Friday, May 22, 2015


What is holiness? Well, I am not going to give you some sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, happy-clappy definition of holiness. No, I will take you straight to the etymological meaning of the word itself. That is the right way to proceed.

And what do we find? Well, I will spare you the Old High German, the Old English, the proto-German, and the Old Norse words that are connected with the English word holiness and will simply say this---the word ‘holiness’ denotes wholeness, completeness, perfection, healthiness and even happiness. The word also refers to that which brings about a state of health and completeness.

Now, here’s something from the Buddha about holiness. I hope you find it helpful.

The Buddha was once asked, ‘What makes a person holy?’ This is said to have been his answer to that question:

'Every hour is divided into sixty minutes, and every minute into sixty seconds, and every second into a certain number of fractions. Any person who is able to be totally present in each fraction of each second is holy.'

So, there you have it. If you live mindfully, that is, are fully and completely and constantly present and aware from one moment to the next, such that you and your experience of life are one, you are holy---and enlightened. How is that? Because you will then be empty of self. Where there is oneness, there is emptiness of self. So, the 'secret' to life is to experience each moment to its fullest. Once a moment is gone, it can never be relived. Here is a paradox of enormous proportions---time is movement, yet the time is always 'now'! It is always the 'eternal now'---the ever-present and everywhere-present portal through which we experience what we call the 'present moment.' So live your life now. Drop thoughts of the past. Drop thoughts of the future. Drop images and mental abstractions. Just be totally 'there' in the present each and every moment.

Of course, right thoughts, right speech, right actions and a number of other important things such as a healthy diet and lifestyle and good genes will help to ensure total health of both mind and body---for you are a mind-body continuum---but if you practise continual presence, that is, ceaseless awareness, of both mind and body as well as your surrounds in the eternal now, you will be a long way along the path to being whole and complete, that is, holy.

Be mindful. Be holy. But never holier-than-thou.




Sunday, May 17, 2015


Have you ever noticed how most of our attempts to change fail? Have you ever asked yourself why this is the case?

We read self-help books, we attend self-improvement courses, we join a yoga or pilates group, we learn to meditate. We have the best of intentions and for a while we seem happier in ourselves but sooner or later something unexpected or unpleasant happens and, wham, we are back to our old selves again---with the emphasis on ‘old selves.’ Yes, all too often any change in us is temporary and skin-deep. This is not surprising. After all, do we not live in a world of makeovers and quick fixes?

Here are a couple of Eastern stories or anecdotes that you might find helpful. I certainly find them illuminative and instructive.

Here’s the first one. A pupil asks his teacher, ‘And how does real change come about?’ Now, if someone asks me a ‘how’ question I usually reply, ‘Don’t ask “how,” for you are asking for a method or technique. Methods and techniques are conditioning, and we need to be de-conditioned.’ Anyway, this teacher was not put off by the pupil’s question.

So, the pupil wanted to know how ‘real change’ comes about. Here’s the teacher’s answer. ‘Through awareness.’ That’s right, we change through awareness. Not through changing our religion, our beliefs, our politics, our appearance, our clothes, or anything else. Through awareness.

‘And what does one do to become aware,’ asked the pupil. (Now, that’s a damn good way of asking the question. This time the pupil didn’t say, ‘How do I become aware?’ That would probably have been too much for the teacher.)

Now, listen to the teacher’s reply. ‘What does one do, when one is asleep, to wake from sleep?’ was his reply.

Here’s another little anecdote on the same point.

‘What is my self, O teacher?’ asked a pupil. The teacher replied, ‘For that you have to learn what is known as “the secret act”.’

‘What is the secret act?’ asked the pupil. ‘This,’ said the teacher, as he closed his eyes and then opened them.

All we succeed by most of our efforts at self-improvement is a change in our behaviour, and even that is usually short-lived. That’s right, our behaviour changes but not ourselves, that is, the person that each one of us is. Real, deep and lasting change only occurs through awareness, that is, self-observation. As I’ve often said---it’s not an original idea of mine---enlightenment means waking up. Yes, waking up. To ourselves, other people, and our world.

