KC Mindfulness


Why meditate? Why go on long meditation retreats? Someone once said to me, about a meditation retreat that I was planning: “What’s the point? All it will do is make you a better meditator.”

What an excellent question! This question is fundamental for all of us in the field of mindfulness training. If I can’t do a good job of answering this question, then I will be less effective in my teaching, especially for those who are attracted to the concepts of meditation and mindfulness, but who (and really this is most people) are disappointed when they begin the practice of meditation, and find that it is not an instantly pleasurable experience. In fact, for most people, meditation is difficult; it requires patience and persistence. It is a new skill; a new mental skill, and it requires practice.

I often compare meditation practice to the process of learning a new sports skill, such as learning how to serve a tennis ball. The tennis serve is not a natural move for most people; it is complex, and it requires a lot of different body parts to move in different but coordinated ways, in the correct sequence. It feels very awkward, at first. In order to learn how to do it even reasonably well, you have to practice it, over, and over, and over again. Over time, in many different practice sessions, it will take thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of practice serves to get reasonably competent. You cannot learn a tennis serve any other way. You cannot learn to serve a tennis ball by reading about the mechanics of the tennis serve, or by watching other people serve the ball, or by reminding yourself throughout the day to remember, and mentally rehearse, how your arms and legs are supposed to move when you serve. Now, all of those things can be helpful in the process of learning the serve; but, without the actual practice of the serve, without the drudgery and discipline of forcing yourself to stand behind the baseline, tossing up hundreds of balls and hitting them, observing the results… then all the watching and reading and thinking and visualization in the world will not help you.

Once you have become competent at your tennis serve, your brain will have physically changed. Learning a new skill (any new skill) is accompanied by a process of “re-wiring” and shifting of resources in the brain, to meet the new demands being made upon it. The oft-used phrase in neuroscience is: “Where neurons fire together, they wire together.” Once the re-wiring has become established, the new skill no longer feels new, because the brain is no longer struggling to meet the (formerly new) demands being made upon it.

What we need to remember is that repetition is the key for new pathways to be established in the brain (and in life, for that matter). And this repetition is likely to feel awkward (at least), at first.

In some ways, meditation practice is like learning to serve a tennis ball. When we begin to practice meditation, we are undertaking the task of paying attention to the present moment, and doing so non-judgmentally. And, we quickly notice, this is not particularly easy for most of us, most of the time. When we are not actually engaged in an absorbing task, we are usually very mentally scattered. Instead of actively engaging our attention, we usually let it wander to whatever sensation or train of thought may arrive, without even noticing what it is that we have focused, or re-focused on. We go onto autopilot, and our minds wander aimlessly. We may engage in the mental re-hashing of various distressing life events; we may fantasize (happily or fearfully) about various possible future events. We may mentally criticize ourselves for doing certain things or feeling certain ways. The point is not that any of those mental topics is necessarily bad; the point is that we are, very often, being mentally passive, and not active; we are being absent, and not present, in our own mental lives. Instead of paying attention to what is going on, in our heads and around us, we are passively responding to the whole show. And, very often, we are mostly un-aware of nearly all of what is actually happening in our lives.

Meditation is a process of learning to be more mentally active. Over and over again, we ask ourselves to notice what is going on. We may choose a focus point, such as the sensations of breathing, to pay attention to. Then, when we settle in to do this task, we quickly find that we lose focus, and our minds drift away to something else; it may take some time even to notice that we have lost focus on our chosen object (such as sensations of breathing). The task then is simply to notice that this has happened; to re-focus on the chosen object; and to notice any judgments that accompany this process (I may notice that I am irritated or discouraged, because I so quickly lost focus). And (this is the key) this process is repeated many, many times; just as we repeat the movements of the tennis serve, so in meditation we repeat the process of gently bringing attention, or mental focus, onto a chosen object. This repetition is what changes our brain; this is what makes us more capable of being mentally engaged in our lives (as well as less reactive, and more compassionate). A recent study authored by Lidia Zylowska and her colleagues at UCLA indicates that meditation training is an effective intervention for people with attention deficit disorder; when we think about it, of course, it hardly seems surprising. Meditation is (partly) about learning to pay attention, by repeatedly practicing “paying attention”!

I am often told that meditation is not for everyone, and that is true. Not everyone is sufficiently motivated, or convinced of the potential benefits of meditation, to muster the patience and persistence that is required. It is also true that there are “other paths” to whatever goals are most important in a person’s life. But to say that meditation is “not for everyone” does not mean that meditation is only effective for people who take to it quickly and find it enjoyable; nor does it mean that “mindfulness” can be easily established, and brought into everyday life, without the foundation of a meditation practice.

This is why I teach meditation; this is why I sit on the cushion and meditate, nearly every day, even though I do not always “feel like it” or “enjoy” it. And this is why I go on retreat: With a strong meditation practice, I can bring mindfulness more effectively into my everyday life. And I can help others to do so, as well.


Are There Any Shortcuts?

By now, everyone has heard about the benefits of meditation; not only in the popular press, but in top-ranked scientific journals. Training in meditation has been linked (in some cases, very consistently) with: reductions in blood pressure; improvements in mood; reductions in compulsive or addictive behaviors; improvements in capacity to pay attention; and many other positive results.

Anyone who hears about these apparent benefits will be likely to say “I want that!” (After all, who doesn’t?) But then, having said this, that same person will be met with the realization that getting the benefits of meditation would seem to require that one actually engage in meditation. Oh. “Well, what if I don’t like meditation?” would be the next question, and it has been asked innumerable times. I have heard Jon Kabat-Zinn say that his rejoinder (at least sometimes) might be: “You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.”

The question really can be stated as follows: “Is it necessary to engage in a meditation practice to gain the benefits of meditation?” Or, put more crassly: “Isn’t there a shortcut?”

My own response to this question is a bit difficult to articulate, because there are at least two related topics that arise out of the question.

1. The meaning of “mindfulness”: The scientific study of the benefits of meditation is chiefly centered on a type of meditation practice that is usually called “mindfulness meditation.” It is drawn from Buddhist tradition, secularized and adapted for health care settings by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR). The term “mindfulness” has come to be understood as synonymous with a particular type of meditation, sometimes also known as “insight meditation” or “Vipassana.” It is also often used as a term that describes the attentional, intentional, and attitudinal stance that is adopted by a person who engages in mindfulness meditation: in this sense, to be “mindful” is to intentionally, and non-judgmentally, pay attention to the present moment. The two senses of the term are closely linked; the idea is that one engages in “mindfulness” both in formal meditation practice, and also, as often and consistently as possible, in everyday life. Formal meditation practice is considered to be a foundation for improving one’s capacity to consistently bring the practice of mindfulness into daily living. There is a very significant and compelling body of scientific findings that demonstrates the benefits of engaging in formal mindfulness practice, or meditation.

The terms “mindfulness” and “mindful” are used in other contexts, as well, and not always in reference to the meditation tradition just described. Sometimes this contributes to the natural question: “Can’t I be mindful without engaging in meditation?” The answer to that question would seem to be “maybe.” It depends, in part, on what you mean by the term “mindful.” Perhaps what you mean by “mindful” is “being more attentive.” You might arrive at the desire and intention to be more attentive in your daily life, and strive to practice this (without engaging in any formal meditation practice). So far, there is not a body of scientific findings indicating that this kind of practice results in the same benefits as are associated with mindfulness meditation. This does not mean that it cannot be beneficial; only that any potential positive effects have not been well-demonstrated or scientifically supported.

2. The desire for shortcuts: Human beings love to look for short-cuts. One could easily speculate that there an evolutionary advantage to a capacity for finding more efficient, easier ways to arrive at desired ends. While this is entirely understandable, it can sometimes lead us astray. I tend to be skeptical about any path that is advertised as a “simple” or “easy” or “effortless” or “quick” way to do something that is generally understood to be time-consuming, and/or difficult. As a teacher, I find that I am often in the position of delivering to my students what is received, more or less, as the “bad news”: that is, that you can’t adequately learn complex concepts and advanced skills without putting in a lot of hard work. This is true across disciplines: for learning calculus; for learning a golf swing; and also for creating a new positive habit (consistent exercise; healthy food choices; meditation; etc.).

Is there a non-meditative shortcut, or alternate path, for attaining the benefits of meditation? That question has already been answered, of course, in several ways, depending on which of those “benefits” one is interested in. Here are some of the alternative paths that are also demonstrated to provide various of the benefits that are associated with meditation:

  • Hypertension: medication; exercise
  • Improved mood: medication; exercise; psychotherapy
  • Improved attentional capacity/skills: medication; behavioral therapy
  • Reduction or elimination of compulsive/addictive behaviors: medication; cognitive-behavioral therapy; 12-step programs

BUT: Is there a non-meditative mindfulness pathway, equivalent to meditation in its various beneficial effects? That question has not yet been answered.

Conclusion: As is true for so many questions, the real “answer” to the question is probably best expressed as: “maybe.” And, whatever path it might be that is recommended to us, we would be well-advised to remember the words of the Buddha, loosely translated as: “Don’t blindly follow the words of any teacher or expert; instead, believe what is proven true in your own life and experience.” And, I would add, it is always a good idea to see whether or not there is any solid science backing up the claims that are being made.

Ellen Langer’s Version of Mindfulness

By Delany Dean, JD, PhD

Ignatius injured in battleImage via WikipediaRecently Dr. Kalea Chapman, whose very good blog (Pasadena Therapist) is here, published an entry in which he provides 11 definitions of the term “mindfulness,” which will certainly be a useful thing for those of us who are frequently being asked what it is we are talking about, when we talk about “mindfulness.” Interestingly, his list of definitions does not include Ellen Langer’s definition, nor any that explain the way that Ellen Langer uses the term. I find this significant because, not long ago, I was involved in a discussion with an individual who believes that she can use Ellen Langer’s ideas about mindfulness (instead of training in mindfulness meditation) in a program to enhance wellness. I am not so sure that this will work out as well as she hopes; and, since there are in fact excellent programs, with proven effectiveness, based on training in mindfulness meditation, I wonder why anyone would attempt to go in this other direction.

