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.



Meditation the Journey

recent-007” The things that trouble our spirits are within us already. In meditation, we must face them, accept them, and set them aside one by one.

Cristopher Bennett

I was thumbing through a popular tabloid news paper on the weekend, and in the middle pages, in the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ section, I noticed another article on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The central theme of the article was ‘the meditation experience’, which it described in terms of ‘calm’ and ‘peace’, and ‘clearing the mind’ by developing ‘single pointed concentration’.

I read this with an increasing sense of despair, because yet again, it glibly reinforced the misconceptions and myths that have cursed meditation ever since it was imported from Asia a few hundred years ago. This focus on the ‘meditation experience’ as a pre-requisite to any transformation that might occur is incredibly destructive – yet it preoccupies almost the entire conversation around meditation in the West.

But, I suppose, as I think further, I understand how it happened. The imperatives of our mercantile culture, in which everything is reduced to its most saleable aspect, always prevail – and meditation has, like everything else in our world, become a product.

The origins of meditation in Asia were essentially and solely spiritual – people meditated to progress along a path to enlightenment. And enlightenment was commonly viewed as the ultimate aspiration in a life. As such, anyone embarking on the difficult journey to enlightenment was universally supported, and meditation was taught freely. The community supported the monks, wandering sadhus and holy-men, simply because they recognised and respected the incredible commitment and inner strength it required to embark on such an endeavour.

Meditation was simply a means to an end – not an end in itself. And the ‘meditation experience’ was not considered significant, except as an indicator of progress, and what needed next to be done. It was accepted that, as the meditator began and progressed, they would meet aspects of their sense of self that were painful, confronting or simply deceptive – problems along the way that would need solutions.

And the many methods and strategies that evolved throughout the history of meditation, became tools to be used to navigate through those various problems.

Then meditation was imported to the West.
And along with many other imports from ‘the exotic east’, in line with our habit of commodifying everything, the most marketable aspect of meditation was the possibility of ‘an experience’, and ‘the getting of calm’. Key terms were used – bliss, tranquillity, oneness, natural high, and so on. Instead of being a powerful medium of self realisation, an incredible journey into what we’re made of, meditation became simply another therapy among many to soothe our pain and fill the holes we felt in our hearts.

Essentially, meditation was reduced to being a product – a kind of natural Aspirin or Prozac. Either that or a spiritual sideshow in the carnival of sideshows that became ‘The New Age’.

People bought the product in the same way they bought pills or a massage, and they wanted what was on the brochure – to stop thinking and be instantly relaxed and calm.
Result being, the entire premise of meditation practice switched from self realisation to self-indulgence and the possibility of an easy escape.


For sure, there are so many extraordinary experiences that can be had during meditation, in which it’s as if we are poking a hole through our personal reality, to peep into what we have hitherto never experienced. But what nobody tells you is that these experiences cannot be had with a couple of half hour sessions a day. One has to meditate intensively over a long period of time, to poke the holes through the walls of our life conditioning.
And even then these glimpses of the unknown are of no use.

The most useful aspect of meditation is the slow grind to change the stuff we’re made of – the web of habits and conditioned reactions that form the prison we live in. And the habits of a lifetime are not changed by an ‘experience’.

Life habits can only be changed through persistence, tenacity and practice, using the various methods that meditation makes available to us.

So at the risk of being boring, I’m going to say it again. The meditation experience means nothing – so please resist giving significance or meaning to it.

And, more importantly, resist the temptation to judge your practice, or your ability to meditate, on the quality of your meditation experience.
If you do this, you’ll only create failure – because no matter how intoxicating meditation might be right now, a time will come when you will encounter some block, or emotion, or a point where your mind will rebel against the changes that meditation is creating, and you will suffer.

And if you’re focussed on the experience, you will assume you can no longer meditate, and you will give up. In monastery life, it’s called ‘the rolling the mat’ stage – where monks roll up their meditation mat and give up because its all become too hard.
The irony is, it’s these apparent obstacles that appear in meditation that are where the real training and progress is to be had. As my last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri said, ‘All the fizzy blissy stuff is just waiting for the real work to begin.’


