The word ‘fundament’ means base or foundation, so you’d expect religious fundamentalism to be rooted deep in history, but it’s not. It started in the Southern United States after the First World War, a reaction to modernity’s brazen questioning of Christian authority. The Bible, ambiguous, contradictory, sometimes just plain indecipherable, was abruptly declared to be ‘literally true.’

Since then, insecure Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have followed suit and established their own varieties of fundamentalism, all to the general detriment of civilization. Around the globe, people threatened by life’s inexplicability cluster together to share fictitious certainties.

We don’t all react that way, and yet we do all feel that insecurity from time to time. Yesterday I was walking to the post office under unremarkable skies when the fact of existence seemed momentarily bizarre. ‘Why am I conscious,’ I thought. ‘Why does anything exist? Couldn’t the universe simply not be?’ It was visceral.

These are childish thoughts. I don’t mean to scorn them but to remember that they come from early days: before schooling, perhaps even before upbringing, training or culture of any sort. We humans are thinking machines, compelled to consider what we experience. The trouble with these particular thoughts is that they make us uneasy. They provoke a powerful sense of wonder, or fear, but don’t lead anywhere. They undermine every edifice of thought. Even when we dismiss them as foolish, they come back to haunt us; particularly when death lurks.

Such feelings are fundamental in the literal sense; they never really go away.

But neither do they linger. My mood shifted to irritable as I waited in line for my mail. We get on with our appetites and creativity, such as they are. Satisfaction demands attention and we forget those existential thoughts; then, expectation breeds disappointment and we’re back on the wheel of life. It’s dizzying at the rim; the hub is more manageable. At the precise mathematical centre it’s motionless, surely.


Do we really want that perfect serenity, or are we putting on a brave face when we pray for peace? Do we fear silence? Or, in the still of the night, tortured by whirling thoughts, is that what we really long for, that terrifying thing?

How do we let go of meaning and yet pursue life with gusto?


Fixing Up Life

We have a strange anxiety in us; that if we don’t interfere then it won’t happen. Now that’s the root of an enormous amount of trouble.”—Alan Watts

We all need to belong. We also need to be self-reliant. When the two seem irreconcilable we try to think logically, but life’s not logical. You can figure out why you feel lonely but it won’t make you feel better.

What helps is looking at the gap between how you think you should be and how you actually are.

The feeling that you don’t fit in, that you aren’t the way you should be or that you haven’t reached your full potential are just ways of interfering in your own life. Sounds strange I know, but nobody’s got it all figured out, and that’s just the way it is.

Still, it’s hard to accept. We compare ourselves with others, judge ourselves by impossible standards of perfection or try to live up to ideal codes of conduct.

As if life’s not difficult enough.

When we accept that life doesn’t need fixing, new possibilities open up. It’s tricky to gaze into something inconceivable, but whether we’re being charmed by a moonlit summer night or challenged by the demons in our dark places, it puts us in touch with reality in ways that words and ideas just don’t. That’s why Blaise Pascal said that, “miseries come from being unable to sit alone in a quiet room.” It’s why people pray or meditate and why philosophers say that we sometimes need “to just be.”

All generations think they’re living in a unique time, but there’s nothing new about the sense that life is outpacing us and that we need to run faster. That’s life as a hamster wheel. It’s so hard to just stop that we need people of like mind to do it with. It’s easier to pray or meditate in groups, but it’s no guarantee you’re actually learning to let go. Often, the group becomes yet another source of busyness.

To make occasional silence a regular habit, we have to look into our evasions. There’s no sense as to why we keep trying to go with the ups and avoid the downs; we know it doesn’t work. The thing is to gaze into those habits without judgements and rationalizations, and uncover their roots. Those who refuse to confront insoluble mysteries because, “there’s no point,” are missing the point of self-knowledge.

Another form of evasion is holding on to beliefs like a life-raft. The purpose of life is to swim, not to cling. Preachers and gurus who deliver convenient answers are doing you no favours.

You can breathe with others even if they don’t see as you see. That doesn’t mean trying to like them, for true friendship is yet another mystery. Loneliness and isolation come from the thought that everyone else belongs and you don’t. Look into their eyes and you’ll see they’re just as afraid as you and me. Then you’ll belong.

And then you’ll find the courage to be.


The Precarious Cost of Integrity

A tale of corporate mindfulness and modern-day exploitation:

Martha had once been chief legal officer of Social Media Corp, a social networking leader. She’d worked side-by-side with the founders and been one of the ‘family.’ For five years she’d enabled the very behavior of which, today, she stood in court and accused them.

