Sunday, July 27, 2014


Everything is best. Yes, every thing. Now, that’s a strange spiritual truth if ever there was one. Yet, I have found it to be so.

There’s a Zen kōan that goes like this. When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer. ‘Give me the best piece of meat you have,’ said the customer. ‘Everything in my shop is the best,’ replied the butcher. ‘You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.’ At these words Banzan became enlightened---that is, he 'woke up' and saw things as they really are ... for the very first time.

The great spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti, pictured, had this to say about acceptance. 'In the acknowledgement of what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.' It took me years to understand what he was saying. I mean, years. Actually, decades. Yes, decades---and decades of unnecessary suffering, both to myself and others. Yes, whatever is, is best. Why is that so? It’s simple (but not easy). Because whatever is, is what is. And what is is reality, is now. When we resist what is, we suffer---every time. Yes, every goddam time. Resistance is non-acceptance. Resistance is suffering ... and conflict (be it physical, psychological, or whatever). And resistance is living in the past … or in the future. It is anything and everything other than living fully in the present.

Of course, acceptance is never easy---if only we could buy it at a supermarket---but we make the task of acceptance so much harder than we need to. Acceptance is letting go---that is, letting go of all resistance, especially all opinions that stand in the way of a full acceptance of what is. However, before we can let go we must first let be. That's right, we must let be whatever is our present reality. That's not fatalism. Not at all. Before we can change what can be changed we must first ... let be. 

Acceptance is surrender---to what is. And acceptance is faith. Now, by faith I do not mean creedal belief but living with hope, courage and confidence despite appearances to the contrary. Faith is embracing what is, even though we might have hoped for something altogether different. 

And what is hope? Well, hope is not the same thing as having expectations. Indeed, we must get rid of all expectations if we don't want to be constantly disappointed in life. No, hope is a certain mindset that knows---yes, knows---that whatever is, is best. It is a state of mind that is prepared to accept whatever be the outcome in any given fact-situation of life.

‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Sunday, July 20, 2014


           ‘We will bury you.’ -- Nikita Khrushchev.

From time to time certain things happen in our world, as well as in our individual lives, that remind us that … evil walks among us.

Now, I have always said---and I still believe it to be so---that we are neither totally depraved, as many Christians would have you believe, nor good beyond belief as some ‘chipper believers in a happiness cult’ (to borrow a phrase from Harry Emerson Fosdick) assert is true. Judaism teaches that there is an evil inclination (yetzer ha’ra) as well as a good inclination (yetzer ha’tov) in each of us, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

The recent downing---or should I say shooting-down---of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (‘MH17’) was a wicked and evil act. Those who committed this dreadful act have allowed a peculiarly twisted ideology to warp their thoughts, judgment and actions. Worse still, there are some who try to convince us that good is evil, that what we see and know to be true is not true at all. Evil, that is, those who are guilty, says to good, that is, those who are innocent, 'No, you did it, not us.' 

We see this phenomenon all about us. It is something akin to what the New Testament refers to as ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,’ the so-called unforgivable sin. Yes, there are human beings who perpetrate wicked acts and then try to convince us that what we know in our hearts, and see and adjudge with our eyes, to be evil is really good. Worse still, they seek to accuse the innocent of being the wrongdoers. They act clandestinely, without openness, without transparency. They are into blame-shifting and hand-washing. Russia, still the evil empire in so many ways, has sought to do just that with the recent downing of MH17, and I see the very same phenomenon at work in the Middle East. It is a very human phenomenon. Evil masquerades as good, and seeks to blame good for the occurrence of evil. So, we were told by Russia that Ukraine was responsible for the blasting from the sky of MH17, because the dreadful incident occurred in the airspace above, and on the land of, Ukraine. They blame Ukraine for the incident but the pro-Russian separatists, backed and trained by Russia, should have absolutely nothing to hide if Ukraine were to blame, then continue to restrict access to the site and refuse to cooperate with international observers, representatives and investigators. Wicked, perverse, and twisted thinking, that. Very Russian. I make no apologies for saying that. I am bitterly disappointed and angry.