Really, when you boil it down, a serious practice of meditation is simply problem solving. Its a long expedition through the jungle of the self, and the distant destination you’re headed for, is the finely balance tranquillity of stillness.

And all the so-called problems you meet are when one or other of our clingy, competitive, fearful, desirous, excitable life habits prevents us from falling into the stillness we unconsciously pine for, but have forgotten how to access.

So you’re meditating to learn how to let go of everything, to clear a space for stillness to appear.

Stillness within the storm of being.

And once you’ve developed a relationship with stillness in your core, you become a bit like an oak tree in the storm of life. And even as your branches whip and sway, or break – even when the winds of life strip away your leaves – with stillness at our core, the trunk remains stable, still and strong within the chaos.
That’s stillness.


So as you meditate, forget what you want.
Pay attention to the journey you’re on.

Treat each meditation as an adventure – an expedition through the raw stuff of what you are, and what you’ve become. Not what you think, but what you feel – the swirl of sensations that you are, around the slow rhythmic pulse of the breath.
Feel all the sensations in your body as if it were your friend.
Smile inwardly at the mischievous tricks your mind plays.
Feel whatever feelings arise and let them pass on through your awareness, as your attention remains poised on the breath.

And some of what will happen will be incredibly pleasant, and some will be uncomfortable.

So, meet it all with the same quality of mind – with fascination, and compassion for this organism you have become.

Because all the chaotic stuff as it passes through is simply mind and body in process – healing and reorganising themselves like any field left fallow, or any forest left to itself. All things heal themselves and find balance if given stillness.
Each meditation, as you use the methods to deal with each obstacle, no matter how chaotic the experience is, will leave you just a little lighter, and more inspired.



The World of Worry

10414847_10155846597095171_2268366880859880061_nIn the mid nineteenth century, the word ‘worry’ referred solely to the act of physical harassment, whether of animals or humans – for example, ‘the dog worried at the sheep to herd them into the pen’. 
So it was that, in the pre-industrial time, when watches and clocks were rare, worry was relatively rare. It seems we have acquired the habit of worry with the advent of clocks, schedules, competition and the expectation of achievement and success that came with the industrial revolution.
In this fascination interview with Francis O’Gorman, the writer of ‘Worry – A Cultural and Literary History’ he and Philip Adam’s  look into how we acquired this annoying habit, and its place in our clickety clack modern lives. Well worth a listen.

The Perils of Positive Thinking.

scan0016Let’s get it out in the open at the outset. Positive thinking, either as affirmations or visualizations, doesn’t work. And worse than that, these strategies actually have the opposite effect for most of the people who use them.

Ever since Norman Peale’s book, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ became a world best-seller in 1952, the popular media have been selling the dubious view that ‘thinking positively’ can improve our life and help us achieve success – and more lately, quack science in ‘The Secret’ has been extending this notion to include the idea that visualizing positive outcomes will cause ‘possibilities to manifest’ at the quantum level, and cause desires to become physical reality.

I remember when I first heard about ‘the power of positive thinking’, back in the ‘80’s, when I was going through a hard time in my life, and looking for solutions.

I was at a new age seminar, and the speaker had spent a whole afternoon linking our thought environment to the very stuff of the universe, to convince us that our thoughts affect reality at the most profound level – the particles and atoms that form our reality.In the cause of ‘manifesting’ a reality we desired, we were encouraged to ‘lock out’ negativity – to not hear, or speak or look at any ‘evil’.

In effect, we were encouraged to refuse to feel what we felt if it was at all dark and to purposely turn our thinking into more cheerful channels.

My first reaction was panic – because my innermost thoughts at that time were so dark, and so intensely did I feel this darkness, I couldn’t stop it.