Whenever you are choicelessly aware and accepting of life unfolding from one moment to the next, you are in an enlightened state of consciousness. Whenever you resist and oppose what is, whenever you judge others or events, you are anything but enlightened. It’s as simple as that.

Don’t change your ‘self,’ or rather the many ‘selves’ that exist in your mind---for example, the angry self, the frightened self, the anxious self, and so on---but instead learn to change the person that you are. In order to change the person that you are, you must increase in self-knowledge. The latter comes, not from reading books, however helpful they may be, but from self-observation, that is, awareness.

Simply watch and observe your thoughts and feelings as well as your reactions to events with passive detachment, that is, dispassionately. You will learn plenty from so doing. You will see at work all the false selves which you have taken to be the ‘real you,’ that is the person that you are. You may see the ‘frightened self,’ which has arisen in your mind perhaps as a result of overly protective parents. You may see the ‘angry self,’ which perhaps is the result of an ‘egocentric, narcissistic and self-absorbed self’ which insists always on getting its own way and which demands the attention of others at all times.

All these false selves have given you an acquired, invented ‘identity,’ but it is a false identity, that is, an imaginary ‘I.’ These false selves are the result of past thinking and conditioning, but they are persistent little critters that want to hang onto their fake existence. Know this---no matter how persistent and powerful these selves may appear to be, they are only self-images in your mind. Yet there is often strong feeling associated with them such that they can lead us terribly astray.

The ‘real you’ is something altogether different. It is the mind-body complex that we call a person. You are much, much more than those hundreds of little, false selves---all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---with which you identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real you,’ that is, the person that you are. Only the latter is ontologically real.

Personal freedom and transformation come when you ‘get real,’ that is, when you learn to think, feel, act and live from your personhood as a person among persons. The ‘secret’ is to get your mind off your many false ‘selves’ and rise above them. This, you must do, if you are ever to get real, but you must watch and, for a while, endure your false selves. Yes, endure them. Watch and follow them to their end. Suffer and endure their disturbance until it ends---and most assuredly it will. In time, you will come to see, know and understand where you have gone astray, and with self-knowledge, insight and understanding real psychological change will come naturally to you, as surely as night follows day. Listen to these wonderful words from the American spiritual teacher Vernon Howard: 'The quality of self-insight is the quality of the life.'

Now, close your eyes and open them. That’s the secret act. Literally and metaphorically speaking.



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Friday, May 8, 2015


Now, don’t get me wrong. I am firmly convinced that the regular practice of mindfulness is a good thing—indeed, a very good thing. The medical and scientific journals are full of peer-reviewed articles attesting to the benefits of mindfulness for both body and mind. My blog is full of references to many of those articles.

We now know that engaging in mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks can increase the density of grey matter in the brain’s hippocampus (a major component of the brain known to be im­por­tant for learn­ing and mem­o­ry, and in struc­tures as­so­ci­at­ed with self-a­ware­ness and stress). The re­duc­tions in stress re­ported by the par­ti­ci­pants were al­so cor­re­lat­ed with de­creased grey-mat­ter dens­ity in the amygdala, a struc­ture of the brain known to play an im­por­tant role in anx­i­e­ty and stress. The amygdala can effectively hijack the prefrontal cortex, being the area of the brain thought to be involved in planning complex cognitive behaviour and in the expression of personality and appropriate social behaviour. The regular practice of mindfulness quietens the amygdala and stabilizes the working of the prefrontal cortex.

Many companies have seized on mindfulness as a way of increasing the productivity, efficiency and effectiveness of their employees. The corporate bosses have heard that the regular practice of mindfulness improves a person’s ability to cope with and release stress, enhances their cognitive functioning and performance, improves their concentration, attention to detail, memory and sensory processing, and reduces their mental distractedness. All that is good for the company. Of course it is, damn it. It registers in dollars---and more dollars. It’s the bottom line. No wonder some are using the term ‘McMindfulness.’

