number of internal thoughts and questions such as:

‘What will I write about?’
‘How long should my post be?’
‘Will anyone find it interesting?’
‘Will anyone even read it?’…

The questions continued.

I then meditated, mindfully, upon the matter -- a number of times -- and rather than choosing to become entangled in my thoughts and feelings, I decided to simply observe them, non-judgmentally and choicelessly. As J. Krishnamurti wrote in The First and Last Freedom, ‘When you are aware, you see the whole process of your thinking and action; but it can happen only when there is no condemnation.’ I soon came to see that my thoughts were triggered by fear, an emotion that most people encounter on a daily basis, an emotion that all too often drives other emotions and thoughts that fall under the ‘fear’ banner, such as anxiety, stress, worry, anger, guilt and hate.

I’ve lived a colourful life so far and experienced many things. I’ve made many mistakes and sometimes hurt not only myself but other people in the process. I carried guilt, anger and resentment for years. I was a workaholic -- I still am a little but we’ll come to that later -- and I was always worried about the future, about what would happen in the future. When was my next deadline or target? What would my boss/partner/friends think? In other words, I never lived in the present. These emotions and thoughts manifested and they almost took over, leading me to a fear-driven life. I then found meditation.

In 2010 I was introduced to meditation by a very close friend who suggested that I try it after noticing the severe stress I was embodying. I was working for a marketing agency at the time and my slight frame was carrying a very big load of expectations on my shoulders. I took on the pressure -- in fact, I became the pressure -- and ultimately it led me to being stressed out. The fear of failure drove me on but I was sacrificing my health and overall wellbeing in the process. I became unwell and had more sick days in that single year than I’ve had in my whole career. My friend said to me, ‘Ali, you are changing. I don’t even recognise you.’ That was the turning point. I started to meditate mindfully on a daily basis. Since then I’ve had no sick days in the past four years, and my whole life has changed for the better.

A lot of you reading this post may be able to relate to this scenario --- constantly working hard, working more hours, working round the clock, working, working, working … but for what? What is our aim? To become more successful, richer, wealthier … but how do we measure that? If we don’t have health, do we really have anything at all?

Meditation -- in particular, mindfulness meditation -- enabled me to look within, providing me with space and time to watch and observe my thoughts and feelings. It enabled me to clear my head and start asking some ‘wisdom questions’ such as:

'Who am I?'
'What is truly important to me?'
'What are my desires?'
'What is my purpose in life?'

Very rarely do we stop to ask these questions, but when we do, something deeply profound happens. We start to understand. Mindfulness means choiceless awareness, and awareness leads to self-understanding -- and wisdom.

I began to recognise that health and happiness are of paramount importance, that my family and the love we give to one another are the things that truly matter. I realised that as human beings we have a divine right to be happy, but we also have a responsibility to care for our fellow human beings as well as our planet, a planet that gives so much. What an amazing feeling! This insight has allowed me to develop into a better human being and I now have a strong-willed desire to continue learning, helping and caring for myself and others on a far deeper level.

My journey is only at the beginning, but in the past year I have learned more about myself than in the preceding 31 years. I am still a workaholic but one with far more balance in my life. I try to live in the present as much as possible. I always make time for spending quality time with my family and loved ones, I meditate each day, I practice yoga, I read, and I do the things that make me happy, because when I am happy I am able to impact the world that surrounds me in the most positive way. I feel GREAT and it radiates out of me.

After meditating mindfully on Dr Ian Ellis-Jones’ kind offer, my meditation enabled me to look past the fears and say to myself, ‘Do you know what? If people like it, then great, but if they don’t, then that is fine too.’ What I would love is for my blog post to inspire someone to consider a new way of managing their emotions, thoughts and fears, and if I reach just one person then this blog post has been a huge success.

In a time when our world needs more love, happiness and unity than ever before, I encourage everyone reading this blog post to at least try meditation once a day for seven days. You can find many apps online to support your learnings. Try them out and use whatever feels right for you. I started my meditation practice by using guided meditations and found these to be a great help, especially at the beginning of my journey.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post and I would like to thank Dr Ian Ellis-Jones for this wonderful opportunity to blog on his site. I am truly grateful.