‘Oh my god, what kind of reality am I creating?’ I thought, because no matter how I tried to stop it, the rage and despair wouldn’t stop. And the more desperately I asserted positive thoughts over how I felt, the more my mind mocked me, saying: ‘Why are you asserting all this positive stuff?… oh, that’s right, because you’re so utterly enraged and ruined …”

In effect, I became terrified of my own inner self as it was. How ridiculous – and how destructive, to be split in two like that, trying to assert conscious desires against who I was at that time.  Kind of like a psychic civil war. But that is what I attempted. And it only made things worse. The more I tried to assert a false culture of positivism over my negative landscape, the more depressed and angry I became.

It didn’t take me long to start looking elsewhere for solutions, a journey which eventually set me on the path to meditation. I realized this kind of desperate positivity is actually an insidious kind of emotional fascism, in which we’re encouraged to divide our inner world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, then hunt down the ‘bad’ and try to kill it with the ‘good’. The inevitable result, as with fascism anywhere, is the ‘bad’ becomes empowered by our fear of it, and from secret places within, sabotages everything that’s ‘good’ in our lives.

What’s interesting to note is that almost all the people I met during that time who were adherents of positive thinking never realized the positive assertions they were so desperately trying to manifest for themselves. I meet them every so often, and they’re still mindlessly chanting affirmations and smiling through their angst – and still passing from seminar to seminar, guru to guru, who all basically peddle the same crap. And they still feel powerless and defeated while waiting for their visualizations affirmations to ‘work’.

Carl Jung, in a famous quote, had this to say about positive thinking in all its forms:

‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’


Which brings me to an interesting piece of research by psychologists Joanne Wood and John Lee from the University of Waterloo, which verified my own experience.

Recently, in experiments with positive affirmations:

“They asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement- but only slightly.”

So let’s sum up their results:

  1. Positive affirmations were favored by people with low self esteem.
  2. When these subjects with low self esteem fixated on a positive affirmation about themselves it almost always made them feel worse about themselves – not better, as expected.
  3. When positive affirmations were used by people with high self esteem, they had absolutely no effect on their well being.

In a follow-up study, in which they focussed on low self esteem individuals, the researchers got half the participants to list only positive thoughts. The other half of the study had to list their negative self-thoughts alongside positive self-thoughts.

The results showed emphatically that low self-esteem participants who were allowed to acknowledge their negative self talk experienced more well-being those who had been directed to focus exclusively on their positive thoughts.


 So, what does this have to do with meditation?

Well, when I first meet people who want to learn how to meditate I ask them, ‘Why do you want to meditate?’

Invariably their reply includes everything they want from meditation – to be relaxed, to be calm, to be free of anxiety or depression, to able to concentrate better and so on. The list of things people want from meditation is endless.And, for sure, I say, with most things, meditation can possibly help.

But then I give them the twist, which is:

‘If you try to meditate from what you want from it, it won’t work. For meditation to work efficiently, you must first let go of everything you want from it. And most importantly, you must unconditionally accept everything you don’t want.’

In other words, you must let go of your dualistic view of yourself as two parts – positive and negative. And more importantly, you must let go of your fear of what you consider as negative. You must meditate in unconditional acceptance and love of the whole you – positive and negative. Dark and light.

In this you trust that the natural order of the universe is to seek balance – stillness. It’s a bit like a pendulum – if you’re constantly pushing a pendulum toward one side – the positive side, let’s say, it’s only natural the reverse reaction will keep occurring. But if you accept both sides of your Self equally and allow the pendulum to swing to both its extremities, without pushing it either way, it will eventually calm itself and go still.

Meditation is like letting go of the pendulum and allowing it to find its own equilibrium – we cause balance and stillness to happen simply by learning to accept everything as it is, while not reacting to it.

This is letting go. Non-reaction.

So if you’re using affirmations or visualizations to try to create some desired state – whether it’s calm, or happiness, or love or wealth or whatever, though you might well experience a soothing endorphin effect from your imagining, what you’re actually doing is pushing the pendulum – you’re empowering the opposite of what you’re desperately being positive about, by fearing it.

And how do we know you’re fearing it?

Well, ask yourself, why else would you be using affirmations or visualizations? Because you fear their opposite.


