Welcome to my blog---an eyes-open, no-holds-barred 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 to mental health workers for 14 years and also lectured for 16 years at the University of Technology, Sydney. My interests include the psychology of religion, transformative ritual, mythology and addiction recovery.
Ring bells! Blow trumpets! This is my 100th blog post, and it gives me no end of pleasure to know, from my daily blog statistics, that hundreds of people around the world read my many blog posts each day. To you all, thank you, and bless you.
One of the greatest books ever written on the subject of Buddhism and, in particular, Zen is The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind written by the late Zen master Dr D T Suzuki (pictured left). I first read this book way back in 1973 when I was in my first year of Arts/Law at the University of Sydney. I have re-read the book many times since. It is not an easy book to understand. Indeed, it is a most difficult book to understand, even for those who know something about its subject-matter. (I'll come back to the interesting concept of 'no-mind' later in this blog.)
For this, my 100th, post, I thought I’d share with you some ideas and concepts which I have found, in my mindfulness practice, to be of assistance to me. I have, in many previous blogs, referred to these ideas and concepts, but it may be helpful to amplify them and try to bring them all together in this present blog.
Now, what are the characteristics of a ‘mindful mind’? In other words, what are the ‘conditions’ for a mind being ‘mindful’? What are the ‘things’ which permit appreciation, apprehension or recognition of a mind being ‘mindful’? (Note: These ‘things’ do not constitute ‘mindfulness’ per se. They are not the ‘conditions’ or ‘constituents’ of the state of being and 'living meditation' known as mindfulness.)
First, bare attention. Why ‘bare’? Well, we mean just enough attention to ‘wake up’ to the present moment, to ‘stay awake’ (and 'here and now'), and to observe what is taking place ... enough attention to be able to 'discern' without discriminating or judging. After all, there is a world of difference between being aware of a thought and thinking and analyzing that thought.
Bare attention is a mode of perception which, with passive detachment, perceives each moment exactly as it is as opposed to through some filter of one’s thoughts, ideas and feelings. (There is a saying in Zen [which, relevantly, means ‘exacting meditation’, by human effort, so as to reach beyond thought, indeed beyond verbal expression], 'Do not search for truth. Just stop having opinions.' Love it!)
Bare attention is a way of looking at experience, which adds nothing to, and takes nothing away, from the raw experience itself. There is no attempt to change things in any way. You interfere with nothing. Bare attention involves no comment, attitude, judgment or deliberation but simply sees and ‘notes’ what is ... without any attachment or identification (eg ‘There is anger in this body’ as opposed to ‘I am angry, and ‘There is thinking taking place’ as opposed to ‘I am thinking’). You are not your thoughts. Indeed, you are not even ‘the thinker’. In the words of Krishnamurti, attention 'frees the mind from habit.' He also said, 'Surely attention has no motive, no object, no toy, no struggle, no verbalization. This is true attention, is it not? Where there is attention, reality is.'
Second, choiceless awareness. Awareness is something you 'bring', effortlessly, and continuously, to each moment of the day. Awareness is also something 'in' which you 'live', in the sense of living in awareness of the present moment. We are talking about an awareness of all that the present moment 'contains' (thoughts, perceptions, assumptions, tendencies, memories, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, etc).
Now, one is ‘choicelessly’ aware when one is aware of whatever is ... when one objectively sees things-as-they-are ... things both inner and outer ... and without becoming attached to anything. Just as importantly, there is no choosing to be aware of one thing but not another.
In other words, there is no discriminating (that is, no decisions, no choices, no exercise of the will) ... and there are no demands ... not even preferences. One is simply ‘aware’ of whatever presents itself from one moment to the next as one’s experience ... that is, one simply looks, watches and observes ... without identifying oneself too closely with any elements (as per the above) of the experience ... and without judging anything that arises as 'good' or 'bad'. Thus, there is no 'I like this,' or 'I don't like that,' sort of thing.