In an unequivocal voice she declared, “Just because they provide the pipeline through which user information is delivered does not entitle them to use that information, either directly or indirectly. Even though users check a disclaimer and acknowledge the company’s access to their personal data, they are still protected by the privacy laws of their country. The users of SM Corp can join for ‘free,’ but they nonetheless pay an unwitting — and illegal — cost.”

The defendants felt betrayed by their former colleague. They’d built a bright, progressive company that everyone wanted to work for. They were generous to employees and encouraged their creativity, letting them explore and sometimes fail. They provided a relaxed, high-tech workspace filled with wholesome, free food and beverages. They offered the best health coverage money could buy and a host of wellness options, including mindfulness training.

Which is where it all began.

Mindfulness put her in touch not only with her stress
and reactivity but also with her ethical footprint through life

Martha loved her job. At any rate, she was excited about ‘creating new realities,’ as the slogan went. She enjoyed welcoming visitors into her bright office and talking confidently about the future. She loved being at the forefront of her generation, of working with the brightest minds around.

Still, the job was tricky. Getting people to sign up for a free account was one thing; Turning their aggregated data into a revenue stream — a legal one, that is — straddled a fine line.

Martha’s job was to make sure SM Corp didn’t cross it. In the early days, she was sometimes  the only naysayer in a room of inspired engineers, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ She shocked them, but knew how to deliver the news. They respected her.

In return, she knew they weren’t greedy; they didn’t drive fancy cars or live ostentatiously. Out there on the leading edge things just got a little giddy, even electric. Sometimes she ended up just as frazzled as the front-line coders. That’s why she lobbied for the mindfulness class. She read in Time how all the big companies were using it to augment their employees’ health, creativity and productivity.

She took to it like a duck to water. It clarified her thinking and helped her center herself when she felt overwhelmed. She learned the power of silence, to watch what was going on without judgment and to shift the burden of communication from speaking to listening. Things began to change at home too, where she and her husband juggled intense professional lives with parenting their two children. She experienced moments of peace and clarity, and wanted more.

Martha wasn’t interested in religion, but she was intrigued to learn that this modern scientific practice was rooted in an ancient tradition. She signed up for an online Buddhism course and discovered that there was more — much more. Focused attention was just one element. Mindfulness helped her see into herself, but in all that raw data there were patterns to discern, and insights. From those emerged a desire to grow — but in what direction? This, Martha believed, was the essence of ethics.

Without even realizing it, she’d distanced herself one small step
at a time from what mattered to her more than anything else.

Ethics was why she’d become a lawyer in the first place — naively as it turned out; law wasn’t the same thing at all. But she’d invested in school, then in her career, and did what she had to do. There wasn’t much time to think. Without even realizing it, she’d distanced herself one small step at a time from what had once mattered to her more than anything else.

Her mindfulness practice put her back in touch with the thoughtful space in which those thoughts had originally germinated. She contemplated all the small steps, mulled over the compromises of the last five years and questioned her integrity.

Which was what, exactly? Was it just behaving in ways that were acceptable to others? She always felt that was a cop-out. Where was the dignity in that? With her new clarity she saw that integrity meant to become complete in her own eyes. Mindfulness had put her in touch not only with her stress and reactivity but also with her ethical footprint through life. What mattered most was what she was passing on to her children, not through words and ideas but as a role-model, through her behavior.

Martha turned to her parents. They were proud of her success, but had never been as impressed by her employers as Martha. They’d raised her to make the world a better place, and considered social networking a step backward. Martha never argued with them — they were from another time after all — but one day she read in a book review that Google was, “in the business of distraction.”¹

Distraction wasn’t simply an unfortunate side-
effect of social networking. It was the point.

That stopped her in her tracks. She’d been noticing how automatically she reacted to the twitches of her smart phone; how often she turned to technology for momentary distraction; how her attention was increasingly fragmented. She also noticed that, for her colleagues, ‘good’ meant good engineering, and technical progress was precisely equivalent to social progress. It was as if humanity was heading for tech heaven, and they were the priests. Cults were usually fringe groups, but this was mainstream, addictive and, she furrowed her brow — destructive.

She was shocked by her insight. There’d be a price to pay, and she laughed uneasily at the irony. Mindfulness helped her colleagues focus on fragmenting their users’ attention. The more often a user clicked, the more money the company made. Distraction wasn’t simply an unfortunate side effect of social networking. It was the point.

The other side of that irony was that the simple pursuit of inner peace had turned Martha’s life inside out. Here she was in exactly the job she’d worked so hard for, only to find it unconscionable.

Cautiously, she probed colleagues in search of allies. She expected resistance but it was worse than that. They were insulted by her accusations.

“Accusation?” she protested. “I didn’t mean to….”

