Welcome to my blog—an eyes-open and free-spirited exploration of Western and Eastern spirituality, mindfulness, philosophy and literature. A member of the Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association, I lectured at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry (now the Health Education and Training Institute) to mental health workers for 14 years and at the University of Technology, Sydney to law students for 16 years. My interests include metaphysics, mythology and addiction recovery.
meditation may stave off dementia.
Researchers from University College
London examined studies looking at the association between
mid-life anxiety, depression, and the development of dementia. The
findings, published in BMJ Open, point to an
association between moderate to severe anxiety or depression and
future dementia, with a gap of at least 10 years in between diagnoses. In other
words, those who suffered clinically significant – that is, moderate to severe
– anxiety or depression in mid-life were more likely to develop dementia years
It seems that responses
to stress may speed up brain cell ageing and degenerative changes in the
central nervous system, increasing vulnerability to dementia. Mindfulness and
meditation, which have been found to reduce anxiety, have the potential to
reduce the risk of later dementia.
The research involved
Study: Gimson A, Schlosser M, Huntley JD,
et al. ‘Support for midlife anxiety diagnosis as an independent risk factor
for dementia: a systematic review.’ BMJ Open 2018;8:e019399. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019399
Fairy tales are rarely
about fairies and generally have an inner meaning. I have looked at several
famous fairy tales in the past including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Brothers
Grimm. Here’s another fairy tale—from Germany—involving a character
called Snow White: ‘Snow-White and Rose-Red’.
The tale goes something
like this. A poor widow lives in a small cottage by the woods with her two
young children, Snow-White and Rose-Red, whom she adores. There is a garden in
front of the cottage in which there are two rose bushes. One of the roses bears
white roses, and the other red roses. The symbolism of that is revealing. The rose represents the individual's unfolding consciousness
although, depending on the context, it has a myriad assortment of
additional meanings associated with it, such as purity, passion, heavenly
perfection, virginity, fertility, suffering and sacrifice, death and life.
In the context of this fairy tale, the white
and red roses represent the thinking and feeling aspects of our consciousness
respectively. Now, the two young
children, who play together and love each other dearly, are just like the above
mentioned roses. Rose-Red is outspoken and cheerful and loves to play outside
whereas her sister Snow-White is quiet and shy and prefers doing housework and reading.
The two girls love to go out into the forest where they like to sleep. On one
occasion, whilst sleeping unknowingly on the edge of a precipice, they are
awakened by a figure in shining white apparel (apparently, a ‘guardian angel’,
variously a symbol of power, guardianship, inner guidance and personal
One winter night, there
is a knock at the door. Rose-Red opens the door to find a bear. At first, she
is terrified, but the bear tells her not to be afraid. ‘I'm half frozen and I merely
want to warm up a little at your place,’ he says. They let the bear in, and he
lies down in front of the fire. The girls beat the snow off the bear, and they
quickly become quite friendly with him. They play with the bear and roll him
around playfully. They let the bear spend the night in front of the fire. In
the morning the bear leaves, trotting out into the woods. The bear comes back
every night for the rest of that winter and the family grows used to him.
When summer comes, the
bear tells the family that he must go away for a while to guard his treasure
from a wicked dwarf. On parting, the bear catches his fur on the door-hook, and
it seems to Snow-White that she sees gold glittering underneath.
During the summer, when
the girls are walking through the forest, they find a dwarf whose beard is
stuck in a tree. The girls rescue him by cutting his beard free, but the dwarf
is ungrateful and yells at them for cutting his beautiful beard. He seizes a bag
of gold which lies behind him and hurries off angrily. The girls encounter the
dwarf several times that summer, each time rescuing him from some peril each
time, but the dwarf is always ungrateful. On the second occasion the dwarf runs
off with a bag of pearls. On another occasion he hurries off with a bag of
precious stones. Then, one day, they meet the dwarf once again and he is seen
counting his treasures. This time, the bear rushes out of the forest and
strikes the dwarf dead.
Instantly, the bear’s
skin falls from him, revealing a handsome prince. You see, the dwarf had put a
spell on the prince by stealing his precious stones and turning him into a
bear, but the curse is broken with the death of the dwarf. Snow-White marries
the prince, and Rose-Red marries his brother. And yes, as in all fairy tales,
they all live happily ever after.
