Poster for David Lynch's movie of Dune

When I first attended a Buddhist weekend retreat I was asked to bring with me something which was significant or held meaning for me. It took me a long time to think of anything that fitted this description, but after some reflection I remembered the ‘Litany against Fear’ from Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’, a book that had been very important to me in my teenage years:

Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will allow it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

The night before I left for the dry Spanish valley where I was to spend four months on my ordination retreat I felt compelled to watch David Lynch’s (notoriously poor) movie of the book (this was before the Sci-Fi Channel’s diligent, but uninspiring mini-series). Then, a few years later, I led a weekend retreat exploring the novel, as a way of looking at the myths and symbols of science fiction and the extent to which they might be useful in terms of spiritual practice.

I have come to deeply value the role of myth and the imagination within my own spiritual practice, but had noticed that a number of my friends found the whole area completely mystifying. It seemed more than a coincidence that many of these people seemed to be fans of science fiction. My aim for the weekend was to help people to make the connection between the myths that they were responding to in sci-fi, and the mythical aspects of life and spiritual practice. It seems that for many people living in a world marked by scientific reductionism and utilitarian literalism, the world of the imagination can appear to be in the future, or ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.’

Traditionally science fiction has not been a particularly refined genre – in the sci-fi books I read in my teens and twenties, the qualities of writing and of character development were often poor, and violence and cruelty were common themes. It has also been a particularly obvious outlet for wish fulfilment, or for the articulation of contemporary views – the Cold War led to a huge number of ‘alien threat’ novels and movies during the fifties and sixties, and more recently political correctness has brought us the elected Queen Amidala of Star Wars: Episode 1.

At its best, however, the freedom to define new social and political systems, and even change the laws of physics (Captain!), can allow science fiction writers to introduce archetypal figures and explore the nature of the human condition in a way which is not possible in more socially realistic fiction. In this way I believe it is possible for sci-fi to provide a launching pad into the imaginal realm. Thankfully, contemporary writers have begun to marry high standards of writing with this complexity of concepts – although I don’t read much fiction these days I’d particularly recommend Neal Stephenson‘s genre-busting books.

Those who are chronically averse to science fiction are unlikely to become converts, but if you have nurtured a secret affection for sci-fi then perhaps you can begin to have the courage to come out of the galactic closet. Ultimately it may be that science fiction can even be useful in helping us to see how those that we perceive as ‘alien’ are in fact no different from ourselves.


Frank Herbert, 1965 (published by New English Library)

Set in a feudal society of the far distant future the novel charts its protagonist’s maturation and fourfold initiation: firstly to Duke, then to manhood and leadership, to prescient super-being and ultimately to Emperor. Herbert interweaves his twin interests in psychology and ecology through the symbolic aspects of the story, such as the desert planet Arrakis (the ‘Dune’ of the title) and its giant sandworms, as well as through the themes and characters. These themes include the integration of masculine and feminine, and the principles of prescience and memory. The hero’s teachers are classic Jungian archetypes, and the desert planet is peopled by the wild and fierce Fremen, who live in rock warrens, and hoard water which will one day allow them to catalyse an ecological transformation of the planet. There is also the secretive Bene Gesserit sisterhood who manipulate religions and genetic lines through the use of their greatly heightened powers of awareness.

As a teenager it was this combination of the psychological and ecological which appealed to me, and I was particularly struck by the incredible acuity of perception of the Bene Gesserit – a faculty I now know as mindfulness. In ‘Dune’ Herbert achieved a level of symbolic truth which surpasses anything else he ever wrote, and it is this symbolic content more than the subtlety of his concepts which makes it a great novel.

I was doing some house-keeping on my computer this morning and came across this piece, which I wrote for the Buddhist Arts magazine Urthona about a decade ago – I’ve tweaked it slightly to bring it up to date a bit. I’d love to hear your recommendations for good sci-fi – ancient or modern.

There are many hundreds of meditation practices found in religious traditions and personal development systems throughout the world, and although it might look like people are all doing the same thing when they sit with their eyes closed, they might well be doing any of this huge range of different things. One way to get an overview of all these different approaches, is to see them as fitting into one of four broad categories – or maybe a combination of two or more of them.

In this types of practice you focus your attention on one aspect of your experience, and train yourself in regulating your attention by patiently and consistently bringing your mind back to this focus of attention whenever it drifts off. Meditating in this way calms and focuses your mind, and brings together all your scattered energies and thoughts. Body awareness meditations and mindfulness of the breath are both practices of this type, and are this approach is the best way to learn to meditate for most people.