I hasten to add that Ellen Langer is a very well-respected social psychologist at Harvard University. But she is not a clinical or counseling psychologist, and does not work in a setting within which she attempts to develop programs that treat problems or enhance wellness. She has done very intriguing experiments in nursing homes and in with hotel maids, in which she manipulated certain conditions that altered the subjects’ concepts, ideas, and/or sense of control, with positive results. And, in a different direction, she also developed a concept called “mindful learning,” originally for use within educational settings. She uses her concepts about what she calls “mindfulness” within the area of creativity, as well. Basically, she has an entirely different concept, but she uses the same term (“mindfulness”). It has caused confusion in some quarters.

Here is a description of Langer’s “mindfulness” concept, from a website maintained by Liz MacDonald and Dennis Shirley (at Boston College):

“Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has written two books… entitled Mindfulness (1989) and The Power of Mindful Learning (1997). In those books, Langer offered a three-fold definition of mindfulness, entailing �the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.� She contrasted mindfulness with �mindlessness,� which she characterized as �entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective… “

The distinction between Langer’s model, and the approach that is used by those who teach and practice mindfulness-based interventions in mental health, is discussed in an article written by scientists who work within the traditions of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, etc. In the article (click here for the online version), the authors explain where Langer’s work is situated within the larger array of different approaches that use the term “mindful” or “mindfulness.” They acknowledge that there may be some overlap between and among these different approaches, but that there are very significant differences, as well:

“There are a number of constructs that may be within the same general domain as mindfulness as elicited by mindfulness meditation techniques. Most notably is Ellen Langer’s work in social psychology on mindfulness as a creative cognitive process. While both constructs involve attentional engagement, we agree with Langer that her construct is quite different from mindfulness as described in the context of the mindfulness meditation techniques [emphasis added] (see Langer, 1989). Langer’s mindfulness involves the active construction of new categories and meanings when one pays attention to the stimulus properties of primarily external situations, while our own definition emphasizes the inhibition of such elaborative processes as one pays attention to primarily internal stimuli (thoughts, feelings and sensations). Other similar constructs that might fall within the same general domain of mindfulness include flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) and absorption (Tellegan & Atkinson, 1974).

We also see mindfulness within the general domain of constructs that describe the ability to observe the temporal stream of thoughts and feelings including introspection (James, 1890), observing self (Deikman, 1982), presence (Bugental, 1987), reflective functioning (Fonagy & Target, 1996; 1997) and deautomatization/decentering (Safran and Segal, 1990).”

from: “Mindfulness, a proposed operational definition,” by Bishop, Lau, Shapiro, et al.

In other words, Langer encourages us to actively engage in cognitive processes related to thinking about what we perceive; to deliberately notice that there are differences and distinctions in the array of things we observe; and to identify (or name) the differences. This (as Langer herself points out) is very different from the practice of mindfulness meditation, and the related practices involving mindfulness in everyday life, in which we observe all that is presented to our mind and our senses, but without deliberately engaging in a lot of thinking about what we are observing. We do notice what our thoughts are, and what our sensations are… but we do not deliberately think about whether this one thing that we are seeing is in a different category than this other thing that we are seeing, or have seen before.

It appears that Langer has found that learning is enhanced when the learner engages in “the active construction of new categories,” or when s/he endeavors to “notice differences.” However, it is difficult for me to see how this type of cognitive process (although it may be valuable and helpful in educational settings) could be taught within a psychotherapy, wellness, or stress-reduction program; and there is no research whatsoever to support the idea that such a procedure will result in any sort of enhancement in health or wellness-related variables. I agree with Dr. Chapman (and many others!) that Ellen Langer’s definition(s) of “mindfulness” are not really useful within the context of mindfulness-based interventions in mental health.

It will be interesting to see what the research outcomes and results might be into any wellness programs that use Langer’s “mindfulness model.”

p.s. The picture at the top of this post is “Ignatius Wounded” in battle at Pamplona. Those readers among you who know me will understand why this picture seemed particularly apt to me, on this topic… For others of you, it must regrettably remain a Deep Mystery…


Are We Missing Something?

If you are a psychotherapist or counselor of any stripe, you cannot be unaware of the rising popularity of methods, programs, workshops, and books that mention the word “mindfulness,” usually referring to a type of meditation known as mindfulness, or insight meditation (or Vipassana). The mainstream peer-reviewed professional journals are also increasingly featuring scientific studies supporting the hypothesis that engaging in mindfulness meditation reliably produces various beneficial results.

Recently I returned from a meditation retreat attended by various scientists who are actively engaged in the practice and study of mindfulness meditation. Some of us do research that focuses on psychosocial or biometric variables that might be influenced by the practice of meditation (e.g., depression; anxiety; blood pressure); others directly study brain function, and changes in the brain that appear to be correlated with the practice of meditation.

In my own professional life, I am actively engaged in the teaching of mindfulness meditation and the study of the effects of that practice on a variety of outcomes (see my blog post below, dated December 20). The results of our research at Avila University are consistent with previous findings, i.e., that training people in the practice of mindfulness meditation, and supporting them in that practice, can have very positive results (e.g., lower depression and anxiety; improved attentional capacity).

All of this is very good, of course. Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, is drawn more or less directly from the teachings of the Buddha, who set out 2500 years ago to find the causes and alleviation of human suffering. He taught what is known as the Eightfold Path as a way to help human beings escape from the cycle of misery expressed so vividly by Thomas Hobbes, who famously and sadly commented that human life is typically “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” An important part of the Eightfold Path is the practice of mindfulness, usually taught by various methods of meditation.

Accordingly, those of us who teach meditation in mental health or community wellness settings are in good company. In a sense, we stand in the lineage of all the Buddhist masters and teachers of the past 2500 years who dedicated their lives to the alleviation of suffering. And yet, as I administer various psychological instruments to our study subjects, and have them weighed and measured in all sorts of ways, and as I statistically analyze the results, I have the nagging sense that I am missing something, something very important.

This sense of “off”-ness was exacerbated during the retreat from which I just returned. Our retreat leaders included Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, who are among the most dedicated and experienced, most respected, and best-trained meditation teachers in the United States. Their books about the practice of meditation and compassion are excellent, and have changed many lives (including my own). Listening to their talks and their teaching, in person, was deeply moving to me and to many others at this retreat. And I could not help but notice that Joseph and Sharon never talked about depression, or anxiety, or blood pressure. Instead, they talked about the true nature of reality; of our fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence; and the distorted understanding(s) we have of our true nature that cause so much conflict within and among humans, and all beings in existence. As I listened to them, I felt as if I had come home again to the original reason(s) that had attracted me to the practice of meditation within the tradition of Buddhist thought and its expression.

In our current scientific enthusiasm about meditation/mindfulness, I think that we sometimes forget two things: one is that the Buddha’s revolutionary method for the alleviation of human suffering does not consist only of the practice of meditation; and, second, that its ultimate goal is much more far-reaching and much more profound than could ever be measured by brain scans, psychological testing instruments, or blood pressure devices. More about each of these points, below:

The Eightfold Path: Not too long ago I was talking with a Jesuit priest about Buddhism. Like all Jesuits, he is a very highly educated man, and he had spent significant time in Japan, living in a Buddhist culture, sometimes talking with Buddhist monks and priests. So I was startled when he told me that, although he admired some aspects of Buddhism, he found that it lacking because it did not include any teaching about ethics. After taking a moment to get over my amazement, I gently explained to him that ethical teaching is, in fact, very much a central part of Buddhist philosophy and practice. For one thing, all practicing Buddhists pledge themselves to the 5 basic “precepts”: to refrain from killing (or harming) other beings; to refrain from stealing; to refrain from lying; to refrain from sexual misconduct; and to refrain from intoxication, or anything that clouds consciousness. And, of even more fundamental importance, a central teaching of the Buddha within the Eightfold Path is the cultivation and practice of a certain “right”-ness in all areas of life, including: what sort of work we are engaged in; how we talk to each other; and the motivations behind our speech and other conduct.

Accordingly, the practice of meditation should be seen as part of a larger, multimodal set of practices that are to be cultivated and lived together. The intent and teaching of the Eightfold Path is to lead us into the practice of meditation as part of a life in which we are also actively engaged in, and attentive to, central life choices, behaviors, and attitudes such as: intention/motivation, speech, conduct, and livelihood.

Ultimate “Attainment”: The great Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (called Dae Soen Sa Nim by his students) told a story of being hospitalized for heart trouble. While he was in the hospital, he said, someone offered to teach him meditation as a way to help lower his blood pressure. One irony, of course, is that anyone would presume to instruct such a great Buddhist master teacher in the practice of meditation. But the real point of the story, as he told it, was that Dae Soen Sa Nim did not subscribe to the notion that the purpose of meditation was to lower one’s blood pressure. He was after much larger fish, in deeper water. His life was about bringing students to much more profound realities and realizations, than might be evidenced by improved bodily functions.

The Bodhisattva vows, recited daily by many students and practitioners of Buddhism, are: “Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all. Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all. The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all. The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.” These are no small undertakings! They can serve to demonstrate that the point or purpose of meditation can be seen as much larger and deeper than (for example) the reduction of one’s blood pressure (although that may very well happen along the way). According to this viewpoint, the true purpose of the practice is to cut through all our many and varied attachments, aversions, and mental distortions, in order to reach a realization of our own true nature, the true nature of all reality, and to find (to truly realize) our deep connection with all other beings. In doing so, we may find great joy, along with deepest sorrow; and we may find that we are able to bring compassion to ourselves and others in our lives. In an ultimate sense, we may be bringing peace, clarity, and compassion into the universe.

Conclusion: I think that it’s good to teach meditation to a wide variety of people who are interested in learning about it, and to encourage people to practice meditation for any of the many positive purposes they may bring to the practice. The intention, or explicit goal, we bring to meditation practice may very well (and actually is likely to) change over time, if one continues the practice, and that is perfectly fine. I also believe that it is important to teach people about the original context(s) of meditation and its practice, and the full range of depths to which they can take us. And, finally, we should never assume that the “beneficial effects” of meditation, as measured by contemporary science, constitute the full answer to the intriguing question posed by Sharon Salzberg in our recent retreat: “What happens [when we do this practice]?” What really happens, indeed? The Buddha would encourage you to embark on the path, and find out how your own experience would answer that question.

