The Meditator’s Mission Statement

Just believing that the world is a riddle with no answer and then getting on with life does not remove the ache.

My attitude towards meditation is that Awakening (aka “enlightenment”) is possible.

Awakening from what? one might ask. Perhaps, you could say, that I mean to awaken from the apparent paradox of being a tiny self in an infinitely large cosmos. To resolve the contradiction between self and other.

Consider the mystery that crops up when, in an unguarded moment, you make eye contact with yourself in the mirror. Or when you really appreciate the consciousness behind the eyes of another person. For me, there is a slightly dizzying sense, like stepping into a hall of mirrors. Why am I me, and not you? What does that question even mean? These are all aspects of the greatest mystery — what is existence? Why is there something rather than nothing?

Let’s say you get away from the city and all around you is evidence in the form of wildlife, of geography, of sunshine, starlight, and seasons — evidence of a process taking place, a process that is vaster than we normally appreciate, and yet for all that vastness, also fundamentally more intimate and immediate, urgent even, than the mental chatter and entertainments with which we usually occupy our time.

Intuitively we know that we are part of that great mysterious process. Yet we continue to return to a narrative that puts ourselves into a role of protagonist in a story that revolves around us. Despite the advances of science, our experience is still mostly informed by what we desire and what we wish to avoid. This narrative feels crucially important to us, yet a lifetime barely registers on a global scale, and our individual selfhood is vanishingly tiny on a cosmic one. It cannot be denied that every evening we are one day closer to death. Faced with that scale, how can we continue to pursue our own desires and aversions as though they are the most critical thing? How about the desires and aversions of others? Of those who have not yet been born?

Where do we position ourselves in all this cosmos, such that we are both sane about our perspective and yet retain our human essence, that feelingfulness towards our experience and the experience of others, so that life keeps its vibrancy and wonder? How do we appreciate vastness without becoming a cynic about the value of human experience? How do we recognise all existence as a process without becoming indifferent to its twists and turns?

This mystery stems from a kind of existential groundlessness. One might enjoy the prose of a mythology that explains creation of the world in human-centric terms — and yet, when looking into the eyes of another, if we are truly honest with ourselves there is an enforced agnosticism, in the true sense of that word as meaning to to Not Know what reality is. To Not Know what precisely we are experiencing. We are unable to hold and appreciate each moment without missing the next as it slips past.

It is this vertigo of Not Knowing that I believe we can awaken from, although I should probably say “awaken into”, since the real resolution seems to come when we stop resisting our fundamentally agnostic situation. Awakening is not about acquiring some kind of knowledge around facts.

One can be an atheist and still suffer the vertigo of this groundlessness.

Touché, NASA.

Albert Camus, French philosopher of the mid-twentieth century, begins his startling essay The Myth of Sisyphus with the statement “There is but one serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”

Which is another (admittedly rather intense) way of phrasing things.

I posit that there is no answer to the question Camus poses for us. For suicide implies a narrative — a self, who chooses to either continue struggling with the confusion of existential groundlessness, or cease existing. I perceive that by dropping that very narrative of selfhood, there arises a third alternative. If that great epic drama, which we tell ourselves from sunrise to sunset, is seen as a simplification of reality[TED Talk, opens in new window], instead of a true representation, then selfhood becomes less and less central to the experience of life. Instead we progressively submerse our “self”, through practice in daily life and meditation, in the larger mystery that does us. It is the illusion of being a separate self that we can Awaken from.

However just thinking about experience as a process isn’t enough — amounting merely to dreaming about waking up. Or as Donald Hoffman says in the above video, “you’re still on the desktop”. We must experience the illusory nature of the self; viscerally; we must glimpse it in our desires, our aversions, our body, our emotions, our relationships; our triumphs and defeats … we must repeat this process, over and over, until it echoes through our experience with each upwelling moment of the constant change that is reality.

Then, that existential groundlessness can become, in the words of Pema Chödrön, positive groundlessness (not an affiliate link).

These are the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma, which I follow. I’m pretty sure that others had found ways to unravel the “self delusion” before the Buddha did so. And many others have done so since, both with and without access to his teachings. But the true brilliance of Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — was that he discovered a way to teach others to undertake this visceral, experiential training, such that they, too, could Awaken. Apply the instructions, put in the effort, and Awakening follows. It is easier to miss the ground as you take a step, than it is to miss Awakening, provided the instructions are good, you understand them, and you put them into practice.

Today I am much more deluded than that. I can write these things, but if enough shit hits the fan, I will forget and the habits will take over. But I’m the process of waking up, just like (I believe) all else is that exists 🙂

This attitude informs my approach.

Posts about Secular vs. Religious Buddhism

Buddhism for Non-Believers - Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.
Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail - Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.
Secular Enlightenment Part Two: Defining Characteristics - There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work.

Julius Caesar’s 2,000 Year Old Tale Of Bravery

With the fighting at its height, Pullo cried: “Why do you hesitate, Vorenus? What better opportunity to prove your courage? Today shall decide between us.”

As surprising as it may sound, Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of conquering Gaul (what is now modern day France) is a thrilling read. 1

Caesar captures not just the cunning strategies he devised for conquering the Gallic tribes, but describes moments of individual heroism among his troops — and those of his enemies, to be fair.

The huge majority of Roman citizens entered military service; while for some this was no doubt due to a calling for soldiery, for most this was out of a fear of social sanction. In those times, one’s career would rarely progress far without having demonstrated courage on the field of battle.

Caesar’s relish as he relates the minutiae of war indicates how warrior-ship and selfless bravery were considered essential qualities of a Roman citizen. That he glosses over the reality of suffering makes his work an early piece of political propaganda, no doubt convenient for fuelling support for his war in the Roman senate back home.

It is 54 B.C.E. An encamped legion of six-thousand Roman soldiers are surrounded and besieged by the Nervii, a fearsome tribe of Gauls who have learned tactics from the Romans themselves and built a rampart ten feet high and a trench fifteen feet wide about the entire Roman camp, preventing entry or exit.

Caesar’s Account

On the seventh day of the siege a great gale sprang up, and the Gauls began slinging moulded bullets of red-hot clay and hurling incendiary darts at the huts in the camp, which, as is usual in Gaul, were thatched. The huts quickly caught fire, and the strong wind spread the flames throughout the camp. The enemy raised a loud cheer, as if victory were now a certainty …

[But] the Roman soldiers showed the greatest courage and coolness. They were surrounded by scorching heat and pelted with a hail of missiles, and they knew that their baggage and everything they possessed was being burned … the Gauls were crowded in a tightly packed mass at the very foot of the Roman fortifications.