In these meditation practices, you bring into being, or further develop, a positive quality or state of consciousness, using your imagination, memory and will. The classic example of this type of meditation is the family of meditations known as the Brahma Viharas, which are also called The Four Imeasurable in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The root of these is the cultivation of loving kindness (metta bhavana or maitri bhavana), the fundamental state of positive regard and well wishing which underlies all others. When you experience metta and you encounter suffering, then your natural response is one of compassion (karuna), and when you encounter growth, development and happiness your response is one of sympathetic joy (mudita). The fourth practice is the cultivation of equanimity – the capacity to respond creatively and from your values without being either overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world, or intoxicated with pleasure.

This approach can be seen as complementary to the concentrating practices, because instead of focusing the attention on one specific aspect of your experience, when practising in this way you seek to remain open to all of your experience even-handedly. This type of meditation is often done with your eyes slightly open, so that you pay equal attention to images, sounds, physical sensations, etc. and allow them all to come and go without getting caught up with any one of them. Japanese Zazen and the Tibetan practices of Dzog Chen and Mahamudra  can be seen as practices of this type.

Once your mind is settled, then you can turn your focused attention onto your experience so that you can see it more clearly. This might mean observing the way in which your thoughts, feelings and sensations come and go, or exploring your experience to try to identify the self that we all presume to be there. Sometimes, as in koan practice, this might include the use of words, but often it is more an attitude of inquiry, as your mind may be too refined for discursive thought.

Mixing and Balancing
Any particular meditation practice might include any one, or several of these four modes or dimensions of practice, with many complex meditations in the Tibetan traditions including phases of each.

It is worth remembering that these definitions are just a guideline, as the practices do not have distinct boundaries, and whenever you are meditating you need to maintain a balance between consciously guiding your attention (concentrating) and being receptive to whatever experience is arising (receiving). If you focus too much on concentrating your meditation will become tight and dry, but if there isn’t enough focus then you are likely just to drift away from meditation into daydreams.

Your don't have to meditate to be mindful

Over the last 20 years, mindfulness has become an increasingly important concept in psychology. The term and idea come from Buddhist teaching and meditation, although the original term (Pali: sati, Sanskrit: smti) is better translated as ‘recollection’. Contemporary scientific interest in mindfulness emerged from the work of Jon Kabbat-Zinn, who began working with mindfulness meditation in a Massachusetts clinic in 1979. Initially his focus was on pain and symptom management, but it soon broadened out to a much wider range of applications, including preventing depression relapse, anxiety, heart disease and managing cancer treatments.

Kabbat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is

paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally’ (1994)

Marlatt and Kristeler define it as

bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment to moment basis’ (1999)

Although Bishop, Segal et al (2004) have sought to clarify two dimensions of mindfulness:

i. self regulation of attention on immediate experience

ii. orientation of curiosity, openness and acceptance to it

This definition emphasizes the fact that noticing is often not enough in itself to effect helpful change, the emotional tone or attitude is also important.

Dr Richard Davidson of Wisconsin University has carried out wide-ranging research into the effects of meditation, including the benefits it brings to immune response, mood, energy levels, etc. as well as measuring the changes in brain chemistry and function that accompany these. Most recently, research has shown that meditation also results in physical changes to the brain in as little as eight weeks.

Californian professor, Dr Paul Ekman undertook research on people’s sensitivity to ‘micro expressions’ and found that meditators were the only group to consistently score higher on recognition of these. This means that meditators are better judges than police officers and other professionals of, for example, whether somebody is lying or not.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (pioneered by Segal, Williams and Teasdale) is now recommended by NICE as the most beneficial treatment for those suffering multiple episodes of depression. Similar work is now being done in the use of mindfulness for recovery from addiction, and management of stress (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – MBSR.

A day workshop at Buddhist Centres across England

Connect with more people, more deeply.

Sangharakshita has famously said that he believes that we can be friends with anyone. This is a bold ideal, and one that most of us struggle to come anywhere near.

In this fun and challenging day we will see how the symbolism of the mandala, the magical rites of the Tantra and Jungian archetypes can offer us new insights into communication and connection, and support us to be a better spiritual friend to more people.

• To connect more deeply with your friends, and help you to make friends with a wider range of people
• To explore your habits and assumptions about communication
• To make your interactions with your friends more conscious, so as to increase your choices, and expand your range of responses

A day workshop that will include:

  • Mining our collective knowledge of the Mandala of the Five Buddhas, myths, fairy tales, books, movies and real life to explore the archetypes of the King/Queen, Warrior, Magician/Wise Woman and Lover.
  • An exploration of the Tantric rites of Attraction, Prospering, Pacification and Destruction and their correlations
  • Music, embodiment exercises, and plenty of opportunities to experiment with communicating in a range of different styles
  • Mantra chanting and meditation

when and where?