But the look in their eyes was unmistakable. She’d positioned herself beyond the pale. For them, the company was on the leading edge of a new wave. They were transforming the world, empowering people, creating wealth. What was not to like? Mindfulness was personally helpful and great PR, but it was there to support their work, not to challenge it.

Martha began to feel weirdly introverted, afraid she might be too wrapped up in herself, but the shift in her perception was irreversible. She couldn’t account for why mindfulness had pushed her and her co-meditators to such opposite poles, but she hadn’t felt this sure of herself since college. There was no doubt: mindfulness was growing her integrity; the job was compromising it.

Her parents were supportive; a little nervous for her future but proud to see Martha make sacrifices for what she believed in. They talked into the night about how things used to be. Through their eyes, Martha saw more clearly the challenges of the future. There was no reversing the technology, but the notion that society would be steered merely by what was technically possible was disturbing. To her colleagues, a new ethics, society, politics and economics would emerge naturally in the digital age, not the other way round. Something was wrong with a picture in which users were the product and the corporation owed them nothing.

Once her mind was made up, Martha’s resignation wasn’t the bitter pill she feared. She felt empowered, primed to follow her passion. As she reoriented herself in the following weeks, she came across this challenge from a neo-Buddhist blog site, and pasted it on her wall:

Does your mindfulness practice penetrate deep into your subconscious to uproot narcissism, greed and confusion; or, does it leave you feeling serene and unquestioning? Is it a tool for unflinching self-discovery; or, is it a way to become the nice person you always wanted to be? Does it reveal life’s ultimate groundlessness; or, does it console you with imaginary certainties?

Martha joined an activist group that lobbied for digital privacy. Meanwhile, the corporation continued its mindfulness classes. On the whole, they made employees happy and boosted the bottom line. As far as they were concerned, Martha was just weird — an aberration.

Martha turned to the jury and showed, as only an insider could show, just how the corporation used its users, offering them a free service that actually cost them their privacy; providing information without cultivating intelligence, creating a hive mind rather than a community of the self-reliant, making people less contemplative, more easily overwhelmed and increasingly distracted.

“Distraction,” she raised her voice, “is their ultimate goal.”

The judge removed his glasses and locked eyes with Martha. She had his undivided attention.

¹ The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

Why Mindfulness isn’t a Good Thing (…or New)

If we’re to believe all the hype about mindfulness (one-month’s worth on the left), it’s a magic bullet. Claims for this latest fad grow daily more dazzling. Trouble is, there’s nothing ‘latest’ about it. It’s not the least bit new, and I’m not talking about the fact that it’s been taught for thousands of years in Asia.

What I mean, and what’s almost ridiculously underappreciated, is that it’s been practiced forever, everywhere.

One of my most memorable summer jobs was as a bricklayer’s mate, though I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I had to provide bricks and fresh mortar to two unrefined brickies who were paid piece-work and tolerated no down-time. Nevertheless, on the rare occasion I was ahead of the game I admired their workmanship and noticed the deliberate flow of their every movement. Cigarettes sometimes hung motionless from the corners of their mouths, growing ash like forgotten weeds. In that stillness I saw their minds at work as they built walls that would stand for centuries. It was exacting and absorbing. They took pride in the precision of their task. It was no surprise when I learned years later that Winston Churchill — British Empire warrior, Prime Minister and literary giant — composed his troubled mind at the bottom of his garden by laying bricks.

If you’ve ever been immersed in a piece of music or the sounds of nature, stopped in your tracks by a gorgeous sunset or, like my brickies, engaged in a task that absorbs your whole attention, you know the joys of mindfulness. In the 1970s, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi initiated a whole new field of psychological research when he appropriated the term flow to describe this experience. Before that there was no particular name for it. Perhaps it seems so new to the general public today because it wasn’t objectified that much; it needed no particular name.

What we mean by ‘mindfulness’ today however is more complicated. Look at these popular conceptions: it improves just about anything you do; it’s ‘spiritual’ for those who want it to be and ‘secular’ for those who don’t; if you’re just getting into it, it’s way cool; and, the one thing almost everyone agrees on, it’s good — which is where I disagree.

Bricklayer Winston Churchill at work

It’s great that so many people finally want to slow down and stop, but it’s important to understand that mindfulness is ethically neutral; it’s neither good nor bad. It cultivates mental strength, brings clarity and feels pleasant, but just as effectively as it can enhance the healing touch of a doctor, it can also heighten the murderous intent of a cool-headed terrorist. Mindfulness is impartial. That’s why it’s so readily embraced by business leaders and military commanders. They don’t necessarily care about people finding their true purpose in life, or overcoming self-cherishing thoughts.

