Friday, May 27, 2016


Here are some wise words from Francis Bacon [pictured left]. Referring to the myths and tales of antiquity, Bacon remarked, ‘Under some of the ancient fictions, lay couched certain mysteries.’ How true that is!

The fairy story—which is rarely about fairies as such—is the ‘younger brother’, or ‘younger sister’, of the great myths. The fairy story is, in the words of Theosophist and Liberal Catholic priest G Nevin Drinkwater, ‘the mystery tradition of childhood’, who also wrote that, ‘It can be taken as axiomatic that no fairy story will live unless it has an esoteric significance, and this is probably true even of riddles and nursery rhymes.’ He went on to say: ‘A fairy story lives precisely because it contains hidden truths which the child’s ego recognizes and accepts, before, as so often happens, our modern methods of education stifle its intuition and imagination.’ J. Krishnamurti would call those ‘modern methods of education’ conditioning, and conditioning can be a very bad thing. We need to de-condition our minds if we are to come to know that which is of supreme importance.

I love fairy tales, and the tale of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is one of the best. Jack is a young lad living with his widowed mother. Their only means of income is a cow. When this cow stops giving milk one morning, Jack is sent to the market to sell it. On the way to the market he meets an old man who offers to give him ‘magic’ beans in exchange for the cow. Jack takes the beans but when he arrives home without any money, his mother becomes angry and throws the beans to the ground and sends Jack to bed without supper. As Jack sleeps, the beans grow into a gigantic beanstalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk and arrives in a land high up in the sky where he follows a road to a house, which is the home of a giant. He enters the house and asks the giant's wife for food. She gives him food, but the giant returns and senses that a human is nearby. However, Jack is hidden by the giant's wife and overhears the giant counting his money. Jack steals a bag of gold coins as he makes his escape down the beanstalk.

Jack repeats his journey up the beanstalk two more times, each time he is helped by the increasingly suspicious wife of the giant and narrowly escapes with one of the giant's treasures. The second time, he steals a hen that lays golden eggs and the third time a magical harp that plays by itself. This time, he is almost caught by the giant who follows him down the beanstalk. Jack calls his mother for an axe and chops the beanstalk down, killing the giant. The end of the story has Jack and his mother living happily ever after with their new riches.

When it comes to stories written in the sacred, secret, or mystery language, trees, ladders, staircases, and the like often symbolise a spiritual journey, as well as the soul’s evolution and progressive development and unfoldment. In other tales, these ‘uprights’ refer to the spinal cord, the life force, kundalini---the ‘serpent fire’ in us. In other words, creative divine life. (Note. When I use the word ‘divine’, I am referring to something that is of ultimate importance and worthy of our awe and reverence. The word ‘spiritual’ simply means non-material, that is, something that has no component parts--unlike, say, a table or chair--for example, love, compassion, kindness and courage.)

One other very important thing. In the mystery language, a woman represents the human soul, whereas a man represents the human spirit or the physical body (or both). Any marriage is a ‘mystical marriage’ or union of the human soul and the human spirit---and that is a very good thing. In the tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ Jack’s mother is a widow, thus symbolising a soul that is separated from the divine world. She has an wisdom---spiritual or ancient wisdom---to pass on to her son Jack. We have in the story a reference, once again, to a ‘stolen inheritance.’ Significantly, it is a guardian angel---an enlightened, spiritual thought---that conveys to Jack the news of the stolen inheritance. We are all seeking our stolen inheritance. It is nothing other than our spiritual destiny---our ultimate reward.