As I say, I am ‘sold’ on mindfulness. I write about mindfulness, I teach mindfulness, and I practise it, but I find it a bit sad when I see mindfulness being exploited---yes, exploited---for purely pecuniary gains. I don’t really believe for one moment that these companies actually care all that much about their employees. They simply want them to work hard so that they can make money for the company. There, I said it.

What so many people forget is that mindfulness is a spiritual practice. Yes, first and foremost, it is spiritual. The English word ‘spirit’ comes from the Latin word spiritus meaning, among other things, breath, breathing, air, inspiration, character, spirit, life, vigour, and courage. Spirituality does not require nor depend upon any notions of supernaturalism (whatever that word means) but refers to non-physical and non-transient things such as faith, hope and charity as well as states of affairs or human consciousness which, going ‘beyond words’, are only partially (if at all) graspable by human concepts--things that cannot be seen but which are otherwise capable of being apprehended, if not fully understood. Spirituality is thus a composite word referring to the domain where mind, personality, purpose, ideals, values and meanings dwell, and is concerned with the development of the mind, the emotions and the will. And, oh yes, spirituality and religion are not the same thing.

Now, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practise mindfulness, but I will quote from the Buddha because he is said to have achieved enlightenment through the practice of mindfulness. However, the Buddha spoke about ‘right mindfulness’---not just mindfulness, but right mindfulness. Do you want to know what right mindfulness is all about? Please read on.

‘One is mindful to abandon wrong view and to enter and remain in right view: This is one's right mindfulness ...
‘One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve and to enter and remain in right resolve: This is one's right mindfulness ...
‘One is mindful to abandon wrong speech and to enter and remain in right speech: This is one's right mindfulness ...
‘One is mindful to abandon wrong action and to enter and remain in right action: This is one's right mindfulness ...
‘One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood and to enter and remain in right livelihood: This is one's right mindfulness ...’
                           Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty, 117.

Right mindfulness is about right and wrong as respects one’s views, resolve, speech, action and livelihood. That last one---right livelihood---now, that's a real zinger. How many livelihoods actually assist humanity? How many relieve poverty, suffering and distress? And how many help the marginalized and the disadvantaged in our world?

If there is a ‘purpose’ to mindfulness it is this—to provide a means whereby the practitioner can gain insight through self-observation. But even that is not an end in itself. Do you want to know the real end-purpose of mindfulness? It is this---that we might become more loving and more compassionate human beings. And here's some wisdom from the Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: 'Compassion is a verb.' That's right. It's something we do. Right action.

Living mindfully does indeed make us more aware of who we really are. By self-observation we gain insight into our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and over time we become more directly aligned to the flow of life of which we all are a part. That can only be a good thing. It’s all very empowering. However, without right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, and right livelihood, we are nothing. My biggest objection to the New Age movement is not its irrationality and at times downright silliness but its utter selfishness and self-centredness. It’s all about ‘me’—my life, my career, my happiness, and my self-fulfillment. The result? We just become more selfish, more self-satisfied, more self-centered, and more self-absorbed and self-obsessed. And that is not a good thing.

So-called 'mindfulness'---without right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, and right livelihood---is simply not mindfulness at all. 

Loving-kindness and compassion.
That, my friends, is what mindfulness is all about.



Sunday, May 3, 2015


This post is for everyone—even for those who don’t go to paid work everyday. We all work in some way or another. The five tips that follow, which are based on the practice of applied mindfulness and personal wellness, will make any person’s day easier—as well as more productive and more pleasant. 

Now, what is mindfulness? Well, there are many definitions or descriptions. Here’s one of them. The American Mindfulness Research Association defines mindfulness as the ‘state, process and practice of remembering to observe moment-to-moment experience with openness and without automatic patterns of previously conditioned thoughts, emotions or behaviors.’

There are several important words in that description of mindfulness, among them ‘remembering,’ ‘observe,’ ‘automatic,’ and ‘conditioned,’ but first let’s look at the word ‘mindfulness’ itself. In the context under present consideration the word ‘mindfulness’ is said to have been coined in the 1880s by the noted British scholar of the Pāli language Thomas William Rhys Davids, and is a loose translation of the Pāli  word sati  (literally, ‘memory’) the root meaning of which is ‘to remember’. 

