Simple Meditating; Meditating Simply

Simple Meditating

Here’s a link to a recent practice tips article by Ken McLeod encouraging simple meditating. Ken is my one of my favourite writers on meditation as part of a spiritual or developmental path.

I like Ken because he focuses on essentials. In this post he’s reminding us not to look for or value consistency in how our practice, our meditation, goes. He could as easily have called the post Keep It Simple. The essence of practice is to do it as it is each time we sit formally, or each time we look inward in the moment.

The essence of practice is to be aware of a phenomenon whether breath, mind flow or awareness itself in his examples; to notice when our awareness has wandered and then to bring awareness back  to our target. That’s all.

His example of confusion between teacher and student in following the breath is wryly amusing. The teacher has instructed that students should watch the breath and count each breath. If they get distracted or when they get to ten, they are to restart the count. The student is worried that she never gets past five and is constantly restarting her count.

The teacher (perhaps a trainee?) wonders why she’s worried as she’s doing exactly what she was taught! (There is a whole other blog (at least) on how unspoken presuppositions get in the way of clear communication.)

Obviously the student has understood, as I did when I first encountered this instruction many years ago, that the goal is to get to ten! Nope. The “goal” is to be aware, notice the movement of awareness, return awareness to the chosen object. That’s all.

As Ken says:

“Consistency, stability, focus, etc. We think of these as qualities that we can develop in our meditation, or in our attention. But when I look closely at my own experience, I don’t find any of these qualities and I haven’t experienced any of them. Subjectively, my meditation is a mess. Stuff pops up unexpectedly all the time. Thoughts appear and disappear, sometimes like a herd of elephants, sometimes like ants, sometimes like mist. Different emotions sing their siren songs. A plane passes overhead, or a car starts up, or the sprinklers turn on. Sometimes I’m comfortable sitting, sometimes I’m not and I’m aware of heat and tension and agitation in different parts of my body. When any of these thoughts, feelings or sensations hook me, I’m in another world and I only realize that I’ve been distracted after the fact.

I’ve given up trying to have consistent attention, stable attention or even a clear focus. When I notice that I’m not meditating, I just come back. That’s all.”

So when practicing, minimise your expecting or desiring of a particular flavour of meditation. Remember: simple meditating! The conscious lesson is in the monitoring of attention and in the unpredictability of each sitting; of each moment. The unconscious learning is simply the growing scope of self monitoring. Changes will happen.

Are You Looking for Help?

If you would like help dealing with difficult emotions, strains in your relationship or difficulties in your meditation practice, then please CALL me to see if we can work together or send me an email via my Contact Page. I look forward to hearing from you.

Breathing for Mental and Bodily Calm

Meditation, sports psychology, emotional intelligence and relationship counselling all give a central role to breathing for mental and bodily calm. Whether taking deep slow breaths, doing patterned breathing (like 4-7-8 breathing) or simply being aware of the breath, this basic bodily function is a gateway to calm.

This is established practical knowledge in all the fields mentioned above and I use it in mindfulness training, executive coaching, doing therapy, cross-fit and occasional disagreements with Vivian. However, the physiology underlying this effect is only now being investigated in detail.

We’ve known that breathing biases the body towards parasympathetic autonomic states but not how that happens. This NYTimes article (I think this might be pay-walled) refers to a couple of recent articles in the journals Nature and most recently Science (this takes you to the abstract) describing the identification of a bundle of about 3000 molecularly differentiated neurons in the brainstem (reptilian-ish brain) which sense and influence each others’ activity and the body’s breathing state which in turn then influences the body’s arousal state which then influences …..

(Complex, recursive feedback systems seem to be the rule in our physiology.)

It is still early days and the articles describe the actions of only (that’s an ironic “only”, folks) two of the cell varieties and their function but I’m sure we’ll be seeing more detail from these folks over the next year or so.

So we’re beginning to get down to physical causation of this marvellous aspect of our embodied selves.  I always like to have practical experience backed up with as much detail on how things work as possible. There’s the definition of a “user” and a “tech” which says that a user only cares THAT things work where the tech cares HOW they work. I’m a hybrid: happy enough when I have a practice which works but even happier when I know, even in a sketchy way, how it works.

