The True Meaning of Mindfulness

Concerns of a Former Buddhist Monk

A psychotherapist commented to me the other day that, “Mindfulness has little or nothing to do with introspection. It’s about learning to be in the ‘here and now,’ living in the present moment.”

Such simplistic notions of mindfulness upset me, especially coming from a healthcare professional. The fact is, simplifying life isn’t simple—it takes lots of clear thinking. Watching the breath may distract us from our anxieties for a while, but to truly get past them we have to drill down. There’s no magic.

The present moment is not some sort of thought-free zone of undefiled experience. There’s crap in the here and now. And then there’s the sheer volume. You feel cold and shudder; you hear a leaf blower and react angrily; you remember your doctor’s appointment and just have to go over the details; you find yourself preoccupied by a long-forgotten argument. Meanwhile, moods fluctuate and, as every meditator discovers, there’s an endless stream of apparently random thoughts that aren’t actually random at all.

And that’s just one moment! We can’t attend to it all. The choice of where to place our attention is either made consciously, or it happens unconsciously. This is the crux. When mindfulness is absent, automaticity steps in and we’re drawn to the same old patterns of denial, escape, numbness, self-deprecation and fear of rocking the boat. 

In time, regular mindfulness practice lays bare the roots of automaticity. THAT'S ITS POWER—to directly and consciously undermine the whispering, self-limiting beliefs that are so harmful—especially, “I’m not good enough,” and “I don’t deserve better.” Without conscious attention, patterns of shame and guilt, as well as plain anxiety, effortlessly take over. Turning around and facing them is a big deal, the best thing we can do for ourselves.

Health professionals should never take this for granted. Indeed, they shouldn’t even talk about mindfulness until they’ve established a practice of their own and gained real clarity into their own mental patterns.

What we do in Mindfulness Live

Peer-pressure, shame, embarrassment, fear of judgment—these are some of the reactive mental patterns that trigger our behavior. In Mindfulness Live we talk about reactivity all the time, focusing on one pattern per week. There are the negatives, like guilt, anger, denial and fear, as well as the positives, such as increased attention, empathy, discernment and insight. The list is as long as human behavior is complicated, but by taking them one at a time they slowly become manageable. The first goal is to see that all these negative feelings are natural products of the human mind—no reason for shame or guilt—and that with regular practice we start to change our response.

No need for shame or guilt

Last week’s topic was wishful thinking. For an example I recalled my very first expectations of meditation—that it would cure all my ills. All I had to do was, “Watch the breath.”

I did. For years. It felt good while I was doing it, but I always ended up back in the same old world with the same old baggage. Where’s the freedom in that? It didn't stop me wishing, and it didn't get me anywhere either.

Before we can let go of old patterns, we have to catch ourselves in the act of hanging on to them. That’s the real purpose of mindfulness. It’s not pretty, and the instinctive human response is to turn away. “I didn’t do it!” Denial works well in the short term, but as a long-term strategy it’s disastrous. Seeing the consequences of denial takes consistent but gentle attention, and recognizing them without shame or embarrassment raises them from the subconscious to full consciousness, finally giving us a say in them. The great obstacle is defensiveness. The payoff is the freedom of not taking things personally.

Think about what that would mean for you. It’s a real life-changer.

When you’re the only meditator in your household, keeping up motivation can be really tough. TO stop our perpetual engagement in the world of people we have to STOP, and that goes against all social norms. We need support in our dissent, and it’s heartwarming.

We laugh a lot, cry a little and wonder where we belong in this great universe. Not that we expect an answer. Those big questions are different. They leave us on the knife-edge of the sublime—being without needing to understand—witnessing the flux of life. What matters is to celebrate what we have, and to do it as consciously as possible. where you'll keep up your practice, guaranteed!

My Father Tamed Lions, but he Couldn’t Tame Me

Perhaps it was because Dad was a lion tamer that I ended up funny. Yes, a lion tamer—and no, I don’t mean comic. This was all in his past by the time I was born, and since he was an absent father—there but not there, like so many men of that generation—I got to know him through his memories, or at least what I imagined were his memories. These I formed myself, from a pile of old photos that he stubbornly refused to talk about. He was ashamed of something.

