How to read the posts

The posts are arranged here with the most recent appearing at the top of the page. If you are new to the blog, you might find it useful to start with the first posts. Go to the blog archive on the lower right to access the posts in the order in which they were written.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is applied to everything from enjoying the sensual pleasures of eating a desert to the kind of attention deployed when you sit on a cushion on the floor and focus on your breathing.  Being “mindful” has crept into contemporary language so you might hear someone say, “I was mindful of my anger” or “I ate my lunch mindfully.”

Given the wide usage of the term, a more precise definition of mindfulness would be helpful.  One of the most often quoted definitions of mindfulness is that of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (1994, p. 4).  This captures much of the meaning of mindfulness but also omits some elements that are critical to understanding what we are cultivating when we meditate.

The term mindfulness has it roots in Buddhism and has a very specific meaning in that context.  Mindfulness is an English translation of sati, a word in the Pali language in which the Buddhist scriptures were written.

The word’s original meaning had to do with memory or recollection.  This is puzzling since the concept of mindfulness as it is currently used implies being in the present moment.  So what does it have to do with memory?  One answer is that mindfulness has to do with being aware of something in the sense of making a mental note of it and, in that sense, remembering it.  In a future post, I will go into greater detail on this concept of noting.   

In Buddhist psychology, consciousness is not a continuous process but occurs in discrete mind-moments that are extremely brief, on the order of millions a second.  Within each of these mind-moments, consciousness arises and passes away like a wave or pulse.  Because of the speed with which this occurs and the impact of one instance of consciousness on the succeeding instance of consciousness, there is an illusion of a “stream of consciousness.” 

Any given instance of consciousness is accompanied by mental factors that impart to it certain qualities.  There are mental factors that occur with all instances of consciousness (universal mental factors) and others that only occur with certain instances of consciousness (occasional mental factors).  A further division can be made with respect to the remaining factors according to whether they contribute or detract from well-being.  These additional factors are either wholesome or unwholesome factors.  (Sometimes the words “skillful” and “unskillful” are substituted for “wholesome” and “unwholesome” in an apparent attempt to soften the ethical dimension of these factors.)  Wholesome and unwholesome mental factors cannot coexist in the same mind moment; they are mutually exclusive.   

Mindfulness is one of the wholesome mental factors and arises in every wholesome mind moment along with several other universal wholesome mental factors and, sometimes, with other higher level mental factors.  Mindfulness is not an ordinary kind of attention.  As a wholesome kind of attention, it cannot arise at the same time as unwholesome mental factors are present.  For instance, if you were paying very close attention to what you were doing as you stole something, you could not be said to be mindful.  Likewise, you could not be mindfully greedy, but you could, in one moment, be mindful of greed in the preceding moment. 

Mindfulness itself is a quality of attention characterized by present focus, non-forgetfulness and stability of focus.  It is built on mental factors such as energetic, focused, and sustained attention.  When mindfulness arises, other wholesome mental factors arise that have to do with being even-minded (i.e., equanimous) and not caught up in (i.e., non-greed) or repelled by (i.e., non-hatred) the objects that arise and pass away.  This lends to mindfulness the non-reactive and non-judgmental quality to which Jon Kabat-Zinn refers.

If you meditate to be mindful, you try to create the conditions for mindfulness to arise.  You cannot force it.  If you are doing sitting meditation, you relax the body, stay alert and focused, and note the object that is most dominant.  By sustaining those conditions, mindfulness may arise.  Although mindfulness comes and goes, by cultivating it one can establish it from moment to moment.  As you become more proficient in this type of meditation, you learn how to cultivate mindfulness as you would a treasured plant, feeding it, watering it, and weeding it.   

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994).  Wherever you go, there you are:  Mindfulness meditations in everyday life. New York:  Hyperion

revised March 12, 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012

Focused attention-- abdominal movement

Maintaining attention to the abdominal movement as you breathe develops your powers of concentration.  It is also inherently calming.  You breathe without thinking about it at all, and in this practice, you do not make any effort to control your breathing.  You breathe naturally, in other words.

The first step is to become acquainted with the abdominal movement if you are not already.  Lie down and put a hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen.  See which hand moves more as you breathe.  If your chest moves more than your abdomen, don't worry.  The abdominal movement will become more prominent as you relax.

It is best to do the meditation sitting up in a comfortable position, either on the floor on a cushion, or on a comfortable chair.  You should sit in an erect fashion.  However, if you have pain issues and can't sit comfortably, it is fine to lie down provided you don't fall asleep.

With your eyes closed, sense the movement as you breathe.  Remember, try to avoid interfering with the natural breath.  Try to sense the movement in all its phases, from the beginning to the end.  Notice the feelings of expansion and contraction and the pauses in between the movements.  It helps to label the movement, silently to yourself, "rising" as the abdomen expands and "falling" as the abdomen contracts.

Now, in short order, your mind will probably wander.  You notice that you are no longer focused on the abdominal movement, but you are paying attention to a sound, thinking about what you have to do, or feeling an unpleasant sensation in your body.  As soon as you realize that your mind has wandered, acknowledge it, label it "wandering," and, when you have regained control of your attention, gently lead it back to the abdominal movement.

You may find yourself wandering a great deal.  Not to worry.  What is important is that you notice the wandering.  By doing so you are developing greater skills in monitoring your attention.  There is no need to beat yourself up over all the wandering.  What is important is that you notice it.  Congratulate yourself on being mindful!

As you practice this simple form of meditation, you will gain in concentration, become more tranquil, and develop your attention monitoring skills.  When you are able to pick up the wandering almost as soon as it starts, you no longer are really wandering.  At that point, you are ready to move on to open monitoring meditation, which I will discuss in a future post.