Meditation, and Mindfulness

By Delany Dean, JD, PhD

What is meditation, and how is it related to mindfulness? I find that there is quite a bit of (justifiable) confusion about this, because these two words have many meanings, and they also have a lot of baggage attached to them. By “baggage,” I mean that many people have some strong opinions about these concepts. For example, I have found that a common belief about “meditation” is that it is a sort of blissful state that some people can enter at will; and I have encountered others who have a negative attitude toward “meditation,” because they believe that it is a sort of religious process or activity that is specific to Buddhism, and therefore dangerous for, or forbidden to, Christians.

In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” are used quite a bit; it is worthwhile, I think, to engage in some clarification about both of these concepts.

A recent (and quite wonderful!) article (by Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, and Davidson; click here) starts out with a very good definition: “Meditation can be conceptualized as a family of complex emotional and attentional regulatory training regimes developed for various ends, including the cultivation of well-being and emotional balance.” This definition appeals to me because it reflects what I believe is a very useful approach to understanding the types of meditation practice that are taught in MBSR and MBCT, and that is the understanding that meditation is an activity.

I have found that when people approach the practice of meditation with the understanding or belief that it is primarily a state or a feeling (a state of relaxation, or a state of bliss, or a feeling of calm or compassion, or a state in which no thoughts or feelings arise), then they can become very quickly frustrated and disillusioned, because they very seldom experience their subjective reality during the practice of meditation as calm, relaxed, or blissful. Sometimes, quite the contrary. If, instead, they can adopt an understanding that meditation is a mental activity that anyone can do, or a “training regime” that may be helpful in various ways (for improved attentional capacity, mood, or impulse regulation, perhaps), then they are not so likely to be either surprised or discouraged when they find that meditation might not be a blissful, or even relaxing, experience. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Meditation is not ‘relaxation’ spelled differently.”

Confusion also occurs about the relationship between “mindfulness” and “meditation.” The word “mindfulness” has many meanings; and there are many different types of meditation. In the realm of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), there is are specific forms of meditation that are taught, and the word “mindfulness” has specific meanings.

The forms of meditation that are taught in MBSR and MBCT are drawn from the Vipassana branch of Buddhism. “Vipassana” is sometimes translated as “insight,” and you will often hear about “Insight Meditation,” as well as “Mindfulness Meditation.” These terms are all closely related. However, I think it is important to point out that, although mindfulness meditation has roots within the Buddhist tradition, it not unlike the practices found in the contemplative traditions of Christianity and other great religions. And, despite the “religious” historical connection(s), mindfulness meditation is usually taught today as a purely secular activity, pursued not within any particular religious tradition, but for the benefits it apparently provides in the way of improved mental and emotional functioning.

Various types of “formal meditation practice” taught in MBSR and MBCT include: the “body scan,” which involves paying attention to physical sensations throughout the body; “sitting meditation,” which can involve paying attention to the sensations of breathing, while sitting still; and “walking meditation,” which involves paying attention to the changing sensations, primarily in the feet, while walking (usually at a slow pace). In each case, the mental activity involved is the act of paying attention; and, at all times, the instruction is to pay attention with an attitude of curiosity and compassion, even when (or, especially when) negative judgments naturally arise within the mind.

And, as used within MBSR and MBCT, the term “mindfulness” refers both to formal mindfulness meditation practice, and also to “mindfulness in everyday life.” Ultimately, the goal is to train the mind and the brain to more easily bring an attitude of “mindfulness,” or compassionate awareness, to more and more of our lives. And our “formal meditation practice” is the place within which we repeatedly train our minds to do this, and this practice, in turn, enables us to more readily bring mindfulness into our lives, throughout our daily activities. And emerging findings from neuroscience and the behavioral sciences are indicating that mindfulness meditation does, indeed, bring about changes in our brains, in our emotional functioning, in attentional capacities, and even in immune functioning (see the Lutz article, click here, for a summary of the most recent findings). And, for much more information about MBSR and MBCT, and about mindfulness and meditation, see my private practice website (click here).

At the top of this post you will find a drawing that might help to illustrate the relationship between “mindfulness” and “meditation.” There is an area of overlap between the two concepts, and we call that area “mindfulness meditation,” as taught within MBSR and MBCT. There are also areas in which the two concepts are quite distinct (mindfulness exists outside of formal meditation practice, and there are various types of meditation that are distinct from those types that are taught in MBSR and MBCT).

Meditation: Attention, Awareness, and Wisdom

Great Eastern SunImage by alicepopkorn via Flickr

One of the best things about my recent trip to Chicago was the opportunity to meet and talk with Roger Thomson, PhD, Mary Connors, PhD, and several of their colleagues. We talked quite a bit about mindfulness in psychotherapy, and about meditation. It is acknowledged by those who study this stuff that the two overlapping constructs (“mindfulness” and “meditation”) are not well-defined, if we are using scientific standards. Not long ago, I wrote a post about this (click here), in which I place at least some emphasis on the idea that “meditation” is a mental activity that involves the deliberate placing and shifting of attention.

The “attentional training” explanation of meditation goes like this: We begin a session of meditation by following the instruction to pay attention to the sensations of our breathing, while sitting still. We settle in, to do just that. Sooner or later (probably sooner!) we notice that our attention has drifted away from the sensations of breathing, onto something else: perhaps we have been thinking about what we would like to have for lunch… or about how silly this whole meditation process seems… And, having noticed that our attention has drifted away, we bring it back to the sensations of breathing. We also notice any reactivity or judgment that occurs, about the drifting of our attention (e.g., thinking and feeling that: “I am a lousy meditator! My attention drifted away again!”) and, insofar as possible, we bring some compassion or even humor to that.

According to some researchers and theorists, the benefits of meditation might be explained, at least in part, by reference to attentional focus and shifting: the deliberate acts of placing attention, noticing that attention has drifted, and repeatedly bringing attention back to a chosen target, might be responsible for strengthening the connections between the frontal lobes of the brain and some areas within the midbrain (the amygdala, for example) that are very much involved in emotional functioning. And this, in turn, may explain the improvements in emotion regulation, and reductions in impulsivity, that can take place for individuals who embark upon a regular meditation practice.

After our Chicago visit, my friend Roger Thomson, PhD, of Live Mindfully, wrote a very thoughtful and interesting post about a couple of the topics we discussed. One of these topics had to do with this whole business of meditation-as-attentional-training. He has some reservations about this way of looking at, or explaining, meditation. Here’s an excerpt:

“In mindfulness, our intention is to be open to any experience and to know it for what it is. It seems to me that the curative and liberating power of mindfulness is not the result of simply having greater control over our attention. It is deeply involved with having more wisdom and compassionate insight into the true nature of our experience…

“I would like to assert a few propositions about mindfulness for the purpose of continuing the discussion.

  • Mindfulness is essentially a process of reminding ourselves of the reality of our life.
  • Mindfulness is a way of developing wisdom (disengaging from our illusions) about our experience.
  • Mindfulness is more like waking from a dream than learning to pay attention to some other element of a dream.”

I very much appreciate what Roger is saying, because it rings true for me, and it approaches something that I have thought about (and written about, a bit, click here) in the past: many of us are interested in meditation because we are looking for something that is somehow “deeper,” and possibly more significant than, for example, the goal of an enhanced capacity for attentional focus… or even the goal of improved emotion regulation. Some people come to meditation as a practice that can be called “spiritual,” in the sense that it might bring us closer to an apprehension of, or experience of, something we might call ultimate reality. Or closer to what I use as the short-hand expression of my own understanding of Buddhist practice: clarity and compassion (or: wisdom). Roger is, I believe, directing our attention to the Buddhist exhortation to give up “delusion” (the mis-apprehension of reality), the clouding of awareness by our propensity to let our minds tell us stories about our lives. Problems arise when we believe all the stories we tell, and thoughts that we think, as true statements about reality (thinking, and believing, that *I can’t stand it if so-and-so happens!* causes no end of unnecessary grief). This is why the practice of “noting” or “labeling” can be an effective training method within mindfulness (or meditation) practice. There is a world of difference between (a) engaging in (and believing) the thought that “I am a jerk,” and (b) the act of noticing that I am (once again!) having the thought that says I am a jerk… Seeing clearly what is really going on (as opposed to what my mind tells me is going on) is a large part of wisdom.

Finally, I notice that, when I write about all this, it seems complicated. But it need not be so complicated… in fact, one of the first things I thought of when I read Roger’s post was that one of the very least complicated meditation instructions of all might be the very best, and it is this: “Just sit, knowing that you are sitting.” And, of course, when you are thinking, just know that you are thinking… when you are drinking tea, just know that you are drinking tea. I am writing my blog post, knowing that I am writing my blog post… Thanks, Roger!

Daydream Believer(s)?

Rêverie (Daydream)Image via WikipediaRoger Thomson, PhD, and I have been carrying on a conversation about the very large and complex topic that could be called: Meditation: What is it? For teaching purposes, I have been a fan of the model that emphasizes meditation as a mental activity, and as a form of attentional training. Dr. Thomson has pointed out some of the limitations of that model, and I agree with him. Here are a couple of our previous posts; here and here.

[NOTE: One of the things I least like about the Blogger platform is that there is no easy way to make the comments visible just beneath the posts to which they are serving as comments… this really makes the whole “comment” procedure much less attractive and useful… So, sometimes, I just cut and paste the comment into an actual post, because otherwise it just gets lost.]

Anyhow, this discussion is worth a lot more attention, I think, and most recently (in a comment), Dr. Thomson said this:

“I agree that the shifting of attention is a useful way to talk about mindfulness and meditation, but the whole process is kind of complicated, perhaps too complicated for any single metaphor. One thing I’ve been noticing is the difficulty of talking about and clarifying the processes involved in our awareness of inner states. When our attention shifts from the breath to some inner daydream, it’s not exactly the same as shifting our external attention from the computer screen to the keyboard. Our daydream is not just sitting there waiting for us to be aware of it, but something we do. So we don’t just shift our attention to the daydream, but we engage in the behavior of daydreaming with a certain amount of awareness. Similarly, when we notice we are absorbed in a daydream, we don’t just shift our attention away from it (as if it continued somewhere outside of our attention), we actually stop daydreaming. I wish I knew more about cognitive psychology to have better terms to describe “inner” awareness and “inner” behavior. Know any good references?”

