Sunday, June 28, 2015


A young man approached his master and asked, 'How long is it likely to take me to attain enlightenment?'

'Ten years,' replied the master.

'That long?' exclaimed the young man.

'No, that was a mistake on my part,' said the master. 'It will take you twenty years.'

'Why did you just double the figure?' asked the young man.

'Alright, in your case it will probably take you thirty years,' replied the master.

 Seeking enlightenment on Mount Takao (Takaosan)
Photo taken by the author in Meiji-no-mori Takao Quasi-National Park, Japan

Never ask ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions, at least not when it comes to matters spiritual. Worse still, never ask ‘how long’ questions, because when you do you are still thinking in terms of time. Enlightenment---true wisdom---is not of time. It is timeless. It is eternal. And eternity is now---the eternal now. Enlightenment is above time and has no opposite. The state that is eternal is---right now! We live in both time and eternity right now. However, thought (‘how’, ‘why’, ‘how long’) is time itself. We think in time, but thought can never understand ‘something’ that is above and beyond time. That something is wisdom or enlightenment. It can be experienced, but never known or grasped or arrived at.

What, then, is enlightenment? It means waking up---not just once, but staying awake from moment to moment. As such, enlightenment is not so much a destination but the journey. It is also the means of travel. Yes, it is the means and the end.

Enlightenment is not a ‘thing-in-itself’. Indeed, it is actually a ‘no-thing’---no-thing-ness. It is the complete absence of thought, conditioning, materialism and all other limitations of time and space. It is living with choiceless, unadorned awareness. Yes, enlightenment is mindful living. In that regard, I am reminded of what Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, had to say about mindfulness. He said, ‘Mindfulness is about falling awake rather than asleep.’ Falling awake. Yes, and also staying awake. That is mindfulness. And that is enlightenment.

A disciple once asked his master, ‘What is the path?’ The Zen master replied, ‘Walk on!’ Yes, the ‘meaning’ of life lies in the living---that is, the ‘walking’---of life from one moment to the next. Enlightenment is staying awake while you are walking your path. 

So, don’t ask ‘how long’. Instead, ask yourself this question, ‘What is standing in the way of my waking up and experiencing enlightenment right now?’

Monday, June 22, 2015


OK, so there is no ‘secret’ as such, but it is true that very few people know how to live mindfully. Here’s a story from Buddhism. The story may well be apocryphal, but the advice certainly sounds like it came from the historical Buddha.

It is written that a philosopher once said to the Buddha, ‘I have heard tell of Buddhism as a doctrine of enlightenment. What is its method? In other words, what do you do every day?’

Before I tell you what the Buddha said, I want to make two comments. First, Buddhism does indeed teach enlightenment, which means---wait for it---waking up. Buddhism teaches us how to ‘wake up’ and stay awake. (No, I am not talking about insomnia.) Secondly, Buddhism does not teach a ‘method’ or ‘technique’, for methods and techniques are forms of mental conditioning. Buddhism is all about deconditioning the mind. It’s about letting go of anything and everything that holds us back from happiness and wellness.

Now, what was the Buddha’s answer to the philosopher’s question, ‘What do Buddhists do every day?’

‘We walk, we eat, we wash ourselves, we sit down …,’ said the Buddha.

‘But what is there that’s special in that?’ replied the philosopher. ‘Everyone walks, eats, washes himself, sits down . . .’

‘Sir, with us there is a difference. When we walk, we are aware of the fact that we are walking. When we eat, we are aware of the fact that we are eating, and so on. When others walk, eat, wash themselves, or sit down, they are not aware of what they are doing.’

There you have it---AWARENESS. The secret or key to living mindfully is ... to live with AWARENESS. Yes, it's that simple ... but it isn't all that easy. It takes lots of practice ... every day ... and each and every minute and moment of the day.

I just thought of another little story from Buddhism that's on the same point. It’s a gem. The South Korean Zen master Seung Sahn (pictured right) would say, ‘When you eat, just eat. When you read the newspaper, just read the newspaper. Don't do anything other than what you are doing.’