That's right - there should be no analysis, comment, judgment, evaluation or condemnation ... and no 'abiding of thought' anywhere on anything ... just a constant, continuous, pliable, effortless and ever-present (and thus unconditioned) state of impartial, objective inquiry in which there is no 'conclusion'. Hence, there can be no room for 'beliefs' of any kind, for belief is just another form of conclusion.
This is what Krishnamurti means when he says there needs to be observation 'without the observer' ... for where there is an 'observer' there is a conditioned mind and a conditioned point of view ... which is the past ... and where there is the past, there can be no mindfulness. Of course, in an empirical sense there will always be an observer, in the form of the 'person' that each one of us is, but that is about the extent of it.
The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, had much to say about meditation and mindfulness. One of his reported sayings is, "When the mind wanders, observe it as it is." What could be simpler than that?
There is a saying in Zenalong these lines: ‘Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness. Freeing oneself from the mind is total liberation.’ Get the picture?
Third, curiosity. A mindful mind is a curious and energetic mind ... not one which is dull or bored, but one which is living, moving and vital. It is a mind which is patient, flexible, open, even open-ended, receptive, and ever interested in whatever is the experience of the moment. Yes, an inquisitive (but non-clinging, indeed detached) mind, by means of which we become conscious of what was previously unconscious.
However, we must be careful not to allow our curiosity to deflect us from our ‘staying on track’. We all know what can happen when we follow a thought through to its supposedly logical conclusion. The result? 'Mental movies' complete with the 'latest sound system'. Ongoing internal dialogue. The ‘answer’? Stay fixed and focused, and fully present, in the finitude of the present moment ... without being rigid. That is why it helps to focus one’s attention on one’s breath. It takes the focus of attention away from one’s thinking and directs it into the body. That leads on to ...
Fourth, purposefulness. Mindfulness is paying attention ... in the present moment ... on purpose.That means that we consciously, deliberately and vigilantly direct and focus (not forcibly, but in a ‘soft focus’, gentle and kind sort of way) our attention and awareness to whatever be our experience from one moment to the next. Of course, mindfulness takes meditation and applies it to one’s entire life. Hence, Zen says, when you’re eating, just eat; when you’re walking, just walk; when you’re sitting, just sit, and so forth.
Fifth, spontaneity. A mindful mind is one which responds effortlessly, receptively and spontaneously ... without discrimination ... whilst resisting the temptation to repond unthinkingly.
Sixth, detachment. We 'feel' as if we were watching ourselves from the 'inside', so to speak. In other words, we are aware of what is happening from one moment to the next ... without 'feeling' involved in what is happening.
Now, let's look at the doctrine or concept of ‘no-mind’ (Jpn mushin).
A mindful mind is amind of no-mind (Jpn mushin no shin). Yes, pure Zen, but it does make sense in a Zen sort of way. The doctrine or concept of ‘no-mind’ means no deliberate mind of one’s own. It does not mean the absence of mind, or absentmindedness, but rather a mind which is non-discriminating, uncoloured, fluid, unbound and free from deluded thought ... indeed, a mind where there is no conditioned thinking, desiring or controlling ... a spontaneous and detached state of mindcharacterised by inward silence and no knowing awareness ... a mind which effortlessly thinks what it thinks ... without there being any interference (judgment, analysis, etc) by some 'thinker' or 'ego' within the mind.
In order for a mind to be free from deluded thought it needs to be kept fully engaged in the present from moment to moment ... without there being any subjective evaluation or interpretation. Once we start evaluating and subjectively interpreting what is, we cease to experience life instantaneously and spontaneously. (Trying not to think, as opposed to forgetting to think altogether, is, of course, doomed to failure.) Alan Watts described 'no-mindedness' as a 'state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club'. Whatever comes up, moment by moment, is accepted without being embraced ... even non-acceptance.
So, a mind of no-mind is a mind which is unconscious of itself and empty of itself (yes, that supposed 'ego-self' which we mistakenly believe is us!) ... a mind which is ever imperturbable, that is, undisturbed by affects of any kind ... a mind which is effortlessly engaged in being here now ... a mind where there is no-effort and no-thought ... a mind which is present only to that which is happening now ... a mind which is, yes, ‘empty’ but whole (cf the ensō [circle] pictured right) ... a mind which is 'nowhere in particular' (Takuan Sōhō).