My knee-jerk response was to say something along the lines of: inner, outer, experience, behavior, all the same. And that may well be true, at an ultimate level, but it isn’t very helpful, at the relative level in which we try to articulate ideas, and teach, and do science…

I have been thinking about Dr. Thomson’s reference to daydreaming as a mental activity… And that led me back to a focus on the therapeutic aspects of meditation training: In a clinical sense, the mental activities which appear to be most problematic for people come in two somewhat distinct categories. First, we have thinking about the past, stewing in regret, rumination, self-laceration, etc.; and this kind of process, unchecked, apparently is very much involved in depression. Second, we have worry, excessive involvement in imagining, fantasizing about, and trying to prevent future disasters; these processes seem to be a large part of anxiety disorders. Psychotherapy (and training in mindfulness) can help people to disengage from these processes, and thereby alleviate symptoms and conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders.

However: There are many other mental activities that are NOT problematic: solving a problem; enjoying pleasant memories; planning future activities. And there is the mental state (or activity) known as “flow,” during which the individual becomes deeply involved in, and seems to lose awareness of, what s/he is doing (the “what” being behavior, sometimes mental, sometimes more outer or physical). Good examples would include engaging in sports, playing chess, having sex (and possibly reading a novel or watching a movie). It may well be that it would in fact be counterproductive to interrupt “flow” during these activities, to make ourselves fully aware of what we are doing, while we are doing it. Certainly one would not want to engage in mental noting or labeling, while serving a tennis ball or making love.

And, getting back to daydreaming: I would suggest that when we are engaged in daydreaming (or fantasizing), it is usually without much awareness, if any, as to the fact that we are daydreaming. And that, when we “wake up” to awareness of the nature of our mental activity, we also become aware of the freedom that we have to choose whether to continue the daydream, or, instead, to re-deploy attention elsewhere. And this choice would fall into the category of “skillful means,” because of course there are times when daydreaming is perfectly fine, and other times when it would be much better to be doing something else. Sometimes, “daydreaming” is the same as rumination or worry. And I think that the “skillful means” concept probably provides us with a good model for addressing the other big topic we talked about in Chicago: distraction… can anything good come of it, or not…? More on that one, later…

“Just Worrying”

Biting one's lip can be a physical manifestation of worry.Image via WikipediaThere’s a psychiatrist in Australia, Dr. Chris Walsh, who uses mindfulness-based interventions in his practice. He has a wonderful website (click here) that I was delighted to discover, partly because much of the work he has published there has great potential usefulness in my own teaching and practice. One example: he uses the technique of mental noting (or labeling), with patients who are chronic worriers (sometimes this can become quite disabling, in which case it might be properly diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder). Here is an excerpt from his written instructions (found here) about this; he calls it “Just Worrying”:


As a preamble to discussing this technique with a client it is often helpful to differentiate worrying from constructive problem solving. Worrying involves repetitive circular thinking, which is associated with anxiety and produces no enactable practical outcomes.

This technique simply involves a person labelling worry as “just worrying” and then bringing their attention back to their breath or to simply change the subject of their thinking. Every time a person catches themselves worrying they just label it again and change the subject. It doesn’t matter if a person does it 10 times in one minute or if they only realize they have been worrying after a period of 2 hours and then apply the technique. The important thing is that the person applies the technique when they realize they are worrying.

This technique involves no criticism or internal struggle, just simple non-judgemental labelling.Therefore it is important in this regard that the client does not change the label from “just worrying” to “don’t worry”…

The same technique can be applied to other disturbing repetitive mental events using labels such as “just doubting” or “just criticizing”. This is subtly but significantly different to avoidance. It is not running away from the aversive mental stimulus. Rather it is the non-judgemental labelling which is encapsulated in the word “just.”

The repeated practice of mental noting, or labeling, can help us to gain just a little (just enough) healthy distance from, and perspective about, the process (worrying) within which we sometimes get enmeshed, or over-involved; this distance, and clear perspective, reduces the suffering that is created when we let the process get out of control.


Why is it that mindfulness practice, or training in attention/intention/attitude, can change our lives?

Mindfulness practice helps us to change mental habits, and it is often our mental habits that cause us great suffering. It is important, even revelatory to learn that we are capable of changing mental habits, because we tend to see ourselves as prisoners or victims of our thoughts and emotions (as well as our physical sensations). We often use repeated thought patterns to punish ourselves (“I am such a jerk…” “I will never make it…”) in a vain effort to correct our own behavior, and we may habitually avoid experiencing our own emotions and physical sensations (avoiding and constricting ourselves away from feelings of anger, fear, and pain), which also turns out to be counterproductive. We may discover that we are actually in the habit of reacting to and trying to manage reality, or fighting with reality, instead of experiencing reality.

Mindfulness is about stopping all of this useless (at best) and harmful (frequently) battling with the way things are. We aim to develop a compassionate stance toward our actual experience (which is the stuff of our lives) and stop using the habits of avoidance, denial, managing, and checking out of real life.

Mindfulness practice is sometimes described as comprised of three fundamental components: Intention, Attention, and Attitude. We initiate the INTENTION to PAY ATTENTION with a certain ATTITUDE (Non-judgmentally, or Compassionately). We choose to pay ATTENTION in this way to our lives as they unfold in this minute, instead of to: television; painful memories; fears about the future; regrets about the past; useless speculation about “why?” something did or did not happen, or “why” I did or did not do something; calling myself names; scheming about how to get someone else to change; etc.

And, as it happens, mindfulness practice is precisely the type of repeated effort that changes the human brain in a positive way. Neuroscientists have now repeatedly demonstrated that: “If neural circuits receive a great deal of traffic, they will grow. If they receive little traffic, they will remain the same or shrink. The amount of traffic our neural circuits receive depends, for the most part, on what we choose to pay attention to. Not only can we make decisions by focusing on one idea rather than another, but we can change the patterns of neurons in our brains by doing so consistently.” (This quote is taken from the new book: The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary.)


To what’s going on

Around you


Inside your head

If you pay attention to what is going on in your mind, you will find that there is a near-constant stream of chatter. Our brains seem to be talking, and engaging in commentary, all the time: sometimes about the past (“I really wish I had not done that!”), sometimes about the present (“this is really nice!” or “I hate this!”) and sometimes about the future (“I hope I get the job!” and “I am so scared that I will fail.”).

This “chatter” represents normal brain function; it is simply something that the brain does, when it is not occupied in deliberate problem-solving. The brain generates thoughts, emotions, impulses, and physical sensations. However, most of us are unaware of most of what the brain is “saying,” nearly all the time! Instead, we let it go on, chattering outside of our awareness, while we go off into autopilot. If we are not actively making an effort to pay attention, many of our complex behaviors (driving to work; walking down the hall to the mailbox; eating meals) occur while we are in a sort of autopilot state. This does not necessarily mean that we are functioning poorly (any outside observer would say that we are doing just fine); but if we are in that autopilot state, we clearly are not living fully. And we may also be putting ourselves at risk for various problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, and impulsive and compulsive behaviors (including addictions). We may find, upon reflection, that our lives simply are not what we would like them to be.

There are any number of patterns into which internal chatter might fall. For some people, brooding about the past is prominent. I might endlessly and repetitively recall and re-hash episodes from my past, critically judging my decisions and my behavior, maybe even wallowing in regret and self-hatred.

Another pattern involves the future: I might be a chronic worrier, constantly bringing into mind scenarios in which disasters and catastrophes will likely take place. This can be accompanied by a constant effort to problem-solve or problem-prevent: “What will I do if this happens? What if that happens? How can I keep either of those things from happening?”

Another pattern that appears in all of our mental landscape falls under the heading of “habit.” We all are aware that we have behavioral habits; we also have mental habits. Our capacity to develop habits is, overall, a very positive thing; we could not function efficiently if we had to think through ever step we take in life, constantly “reinventing the wheel.” However, the negative side of habit-formation is clearly evident, as well. Many of our habits would be readily identified as “bad habits.” Our brains are structured in such a way that anything that is repeated often enough becomes a sort of a preferred, or even “default” option. If I am accustomed to taking a certain route when I drive home from work every day, then it takes a certain amount of effort to change my route. That driving route has become a (benign) habit. By the same token, if I have begun a pattern of eating a bowl of Cherry Garcia ice cream after dinner in the evenings, then it will take some effort to refrain from eating it on any given evening, and I will feel a strong urge to buy more of it when I go to the grocery store.

These patterns, mental and behavioral, can lead to serious problems:

  • Brooding contributes to depression
  • Worrying contributes to anxiety disorders
  • Habit makes it more difficult to avoid unhealthy behaviors

The tricky thing about these patterns is that they tend to go on outside of our awareness. We can see the outcomes that naturally arise out of the patterns (in unhappiness and in behaviors we don’t like, but can’t seem to control); but we fail to see the mind-states that contribute to these outcomes. We tend to be mystified by our own behaviors and emotional states. We feel as if they are outside of our control.

But, what if we shift our focus away from the outcome to the cause? What if we begin to develop the habit of awareness of our own mental functioning (especially our thoughts, emotions, impulses, and physical sensations), and develop our capacity to detach from counterproductive patterns, before they have a chance to manifest themselves as significant problems?

As it turns out, we can exercise our human capacity for freedom by deciding to develop our ability to direct and re-direct our attention. Since we know that our mental habits are contributing to unhappiness in our lives, the arena for choice becomes situated within our minds. We can let these patterns continue to go on chattering, outside of awareness (in which case we have no control over them); or we can pay attention, so that when they are operative, we can gently detach from them, and redirect attention to something more worthwhile.

How do we do that? As Jeff Schwartz says, “Attention must be paid.” One way that many, many people have successfully brought a greater degree of freedom into their lives is called mindfulness practice, which is a sort of umbrella term that covers a variety of practices or types of meditation. This can involve formal, silent “sitting meditation,” sometimes for long periods of time; and it can involve “everyday” mindfulness, when we remember to pay close attention to a particular activity. For example: Washing the dishes, we deliberately notice all the thoughts, sensations, and emotions that arises during the period of time that we are doing that task.


There is some very wonderful recent research in neuroscience that explores the mechanisms by which the practice of labeling emotions (by way of mental noting, or talking to someone, or writing) reduces emotional distress and/or reactivity.

