Attention and Awareness

monkey-10The Monkey in Our Mind

The aspect of mind we’re working with in meditation is our meddlesome, hyperactive and mischievous attention – the part of the mind we were nagged about all through childhood, all those parents and teachers exhorting us to, ‘Pay attention!’

For most of us, given our modern culture and the lives we’ve lead, of doing many things at once and relaxing by using distractions and entertainment, our attention has become extremely jittery and reactive, which forms the main source of most of our suffering.

The Buddha called it ‘monkey mind’:
‘Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.’ [Samyutta Nikaya 12.61]

Like this monkey, our attention leaps from thought to thought, reaction to reaction and distraction to distraction, chattering and babbling all the time. So if we are to train the mind to let go and be still, it seems obvious that it’s this monkey attention we must train first. So let’s take a look at the attention and see what we’re dealing with.

It’s generally assumed that our attention is the same as awareness – that they perform the same function. But they don’t.Though they are certainly related aspects of the one mind, they each have very different characteristics and abilities. And it’s exactly this difference between them that’s so important to what we’re doing in meditation.

A simple demonstration of the distinction between attention and awareness is this:

Right now, you’re paying attention to reading these words. In this, your attention is the interactive part of your mind – the part you use to gather information and create thoughts. It flits from object to object like a laser beam, building concepts and reactions, and it does this very quickly – indeed, most of the conscious activity in your mind is created by your attention.

As you read, you are passively aware of everything around you – the room you’re in, whether it’s hot, or cold, and various sensations coming and going in your body. But this awareness is passive. It does not think, or remember, and it is always in the present moment.

So, as the busy monkey of your attention flits about collecting information and projecting your personality and what you think to the outer world, the awareness is passively cognizant of everything around you. It positions and connects you with the environment you’re in.

This distinction between attention and awareness is extremely important. In fact, it’s fundamental to everything we’re doing in meditation, so I’ll reiterate what I’ve just said.

Your attention is the interactive part of your mind

And your awareness is the surrounding theatre your attention moves about in – of everything you sense in each moment. Awareness doesn’t think. And it doesn’t remember. It simply  knows. And it is always in the present moment.


So why is this distinction between attention and awareness so important to meditation?Well, lets look at meditation itself, and see what we’re trying to do.

Our primary objective is to create an ability to be able to disengage at will from the incessant thinking and reacting our attention is constantly creating, which keeps us revved up all the time … to be able to go still, without it making us anxious, so our mind and body can unwind and rebalance, as they naturally do when they’re given the space and leisure to do it.

So why can’t we stop and be still?

Well, that’s because the monkey of our attention doesn’t know how to stop. In the lives we live, and the culture we’re conditioned to, we’ve been trained from birth to be active, get things done, compete, win, and cling to what we’ve got.

We’re told, ‘don’t be lazy’ and ‘get off your bum and do something’. But when were we ever told to ‘stop and do nothing’.  Never.

For this reason, stopping and being still is very stressful for us. It creates feelings of anxiety, guilt and restlessness. Which is why, unlike every other creature on the planet, we have to learn how to be still.

And that’s where meditation comes in. It is the means by which we learn how to stop.


So what do I mean by stop? Stop what?

Well, if we examine everything that disturbs us, we see it is our attention that creates it. Attention creates the thinking and reacting, which creates memories and emotions which, through the reactive cycle, stimulates more thinking and reacting … and so on.

Awareness does not create these effects. It’s momentary, simple, and unconditioned – there is no good, bad, right, wrong in awareness.There just ‘is’. In each moment sensations are there or not there, and they are always changing.

As such, awareness is acutely in sync with the changing environment we’re in, in a way that our attention, which is busy freezing moments so it can think about them, is not.

Because that’s what out attention does – when we switch our attention to something we’ve become aware of, it immediately converts what we were aware of into information, so it can freeze the event in our mind and evaluate it. Then it dredges up similar experiences from our memory, to decide if we like this thing, or not – then creates a spreading fog of thinking and reactions around it.

And, big or small, our attention is doing this constantly, and mindlessly, because the habit is so automatic we don’t even know we’re doing it. And it’s that mindlessness we’re seeking to change in meditation practice. With meditation, we’re learning how to disengage out attention when we don’t need it to be doing stuff. We’re learning how to stop.