Because mindfulness always feels good, we think it always is good. Ours is not the first civilization to confuse pleasure with virtue, and like every other we’ll pay a price if we don’t stop and pay attention. Paradoxically, stopping to pay attention is what mindfulness is all about, but no one until now suggested it was good in itself. It was always meant to be combined with ethics and intelligence, without which it will never be an agent of positive personal and social change.

As a civilization, we’re right now taking that for granted. Thinking of mindfulness as inherently good, and as the best new thing since sliced bread, is wishful thinking. It’s a luxury we can’t afford.


The Evolution of Mindfulness

Jeanne, an old student of mine, approached me the other day about my upcoming Mindful Reflection workshop. “When does it start?” she asked. “It’s about letting go, isn’t it? I’ve got lots to let go of. So much disappointment.”

I love that I teach something practical, that helps people change. Not so long ago skeptics would have said, “Ah, but does it?” Today, criticism is muted. Thousands of scientific studies point to the effectiveness of ‘meditation.’

Still, exactly what that means is far from scientific. The word covers a broad range of practices from transcendental meditation (TM) to tantra. At base, it’s about being quiet and not giving in to distraction, at least outwardly. Beyond that, there are so many variations that you can never be sure two people are talking about the same thing. There’s walking meditation and sitting, vipassana and mantrayana, and then there are things like tai-chi, yoga and Zen archery. Are these all real forms of meditation?

You don’t want to open that can of worms.

Mindfulness: It’s all about change

The meditation that Jeanne learned in my workshops is mindfulness. It’s all over the news these days for its effectiveness in fighting depression, managing pain, reducing blood pressure, treating psoriasis and a host of other conditions. Everyone’s heard of it by now. It’s not just for navel-gazers any more.

Like ‘meditation,’ the word ‘mindfulness’ too triggers a broad spectrum of thinking. Not everyone’s on the same page. At one extreme, it’s a religious practice, just one component of a disciplined, faith-based lifestyle. At the other it’s a non-pharmaceutical approach to stress.

I’ve travelled the gamut from religion to secularism, learning something at every step of the way and adjusting not just my conception of who I am but also how I feel about being me. I would once have described this process as mystical; today I’d call it practical, but I’d also shrug. Call it what you want; it’s a way of life, not a theory.

Mindfulness is not so much
about finding truth as being truthful

It’s all about change. Religious Buddhists want to change into enlightened beings. Secular practitioners want to change their emotional reactivity, or at least their blood pressure. The main complaint of religious types isn’t that secularists have it wrong, but that they’ve watered down a beautiful tradition so much that it’s lost all taste. In return, secularists point out that Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation and magical stories dilute the immensely practicality of mindfulness and turn off many who could otherwise benefit.

Does the truth lie somewhere in between? That’s an interesting question. Mindfulness is not so much about finding truth as being truthful. There’s a difference. The close examination of your own experience is highly subjective. The mind spins truth depending on what it wants from a particular situation. For example, when your ego feels threatened and really needs to win an argument, integrity might take a teeny-weeny back seat; only temporarily; with just a little white lie.

See what I mean? The first casualty of mindfulness is the notion that we’re lucid, consistent and in control. Take note of that as it happens, and you begin the process of rewiring of the brain that scientists get so excited about. Of course, repeatedly shooting ducks and painting sunflowers also rewires your brain, so that’s hardly the point.

Jeanne learned to watch her disappointment and anger: how the emotions came and went, what triggered them and the chain of mental events they set in motion. She also learned that noticing them in real time — as they actually occurred in her daily life — gave her an opportunity to step back, not in one giant leap but incrementally. With practice and encouragement, she’s cultivating a counter-habit.

The way you describe yourself to yourself is
the arbiter of your happiness and unhappiness

Firming up this habit begins with the sort of practice that usually begins in a meditation setting. There, you learn to focus and to let go of distraction in ways that often lead to misunderstanding. Sitting quietly triggers boredom, and the inner chatter we’re trying to relinquish suddenly looks very tempting. To keep your attention in the present moment, teachers use expressions like ‘empty your mind,’ and ‘let go of your thoughts.’ Beginners often conclude from this that discursive thinking is a bad thing, which it isn’t; it’s just an obstacle to that particular practice. In other circumstances we need it very much, to think and function, to manage our careers and lives — and to reflect on our mindfulness practice.

As the mindfulness habit takes root, you also accumulate data about your experience — stuff to think about. We naturally process that data, just as I’m doing here. The way you describe yourself to yourself changes, and you learn that that description is the arbiter of your happiness and unhappiness.