Note from Ian Ellis-Jones. Alister Gray [pictured above] is the author of this post, which he titled ‘My Meditative Life’. I am so grateful that he accepted my invitation to write a post on my blog. Alister is the founding director and chief executive of the newly formed Mindful Talent Limited, which is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Alister has also lobbied successfully to have two pilot programmes on mindfulness introduced into Scottish high schools. He is a deeply spiritual young man who cares about what happens to our damaged planet. He has a great commitment to, and interest in, a better world in the making. Alister's email address is as follows:

Friday, November 13, 2015


A recent study published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases suggests that training in meditation and other mindfulness-based techniques can bring lasting improvements in mental health and quality of life for patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD, of which Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are the principal types, is a complex disease involving chronic inflammation of some or all of the digestive tract.

‘Our study provides support for the feasibility, acceptability, and effectiveness of a tailored mindfulness-based group intervention for patients with IBD,’ concludes the research report by Clinical Professor Dr David Castle [pictured left], Chair of Psychiatry at St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues. However, more research is needed to demonstrate the clinical benefits of mindfulness techniques, including whether they can help to reduce IBD symptoms and relapses.

The researchers evaluated a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program tailored for patients with IBD. The study included 60 adults with IBD: Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. The patients' average age was 36 years, and average duration of IBD 11 years. Twenty-four patients had active disease at the time of the study.

The MBSR intervention consisted of the usual 8 weekly group sessions plus a daylong intensive session, led by an experienced instructor. The program included guided meditations, exercises designed to enhance mindfulness in daily life, and group discussions of challenges and experiences. Participants were also encouraged to perform daily ‘mindfulness meditation’ at home.

Thirty-three patients agreed to participate in the MBSR intervention, 27 of whom completed the program. Ratings of mental health, quality of life, and mindfulness were compared to those of the 27 patients who chose not to participate (mainly because of travel time).

Anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life are common in patients with IBD. Psychological distress may lead to increased IBD symptoms and play a role in triggering disease flare-ups. The study revealed that the MBSR participants had greater reductions in anxiety and depression scores, as well as improvement in physical and psychological quality of life. They also had higher scores on a questionnaire measuring various aspects of mindfulness--for example, awareness of inner and outer experiences. Six months later, MBSR participants still had significant reduction in depression and improvement in quality of life, with a trend toward reduced anxiety. The patients were highly satisfied with the mindfulness intervention.

Dr Castle and colleagues conclude, ‘A larger adequately powered, randomised study with an active control arm is warranted to evaluate the effectiveness of a mindfulness group program for patients with IBD in a definitive manner.’

Study: Neilson K, Ftanou M, Monshat K, Salzberg M, Bell S, Kamm MA, Connell W, Knowles SR, Sevar K, Mancuso SG, and Castle D. A Controlled Study of a Group Mindfulness Intervention for Individuals Living With Inflammatory Bowel Disease’ (doi: 10.1097/MIB.0000000000000629).



IMPORTANT NOTICE: Please read the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on or linked to this blog 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 blog or elsewhere. For immediate advice or support call (in Australia) Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact (in Australia) the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via In other countries call the relevant mental health care emergency hotline or simply dial your emergency assistance telephone number and ask for help. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015


The great American preacher and author Dr Norman Vincent Peale [pictured right] used to say, ‘Problems are a sign of life. The only people who don’t have them are the ones in the cemetery.’

Yes, problems and trouble are the price we pay for living. Peale used to say that the more problems we have, the more alive we are. ‘If you don’t have any problems you’re on the way out, and you don’t know it,’ he would exclaim.

It’s impossible to eliminate from our lives all problems and troubles, but the fact remains that so many of them are of our own making. All too often we think negatively and react badly to external events. We obsess over our own thoughts. We obsess about the past. We worry about the future. We don’t relate to other people as well as we could. The result? A troubled mind. The good news is that problems and trouble need not trouble you. In other words, you can have an untroubled mind despite the occurrence of problems and troubles in your life. That may sound Pollyannaish but it’s true.