One day a student saw Seung Sahn reading the newspaper while he was eating. The student asked if this did not contradict his teaching. Seung Sahn said, ‘When you eat and read the newspaper, just eat and read the newspaper.’

The point of both of these stories is this. Whatever you do, whatever you are doing, do it with focused and undivided attention---that is, awareness. That, my friends, is the ‘secret’ to living mindfully.




Tuesday, June 16, 2015


There once was a famous Persian Sufi mystic of the 9th century named Bayazid Bastami (pictured left). It is said that before he passed away he was asked about his age. ‘I am 4 years old,’ Bastami purportedly said. ‘For 70 years I was veiled. I got rid of my veils only 4 fours years ago.’ So, there is hope for you and me.

Bastami would often talk about the importance of awareness. On one particular occasion, after he had been asked the question, ‘Well, what exactly is awareness?’, it is said that Bastami led the questioner and those with him to a river. Now, on the near side of the river was a small hill, and on the other side there was also a small hill. Bastami said, ‘We are going to put up a long wooden bridge---just one foot (0.305 m) wide---from this end to the other, and you will have to walk on it. And then you will know what awareness is.’

The person who asked the question of Bastami as to what was awareness was not exactly happy with Bastami’s response. He said, ‘But we have been walking our whole life, and we have never come to know.’

Bastami said, ‘Wait,’ and he did the experiment. Many of them started feeling very afraid, and they said, ‘We cannot walk. Just one foot wide?’

‘But how much do you need to walk on?’, asked Bastami. ‘When you are walking on the earth, you can walk on a one-foot wide strip easily. Why, then, can’t you walk on a one-foot wide strip hanging between two hills? What is holding you back?’

A few people tried the experiment. Well, they ventured along the bridge a couple of feet, but no more than that. They quickly returned to the near side of the river. ‘It is too dangerous,’ they said to Bastami.

A man walks over a plank bridge between the towers of the
cathedral in Bremen, Germany. Photograph: Joerg Sarbach/AP.

Then Bastami walked and a few followed him. When they reached the other side of the river, they said to Bastami, ‘Master, now we know what awareness is. The danger was such that we could not afford to walk in unawareness. We had to be alert. At any moment we could have been gone forever, so we had to keep alert.’

Fortunately, we are not called upon to undergo ‘experiments’ of that kind all that often, but the degree of awareness required for such an experiment is nevertheless the intensity of awareness that we ought to possess and use in our ordinary, daily lives. I kid you not. The awareness of which I speak is not concentration as that word is ordinarily used. No, true awareness is conscious wakefulness that is ‘choiceless’ and unadorned. That means a pure, unadulterated awareness and observation where the cognitive mind is totally at rest, that is, not thinking, analysing, judging, interpreting or comparing. It is pure consciousness without any thought. As Krishnamurti used to say, you and the object of awareness become one.

Now, why not try this experiment. No, I am not talking about you walking a tightrope or anything as dangerous as that. You can do this experiment anywhere. So, when to walk along the sidewalk, or down the hall of your home, walk as if each moment there is danger. Don’t try to visualize any particular danger ahead or around you---that is thinking---just focus your undivided, unadorned attention and awareness on what you are doing and the path you are walking step by step.



Tuesday, June 9, 2015


First, let’s make it clear what we mean by the word ‘belief’.

A belief is a mental construct together with an emotional acceptance that something exists or is true where the matter believed is one without proof. In many cases, no proof of the truth or otherwise of the matter believed is possible. Ordinarily, that which is believed is in the nature of something that is hoped for or expected or simply promised by others.

All that I have just said is certainly the case with almost all religious beliefs---where rigorous proof is impossible---but I am not restricting myself to only religious beliefs. Many other types of beliefs are incapable of proof, such as beliefs based purely on racial, cultural, political, tribal and nationalistic grounds. Etymologically, the word ‘believe’ means to hold dear, valuable, or satisfactory’ and ‘to approve of’. Yes, we tend to believe that which we hold dear and value, and that of which we approve. Funny, that. It’s so very true, isn’t it?

Now, there is nothing wrong with affirmations and convictions that are supported by and grounded in facts that are sufficiently probative to support the affirmation or conviction in question, but to believe something without proof … now that is downright silly and even dangerous!

