Thursday, September 24, 2015


Mindfulness is big business. Large corporations such as Apple Computer, Hughes Aircraft, Google, Target, Ford, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, McKinsey, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Deutsche Bank and AOL Time Warner, and in Australia IBM and NAB to name just two, along with numerous so-called captains of industry following the meditative example left by the late Steve Jobs, are embracing mindfulness in a big way.

Mindfulness is seen as a way of increasing productivity and thus revenue. Well, after all, the evidence is clear and unambiguous: the regular practice of mindfulness produces
a calmer, more patient, stable and steady mind, improves one’s ability to cope with and release stress, enhances cognitive functioning and performance, improves concentration, capacity for focus, attention to detail and memory, results in faster sensory processing and greater responsiveness in the moment, and reduces mental distractedness. 

All of this---and much, much more---has to be good for business. Mindfulness is also a tool for enforcing compliance, something employers like to see. I mean, creativity is one thing, but no employer wants their employees to be too creative. You know what I mean?

I have a bit of a problem with the corporatization of mindfulness. Well, more than a bit of a problem. Let me explain.

Mindfulness, without the right intention, and completely severed from its spiritual roots, is not necessarily a good thing. It can even be a bad thing. Mindfulness has its roots most directly in Theravāda Buddhism, which for the most part is a naturalistic form of Buddhism of which there are a number of different schools. Now, you don’t have to be a Buddhist or even religious to practise mindfulness, nor does mindfulness involve or require any religious faith at all. Mindfulness does not require that you believe in one god or many gods, or become a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Christian, or whatever. People of every religion, and none, can derive lasting benefits from the regular practice of mindfulness including mindfulness meditation.

However, this fact cannot be ignored. Mindfulness meditation, even in its most secular form, has its ancestral spiritual roots in a specific type or practice of meditation known as vipassanā meditation, which is used as a psychological and educational tool in Theravāda Buddhism. Vipassanā meditation is also known as insight meditation, insightful meditation, sensory meditation and thought-watching meditation. Now, there are several different techniques of vipassanā meditation just as there are several types or forms of Buddhist meditation, but whether mindfulness is practised as a spiritual discipline or as a psychological tool, right intention is extremely important.

Buddha Shakyamuni gained enlightenment through the practice of mindfulness. Enlightenment means waking up. You come to see things-as-they-really-are for the very first time in your life. Thereafter, nothing is ever the same again. Your whole outlook on life is different. The emphasis on worldly values disappears, if not immediately then certainly over time. You become more compassionate. You practise and seek to spread loving-kindness. This is not just a Buddhist thing. Christianity speaks of the same experience, but uses slightly different language and thought forms. Other religions do as well. So does Humanism which, in its secular form, is not a religion at all.

According to the Buddha, there are three kinds of right intention, which counter three kinds of wrong intention: first, the intention of renunciation, which counters the intention of desire; secondly, the intention of good will, which counters the intention of ill will; and thirdly, the intention of harmlessness, which counters the intention of harmfulness. Now, there are many decent and ethical businesses but we see so much evidence these days of corporate greed and wrongdoing. Witness the recent scandal concerning Volkswagen. I suspect it’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I worked in the ‘big end of town’ for a few years. I saw the greed and the ugliness. I worked with so many people who thought that the answer to their existential angst was to make a shitload of money as fast as possible. Desperately trying to give meaning to their lives---lives that had lost all traditional spiritual and ethical values---these people would stop at nothing to make a commercial success of themselves. That was their sole aim in life. Pitiful beyond belief.

Of course, we are all guilty at times of greed, rapaciousness and harmful behaviour. Just look at our appalling consumer society. Consumerism---these days it's the de facto religion of the majority of Westerners. Actually, we all need to practise right intention and learn to moderate our seemingly insatiable desires, make do with less, and try to do no harm, including doing no harm to the environment.