The truly terrible thing about calling evil good, and good evil, is that it is, yes, unforgivable. Why? Because there is no possibility of forgiveness and redemption whilst a person, a group of persons, or a nation is in the grip of such a perverted mindset. Once you place yourself outside the moral paradigm that sees wickedness for what it truly is, you cannot see the wickedness of your ways, and so there can be no forgiveness until you come to see the error of your ways. Only then can you say to yourself, ‘This is wrong, I am wrong.’ The so-called unforgivable sin is both unforgivable and forgivable. It is unforgivable for so long as you refuse to recognize the reality of human wickedness (sin, in theological language). It is forgivable if and when you come to see things as they really are---good as good, and evil as evil.

I have absolutely no time for moral relativism and its ‘first cousin,’ cultural relativism. I also have no time for those who believe in moral absolutes. My view of what is right and wrong is an objective one. What is right or wrong doesn’t depend on what anyone thinks is right or wrong. Yes, no action is absolutely right or wrong, but there are at least some things that are objectively right and others that are objectively wrong. Now, there is a big difference between moral objectivism and moral absolutism. For starters, moral objectivism does not depend upon any appeal to authority, that is, to some supposed holy book or holy person. As I see it, good is simply that which works for unity, oneness, wholeness, and integration. Evil is that which works for disunity, separateness, division, and disintegration. Good gives of itself to others, so as to create more good. Sadly, evil gives of itself, too. 

At any given point in time, in our world as well as in our individual lives, there are forces at work for unity, oneness, wholeness, and integration, and there are forces at work for disunity, separateness, selfishness, and disintegration. Each of us needs to choose carefully, with our every thought, word, and deed. Now, having said all that, ethical decision-making is never an easy task, and I certainly do not believe that there is ever only one right ‘answer’ to any particular moral or ethical dilemma, but we do have in our possession the ability to discern certain ethical values that, in and of themselves, are objectively right. This is a huge and complex topic area, and I will simply leave it at that for the time being, in the full knowledge that what I’ve just said will be unsatisfactory for a great number of people. So be it.

At this time, when so many innocent people, including infants, have lost their lives, many will be saying, quite understandably, ‘Where is God in all this?” That is a fair question, and it is not an easy one to answer. One's answer depends very much on one's theology. Everyone has a theology of sorts, even the atheist. My theology is very much a 'theology of man,' but there is a strong Catholic flavour to it nevertheless. I simply say this. God---please don’t let the word trouble you, for the word is not the ‘thing’---was in each of those persons who died. Yes, the One that I affirm is God died at the hands of the wicked people who downed that aircraft, and it is that Self-same God that is to be found in all those decent hardworking people who are working their butts off (pardon the expression) to do good at this truly terrible time. That’s right, God takes shape and form in those who rescue, comfort, and heal. God is also in all those people who are grieving at this time, having lost loved ones.

Now, there will be more than a few people who will have lost hope of the possibility of redemption and any good coming out of this terrible, wicked act. I can understand that. But God, who is so very human, having forever aligned Himself with suffering humanity from even before the very beginning of time, is constantly living, and constantly suffering, and constantly dying, and constantly rising again. Such is the eternal nature of life, for everyone and everything is, to use a Biblical turn of phrase, begotten of the Only One (cf Jn 1:3, Jn 3:16, 1 Jn 4:9).

One of the many memorable parables of Jesus is the ‘Parable of the Weeds’ (see Mt 13:24-30). A person sowed good seed in their field, but while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, the weeds also appeared. Now, what was to be done? Well, Jesus said that it would be futile and self-defeating to try to simply pull out the weeds, for then you ran the risk of uprooting the wheat with the weeds. You had to let both grow together until the harvest. Then you could collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned, and gather the wheat and bring it into the barn.

The innocent crew and passengers of MH17 are the person who sowed good seed (wheat) in their field. They now find themselves broken, dead, and scattered among the sunflower fields of Eastern Ukraine. Those who downed the aircraft, as well as those who are now acting wrongly in various ways to pick over and loot, and then trash, the victims' belongings scattered among the wreckage, destroy vital evidence, and otherwise conceal the truth, not to mention unceremoniously remove human bodies as if the remains were garden refuse and the pro-Russian separatists and rebel soldiers were simply involved in a garden cleanup, are the enemy (yes, enemy) sowing weeds among the wheat. (You know, isn't interesting how evil always acts clandestinely, furtively, deceptively, and duplicitously?) Now, here's the rub. We can’t simply pull out the weeds, although we’d all very much like to do that if we could. Our only hope is that, in time, we will have the opportunity to gather the wheat and ‘bring it into the barn,’ and then proceed to burn those horrible weeds. In the meantime, we must sublimate our suffering, as well as our anger, into sacrifice for the living as well as for the dead. We must transmute our fears, pain and suffering into tribute to the victims of MH17. We must insist on a proper independent, international forensic investigation, respect and justice for the dead, and compassion and other assistance for the living. You see, sacrifice spells salvation and redemption.