Mind Watch

Whether you have ever meditated or not, you should try the “mind watch.”  It is very simple.  You don’t really have to do anything.  Actually, that is the hard part. 

The idea is to get comfortable, either sitting or lying down, close your eyes, and observe what happens.  The tendency may be to try out all those things you’ve heard about meditating like trying to empty the mind or focusing on the breath.  But that is not the idea--way too much interference!  You would be trying to control what happens and, as a consequence, working at it much too hard.  You really are to do nothing except observe.

First time out, you should set aside about 10 minutes for the exercise.  When you are finished, write out what you observed.  Feel free to enter your observations as a post or a comment.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Open monitoring--an early EEG study

Dr. Tomio Hirai, a Japanese psychiatrist, was an early pioneer in the scientific study of open monitoring meditation in the form of Zen meditation.  In his book, Zen Meditation and Psychotherapy (1989), he reports on studies he had done of the practice of Zazen by seasoned priest practitioners and controls using EEG and various physiological measures. He found that there were four distinct phases in the meditation of the experienced priests:  Stage I-- appearance of alpha waves, Stage II-- increasing alpha amplitude, Stage III-- decreasing alpha frequency, and Stage IV-- appearance of rhythmical theta trains.  He introduced various sounds, clicks and names, to see what happened to the brain waves of the meditators and controls.  While both the experienced meditators and the controls initially reacted to these stimuli by blocking the then dominant rhythm, the meditators' blocking time was a matter of a few seconds and the controls much longer.  However, whereas the controls habituated to the sounds very quickly, the experienced meditators did not.  This indicated that the controls got caught up by the stimuli with associations, but eventually ignored the stimuli, whereas the experienced meditation quickly let go of whatever associations that may have occurred to them and remained open to new stimuli.

For more information about the use of technologies such as EEG in understanding meditation, go to

Friday, February 24, 2012

Overview of meditation

In India cave drawings of people in meditation postures were found.  Long before written records were kept and long before the advent of religions as we know them today, people meditated. 

There are many types of meditation that have been practiced over the years.  A very basic classification of meditation is into two types:  focused attention and open monitoring. 

Focused attention meditation or concentration meditation involves focusing on one object, such as the breath, a name of a sacred figure (e.g., Buddha, Christ), or a mantra.  Open monitoring meditation, sometimes called mindfulness or insight meditation, involves being open to whatever comes into awareness and monitoring it in a non-reactive way.  These forms of meditation have different purposes and different ends, but often they are combined.  In practices that emphasize open awareness, focused attention meditaiton is often used as preliminary to open monitoring.

In the way I teach meditation, focusing on the breath or the abdominal movement is used to build concentration, and there is a progression towards open meditation.  However, I ask beginners to try a “mind watch” exericse as a preliminary exercise.  This is a kind of open meditation, but the difference is that it is done prior to the development of concentration through focused attention, and is usually experienced as chaotic mind wandering.  Once beginners have become acquainted with this state, they are presumably motivated to work on concentration.  After a period of practice with focused attention, they are ready to develop a more inclusive form of awareness, and this is when I introduce open monitoring meditation in steps.

In future posts, I will describe the teaching sequence in greater detail. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The purpose of Bancroft Meditates

This blog and the weekly sessions we have at 16 Billa Street have a purpose, and that purpose is to provide a context for people to learn how to meditate and to practice meditation together.

In the past, I led workshops on meditation, teaching the particular style of meditation that I practice, and there was always a sense at the end of the workshops that we should continue to practice together.  That was what inspired me to start this group, and the Bancroft Family Health Team was willing to sponsor it.  How long the group will meet and whether it will continue under the auspices of the Bancroft Family Health Team are open questions.  My hope in starting the group was that it would continue as long as people wanted to meet and that it would eventually be self-sustaining.  Although I am assuming leadership of the group at this stage, I do not expect that I will continue to do so once the group is self-sustaining.

Despite the open-ended nature of this venture, there are a few principles that I think it is important to state.

1)   It is to be expected that participants in the group will come from a variety of religious backgrounds and that they may have learned to meditate in different ways and have different levels of experience with meditation.  Everyone is welcome to participate and all religious and meditation traditions will be respected, as will the past experiences you have had with the form of meditation you practice.  

2)  This group and the blog associated with it are educational in nature: to learn about meditation and to practice together.  By participating, you do not become a patient of mine or the Bancroft Family Health Team.  While it may be therapeutic to participate in the group and the blog, it is not a form of therapy.

3)  Unlike a therapeutic setting, there is no assurance of confidentiality.  While it is to be hoped that anyone coming to our sessions or participating in the blog will respect the privacy of other participants, there is no guarantee that they will.  For that reason, participants should be careful about self-disclosure.  If you choose to disclose personal information, please do so skillfully.

4) As moderator of the blog, I reserve the right to screen comments made by others that I regard as inappropriate.  Similarly, in the context of our meetings, I may at times steer conversations that I feel are getting off-track from our primary purpose, which is learning to meditate and practicing together.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


This blog is devised primarily for those individuals living in the Bancroft, Ontario area who wish to learn about and practice meditation.  We meet at different times of the year for periods of several weeks to talk about meditation and to meditate together.  Check the blog for the next session.  The last session concluded on October 18, 2012.  We expect to start up again in May, 2013.

This blog is open to anyone to read and to comment.  The blog is moderated, which means that the administrator reserves the write to remove offensive or irrelevant posts and comments.

Updated March 29, 2013