If you’re happy just knowing THAT breathing is a great tool for calming or self-soothing, great! Keep using it in confidence. If you’re like me in having your confidence grow as you increase your picture of HOW it works, keep using it and enjoy the articles. I hope they build your confidence in these natural and powerful practices of breathing for mental and bodily calm.

Are You Looking for Help?

If you would like help dealing with difficult emotions or strains in your relationship , then please CALL me to see if we can work together!

Meditation is NOT like taking a pill

In a recent interview in Tricycle, Dr. Willoughby Britton discussed the hype around meditation and mindfulness and emphasised that much of the research on which claims for the benefits of them are based are not as robust as they are often made out to be. She is also concerned about the claims for meditation as a panacea to a whole host of emotional and psychological troubles.

With these doubts now becoming audible in the world, what’s a meditator, and particularly a teacher of meditation to think?

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditations since either 1972 or 1973 (Obviously meditation does NOT guarantee precision of long term memory in aging practitioners). I’m very much aware that: first, meditation has (this is a self observation so definitely biased) been central and essential to my becoming who I am from who I was; and second, that it has not been SUFFICIENT to that development, however it might be characterised. Anxieties and depressions have been part of my life across those forty+ years and, to repeat, while meditation has been of huge assistance in living with them it has not been sufficient in itself to effect their amelioration.

Thus the title of the blog and, perhaps the start of a reflection on how we might consider the place of meditation as life practice. In a subsequent post I’ll talk about practices which are related to meditation which may, for most of us and for most of our lives, be far more appropriate to our needs, desires and orientations than full-on meditation.

So: meditation is not like taking a pill or having acupuncture. Simplifying for brevity, taking a pill is “fire-and-forget”: we and our health care professional have a target which the treatment will affect with or without our further effort. Meditation is far closer to learning to ride a bicycle or to play a musical instrument: we must be intimately involved with the activity: we must learn it, explore the new territory it opens up and integrate this new world into our being. Practicing any of these changes our view of ourself, of our place in the world and, a more dynamic metaphor, of our available choices for behaving with others.

One practices and explores the experiences of meditation, and that interaction with the experience, wisely guided, allows us to reevaluate and re-conceive our relation to our minds, our emotions and our very sense of self. Unlike cycling and playing music, it is a practice aspects of which we inevitably carry into our non-meditating lives. Much of the benefit of meditating comes from (consciously and unconsciously) considering particular life circumstances and our contributions to them in light of our experiences while meditating.

This is not a trivial effort and, as Dr. Willoughby points out, is not without its pains and, indeed, dangers. Like riding a bicycle, meditating takes us into new states which require balance, clarity of perception and good sense to navigate. As with cycling, we can encounter situations which surprise us and which, in some cases, can cause us to fall, with a range of consequences. This is where the availability of an experienced teacher can be useful, reassuring and, if necessary, healing. Perhaps the only way in which meditation is like taking a pill is that it may have unexpected and unwanted effects and we may require help in identifying them and dealing with them.

Coming back to Dr. Willoughby’s observations in the interview, looking at meditation as immediate cures for our anxieties, pains and sadnesses is probably over-optimistic. Meditation will help us, over time, re-orient ourselves to the nature of our pains and joys but it will not, in the short term, remove the pains or make permanent the joys. In that light, most research I’m aware of has looked at the short term changes in meditators in not particularly rigorously controlled studies. If the results are ambiguous, that should not surprise us. Nor should it discourage us. The new focus by our culture on competence in dealing with the vagaries of our mental and emotional experiences is beginning to show benefits in surprisingly practical, high-stress environments like businesses, couples and families.

To what extent were these studies encouraging participants to take a “pill-like” view of meditation? To what extent were they encouraging participants to regard the practices as skills to be cultivated, practiced and intentionally applied in real-life circumstances? To what extent were the studies looking at full-on meditation or at practices with more modest immediate aims?