This practice (mental noting) is a part of mindfulness practice, and it is also central to psychotherapy (and it can be a part of journaling practice). All of these practices appear to reduce emotional suffering, and it appears that we are getting closer to some possible explanation(s) of these phenomena.

Try it, yourself: you don’t even have to sit down and be quiet. Just do this: as you go about your day, check in once in a while with yourself. What are you feeling in your body? What are your current, right-now, thoughts and emotions? What are you hearing, smelling, seeing? Give these various phenomena names (“feeling apprehensive… stomach growling… tightness in neck… thoughts about what I need to get done, next week… wishing I had some butter pecan ice cream…. great-looking clouds out to the west… “). Do this gently, with a sense of curiosity. Another way to do this is just to remind yourself to be aware of what you are doing, while you are doing it. You may find that you begin to feel more alive, more settled.


My first training and teaching about meditation (other than by reading books, that is), was at the Kansas Zen Center, in Lawrence, Kansas. I went there because I wanted to learn about, and practice, meditation. There were other reasons as well, but right now my point is that, with respect to meditation, my overall attitude was highly positive. This does not mean that I found formal sitting meditation to be easy, or particularly pleasant. Sometimes it was downright miserable, especially during retreats, when we would sit for many hours every day. My knees would hurt terribly, and when I wasn’t preoccupied with hurting knees, I was often falling asleep. But at the Zen Center, we had a supportive group, all sitting meditation together. And all of us who were part of that community did sitting meditation without much complaint; after all, meditation is a big part of Zen practice.

Much later, when I began to use mindfulness-based interventions with patients in my psychotherapy practice, I found that many (well, maybe the proper word is “most”) people are not nearly as positively disposed toward meditation as I was, and not nearly so willing to stick it out when it is difficult. And even those who are positively disposed often have unrealistic expectations about meditation: for example, expecting that they will quickly enter some kind of “state of bliss,” or at least that they will experience a comfortable relaxation when they engage in the practice. Now, when I teach mindfulness-based interventions to graduate students in counseling, I find that the most common response, overall, is: “But what if my client doesn’t like mindfulness practice?” This is occasionally interspersed with the somewhat surprised report that: “My client really likes mindfulness!”

I have worked with this business of liking/not liking meditation practice for years, but I don’t have any definitive answers as to how to help a person become willing to do something new, like meditation. It’s a really big question, and it is at the heard of all psychotherapeutic practice. Certainly, coercion and overt persuasion will not be helpful, and certainly, one must never get engaged in a power struggle with a client. But gentle explanations, an invitational stance, a proper orientation to the entire issue of “homework,” are all important. For now, I offer a piece I wrote that some have found helpful:


Those who participate in mindfulness programs (such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or Mindfulness-Based Wellness) are sometimes confused about the importance of meditation. They might not have realized that “mindfulness practice,” as it is usually taught today, includes various forms and practices of meditation.

So, why should you practice meditation? Meditation is mental exercise, or “mind training”…. AND it has a positive impact on the brain.

Meditation is mental exercise, and it strengthens and changes the mind/brain in the same way that lifting weights or aerobic exercise changes the skeletal muscles, lungs, and heart. To get the benefits of weight training, we have to set aside time for engaging in weight training. This is like setting aside time for engaging in formal mindfulness practice, or meditation. We cannot attain the benefits of weight training by reading books about exercise physiology, or by thinking about how wonderful it is (or would be) to be physically strong and fit. The same is true of mind training. We must actually engage in the practice (or the work) of mental training, in order to attain any benefit. It is not enough to read books or listen to talks about meditation.

Here are some of the changes in body/mind/brain that appear to be gained by meditation practice:

· Improved mood

· Improved immune function

· Capacity to flourish in stressful situations

· Greater sense of spiritual connection

Meditation gives us the habit of awareness: of knowing what is going on in the here and now, in our environments and in our minds/hearts.

When integrated with values-based goal-setting, meditation enhances your capacity to direct your attention, e.g., to what you are thinking right now (your thoughts); AND also your capacity to re-direct your attention to whatever would be beneficial to you right now, e.g., recalling your goals and values (reflecting your true self).

We could describe this as a two-step process:

Practice Awareness (pay attention)


Direct Attention (to a valued target)

When we have engaged in attentional training (mindfulness practice), we find that we approach life situations in more skillful, wiser ways. Here is an example of how this works: a person who struggles with alcohol abuse drives past the bar where he sometimes hangs out, drinking… he might remain in a totally mindless state, pull into the parking lot, and go inside. He gets drunk, and then later he will say: “I don’t know what I was thinking! It just happened!”

If he does pay attention to his thoughts and impulses, he will notice that all sorts of things are going on in his mind: “Ah, there is the Dew Drop Inn! My favorite bar! I am thinking that I want to go in there and have a drink… my friends will be in there… It would be fun! But… I will probably get drunk, and then hate myself…. But… this urge to drink is so strong, I can’t help it, I really need a drink… Anyway, everyone says that I’m just an alcoholic, I might as well not fight it…. And, this time maybe I’ll just have a couple of drinks…” And then he pulls into the parking lot, and goes in the door, feeling as if he is out of control. He probably gets drunk.

But if he has developed the habit of noticing his thoughts, feelings and impulses, AND noticing that they are transient, and do not necessarily represent Truth or Reality, AND if he has learned to REDIRECT his attention to the thoughts (values and goals) that represent his true self, then he will compassionately observe all that mental chatter, and then remember that what he really wants to choose in his life is not to sit in a bar and drink, not to get drunk, but to live a life of dignity and clarity… and then he can drive past the bar, and do something that reflects his true self (who he really is). He can go to the gym, play with his kids, write a few pages of his novel… whatever is consistent with his values and goals.

Of course you can apply this example to any number of difficult life situations: chronically negative interactions with children or partners; consumerism; unhealthy eating patterns; excessive time spent on the computer or watching TV…

What you can see is that what this person has learned to do is to PAY ATTENTION to what is going on, both in his environment (there’s the bar, and it looks pretty attractive to him right then) and also in his mind/heart (wanting to drink; anticipating good feelings and fearing bad consequences; arguing with himself; rationalizing), AND to compassionately DISENGAGE from all that chatter, and to REDIRECT ATTENTION (to what he most deeply desires and values, which is to live a life of dignity and clarity).

This is precisely what we do in meditation practice. We focus on the sensations of our breathing. Then we notice a lot of mental chatter, physical discomfort, noise, impulses to scratch and fidget. We compassionately disengage from all that, and redirect our attention to the sensations of our breathing. We do this, over and over again, much like an athlete or a musician practices a movement, over and over again.

And then, in daily life, we utilize and build on our mind-training. We pay attention to the here and now, including our own reactions to what we experience from moment to moment. And, when we notice that we have become lost in the past, or in the future, or maybe nowhere at all, we bring our attention back to whatever is going on right now. What are my thoughts, my physical sensations, my emotions? What action could I take right now that would bring me into alignment with my true self, my values, my goals?

One easy way to build this into daily life is to create a trigger for yourself, something that you do several times, every day. An example would be: opening a door. I can resolve that every time I open a door, today, I will take just a moment to slow down a bit, and to re-orient myself to the here and now. Take a breath. What are my thoughts? What is going on around me? What is happening with me, emotionally? In my body? Insofar as possible, bring an attitude of compassion (or, at least, non-judgment) to all of this. Then move on through that doorway, and into your life!


In Buddhist teaching, there is the understanding that there are certain classes of human experience that are major sources of our suffering. These experiences are known as the “Eight Worldly Dharmas” and are listed as a set of four contrasting pairs: pleasure and pain; praise and blame; fame and disgrace; gain and loss. The seemingly positive side of each of these pairs (e.g., praise, fame) triggers not only the contemporaneous sensations and thoughts related to pleasure (“I like this!” and “I deserve this!”), but also a clinging, a desire to hang on to, perhaps to intensify, the experience. And each of the “negative” experiences (e.g., blame, loss) triggers not only instantaneous sensations and thoughts related to disliking (“I hate this!” and “This should not be happening to me!”), but also, too often, a determined effort to avoid, escape, or deny the situation. If we look at our own emotional lives and behavior, we can begin to see that much of our lives are governed by the pursuit of pleasure, praise, fame, and gain; and by the avoidance of pain, blame, disgrace, and loss. This could hardly be called a meaningful life.

There is a way out of this trap. First, we need to develop the habit of observing our reactions to situations, to see where it is that we are getting hooked into believing in the importance of the dramas we create by way of the “eight worldly dramas.” In doing this, we learn that we seem to be living on a highly unpredictable roller coaster, as we emotionally rise, descend, and rise again, based on our interpretations of the events of our daily lives. When we are being praised, we feel marvelous; if, in the next moment, we receive what feels like blame, we feel terrible. When the experience is painful, we tend to tighten, or clench up in a fierce (and counterproductive) effort to protect ourselves. Either way, we dwell on, and feed off of, the emotions generated by events and (especially!) our interpretations of those events.

Second, we must practice compassionate acceptance of precisely the things we might most want to change: painful experiences; being jostled and bruised by others as they, too, scramble about in the thrall of their own eight worldly dharmas; and our own proven capacity to fall into the traps and stories created by our own minds. Recognizing that I harbor a childish tendency to insist that things go “my” way, my task is simply to notice when this arises, acknowledge it for what it is (just a misguided demand that I am making of the world), and return to the situation at hand: what does this situation demand of me, now? According to my own values, what is the correct action, right now? Sometimes the correct action will be to accurately label what is happening (perhaps an injustice being done to someone); sometimes it can involve an attempt to relieve the suffering created by an injustice; and always, if it is truly a “correct” action, it must be done in a spirit of non-harming. This is very demanding work, and we will not always get it right; however, life will always give us more opportunities to practice!

Here is a short excerpt of what Pema Chodron says about this, in her wonderful book, When Things Fall Apart:

“The irony is that we make up the eight worldly dharmas. We make them up in reaction to what happens to us in this world. They are nothing concrete in themselves… In meditation, we can notice how emotions and moods are connected with having lost or gained something, having been praised or blamed, and so forth. Gradually our practice evolves. We start understanding that, just like us, other people also keep getting hooked by hope and fear. Everywhere we go, we see the misery that comes from buying into the eight worldly dharmas. … [This is] the beginning of growing up… When we begin just to try to accept ourselves, the ancient burden of self-importance lightens up considerably…Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all [the] unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at. Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up to. There’s a slogan in the Mahayana teachings that says, ‘Drive all blames into oneself.’ The essence of this slogan is, ‘When it hurts so bad, it’s because I am hanging on so tight.’ What it implies is that pain comes from holding on so tightly to having it our own way and that one of the main exits we take when we find ourselves in an unwanted situation or an unwanted place, is to blame.”