The Party in Our Head.

A lot of people think it’s thoughts and thinking that disturbs us. But that’s not so.
If we didn’t pay attention to the thinking, it would rapidly evaporate, even as it arises in the mind.

It’s our attention that excites the thinking, ordering the thoughts into stories which makes us happy, sad, angry, excited, fearful, whatever. So we assume it’s thinking that’s the problem, but it’s not. The problem is that we cannot control our attention’s addiction to reacting to every thought that appears in our head.

I liken our attention to an overeager host at a very busy party. Every thought that rushes through the front door, our attention is there, asking questions, arguing, entertaining and reacting. And because it’s paying attention to every thought that rushes in, the room of our mind gets filled up with a cacophony of chatter.

With meditation, we’re teaching the attention to stop being such an eager host. As each thought rushes in through the door, we’re encouraging the attention to fold it’s arms and keep its mouth shut – to not speak to it.

In the beginning, because we’re new to this, the thoughts will keep talking, trying to get the attention to do what it’s always done – to participate. But if we keep on applying the meditation methods to help the attention to ignore the chattering thoughts, they will eventually slink off out the back door.

As we practice this letting go and ignoring, because the host is not engaging any more, the party slowly empties -the room of the mind goes quiet.

And though thoughts still rush in, because our attention is getting better at not engaging, they rush right out again. As our skill at doing this disengaging becomes more effortless, the rushing in and rushing out happens faster and faster, until ,eventually, though thoughts are still rushing in and out, the mind is effectively silent – still.

We’ve stopped.

The problem is, we cannot force the attention to do this.

Like the Monkey in our example, the more we try to tie the attention down and gag it, the more it will squeal and fight and try to escape. After all, everyone knows, when we’re told ‘stop thinking about it’, it only creates more thinking, making us more anxious and agitated.

So it’s pointless trying to force the attention to stop.

So the meditation methods are not there to stop anything. They’re simply strategies to gently tame the attention and coax it to relax until it eventually disengages and goes still – a process that must be tinged with compassion, patience and understanding.

In meditation, we apply the methods, understanding that in the beginning it will be difficult, and the attention will struggle.

We also understand that it’s not the attention’s fault that it’s become so meddlesome and noisy – it’s not trying to be difficult. It’s simply doing what we trained it to do. So we keep gently applying the meditation methods until our attention gets used to being quiet.

Eventually, our attention get used to being quiet, and that’s when we can drop the meditation method – at that point, the skill of stillness is innate.

And through all this process, the awareness is allowed to shine brightly – which it will. The more the attention calms, the more vivid and expansive the awareness will become.

At that point, we become aware of amazingly subtle sensations in the body, and quiet bursts of intuitive understandings in the mind, and we realise we never had to think so much at all – that the thinking was just a messenger for what we already knew.

And there’s much more you’ll discover which, in the fury of our old habits, you were previously unaware of .And that’s when life becomes interesting.



Sensations and Suffering

A wonderful, and quite forensic breakdown of the how sensations become suffering., and the role our conditioned reactions play in that transition. Essential viewing if you’re as fascinated by the processes within Vipassana meditation.




Learn to Be Still – and Heal

photos-28-5-2010-007I met Peter at a seminar of meditation teachers. He was a good-looking man of about forty-five, an architect by profession. He told me in conversation that he had cancer once and conquered it with meditation. I was very impressed until he told me that he had also used chemotherapy and herbal remedies. So I asked him how he knew it was the meditation that cured his cancer if he was doing all these other things at the same time. It could well have been any of them, or a combination of them all. He shook his head and insisted that it was meditation.

Then he told me his story and it moved me very much, and, though I have long since lost contact with him, I will paraphrase what he told me:

He said, “I knew I was going to die. So I was doing all these things, the chemotherapy and herbal stuff as well as meditation. I wasn’t doing them because I believed in them, as much as I hoped they’d work. Understandably, with a hit or miss attitude like that, I got worse.