I’ll finish with a wonderful quote from a famous and enlightened Thai monk, Acharn Chah in which he uses the word ‘suffering’ as a generic term to describe everything we consider ‘negative’ in our life:

“If you want to understand suffering you must look into the suffering. The teachings say that wherever a problem arises it must be settled right there. Where suffering lies is right where non-suffering will arise. So if suffering arises you must contemplate it right there. You don’t have to run away. You should settle the issue right there. One who runs away from suffering out of fear is the most foolish person of all. He will simply increase his stupidity endlessly. Just know yourself, this is your witness. Don’t make decisions on the strength of your desires. Desires can puff us up into thinking we are something which we’re not. We must be very circumspect.”

Ultimately there is a profound irony inherent in meditation, and in life itself. And that is, the more we try to escape suffering – with drugs or comfort, or mis-use of meditation methods,  the stronger the suffering will become.

Similarly, the more we try to imagine our way out of suffering with positive thinking, affirmations or visualizations, the more likely it is that suffering will blindside us further up he track, and sabotage us from the secret places we have consigned it to.

So the trick, if you like, of meditation and life itself is:

Never run away. When suffering is present in any of its forms – as emotion, negative reaction or misfortune – turn to it and look into it as sensations. And as you pay attention to the sensations of how you feel, be aware of the story your mind is telling you, but don’t pay attention to it – let it fade away by not participating in it. In this way, you are not asserting the positive – so much as simply choosing not to participate in the negative.

Meditation trains us for this – because in meditation we practice accepting how we feel, while at the time letting go of our reactions to it.

The pendulum left alone.

Naturally finds its balance.

And stillness comes on its own.


Some extra reading:

‘The Power of Negative Emotion: Psychologists Believe Bad Feelings Produce Success’  (The Age Newspaper)


Our Forgotten Friend

colour5“It is slavery to live in the mind unless it has become part of the body.”

-Kahlil Gibran

When I was in one of the temples doing Vipassana training in Thailand, there was a silent monk in the kute (hut) next to mine and I used to watch him. I always found that watching skilled meditators was very informative – one could learn things just watching the way they acted. So I used to watch this monk and emulate his routine and the way he deported himself.

He was a compact and very handsome Thai man of about thirty who had been silent for five years. He rarely slept, spending most nights pacing the veranda of his kute in walking meditation, or sitting, framed by the dim light of a low watt lamp, in the middle of his kute.

And because out kute’s were close together over the months I was there, a quiet companionship developed between us. He would smile when he saw me and I would wave, and somehow, in the silent world of the monastery that was enough.

Sometimes in the mornings, as I walked back with my daily meal, I would notice him waiting in the shade of a large tree with his bowl of food before him. He would clap his hands to get my attention and wave me across to give me some of his food because the villagers, who held him in great veneration for his dedication in meditation, would always give him too much so he would share it with me and some of the other western lay people in the kutes behind the temple.

It was in the final month of my stay that the Abbott of the temple gave him permission to come out of silence, and suddenly I saw him chatting with other monks, animated and smiling where before he had always been somber and dedicated. And one day, after midday meal was over, he came to visit me and we sat on my veranda to talk.

Now it must be said at that time, I was extremely focused on grappling with my hyperactive mind, and all the thinking it was generating, and having great difficulty as a result. The more I grappled with the thinking, the more layers of thinking I found – layers and layers of chatter, concepts, worries and dreams, such that I was spending entire meditations noting, ‘thinking, thinking thinking …’ and often thought I would go mad. So it was wonderful timing to speak with this man who had been meditating in silence for 5 years.

In halting English he asked me what method I was using. I described my struggle with thinking, and how I was finding it difficult to pacify my mind. .

‘This sounds very crazy,’ he said. ‘Like a dog chasing its own tail.

I nodded in agreement.

‘It is crazy … but I think I have a very crazy mind,’ I said.

‘Well, with all the attention you give the mind, no wonder it chatters so much,’ he said, and we laughed.

So I asked him what method he used and he shrugged.