In the legion were two very brave centurions named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, both of them nearly qualified for the first grade. They were always disputing which was the better soldier, and every year the competition for promotion set them quarrelling. When the fighting at the entrenchment was at its height, Pullo cried: “Why hesitate, Vorenus? What better opportunity do you want to prove your courage? Today shall decide between us.”

With these words he advanced outside the fortification, and rushed in to the thickest place he could see in the enemy’s line. This brought Vorenus too over the rampart, hastening after his rival for fear of what everyone would think if he lagged behind. Pullo stopped a short way from the Gauls, hurled his spear, and transfixed one of them who was running forward from the ranks. The man fainted from the wound, and his comrades covered him with their shields, at the same time showering missiles upon Pullo and preventing him from advancing further. His shield was pierced by a javelin, which stuck in his sword-belt; and as the blow knocked his scabbard out of place, he could not get his hand quickly to his sword when he tried to draw it, and was surrounded by the enemy while unable to defend himself.

Image shows a reproduction of a page from Caesar’s work. Dated 1469 AD. Unknown Illustrator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His rival Vorenus ran up to rescue him in his distress, and all the Gauls immediately left Pullo, who they thought mortally wounded by the javelin, and turned upon Vorenus. Vorenus drew his sword, and fighting hand to hand killed one of his assailants and drove the rest back a little; but pressing on too eagerly he stumbled down a steep slope and fell. It was now his turn to be surrounded.

But Pullo came to his aid; both of them escaped unhurt, and after killing a number of the enemy returned to camp covered with glory. Thus Fortune played with them in their struggle for pre-eminence: bitter rivals though they were, each helped and saved the other, so that it could not be decided which was more deserving of the prize of valour.

Who knew that Caesar was not only a military genius, a cunning politician and orator but also a gifted author?


  1. I have the Penguin Classics 1951 translation from the Latin, now out of print, but you can get the 1983 edition at Amazon

Secular Enlightenment Part Two: Defining Characteristics

There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work.

This is the third in a series of posts about secular vs. religious Buddhism. Here are the first two:

Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail - Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.
Buddhism for Non-Believers - Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.

Today I want to present the path to enlightenment (also called Awakening) as a series of insights into the world around us.

These insights can be generated

  • by being alive and paying attention
  • (arguably) by undertaking certain religious contemplations
  • most reliably by vipassana meditation

(If you’re not sure what I mean by vipassana, the below article will make more sense if you read Tools of the Trail first).

To attain Awakening, any of these approaches must lead us through progressively more disconcerting realisations to correspondingly more practical wisdom.

That wisdom is not the kind that leads to renouncing society, living in a cave and letting one’s hair grow long (although you can do that if you wish). Nor does it mean living in an ivory tower surrounded by books. The kind of wisdom that Gautama taught is practical; there is also deep irony in it. With it comes resilient love, abiding friendships and compassionate humour.

Enlightenment in a Non-Religious Context

Enlightenment is a subject that people veer away from. It brings a sense of discomfort to both religious circles and secular meditation groups. In the first group, enlightenment has been elevated to a supernatural feat that makes it seem out of reach. Anyone aiming to pragmatically achieve it in this very life is perceived to be flouting the dogma. In the second group, Awakening is misunderstood as a superstitious notion with no cognitive or neurological basis.

Traditionally, Buddha and his followers taught that enlightenment was a definable event, accessible to all, the endpoint of a process with a beginning, middle and an end 1.

Enlightenment is sometimes interpreted to mean the end of ignorance. This means the same thing as to gain knowledge; but knowledge of what, exactly? Not of all things, which would be impossible; nor do we mean accumulating information about planets or atoms or becoming a historian. There are endless fields of study, and meditation is not a data-collection exercise 2.

In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading.(Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).
In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading. (Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).

Vipassana exposes us to certain fundamental aspects of reality that underlie all experiences (their “true nature”). These aspects of reality are known as the three marks of existence, to be explained shortly. Most of us either do not realise, or choose to willfully ignore them during the majority of our daily lives. Through vipassana we can not remain innocent, nor can we ignore. It is our unawareness of, or our refusal to accept these fundamental aspects, which is the ignorance that is ended by enlightenment 3.

Vipassana Defined

Vipassana is a Pali word (pronounced vee-PASS-er-nah) that literally translates as “to see clearly”. Gautama diagnosed most of humanity as suffering from either or both of two problems:

  1. Ignorance of how things are
  2. Failure to accept how things are

Vipassana is designed to overcome both of them by repeatedly exposing our awareness to reality as it is — not as we would like or fear it to be — so that eventually we have no choice but to learn and accept.

Earlier I defined vipassana as reflective samadhi (using sustained attention to investigate sustained attention, see last week’s post). That is an accurate and catchy way to define it, but when we turn samadhi on itself, we notice almost immediately that our attention is not continuous. It constantly comes and goes with each new phenomenon or event that arises.

Sustained attention is an illusion. This is the first insight on the path of vipassana. So the practice quickly turns into something more slippery than my definition makes it sound.

In ordinary samadhi, we ignore the discontinuity and create a sense of stable attention around some anchor like our breathing, or the tip of a sword, or our body’s balance centre. This illusion can be cultivated, and has its own benefits 4. But in vipassana, we do not try to control what arises, which would be out of line with the first goal to overcome ignorance of how things are. So we embrace the discontinuity and expand our awareness to include all possible interruptions; that is, all the sensations of being alive right now — conscious thoughts, hearing, touch, taste, and so on, as they are from moment to moment 5.

The past has already occurred and the future is uncertain. We take the pragmatic view, shared with modern science and philosophy, that what we experience at any given moment within the sensory field (physical sensations plus thought) is the sum total of our existence.

The three marks of existence

From childhood we are taught to see relative things like excitement and pleasure, learning new skills, or acquiring new toys as the source of lasting happiness. As we age, we put forth greater and greater effort to have these things, invest much time and struggle. Yet even with adult knowledge and skills, happiness is fleeting. The bliss we feel after prayer, gratitude practice or yoga asana dissipates. Skills become obsolete or our minds and bodies can no longer grasp them. Objects decay. Even while they are new, we suffer the fear of losing them through theft or absent-mindedness.

The “true nature” of all things, from the cosmically large to the very small such as an itch on our skin, is that they arise and then pass away. This nature of arising and passing away is called in Buddhist language impermanence and it is one of the three marks of existence.

Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.
Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.