He’d run away from his native Calabria in the 1930s to join his cousin Blacaman, who was touring South America with lions and alligators as the, “Hindu Animal Hypnotist.” When he fell out with Blacaman and ran off with his girlfriend Koringa to Paris, he managed her before moving on to an acrobatic dancer called Gwenda. Koringa was exotic and French. Gwenda was respectable and English. Dad admired England. Handily avoiding Mussolini’s call to arms, he ended up interned on the Isle of Man. They married and she became like him, an enemy alien. That ended their performing days.

These are the people who raised me. At least, they tried.

“Dad, where was this picture taken, and who's that girl with you?” No answer. Just a grimace. He'd get mad when I pleaded, and I'd get mad right back at his silence. A child needs the stories of the parents, preferably from their own lips. Mum told me everything, but she was no male role-model. He controlled us at home and I vowed never to be like him. But of course I never really knew him, so it was a difficult vow to keep.

The only person he spoke to—in absolute privacy—was his priest. He’d maligned Holy Mother Church for years and had more regrets. He clung to his newfound English and Catholic respectability like a talisman, but the life that I witnessed never inspired me quite like those old photos.

They empowered me to live passionately and uncompromisingly—just as, I supposed, he'd done when he was young and interesting. So when at the age of twenty-two I got to choose between a life as a social scientist and the opportunity to go native with a pride of learned Tibetans, it was a no-brainer.

I didn’t see my decision as an escape but it was. Just as Dad got away from the priests and mafia of his childhood Calabria, but he never escaped his unresolved past. I didn’t want to end up like that.

I knew he’d thrown everything to the wind, and I did too. He joined the circus. I became a Buddhist monk. He tamed lions and alligators. I tamed my mind (or tried to). He abandoned Catholicism temporarily. I gave it up for good. “You’re just like I was,” he’d say. Everyone would nod sagely and turn away.

I turned away too, of course—but not only from them. Eight years later I abandoned Buddhism and found myself on the margins of two cultures. I didn’t even aspire to fit in anywhere. I wasn’t happy and didn’t expect to be. Did he feel that way too, despite his success as a respectable restaurateur, husband and father?

Monastic life had given me more respect for my mind than I’d ever had before. I studied history, computer science, typography, design, book production, psychology, neurology. I wrote a memoir and other books. I fed my brain and developed my skills as assiduously as I avoided my heart.

I called many people ‘friend,’ but never got from them what I needed. I only realised it when I made a new friend, someone who recognized my passion for mindfulness and encouraged me to teach it. I’d trained for eight years. Why didn’t I use it?

That’s when everything changed. I became happy. She helped me put on workshops. I loved public speaking and wrote books. I’m often thanked for my teaching and praised for my intelligence, but there’s still a voice in my head that says I'm not enough. It no longer does the damage now that it once did. When it shows up I see it, counter it and refuse to follow.

This is the process of self-acceptance. My work has shown me how hard it is for others too. We’re all susceptible to shame and the defensive, defeatist voices in our head—but that’s no reason to give up or to even attempt escape. I married that friend, though the belonging part is still elusive.

What did I learn from Dad? Escape is not only impossible—it makes everything worse. My work fulfills me because it requires me to be ruthlessly honest. Teaching, writing and communicating this sort of deep meaning and emotional intelligence fills my life in many ways.

End of story: I avoided being like him, more or less. I’m happy to share my stories. I hide nothing. I catch my reactivity better than ever, and face those voices without any desire to escape. I connect the dots. Perhaps he did that with his parish priest. I’d like to think so.

________________________________________________________________________ where you keep up your practice guaranteed!

How Chronic Illness Helped My Relationship Grow

When people hear that my wife has multiple sclerosis (MS) and can’t walk, they cringe painfully. Sure it’s not good news—but they assume it’s a nightmare disaster of a situation with no upside, and that we can’t possibly have a life. They’re so wrong.

I always knew what to expect. Caroline warned me repeatedly, “Go! Save yourself.” She was being practical, but I didn’t care. Here was an empathic, intelligent woman who listened to my story and took the time to understand. The depression I’d been in for months fell away. I hardly spoke in those days, but she had me talking volubly and confessionally about my past, my present and my dreams. I was shocked by how many I still had, and she loved them. We were on the same wavelength! For the first time in years, I could breathe with another human being.

As our relationship progressed so did the MS. Its unpredictability is part of the pain. With very little neural feedback from her fingertips, Caroline can hardly button a blouse or put in ear-rings. Picking up a pill from a plate is an exercise in frustration, and getting it to her mouth is a game of chance. Everything is laborious. Falling over is a constant threat. It takes a full minute for her to open the fridge, reach for something and get it safely onto the counter behind her. So when she baked a beautiful Bundt cake for my birthday last week, you can imagine what that meant to me.