Wow! A state of ‘no-mind-ness’ or ‘no-mindedness’ ... characterised by effortlessness and a constant non-discriminating yet gentle-on-oneself 'unbinding' of the mind and letting go of all mental effluents and other ‘traffic’.
You are ‘no-minded’ when you let life live out its self-livingness in and as you ... and as all other things and persons. You are 'no-minded' when you let go of all self-identification, self-absorption, self-obsession and self-centredness. You are 'no-minded' when you let go of all attachments, presuppositions, assumptions and stories ... when you leave the mind empty of all greed, anger and delusion (ignorance).
Most of us engage in compulsive, and generally useless, thinking. We never stop thinking. Indeed, we find that our minds take up all of our attention! We identify ourselves with our minds, and so find ourselves trapped in time, ‘living’ (if you can call it that) exclusively through memory, evaluation, interpretation, judgment, analysis, and anticipation ... anything but actually living purposefully and consciously from one moment to the next. Our minds have become so conditioned that they are very good at denying, and seeking to escape from, the present moment ... which is the only moment we have. Remember the immortal words of Omar Khayyám? ‘Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.’
So, dear friends, let us cultivate an ‘empty’ mind ... a mind of no-mind ... empty, but also full and luminous! It is said in Zen, ‘Know that only the empty mind can see the Buddha.’ If you are not a Buddhist, you can easily rephrase that to, ‘Know that only the empty mind can see Reality ... know Truth ... and experience Life as it really is.’ Same thing.
(This blog sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.)
My wife would say that I am a bit of a shopaholic myself when it comes to my regular frequenting of opportunity (thrift) shops and the like in search of that proverbial ‘white elephant’. Unfortunately, our house is now full of white elephants of various kinds and of all shapes and sizes ... in the form of secondhand books (lots of them!), CDs, DVDs, showbiz memorabilia, kitschy ornaments, icons, etc ... nearly all of which have been bought by, yes, yours truly.
CBD is a real problem, and it is often the result of other problems including depression, anxiety and unhappiness in relationships (not to mention boredom and negative emotional states such as anger and self-loathing). People suffering from CBD often have mental problems in addition to depression and anxiety, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism or other impulsive behaviours such as a gambling addiction or kleptomania.
‘Retail therapy’, as it is sometimes called, is essentially a form of ‘self-medication’ where the person in question seeks to elevate their mood by rewarding or otherwise compensating themselves for actual or perceived losses or negative emotional states. In time, shopping becomes the person’s main way of coping with stress to the point where they continue to shop excessively even when it is clearly having an adverse impact on other areas of their life (eg finances, familial and other personal relationships, and even physical and mental health).
As with other addictions, finances and relationships are damaged, yet the shopping addict feels unable to stop or even control their spending by the use of will power. (Will power may be able to break a bad habit but never an addiction, the latter being a bad habit with the added elements of mental obsession and physical compulsion, for the will is captive to the addiction. Simple as that. Only 'want power' can open the door to freedom.)
Yes, just like any form of addiction, things can very quickly spiral out of control. From a position of wanting to be in control, the person suddenly finds that they are completely out of control ... indeed, powerless (to use the language of twelve-step programs).
Retail therapy results in guilt and even more negative emotions, and the addictive behaviour can become secretive (‘closet buying’ or ‘closet shopping’) - just like alcohol and drug addiction - with the development over time of that pathological phenomenon known as ‘denial’.
The RESOLVE study sought to test the efficacy of mindfulness as a means of both curbing excessive shopping and attenuating negative emotional states that might otherwise be causing and/or ‘feeding’ the addiction.
It is well-documented that the regular practice of mindfulness can be effective in reducing depression and anxiety and increasing feelings of wellbeing.
Six self-confessed shopping addicts volunteered to learn mindfulness over an 8 week period.