Jack must use both courage and intelligence to ascend the beanstalk, the latter coming into existence from, yes, the ‘magic beans,’ the latter symbolising the power of creative thought and imagination as well as our potential for spiritual growth and development. The creative imagination bridges the ‘gap’ between the conscious and unconscious minds (or worlds). We have here the archetypal journey---the path or quest---to recover one’s ‘lost’ or unrealised potential. The journey is not an easy one, and there are many dangers and threats, but we will ultimately triumph---no matter how long the journey takes—if we persevere to the end.

in the film Jack and the Beanstalk (WB, 1952)

The giant symbolically represents our ego-self, or false selves—that is, our likes, dislikes, attachments, aversions and prejudices which we mistakenly believe are our ‘real self’—that threaten our spiritual development. In a more mundane sense, the giant also represents all those difficulties and adversaries we are called upon to face, and conquer, in our daily life. In the story of Saint George and the Dragon, the giant takes the form of a dragon.

The tale of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is very much a coming-of-age story. It is the hero’s journey, in the language of the mythographer Joseph Campbell. Each one of us is Jack---and, yes, we are also the giant. Actually, just as there are hundreds and thousands of false selves in our mind, so there are hundreds and thousands of giants to be killed or dragons to be slain. Jack brings a spiritual treasure to earth---the hen which lays the golden egg. Obvious symbolism there. An ‘egg’ symbolises a new beginning, new life, resurrection, a new stage of evolution, and the like. ‘Gold,’ of course, represents spiritual wisdom and divine life. On his second visit Jack brings back bags of silver and gold---that is, even more spiritual wisdom. On his third visit Jack takes a harp, the latter symbolising the music of the spheres, or the knowledge of cosmic harmony.

Over time, the defeating forces in our own lives can be destroyed and overcome. Remember, our ‘enemies are those of our own household’ (cf Mt 10:36), that is, within our own psyche.

The ‘message’ of the fairy tale 'Jack and the Beanstalk' is simple, but not easy to put into practice. We, too, must ‘climb’ into the sky, metaphorically speaking, in order to achieve a ‘higher’, that is, a more fulfilling and uplifting, existence.




Friday, May 20, 2016


Far too many modern writings on the subject of mindfulness over-emphasize the importance of staying alert and awake and being fully present in the now. Of course, those things are not unimportant. Indeed, they are of great importance. However, there is much, much more to mindfulness than just those two things.

There is a phrase often used in writings on mindfulness—‘choiceless awareness’. I often use that phrase but I was not its originator. I think I first heard the phrase used in the talks of the Indian spiritual teacher J.Krishnamurti [pictured left] but I can’t be even sure that he was the originator of the phrase. Actually, it doesn’t matter who first used those words. The important thing is what the words mean.

Choiceless awareness. The word ‘choiceless’ is of paramount importance. The task before us is to be aware of whatever may form the content of our awareness. The content—thoughts, feelings, memories, images, bodily sensations and so forth—is constantly changing. To be choicelessly aware is to be aware of whatever may be our internal and external experience. We cease to label that experience, or any part of it, as good or bad or indifferent. It just is. Such is life.

The American Buddhist monk Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu [pictured right], in a short essay titled ‘Mindfulness Defined’, writes:

Equanimity means learning to put aside your preferences so that you can watch what's actually there. Patience is the ability not to get worked up over the things you don't like, to stick with difficult situations even when they don't resolve as quickly as you want them to. But in establishing mindfulness you stay with unpleasant things not just to accept them but to watch and understand them. Once you've clearly seen that a particular quality like aversion or lust is harmful for the mind, you can't stay patient or equanimous about it. You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.

Equanimity is a beautiful word. It even sounds lovely. Equanimity is defined as a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. Serenity is another word meaning more-or-less the same thing. When we are disturbed by someone or something, our equanimity comes goes out the window. In order to have equanimity we must learn to simply stay with what is. We must learn to look, observe, and be prepared to ‘watch what’s actually there’. That means we must ‘put aside [our] preferences’. Ordinarily, we choose to be aware of some things and not others, and we refuse to watch those things we label as bad or even indifference. True mindfulness is staying with whatever may be the content of our moment-to-moment experience, without labelling or judging that content as good, bad or indifferent.

All this requires patience, as Ajahn Thanissaro points out. Patience is not something we develop overnight. I know that. I am 61 years of age and I am still trying to learn to be more patient. That’s where mindfulness practice can help. As we practise mindfulness we become more patient over time. I still need a lot more practice. I hope I live long enough.