Being anxious to help, I sometimes make things worse. I see her struggling, take over, and leave her feeling helpless. Or she tells me to bug off. She feels perfectly healthy, apart from the things she can't do. Then I’m the one to agonize and feel helpless. An inner voice insists that I must fix the unfixable, and accepts no excuses. We don’t let any of these feeling fester. Everything’s up for discussion, making it that much easier to let things go.

Not everybody has MS, but everybody has something. Even if you’re in perfect health, you won’t stay that way forever. As for the emotional struggles of life, you can’t face them alone and come out unscathed. I tried. Even with eight ears of monastic training and the finest self-help tools, I got lost and didn’t even realize it until that unflinching conversation with Caroline. It goes on.

People say that as long as you’ve got your health you’ve got everything. Not many stop to think how that makes people like Caroline feel. I hate hearing it not just because it’s thoughtless—it’s also ridiculous. If you want a philosophy that helps you grow through life, you can’t just focus on the upside. The key is to face the struggle without losing balance. That’s what Caroline and I have been working on since the day we met. That’s what gives our lives meaning and that’s why her clients love her as much as I do.

Fake News About Mindfulness

Mindfulness is often thought of as a spiritual practice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The practice of mindfulness begins in the body. Step One is to attend to your sensations—in other words, the electrical signals sent to your brainstem, as well as its relays back to the eye, ear, nose, tongue or skin. To see this without triggering a cascade of feelings and thoughts is very unusual, and you have to make a conscious effort to let go of thoughts—especially expectations.

Step Two is to attend to that cascade. Every experience—each in-breath and out-breath—feels like something. It’s fleeting. We rarely take time to notice feelings—usually only once they’ve ballooned out of control. However, it’s the other, micro-feelings, from one moment to the next, that trigger our most continuous, most unconscious reactivity.

Step Three is to attend to your mentality, and this takes poise. Thoughts, ideas and habitual patterns operate virtually at the speed of light; it’s hard to get even a glimpse of them. However, all that’s connected interactively to the brainstem. It correlates certain thoughts to particular feeling states. Your goal is to witness your reactions by being less defensive.

Step Four is attending to your whole world. That means the things around you, including the stuff you own, but mostly the world of society and the incredible variety of relationships that make up sentient life. Much of that life doesn’t simply happen out there. It’s rooted in interaction with you. First you identify the stimuli that trigger troublesome feelings, then you note your thoughts, let them go and return to the present. It's a repetitive practice, rather like strengthening a muscle. Similarly, without practice it loses its strength.

Mindful practice happens within these four tangible grounds. It’s something to get spirited about—at least, I think so—but it’s not spiritual, and neither is the present moment. The supernatural and the metaphysical do not lie in tangible space. Moments other than the present—the past and future—might be spiritual, but they're not here.

Let me stress that mindfulness is an ethical practice—something rooted in society and our relationships with others. The purpose is to understand and refine this embodied, socialized life on Earth so that we can live to the full and die in peace.

Mindfulness Live

In the four months since this class began, my whole outlook to it has changed. I was concerned about making such a commitment, afraid it would become too demanding. Like you, I’ve got lots of stuff to do—more than ever
It turns out I can’t wait for those meeting three times a week. I need them as much as anyone.

What we get in that thirty minutes isn’t spectacular at all—more like a raft carrying us from day to unpredictable day—and that’s the point. It’s typical in our society to overlook this, trying to avoid life’s uncertainty, to hope for the best. I mean, reality’s so damn heavy. Putting it out of mind does make you feel better for a while—or at least numb—but if you’re willing to really accept change and ditch denial, then life becomes something special: a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Which is what we’re doing in Mindfulness Live. I log on to Zoom a few minutes before midday. The names in the waiting room are familiar now, and the faces. We know each other; we know we’re all different. Some enjoy Covid restrictions. Some hate them. There’s no disagreement, no judgment, no opinion. You’re not expected to feel what everyone else feels. This is a safe place for you to accept what you feel, and be accepted for it. You don’t get this sort of support too often.

The half-hour’s easy. You just listen. First, there’s ten minutes of guided mindfulness. I pride myself on always finding a new angle on the breath. Mindfulness is about taking time, not taking shortcuts.