So, mindfulness means:

(i) remembering to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, 
(ii) remembering to observe what is present (both internally and externally) from one moment to the next, 
(iii) remembering what is present, and 
(iv) remembering in the present moment what has already happened. 

In other words, mindfulness is remembering to be fully 'here,' and to stay fully 'here,' now---at all times. 

Now, the words ‘observe,’ ‘automatic,’ and ‘conditioned.’

To ‘observe’ you must be attentive and you must be aware. ‘Unadorned observation,’ the phrase is. You observe what is happening without judgment, interpretation or analysis, as if you were a totally disinterested stranger. If you persist in your practice of mindfulness your conditioned and automatic thinking, thought-forms and thought-patterns will break down, and your emotional reactions and behaviors will change as well. Instead of reacting emotionally and disproportionately to events, you will respond dispassionately and proportionately.

Here are 5 tips for making your day at work easier, more productive, and more pleasant.

1.    Practise mindfulness meditation for 25 minutes each morning.

In a study published in 2014 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology it was found that participants who practised mindfulness meditation for 25 minutes a day felt less stressed in a test-like situation compared with those who did not. There are many other studies that have reported similar results. 

This previous post of mine sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.

2.    Take 5 minute breaks throughout the day.

Each hour or so throughout your working day, or any day for that matter, take time out for 5 minutes. In those 5 minutes just sit still, get quite, and do nothing. Relax and still the body, then the mind will become still. Let the mind ‘stay in neutral,’ so to speak. 

When thoughts or feelings arise in your mind---and they will---just observe them, and let them go, mindfully. Don't hold on to them, and don't identify with them. They are not 'you,' the person that you are. When you begin to emotionalize, stop. Inhale deeply. Exhale slowly but fully. That is a very effective way of emptying out from your mind negativism of all kinds.

I find it helps to close the eyes and focus on your breathing. Allow your pulse rate to slow to the rhythm of your breaths. It will happen over time.

      3.    Get up from your chair and stretch your body.

This is one I need to remember---there’s that word ‘remember’ again---to do. I stay in my chair typing away for an hour or more until my back and neck ache and I have a terrible headache. Someone told me to set a digital timer to ring after 10 minutes. That was to remind me to stop typing, get up out of my chair, stretch my body, and take a short walk around my office. 

Use a digital timer if you have to. Perhaps the most common cause of musculoskeletal pain at work is not remembering to vary on a regular basis our patterns of sitting and other activity (eg typing).

Health experts tell us that the human body was not designed to sit for hours. Some experts—and I have heard from this from the Mayo Clinic---even advocate standing, as opposed to sitting, at your desk. Try it. The difference may well astound you. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, in order to stand and work at your desk you will need to make some adjustments to the height of your existing desk or procure a standing desk.

4.    Drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Our bodies depend on water to survive. Every cell, tissue, and organ in the body needs water to work correctly. When our body becomes depleted of water our ability to withstand stress decreases as does our powers of concentration, attention and awareness all of which are essential to mindful living. We become tired, forgetful and anxious. All that is fact. In short, water is needed for good health---physical, mental and emotional.

We lose water even when we breathe (and not just when we urinate or sweat). Many headaches are due to lack of water, and water is the best option for staying hydrated. Avoid too much caffeine and carbonated drinks. Whenever you do have a cup of coffee, follow it by a glass of water to help flush out the caffeine substance. Now, now much water do we need? The proverbial 8 glasses a day? Well, the amount of water needed varies from person to person. For some people, fewer than 8 glasses of water is enough. Others need more than 8 glasses each day. Start with 8 glasses a day, and go from there.

5.    Practise progressive relaxation at least once each day.

This is something I do at lunchtime as it generally takes more than 5 minutes to do properly. 