Ajahn Thanissaro provides a helpful working definition of patience—‘the ability not to get worked up over the things you don’t like’, and ‘to stick with difficult situations even when they don't resolve as quickly as you want them to’. We all know that we are upset not so much by what happens but by our reaction to what happens. It’s our reaction that hurts us, and often our reaction is automatic and self-defeating. We all need more patience. The next time you find yourself upset, may I suggest that you do the following. Watch what’s happening. Stay with it. Follow it through. Self-observation leads to self-knowledge, and self-knowledge leads to self-cure. If you can stay with and simply observe the content of your experience, rather than run away from it, and not label or judge that content, you will gain insight into the workings of your mind. You will come to understand that you have always been your own worst enemy, for you, and you alone, are the originator and cause of your self-defeating behaviour.

Letting go is very important, but so is sticking with difficult situations that we would rather not face. Life just is.

Ajahn Thanissaro refers to ‘right resolve’ (also known as ‘right intention’ and ‘right mindedness’) and ‘right effort’ (also known as ‘right diligence’). Those two things are just two of the eight path factors in the Noble Eightfold Path. Right resolve leads to right understanding, right effort, and right attentiveness. It means, among other things, watching our thoughts, for as we think, so we are. Right resolve also means reflecting upon our thoughts, words and deeds. Are they true? Are they necessary? Are they kind? (That threefold test of the rightness or wrongness of any proposed words or deed is known as 'The Three Gates'.)

Right effort is fourfold in nature and involves the effort to prevent unwholesome qualities from arising, the effort to extinguish unwholesome qualities (for example, greed, anger and resentment, and lust) that already have arisen, the effort to cultivate skilful or wholesome, qualities (especially generosity, loving kindness, and wisdom) that have not yet arisen, and the effort to strengthen the wholesome qualities that have already arisen. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, right resolve and right effort are of extreme importance.

True mindfulness is more than just a calm acceptance of what is. It means being prepared to change what needs to be changed in one’s life and making the effort to make those changes. 

Friday, May 13, 2016


To date, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has not been rigorously evaluated for young and middle-aged adults with chronic low back pain. 

A recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports on a trial which compared treatment with MBSR with usual care as well as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

In a study of 342 adults aged 20-70, randomly and equally allocated to each treatment group and having suffered with back pain for an average of 7.3 years, those given mindfulness training found it easier to get out of chairs, go upstairs and had less pain than those given usual care.

In the MBSR group, 61 per cent felt more able to move around without pain than the 44 per cent who carried on with their usual care. CBT was equally as good as MBSR at reducing pain. The effects lasted for at least a year.

Among adults with chronic low back pain, treatment with MBSR or CBT, compared with usual care, resulted in greater improvement in back pain and functional limitations at 26 weeks, with no significant differences in outcomes between MBSR and CBT. 

These findings suggest that MBSR may be an effective treatment option for patients with chronic low back pain.

Study: Cherkin, Daniel C et al. ‘Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial.’ JAMA. 2016;315(12):1240-1249. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.2323.




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Friday, May 6, 2016


There is nothing as good, and as useful, as the ancient wisdom. We think we are so smart today, but have we really discovered anything as important and wonderful as what was known to the wise and holy men and women of old? I think not.

Mindfulness is all about being choicelessly aware of what is happening, inside and outside of us, from one moment to the next. Unless we are capable of doing that well, we are not truly present, that is, living in the now.

Here’s a snippet of wisdom from Tao-hsin (Dayi Daoxin) (Japanese: Dōshin) (580-651) [pictured right], who was the fourth Chán [Chinese Zen] Buddhist Patriarch:

Constantly be aware,
Without stopping.
When the aware mind is present,
It senses the formlessness of things.
Constantly see your body as empty
And quiet, inside and outside
Communing in sameness.