‘No method,’ he said. ‘I just sit, and if the mind is chattering I don’t bother with it. Let it talk to itself. I do nothing except feel sensations, and how they change. When I am sitting I feel the sitting body. And when I walk, I feel the body walking. And when I eat, I feel the body eating. That’s all. And sometimes the body is heavy and coarse, but other times the body is so light it disappears and there is only mind, still chattering. So I feel the chattering mind, and usually it calms down, but I don’t expect it to. I just keep on feeling it. Then sometimes it becomes so tranquil it disappears. Then there is only my attention. So then I am feeling the attention, and sometimes that disappears and then there is nothing. No body, no mind, no attention. Just awareness, like an endless sky …’

He stopped, then he shrugged.

‘No more words after that…’

‘So simple,’ I said wondrously.

‘Yes, it is simple, but then, I have been meditating for a long time … When I started I was like you. Everybody struggles in the beginning.’

I nodded, still thinking about what he’d said.

‘So … you just feel your body?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Like the Buddha said, “when sitting the monk should know the sitting. When walking, the monk should know the walking. Know what you do and everything calms down.’

We sat in silence for a while, listening to the crickets creaking in the slow, hot afternoon around us. Then he said something that totally transformed my hitherto overly technical view of meditation – in fact, looking back, it probably changed my life.

He said, ‘The body will take you where you need to go.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘The body knows what to do because it is your friend. All you have to do is listen, and it will tell you.’

Then he left, picking his careful way along the path to his kute.

What he said resonated in me like a perfectly made bell. And it still does, as one of the most valuable insights I’ve ever been given – a lesson particularly compelling for a Westerner, who thinks everything comes from the mind.

The body knows because it is your friend. All you have to do is listen.’


So why was this such a revelation to me?

Well, put simply, I’d been applying all my efforts in meditation to trying to pacify the mind, while totally ignoring my body.

Though for sure, I felt extremes of pain and pleasure i meditation, I felt these body signals in a kind of dismissive way – as if my body had no right to be heard at all. As if its sensations were of no consequence.

In this, I was ignoring the only real friend I had – the most loyal, and faithful friend anybody could have – my own body.  As I had been ignoring it all my life, even though I still expected my body to do everything I wanted – to be healthy while I ignored it’s aches and pains. To be alert, while ignoring its fatigue. To be flexible while ignoring it’s tensions … and so on.

This abusive relationship with my body was how I had lived my entire life.  I had ruled my body like a tyrant and when it complained or got tired, like most people, I used painkillers to suppress its signals, and whipped it back to action with stimulants. And when it failed I cursed it, worried at it, and tried to shut its complaints out with entertainment, alcohol and drugs.

So now I began to pay more attention to my body in meditation.

At first it was a painful and very disorienting experience. In my preoccupation with trying to use meditation methods to pacifying the mind, I had become unconscious to a extraordinary amount of physical tension and now, as I turned my attention to the body, these ‘lost voices’ all began to shout.

Not only that, but I found I had literally lost contact with whole sections of my body. Around my neck , shoulders, chest and lower abdomen I felt strangely numb – I knew they were there, but I couldn’t feel raw sensations of those parts – they seemed only to exist as a kind of mental event.

So it was a new world I entered in going into my body – but I persevered.

Using mental notes to keep my attention focused, I kept directing it away from my chattering mind and into my body and slowly began to feel everything I had become unconscious to – all the body tensions and physical anxiety, and all the aches and pains that had been ignored. For the next few weeks, after a lifetime of ignoring my body, I finally allowed my body to speak to me, and I realized why my mind was so crazy – because it was sitting on a volcano of unresolved physical anxiety and tension.

As the first week went by, my body opened up and, like an ignored friend being listened to for the first time, I told me everything at once, and it was quite overwhelming as all the aches and tension and pain got worse. But I kept at it, and eventually noticed some of the sensations were changing – tension was disappearing in parts of my body as muscles that had been tight for so long they knew no other way were suddenly releasing. Aches and pains were suddenly turning to tingling or pins and needles.