The next blog will explore a range of practices that, in my view, can usefully be grouped under the heading of mind-skills training, to provide effective options if meditation proper is not for you. Also, perhaps, in the interim as your meditation practice is ripening.

Therapy and Contemplative Spiritual Practice

The twin pillars of my internal life have been Buddhism and various encounters with psychotherapy, both as therapee and therapist.  This parallels the frequent intersection of, particularly, Buddhist spirituality and psychotherapy in the wider world (e.g. Welwood, Epstein, Kornfield, Siegel in USA and Barzaghi, Dawson and others here in Australia). So questions as to similarities and differences between these two modes of internal development and exploration often arise and this blog is an attempt to provide a very particular perspective. Let me emphasise that while I am a trained  psychotherapist, I am not a spiritual teacher in any tradition, simply an experienced and inquisitive lay practitioner of a very secular take on Buddhism.

A large difference between the two worlds is that many therapies, and certainly all psychodynamic therapies, are based on a developmental model of some level of specificity.  That is, some theory which describes our progress as beings with/of a subjective affective and cognitive world from the relative simplicity of infancy to the complexity of adulthood. Many models regard adulthood itself as a unitary state, others at least imply a continuum of development which can span our adult lives. The more recent examples of these models emphasise the critical interplay of subjective-intersubjective experience in that development.  In contrast, to my knowledge, Buddhism does not deal at all with our transition from infancy to adulthood but concentrates on a description of  phenomenology of adult experience.  As an aside, that sentence gives away my own very secular understanding of Buddhism which is definitely not the mainstream view of Buddhism; reader beware[1].  Buddhism does recognise stages on the path to awakening but these seem to be specific to the path rather than part of a general developmental trajectory.

Another difference is the implication common to psychotherapies that we are seeking to overcome dysfunction of some sort where in Buddhism we are dealing with the shared nature of human (and possibly the sentient) minds and the illusions (cognitive, affective and experiential) to which they are prone. Both speak of relieving suffering[2]; therapy sees the relief of suffering as resulting from the righting of painful dysfunction where Buddhism sees the relief of suffering arising from a clarification or transformation of our view of and relation to the pain inherent in existence.

Ethical behaviour is critical and intrinsic to the Buddhist path of transformation whereas explicit valorisation of ethical behaviour, or even a demarcation between the ethical and the unethical, is rarely advised as a component of therapy. Therapists themselves are subject to strict ethical guidelines but ethical analysis is not a prominent part of most therapies. There are exceptions of course: existential therapy encourages taking responsibility for our actions and their effects and couples therapy usually has clear guidelines about the inappropriateness of, for example, violence and psychological abuse in a relationship.

The final difference I’ll touch on here is the difference of focus on mental experience. In psychotherapy, even very body centred therapies like Hakomi or Focusing, we explore what the experience is about for the client.  What is its meaning to/for/within the client’s life? To some extent we are interested in the content of experience.  In Buddhist meditation (let’s stick to pure vipassana) we are looking more impersonally at the characteristics of the experience and its participation in the three marks of existence: transience, unsatisfactoriness and not-mine.  We are invited to see that the experience begins and ends or comes and goes. We may look at the experience as arising from a particular set of conditions but we won’t necessarily be interested in exploring those conditions. The important lessons are that it is not permanent; that without the conditions the experience wouldn’t happen; and as a direct result of these two aspects of the experience it cannot really be said to be mine or an essential part of me.  In therapy we will be trying to bring the experience and our appreciation of how it arises in a particular life into conscious awareness.  Note that the Buddhist process is dependent on the experience being available to conscious awareness from the start.

Perhaps a summary of differences could be that psychotherapy helps us integrate disowned and troublesome aspects of our personal history where the Buddhist path helps us integrate and reach a deep, felt understanding of our shared circumstances as sentient, subjective beings-together-in-the-world. Perhaps one outcome of this is that it helps us become more humble: this is a lifetime process and, though we have the navigation beacon of the Buddha’s awakening, there is no “end-goal” towards which we strive in secular Buddhism.