Then I give a ten-minute talk—always about basics. So far we’ve looked at automaticity, thinking, motivation, empathy, self-compassion—the list goes on. These are things I’ve pondered all my life—I promise they’re worth the effort, and they’ll come up again and again. They’re fundamental.

Mindfulness is a continual reexamination of mind and body from as many angles as possible, a reminder that none of them is absolute.

We finish with ten minutes of guided reflection, and there’s a chat after for anyone who’d like to stay.

It’s just half an hour in the middle of the day, to remind ourselves to wake up to the unfathomable display of cause and effect, contingency and love, that we call life.

How Free Can You Be?

Caroline and I went out this afternoon to pick up supplements. We ordered in advance; they dropped the order in the back seat. The transaction took seconds and we all wore masks. It was easy and organized.

So I wonder about those people who refuse to wear masks, who feel unfree when they’re asked to. I wonder what freedom means to them. On the way home, two cars pass us at high speed, one on each side, switching lanes without signaling, racing. They’re free, right?

There’s much talk of freedom in the abstract, but what does it really mean? I can be free of disease or free from dictators, but can I be simply free? Free of everything? It doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve tried. My quest for freedom began when I left the Catholic Church. I was recruited by communists, who promised me freedom from exploitation. In time I realized I was more imprisoned by the patterns of my own mind. This led me to Buddhism, which promises freedom from suffering. That’s a big promise, but it’s still not pure freedom. I’m still subject to state controls, biological disease and the laws of physics. If I trip, I fall. Without air I quickly die. It’s galling!

Freedom is waved about like a talisman. On its own, it’s an empty word, but it’s used to justify pretty well anything—not using direction indicators; not wearing a mask; not accepting election results; not using your problem-solving human mind, even though there’s no finer tool in the universe, nor any greater pleasure.

The human mind also invents denial and uses it wantonly. People say there’s no virus, that it’s a hoax. I don’t believe them, but I’d like to understand why they want to believe this.

I discovered long ago that there’s no clear distinction between actually believing something and wanting to believe it. I believed in reincarnation not because I was overwhelmed by evidence but because I’d decided to become a Buddhist. Reincarnation was part of the deal. Perhaps I never actually believed, but it’s hard to say. I obviously allowed for the possibility of reincarnation in my thinking. Otherwise, I’d have made no sense to my fellow-Buddhists. What does it mean to really believe? Jeez.

I eventually gave up on all belief systems, including Buddhism. The Buddha himself advocated objective self-reliance—the opposite of believing what suits you. Scientific studies* show that the vast majority of decisions are made emotionally and only then rationalized—if at all.

We always have the option of bringing reasoning and evidence into our decision-making—but it’s unusual. When designing a building or a vehicle we can’t avoid it, but when arguing with your spouse or baffled by the kids, we tend to go to our default expectation, judgment and reaction. It’s intellectual (and moral) laziness—but we all do it. We think things through far less than we imagine.

Those who say Covid-19 is a hoax distrust authority because they don’t wish to be like sheep—unfree. But is that really all they want—to not wear masks? If they’re looking for pure, total freedom they’ll have to think a little harder. They may find some deeper issue they’re not addressing—something emotional.

It’s enough to put you in denial.

Bye-bye 2020

What a year! Not exactly one we want to commemorate, but unforgettable—a game-changer. Life as we know it stopped. There’ll eventually be a new normal, but it’ll take some getting used to.

Let’s not forget that change itself is normal. Even pandemics have their time and place in the saga of human history. It’s a reminder that our species, like them all, is temporary.

This thought may paralyze you, but humility would be a more useful response. Ever since the authors of Genesis gave us “dominion” over the Earth and its inhabitants, we’ve been taking it for granted.


We think it’s up to us to determine the future of our planet and our race. We have a say, but we certainly don’t have our hands on the controls of creation, and thank god for that.

Life is wonderful and exciting when it’s not terrifying and forbidding. It’s by remembering both these possibilities that we keep our balance. Rather than considering ourselves the dominant species who will wrestle Covid to the ground, let’s just be grateful each morning to wake up and draw breath. This pandemic will end, but there’ll be others.

We’re just fragile individuals of a fragile race. Remembering that is not depressing. It’s sane, and my prediction for 2021 is that our sanity will continue to be tested.