The work that we most deeply want to be engaged in is, I believe, all about the pursuit of a meaningful and satisfying life. For many, this starts with mindfulness practice, which is a way to get and stay engaged with the reality of our lives (instead of being bogged down in thoughts and wishes and regrets about how we WISH our lives could be). We want to cultivate a COMPASSIONATE awareness and engagement with our own experience (not judging our own thoughts and emotional experiences, for example). And we want to keep our values and goals in our awareness in order to make better choices about how to spend the small time we have been given within which to live our lives. Here is how it fits together:







(the reality of this moment NOW).

Reality means BOTH of the following:

Inner reality (our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses)


Outer reality (unwanted situations we cannot change).

[But what if you WANT “things to change”? You want to have a more satisfying

and meaningful life. Of course you do! So, think about this:]


Can I change other people?

Can I make my workplace turn into a beautiful locale?

Can I un-do the effects of illness or injury?

hmmm ……………………………………….

The only things we really can change are:

The kind of persons we are.

The kind of lives we want to lead.

Here’s the problem: Struggling against (or denying) the way things are


interferes with getting what we most want to have

in the future.

The alternative to STRUGGLING and DENYING is: ACCEPTANCE.

ACCEPTANCE means CHOOSING TO EXPERIENCE REALITY instead of allowing ourselves to be lost in:






Acceptance is actually a big aspect of Mindfulness practice. Mindfulness practice, as you know, involves observing our experiences NOW and in a COMPASSIONATE, NONJUDGMENTAL manner. That’s really just another way of saying that we practice the skill and attitude of ACCEPTING the reality that we are experiencing RIGHT NOW. The key is to extend that acceptance to all of reality in order to get clear on the important tasks of living out our values and reaching our goals.

Again, there are only two things we can change.

First: What kind of person do I want to be?

Second: What kind of life do I want to live?

Every moment, if we are not wrapped up and lost in an inner drama, fantasy, story, or struggle, we are making choices about WHAT TO DO. How do we make those choices? There are really only two approaches. We can make choices (or behave) two different ways:

The first way is characterized as: aimless, impulsive, on autopilot, or mindless. The second way is characterized as: mindful, goal-directed, and guided by our deeply held values.

Remember when you were a child: If you did something wrong, the crucial question always was: “Did you do it on purpose, or by accident?”

Now that you are an adult, you might want to ask that question about your life as a whole: your small decisions, and the large ones, too. Whatever it is that you did today: Did you do it on purpose (fully thought out and intentional) or by accident (it “just happened!”)? That’s what this is all about: Living on purpose.


The steps:

  • Be aware of now (Mindfulness)
  • Accept what is going on now (Acceptance)
  • Clarify values: What kind of person do I want to be, and What kind of life do I want to live?
  • Declare Goals consistent with Values (Goal-setting)
  • Choose activities in pursuit of Goals (Making wide-awake and deliberate choices)

(Copyright Delany Dean, PhD 2007)


I am very interested in the questions related to human freedom, or free will. As most psychologists and other scientists understand it, human freedom is not unlimited (some psychologists are actually determinists, believing that human freedom is totally illusory; but I think that concept is a dead end, and will not deal with it in this post). If we reflect upon it, I think all of us would acknowledge that, as a practical matter, much of our behavior is thoughtless, even “automatic.” We all have what we call “knee-jerk reactions.” We all can probably recall occasions when we did something (maybe something contrary to our values), but cannot say “why” we did it, and cannot really recall making a conscious decision to do it. In my work as a forensic psychologist, it has many times been my sad experience to evaluate a person facing murder charges who tells me (when I ask him what his thoughts were, just before he killed someone): “I didn’t think about it; it just happened!” There is, in such cases, the sense that the act of killing was something that happened to him, instead of by him (and these are people who do not have a psychiatric condition). And, in the (much more common) situations in which people engage in compulsive (or addictive) behaviors, they certainly have the subjective sense that their capacity for self-control is severely lacking (or even entirely absent).

The good news about this picture is that we need not be helpless in the face of limitations in our capacity to exercise freedom. One of the primary reasons that we engage in so much thoughtless, automatic behavior is that we allow ourselves to become lost in thought, even as we are going through the activities of our daily lives. We just “go through the motions,” while mentally engaged in activities such as planning for the future, or re-hashing the past. In other words, we allow ourselves to be “mindless,” a state in which we fail to pay attention to what is going on (within our minds, and in our surroundings), right this very moment. And, when we are mindless, we can easily act on an impulse that we never even realized that we had (resulting in what would label a “knee-jerk reaction”). Within psychology and psychiatry, in treating compulsive/addictive behavior, we teach people to pay closer attention to their thoughts and emotions, so that they can detect the beginnings of an impulse (or craving) early enough to make a conscious decision to head it off… and, in this way, they can begin to change their behavioral patterns, even those that have often felt uncontrollable.

This type of attentional training, or attentional enhancement, is a one very important aspect of meditation practice. Over and over again, we bring our mind into a state in which we are deliberately paying attention to what is going on right now, this very moment. As we do this, our brains become more capable of shifting attention from the internal train of mental chatter (worrying about the future, thinking about the past); and we are better able to remain consciously aware, in our daily lives. And, when this happens, we are also improving our capacity for self-control, because we actually know what we are thinking and feeling, and how we are responding to environmental triggers, in the here-and-now (instead of later, after we have done something that we might regret!).

In the Mind Hacks blog, there is a short discussion of a new article by Richard Davidson and his colleagues, about the effects of meditation practice on attentional processes; they note that: “many… studies… have reported interesting effects. For example, highly experienced focused attention meditators need minimal effort to sustain attentional focus, while even short courses on meditation can improve attention and decrease stress.” In our contemporary world, one in which we all seem to suffer from attentional deficits to one degree or another, the implications are obvious…

Conclusion: I think that Joseph Goldstein, the great meditation teacher, was well-justified in naming one of his books: Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom.


The most basic instructions given to beginning meditators (especially in the Vipassana tradition, also called “mindfulness” or “insight” meditation) usually include some reference to compassion. Engaging in mindfulness meditation involves the compassionate awareness (and clear observation) of whatever is going on right now, in the present moment. This attitudinal stance is not automatic; it takes practice! At first, nearly all beginning meditators find that they are highly judgmental about their own meditation practice. They measure themelves and their practice against various standards and preconceptions about what meditation “should” be like, and, many times, when it is not that way, they become discouraged and disappointed in themselves. They understand, for example, that the instruction is to “pay attention to the sensations of breathing,” and they do that, for a little while; but, inevitably, they become distracted; when they notice that they have become distracted, they often get frustrated or angry. This type of response is a major challenge in the practice and teaching of meditation. We ask students to notice these emotional states and reactions (anger, frustration, discouragement) and to begin to bring compassion to those very phenomena, before letting them go, and returning the attention to the sensations of breathing. And it is not uncommon for beginning meditators to realize that they do not want to let go of their anger; they truly believe that if they are not judgmental toward their “failures,” if they do not (in effect) punish themselves, then they will never be successful in achieving any goals. This can be a very difficult barrier to cross; and, in fact (as with so many barriers!) it must be crossed over and over again. But eventually, with practice, it become more clear that we can lead much more effective (and happier!) lives if we let go of reactivity and negative judgments directed toward ourselves.

Meditation practice can also involve the deliberate direction of compassion toward others. There is a very ancient method of meditation known as “metta,” or (in the West, today) as “loving-kindness meditation.” In this practice, instead of paying attention to whatever arises in the present moment, one uses a focus on particular individuals or groups of people (oneself, a friend, a neutral person, a person who is difficult to like, etc.) and directs the wish/intention for that person to have happiness, safety, peace, well-being. It was this form of meditation that was recently subjected to scientific investigation by some neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin (Richard Davidson’s team); here’s an article about the study, and here’s a link to the abstract for the actual study. Preliminary findings are very intriguing; using the technology of brain imagery, they found [excerpt from the article]: “When engaged in compassionate meditation, the brain region known as the insula burst into action when the expert meditators heard the sound of a woman in distress. (The insula-a part of the limbic system-has been associated with the visceral feeling of emotion, a key part of empathizing with another’s emotional state.) And when these experts heard the female screams or the sound of a baby laughing, their brains showed more activity than the novices in areas like the right temporal-parietal juncture, which plays a role in understanding another’s emotion.”

This gives rise to what might seem a revolutionary suggestion: perhaps empathy and compassion really can be learned! In contemporary Western psychotherapy, efforts to do exactly that have not been particularly successful (“empathy training” for sex offenders has been a huge flop, for example). And it is generally thought that people who have psychiatric disorders that include symptoms of empathy failure (or, possibly, deficits in the functioning of the “mirror neuron” system), such as autism, narcissism, even psychopathy, do not generally have positive prognoses with conventional psychological and psychiatric therapeutic methods. Maybe this research will begin to provide contemporary science (in partnership with ancient spiritual methodologies) with another direction to use in addressing empathy failures. I can think of few things that the world needs more.

For more information about loving-kindness meditation: the well-known meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg and Sylvia Boorstein, have written excellent books about this form of meditation. Boorstein’s new book is called Happiness is an Inside Job, and Salzberg’s book is Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.


I teach mindfulness practice to MSCP Practicum students at Avila, and I teach them to teach mindfulness practice to clients. Students and their clients often voice objections and complaints: “this is not working for me!” Even though it is clearly stated in the introductory instructions that mindfulness practice is NOT supposed to be (necessarily) blissful or relaxing, and NOT an instant fix for one’s problems in daily functioning… still I hear people saying that it is “not working.” Funny how persistent are our hopes and expectations for quick gratification and easy fixes!

In working with mindfulness practice, I hope to foster in students and clients an attitude of compassionate curiosity toward their own experiential world, and this very much includes their (our!) sometimes frantic desire to escape into fantasy or the internet or food or TV or drugs. Mindfulness practice requires us to stay with whatever might be going on right now in our inner/outer experience; sometimes this is pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, but always it is the reality of life right now.