We see bliss or pleasure as a source of happiness, and its loss as a source of misery, but the things that bring us bliss are impermanent to their core. Even bliss itself is impermanent. If we do not face up to this during the arising of an experience, then we feel dissatisfaction every time it passes away. Dissatisfaction, stress and suffering is the second mark of existence, and it comes about through our attachment to impermanent things as the source of our happiness.

This suffering reaches new lows when we also assume that the passing away of a desirable thing was due to some mistake of ours, or an enemy’s conniving, and not a natural feature of reality. Under this delusion we strive harder than before to make the next time different.

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way“Hurt” lyrics by Trent Reznor / famously performed by Johnny Cash

This compounds our stress and suffering because we have set ourselves in opposition to reality. We may dominate others to protect our stuff, even stockpile weapons and money. Or we may turn our hatred inward and destroy our sense of self-worth. A more subtle form of this is when we refuse to see the suffering in life. “Speak to me only of love”. In all of these examples, we have split life into those parts we tolerate and those parts we do not. This split is artificial. Seeing through it is necessary so we can make rational, caring choices in life.

Buddha challenged his followers: find what you mean when you say “I”, “me” or “mine”.

Now that is a trick question, because in samadhi we cannot find any permanent, separate thing in the field of our senses (thoughts and body sensations) to point to and say “this is me”. Instead we find an ever-changing procession of events that arise only to pass away 67.

This insight is called no-self in Buddhist language and it is the third of the three marks (sometimes also caused the three characteristics). No-Self is the end of all dualities between “self” and “other”.

Experience is everything

Intellectually, the three marks of existence are not revolutionary. Well, they were to me but no doubt you the reader have been nodding your head. Novelists and poets write about them 8. But when we meditate we contact the three characteristics through our senses, and not just intellectually through entertaining thoughts. We experience them. This writes insight on our awareness; no matter how alien at first, we progressively become familiar with “oneself” as not a permanent or separate entity 9.

Another way to look at the path of vipassana is that we are progressively untraining our minds from seeing things as separate entities, and instead to actually experience reality (including oneself) as a web of interlinked processes undergoing constant change.

At defined points in this progression, specific delusional dualities become permanently eroded 10. From direct experience, deep integration of the three marks into the flow of consciousness arises. When it does, that is called enlightenment.

Conclusion

Enlightenment or Awakening is not reliant on any knowledge of facts or philosophy (which at the end of the day are just more thoughts). It goes beyond the library and the lecture notes. No belief in doctrine or an external entity is needed, whether moralism or divine providence, psychic phenomena or blessings from monks. It is based only on experiencing our own mind and body clearly.

Any day now 🙂

There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work. But just as reading a carpenter’s handbook will not teach one to cut straight, reading definitions will not teach one to see clearly. We ourselves must strive.

If you want to know more, break the silence and submit your comment now 🙂

Alternatively, try the Further Reading section or send me some feedback. Always good to hear from fellow consciousness cowboys.

Further Reading

Other than the links embedded in the article, check out the following resources.


  1. I realise that this makes the progress of insight sound horribly linear when of course it is not. There is no actual end to the development, even after Awakening. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. But such simplifications are unavoidable in the space of this article, or in any conversation about enlightenment. It is closer to the truth than saying that the progress of insight is directionless or without landmarks, which is a frustrating and dis-empowering notion that tends to be promoted by people who have neither the experience nor the theoretical knowledge to make such statements.

  2. In Gautama’s own words: the parable of the Simsapa Leaves.

  3. “Enlightenment is an understanding of both the relative mode of existence (the way in which things appear to us) and the ultimate mode of existence (the true nature of these same appearances).” What does Buddhism mean by “Enlightenment”? by Matthieu Ricard.

  4. Mostly to do with developing powers of concentration, relaxation and joy.

  5. Buddhists add “sense of thought” to the usual five senses. That itself is an insight from early-stage vipassana.

  6. “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth” — Alan Watts

  7. “Were this form my self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.'” Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Anatta-lakkhana Sutta. AccessToInsight.com

  8. There are too many to list all of them, but some I find noteworthy are Doris Lessing, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, T.S. Eliot and Leonard Cohen

  9. The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. It literally translates as to familiarise or habituate. It means coming to accept the three characteristics — what are at first quite disconcerting ideas about reality — on an experiential level.

  10. These are the “stages of Awakening”. South-East Asian Buddhism recognises four stages of Awakening, Tibetan Buddhism slightly more.

A Three-Second Happiness Practice Courtesy of Google’s Chade-Meng Tan

Thanks, Google.

There is a cumulative “happiness benefit” that comes from habitually noticing joy. In this On Point Share Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s employee number 107 (job title Jolly Good Fellow) introduces a three second practice we can use to reconnect with things that bring us that feeling of joy. 1

As with all nano practices, it takes a bit of remembrance effort at first. But eventually it will establish a virtuous cycle of habit: the more you do it the better it feels and the better it feels the more you do it. But unlike some habits, there’s no Breaking Bad-style drug addiction looming in your life if you take this practice on.

Soon you will not need to work at it, and little experiences like the smell of brewing coffee, or a warbling bird at dawn will be more vivid, and enough to trigger the noticing of it. The subsequent joy is your reward.

Go read the article and start a new habit today!


  1. On Point Shares are new to Zig Zag Yogi: a suitable web thing that I found and want to share.

Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail

Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.

In a previous post, I showed how one can be Buddhist and non-religious at the same time. Now I will show how enlightenment (also called Awakening) can be a valid notion and even a feasible goal for the non-religious.

But before we talk about it we need to step back and look at meditation itself: what meditation is in general (sustaining attention on one thing), and how that can be used to cultivate wisdom (by turning sustained attention onto itself).

Next week will cover the question “what is enlightenment?”.

Sustained Attention

At its simplest, meditation is the art and skill of putting your mind’s attention on one thing and keeping it there. Other qualities such as tranquility, joy and equanimity mix well with meditation, but in simple terms when you meditate, you put your mind’s attention on one thing and try to keep it there for a length of time 1.

Some people are natural artists, and some people take to meditation more easily than others. But luckily for the rest of us, being able to direct and sustain our attention is a totally trainable thing, and this makes meditation a universal skill that anyone can develop 2.

Three Levels of Sustaining Attention

Even just the everyday ability to pay attention is critical, from rock climbing or surfing, to competing in a sport or athletics, piloting a jet fighter or practising surgery. We take it for granted, but all of these activities require our long-running, undivided attention.

I have noticed there are three basic levels of sustained attention.