“But one night it all changed. I was meditating, and it was just like all the other meditations, full of morbid thoughts and defeat. I was very depressed. So I was trying to concentrate on the idea of living, frantically visualizing white light and chanting and imagining all this other positive stuff.

“But all the time, I could hear this clock ticking, an old grandfather clock in the hall. And no matter how hard I chanted my affirmation, I felt like it was ticking the remaining seconds of my life away. I felt like I was being pushed to the edge of an abyss by a slow and gentle passing of time, and right then I started to panic.

“That was when I hit a wall of absolute desperation. In that moment I gave up on the affirmations and white light. I gave up on everything. I thought, ‘nothing is ever going to work. I might as well just go out and get drunk and have a good time.’ But for some reason, I kept on meditating. The timer buzzed the end of the forty minutes I had allotted myself, but I kept going. I kept going because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’d lost all hope.

“But you know, incredible as it seems, it was that loss of hope that changed everything for me. From the moment I lost hope, meditation began to take off. The blackness cleared like some kind of mucky fog, and for the first time I knew what it was like to have a clear mind. I could see the morbid thoughts and feel the desperation, but it was all from a distance. I wasn’t involved. And at that moment, I didn’t care if I lived or died – it wasn’t an issue any more. All I was interested in was each moment as it passed. Each moment was so sweet and full of everything.

“When I finally came out of the meditation, I felt a profound change had come over me. I felt great – and the air felt sweet to breath – a weight had been lifted from my chest, and life felt good, so good.

“I think, paradoxically, that it was the loss of hope that changed me. I gave up my single pointed and very anxious obsession with wanting to live, and it opened up meditation for me and gave me back my life.

“That was the only thing that changed in my routine from then on. I did the same chemotherapy I’d been doing for ages, and took the same herbal stuff, but from that night, I just knew I was going to live. I didn’t hope any more – I knew. And that made me want to meditate more and more, because I could feel life pulsing within me during the meditation. I could feel my body as a friend – a lover even. So meditation got deeper and more satisfying. I was like a man dying of thirst drinking gallons of cool, clear water. And here I am. I’m alive.. And the only reason I’m alive is because I gave up clinging to life, and began to live.”

I found Peter’s story unique, and inspiring. His initial hope had formed a goal. It had been something specific he wanted from meditation. And this wanting only served to twist his mind in tight spirals of ‘wanting but not having’, ‘wanting but not believing’.

It wasn’t until, in a peak of desperation, he gave up this wanting and opened up his mind to the unconditioned and unknowable potential of life, death, meditation and whatever happened, that he began to experience what life actually meant to him, rather than just imagining and hoping for it.

So it is for all of us with meditation.

In order to meditate well, you have to do something which in Western terms is unthinkable. You have to not want anything from it. You have to not bother about whether you are ‘good at it’ or ‘not good at it’. To meditate well, you should practice because you have chosen to practice – just do the business, the routine.

To want anything from meditation – to be always grasping or hoping or clinging, is to defeat it. All of these graspings only create their own avenues of frustration and suffering, and stillness is lost.

To meditate efficiently, you must train yourself to let everything go. Stillness appears in the space that is left, and in that stillness the forces of nature will give you all that you need.


In the hyperactive, and very artificial world we humans have created for ourselves, where everything responds directly to our actions, from light-switches and taps in our houses, to our car and the jobs we work at, we’ve been conditioned to the view that if we don’t take action, nothing will happen.

That is, to make something work, or change, or heal, we have to do something – flick a switch, turn a key, take a drug, pay someone, or do something.
This arrogant, and particularly human view includes within it a profound forgetting. We forget that there are immense universal forces other than human will, which are more powerful and intelligent than us. We forget that we live within a vast universal river of energy we call ‘nature’.

And it’s very telling that we usually refer to nature as something separate from ourselves. But we’re not separate – our body is a manifestation of these forces, as is our life and everything in it. Everything we are, and everything we do is a tiny cross current in a vast river of natural forces.

So what do I mean by ‘natural forces’?