All participants experienced lessening of the depression and anxiety that had driven them to shop, and reported feeling happier and more accepting of themselves.
The participants also reported feeling stronger, more able to understand the triggers for shopping urges, and more able to choose moment by moment whether they would indulge those urges.
Three months after the end of the mindfulness course, depression and shopping levels among those who attended the training had relapsed slightly, but not to the levels at the beginning.
(This blog sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.)
What’s perhaps most interesting if that the kids appear to like what they are practising and think that it is of benefit to them.
Rather than feeling ‘out of control’, many of the children are feeling calmer and beginning to feel that they have control of their environments and themselves.
One of the benfits of mindfulness is that it empowers children to release what Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as 'inappropriate attention', that is, attention to persons or things which will not benefit the child in question or other persons with whom the child interacts.
Childhood difficulties are not all bad, and can be very helpful as they can help prepare the child for adulthood. Hence, at the risk of stating the obvious, it is imperative that children learn at an early age how to cope with and learn from disappointments, stress and suffering.
Emeritus Professor Paul Kurtz and Dr Ian Ellis-Jones
I am a rather sceptical sort of person. I am proud of that fact. I refuse to accept or believe in anything unless and until I am satisfied that there is sufficient probative material attesting to the existence or veracity of the thing in question.
Trained as a lawyer to always look for evidence, ordained into the Unitarian ministry (which has always been a sceptical, questioning, open-ended denomination or form of religion), a former president of both the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, and a student of empirical philosophy, I find absolutely no evidence for the existence of any 'supernatural' order or level of reality, any 'transcendental' realm of reality, or any 'paranormal' activity ... and I can't stand superstition of any kind.
As regards the latter (superstition), I am simply amazed, and at the same time equally appalled, at the number of people I encounter who boast how they are 'not religious' in any way but who are otherwise incorrigibly superstitious and credulous, often engaging in New Age nonsense or dubious forms of 'alternative healing' of various sorts in respect of which there is little or no empirical support. Please check out the wonderful websites of Quackwatch and James Randi.
I have never forgotten the good advice received fromPaul Kurtz (pictured above, with yours truly), to always resist what Kurtz describes as 'the transcendental temptation' as well as to avoid engaging in 'magical thinking'. Kurtz, who is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is one of the world's greatest living philosophers and freethinkers, and the author of many seminal books on philosophy, religion, humanism and freethought, including, not so coincidentally, one entitled The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal. For those interested, you may wish to listen to this YouTube video of Paul Kurtz discussing 'Affirmations of the New Skepticism':
'Supernaturalism.' How I hate that word ... and its supposed meaning! A man I respect greatly, the late Australian bishop Lawrence W Burt (pictured left), once wrote, 'In a universe of LAW there can be no supernatural. There may be the super-physical, or super-normal, but there can be no super-natural. You cannot transcend Natural law, nor suspend it. Every branch of science is a testimony that this is a Universe of inviolable LAW.'
I fully agree. Whilst there may be states of experience which can be labelled transmundane or transnatural (as opposed to 'supernatural', 'transcendental' or 'paranormal'), I see no need whatsoever for us to attempt to ‘extricate’ ourselves from, or otherwise ‘transcend’, our ordinary existence or ordinary states of consciousness or so-called ‘relative experience’ (whatever that means, if anything) ... whether by means of chemicals, prayer, mantra meditation or any other means.
How can we conceive of there being any existence, or other order or level of reality, other than our ordinary ‘natural’ existence, that is, the way in which ordinary things exist in space and time. John Anderson (pictured right), former Challis Professor of Philosophy, at the University of Sydney, would refer to this as the ‘problem of commensurability’, that is, that any notion of there being different orders or levels of reality or truth is, in Anderson's words, ‘contrary to the very nature and possibility of discourse’.
Yes, any concept of there being some ‘supernatural’ order or level of reality is strictly meaningless and unspeakable.We can have no conception of any such existence, nor any conception of what it might possibly be like.Further, as Professor Anderson often pointed out, even if there were, in fact, more than one order of reality, how could there be connections between them?