But most interestingly, as the body calmed down, so too did the mind.

In this I saw very clearly the mind body connection, and how the two condition and influence each other, and how essential it is to maintain awareness of our physicality in meditation … and in life.

I realized why so many of us Westerners, being so cerebral, age so badly. With our culture of not listening to the body, as we get older, we not longer feel what is actually there. With our intense focus on pleasure while at the same time using drugs, comfort and entertainment to obscure all the body signals we don’t like, our body eventually gives up telling us what’s wrong.  It stops sending the sensations we need to adjust and maintain balance.

And so it becomes normal for us to regard old age as a descent into illness, mental rigidity and physical atrophy.

This often forgotten friend of ours is our most loyal and faithful companion, and will take care of us and our life if we just learn to listen to it, and understand it’s language. In this, pain and body tension are not our enemy – they are our friends trying to tell us something, so we should listen – particularly during meditation. Rather than spending your time swatting at thoughts, go into your body, and you might just find the thinking will calm all on iits own, simply because no-one is listening.

And because feelings always come before thoughts.


I’ll close with two interesting quotes:

“Each feeling of pain that cannot be integrated adds to the tension. What happens to this tension is that the person is forced to find ways to ease it. Since the only real way that tension can be erased is to have the feeling, the person must do the next best thing and seek pleasurable sensations to soothe himself. In this sense, pleasure for the neurotic is the successful anaesthesia of pain.” – Arthur Janov, ‘The Primal Revolution’

And Albert Camus, who once said, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”



Feeling Before Thinking – Always

Hong Kong Sept 2012 162As much as I have covered this subject in numerous posts, I keep hearing meditators complain about thinking: ‘I cant stop thinking,’ seems to be the main complaint and obstacle in meditation.

And its understandable. After all, in a culture such as ours in which we’re constantly encouraged to think from waking to sleep, in a lifetime of thinking about things – indeed, where our very survival depends on us thinking, calculating, anticipating, worrying, wanting, chatting and so on … it would be a bit ridiculous to expect our mind to suddenly stop thinking just because we’ve sat down to meditate.

Because our thinking habits have become insanely over developed – such that even when we don’t need to think, our mind is still mindlessly labelling, classifying, judging and reacting – all on its own. As I say in my book, ‘Happy to Burn’: ‘Our mind is like a hyperactive hand that never stops moving – even in rest it still twitches and moves on its own.’

So it’s quite a logical response in meditation, to try to use meditation to ‘stop the thinking’,

So let’s, once more, look at what thinking actually is, and where it comes from and how to deal with it.


Thinking is never the source of itself – it is always caused by something else – a sensation or feeling, an event, an inspiration or an emotion. Thinking always comes after these things – either as an identifier, or label. On their own these initial thoughts are benign and have no effect on the body – they’re simply the mind noticing things and labeling them then forgetting.

Which is why I say it’s okay for spontaneous thinking to arise in meditation. This kind of pure mental flow of thoughts arising then passing away has no influence on the body – it’s just a mind idling like a motor in neutral.

But if we react to these initial thoughts with more thinking, a body reaction is created. And that happens when the mental noticing of what has just occurred attracts other thoughts from the subconscious. That’s when we find ourselves actively involved in what’s just happened, judging it, remembering similar things, evaluating whether we like it or not. And the longer this goes on, the more momentum the thoughts get – and the more the body becomes affected by what we’re thinking.This is a reactive cycle – patterns of thinking creating feelings in the body (hormonal reactions), which create more thinking and so on.

Worrying is a classic example of this. And this process is largely automatic – a mind trying to find solutions to what it perceives as a sudden imbalance away from its preferred state of equilibrium.


Trouble is we spend so much of our life thinking, we think it’s the primary cause of everything. Which is why we try to stop it when it’s annoying us in meditation.We forget that thinking always comes second to something else.

The initial thought follows a physical event. It’s triggered by something that’s happened in our awareness, whether it is a sensation, an intuitive ‘knowing’, an instinctive reaction or a surprise event. And as I said, if we let the thinking rise up in the mind then pass away without bothering to react to it, it disappears like a dream. But if we react to that thought a reactive cycle begins, where our body gets excited in one way or another, which provokes more thinking.