Now, I am very much aware that what I have said in this post will be of little or no comfort to those who grieve, but that is how I see it. God is not some remote, otherworldly, supposedly ‘supernatural’ figure, but a very human figure. We see God being wrongfully crucified all the time at the hands of wicked men and women, but we can also see God in all those decent people who, following their good inclination (yetzer ha’tov), act with kindness, compassion, and mercy. And we can see God in all those broken people who are suffering and grieving at this time and who will continue to suffer for quite a while to come. The real message of the three great monotheistic religions is this---we must be God to each other. There was a time when I never thought I could or would say that, but I can say it now … and it must be said. Yes, we must be God to each other, for we are the arms and legs of God. We are not God, but God, in a very special sense, is us. And when we minister to others we minister to the One who lives and moves and has Its Be-ing in us just as we live and move and have our our being in It.

Evil does indeed walk among us. But so does good. And it is good that will ultimately triumph over evil. Such is the nature of reality … even though appearances can often suggest otherwise.

Postscript. It is now some 12 days since MH17 was blown out of the sky. The Dutch and Australian investigators in charge of finding out what happened have yet to lay eyes on the wreckage or the human remains believed to remain strewn across the enormous debris field which, in the words of one frustrated official, is ‘one of the biggest open crime scenes in the world.’ As expected, Russians and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine continue to obstruct and impede a full and open independent international investigation of this dreadful tragedy. IEJ. July 29, 2014.

Floral tribute outside St Mary's Catholic Cathedral,
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Monday, July 14, 2014


How good are you at dragon-slaying? It’s a shame they don’t teach the noble art of dragon-slaying in our schools, colleges and universities, for it is perhaps the most important skill we need to learn in life. Funny that, the most important skills and knowledge we need in order to successfully navigate our way through life are never taught in our schools, colleges and universities. That’s a terrible thing.

Saint George, the patron saint of England as well as several other countries, and of many different professions and organizations, is undoubtedly the most famous dragon-slayer of all time. Born in the late 3rd century CE, in Cappadocia, in Turkey, and brought up as a Christian by his widowed mother in her hometown of Lydda, in Palestine (now Israel), George is said to have been a soldier in the Roman army, and he has long been regarded as one of the most prominent of the military saints. 

Sadly, Saint George is an increasingly controversial and even maligned figure in today’s troubled world. In particular, Muslims, no offence intended, are generally offended by the mere mention of the man's name and his supposed exploits. Certainly, the memory of the Crusades still leaves an understandably bitter taste in the mouths of Muslims, but let it be remembered that the Crusades were to a very large extent a defensive war against Muslims in order to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule,  and many of the Muslim conquests were just as brutal as the Crusades, if not more so, not that that makes any of them right or proper. Anyway, many Muslims, along with many who are not Muslims, seem either unable or unwilling to grasp the real, ‘inner’ meaning and significance of the legend of ‘Saint George and the Dragon.

Saint George, whose cult, while universal, remains strongest in the Eastern Church where he is venerated as ‘The Great Martyr,’ is usually depicted in Christian art and iconography as a soldier on horseback killing a dragon with a lance. The large picture of Saint George slaying the dragon that I’ve included in this post is from a jumbo-sized ‘holy card’ I obtained many years ago from a Maronite church, actually named after the saint, near where I live. The now framed picture hangs on a wall in my study, and what the picture represents means a fair bit to me. I'll get to that shortly.