To the extent that I am experiencing, and not avoiding, my own experience of NOW, to that same extent am I fully alive. Better to be here, now, I believe, than to spin off into fantasies about a hoped for or dreaded future, or into stories about the past.


Thoughts about breathing and mindfulness: there are some practices within yoga that teach and employ special ways of breathing. We hear of “breathing techniques” and “breathing exercises.” These practices all include a focus on manipulating one’s breathing in various ways: to make it deeper, to make it slower, to breathe only through the nostrils, or the mouth, or to alternate nostrils, and so forth.

This type of manipulation or alteration of the breath is not a part of mindfulness practice, or insight meditation (from the Vipassana tradition in Buddhism). The breath is allowed to be just as it is, naturally, however that might be. It might be shallow, it might be deep; it might be rapid and it might slow down. None of that is important. What is important is the repeated direction of attentional focus ON the breath. The breath, within mindfulness practice, serves the function of a constantly changing physical sensation upon which to direct one’s non-judgmental attention. Any attempt to make the breath be a certain way is regarded in the same way as any other of our endless human attempts to make our reality more satisfactory! These efforts are to be regarded with compassionate awareness.

So, I suggest that my practicum students not use the term “breathing technique” or “breathing exercise” when they teach their clients about mindfulness practice. To do so would suggest that the client should be having some kind of special kind of breathing, or even some kind of specially lovely experience while breathing! This would lead to disappointment; one of the lessons of mindfulness practice is that our expectations of specialness can lead to suffering, because we feel cheated when those expectations are not fulfilled.

It is in fact the ordinary that is truly “special.” When we stop trying to manipulate and improve reality, we can perceive the inestimable value of the universe we are given in each moment of awareness.

It is so difficult to shake the habit of believing that, if only I get it right (whatever it may be), then I will win the prize: I will get happiness! Our poor human minds are so filled with incessant cravings and persistent aversions! Our brains crank out instantaneous judgments of LIKE or DON’T LIKE about everything we encounter, including (or especially!) our own thoughts, feelings, and impulses. The good news is that this is not all that our minds are capable of: we are also capable of participating in our reality with a larger and more compassionate mind: some call this Big Mind, or maybe Wise Mind. Mindfulness practice, or Insight Meditation, helps us to experience Big Mind. Over and over, we notice a judgment, and we let it go. Let it go, let it go, let it go, and then let it go! The judgment doesn’t matter! Let’s say there is a situation I cannot solve, and I hate it! It doesn’t really matter that I hate it, and that I hate my own hatred of that situation; what matters is that I engage in whatever effective action, in that situation, that is consistent with my values. Then, I can begin to put the hatred away. A little less hatred in the world is a step in the right direction, is it not?


Dan Siegel is a psychiatrist who specializes in child development and disturbances in attachment that can lead to difficulties not only in childhood, but also throughout adult life. His new book is called The Mindful Brain. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this new book (as well as the previous one, The Developing Mind)!

Siegel’s Mindful Brain describes his own introduction to the scientific basis for using mindfulness-based practices as methods for enhancing the functioning of the brain. He draws a comparison between the empathic attunement between parent and child (which is necessary for proper neuronal growth and connections in support of emotion regulation) and our human capacity for self-attunement by way of mindfulness practice.

Siegel’s attention has long been directed toward the concept of “secure attachment” that results (especially within parent-child relationships) when there is proper interpersonal attunement. Attunement is the label Siegel uses for a process that is set in motion when one person “focuses attention on the internal world of another.” This process “enables two people to ‘feel felt’ by each other”; it is the very same process that is brought about in a healthy psychotherapeutic relationship. In fact, attunement (fostered by the empathic stance of the therapist) may very well be the most important “ingredient” among the many different variables that are brought into play in psychotherapy of all types. Siegel asserts, and demonstrates by a thorough review of current literature in psychology and neuropsychiatry, that this process promotes resilience, and enhances interpersonal functioning and emotion regulation.

Siegel’s major innovation in this new book is to make explicit the connection between empathic attunement between individuals (interpersonal attunement), and the intrapersonal attunement that takes place in the brain of a person who engages in mindfulness practice. He contends that these are fundamentally similar processes, and with similar beneficial results (this is also supported by recent findings in relevant scientific literature). As he puts it, there is an “overlap of the ways in which well-being and resilience [are] promoted by secure attachment and by mindful awareness practice,” (p. xix).

Siegel finds that mindfulness practice promotes neural integration within the brain and a healthy flow of interconnections among and between brain, mind, and relationships. As a Co-Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center [see link to this Center at the bottom of this page!], he (along with Dr. Lidia Zylowska, who I visited earlier this year) is engaged in education and research on Mindful Awareness Practices. One of their current projects involves the use of mindfulness-based interventions for individuals who experience deficits in attentional capacities; early findings are very promising!


Every week or so I receive a brochure in the mail advertising some upcoming “seminar” or “training” for mental health professionals, about “mindfulness.” Usually the instructor is advertised as a “nationally known” (whatever that means) speaker. Some of these seminars and trainings and speakers may in fact be quite excellent. Some, perhaps not.

What these brochures are telling me is that there is a mindfulness bandwagon rolling at high speed through the landscape of mental health treatment. In many ways, that is good. Jon Kabat-Zinn says (in his book Coming to Our Senses): “This rising popular interest is, I believe, merely one example of the hunger for authenticity and clarity and peace within ourselves that the world is now displaying on so many fronts. This growing interest in and enthusiasm for mindfulness is a very positive emergence, potentially a hugely healing emergence in our world.”

Yet I hear from my graduate counseling students, who go out to these seminars, and to agencies in which it is claimed that “mindfulness” is part of their approach to mental health treatment, that there is not always much substance or depth behind the brochures or the claims. It could very well be that many practitioners who have gone to a day-long seminar or training believe that they have learned enough in that one day to become a teacher of mindfulness; and they return to their clinics or agencies, attempting to apply what they learned in their work with patients. It is not likely that their work can be effective under such circumstances, and disappointment and disillusionment with the whole concept of mindfulness practice in mental health treatment may ensue.

The continuation of the Jon Kabat-Zinn quote that began in the second paragraph, above, is as follows: “Yet, as mindfulness becomes more popular, inevitably first as merely a concept, it is very easy for it to become divorced from its grounding in practice and thus from its transformative potential. Because it is on its face such a good and compelling idea to become more present in one’s life and less judgmental, some professionals naturally assume that it can merely be grasped intellectually and then taught to others that way, as a concept, and that that can be done without a solid grounding in one’s own personal practice. But without the practice, no matter how clever or articulate or sensitive or therapeutic what one is offering may be, it just isn’t mindfulness, or dharma.”

Jon is saying that, in order to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness-Based Wellness or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), one must do the teaching out of one’s own experience in mindfulness practice. We have to know it from the inside-out; not out of an intellectual understanding, but out of our hearts, and out of our very bones and sinews. We have to deeply understand the experience of observing our thoughts; feeling the pain in our knees; wanting to get up from the cushion, but not doing so; experiencing the doubts about the whole enterprise; and doing all of this with the intention of bringing compassion to our clearly observed experience. If we cannot draw on these experiences, and put them in our own words, then we cannot effectively teach mindfulness practice to anyone else. As Jon said to a group of us teachers and aspiring teachers: “Who can do that?” He challenged us to put that very question to ourselves.

I got up at 3am this morning. I am in the final stages of preparation for my role, as primary teacher, in Avila’s Mindfulness-Based Wellness program. I am acutely aware of the sense that, despite years of my own meditation practice, as well as formal training in Zen, and in mindfulness meditation, I do not feel adequately prepared. But, as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli reminded us in June of this year at the Mind-Body Medicine Training, there would likely be something wrong if we did NOT approach this work with a sense of inadequacy, or, perhaps what they really said was that we should always retain a keen understanding of the size of the task. As my Zen teacher, Stan Lombardo, once said: as teachers, we are ALWAYS teaching “over our heads.”

So, I woke up at 3am, wide awake, very much aware that I want our program at Avila to be one of the highest quality and integrity, so that it invokes in our participants the compassion and curiosity about their own lives and experience that will enable them to “come to their senses,” to wake up to their lives, and to inspire others to wake up, as well. There is a great work of transformation at hand and at work in our global, or universal, consciousness, and it is the aim of our program at Avila that we participate in that work.


I have been reading about the young man who killed so many people at Virginia Tech; some of the articles about him are linked on this blog page. At first, we were hearing that he had been bullied or picked on in high school, and that reminded us of what we had heard about the boys at Columbine. More recently, we heard that he had been extremely quiet all his life, and that family members and neighbors all had noted his very unusual behavior. He appears to have been nearly totally detached from others; he also appears to have harbored and stoked a gigantic rage. He did, apparently, make some efforts to make social contact with a couple of young women, but he went about it in such a way as to guarantee that they would reject his advances. In college, classmates and teachers were routinely frightened or alarmed by him. He rarely, if ever, spoke to his roommates in the dorm.

I read about all of this with great sadness. The horrific harvest of death and grief brought about by this young man’s resentment toward humanity is impossible to understand. How can he have felt that what he did was justified? What did he mean when he said to the camera that it was “your” fault, or our fault, that he murdered people who never caused him the slightest harm?

Diagnostically speaking, he is difficult to assess. Antisocial Personality Disorder? Apparently not; he did not show a pattern of taking advantage of others. Paranoia certainly appears to be part of the picture; he hated others who had never hurt him. He wrote about his violent fantasies, and it appears that he encouraged himself in increasing the magnitude of his anger and desire for retribution. Possibly he had crossed the line from paranoid, schizoid, and/or schizotypal personality into a state in which he experienced full-blown delusions. I suspect that his hatred made him feel powerful, and that he revelled in it, enhancing it because it felt “good” to him. In the end, he may have turned himself into a killer simply because there was nothing else in his life, other than his hatred, that felt good to him.