And right there, it’s the feeling in our body that becomes the cause of the thinking. Not the initial event that made the first thought, but our reaction to what we’re thinking about – and the emotion that comes with it, however subtle, of irritation, frustration, anger, sadness or whatever.

If there was no reaction, feeling or emotion, there would be no thinking.

As such, particularly in meditation, if thinking is a problem, we should go to what is now causing the thinking – the feelings or emotions, not the thoughts themselves.

We go to the feeling-reaction, as sensations. Focus our attention there, and the thoughts will slowly fade away.


For example, let’s look at fear.

Let’s say we have to sit for an exam tomorrow, and we’re absolutely petrified of what’s going to happen.

On noticing that first thought ‘I’m petrified of this exam tomorrow,’ our attention becomes fixated and more thinking arises from the unconscious, and a reactive cycle begins. And the longer our attention remains fixed on that general theme, the more the compatible thoughts will be dredged up from the unconscious – associated experiences from the past: ‘that exam I failed in high school’, ‘the test I failed in primary school, failure, failure. failure … and so on’

Our body is now humming with a cocktail of hormones, of which adrenalin is the main component, which energises the worrying mind. With our mind now a swirling storm of thoughts along the theme of ‘failure’ we are creating a fictitious ‘tomorrow’ in our head and reacting to it continuously – all of which is energising the body reactions … which energises the mental reactions and so on.

This is a reactive cycle.

And because we mistakenly think everything begins and ends with what we think about it, we keep hopelessly battling the mind, trying to stop the thoughts. But as long as the body keeps reacting, our mind will obediently keep delving into the unconscious and free associating, trying to find a solution. And it will keep on doing this, for as long as our attention remains engaged with the thinking.

So trying to stop thinking in meditation, or any other time, is like trying to stop a fire by waving at the smoke – a total waste of time and energy. The only way to stop a fire is to ignore the smoke – go to the fire and pour water on it.

Divert your attention away from what you think, to what you feel.

Work with the bare sensations in your body – relax the tensions that have been created. Feel the anxiety as physical tightness and work with it. Pour all your attention into untangling this tightness and thr thoughts will lose power and fade all on their own

Working with how we feel does two things:

1.   It gives your attention something practical to do, and diverts it away from the thinking.

2.  It unwinds and soothes the physical reactions that are energising the thinking.

Because you are NOT paying attention to the thoughts, they lose momentum and coherence – which lessens their ability to cause body reactions.

With less body reactions, less hormones are released – so the feelings slowly subside.As the feeling of fear subsides, the mind naturally calms down and begins thinking other thoughts

. ……………………………………………………………………….

So there it is – whenever you have a problem with thinking, the trick is to look past it at whatever physical effects accompany it. Look into the body and find out to where the thoughts are being provoked and pay attention to that.

Use the meditation method of Mental Noting to note the sensations as you work with them – it helps to keep the mind focused.

And be prepared to find emotions you didn’t expect, provoking the thoughts.  For example, sometimes thoughts of boredom or frustration are actually coming from anger or sadness. So go with whatever emotion or set of tensions are there in the body, and keep tracking them with the mental notes as they change.

And be patient. Depending on how intense the body reaction is, it can take time for the organs to metabolise the hormones that are in play.


Letting Go of the Void

I had only been meditating for a short while before I entered “the void”.

I was meditating in my back yard one night and I guess you could say that I stumbled into it. 😉 I didn’t have a moment of “ah ha” nor did I “scramble”. It felt like an endless hole (hence the “void” lol). My body felt like it didn’t exist. I felt like I didn’t exist.

After I finished meditating, I felt a tremendous peace within myself. Not only with myself, but with life in general. But, what I didn’t realize until months afterwards, was that I was disconnected with everything. I still went about my daily routines like normal, but I knew that nothing really mattered. If I lost my job, it didn’t matter for example. I was in a completely contented place within myself, but only because of that truth. After months of not meditating, I eventually “went back to normal” I guess you could say.