You know, almost every one of the world's mythologies---for example, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and European (of which there are several)---contains a dragon myth. It is that universal. Now, in the Middle Ages, the image of the dragon was commonly used to represent Satan (the Devil), and there is certainly a Biblical basis for that connection. For example, in the Book of Revelation, the very last book in the New Testament, the dragon represents both Satan (Rev 12:9) and the monster from his life story. (‘And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer’ [Rev 6:2].) Anyway, the almost universal image of Saint George slaying the dragon is a representation of a popular legend of the saint which first appeared in 1265 in a romance titled ‘The Golden Legend,’ in which George is said to have saved a town terrorized by a dragon with one blow of his lance. 

There are several different versions of the legendary story of Saint George slaying the dragon. In the traditional Western version, a dragon makes its nest at the spring that provides water for the city of Silene [or Selena] (possibly modern Cyrene in Libya or Lydda in Israel). The citizens must dislodge the dragon from its nest for a time in order to collect water. Each day the citizens offer the dragon a sheep. If they can’t find a sheep they offer the dragon a maiden instead. (Typically sexist and male chauvinistic, that.) The townfolk choose the hapless victim by drawing lots. 

Now, one day, a young princess (who is called Sabra in some versions of the story) is unlucky enough to be chosen as the dragon's dinner. Her father, the monarch, begs for his daughter’s life to be spared, but the poor woman, dressed as a bride, is offered to the dragon. Then, the proverbial deus ex machina. Saint George arrives on the scene in the very nick of time. With great courage Gorge faces the dragon, protects himself with the sign of the Cross, and slays the dragon. The princess is saved. The king offers george half of the kingdom, but George tells the king that he (George) must ride on. This version of the legendary story ends with all of the citizens converting to Christianity. And, I guess, they all lived happily ever after---except for the dragon.

We all have at least one dragon living inside of us. Most of us have several of them---and I’m certainly no exception. Dragons such as selfishness, anger, resentment, envy, jealousy, bitterness, pride, ruthless ambition, greed, arrogance, rudeness, insensitivity, dishonesty, lust, sexual impurity, and even fear and anxiety. Then there are dragons that take shape and form in our lives as addictions, obsessions, and compulsions---indeed, as all of those hundreds of 'false selves' (self-images) in our mind with which we identify and which we mistakenly believe are the real person each of us is. Then there are dragons that present themselves in the form of unhealthy relationships. Now, all of these dragons not only make our lives miserable, they defeat us and they can even destroy us altogether. Even when the dragons are small ones, they still cause us to wander from the path that leads to joy, happiness and freedom.

Like George, we must slay the dragons in our life---one by one, and on a daily basis---and we all have the power and authority to do so. This calls for courage and self-honesty, but unless we attend to this dragon-slaying we will never know joy, happiness or freedom. Listen to these most apt words from the Buddha‘It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.’ That's right---and not even by dragons.

So, happy dragon-slaying!


Monday, July 7, 2014


Yes, please do so.

This post is about a certain Bible story as well as a legend about a guy named Christopher. The Bible story and the legend have much in common. Both of them constitute an enlightened spiritual vision as well as a radical ‘call to arms,’ so to speak---a powerful call to arms for social and economic justice, a call to end oppression, discrimination, bigotry, injustice, inequality, poverty, homelessness, statelessness, starvation, sickness, and suffering of all other kinds. 

I love both the Bible story and the legend. Perhaps both are legends. It does not matter. The ‘message’ is eternal, and ever-so-relevant to today’s world.


In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we read that the personality, essence, and ‘spirit’ of the Divine as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ can be experienced even today as a living presence, for it is said that Jesus comes to us, and visits us, in our homes and in our communities. Most of all, he comes to us in the lives of those who are in great need, those who are marginalized, those whom society tends to reject and ignore.

If I have a theology at all it is very much a 'theology of man,' and it goes something like this.  The Bible says that all are made in the image and likeness of the Divine. Therefore, invoking the language of Christianity, everyone we meet, everyone we serve, is in the image of Jesus. Roman Catholics understand this so much better than Protestants. Yes, the ‘Anonymous Christ,’ as it is known, comes to us in so many ways and, again invoking a Christian metaphor, we fail to recognize that the incarnation of the Christ was not a one-off event but continues all the time, both in us and in other people. Now, we read in Matthew 25:34-40:


Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus’ followers were originally known as ‘people of the way.’ Jesus, in his vision of the Anonymous Christ, offers all of us, irrespective of whether or not we are Christians, both a vision and a challenge. The call to follow is not a call to worship Jesus. Heaven forbid! No, Jesus never sought nor wanted that. No, the ‘Way of Jesus’ is a call to follow Jesus’ path, to live as he lived, and to serve others as he did. 