1) Flow-Induced

  1. “Woah dude I totally got in the zone all the way down the mountain.”
  2. “I was awake all night coding and fixed everything.”
  3. “It feels as though you and the horse are one organism.”

These are all examples of what psychologists call “flow state” 3. You find an activity so engaging that some kind of shift in consciousness takes place, that you barely notice until you look back. Then you recall a state of total immersion. You felt in control, and perhaps a bit high. If you noticed your breathing, it was probably smooth and rhythmical. You produced some good work, and probably forgot about things like hunger. 4

Flow states naturally include a lot of sustained attention. But no matter how intense your attention may have been during that, it was all a result of doing some activity. You didn’t deliberately create intense focus per se, you just did your thing and boom, flow state happened and with that came sustained attention. It was incidental.

2) Samadhi: Deliberately Sustained Attention

“Visualise your arm extending to the point of your sword.”
“Generate movement from your tan t’ien.”
“Breath smoothly and rhythmically.”

These practices are designed to deliberately cultivate sustained attention. You can find such instructions in many fields — fencing, athletics of all kinds, martial arts, yoga, and Buddhist meditation. These are referred to in Buddhism as samadhi practices.

Samadhi (pronounced “sum-MUD-dy”) is a Sanskrit word sometimes translated into English as “concentration”. But compared to everyday concentration, with samadhi we deliberately increase the intensity and duration of the focus, until it becomes effortless and can be maintained for minutes or hours.

One of the qualities of samadhi is that it can elevate an activity beyond the mundane to an art form. Think Chinese calligraphy, Japanese tea ceremonies, or any number of physical pursuits like Olympic diving, yoga or martial arts.

Within these practices, the practitioner does not just rely on flow states or chance to induce a pinpoint, sustained focus. They have trained themselves to deliberately bring it on.

As opposed to Flow-Induced sustained attention, techniques for deliberately inducing samadhi are cognitive technologies.

But like all technologies, cognitive technologies are morally agnostic. They can be employed by an assassin in carrying out their kills just as much as a monk in memorising teachings on loving-kindness. Warrior classes of many cultures have used them as a way to empower and improve on their abilities 5.

There is no human activity that cannot be performed more effectively, more efficiently or more powerfully with this quality of sustained attention.

Focus on the sensations of breathing at the tip of your nostrils, and when your attention wanders, return to the breath.

In contrast to the other examples, this most basic of Buddhist meditation instructions may seem mundane or even pointless when you first hear it. Most samadhi techniques focus on sustaining attention on some practical activity. What is the point of sustaining attention on breathing? Shouldn’t we do something more useful with all that attention?

But in fact this deliberately uncomplicated practice makes it possible to “do” something very profound: take concentration to the third level.

3) Vipassana: Reflective Concentration

The third stage of samadhi is when we use the sustained attention we have developed to look at sustained attention itself.

"Know thyself" is a saying that dates back to the ancient Egyptians (the temple of Luxor in Egypt contains the engraving "the body is the house of the Gods; therefore Man, know thyself"). Plato also gives much attention to the proverb in various works. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain.
“Know thyself” is a saying that dates back to the ancient Egyptians (the temple of Luxor in Egypt contains the engraving “the body is the house of the Gods; therefore Man, know thyself”). Plato also gives much attention to the proverb in various works. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain.

Using intense and deliberate attention to examine our minds in this way debunks many illusions we previously suffered about our mind, our body and the world in which we find ourselves 6.

The first thing we notice when we turn sustained attention on itself is that it is not actually sustained. What we had taken to be a continuous, persistent mind flickers and wavers and wanders. There are big gaps in our consciousness. Intense focus is revealed as an illusion. This knowledge turns out to be helpful in two ways:

  1. By noticing ever finer levels of mind fog, you can learn to eliminate them, narrowing and sustaining your attention even further. Some heights of perception you attain this way will make your flow state of skiing down the mountain look like low-alcohol beer compared to a single malt (or a tab of LSD).
  2. What your attention is doing when it is not sustained turns out to be pretty interesting, and universal to all humans.

Vipassana is a Pali word that translates as “to see clearly”. The path of vipassana is basically all the insights that arise from examining number 2 in a state of samadhi 7. These insights are secular, and mostly similar across ages, cultural backgrounds and historical context. As such, they point to something deeply human in us all.

Number 1 is a tool that deepens samadhi, and this can deepen vipassana.

Taking vipassana far enough results in seeing clearly the true nature of all things that arise within our experience, what is called enlightenment, or Awakening.

More on that to come in next week’s post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment or send me some feedback 🙂

UPDATE: Secular Enlightenment Part Two is now available. Enjoy!


  1. The “softer” attributes like tranquility and joy become important later because some of the insights on the path to Awakening can be disconcerting (in the manner of illusion-shattering). Being tranquil etc in the midst of that helps oil the wheels.

  2. As Shunryu Suzuki said, “usually those who can sit physically perfect take more time to obtain the marrow of Zen — the true taste of Zen — actual feeling of Zen. Those who find a great difficulty in practice of Zen will find more meaning of Zen. So sometimes I think the best horse is the worst horse and the worst horse is the best one. Sometimes.” Los Altos, California, Haiku Zendo. 1965-1966.

  3. Components of Flow States. Wikipedia.

  4. An example of a universal human activity that induces flow states could be something to do with music: chanting, singing, playing an instrument or dancing. Whether they have their roots in the modern age (a punk drummer, a rave dancer, a rap artist), the classical era (a folk fiddler, a monk chanting, a church-goer singing Bible hymns) or stretch back to the dawn of history (a shaman reciting tribal lore), all of these activities share this ability to bring on a hypnotic feel.

  5. e.g. Samurai, Crusader knights, and Shaolin monks to name just a few.

  6. I mean literally suffered. This is the further subject of next week’s article.

  7. Different schools within Buddhism approach this in different ways, but they all eventually result in getting a practitioner to sit still and pay attention for long enough that they can no longer avoid noticing, with clarity and precision, what is going on their mind and body.

Kia Kaha Does Not Cut It After 15,000 Earthquakes

Next time you are on a break, give this breathing practice a try (follow-up with optional beer). You will feel calm within three minutes. You can do it anywhere. You can do it dozens of times a day.

Do not be one of those people who melts down after six months like I did.

This post started life as a letter to those of us in the central South Island of New Zealand who suffered yet another major earthquake last week. I suppose it could be applicable to anyone else in the situation of an ongoing disaster, natural or otherwise.