I’m sure that other therapists and practitioners will have their own take on the similarities and differences in the two ways of looking at human growth or development.  These are offered simply as part of the view from this body…today.

[1] To expand a little: I see Buddhist spirituality as a collection of practices and a framework for life (the 8-Fold Path) by which we transform our experience of, and relation to our experience, and thereby transform our relations to self, others and the world.

[2] The difference between “pain” and “suffering” is one which I’ll expand in the future.

The Power of Simplicity in Meditation

No matter how or why we meditate, the process of meditation is made more effective as our capacity to intentionally attend increases.  Many teachers talk about concentration as part of meditation and that is fair enough, however the word “concentration” frequently carries the sense of trying hard and bearing down on whatever we are concentrating on; we may feel invited to put on our frowning concentration face.  However, every teacher of meditation that I’ve studied with or whose work I’ve read reminds us that intense “trying hard” is an obstacle in developing the skill of meditation.

I’ll come back to why that is so in a bit but let’s look first at the more helpful, or perhaps more skilful approach to paying attention to the object of meditation.  And one of the simplest meditation objects is our own breath. The skilful approach is to do less in meditation than we may have thought we need to do. It’s about cultivating  effortless intention while meditating instead of effortful, striving intention.

Simple meditation on the breath (as opposed to pranic breathing (pranayama) or other breath control practices) has only three aspects:

  1. Feeling the breath or paying attention to the breath
  2. Being aware that attention has moved away from the breath
  3. Gently  returning attention to the breath.[1]

As we do that, we will have thoughts, some may co-exist with awareness of breathing, others may take our awareness off into their particular area of focus.  This is natural and will happen, in one form or another, even after years of meditation practice.  All we have to do is, eventually, notice that we’re not attending to the breath and, without comment, without guilt, without self-chastisement, without annoyance, without regret and even without happiness, just return awareness to the breath.  There’s no “trying hard” needed.

This approach of “doing less” is often very foreign to our normal way of living in which we frequently seek more and more activity, more and more control and more and more stimulation.  As we are often meditating exactly to find a more peaceful way of being, even if only for the duration of the meditation, it makes sense that what we do in meditation should be very different to the way we normally are. If we want more peace, it’s by peacefully returning our awareness to the breath which begets peace. The way we do something breeds that same state in our minds; patience breeds patience; calm breeds calm.

Nevertheless, there’s often a sense that I should be doing more to make this work; that I’m not doing enough to get the benefit; that I’m doing this wrong. It’s exactly these thoughts of I should be/I shouldn’t be/Should I be?… that we’re remembering to avoid while meditating.

Meditating is about how I am now, what I feel in this instant. It is not some onerous obligation to behave in a particular way; to get it right; to excel; to please […fill in the blank as appropriate…]. We may find that that inner voice of Should/Shouldn’t is very noisy and persistent: so be it! That’s what is happening in our meditation. When we see/hear/feel that inner voice, we can practice just lightly letting it go and returning awareness to the breath.  This voice may sound like the truth, but it is only a thought; we can drop it in favour of simply attending to the breath.  It may…. No! It WILL return, but it’s our persistence in letting go and returning to the breath which trains our mind in directing attention.

When we simplify meditation in this way we give the mind the opportunity to let go of its busyness and by returning to the breath, we give the mind the opportunity to remember the pleasure of that simplicity, even if initially it’s momentary.

By doing so little, we reduce the opportunity to worry about whether we should be doing something differently or whether we’re doing it right. When that worry decreases, our body begins to follow the breathing into a more relaxed state. This is a state which owes more to the calming parasympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system than to the more excitable sympathetic side.  The breath is the direct route to the body’s ability to quiet itself and thereby to provide the mind with a quieter, calmer organic medium.

Why then all the talk in meditation about a quiet mind? Does the mind quieten? Well yes it does with persistent practice.  It becomes quieter but it is never still, even after the torrent of verbal thinking decreases. Beneath that torrent and hidden by it, we can become aware of finer and finer, and more and more peaceful, levels of mental activity, mental being.  But even during the slowest and most peaceful depths of meditation, there is still activity. But it’s important to remember: a relaxed mind generates fewer words; trying to relax the mind by stopping words only stirs up more. So: simplify; do less. Cooperate with the nature of mind to experience more of the peace and relaxation of quiet meditation.