Now, here's something very important. The Way of Jesus, which is simply the way of love (for love is the nature and character of the 'Anonymous God' that has many, many names but really has no name as such at all), can be found in all religions and even outside of religion as well. You see, morality and ethics, as well as love, do not depend upon Christianity or upon any religion at all for that matter. Let’s get that perfectly clear once and for all. Okay? Ignore all those who would tell you something altogether different. They believe that they or their ‘god’ has a monopoly on the truth. Rubbish!

Here from Catholic Christianity is a story---actually, a legend---that I like very much. It concerns Saint Christopher (literally, ‘Christ-bearer’) [pictured], the so-called patron saint of travelers, and also especially revered by mariners and ferrymen. As a rather long aside (please forgive me) I remember when I was a young university student back in the early 1970s. I bought and brought home a Saint Christopher medal. I was not then a Catholic, my parents and I all being Protestants. They were much, more nominal in their faith than I was. I have always been incurably interested in religion, even when I have been opposed to it. My parents weren't for the most part, but they were quite anti-Catholic. It was a generational and sectarian phenomenon, and it was quite common. I am glad that sort of silly nonsense has now largely gone. Anyway, I would later convert to Catholicism---after the death of both my parents---when my life was in a horrible mess. My poor parents would have died much earlier than they did----they died far too young in any event---had I converted to the Catholic faith while they were still alive. Anyway, I brought home this rather cheap and nasty Saint Christopher medal, and my mother said to me, ‘What do you have that silly thing for? He is no longer a saint.’ 

Now, that was not the case then, and it is not the case now. Christopher has not been ‘de-sainted,’ if there be such a thing which I don't think there is. True, the Church has from time to time said that some previously canonized saints, found later to be of dubious historicity, are not actually saints, but that is as far as it goes. In the case of Saint Christopher, it is simply the case that in 1969 Pope Paul VI made some changes to the General Roman Calendar for the Catholic Church. Saint Christopher’s feast day was removed from the calendar on the ground that his feast was ‘not part of the ancient Roman tradition.’ There was no elaboration on that point, but the words have been taken to mean that although Saint Christopher is generally regarded as having been martyred for the faith in Syria in 308 CE, the evidence comes more from popular tradition than from the writings of early Church historians.

So, contrary to widespread misconception, Saint Christopher’s sainthood status was not altered. His feast day (traditionally July 25, except in Greece where it was celebrated on March 9), is now left to particular church calendars. In other words, Saint Christopher can still be venerated through inclusion in local calendars, such as those used in a particular diocese or country or by a group of religious. But, as usual, I digress. Saint Christopher had cult-like status in many countries, most notably in Italy, and also among Italian-Americans in countries such as the United States of America and even Australia (where I live). The dear saint is still quite 'visible' and sought after, despite his official status having been somewhat downgraded, so to speak, by the Vatican some 45 years ago.

There are several legends associated with Saint Christopher. This is one of them, and I love it. Saint Christopher, who is said to have been a very big, strong and tall man, met a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked the hermit how he could serve Jesus. The hermit first suggested fasting and prayer, but Christopher said he was unable to perform that service. The hermit then suggested that because of his size and strength Christopher could serve and please Jesus by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where they were perishing in the attempt. That’s what Christopher decided upon.

Now, after Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked him to take him across the river. As Christopher forded the river crossing, the river became swollen, and the child seemed as heavy as lead, indeed steadily increased in weight , so much so that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. Yes, Christopher found his tiny burden so heavy that it was almost impossible to bear. When Christopher finally reached the other side, he said to the child: ‘You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.’ The child (the ‘holy babe’) replied, ‘You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.’ According to the legend, the child then vanished, but it is said that as a reward for his service Christopher's staff was miraculously transformed into a living tree, and Christopher himself became the patron saint of travellers.