On a horrific scale, this serves as a reminder to me that, although anger and even hatred are normal emotional experiences, they can be indulged only at great peril. When I experience a flash of anger, when I find myself dwelling on some slight or injustice done to me, my job is to compassionately notice and accurately name that experience, and then shift focus to something else: my breath, or the sky, or the sensations of my feet as I walk across campus. Today, the sky is blue, and the earthmovers are rattling and roaring outside my window as dorm construction continues…


Can you live with the voices in your head? Can you live with your anxiety? Your depression, your memories of having been hurt by someone?

A recent article in the NYT provided a fascinating look at a new approach for helping and supporting people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a devastating disorder that brings with it distressing and debilitating symptoms. Hallucinations, or “the voices in your head” are very common, and cause a lot of emotional pain in those who suffer them. Medications help… but only sometimes, for some people. And the meds carry risks of very serious side effects.

The traditional approach to significant psychiatric symptoms (hallucinations, serious depression and anxiety) is that the goal of treatment is “cure,” or eradication of symptoms. When we see ads in magazines or TV promoting psychiatric medications, we get the impression that the pills they offer do just exactly that… eradicate the symptoms! and also make us very happy and productive! Just look at the before-and-after pictures in these ads. “Before,” the folks look sad, listless, and downright unattractive. “After,” the sun shines brightly and the folks are bounding in slow-motion across the beach, smiling joyfully!

Given that these startling transformations are unrealistic, maybe we should take another look at psychiatric disorders and symptoms, and get a bit more real about the whole thing. That’s what Gautama Buddha did 2500 years ago: he took a look around at the world and just flatly stated the obvious. Unhappiness is universal. This world is full of pain and difficulty for all of us, at least some of the time. It is the nature of human life. He wanted, more than anything, to help the world of suffering humanity. And he offered a path, or a way to do so, that did not involve eradicating symptoms. Instead, he offered a radically different approach to the cause and end of suffering. What he taught is that it isn’t so much the symptom (e.g., the “voices” or the “anxiety”) that we suffer from, but our response to these human phenomena. If we respond with fear, increased anxiety, hopelessness, to the experience of upsetting events (even including voices in the head!), then the situation is made worse than it has to be. If, on the other hand, we learn to notice these phenomena, compassionately accept them, and continue to function in a valued direction, then we can gain the satisfaction of a worthwhile life in the midst of the various griefs and outrages of human life.

The Mindfulness In Action training developed for the Counseling Practicum at Avila University (mindfulness practice plus values-based behavioral change) was designed to work this way, and there is every reason to believe that it can help people with a very wide variety of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems. In fact, mindfulness-based approaches have been demonstrated to reduce the number of psychiatric hospitalizations for people with schizophrenia!


Hundreds of thousands of people are released from prisons every year. Question: what has changed for these people, while they are in prison? Answer: EVERYTHING; and much of it for the worse…

One Way to Help: Training and education for prisoners (and there is VERY little of this now available to the vast majority of state and federal prisoners).

Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico offers training in mindfulness to prisoners. Here is a quote from their web site:

“Mindfulness practices are effective ways to help prison residents deal with their feelings and develop “emotional intelligence” and self-regulation. Through these practices prison residents learn how to examine and eventually transform the unhealthy thought and behavioral habit patterns that have governed their lives. Out of these practices comes the ability to effectively manage the stress of prison chaos, the separation from family, and the anger that attends incarceration.

“Broadly speaking, mindfulness practice, including meditation, is a path to social change. Through an insightful practice one has the ability to change one’s own behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and resistance to change. Mindfulness practice enables one to be more in touch with feelings, without being driven or controlled by them. Crimes are often committed as an impulsive reaction to feelings. The awareness that one always has a choice as to how one reacts and deals with the circumstances at hand grows, and so, through greater clarity, one becomes more able to make clearer, more appropriate choices.

“Many people report that meditation is what keeps them feeling balanced and sane. It is a natural remedy for frustration and anxiety that is inherent in the scattered and fragmented lives that many prison residents have experienced. Meditation offers a way to transform this inner life, allowing one to be less fearful, less anxious, and less stressed. By creating conditions that encourage the development of compassion and wisdom, the focus shifts from the problem to the solution.

“Documented effects of meditation practice that result in decreased violence and conflict resolution include a significant reduction in inmate stress and anxiety, normalization of inmate sleep, and relief from depression (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, 1999). At the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility, where a meditation housing pod was established as a result of the efforts of the Upaya Prison Project, a deputy warden reported the following positive benefits: a reduction in misconduct reports and activity; a calmer atmosphere for both staff and inmates; a cleaner and more sanitized living environment; and improved communications between staff and inmates.”


Sam Harris, who wrote the very good (and disturbing/challenging, if you are Christian) book, The End of Faith, is usually called an atheist (although he says that he would prefer not to use the label at all, for some very good reasons). He cogently presents the case against adherence to, and even deference toward, religious dogma in today’s world. He makes some very good points.

It is not so well-known that Mr. Harris also has respect for, and personal experience with Buddhist meditation. Below are excerpts from a transcript of a talk Sam Harris gave at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007. I found his remarks very compelling and inspiring. As I looked at his blog, I found that (no surprise!) not all of his fellow “atheists” were happy with much of what he said in this talk. Harris is not an atheist of the same stripe as, say, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or P.Z. Myers . By this, I mean that he doesn’t foam at the mouth, and he doesn’t use the heaping of scorn, and the building/destruction of straw men as two principal means of advancing his case. I found his remarks about contemplative practice pretty amazing, in fact. Here are excerpts:

“Certain people have traditionally wondered whether [there may be] a deeper form of well-being. Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains……………………..

“This question, I think, lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. We are all, in some sense, living our answer to it-and many of us are living as though the answer is “no.” …Many of us seem think that all we can do is just keep our foot on the gas until we run out of road.

“But certain people, for whatever reason, are led to suspect that there is more to human experience than this. In fact, many of them are led to suspect this by religion-by the claims of people like the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated religious figures. And such a person may begin to practice various disciplines of attention-often called “meditation” or “contemplation”-as a means of examining his moment to moment experience closely enough to see if a deeper basis of well-being is there to be found…………………

“For thousands of years, contemplatives have claimed to find extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while spending vast stretches of time in total isolation. It seems to me that, as rational people, whether we call ourselves “atheists” or not, we have a choice to make in how we view this whole enterprise. Either the contemplative literature is a mere catalogue of religious delusion, deliberate fraud, and psychopathology, or people have been having interesting and even normative experiences under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.

“Now let me just assert, on the basis of my own study and experience, that there is no question in my mind that people have improved their emotional lives, and their self-understanding, and their ethical intuitions, and have even had important insights about the nature of subjectivity itself through a variety of traditional practices like meditation.

“Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves…

“One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar-the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.

“As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else-not talking, not reading, not writing-just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness.

“So, apart from just commending these phenomena to your attention, I’d like to point out that, as atheists, our neglect of this area of human experience puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage. Because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations-and yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.”


Here are a couple of good quotes/links. The first is just a short quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen monk who has written such wonderful books about meditation and mindfulness.

“As a human being, you have the right to get angry; but as a practitioner, you do not have the right to stop practicing.”

What Thich Nhat Hanh is saying, of course, is that no matter how much we practice meditation, mindfulness, and compassion, we will probably never become totally serene human beings in all circumstances. It tends to be disappointing when we find, again and again, that we get angry, that we become despondent, that we become blinded by the distortions produced, willy-nilly, by our thoughts and our desires/aversions. But the practice is simply to take note of that disappointment, and continue to practice: to return, every time, to clarity and compassion. To sit on the cushion, especially when we don’t feel like it.

These ideas are explored, in the specially painful context of divorce, by a writer named Gabriel Cohen. The link to the NY Times review of his recent books is here.

One of his books is called Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce, an account of the end of his marriage. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he writes. “What I learned astonished me: that change and loss are inevitable, but that the suffering we derive from them is not.”

This is the crucial lesson that I continue to work with, and sometimes help others to work with, every day. We are all acquainted with injustice, anger, impulses to retaliate, and doubt. These are all starting points for practice. Watch them! No need to believe in them, as if they represent some ultimate truths about the world, ourselves, and others… Just observe them, and slowly bring clarity and compassion to each of these phenomena. The tightness in the throat, the tears, the lethargy, whatever they might be. Sit on the cushion. Move out of the stories and fantasies constructed by your mind, and back into the present moment.


I watched the unfolding of the Eliot Spitzer scandal-drama with a sort of horrified interest. It was very much like driving along a road and coming upon a car wreck, with flashing lights, ambulance and police cars on the scene; it is impossible not to slow down and look, to gaze upon whatever awfulness is there to be seen. In situations such as this one, our horror includes the awareness, brought once again to the forefront of our attention, that we cause each other so much pain. Most often, those who hurt us the most in life are not strangers, and they are not even monsters: they are the people we are closest to. Most often, the people we hurt are the ones we love. I have seen it again and again in my own life, and sometimes it brings me close to despair.

For me, the way out of the temptation to despair lies in remembering that the experience of pain need not lead to bitterness or alienation. And it is not necessary that we demonize those who heedlessly or carelessly cause us pain (or ourselves, when we realize that we have taken our turn playing the role of perpetrator). It’s just pain. The person who just hurt me and my feelings is the same person s/he was before, with the same glaring flaws (now made obvious) and the same beauty, as well. So long as we are living our lives as human beings, there is no way out of the messiness and complexity of actually being (only) human. We are all led around by the Eight Worldly Dharmas, and we so often persist in the mistaken belief that these experiences (pleasure and pain; praise and blame; fame and disgrace; gain and loss) are of the utmost significance. When we do this, we reify the grandly isolated “self” who is hurting, or who is proud and happy, and we get lost, unmoored from the reality of our connection(s) with the rest of the universe.

In my earlier blog entry about the Eight Worldly Dharmas (above), I quoted Pema Chodron, who said:

  • “The irony is that we make up the eight worldly dharmas. We make them up in reaction to what happens to us in this world. They are nothing concrete in themselves… In meditation, we can notice how emotions and moods are connected with having lost or gained something, having been praised or blamed, and so forth. Gradually our practice evolves. We start understanding that, just like us, other people also keep getting hooked by hope and fear. Everywhere we go, we see the misery that comes from buying into the eight worldly dharmas. … [This is] the beginning of growing up… When we begin just to try to accept ourselves, the ancient burden of self-importance lightens up.”

One Response to “Meditation and Mindfulness: Practice”

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