Have you ever noticed how
many fairy tales involve a widow? A widow represents those who are cut
off, so to speak, from their true being as a person among persons. They are
people who have lost connection with their inner potentiality. In this tale,
however, there is still some contact with the elemental world represented by
the garden and the rose bushes.
Snow-White and Rose-Red
represent two different aspects or sides of human experience. Snow-White
(cf the white roses), who likes to stay indoors, represents the thinking part
of us that is introspective, introverted contemplative and meditative. Rose-Red
(cf the red roses), who likes being outdoors, symbolises the perceiving, more
extroverted part of us that is more interested in the outer world of sense
impressions. The fact that the two girls play together and love each other is
highly symbolic. It means, among other things, that these two sides of our
nature are equally important. Both are needed and belong together. In other
words, they are complementary. Never forget that.
The bear is an
out-picturing of us—body, mind and soul. There is the outer, physical part of
us and the inner mental and spiritual ‘parts’ of us. The dwarf represents
negative, evil forces, both within and outside of ourselves, that make for
separation, division and strife. These forces or tendencies within us must be
overcome if we are to grow into the persons we are capable of being and which,
in truth, we really are. The gold, pearls, and precious stones referred to in
the tale represent spiritual riches and wisdom—the non-physical things ‘not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens’
(cf 2 Cor 5:1). The dwarf is seen seizing, appropriating
and running of with these gifts, not realizing that they are not yet his by
right of consciousness. There are things that we must give up in order for
these gifts to be rightfully ours. That is an important lesson we all must
learn. Our false selves (the little ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’), in the form of our
various likes, dislikes, views, opinions, biases and prejudices, seek to
appropriate these treasures even though they are not yet ours by right of
the bear is not what it appears to be. Inside of it is a prince, that is, a
higher self—our true self. Here’s a famous Zen story
on the point. A distraught man approaches a Zen master and says, ‘Please,
Master, I feel lost, desperate. I don't know who I am. Please, show me
my true self!’ The master just looks away without responding. The man
begins to plead and beg, but still the master gives no reply. Finally giving up
in frustration, the man turns to leave. At that moment the master calls out to
him by name. ‘Yes!’ the man says as he turns around toward the master. ‘There
it is!’ exclaims the master.
Our true self is
the person that each one of us is. However, when we see and
experience ourselves we do not ordinarily see and experience the person that
in truth each one of us is. Instead, we tend to see and experience any one or
more of a number of self-images (those ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ held in our mind). At
one point in time we may see and experience the ‘little me’, or the ‘frightened
me’, or the ‘inferior me’. At another point in time we may see and experience
the ‘confident me’.
These ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ are nothing more than self-images in
our mind. They are images felt and experienced as real, that is, as the real
person that we think we are. Jointly and severally, these
‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ constitute in varying degrees our sense of
who we think we are, and whichever image is most dominant in your mind at any
point in time will constitute your sense of ‘me’—that is, what to you, in you,
is you—at least at that particular point in time. There is a feeling component
to these mental self-images, with the result that many of the images can be
quite strong and persistent over time and their persistency over time only
reinforces the mistaken belief that these images are really us. This also makes
change seem very difficult indeed. However, none—I repeat none—of
these felt self-images are real. They are not the real person
that in truth you are.
J Sheen wrote, ‘Death
to the lower self is the condition of resurrection to the higher
self.’ That is what this fairy tale is all about. We must die to our false
selves so that we might become the real person
that we are. Some call that the ‘higher self’, but please don’t confuse that
with those little, false selves of which I spoke. The ‘higher self’ is the real
person that in truth you are. I am referring to a power and presence ‘not-oneself’.
You see, we are much more than just those pesky false selves—all those waxing
and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’—with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken
belief that they constitute the ‘real me’.
Freedom from the bondage to self comes when we get real,
that is, when we start to live from our true being as a person among
persons. We come to know our higher or real
self—symbolised in the fairy tale ‘Snow-White and Rose-Red’ by each of the
marriages that take place—as a result of thinking (Snow-White), perceiving
(Rose-Red), and overcoming the evil spirit of separateness (symbolised by the
destruction of the dwarf by the bear).