I so much love this story. It is, you see, a re-telling of the ‘Anonymous Christ’ story from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We are following Jesus---carrying or bearing him, so to speak---when we serve and bear the burdens of our fellow human beings, especially those who are marginalized and in greatest need. They are the ones the ‘big end of town’ ignores. They are the ones that conservative, uncompassionate governments ignore. Yet, they are the very ones Jesus devoted his short life and public ministry to helping. Funny, that.

There is another version of the legendary story to the effect that the child/holy babe is said to have replied to Christopher that he (the holy babe, but indirectly and consequentially Christopher as well) carried the world's sins upon his shoulders. However, I prefer the firstmentioned version for a number of reasons. It is not necessary for present purposes to set out those reasons, but they pertain to the whole idea of the doctrine of the Atonement and certain difficulties that I have with at least some of the popular ‘theories’ of that doctrine as expounded by many evangelical, so-called ‘Bible-believing’ Christians. I have written about the matter elsewhere.

Although I am pretty much an apostate (but still quite emotionally attached) Catholic these days I still occasionally wear a Saint Christopher medal, and I have several of them in my various boxes of cufflinks, tie clips, badges, lapel pins, so-called 'holy medals,' and other miscellaneous objects. Now, I do not see the Christopher medal as some sort of ‘good luck charm’ as do some, dare I say it (I will, and must), superstitious Catholics---not that all Catholics are superstitious, but there is a great tendency there for that to occur in Catholicism. I do not believe in so-called good luck. We make, for better or worse, our own luck by the thoughts we think, the decisions we make, and the conduct in which we engage. No, I love the abovementioned legendary story of Saint Christopher because it reminds me of how I must act toward others who are vulnerable, marginalized, rejected, and otherwise in great need.

You know, there is a wonderful Christian group known as the
Christophers. Their motto is, 'It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.' That's so true. Perhaps this verse from the Bible best sets out the 'message' of the story of Saint Christopher: 'Bear one another's burdens and so you will fulfill the Law of Christ' (Gal 6:2). And what is the 'Law of Christ'? It is the law or principle---and power---of love in action. No matter what your religion, and even if you have none, the practice of love is the all-important thing.

‘Saint Christopher, pray for us!’ Yes, that we may willingly and lovingly bear, carry and relieve the burdens of others. That is all that matters.



Saint Christopher medal
dating from the 1930s

Friday, July 4, 2014


There’s an old Zen saying that has something very profound to say about stress and meditation. It goes something like this. ‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes a day, unless you’re too busy, in which case you should sit for an hour.’ Well, new research shows that even short sessions of mindfulness meditation are effective at reducing mental stress.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that engaging in mindfulness meditation for twenty-five minutes for just three days can significantly lower stress and boost the ability to endure stress.

‘More and more people report using meditation practices for stress reduction, but we know very little about how much you need to do for stress reduction and health benefits,’ said lead author Dr J David Creswell (pictured left), associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a press release.

We have known for many years that the so-called ‘stress cascade’ is governed by the brain's hypothalamus, which communicates with the pituitary and adrenal glands, which in turn secrete stress hormones like cortisol. Too much cortisol in the bloodstream is not a good thing at all. Finding effective ways of preventing or blocking the body’s stress reaction from occurring is the name of the game.

The Carnegie Mellon University study was conducted on 66 healthy participants aged between 18 and 30. They were told to take part in a 3-day experiment where some participants underwent mindfulness meditation training programs for 25 minutes for three consecutive days. Others were told to learn breathing exercises that could help monitor their breath and pay attention to their present moment experiences. The researchers also included a matched control group where participants were told to improve their problem-solving skills through poetry analysis.

Following their programs, participants were given tasks to complete stressful speech and math in front of ‘stern’ researchers who recorded their stress levels by measuring cortisol levels in saliva samples.

The study findings showed that people in the mindfulness meditation group were less stressed when performing speech and math tasks. However, these participants also showed greater cortisol reactivity in saliva samples.

‘When you initially learn mindfulness mediation practices, you have to cognitively work at it -- especially during a stressful task,’ said Dr Creswell. ‘And, these active cognitive efforts may result in the task feeling less stressful, but they may also have physiological costs with higher cortisol production.’

The findings have been published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Journal article: Creswell J D, Pacilio L E, Lindsay E K, and Brown K W, ‘Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress.’ Psychoneuroendocrinology. Vol 44, June 2014, 1-12.

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