For this reason I teach not just mindfulness, but mindful reflection, the practice of mindfulness in the context of a challenging, thoughtful life. It’s my middle way between the religious idea of transcending our human limitations and the coldness of a mere technique to calm you down. It’s not about transforming or curtailing your life, it’s about facing it creatively. What changes is your approach.

Jeanne knows that this is a lifetime’s work. There’s no perfection, no end-point. She works continuously to keep her baggage to a minimum and to be fully awake to all experience. She wants to sit in on more workshops because mindful reflection is not just about acquiring information but about digging deeper and looking at things from continually evolving angles.

Every day brings new challenges. It’s good to see the practice through the eyes of an experienced teacher. It’s made easier in the company of like-minded people. It’s something that happens in the privacy of your own mind, and yet it transforms your relationships to yourself and to everyone else. Above all, connecting is what life is all about.


How to Be

The title of this post may sound like a pretentious philosophical treatise, and you may think, ‘Oh just get on with it!’ but this is not theory. It’s a niggling incertitude that drives me through each and every day. I know I’m not alone. After sifting though the suggestions and requests from our recent call to readers for feedback, I saw that I write this blog — and you read it — with a common purpose: we’re all trying to respond to this inner drive ‘to be’ with more reflection, less automaticity.

The modern world is geared towards how to get. It’s not a preoccupation we can avoid, but it’s not enough for us. You and I want more — or is it less? Something else, anyway. We are a minority, often regarded as odd even by ourselves. That draws us together even more than shared ideas. My fondest monastic memories are of the glorious eccentrics who paraded through our temple doors. Some days it was like a Fellini movie. For the first time in my life, I belonged.

In the heart of every recluse lies pain,
and in that pain, opportunity

The need to belong is visceral. Logic hardly penetrates. Until we find a real place, we may make halfhearted friends, settle for people we neither love nor respect. We may even join cults. I suspect the fear of loneliness causes more suffering than loneliness itself. It did for me.

To find a real home — to ‘be yourself’ as the new age exhorts — is not so simple. We must first abandon all make-believe homes of compromise and clinging. So hard is it to admit how vulnerable we are that usually, we don’t. Rather than examining our instincts, we blindly follow them, hoping for the best. Things may work out for a while, but left untended they eventually crash. That’s when we turn our great intelligence to the dirty work of denial and blame.

Old habits pose as instincts — even as the True Self

This is not the best version of how to be, but it is the starting point. If we rise above the impulse to brush aside disappointment, it can motivate us towards full consciousness. It exposes our illusions for what they are. In the heart of every recluse lies pain, and in that pain, opportunity.

‘How to be’ while grasping that opportunity is with integrity. Remove the word’s moralistic crust and it simply means, ‘whole’ or ‘sound.’ There are no pre-mapped pathways to integrity, only guidelines. Do no harm. Look into things. Find yourself — not elsewhere but here and now, inside this skin.

Then the tricky part: when you find it let it go, lest it fall under its own spell. Old habits pose as instincts — even as the True Self; they’re treacherous. They tell you that you’re great, or you’re awful. They know nothing, yet because of them we inflict incalculable damage on ourselves and others, all on auto-pilot.

The challenge is not to find security but to sail on without it

Ignorance is not bliss. These mechanisms are the product of a make-believe past. In the suffocating familiarity of routine moments we won’t be found; we barely exist. The place to seek ourselves is where we’re renewed — in each circumstance, as it happens.

Seeing that we’re capable of infinite nuance is one step towards integrity. Only one though; it’s just an idea.

Process that idea and in time we learn that nothing we conceive of is fixed. We’re not autonomous individuals but entwined currents in a torrential life. There is no cease. There is no dry ground that might not crumble along with all we’ve built. The challenge is not to find security but to sail on without it.

The truth in this description is not profound. We see and read about it every day, in our life and in the news. All history bears witness to it.

Still, it’s a problem — and a big one. For some reason we keep preparing ourselves for a world in which things are steady, in which satisfaction is around the next corner and happiness can be arranged. Convinced that somewhere there’s an ultimate answer to the question of how to be, we latch on to someone like the Buddha, or Socrates or Saint Augustine, expecting life’s formula on a silver platter. Then we reverentially hand down our wishful thinking to the next unsuspecting generation.

I can’t sit around waiting for the world to change. I’m driven to become as fluid and unexpectant as I can. Why I set off on this path I really can’t say, but any other is now out of the question. I’ve seen too much. The only way I know of to make sense of life is to honor my streak of oddness, and to reflect it in these pages.

Aren’t we all odd, every living one of us? Not everyone likes that thought, but I find it comforting. Perhaps you do too.