Now, there are many ways to develop an untroubled mind. An obvious way is to simply refuse---yes, refuse---to worry about both the past and the future. What has happened in the past can’t be changed. Let the past stay in the past. As respects the future, what you are worried about may never happen. Worrying will not prevent something happening if it's inevitable that it's going to happen. Actually, apart from death and taxes, there is really nothing else that is bound to happen, and if what you’re worrying about doesn’t happen, then there was no point in worrying about the dame thing in the first place. Of course, all of this is easier said than done.

The Bhagavad-Gita has much to say about the importance of developing a ‘stable [or steady] mind’, that is, a mind that is imperturbable. An imperturbable mind is one that remains unmoved and undisturbed by not just external circumstances but also the vagaries and agitations of the contents of the mind itself, especially our thoughts, feelings and emotions. A person with a stable and steadfast mind takes things as they come, irrespective of their likes and dislikes (the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’), is not swayed by either their senses or their thoughts and feelings, and has an attitude of non-resistance and acceptance toward change. There's a metaphysical law known as the law of non-resistance. One formulation of that law is, 'What we resist, persists.' That's so damn true. Here's some very good advice from the Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic Rumi:

‘Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?’

Meditation is a most useful way of developing a stable and untroubled mind. Millions have found that to be true all over the globe. I have found that the regular practice of mindfulness is the best way to fortify the mind against worry, fear and anxiety. Listen to these wonderful words of the Buddha as recorded in section 3 (‘Mind’) of the Dhammapada (translated by Thomas Byrom):

'An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgements,
Watches and understands.'

There you have it. An untroubled mind is a non-judgmental mind, a mind that is choicelessly aware of the action of the present moment, be that action internal or external. An untroubled mind is a mind that ‘watches’ and ‘understands’. It is an alert mind which is open and receptive to whatever is happening. Actually, what the Buddha has so brilliantly described is mindfulness, and the characteristics of a mindset that is mindful as opposed to mindless. On the same point, the world-renowned authority on Zen, Alan Watts [pictured right], also got to the heart of the matter when he wrote, ‘Zen is not concerned with discovering what is good or bad or advantageous, but what is.’ Got that? What is.

Now, we must be careful here. Neither the Buddha nor Watts is saying that we should no longer concern ourselves with what is right and what is wrong. Buddhism, in particular, has much to say about those two things as do all other religions and codes of ethical living. The point is this. All too often, when an event occurs, we immediately proceed to interpret, analyse, compare, contrast, judge and evaluate that event rather than experience the reality of the present moment. We either fight against that reality or cling to it. The plain and simple fact of the matter is this --- unless we learn to let go of the present moment we will never experience and enjoy the reality of the next moment and the one after that and the one after that. The present moment is ever renewing itself as another present moment, then another, and then another. To live mindfully is to let go, but before we can let go we must---‘let be.’ If we interpret, analyse, compare, contrast, judge and evaluate the present moment we are not letting be. By identifying with the present moment we end up getting stuck in the past.

Pull yourself up every time that you find yourself interpreting, analysing, comparing, contrasting, judging or evaluating an everyday happening or event and immediately return to watching and observing the reality of the present moment as one moment unfolds after another. That is the only way you will understand. Pay attention. Watch and understand. Non-judgmentally. Choicelessly. 

I quoted Dr Norman Vincent Peale at the start of this post. Here's some great advice from him on the subject of developing an untroubled mind: ‘Sit still, be silent, let composure creep over you.' That's all you have to do. Get the body still first, then the mind will follow. Do that many times a day if necessary. Sit still. Be silent. And let---please note that word 'let'---composure creep over you. The Theravāda Buddhist leader and teacher of the Buddhadhamma Ajahn Chah said more-or-less the same thing:

'Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing.' 

‘Let not your heart be troubled’ (Jn 14:1a). Trouble need not trouble you. You have a choice. So, let the past stay in the past. Make amends for wrongs committed and then move on. Prepare wisely for the future but don’t live in it or worry about it in advance of it unfolding. The future will unfold as it will. Live mindfully.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: Please read the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on or linked to this blog 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 blog or elsewhere. For immediate advice or support call (in Australia) Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact (in Australia) the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via In other countries call the relevant mental health care emergency hotline or simply dial your emergency assistance telephone number and ask for help.