An Open Letter

Dear fellow earthquake survivors,

Last Monday’s huge earthquake was a traumatic event. I do not use that word lightly. Trauma is a thing, and today I am going to write a bit about the challenges of earthquake trauma in particular. I have tried to keep it brief but that has not been easy, so please read the whole thing before you react.

Towards the end you will find an example of the sort of habit that will help you get through — long-term. It is how I eventually learned to find some calm during a time when it seemed impossible: the Christchurch earthquake sequence that started in September 2010.

This is not a comprehensive guide to coping with trauma. The knowledge in here will not be relevant to everyone.

I wish I could offer more, but I was unable to avoid becoming overwhelmed myself. All I have is what I learned by trial and error. This post is offered so that you may not have to repeat my mistakes. Read on.

Responding to Threats

The first thing you learn in the aftermath of a large earthquake is that they are not a one-off thing. By now you will know this. Aftershocks go on for months or years, and can be as bad or worse than the first event. With every new rumble from the earth comes the inevitable thought: “is this one going to get worse?” There is an ongoing situation where your life could be threatened at any moment, even while you are asleep.

Common wisdom goes: the less we buy into this threat, the more we will be able to respond to it without losing our shit judgement. This strategy often works. Unless you have suffered medical shock (a whole different ball-game), you have probably come through the last few days feeling more alert, more able, and more resilient than you do in normal life.

I’ve been there. For the first few weeks after our big one, I biked around Christchurch (the roads were impassable for cars) with a backpack full of hand tools. I checked on friends, family and neighbours. I helped make roofs weather-tight, shoveled liquefaction, and took too many photos. I kept my mum company. I visited churches and monasteries of all religions. This was all over town. I biked twenty to fifty kilometres every day. I felt strong and able-bodied.

Your body has a natural response that gives you a survival advantage through hormonal changes. This response is known as fight-or-flight, and you have probably heard of it. It makes you feel wired, ready to attack the nearest problem, or run away from danger, or both (hence the name).

Handy? Totes — for the short-term.

Living With Ongoing Threat

But the aftershocks grind on. The roofs leak less for a while, but they spring open again next time the ground shakes. People are still afraid. Although the frantic pace of repair-work eases back just a little, you start to realise how much has been lost.

My mind raced all day until late at night. In the mornings, I woke bone tired, but by evening I was so hyped that I could not sleep.

I started getting ill a lot, colds and flu in summer time, which interfered with my building apprenticeship. I found it harder to concentrate when working my other job. And despite still biking twenty ks every day, I started gaining weight.

While hyped up after a big aftershock, I would say “let’s do something to take our minds off it. Let’s have a BBQ”. And I would call up my mates.

What I had yet to learn was that insomnia, immune system slowdown, low libido, digestive problems, memory and concentration problems, and weight gain are all textbook features of ongoing chronic trauma. These are things you do not want.123

When February the 22nd came along, I was in the CBD, near the CTV building. I assisted for a while but had to leave and run to my son’s school, where they were trapped on the fourth floor. Too many needy causes. Once he was safely evacuated, my son and I abandoned the Kombi in a carpark due to gridlock, and walked out of town. That evening, I broke down in tears. My son was asleep and didn’t have to see it, thankfully.

I took time away from my jobs and we both headed for Golden Bay. Eventually this led to me being unemployed for a few months.

What went wrong?

In the months following the first 7.1 quake, the bumper-stickers read “Kia Kaha Christchurch” and “We’ll be back!”. This seems like a good sentiment for recovery; to make a stand, despite what had happened. Unfortunately, it did not take into account what was still happening. It assumed the threat had passed and it was time to pick up the pieces. That was naive.

In our case, the threat had not passed: large earthquakes are not a one-off event. I told myself that the probability of another large one decreased with each passing day. But as each pulse of shaking thrummed through my living room, or kicked me where I lay jacking up piles, I could not help the fear: will this one get worse? The familiar rush of energy would catch fire in my belly and burn into my chest. Big ones left my lungs bursting, my face flushed, my hands trembling.

Kia kaha did not cut it in the face of this ongoing threat to my life and loved ones. In fact, it had stopped working long before I realised.

I interpreted “kia kaha” to mean staying committed to my job, having goals, finding ways to have fun despite what had happened, and being a support to others. But when I left work for the day, what my nervous system actually wanted was safety and familiarity, not another social outing or support call to struggling family. I needed to put something back in my own tank.

Soothing

“Soothing”. It is not a word we associate with being resilient. If you are like me, there will be a kind of namby-pamby sound to it in your ears. That is a shame, because unless you vacate the region, you are in this for the long haul. It will be a busy time. Yes, you will need to keep your friends and family close; they will need your support and you will need theirs. Yes, you will need the odd blow-out from time to time. But your chances of coping will be much better if you add something that soothes your nerves, not pushes them further. You need to balance out your body’s crisis reaction.

Here in Christchurch it is six years later and finally there is a glimmer of rebirth in the CBD. You might be able to kia kaha without stopping for six years, but I could not. I barely lasted six months.

So What To Do, Then?

Most importantly, look for symptoms of fatigue in yourself and others. This is the best thing you can do to support your loved ones and neighbours. Signs to watch out for are trouble finishing sentences; tremor, tics and shaking; cravings to smoke, drink, or eat takeouts; losing hair, going grey or gaining wrinkles in the course of a few weeks; behaviour like repeatedly snapping at people or crying if that’s out of character. Thoughts interrupting one-another. Trouble sleeping, even when you’re exhausted.4

You may notice one or many of these in yourself or others over the coming weeks and months. The earlier you catch them, the easier they will be to shift. When they mount up for months like in my case, they become integrated into one’s neurology and harder to unravel.

They can indicate emotional, intellectual or physical exhaustion. Maybe all of them; it doesn’t matter. The important thing is what you do about it.

Stop on a dime

You need a practical way to unwind at the drop of a hat. In my case the most useful habits did not turn out to be the hour-long+ yoga and T’ai Chi classes that I attended. Those were an important part of my learning, and if something along those lines interests you, then I recommend adding them to your routine. But amidst a sequence of natural disasters, they were ultimately of limited practical use outside the studio or training hall.

I needed something I could roll into my days, so I could stop whenever I had a chance during daily life, take five and regroup. Something quick and reliable that I could use in the middle of endless roadworks, that wouldn’t take years to master.

The best example I have found is the simple breathing practice below. This for me was key.

A Simple Breathing Practice: Lengthening the Exhale

Next time you are on a break, before reaching for your smartphone, or a beer, give the below practice a try (and then have a beer). It is so simple, you will wonder what the point is — more on that soon. But partly because it is so quick and simple, it is also surprisingly effective.