Mindfulness should never be seen as a means to an end, unless the end be a noble one, namely, to become a more compassionate, more loving and kinder human being—a human being who seeks to heal, and not assist in the ongoing destruction, of our already very badly damaged world, a human being who, having undergone a Copernican revolution, has come to understand that the world does not revolve around him or her. There is an old Christian hymn written by Helen H Lemmel that contains at least one wonderful line---And the things of earth will grow strangely dim.’ Such is the experience, and the right intention, of which I speak.

Now, I know this much. The captains of industry who are paying good sums of money to have their staff trained in the art of mindfulness do not want them to become enlightened such that the things of the earth grow strangely dim for them. That would not be good for the bottom line. Grrr.

Mindfulness without right intention is an abomination.

Friday, September 18, 2015


‘The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.Salvador Dalí.

Well, can it? Read on.

There are so many scientific studies attesting to the benefits---especially the health benefits---of the practice of mindfulness meditation that when you are confronted with the occasional study that suggests otherwise it gives you cause to reflect.

A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show that participants who engaged in a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session were less able to differentiate items they actually encountered from items they only imagined.

‘Our results highlight an unintended consequence of mindfulness meditation: memories may be less accurate,’ says psychology doctoral candidate Brent M Wilson of the University of California, San Diego, first author on the study. ‘This is especially interesting given that previous research has primarily focused on the beneficial aspects of mindfulness training and mindfulness-based interventions.’

Wilson and colleagues wondered whether the very mechanism that seems to underlie the benefits of mindfulness---choiceless awareness (that is, judgment-free thoughts, feelings, sensations and images)---might also affect people's ability to determine the origin of a given memory. Some memories originate from an external source, such as an actual experience of eating an omelette for breakfast. But other memories originate from an internal source, such as imagining the experience of eating an omelet for breakfast.

Image source: Pinterest. All rights reserved.

‘When memories of imagined and real experiences too closely resemble each other, people can have difficulty determining which is which, and this can lead to falsely remembering imagined experiences as actual experiences,’ Wilson explains.

To examine whether mindfulness might lead to confusion regarding the source of a memory, the researchers conducted a series of three experiments.

In the first two experiments, undergraduate participants were randomly assigned to undergo a particular 15-minute guided exercise: Participants in the mindfulness group were instructed to focus attention on their breathing without judgment, while those in the mind-wandering group were told to think about whatever came to mind.

After the guided exercise in the first experiment, 153 participants studied a list of 15 words related to the concept of trash (for example, garbage, waste, can, refuse, sewage, rubbish, etc). Importantly, the list did not actually include the critical word ‘trash’. Participants were then asked to recall as many of the words from the list as they could remember. The results revealed that 39 per cent of the mindfulness participants falsely recalled seeing the word ‘trash’ on the list compared to only 20 per cent of the mind-wandering participants.

In the second experiment, 140 participants completed a baseline recall task before undergoing the guided exercise. This experiment showed that participants were more likely to falsely recall the critical word after mindfulness meditation than before; in other words, mindfulness increased rates of false recall. Again, mindfulness participants were more likely to falsely recall the critical word than those who engaged in mind wandering, even after the researchers took baseline recall performance into account.

In the third experiment, 215 undergraduate participants had to determine whether a word had been presented earlier; some words had, while others merely related to words that had been presented. Participants who engaged in mindfulness and those who hadn't were both highly accurate in recognizing the words they had actually seen. However, participants were more likely to falsely identify related words after completing the mindfulness exercise.

Together, the findings suggest that mindfulness might hamper the cognitive processes that contribute to accurately identifying the source of a memory. After mindfulness training, memories of imagined experiences become more like memories of actual experiences, and people have more difficulty deciding if experiences were real or only imagined.

‘As a result, the same aspects of mindfulness that create countless benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility,’ Wilson and colleagues concluded.

What is one to make of this study? Let me mention just a couple of misgivings I have with the study and its findings and conclusions.

First, the results of the study do not sit well with the findings and conclusions of numerous previous studies which have shown that the regular practice of mindfulness meditation is beneficial for memory and additionally produces changes in grey matter concentrations in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes.