Empirical observation can find nothing ‘metaphysical’, ‘occult’ or ‘beyond experience’. Both science and philosophy afford us no evidence or support for the idea that there are any entities beyond space and time which yet work out their supposed purposes within space and time.Both science and logic compel us to reject the unobservable as the cause of the observable.
Forget about having a so-called ‘transcendental’ experience, whether in the sense of supposedly 'going beyond' (whatever that means) the normal, physical, three-dimensional limitations of human functioning, perception and existence or otherwise. We - that is, all of us except, perhaps, those suffering from various forms of delusions, clinical or otherwise - spend most, if not all, of our time in so-called ‘ordinary’ reality, so it stands to reason that, if we are to have any meaningful experience at all, it can, must and will be found in our ordinary day-to-day existence ... as just another occurrence in space and time.
Yes, there is the ordinary ... and the extraordinary ... but the latter is to be entirely found and experienced in and among the ordinary. There is no transcendence except to the extent that there clearly occur transformative events that can be said to ‘transcend’ our expectations and lie outside or beyond our conscious will or control. (As an aside, I shudder when I hear of meditative or other similar practices being trademarked and only able to be taught by certain supposedly 'initiated' gurus. Forget all about gurus, As Krishnamurti said time and time again, they are unproductive, and even prevent one from having an otherwise direct relationship with reality [that is, truth] itself.)
Forget about ‘expanded consciousness’. There's nothing to 'expand' (or 'enlarge'), for there is no ‘consciousness’ whose nature it is to be known. I repeat, there is no consciousness whose nature it is to be known ... so there can be no degrees of that which does not exist. Consciousness, as philosophers such as David Hume and William James have pointed out, is not an 'entity' in its own right but simply a name for the logical relationship between the person who knows and the thing known ... the third necessary element in the relation being the act of knowing. So-called 'expanded consciousness' means nothing more than waking up or leaving the cave.
There is absolutely no need to ‘elevate’ your self-awareness. (Indeed, all attempts to do so are bound to end in failure. For starters, there is no 'self' of which to be or become aware.) All you need to do, dear friends, is to become more alert to, and aware of, what is happening in and around you. It’s as simple as that. Become more open, more curious, and more flexible.
So, forget about forms or methods of prayer or meditation which would seek to ‘elevate’ your consciousness or self-awareness or ‘extricate’ yourself from your ordinary state of experience thereby purportedly putting you in touch with some supposed transcendental or supernatural state of reality.
Now, this is fact ... there is only a continuity of moment-to-moment experience and awareness ... a continuous process or transformation from one state to another. Everything is observable, and all things observed exist and are observable on the same plane of observability. Thus, there needs to be a direct continuity between what is proposed as an explanation for any occurrence and the occurrence itself, for if there were no such continuity it would not be possible for us to say how observable effects are produced ... nor even that they are effects at all.
In light of all of the above, it should come as no surprise, except to those who want or choose to believe otherwise, that rigorous independent systematic scholarly reviews over many decades have found little probative evidence of demonstrable lasting health benefits - other than general relaxation and certain positive spinoff effects - attributable to, or otherwise associated with, a certain type of meditative practice which invokes notions of ‘transcendence’ in some or all of the senses referred to above. That is not to say that people cannot, and do not, derive benefits of various kinds from all forms of meditation and relaxation ... but, when one looks at the evidence, nothing compares with mindfulness.
Yes, the evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness is abundant and very strong indeed. Since 1967 over 1,500 studies worldwide have been conducted by over 250 independent research institutes and centres showing mindfulness meditation to be clinically effective for the management of, among other things, stress, depression, anxiety and panic disorders, chronic pain, substance abuse, eating disorders, obsessional thinking, impulsivity, strong emotional reactivity and a wide array of other medical and mental health related conditions.