When this happens, you
become what the American psychologist Carl
Rogers, pictured left, referred to as a ‘fully functioning
person’. The mystics refer to this as coming to ‘know the Self as One’. Yes, we
are one with all Life, even though few know or understand what that truly
My favourite comedian Groucho Marx was a lifelong insomniac. He tried most things to help
him sleep, but apparently to little avail. ‘I can sleep anywhere but in bed,’
he once exclaimed.
According to a 2015 study
published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, mindfulness
meditation is one of the most powerful tools for improving your sleep ... and the quality of your sleep.
study, 49 adults, all of whom reported having sleep troubles prior to being
enrolled in the study, were split into two groups. One group was instructed to
complete a mindfulness meditation program while the other simply attended sleep
education classes which mostly focused on instructing the participants on
various ways to improve their sleep habits. Each group participated in their
respective programs for six weeks. By the end, the results showed that those who
were meditating experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression compared to
those who weren't practising mindfulness meditation.
The results confirm a 2008 study which
demonstrated that wellbeing and mindfulness are positively associated with
sleep quality and with a morning circadian preference. Results from a sample of
305 undergraduates revealed positive associations among measures of emotional,
psychological, and social well-being, mindfulness, sleep quality and
morningness (that is, the characteristic of
being most active and alert during the morning).
As I see it, there are two
elements of mindfulness that are helpful in dealing with insomnia—choiceless
awareness and non-resistance. You can’t sleep? Don’t resist it. Stop fighting
against it, for whatever we resist persists. Simply be aware—non-selectively
aware—of whatever passes through your mind. Watch it. Observe it. Don’t fight
against it. Give those mental movies no power, by being only barely attentive to their content. Let it pass … for it will. And let it go. Try this—and you will be
amazed at the difference it makes.
Black D S, O’Reilly G A, Olmstead R, Breen E C, and Irwin M R. ‘Mindfulness
Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older
Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical
Trial.’JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):494-501.
Howell A J, Digdon N L,
Buro K, and Sheptycki
A R. ‘Relations among mindfulness, well-being, and sleep.’
(2008) Personality and Individual Differences, 2008;45(8):773-777.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.005
The great American comedian and writer Groucho Marx,
pictured, could be serious at times. In his 1959 autobiography Groucho and Me the thrice-married star
had this to say about what he referred to as ‘true love’:
I believe … that real love only appears when the early fires of passion
have cooled off and the embers just lie there smoldering. This is true love.
This relationship has only a bowing acquaintance with sex. Its component parts
are patience, forgiveness, mutual understanding and a high tolerance for each
The meta-analysis looked at the results of 12 studies,
including two mindfulness intervention studies. Overall, mindfulness was shown
to enhance relationship connectedness and satisfaction. The authors stated (at
practices are typically taught as an individual practice. There are, however,
mindful practices that have an explicit focus on others, such as loving
kindness meditations or aikido communication practices, which focus on caring for
others. In addition, mindfulness practice is about noticing many dimensions of
the self, including feelings and thoughts related to relationships and
results of this meta-analysis further validate the recent efforts to include
mindfulness training in relationship education. The authors of the
meta-analysis state that future basic and applied research to inform enhanced
models of best practices for community education focused on promoting
relational health is encouraged.
Dr Alison Gray (pictured), chair of
the spirituality special interest group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and a liaison psychiatry consultant working in Hereford and
at the Beacon Clinic, Malvern, has
recently said that those who engage in more ‘inward-focused’ types of spirituality
– and that includes mindfulness meditation – ‘can become self-involved’.
‘In as much as religion is
about binding people together, spirituality can become inward looking and
selfish,’ Dr Gray said. ‘In no way does that happen to everyone … But
there's a potential for it to become inward-looking and basically
self-centred.’ To counter this, Dr Gray recommends that people practice
mindfulness and other forms of spirituality in groups rather than alone.