The American physician Dr Edmund Jacobson formulated the progressive relaxation technique in the early 1920s to help people relax the entire body by releasing muscular tension that accumulates as a person experiences a stressful situation. 

The technique involves three things---tense, feel the tension, then relax. The idea is you tense a particular muscle group, then feel the tension by keeping the muscle tensed for approximately 5 seconds, and then relax the muscle group (saying ‘Relax’ as you do) and keep it relaxed for approximately 10 seconds. You do this systematically and mindfully throughout the entire body, from head to foot. When you have finished the relaxation procedure, remain seated for a few moments allowing yourself to become alert. Here is a link to the various steps involved in this technique, and here is a book written by Jacobson that is well worth reading. Practise progressive relaxation. It really does work.

Finally, remember to let go of your responsibilities when you leave work.

One more thing. Remember---there's that word again---to be mindful when you are not at work as well. 


Friday, May 1, 2015


Many years ago I was lucky enough to attend a couple of classes taught by a most exceptional man. He was a writer, a teacher, and a philosopher of sorts. 

One thing this man was damn good at was shattering the illusions of his listeners, removing their psychological props, and puncturing holes in their pomposity. His sole concern was to set those people unconditionally free, but first they had to acknowledge that that their best thinking and endeavors had failed them miserably. Ego deflation at great depth was the man's modus operandi.

The man was Vernon Howard [pictured right], and his psychological and spiritual teachings literally saved the lives of a number of famous people including the actor and musician Desi Arnaz Jr, his late wife Amy, who was an acclaimed ballerina and ballet school owner, and the self-help writer and philosopher Guy Finley, not to mention the lives of thousands of other persons as well from all walks of life. 

Vernon Howard's ideas and teachings have had a big impact on my own life, and on my approach to helping others. 

Here’s a wonderful piece of wisdom from Vernon Howard. It’s from his book Esoteric Mind Power:

If two of your friends are on the other side of a thick wall, you may not be able to recognize them by their voices. The wall prevents clear hearing. If you wish to recognize them, the wall must not remain between you and them. This is what we are now doing. In order to recognize the voice of truth, we are removing our psychological wall. For example, by removing traditional but false beliefs, we are able to hear the pure messages of our original nature.

It’s a great analogy, isn’t it? Beliefs distort truth (that is, reality). How do they do that, you may ask? I will tell you. Beliefs, which tend to set like concrete over time, are a brick wall between you and reality. Surely you can understand that? Everything ends up getting filtered through your belief-system such that you can no longer see and experience things-as-they-really-are. And where there is filtering, there is inevitably distortion. It’s as simple as that.

I held onto a number of belief-systems for many decades in the mistaken belief (ha!) that I needed them---that without them I could not survive. When I came to realize that none of those belief-systems had actually helped me---and, worse still, that that they had actually held me in bondage---I made a decision to chuck the lot of them out the window, so to speak. I have never looked back.

The Buddha is quoted as having said, ‘Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don’t believe.’ Beliefs fetter and cage the mind. They prevent us from knowing and understanding reality as it unfolds from one moment to the next. Beliefs, by their very nature, take the form of second or third-hand prejudices, or biases, of various kinds. Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils.

You see, each one of us is in direct and immediate contact with reality, both internal and external, unless we choose to put a barrier---a thick wall or veil---between ourselves and reality. When we believe something about some aspect of reality, a wall or veil is placed between us and reality, effectively blocking off the latter. Using a different metaphor, beliefs are like distorting lenses which filter and distort reality as it tries to pass through the lens. 

So, if you want to see, know and understand things-as-they-really-are, discard your beliefs. One excellent way of discarding your beliefs is to practise mindfulness, for when we practise mindfulness we gain insight into ourselves, other people, and our world. Insight is a wonderful thing. It is like a chisel, serving to chip, carve, and cut into our beliefs. To quote Vernon Howard again (from the above mentioned book of his):

As insight chips away our hardened opinions and beliefs, we begin to see things as they are, not as we are.

Nor as we would like things to be.

Are you brave enough to discard your beliefs? All of them? I dare you.