Beyond all the folklore and myths about ‘mother nature’, one thing is clear. Depending on your position, and how you are perceiving it, all physical manifestation develops in a pattern. Why it does this is still a matter of conjecture, but the consensus is still the same: neither chaos or order is exclusive to itself. Each has qualities of the other. Chaos and order are in an eternal dance with one another, each leading the other. What seems chaotic when focused on from one perspective, becomes orderly when focused on from another and vice versa. For example, the formation of clouds and the timing of weather patterns over a particular place seems to have no order when viewed in the context of a couple of years, or even ten years, but if seen over a thousand years a definite and very orderly pattern, a design would emerge.

Alternatively, if you stand in the outback desert and see the terrain, you would be tempted to call it a mess of rocks and scrub, but when you fly over it in a jet and look down from thousands of feet, you see that there is a pattern, nature has formed itself into a particular design.

‘Nature forms patterns. Some are orderly in space, but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.’ [‘Chaos’ by James Gleik, Cardinal, London 1990, p 309]

Nature always adjusts itself to these patterns. They are the invisible line that it is always correcting to, like a ship navigating at sea.

At a dinner party one night, I heard someone tell a story that illustrated very well the relationship between the presence of stillness and the healing power of nature. It was about two biologists who were hired by the Brazilian government in the late ‘70s to try to regenerate a large section of rainforest that had been ruined by a decommissioned mine. The project was an experiment to see if it could be done.
Full of optimism, the biologists set out for this place, but when they got there a depressing sight greeted them. The forest was so cut up it wasn’t a forest any more – just ruined trees and eroded dirt. The streams were polluted by chemicals, the wildlife had disappeared, and the slag heaps from the mine had washed down in the rains and covered everything, even right down the valleys, creating dust in summer and mud in winter.

The biologists told the government that it would cost a lot of money to regenerate the forest, and when they presented the government with the estimate the project was called off. It was too expensive. The biologists went back to America and everyone assumed the forest was lost.

About ten years later one of the biologists happened to be doing some work in the same area, so he decided to go to the mine site and see how things had developed. He drove up the road, but at first he couldn’t find the track into the mine site, so he stopped the car and walked into the forest. It took him a long time to find the site and when he found it, it was barely recognisable from the rest of the forest.

Life had returned in that ten years. All the wildlife, the trees and all the plants had quietly reclaimed and re-established themselves. The forest had healed itself and equilibrium had returned. The forest had been left alone and in the stillness that is its nature, it reformed itself according to its own ancient design.

This sense of design and ‘rightness’ is a pre-eminent quality of nature – an equilibrium between chaos and order that is always perfection.

‘The universe continually confronts us with this obvious, and far-reaching fact. It is not mere confusion, but arranged in units which attract our attention, larger and smaller units in a series of discrete ‘levels’, which for precision we call a hierarchy of wholes and parts. The first fact about the natural universe is its organization as a system of systems from larger to smaller.’[Alfred North Whitehead, in Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Present of the Past’ Harper Collins, London 1994 p 55]

This movement of nature towards equilibrium is a dynamic, a force. If left to itself nature will always recreate itself according to the patterns it knows – the patterns it has been forming itself into for billions of years. And those patterns are physical expressions of equilibrium, of balance, of harmony. This movement towards harmony is the bottom line of nature.


So how do we get the natural forces to work for us?

Well, I’ll start my answer with another question. What does an animal do when it is sick? It stops. It lies down. It withdraws its body from action. Its eyes may be closed but it is not unconscious. It simply shuts down its volitional motors, and leaves its body for nature to heal, while it remains passively aware, waiting.

And what do we humans do when we’re tired or sick? We get fearful and take action.

We might take a pill, drink more coffee, curse our luck, or watch television to try to forget everything. And though we might manage to shrug our illness off in the short term, this resilience gets harder as we get older. Our hangovers get worse, our colds last longer and our bodies don’t respond the way they used to. And we might say, ‘oh, I’m getting old’ as if that is supposed to be the reason for all our afflictions and physical tension, but that is only a very small part of the reason.

The main reason is, we have never given our bodies or minds the stillness they needed to rejuvenate.

Unlike the animal, we rarely switch off and leave the mind/body for nature to work on, and find balance in its own way. We tell ourselves we don’t have enough time or enough money, or this or that. There is always a reason, and it is at the heart of our declining quality of life, and when I say quality, I don’t mean affluence. In fact, we are living much longer, spending more money, enjoying more comforts, but spending more time sick or distracting ourselves – trying to forget.