Please care for yourself and for those around you. Take nothing for granted. Be satisfied and grateful. It’s a wonderful life, if you care for it.

Cracking Open the Closed Mind

It’s been a bad year, out of control. As if Covid-19 wasn’t enough, we’re faced with extreme denial—a rotten stew of conspiracy theories and lazy thinking.

People on opposite political sides are mostly in the business of getting their biases confirmed. On both left and right, most see what they want to see and avoid what they don’t. They act as if one side’s always right and the other’s always wrong. It’s childish and absurd. It’s also corrosive. The periodic switching of governments between left and right has been the engine of political debate since the first parliament in 1215, but now respectful exchange has turned to cynicism—a social cancer. In the States of America, and in other countries too, large portions of each side believes the other is evil. This is leading nowhere good.

What can we do? Tell people they’re in denial and they’ll just deny it! Which brings us to the question of the day—how to talk to the other side?
I learned from my debate teacher Geshe Rabten that the best way to win an argument isn’t to challenge your adversary’s ideas. Rather, you question them, drawing out each argument and exposing every weaknesses until they contradict themselves. Hurling your truths at them just hardens their position.

You get into the other person’s head with empathy. It doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you listen without letting your own beliefs get in the way. It’s exactly the same open mind you need to do science—no prejudice, no expectations. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to pry the mind open, especially when it comes to ideas you personally identify with.

Confirmation bias is a natural human instinct that we rely on every day. The more it operates unconsciously, the more ingrained it becomes. On the other hand, mindfulness over time brings it to the surface. It loses its power, and objectivity becomes an option. It’s not easy to see your own biases. It takes a sort of awakening.

For example, speaking recently to a lady who supported Donald Trump, I asked, “Do you think he’s a decent man?” She was visibly stressed by the question, and went to great lengths to avoid saying ‘no.’ However she couldn’t bring herself to say, ‘yes.’ Her confidence was shaken; a chink of daylight got it. I don’t need her to agree with me. I just want her to doubt herself, and I want the doubt to sink in. Why bombard her with ideas she already hates?

Two promising vaccines were announced this week and it looks like there’ll be an endgame to Covid-19. Deniers, however, will always be with us. You can’t just shoot a vaccine into their brains. They have to see their own biases and confront them with honesty and humility. Most people will never do this, but there are always some, as the Buddha put it, with little dust on their eyes.

That would be you. So go out there and create some mindful, empathic chinks. Make them doubt themselves. Go on, I know you can do it.

Sam’s Life: What’s the Point?

Sam’s an interesting cat. He darts out of his room each morning as soon as I open the door, then loops right back to nuzzle my hand before he completes the circle back to the foot of the stairs. Before I even get there, two steps away, he’s remembered the scratching post! Back he goes to embed his claws in the sisal—you’d think he’s trying to pull them right out of his paw. By then I’m half-way upstairs and he flies past. I hear the pitter-patter but his feet are a blur. He literally seems airborne. Don’t you love the way cats move?


By the time I’m upstairs he’s on his butt licking his crotch. This has nothing to do with personal hygiene. It’s a message: “This is my domain.” This morning, yesterday morning, the morning before—always the same. Next, breakfast; to be followed by sleep, play, etc. You can set your watch by his rituals.

That’s how Sam keeps body and soul together—automated brain patterns. My primary school teachers, all Catholic nuns, insisted that animals have no souls. I never believed that. Animals don’t have our cognitive skills, true, but so what? I don’t think Sam worries about his existential condition nearly as much as I do. Pet-owners often envy their pets you know. It’s funny how often this comes up in mindfulness classes. They say their animals are more in the moment than they’ll ever be!

My Buddhist teachers explained how cognitive skills enable us to upgrade learned behavior and free ourselves from it. It’s a tempting idea that I’ve found to be true—sort of. What they didn’t explain is that freedom is relative; you have to keep working at it, and of course you’ve got to be pretty clear about what you’re freeing yourself from. That’s the hard part.

The question of meaning nags at our species. We’re so obsessed with our vast cognitive powers (I’m not being facetious) that we keep trying to put it into words. A million theories and beliefs, but nothing agreed. However, one look at human behavior shows consensus. Forget about what we should do and look at what we do do. What fulfills us more than any idea? The feeling of acceptance, love and communion that we get from connecting to others.


Sometimes, Sam looks up into my eyes, just like his brother Ziggy here, and sends a shiver up my spine.