Constant awareness. Hmm. How often we drift off into mental movies of our own making! You know what I mean. We see something, or think of something, or something happens, and … a mental movie begins in which we are the star, bit player, director, producer, writer, cinematographer and editor. The result? We are no longer aware. Yes, we have lost direct and immediate contact with the here-and-now. We have stopped observing. However, if we can just look and see, that is, observe … without judgment, analysis or interpretation … what happens? Well, as Tao-hsin says, when the aware mind is present—choicelessly aware---we come to see the ‘formlessness of things’.

Now, what does ‘formlessness’ mean, I hear you ask? Well, ordinarily, the conditioned, undisciplined mind wants to attach itself to something, that is, some object or thought. It is wants to grab hold of something. Actually, your mind is pure consciousness or awareness in it pure, unconditioned state, so that when you truly observe there is not you, the observer, as well as the thing observed, there is just awareness—pure unadulterated awareness. Is that possible? Yes, indeed, but it takes practice. That’s where the practice of mindfulness comes in handy. When you learn to give your full attention to this moment—by simply removing the hindrances or obstructions to your so doing---you will find that your mind is really formless as are all things. You see, that is, really see … and perhaps for the very first time in your life there is just the seeing! That is what Tao-hsin is talking about. When we attach ourselves to things—including our very own thoughts and feelings—we are living in a world of forms. However, if we can look and see without attachment, that is, give our full, undivided attention to what is directly and immediately present, we come to see and experience what Buddhism refers to as the formlessness of things, including the formlessness of our own mind. Emptiness is another word.

Begin now. There is no time like the present. When you look, just look. When you hear, just hear. When you smell, just smell. When you taste, just taste. When you touch, just touch. Avoid the temptation to grab hold of something, that is, attach your mind to something. In truth, your mind can never attach itself to the present. If you try, you will always end up losing direct and immediate contact with the present moment as it unfolds ceaselessly into the next present moment, and so on.

And what of ‘communing in sameness’. What the hell does that mean? What is ‘sameness’? Is it something like formlessness or emptiness? Well, yes, more-or-less. Actually, in both Buddhism and Taoism (Daoism) sameness and difference go together. You can’t have one without the other. They coexist. In a very real sense, they are one and the same. Things are many and yet one; they are one and yet many. I am not you, and you are not me; and yet we are all one in essence. We all live and move and have our being in the one life which flows through all things and is the very ground of being itself. Non-duality, some call it.

Stop seeing yourself as separate from all other living things. In truth, you are not. We are all part of life’s self-expression. The life in you, expressing itself as you, is the very same life that is in me, expressing itself as me. It is the very same life that is expressing itself in and as all other living beings as well. The form that each one of us presently takes has changed many, many times in our lifetime, and it will change many, many times hereafter as well. Forms come and go, wax and wane, but the life in us … well, it is ceaseless …

Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!
Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for ever.

Those wonderful words come from Sir Edwin Arnold’s beautiful poetic version of The Bhagavad-Gita dubbed ‘The Song Celestial’. I often use them at funerals. The words are very powerful ... and very meaningful, and true, too.

The spirit of life is indeed formless and empty. It is the same wherever there is life, animate or inanimate. At its very heart, life is consciousness, and mind is consciousness. Look beyond the forms. True reality is formless. All things are interdependent and commune in sameness. We are immersed in a world of largely indeterminate flux‘mind stuff,’ or ‘dream stuff’ in the words of the Polish-American physicist Wojciech Zurekconsisting of seemingly endless possible actions and a quantum field of potentialities. What emerges from that quantum field depends to a very large degree upon---consciousness! Yes, mind or consciousness is primary and fundamental, ‘the creator and governor of matter’, in the words of that great English physicist of yesteryear Sir James Jeans. And mind is formless and emptywell, the unconditioned mind is. How conditioned is your mind?

In the words of Tao-hsin, start sensing the formlessness of things. See your body as empty … and quiet inside and outside. Commune in sameness.

Calligraphy [below]: Emptiness.