Yes, beliefs are bad things. Very bad things. Here’s why:

1.    Beliefs divide and separate people. They never unite. More than any other thing (eg race, skin colour, ethnicity, nationality) beliefs create deep divisions and separate people one from the other, creating conflict and antagonism in their wake. Catholics are separated from Baptists. Muslims are separated from Jews and Buddhists. Communists are separated from believers in capitalism. With separation and division comes conflict, turmoil, strife and fear (itself the foundation of belief). Beliefs can never unite because one person or group of persons believes one thing, and another person or group of persons some other thing. We can never be one family of humanity while there are different belief-systems that divide us so hopelessly.

2.  Beliefs prevent knowledge and understanding. We believe when we don’t know or understand something. If we know something to be true there is no need to believe it. So, the important thing for us is to know and understand, and when we do not know something it is inappropriate to accept it on faith.

3.    Beliefs fetter and cage the mind. Beliefs, by their very nature, take the form of second or third-hand prejudices, or biases, of various kinds. Beliefs stifle original thought and critical thinking. They prevent freedom of thought and encourage mental laziness. Beliefs, being largely impervious to reason and facts, are a form of collective thinking and conditioning, and in such a conditioned state of mind, there is no ability to think freely. Eventually, even the desire to think freely is lost. Any 'true' (ha!) believer is constantly exhorted by those in authority to believe more deeply and fully, to have more faith. The result? You build a bigger cage---or prison---for your brain and thus for yourself.

4.   Beliefs make us sick—spiritually sick, and perhaps in other ways as well. Since every belief is some other person or group’s collective thinking and conditioning, when we believe we take onboard that other person or group’s thinking and conditioning. This is a pernicious form of mind control. The result? An infected mind. Beliefs are almost always based on fear---for example, fear of loneliness and isolation, fear of emptiness and insecurity, fear of existential annihilation, or fear of eternal damnation.

5.    Beliefs lock us into the past. Beliefs are conditioning, and conditioning is a product of the past. Beliefs are also the result of memory. They are inherently reactionary, as are the narrative and worldview created by beliefs. There is a happening or an occurrence, and belief immediately sets to work to formulate our reaction to that happening or occurrence. When we take on a belief system, we cease to be choicelessly aware of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. We remain locked into the past, and other people’s ways of thinking.

6.   Beliefs distort our understanding of reality. When we believe something about some aspect of reality, a thought covering or veil is placed between us and reality, blocking off the latter. Using a different metaphor, beliefs are like distorting lenses which filter and distort reality as it tries to pass through the lens.

‘There is hope for whoever does not know what to believe. Human belief is a combination of superstition, gullibility and mental laziness. We need not believe anything; we need to find, to see, to know.’ 

     Those words come from the American spiritual teacher Vernon Howard [pictured left]. Got that. We need to find, see, and know. And I might add to that three—understand. When you know and understand, there is absolutely no need to believe.

In my own search for truth---actually, there is no need to search for truth, for truth is all that is---I came to a point where I gave up all my beliefs. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, and it took place over time. When I gave up all beliefs—religious, political, and all the rest---I experienced a great joy and a sense of freedom that I have never experienced before. I affirm the truth of certain propositions, most of which are in the nature of self-evident truths. There is no need to believe that which is true, for that which is true is true whether or not I believe it to be true, and the truth would not become any truer if I were to believe it to be true. I now live with reason and also with what Bertrand Russell called 'liberating doubt,' and it is so much better than living with beliefs.

So, as I say, why believe?


Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Back pain--and, in particular, low back pain--has been said to be the single leading cause of disability worldwide. As many as 80 per cent of the population will experience a back problem at some time in their lives. In addition, about 50 per cent of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year, and that figure seems to hold good for most other Western nations as well.
Back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work. In fact, back pain is the second most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office, outnumbered only by upper respiratory tract infections. I have read that Americans spend more than $50 billion each year on back pain—and that’s just for the more easily identified costs.
Well, new research reveals that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may do as much as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to calm the catastrophizing thought patterns of people with chronic back pain.
This may well be the best news many back pain sufferers have had for some time.

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