Well, what do I think of
that? Dr Gray is right. Damn right. Religion, at its best (note: I said, ‘at its
best’), binds people together. After all, the word religion has an affinity
with the Latin verb religare, which means to bind, bind back,
bind up, and bind fast together. Spirituality is more personal, informal and unorganized in
nature. Of course, not all religion is good. Indeed, it can be quite toxic and
harmful at times, but at its best it binds people together and binds them to a
power-other-than-themselves, that is, to what has been referred to as the
largeness of life. We all need to get our minds off ourselves. Unfortunately,
far too much spirituality makes us more self-centred, self-focused and self-absorbed. New Age
spirituality tends to do that. It’s all about me, me, me. My inner growth, my
health, my goals, and so on. Too many of our attempts at divesting ourselves of our
little selves only heighten our obsession with self—and that is not good!
True mindfulness makes us
increasingly aware of a power and presence greater than, and other than, our
little, tiny, puny selves. The regular practice of mindfulness increases our
awareness of the flow of life of which we are but a small part. There is the
inner content of our mindfulness but let’s not neglect the outer content as
well, that is, all that is going on around us and outside of us.
The truly mindful person
grows in love, compassion and tolerance for their fellow human beings, indeed,
for all life in all its myriad forms and comes to know that he or she is one
with all life.
are some who would question whether any man can truly be said to be wise. I
have an interest-based opinion on that matter, so I will express no view,
except to say that although the Biblical account of the story refers to the
persons as ‘men’, there may well have been at least one woman among them. But does
it really matter? No.
Bible does not say there were three of them. That is simply an assumption, in
light of the three gifts presented to the Christ child—namely, gold,
frankincense and myrrh. I will have more to say about those gifts shortly, but
even if there were three wise (wo)men, one of them may well have presented two
gifts with one of the others presenting the third gift. Who knows? It doesn’t
are not told the names of the wise persons, although church tradition tells us
that their names supposedly were Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar. Although
at least one church tradition says that the wise persons were kings (Melchior being a king of Persia, Balthasar a king of Arabia, and Gaspar a king of India), the Biblical
narrative does not say so. They may have been rulers of Arabian states but it’s
more likely that they were magi, wizards or astrologers and, so it is said,
members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. Suffice to say that these people were on
a journey—a journey in search of truth and wisdom. They were following a star—and
no ordinary star at that.
So, we have the image of wise men following a star, attending upon the birth of someone famous, and
presenting gifts to the baby. This, my friends, is the stuff of myth and
legend, but that does not mean that the story is not true. Myths are not not true. Myths have their own level
of truth and meaning, and this story is no different in that regard. The births
of other famous persons—real or imagined—were hailed by wise men or aged saints
who presented gifts to the newly born. I am thinking of the Buddha, Krishna,
Rama and Mithra, for starters.
star was, of course, the Star in the East. Esoterically, a star symbolizes some
spiritual truth, at first dimly perceived. The East is where God is. The source
of all life, truth, power and love. The Star in the East is the morning star,
the first gleam or dawning of truth. For some, for example, scientists, the star is the light of reason. We need such people in our world, now more than ever. There should be no place for superstition. For others, the star represents hope and aspirations. They are important as well. Others consult the stars for guidance in their lives. I see no evidence or good reasons for doing that, but that is just my view.
wise persons were in search of something greater than themselves. Relying
perhaps on a combination of intuition, insight, reason, knowledge and wisdom –
the last two things are not one and
the same – they knew that a great event was taking place in Judea. Furthermore,
they were prepared to follow their star wherever it led them. Are you prepared
to do likewise?
what of those gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh? Gold symbolizes that the Christ
child was a king; on a deeper level, gold represents the light of truth as well
as the gift of wisdom. Frankincense denotes Christ’s divinity; on a deeper
level, it symbolizes the sweet fragrance of sympathy, empathy, compassion,
self-giving, understanding and healing. Myrrh is one of the spices used for
burial and thus is a kind of prophecy of Christ’s death; more esoterically,
myrrh symbolizes the love that sustains and heals.