I began researching what I had experienced and came across people talking about “the void” experience during meditation. That’s the only reason I have a name for my experience. I didn’t like it. As much as I enjoyed the peace, I didn’t like the feeling of being disconnected from my reality. I guess my questions are…
How many people experience this form of “the void”?
Is it normal?

P.S. To try to explain better how I felt I will add that I felt fully connected to the universe, therefore I felt fully disconnected to this reality or time or the world (however you want to see it) because I knew how little it all really matters in the whole scheme of things. I’m not sure if that makes any sense or not, but it’s the best way I can describe it.


Hi Audrey,

The short answer to your question is, in any sustained meditation practice, especially if practiced on silent retreat, the experience of ‘void’ is inevitable as the mind develops an affinity with stillness. But having said that, some people experience it, others never experience it. As my first teacher, Acharn Thawee once said: ‘Some people are ready, some are not.’

But I cannot comment on your experience, because, well, it’s an experience that’s all your own – and it sounds like it was indeed a wonderful experience.

And your reaction of not liking the effect of it is understandable – the effect of causing you to become unconcerned about your job and the life you are involved in can be quite frightening, when we live in a competitive word that depends on us being VERY concerned with such things to survive.

My only comment at this point would be, as interesting as your experience sounds, try not to think about it too much, or speculate, or place value on it – in other words, let it go. Because if you put this experience on a pedestal:  remembering it, savoring it, and expecting it to happen again, you will interfere with the naked and unconditioned mentality you need to meditate – to be still.

So whatever happens in meditation, let it go. Always move on. Never look back.

Because unfortunately, our capacity to hold onto expectations is a habit we have that interferes with our awareness of ‘now’. Expectations are largely connected to our sophisticated memory – as such, when we experience something wonderful and we remember it, our memory can be so vivid we want more.

And in meditation, as I said, this expectation becomes a hindrance, because it interferes with what we’re doing – which is, be aware of what is happening now … and now … and now …


The only other comment would is about the word ‘void’.  I’m not referring specifically to your post – just generally, the word ‘void’ is a very misunderstood term, implying a state of nothingness, unconsciousness – and all too many people who have fallen asleep in meditation, come out of it thinking that’s the void.

But its not and nothing can be further from the truth.

The void is not a lack of consciousness – so much as a state of awareness so clear, brilliant, unconditioned and un-dualistic, that we lack the language to describe it.

It happens when the attention has finally let go of everything it usually obsesses over, that we assume as ‘common reality’ – of thoughts, reactions, emotions, good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, form, non-form, right, wrong, up, down … and so on. With the attention happily still and uninvolved, we become unconditionally aware. And this awareness, as clear and brilliant and knowing as it is, has no language nor does it remember or anticipate – it simply is.

Hence all the clichés that arise from meditation – of ‘be here now’ and ‘beingness’ and others. All these clichés describe the void, because indeed, it is a ‘being here now and nowhere else’ experience. But with all its nihilistic connotations, ‘void’ is often mistakenly assumed to be ‘nothing’. But as I’ve described, it’s not nothing at all – in fact, it’s much more than we currently know – it’s everything.


So, to conclude, in meditation I always emphasise the doing of it. Just do it. Don’t think about it, or wonder about what’s happening, or speculate. Just do the business of meditating each day and meditation will take you to extraordinary places – some pleasant, some unpleasant. But whether pleasant or unpleasant, treat them all the same – like a traveler on an endless adventure, every new experience is simply another bend in the path. Keep letting go and moving on.

And where are you going?

Well, basically, you’re headed toward a reconciliation with pure awareness.

Which is why everything we do in meditation has to do with training the attention to be still – this meddlesome, reactive, thought-generating aspect of mind which usually recived most of our mental energy needs to be trained to calm down and be still when we wish it to be still. Only then does the mind re-allocate its energy to its other aspect – the awareness.

And void will happen.

Thanks for the question Audrey.