Forget what?

Everything – our lives, our problems, our mysterious anxiety, our loneliness, ourselves. We want to forget because we don’t know what else to do in the face of everything.
And all the things that we use to forget, the television, the films, the drinking and drugs, they exhaust us. Most of our entertainments are directed to this addiction we have to forgetting, when all we really need is a little aware stillness to reconnect with nature and let things sort themselves out within us.

So let’s think now about the qualities of this stillness.

Have you ever watched a cat? Stillness is what a cat does when it is sitting. Watch it as it sits in a doorway, or on the grass, or on a windowsill. Both paws primly placed together at the front, body in a symmetrical crouch. It is tasting time as it passes, the sensual textures of the moments and seconds. No thinking or worrying or anticipation, only stillness. A sound comes? The ear swivels to pick it up. The sound goes, it’s gone. Relaxed emptiness until the next sense contact. No wonder cats look so good and exude such a sense of powerful grace. They are practised in the art of ‘being here now’. Awareness and economy of function come naturally to them. And as we practice meditation, so it gradually comes to us as well.

We learn to stop.

To let go.

To become still, and surrender the mind and body to nature.

Because that’s what we’re doing when we learn to meditate. When there is stillness, all the reactive cycles between mind and body slow down. Life becomes a series of momentary sensations in an exquisite emptiness. And in that emptiness natural forces take us over, reclaiming, rebalancing and healing us. And we don’t have to do a thing.

Like the forest, it is in stillness that we become rejuvenated by the nature we have spent our life shutting out with obsessive thinking and activity.



Get Some Sleep!

head“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
                                                                           – John Steinbeck

James was a chef at a large hotel where he did breakfasts and lunches, and he hadn’t taken a holiday for three years. The skin on his face was dry and slack and the bruised bags under his eyes indicated a metabolism struggling with exhaustion. He complained of frequent headaches and lethargy. He told me he had to drink coffee constantly throughout the day just to keep his energy levels up so he could complete his shift.

“Part of the trouble is my hours,” he went on, “I get home about 3.30 in the afternoon, and I’m so stuffed I’ve just got to sleep. I try not to, but it’s overwhelming. So I sleep until about 7 PM and wake up feeling lagged as hell. So I have something to eat – but then, when I go back to bed I can’t sleep. So I toss and turn all night and get up at 4 in the morning feeling terrible again.”

He thought meditation would help his fatigue, but I had my doubts – he seemed too exhausted. Even so, we tried it out – but sure enough, within minutes, he was fast asleep. I let him sleep for about twenty minutes, then woke him up. He looked surprised when he opened his eyes and apologised, saying, “let’s try it again.”

I said, “James, it’s no good. You haven’t got a hope of learning to meditate in the state you’re in. You’re punch-drunk with fatigue. What you need is about two weeks holiday so you can get some good unbroken sleep.”

“Can’t.” he said flatly.” I’ve got a mortgage, kid’s at school, car payments…”

And so it goes. I told James if he didn’t get some quality sleep soon, his deteriorating health would force him to stop. He shrugged and said he’d think about it. I never saw him again.

James’s case is not exceptional. As time goes on I’m meeting more and more men and women just like him – people so tired they’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel fully awake. At this time in the Western world, most of us are chronically under-slept. And as the studies and research into our sleep habits are done, it’s becoming clear that this cumulative exhaustion is a possible cause of many other apparently unrelated problems, such as obesity, cancer, allergies, heart disease, colds, and the list goes on.

Sleep is essential – without enough of it, we fall apart – quite literally, we mentally and physically disintegrate. If prevented from sleeping, a laboratory rat will die after about two weeks – and what they die of is a total breakdown of their immune defences, leaving them susceptible to to infections, cancer cells, and bacteria and other infections. And when we’re deprived of sleep, that’s what happens to us as well.

Sleep is the ultimate healer of so many things – mental as well as physical. During sleep our mind and body rejuvenate and recharge with essential hormones that regulate our immune system, brain functions and organs.