[1] Some people find that counting exhalations up to 10 and then restarting the count helps them relax into awareness, others (me for instance) find counting an unwelcome complication.  Whatever works for you.

I don’t want to meditate today.

Human growth is a contradictory experience.  We feel the boundaries of self expanding and the experience of humility growing at least as fast.  Our humanity means we are the inheritors of strengths and weaknesses and some of the more embarrassing among those weaknesses is the tendency to overestimate our strengths. The explosion of psychological research since the 1960s has helpfully exposed many of our misapprehensions.   Some of these need to be accounted for in our quest for psychological and spiritual growth.  Take the bias of illusory superiority to which we are chronically prone: Far more people think of themselves as better than average drivers than is posible.  There’s also the Dunning-Kruger effect, also known as the “sophomore” effect (sophomore = wise fool, hinting at the ego inflating effects of introductory knowledge).

Some specific examples?  Well, meditation and its effect in enhancing day to day mindfulness is such a powerful aid to living happily that it is sometimes astonishing it is not a more common practice than it is.  It is also typically a practice that is often non-practiced by its, ummm,  adherents: “I don’t really need to meditate, I’m already quite/very/extremely mindful.”  Or “I get as much relaxation out of a beer/glass of wine/cigarette as I do out of a half hour of meditation.”

I’m hoping that neuro-psychological investigation of the physical brain changes that arise from meditation will, however slowly, erode the mind-sets that support these sorts of.  If one is thinking of meditation as enhancing an abstract and desirable quality like “mindfulness”, our normal tendency to see ourselves as illusorily superior can easily convince us that “I’m already quite mindful.”  However,  it is a melancholy truth that, as one grows in meditation practice, one becomes more and more aware of the gaps in mindfulness, past and present.

However, if we’re thinking of meditation which, by changing our brains’ structure and activity, enhances our ability to be mindful, that might help us decrease the very human perils of over estimation of our positive attributes.  It’s much harder for me to think “oh, I’m quite fit” when I have physical evidence to the contrary or when I think honestly about the amount of exercise I have actual done to enhance my fitness. “I’m quite fit despite not exercising” doesn’t sound particularly convincing, even to myself.

An article by Alice G. Walton in Forbes magazine found here: Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope discusses the effect of regular meditation on the brain/mind’s tendency to  uncontrolled chatter and particularly to chatter about our worries, obsessions and dissatisfactions, actual and imagined, and the effect of this on our general happiness/calmness.  The chattery mental content is typical of the output of what’s known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) within the brain: thinking about self and circumstances.

Says Walton:

“New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “ ‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.”  So we spend less time thinking about ourselves and our problems. “

Brewer found also that meditators show this pattern of lower activation of DMN and “me” centres even while not meditating.  This confirms the experience of those of us who have a regular practice that the mind does quieten over time and that unnecessary thinking, what Martine Batchelor calls “proliferation” which in turn generates unnecessary anxiety, declines with practice.”

Other research by Andy Newberg, MD shows that, unsurprisingly, areas of the brain involved in attention and concentration are activated and external awareness de-activated.   So, combining the two findings, meditation seems to be a practice of going inward to get out of oneself.

The article also compares the effects of meditating with the effects of giving in to a craving as an attempt at self calming.  While she uses the specific example of smoking, the second para below deals with the poor results obtained even by satisfying cravings healthily.  The calming is only temporary and has no effect on our between treat mindset.

Brewer uses the example of smoking to illustrate why addiction fuels negative thoughts rather than abates them. In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday

Substituting a carrot stick or other behavior for your actual craving (or other form of unhappiness) is a typical method of treatment, but it doesn’t often work, says Brewer, because the feedback loop is still there. Addressing the process itself with other methods (like meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.

So, if you meditate….please meditate.   Don’t let your unreliable minute-to-minute “I wants” distract you or convince you that that glass of wine is better for you  or, essence of self deception, that you don’t really need it.