Secondly, the participants in the study were undergraduate students whose mindfulness experience (in this case, mindfulness of the breath) was very limited and of short duration. If that kind of meditation, or any kind for that matter, is not done properly or without some prior sustained practice there can easily arise stress which could well detrimentally affect test results. Thirdly, participants in the control group were asked to think about whatever came to mind (‘mind-wandering induction’) and they followed an audio script. Because they followed an audio script these participants arguably would be much more likely to have been choicelessly aware of their thoughts and images than the minfulness participants. So, the conclusions reached by the study authors are, in my respectful submission, somewhat dubious.

Study: Wilson, Brent M et al. ‘Increased false-memory susceptibility after mindfulness meditation’. Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797615593705, published online 4 September 2015, abstract.

Story source. This post is reprinted from materials provided by the Association for Psychological Science.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015


‘Reality is a question of realizing how real the world is already.’ So wrote the Beat writer Allen Ginsberg [pictured left].

Life is very real. We have our little philosophies and religions and we think we have life explained and understandable, then, wham, reality hits us right in the face with, say, a terminal illness or a death of a close loved one. Here’s a Zen kōan, entitled ‘Nothing Exists’, which illustrates this point.

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shōkoku. Desiring to show his attainment, the young student said: ‘The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.’

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry. ‘If nothing exists,’ said Dokuon, ‘where did this anger come from?’

Good question. ‘If nothing exists, where did this anger come from?’

Now, this young student appears not to have understood the Buddhist notion of non-existence. Let’s get this straight. Buddhism does not teach that nothing exists, that is, that there is no existence at all. Think about it. If nothing existed, there would be no one around to make the statement, ‘Nothing exists.’ The statement could not be said at all---but it can be said. (It's a case of 'I philosophize, therefore I am.') The Buddhist notion of non-existence ('emptiness') is this---nothing (that is, no thing) has any intrinsic (that is, separate and independent) existence in and of itself. Everything---that is, every thing---is inconstant, identity-less and conditioned. A thing arises as a result of one or more causes or circumstances and when those causes or circumstances disappear so does the thing. Each thing is a cause of at least one other thing as well as being the effect of some other thing, so a thing is explainable only by reference to one or more other things which themselves are explainable only by reference to one or more other things, and on it goes. For example, a table is made out of wood, metal or other component parts, and it is made by someone. It is not independent of the things that come together to make it up, nor the person who puts those pieces together to form the table. Nothing has any permanent, separate existence in and of itself. This is at least part of what a Buddhist means when he or she refers to things being ‘empty’---they have no separate, independent or permanent existence. Anyway, I digress.

The point is this. The young student thought he would impress Dokuon with his knowledge and wisdom. You see, he thought he had life all figured out. Ha! How wrong he was! He was in for a rude shock. That might have been a damn good thing, for perhaps an experience of instant enlightenment came upon him. Being hit with the Zen master's keisaku (wooden stick) can sometimes help to bring that abut. Yes, perhaps he came to see things-as-they-really-are---for the very first time. Buddhism is very Aristotelian (as opposed to Platonic). At the risk of over-simplification, the essence of Buddhism is – what you see is what you get. That is all there is, but it is more than enough! Things are what they are. Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people all the time. The innocent suffer. Things just cannot be 'squared up' in the life-to-come. For starters, there is no reliable evidence that there is any life-to-come. We can fairly safely say that this life here is all that there is---but it's more than enough. Make the most of it. I like the late Jackie Gleason's philosophy of life: ‘Just play the melody, live, love, and lose gracefully.’

Japanese formal garden. (Photo taken by the author.)

All too often we utter glib remarks to others who are going through pain or other difficulty or who have suffered bereavement or some other loss---remarks such as, ‘All will be well’, ‘God will look after you’, and ‘Everything happens for a reason’. As I say, we have our little philosophies and religions but when the proverbial shit hits the fan all too often we find that our theories and belief-systems explain very little at all. Part of growing up is to drop our illusions and wake up. Part of waking up is to drop our illusions and grow up. I have found both statements to be true.