For instance, there is a hormone called Leptin, which tells the body when we’ve eaten enough. As we sleep, Leptin levels are replenished in the body. But without sleep, Leptin levels drop. And when Leptin levels drop, our body craves carbohydrates, even when we don’t need any more food. The result is we develop a habit of craving ‘comfort foods’ that, when combined with the sluggish metabolism of an exhausted body, inevitably leads to obesity.

And so it is with many other small and subtle body adjustments that take place in the workshop of sleep, which regulate and sustain our body.

One of the biggest problems we have with sleep is that, in the world we have gotten used to, we’re working harder for longer hours than ever before – so we’re taking our leisure later and later. Where our forbears were usually in bed by 9 or 10 pm, the average Westerner considers it normal to go to bed at 11 pm or midnight.

“Chronic sleep deprivation is becoming so universal that Thomas Wehr, chief of the section on biological rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes few adults in the industrialized world know the crystal-clear sensation of being completely rested. “Perhaps we modern humans have never really known what it is to be fully awake,” says Wehr.[Brink, Susan, Sleepless Society, US News & World Report, October 16, 2000, p.64]”

It’s interesting that lack of sleep has come to be seen as a kind of badge of honour among the more hairy chested among us – a signature of prowess. They’ve been named “the short-sleeping elite” – a club that famously features Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, as well as many top executives and leaders, each of whom swears they don’t need sleep. And some may well have that kind of constitution – but most are probably just good at masking the effects of slow coming exhaustion. Because though these people may appear to function adequately, the physical and mental attrition of sleep deprivation is cumulative and slow-building, and depending on their levels of stamina, will eventually compromise their health.

It’s estimated that the average urban human needs around 7-9 hours of solid sleep every night. And for every hour of sleep we miss, we need to make it up later – a ’sleep debt’ to be paid at some time in the future. So if we only sleep for 6 hours a night throughout a five day week, to keep our mind and body clear and healthy, we need to make up that lost 10 hours on the weekend, on top of the 16 hours we would sleep over those two days.

If we are under-slept, we instinctively reach for nervous energy to push through. Nervous energy is a resource our body usually only keeps for emergencies. For this reason, the hormones of adrenalin and noradrenaline that cause it are commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormones. We produce this nervous energy by using various substances – coffee, tea, sugar foods, cigarettes, and the many energy drinks that have large amounts of guarana on them – another form of caffeine.

Though these things certainly boost our energy levels, it’s the wrong kind of energy if used over a long period of time. Nervous energy is a frenetic kind of energy more suited to violent action than the consistent concentration and calm attention we need to deal with our daily life.

Trouble is, when we’re under-slept and fatigued, this kind of nervous energy is very seductive – it lifts our mood and makes us feel more confident. Plus, with so many culturally sanctioned ways of accessing this kind of energy, it’s easy to lapse into the habit of a quick coffee to get us going – a Red Bull to compensate for the sleepless night before.
The more we resort to this kind of energy, like any drug, the more we need it, and gradually it usurps our perception of normality – that is, the frenetic energy of adrenalin becomes a substitute for the normal, calmer metabolic energy we should be using.

For a few years, we can get away with it – the physical costs are slow to accumulate so we don’t notice the way we’re ruining ourselves until we become ill. First indications that we’re not handling it are, we find ourselves getting more colds and more susceptible to the ‘bugs that are going around’. Our body begins to ache, and our moods become more changeable.

And if we ignore these signals and keep on using nervous energy to push through, we eventually develop ‘adrenalin toxicity’ which manifest is all kinds of different ways, the most notable being:

  • Digestive problems, ulcers, irritable bowel, diarrhoea or constipation, occurring because adrenalin has diverted blood away from the internal organs, causing them to become sluggish.
  • Aching muscles caused by a build-up of lactic acid (residue of unused sugars –unused energy) in the muscle fibres.
  • Irritability, anxiety and depression.
  • Inability to sleep because the body and mind have been overstimulated and are still processing excess adrenalin.
  • General fatigue caused by inability to sleep, or inefficient sleep.
  • Inability to concentrate with any deep understanding. (While adrenalin certainly mobilizes aspects of the brain that make quick decisions, it dampens the deeper, more analytical aspects. And when adrenalin stimulation has gone on too long, profound mental exhaustion sets in. At that point even the most basic functions shut down and the mind tends to either wander or go unconscious. Hence the famous indication of battle fatigue in soldiers who had been in extended action, the ‘thousand yard stare’ where the subject would gaze at an unseen distance, not thinking, or feeling, or able to engage – in a semi catatonia of exhaustion. The stage after this is nervous breakdown, where the mental and perceptual processes break down and profound mental confusion occurs.)
  • Apathy, a lack of interest in love, or giving – a strong feeling of emptiness.
  • Sexual dysfunction. (Though in the short term, the sex function is stimulated by adrenalin, if the wear and tear continues for a continued time, eventually the sex drive will shut down.)

And there are many more problems  – but you get the idea.

To meditate, we need the calm alertness of metabolic energy – not the jittery hyper activity of nervous energy. Nervous energy creates restlessness and an aching body.

If you’re building a meditation practice, it’s important to be well slept, at the very least, and control your use of stimulants. Though meditation certainly has a calming effect, it’s difficult to develop the skills it entails if your mind and body crave sleep every time you practice.

So if you ever find yourself becoming drowsy when you begin meditating, perhaps take a nap and try again later.




Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear


Summary: A new study reports the rhythm of your breathing can influence neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgement.  Source: Northwestern University.

Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.

In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.

“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.

Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.

This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.

Image shows the location of the amygdala in the brain.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.


Other Northwestern authors include Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Dr. Stephan Schuele and Dr. Joshua Rosenow.

Funding: The study was supported by grants R00DC012803, R21DC012014 and R01DC013243 from the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Marla Paul – Northwestern University
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Video Source: The video is credited to NorthwesternU.
Original Research: Abstract for “Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function” by Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 7 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016


Meditating From the Source

my-pictures-and-knee-010-001A while ago I was doing an online session with a meditator, and we were talking generally about what it is to practice meditation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a practice in the kind of culture we live in – and he made a very good point.

He said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe we’ve lost our way with meditation in the West. I mean, so many people are talking about it and there’s so many books and different views of the same thing. With all these different views it’s hard to know who to trust, and which is the right way. So I get confused sometimes.”

I thought about what he said and realised he was right and I just hadn’t seen it.

I was lucky – many years ago I decided on which path I wanted to take through the jungle of meditation and went straight to the source. And though, in the four temples I was trained in, I practised with four different teachers, and their methods differed slightly, nevertheless what they taught me was consistent because it all came from the same place.

But I could see how, in the current environment, with so much information around, and so many different views, it can get a little confusing.

So I decided to take him to the source.

Of the four teachers I worked with, my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, gave me the most simple and practical understanding of meditation. Unfortunately, he only wrote one book before he died – ‘Practicing Insight On Your Own’ so there is not much of his teachings that is not second hand, either from me, or his proteges, Phra Manfred (since disrobed) and Mae Che Brigitte.

But there was one teacher, though I never had an opportunity to practice with him, whose view was so clear and imbued with common sense that it was utterly dependable as a guide through the wildlands of meditation.

His name was Acharn Chah, and of all of his generation, I think he was the best. Luckily, he was surrounded by acolytes who recorded a lot of his extraordinary teachings as audio, video and as transcripts of his Dhamma talks, so there is a lot of his wisdom available online. It’s well worth spending time with, particularly if you’re looking for a clear view of the meditation process. Whenever I find myself a little lost, Acharn Chah’s words never fail to shine a light on the way ahead.

The most extensive repository of his teachings can be found HERE.

It was here I directed the meditator I mentioned before – and I strongly recommend it to anyone. It’s a place to go whenever you lose your way.

Following is a selection of quotes from some of his talks and then a video about the forest tradition he comes from – always lucid, to the point, and inspiring.

And if you’ve got time, I strongly recommend you read the entire collection of his teachings which can be found HERE.