Developmental Coaching: What’s it about?

While our development as human beings is experienced as a unity, it is useful  to temporarily and artificially segregate individual facets to clarify what seems to be happening and to allow us to gain some traction in making changes.  Each of the services I offer through this site is aimed either at directly facilitating development or at transcending blockages impeding or distorting development.  This post will try to provide some background on two particular facets of our development which can be enhanced via directed coaching.

Following Otto Laske, we can talk about the cognitive side, how we make sense of the world, and the social/emotional side, how we make/find meaning and values in the world.

With cognition, we can be said to move forward on (at least) two fronts:  Epistemic Position: how we conceive of truth and our ability to know; and Cognitive Complexity: how well we use the strengths and weaknesses of logical thinking and, simultaneously, how well we marshal trans-logical or dialectical thinking while avoiding the incoherence of illogic.

In the social emotional dimension we move forward in our ability, simultaneously, to be our own person in making decisions that match or define our values AND to be respectfully, and even lovingly, integrated in our relationships with others and work.

Both aspects combine in a growing ability to manage our emotional reactivity, to be more creatively constructive and to live a more satisfying, productive life which is both emotionally and spiritually rewarding.

It’s important to note that the discomfort and even pain that precedes a developmental transition is not necessarily a signal of emotional or psychological dysfunction.  While we all carry our share of emotional blockages and pain, development itself is frequently a discomfiting process, whether we see it in the travails of childhood and adolescence or the transitions through which, with luck and effort, we proceed as adults.  The good news is that, while these discomforts are inherent in our human situation, the growth that we attain usually reduces the suffering they cause us.

Our primary means of cognitive development is formal education while social/emotional development is mediated by school, family and friends.  As we progress through our schooling and growing within our family, our body (including our brain) and mind are maturing and, ideally, our life circumstance matches or slightly exceeds the levels of complexity our developing body and mind can handle.  This helps us become more competent in our current level of development and leads us, sometimes kicking and screaming, toward the next. If we are lucky in our teachers and environment, this dance of stretch, master and stretch again continues through our school years.

Once we finish our formal education however, we are usually presumed to be fully developed and it’s supposed that mastery of new tasks, relationships, levels of responsibility or, indeed, environments will be simply a result of learning new skills rather than the development of new levels of mental complexity.  Various researchers like Elliot Jaques, Robert Kegan, Michael Basseches and others have demonstrated that this “skilling up” theory is inadequate to explain either the demands of work at higher levels of complexity or the mental characteristics required to meet that demand.  Kegan and Basseches in particular have demonstrated that there are developmental paths that can allow us to attain levels of cognitive and social/emotional sufficient to meet these demands constructively.

Kegan, in his book “In Over Our Heads” uses as his opening example the demands of the transition from being a son/brother or daughter/sister in the family of origin to being the mother/father of a new family.  The transition usually requires the new parents to establish balances in their relationship with each other, their relationships with their own children, their relationships with their own and their partner’s work and with their own and their partner’s parents and siblings.  This is a huge leap in complexity in interpersonal relationships and, for millennia, the literature, theatre, movies/TV and theatre of all cultures have been built on the ramifications, dilemmas and conflicts inherent in it.  In this example, the husband’s strong orientation to his parents is interfering with his relationship with his wife and he is struggling to re-balance and re-orient his feelings of obligation and central value toward what is now his family.  Indeed he is struggling even to understand that the discomfort and awkwardness that he is experiencing is arising from his inability to contain these two conflicting sets of obligation simultaneously.

Coaching at this developmental level involves, at minimum, helping the client see their situation in ways which reveal rather than conceal its complexity.  This can sometimes mean introducing the idea that the conventional view of the simplicity and obviousness of our lives is a large factor in generating the conflicts in which we so often find ourselves.  This in turn often helps the client see themselves in new ways which increase their ability to see themselves as both unique and self-responsible AND as embedded in the mutuality of affective and intellectual relationship.

This process is both congruent with and complementary with the material which we teach in Cultivating Emotional Balance.