You will feel calm within three minutes. You can do it anywhere. You can do it dozens of times a day.

  1. If preferred, find a private place (eg., bathroom, bedroom, or your car) so you do not feel self-conscious
  2. Make your exhales long — twice, three times or four times longer than your inhale:
    • Do this by blowing out between pursed lips like you would blow out a candle — slowly, in a thin stream of breath, without force.
    • At the end of each exhale, hold your breath out for a few moments. No air in your lungs.
  3. Do this for three to five breaths, or keep it up for a few minutes.

This practice will not unwind the entire stress of a shitty situation back to zero; but hey, nothing is perfect. It might still be the difference between making rational decisions or losing the plot at someone.

Do not be one of those people who melts down after six months of stoic endurance like I did.

There is a cumulative benefit from doing it frequently. Once every few days will not be enough. Aim for every couple of hours. That will make a difference.

How it Works: The Vagus Nerve

Lengthening your exhale like this reduces the urgency of your next inhale. More specifically, it increases the tone of your vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is part of your body’s involuntary (or “autonomic”) nervous system. The involuntary system is separated into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system controls your body’s fight-or-flight response, while the para-sympathetic nervous system provides a natural counter-balance.

Your vagus nerve forms the main part of the para-sympathetic side of things. It is also the largest nerve of the whole autonomic nervous system, either branch. It runs from your brain down your neck and through your diaphragm. It communicates with all the major organs and glands in your torso — your heart, intestines, kidneys, liver, stomach, spleen, you name it; with one exception. It does not influence your adrenal glands. They are a tool of the sympathetic nervous system alone. 5

Lengthening the exhale in this way is a gentler form of the Valsalva manoeuvre, which stimulates the vagus nerve 6. This promotes three main neurological states that counterbalance the trauma response:

  • “rest and digest” (creates gentler breathing, slower heart rhythm, effective food breakdown and greater nutrient absorption)
  • “feed and breed” (fosters a healthy appetite in more ways than one)
  • “tend and befriend” (instincts around looking after friends and making new friendships)

These are the neural opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Without them, all that busy activity in the next few months will come at a high cost.

Good tone of the vagus nerve is also linked to heart-rate variability, which is an important marker for health and stress levels 7.

Practices that promote “rest and digest” down-regulate production of stress hormones, giving your body a break and the chance to find a new equilibrium.

Repeated often enough, it will make a lasting change on how you are able to bear up. Consider it an investment.

Final Tips

  • Don’t wait until a quiet time for this, or let’s face it you’ll never get there. Tell those nearby “I’m going to take three minutes” and just go for it. They’ll soon be copying you.
  • It’s better if you can sit or lie down; setting aside even just three minutes to unwind is part of the benefit. But you can also do it while moving around if resting is not an option (e.g. in the shower, while working). You might not notice the effect so much but it’ll still be there. And every little bit helps.
  • Have a glass of water afterwards (and chase it down with a beer if you want 🙂 ).
  • Repeat often! (Familiar theme yet?)
  • I just found a similar take on this technique at Mind Body Green 8. There isn’t much new there that I haven’t already covered but you can go ahead and use it for fact-checking if you want.

  1. Textbook of Functional Medicine. The Institute of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA. 2010.

  2. Cortisol (Wikipedia)

  3. Chronic Stress (Mayo Clinic)

  4. I KNOW!

  5. Vagus Nerve (Wikipedia)

  6. Valsalva Manouevre (Wikipedia)

  7. Measuring Compassion in the Body (Berkeley University of California, 2015)

  8. A Simple Breathing Exercise (Dr. Robin Berzin for Mind Body Green, 2012)

Thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep

My paternal grandparents promised to love and cherish one another until death.

Confined to sex
We pressed against
The limits of the sea
I saw there were
No oceans left
For scavengers like me
I made it to
The forward deck
I blessed the rambling fleet
And then consented
To be wrecked
A thousand kisses deep
from A Thousand Kisses Deep by Leonard Cohen

I hope they took the spirit of the full vow, because after fifty years my grandfather passed away, leaving Grandma alone.

The phrase “until death us do part” is one of the few times in Christian ritual where death is acknowledged without recourse to eternity. There is no talk of being reunited in Heaven. And although there was plenty of that at Granddad’s funeral, I hope that Grandma was beyond wanting a gauzy veil by the time he left. I don’t picture her holding Geoffrey in her mind as as an angel reborn, but as the frail, vulnerable man overtaken by death as we all are due to be.

These days we know the certainty of death, and yet a cultural imperative has arisen to say “forever”. Walt Disney and the pop music industry have a lot to answer for in my book, because we can only ever mean “for now”.

We sail beyond sight of land to the deep, blue water, with only memory as a compass, and we swim together for a while … and then we sink into our own death or we drift apart. Neither outcome need be so shocking, except we were raised with modern images of “happily ever after”.1 It’s self-indulgent and dishonest.

Granddad’s final dissolution, premature as it could only ever be, was in the eyes of pop music a betrayal. His death was, of course, an abandonment. But it was also a tender illustration of the humanity that we all loved about him in life.

Thankfully the 20th Century also gave us Leonard Cohen, poet and mystic.

I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat
You see, I’m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second hand physique
With all he is and all he was
A thousand kisses deep

I hear their voices in the wine
That sometimes did me seek
The band is playing Auld Lang Syne
But the heart will not retreat
There’s no forsaking what you love
No existential leap
As witnessed here in time and blood
A thousand kisses deep

He rethrones contradiction as the very heart of love; he tenderises adoration’s inevitable betrayal. Rejecting smugness, he edifies the paradox of giving ourselves to a person, to love, to duty, and to the world, knowing that one day it must all be lost beyond the horizon. In doing so, he restores love to its true grandeur, beyond the sickly packaging of a Broadway song and expresses the fatal human yearning to both experience all of life and yet to escape its ending.

And now he has led the way in death, as he did in life.

In Memoriam
Leonard Cohen
1934 — 2016
~ you win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak ~

Note: The poetic content of A Thousand Kisses Deep has changed numerous times. This video differs from the one on the album.


  1. Authentic Russian and European fairy tales end with “happily until their deaths” or “and they lived long and happily”.

Buddhism for Non-Believers

Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.

silhouette_of_buddha_sitting_clip_art_19688 This is the first in a series of posts about two different aspects of Buddhism that I am calling secular vs. religious Buddhism.

Secular Buddhism is the main teaching of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, aka ‘The Buddha’. It is practical and gives instruction on developing morality, powers of concentration and insight into reality.