Some have interpreted the
three gifts a little differently. For example, some commentators see the gifts
as representing our three-fold human nature, with gold denoting our material (i.e.
physical) nature, frankincense our emotional nature (i.e. our hopes, wishes and
aspirations), and myrrh our mental nature (i.e. mind or intellect). However the
gifts are interpreted, the really important thing is this—it is incumbent upon
us to give of ourselves to others. We find ourselves to the extent to which we
give ourselves away, in self-giving to others and to a cause or power greater
than ourselves. Millions of people have found that to be true in their lives.
what of the Christ child? Literal-minded Christians see that child as
synonymous with Jesus—and he alone. However, I see the Christ child as denoting
more than just Jesus. A ‘child’, in sacred language and literature, represents
a spiritual idea or truth as well as indwelling power, potentiality and inner
light. The Christ child, of course, is no ordinary child but represents our
inner potential, our real self—what the Apostle Paul refers to as the ‘Christ in you, the hope of
glory’ (Col 1:27). The Christ child represents the person, as yet unborn, that you
are nevertheless capable of becoming and being. When the Christ child is born
in us, we awaken to our real self.
birth of the Christ child takes place, not in the crowded inn of materialism
and worldly values and opinions, but in a humble, receptive and childlike
manger. There is so much meaning in that alone.
the wise persons had attended the birth of the Christ child, they returned to
their country ‘by another way’. When a person has experienced a truly
life-changing experience, in which they discover their real self, they are
never the same again. He or she is permanently changed—for the better.
summary, here are five important ‘lessons’ from the story. First, the wise
(wo)men were wise because they were following a star, wherever it may have led
them. Secondly, there is no limit to the number of people—men and women—who are
capable of becoming and being wise. (In my view, that’s partly why the Bible
doesn’t tell us how many there were of them.) Thirdly, those who are wise bring
forth gifts—parts of their own human nature offered in sacrifice and love to a
cause or power greater than themselves. Fourthly, wise men and women are on a
journey—a journey of self-discovery. Fifthly, once a person finds the ‘Christ
child’, they always embark upon another way of living—a new and better way of living characterised by sacrificial self-giving, love, compassion and service to others.
you have the spirit of Christmas which is peace, the gladness of Christmas
which is hope, and the heart of Christmas which is love.
The research involved 150 California law students who had taken the bar
exam and who were awaiting their results. There was a period of some four months
between the exam and the date on which the results were posted online. The
students completed a series of questionnaires in that four-month waiting
that waiting period the students were asked to participate in a 15-minute
audio-guided meditation session at least once a week.
It was found that the practice of mindfulness meditation helped to postpone the
phenomenon of ‘bracing’, which we do when we prepare ourselves for the worst.
You may well ask, ‘What’s wrong with bracing? Surely, it’s a good thing to hope
for the best while preparing yourself for the worst.’ I’m not so sure of that. If
bracing sets in too early in the waiting period, most of us will start to worry
… and worry … and worry.
Now, here's something especially interesting. The study shows that even 15 minutes of
mindfulness meditation once a week, which was the average amount of meditation
practised by the participants, was found to be enough to ease the stress of
We all worry, some of
us more than others. The English word ‘worry’ comes from the OldEnglish wordwyrganand Old High German word wurgen,
both meaning ‘to strangle, to choke’. When we worry, we strangle
ourselves, so to speak. Actually, not so to speak, but well-nigh literally.
Worry is very bad for the body, the mind and the spirit. People say, 'I'm sick with
worry,' or 'I'm worried to death.' Do they really know the truth of what
they're saying? People can literally worry themselves sick--and in some cases
even to death. Corrie ten Boom wrote, ‘Worry does not empty tomorrow of its
sorrow. It empties today of its strength.’ That’s so true, my friends.
The regular practice
of mindfulness, as well as mindfulness meditation, helps one to accept, and not
resist or fight against, our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations and, as J Krishnamurti [pictured right] used to say, ‘On the acknowledgement [that is,
acceptance] of what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.’ Got that? All conflict—whether physical, mental or
I used to think that whenever
a negative thought—say, a thought of anticipated or feared failure—entered the
mind that it was necessary to substitute for that negative thought a positive
thought. That works for some people but it is not necessary to do it. Simply
observe the negative thought. Give it no power. Don’t resist it. Just watch it
arise and vanish, for it will not last long. Bracing yourself for the worst is generally
advocated by Stoics—and it definitely has its place. When? Later. Don’t brace
yourself too early, lest worry set in.
Sweeny K and Howell J L. ‘Bracing Later and Coping Better: Benefits of
Mindfulness During a Stressful Waiting Period.’ Personality and
Social Psychology Bulletin, 2017; 43 (10): 1399 DOI: 10.1177/0146167217713490