Mindfulness, to the extent that it takes the form of meditation - for it is much more than that as well - is totally unlike all other forms of meditation. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn(pictured right), who has done more than any other Westerner to promote mindfulness as both a way oflife and a therapeutic modality, refers to mindfulness as ‘falling awake’.
I love that ... falling awake ... not falling alseep ... not falling into or otherwise creating some dreamy state ... but falling awake! Mindfulness is simply mindful living, as opposed to living on auto-pilot. In addition, mindfulness takes meditation and applies it to one’s entire life. Thus, mindfulness is not something you do for, say, 20 minutes a day, rather it’s something you do 24/7... yes, even when you’re asleep ... at least, to the extent humanly possible.
A single logic applies to all things and how they are related. All things exist in the same order or level of reality ... and on the same ‘plane’ of observability.
So, stop trying to ‘elevate’ your self-awareness. There is nothing to elevate. Stop trying to 'expand' or 'elevate' your consciousness. There is nothing to expand or elevate. Simply wake up ... and become more aware of what is happening in and around you. Stop seeking the ‘transcendental’. There is nothing to transcend or to which to transcend. Finally, stop trying to 'extricate' yourself. There is nothing from which to extricate yourself ... except fallacious thinking.
Seek only the extraordinary within the ordinary ... for you can find it everywhere! It is more than enough ... but don't just take my word for it, experiment for yourself!
Here’s a wonderful way to share quality time with your children or grandchildren.
Brian Despard, a plumbing contractor from Massachusetts, who has been practising mindfulness for some time now, has produced a truly delightful children’s picture book on mindfulness entitled You Are Not Your Thoughts. (I love that title! The sooner we learn we are not our thoughts, our feelings and our bodies, the quicker we begin to understand who we really are.)
Research shows that children benefit by learning mindfulness early. (After all, mindfulness, to those who practise it, is perhaps the best method of training the mind into a healthy, and progressively healthier, state.) When children are able to experience their thoughts and feelings without being judged and overwhelmed, they are less prone to unhealthy effects. By learning to trust their own inner wisdom, they will be less susceptible to harmful peer pressures.
‘Children have true beginner's mind, but this state of mind is clouded by an ever-increasing number of thoughts as they grow. They start life living in the moment then slowly learn that “doing” is more important than “being”,’ Despard says. ‘I wrote this book with the intention of planting the seed of mindfulness in children, and introduce basic concepts to adults who are unfamiliar with them. In this sacred place of loving-kindness between adult and child a new level of consciousness can emerge. We only have moments to live; the only time our lives are unfolding is now.’ Great stuff. Mindfulness, at its best, helps us to appreciate the innate preciousness of every moment ... and what a wonderful thing for children to appreciate as well ... and as early as possible before other things 'corrupt' their young and beautiful minds.
You Are Not Your Thoughts – which is a great introduction to mindfulness not only for children but also for adults as well – has captured the attention of leading experts in the field of mindfulness practice and education. For example, Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, the authors of the equally wonderful Everday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, write, ‘A playful and wise picture book that gives young children simple ways to be more in touch with what is essential and beautiful in themselves.’
Despard has been hosting public talks since the book’s release and has also taught introductory mindfulness lessons to pre-K through Grade 5 students within the Chicopee Public School system in Massachusetts. Additionally, the book is being used in school districts by educators and counsellors across the United States.
‘I feel this book is relevant in these times of increased societal pressures that have made national headlines (eg school bullying, self-image, depression, etc),’ says Despard. ‘There is no better time than now to start the conversation of compassion and acceptance. There is no greater gift than the gift of mindfulness.’ Indeed, for what is mindfulness if it is not nonjudgmental, unconditional, conscious, fully accepting presence and lovingkindness?
There aren’t many good books on mindfulness for children. This book is truly a gem. I heartily recommend it, for it shows that there are many ways for children to be, and live, in the all-important present moment ... with openness to what is and with a minimum of negativity. The book also 'teaches' that happiness and peace of mind never come from external sources.
Despard discusses the book, and the nature of mindfulness, on this TV clip (courtesy of YouTube).
NOTE. This blog sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.