“Whatever happens, you endure, because that is the way it is. For example, when you begin to practice samādhi you want peace and tranquillity. But you don’t get any. You don’t get any because you have never practiced this way. Your heart says, ”I’ll sit until I attain tranquillity”. But when tranquillity doesn’t arise, you suffer. And when there is suffering, you get up and run away! To practice like this can not be called ”developing the heart”. It’s called ”desertion”. Instead of indulging in your moods, you train yourself with the Dhamma of the Buddha. Lazy or diligent, you just keep on practicing. Don’t you think that this is a better way?”

“The way of the heart is like this. Sometimes there are good thoughts, sometimes there are bad thoughts. The heart is deceitful. Don’t trust it! Instead look straight at the conditions of the heart itself. Accept them as they are. They’re just as they are. Whether it’s good or evil or whatever, that’s the way it is. If you don’t grab hold of these conditions, then they don’t become anything more or less than what they already are. If we grab hold we’ll get bitten and will then suffer.”


“Nothing happens immediately, so in the beginning we can’t see any results from our practice. This is like the example I have often given you of the man who tries to make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. He says to himself, ”They say there’s fire here”. and he begins rubbing energetically. He’s very impetuous. He rubs on and on but his impatience doesn’t end. He wants to have that fire. He keeps wanting to have that fire, but the fire doesn’t come. So he gets discouraged and stops to rest for awhile.

He starts again but the going is slow, so he rests again. By then the heat has disappeared; he didn’t keep at it long enough. He rubs and rubs until he tires and then he stops altogether. Not only is he tired, but he becomes more and more discouraged until he gives up completely. ”There’s no fire here!” Actually he was doing the work, but there wasn’t enough heat to start a fire. The fire was there all the time but he didn’t carry on to the end. This sort of experience causes the meditator to get discouraged in his practice, and so he restlessly changes from one practice to another. And this sort of experience is also similar to our own practice. It’s the same for everybody.”


“…. both happiness and unhappiness are not peaceful states. The Buddha taught to let go of both of them. This is right practice. This is the Middle Way.

These words ‘the Middle Way’ do not refer to our body and speech, they refer to the mind. When a mental impression which we don’t like arises, it affects the mind and there is confusion. When the mind is confused, when it’s ‘shaken up’, this is not the right way. When a mental impression arises which we like, the mind goes to indulgence in pleasure – that’s not the way either.

We people don’t want suffering, we want happiness. But in fact happiness is just a refined form of suffering. Suffering itself is the coarse form. You can compare them to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has the poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head, even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.

In the same way, both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! For instance, when we get the things we like, such as wealth, prestige, praise or happiness, we become pleased as a result. But the mind still harbours some uneasiness because we’re afraid of losing it. That very fear isn’t a peaceful state. Later on we may actually lose that thing and then we really suffer.

Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent. It’s just the same as grabbing the snake’s tail – if you don’t let go it will bite. So whether it’s the snake’s tail or its head, that is, wholesome or unwholesome conditions, they’re all just characteristics of the Wheel of Existence, of endless change.”


If you’d like a more comprehensive list of Acharn Chah’s quotes, I have compiled a pdf (about 8 pages). It’s a wonderful resource to have, to refer to. I always find something to set of a little explosion of understanding in my head. You can download it from HERE




The Brain Changes Itself

Meditation is not a panacea or any kind of quick fix. Nor is it simply a relaxation exercise, as it’s often marketed.

When we meditate, we’re training the mind to be more efficient. We’re training it to be more in command of its processes and less cluttered with superfluous thinking. And this training is long and subtle, and sometimes quite difficult – there’s no way of avoiding that, regardless of what the commercial media tells you about meditation.

As such, it’s very valuable to understand the processes within meditation – to know what you’re actually doing when you sit for long periods of time, patiently altering the way you apply your attention – which is one of the purposes of this blog.

And one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge to cling to, is the clear fact that, in patiently sitting, and mindfully altering the way you use your attention, you’re not just changing mental habits – you’re creating an incredible physical transformation of the most important organ in your body.

This physical transformation is called ‘neuroplasticity’, and it refers to  the brain’s ability to constantly reorganize itself by forming new neural connections in response to the way it’s being used, and the habits that are being enacted.

And this physical dynamic is particularly intensive during meditation.

With that in mind, I strongly recommend you watch the following documentary, based on a fascinating book by Norman Doidge – ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’.