When I was at high school I had a French teacher who would often say to us, Je suis un réaliste, or just simply Je suis réaliste (‘I am a realist’). It was clear that he did not believe in God or religion. He was an effective teacher---in terms of producing consistently good academic results in his students over many decades---but he was a bit of a sadist, largely teaching by fear, humiliation and ordeal. Many teachers of that era were sadists. It was considered par for the course. For the most part, things are different now. Now, this was a church school, and once a year the then current moderator of the Presbyterian Church would come to the school and give an address to the students at assembly. One particular year, the moderator was very elderly. Of course, they all appeared elderly to us kids, but this one much more so. This man of the cloth spoke eloquently of a loving God, Jesus, goodness and the life to come. We had a French class shortly after assembly, and I remember our French teacher saying to us, more than once, in the class, Imaginez, ayant toutes ses illusions à cet âge! (‘Imagine, having all his illusions at that age!’). 

That incident occurred some 45 years ago yet I remember it as if it was yesterday. In the ensuing years I would lose all of my illusions—and I don’t regret that at all. Je suis un réaliste ainsi.

‘Reality is a question of realizing how real the world is already.’


Friday, September 4, 2015


Despite all the information there is concerning mindfulness, many misconceptions remain concerning the 'thing' known as mindfulness. Let’s call these misconceptions myths, for that is what in truth they are. In a previous post of mine I discussed four such myths, namely, that mindfulness is a religion (false), is Buddhist (also false), is a philosophy (not really), and is a method and technique of meditation (no, it’s really the method of no-method).

Here are three more myths concerning mindfulness:

1. Mindfulness means ‘losing control’

Many people fear ‘losing control’. I see evidence of this phenomenon all the time. Some people can’t even close their eyes to relax. These people just can’t get themselves to practise any form of meditation. Now, I, too, like to be in charge of my life but if we constantly impose the will over things we will never be able to relax or gain insight into ourselves and others. Many people have mental health issues because they are victims of their own ‘self-will run riot’, to borrow a phrase from the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mindfulness means staying awake. It is the very opposite of losing control. Mindfulness means becoming more aware. It is not losing control, going into some trance, or otherwise lose contacting with external or internal reality.

2. Mindfulness can be harmful

If mindfulness is staying awake, and being aware of one’s awareness and even one’s non-awareness, it is hard to see that as being harmful. I have not seen any cases of people being damaged by practising mindfulness. All I see is people becoming empowered, gaining insight into themselves, and living happier and more fulfilled lives.

Having said that, some people---mainly persons outside the mental health field---have expressed concern that some people with certain types of mental health issues (eg schizophrenia) may experience a worsening of their condition (that is, exacerbation of psychotic symptoms) as a result of practising mindfulness. However, the preponderance of medical evidence suggests otherwise. In one study published in The American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation---one of several on the matter I could mention---fifteen individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorders participated in a pilot study testing a mindfulness-based intervention to reduce anxiety. The results suggested that mindfulness meditation training was acceptable to all participants; no one reported a worsening of psychotic or other symptoms while meditating.

In another study published last year in The British Journal of Psychiatry it was stated that there is now ‘emerging evidence that mindfulness for psychosis - when used in an adapted form - is safe and therapeutic’. (The ‘adapted form’ is essentially more guidance---and reassuring guidance---during the meditation itself.)

As with all matters pertaining to one’s health each person should seek and rely upon the advice of a suitably qualified health care professional.

3. Mindfulness is non-Christian

To some extent I have already dealt with matter when I explained in my previous post that mindfulness was neither a religion nor Buddhist. However, some evangelical Christians assert that mindfulness is an Eastern meditative practice that is non-Christian.

The truth is any Christian---indeed, any person---who is paying attention on purpose and choicelessly to the content of the present moment is practising mindfulness. We all practise mindfulness to some extent. It’s simply the case that some people do it better than others.

One more thing. The Christian tradition is rich in tools for meditation and mindfulness. Examples include contemplative prayer, the practice of the presence of God, and lectio divina.  

Any person can practice mindfulness regardless of their religion or lack of religion. The Christian can use mindfulness as a means of hearing God’s voice speak through the pages of Scripture as well as through the events of day-to-day life.

So, what’s holding you back?


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