If you've been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.
If you’ve been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.

Religious Buddhism has mostly sprung up in the millennia since Gautama’s death. It is belief-centric and involves things like prostrating before golden statues, praying, burning incense, chanting and receiving blessings from monks. Though culturally rich, such practices turn many people away; they may close a person’s mind to meditation for years, even for life.

That’s ironic because as we’ll see, if you find yourself interested in meditation but balking at religious ceremonies, that may actually be a very good thing.

The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism.S.N. Goenka1

Buddhism: technology or religion?

Even the most devout of the Buddhist monks today would agree that meditation is the main thrust of Gautama’s teachings. And meditation, as opposed to prayer, is a practical skill that can be learned and improved upon.

Bear with me and let us briefly go back to the historical life of Gautama himself. Nowhere does he claim to be a supernatural being. Nor does he try to bestow blessings on others. Clearly he had some remarkable qualities: he renounced his noble birth, was notoriously impossible to goad into any kind of anger or spite, touched the heart of multitudes and developed a system of meditation that had never been taught before. For most of his life he taught that system to a growing number of practitioners.2

But he was born a human and eighty good years later, he died. Instead of claiming to be any kind of saviour, he teaches that enlightenment is for everyone. He encourages us to work on our own insight and attain the same freedom he did, the exact same way.

These exhortations have not been forgotten. In modern Buddhist temple life as centuries ago, monks spend long hours meditating. Monasteries throughout Asia nominate meditation masters within their order to teach young novices. Lay people of all backgrounds, myself included, receive instruction within their walls in exchange for only donations.

The process is to firstly eliminate distractions through living simply, secondly to develop concentration power by taming our mind, and finally to use this combination as a tool for investigating our reality. That describes a methodical series of practical steps and has no recourse to faith or belief-oriented invocations. It describes a technology that can be undertaken by most of us, a set of related techniques, skills, methods and processes. Since this is the main point of Buddhism, it can be argued that Buddhism is not at it’s heart in fact a religion.

Penetrating investigations into the minutiae of a simple life leave us fundamentally changed as people. This has given rise to some wise and potent human beings over the centuries and continues to today. Speak with any accomplished meditation master and you will find those same qualities of generosity, even temper, compassion and rational thinking as Gautama did. Perhaps not to the level of full enlightenment — but sometimes, it may even be just so.

This gives rise to respect, and sometimes, to awe. As we’ll see, that can be dangerous.

How rituals help

Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are "making merit" -- performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through "karma", the law of cause and effect.
Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are “making merit” — performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through “karma”, the law of cause and effect.

The main thrust of my argument is that religious Buddhism can and should be de-prioritised in favour of meditation. But it would be unwise to dismiss these rituals entirely.

Being in the presence of a modestly accomplished meditation teacher can help to guide us in times of difficulty.3 We can call on that help even when they are absent by bringing to mind their teachings and positive qualities. In ancient times, this was done through chanting (the culture was mostly illiterate). Vedic customs were also common in Gautama’s region, so gestures like bowing and burning incense arose naturally after his death as a way to keep the memories fresh.

From these humble beginnings, ritual was formed.

If we are not discomfited by these rituals, they can generate helpful qualities in our lives such as equanimity and compassion, just as they did for the ancients. We can adopt peaceful conduct by remembering the Buddha’s humility or that of our meditation teacher. By showing respect and generating feelings of connection and community, we can impress upon ourselves the things we admire in others. This can be a powerful adjunct to any technique that develops insight.

From a modern meditator’s perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this.

“Speak to me only of love.”

But writing has long since replaced chanting. And bowing to a Buddhist idol will arouse skeptical thoughts and discomfort for those with a modern scientific background or a non-Buddhist faith. These matters make the acts unlikely to have the intended benefits. They will just cause distraction and resistance.

Even for those who do not flinch at them, such as those born into Buddhist cultures, these rituals should not be considered a replacement for meditation itself. However in religious Buddhism that’s often exactly what happens: ritual, originally a side-dish to meditation, ends up becoming through a sense of awe the whole meal. Or at least, the main course.

That is a big problem, and here’s why:

The good side-effects of ritual and remembrance don’t last.

Equanimity- or compassion-by-association is transient. At night we may make our peace before the altar and (if we’re lucky) fall asleep unworried about what we did or did not achieve. Yet the next morning, we wake with a to-do list that worms around inside us.

Think of the New Age trend of making affirmations in the mirror. “I am worthy of being loved.” But the resulting magnanimity quickly turns into out of line reactions when our buttons are pushed. We cut out the trivia nights at the local pub because we cannot resist the temptation to drink excessively. Over-zealous yogis and new religious converts may withdraw from their friends and family to avoid cynical remarks (the “yoga bubble” effect).

This is a tragedy. In the name of world peace, we shrink our world to just the bit we can tolerate. “Speak to me only of love,” goes the song. We limit our interactions because we cannot keep our hearts open when the shit hits the fan.

Meditation, practised often and well, does not just temporarily remind us of the qualities of peace and compassion; it causes permanent changes in how we perceive the world. As we progress on the path of insight, those changes bring increasingly more peace and compassion to every situation, no matter how fraught.

An accomplished meditator need not avoid the local pub because they will no longer be swayed by habits and addictions.

There is a wonderful Zen story about the Soto Buddhist monk Tanzan that illustrates this beautifully.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Meditation is experience practice

On the path of insight, ritual and remembrance practices are unnecessary. In fact, they can be a hindrance even to those who accept them. They are helpful to some people; but insight, not remembrance, is what liberates. We create insight by experiencing our own life clearly, not by trying to make our behaviour reminiscent of another person’s, whether they are enlightened or not.

Meditation is “experience practice”. It is dedicated time where your only goal is to experience life without resistance. That is, to experience your life clearly.

This teaches us to be generous and feel things completely even after we end our meditation session. The lessons from meditation remain with us in the most trying of circumstances.

It is not easy, but it really is that simple. That was the Buddha’s great genius and his gift to the world.

Conclusion

If your goal is to live a happier, calmer and more loving life, then rituals like bowing, chanting, burning incense, or a morning run all help to smooth the ride of meditation, providing fresh energy and inspiration when motivation starts to flag.

But if you don’t meditate in the first place you may be smoothing a ride that hasn’t started yet. Many people perform their individual rituals daily, and yet nothing much changes in their reactions when life gets complicated.

On the other hand, lucid experience is what liberates and therefore meditation alone is enough to both start the ride, and once started, to keep on truckin’.

This will be not only beneficial in your own life but also that of your loved ones.

Heard of a practice that has similar goals as meditation? Mention it in the comments!

Let me leave you with a quote from that wonderful, rational, human being, the Dalai Lama.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.Our Faith in Science by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama 4

Afterthoughts: Is there no other way?

I’ve established that insight comes from experiencing life clearly. Given that, shouldn’t it be possible to attain all the insights of meditation simply by being alive and paying attention? After all, that must be how the great saints and sages of the past arrived at enlightenment without access to meditation practice.

It is common for people with an observational nature, with high levels of concentration and a passion for understanding life, to take some steps on the path of insight. But I would say that for most of us the chances of getting enlightened without some kind of formalised practice are very small.

Other forms of “experience practice” exist in other traditions; anything that helps us watch the movement of our own minds is going to lend itself to insight. I’m convinced that there is plenty of overlap with other practices (and have experience with eight-limb or Tantric yoga and t’ai chi). But not being a practitioner of many others I cannot speak to their efficacy or their efficiency (which are not the same thing).

I take a pragmatic approach here: if your goal is enlightenment then no, meditation is not essential; but it helps immensely.


  1. Retreat Code of Discipline

  2. The tradition states that Gautama didn’t create vipassana meditation, he only “rediscovered” it, after it was lost for thousands of years. An intriguing legend; if you have any information on this please leave a comment.

  3. By “modestly accomplished” I mean twenty+ years of dedicated practise with plenty of long-term retreat experience.

  4. *Our Faith in Science*. New York Times 2005.

Haiku Sextet #1

I, though midsummer
 chose anyway your spring song
knowing it was wrong.

For other love bound
 the hand I placed in mine, and
to it I was blind.

To   a walled garden
 we broke out. Once, once only
and called it escape.

But my coat outlived
 us. And they don’t even make
Them like they used to.

Lovely-haired mantis
 you promised haven I was
lucky to survive.

Still this old wound, rough
 I’m sad to see puckered up
you once tickled me there.

Neuroplastics for Persistent Pain: Realistic Recovery

Three months ago, I did a thirty day challenge of writing daily blog posts about my experience using neuroplastic techniques to come out of persistent pain. At the time I had no definable cause for the pain. In the subsequent two months I’ve had scans that confirm whiplash-associated arthritis where my head joins my spine.

Despite the lack of updates in that time, I have mostly kept up the pace with visualisation. My routine is a thirty minute sit (visualisation not meditation) before anything else each morning, another sit after breakfast and one more before bed. These are scaffolding. They keep the imagery fresh enough in my mind that I can recall it as needed while going about my daily tasks for the rest of the day.

Yes, the pain spikes still happen. I still have damage to my neck. I use a subjective scale of pain from one to ten, one being pain free and ten being dropped in boiling oil. And the pain spikes are still at the 6/10 that they were before starting the visualisation.

(Of course, comparing levels of pain is where a subjective scale becomes unreliable but it has to suffice, given that pain is a perception. There can be no objective measure of pain.)

That’s where the similarities end, however. In other ways, the most astounding changes have occurred:

  1. I can get the pain to stop. If I’m diligent and prepared to prioritise visualisation whenever a pain spike hits (any time of day or night, even if this means sacrificing the task or timeline I’m running with) then I can get rid of it. There are exceptions, but generally the pain recedes. After a ten minute break, I can carry on with my day. (Major flare ups are a whole ‘nother ball game that still require me to drop everything for a day or two. I have other tactics in place to avoid them, see below).
  2. Two-hours pain free is now a daily occurrence. I can now be pretty much guaranteed of a period in the afternoon where I can work, move around, talk etc without needing to stop and visualise or take breaks. It’s like I’m back to my old self for those couple of hours.

Note that both these effects are occurring while completely free of painkillers 🙂 No paracetamol (aka acetaminophen for my US readers). No ibuprofen. No codeine and definitely no tramadol.

To me, this is worth any amount of slow-down, drop-everything-and-visualise type behaviour that I need to undertake for the rest of the day in order to attain the pain free states.

That’s the good news.

Major Pain Triggers

Six months ago I had to limit my activities to avoid what I’m calling “major flare ups”. Usually lasting two days, but sometimes up to four, even visualisation brings no relief during these periods. Restorative yoga and sleep is about the only thing for me.

Those limitations persist — that’s the bad news. Unfortunately for me (and my erstwhile yoga students) they include actions that are commonplace in many asana. Downward dog or plank pose shoot whole body pain and headache into my eyes, confusion, nausea, visual field like a broken mirror, tiredness. Shortness of breath. Ringing in my ears. So I’m still not back on the regular teaching circuit. I don’t know if I ever will be, now that we’ve discovered the arthritis.

My physio gave me an ingenious set of exercises. Attach a laser pointer to your glasses frame, and use it to draw around door frames etc from a distance of three metres. This is to retrain the tiny muscles at the base of your skull. If you have a laser pointer, try it! But they’re no good for me. It’s great training for those muscles, but the actions flare up the actual joint itself so I’m in bed the next day. For a couple days.

I’ve also had to limit or eliminate heavy lifting and hammering (so no DIY for me), computer use for more than half an hour without a break to move around, driving for long periods. Even just being in a hurry can start me on a spiral that can lead a strong burst of long-lived pain. So I’ve had to slow down my life a lot just in general.

Realistic Recovery

Speaking loosely, I wouldn’t call it “normal life” yet, but it’s heading that way. I can approach each day with more optimism, just knowing that each afternoon I will get a period of relief. And knowing that, if I am sensible and realistic about my activities through the day, then I’ll be able to head off pain spikes as they occur. It feels manageable.

It’s tricky to remain realistic with those activity goals after so long being on tenterhooks. Staying realistic without stifling the optimism — that’s the next phase of this recovery journey.

I’m fumbling my way a bit. In the past I relied on my gung-ho attitude to get me through just about any confusing situation (“fake it till you make it”). That won’t cut it here. I need to develop the patience, persistence and self-awareness to chip away at tasks without going into hyperfocus mode on them. An hour here, an hour there and plenty of walks and breaks in between.

If you have any tips to share with me about realistic recovery please share them in the comments. I’m particularly looking to learn more about my warning signs when I’ve overdone it, ways to structure a day so I can get the most out of them while remaining true to my capacity. Useful activity worksheets, for people in recovery. Forums or blogs to follow … I’ll collect any suggestions, plus what I learn from my own experience and research, and put them into a future post to follow soon.

Don’t forget to comment! 🙂