Probably 10.00am to 4.00pm, but check with Centre to confirm precise times.

how do I book?
Call me for more information or contact the Buddhist Centre concerned

what do people say about it?
“This was a great day, that Jnanagarbha led with consummate skill. I was touched by his openness in the expression of his core values and his trials in living by them. The day had the perfect mix of instruction, participation, playfulness and challenge. I think all participants will have been surprised to have expanded their communicative range to a greater degree than they perhaps realised was happening in such a fun and engaging day. I would recommend this event to other Buddhist centres, and look forward to welcoming Jnanagarbha back to Croydon for more. Sadhu!”
Dhammavijaya, Chair, Croydon Buddhist Centre

why aren’t you coming to my local Centre?
I’d be delighted to! Talk to your Centre team or give me a call.

Proud Crow Warrior

Proud Crow Warrior

Pride has a mixed press in our culture, our relationship with it having been complicated by its heading the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. This perspective was imported from the Ancient Greek concept of hubris, in which the crime of a mortal seeking to become godlike and suffering the inevitable retribution of Nemesis formed the plot outline of many Greek tragedies. The continued bad press for pride has sometimes been seen as a tool of oppression in an inequitable system, as the encouragement of humility in those who are disempowered can be used as a way of encouraging acceptance of inequity and passivity.

However, since the seventeenth century there has been a gradual shift in perspectives on pride, so that it can now be seen as healthy, rather than excessive, sense of self-worth. It can be argued that the hubristic inflation of self-worth is not really pride, and is often a compensatory mechanism for a lack of genuine pride. It is now more commonly the case that individuals lack a sufficient basis of self-esteem, although hubris can be a significant issue for a leader, and we all know people who have ‘believed their own publicity’ and experienced the sense of schaudenfrade when they ‘got what they deserved’.

In its pure form, pride is rather more a mode of being than a feeling per se. Pride is expressed in presence, bearing, and how you relate to yourself, to others and to the circumstances of your life, especially in how in how you respond to success and failure. Such a healthy self-regard is often reflected in a healthy regard from others. Pride can also be looked at in terms of what it is not, as it is characterised by a freedom from shame and guilt and from the need for self-justification. In this respect it is an essential component of a maturation process, and an essential ingredient in the psyche of a leader. The relation to shame and guilt here reflects the fact that pride has a social aspect that can enhance the individual dimension, so that the vague sense of pride is amplified to a fully-fledged feeling. It is in this respect that pride has been adopted by the LGBT community.

As a feeling experience that makes an impact on us, pride is most likely to be experienced in relation to a specific achievement. Pride is usually associated with accomplishment not moral worth, so that it has been said that one can feel pride about doing well, but not about doing good. Perhaps it can be argued that one’s underlying sense of pride comes from a sense of moral worth and general capability, and that full-blown feelings of pride arise from specific achievements. Many people’s strongest experience of pride is in relation to the achievements of their children. As a leader, while you may experience pride in relation to a job well done or a strategy achieved, it may well be in regard to your metaphorical children – be they projects of protégés – that you experience most pride, albeit vicariously.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man

I have been meditating for nearly 20 years, and the more I meditate the more important awareness of the body seems to be. This isn’t the way I was originally taught to meditate, however this approach to teaching meditation is now the one that is followed by most of the meditation teachers that I know.

We live in a busy world. Most of us live in urban areas and receive huge amounts of stimulus from adverts, people, music, noise, television, ipods, phones – I could fill the rest of the page with this list, so let’s leave it there. When we look at the lifestyles of humans through most of their evolution, we can see that they had much simpler and less stimulating lives. It seems likely that we have not evolved to deal with the high levels of stimulation that we currently receive – no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed so much of the time.

There has also been a huge change in what we do with our time, with a continual move away from activities that involved our whole bodies towards work that involves only our heads and our hands. Although this process has accelerated during the last century, we’ve been losing touch with our bodies for quite some time.

So what? Well the big problem is that if we lose touch with our bodies, we lose touch with our emotions. They still underlie (and so effectively control) our thinking, but if we can’t feel our feelings we can’t take them into account, make allowances for them, or compensate for them. You only have to observe how venomous and irrational many academic disputes are to see the way that denied emotionality complicates things enormously.

During the period when the founders of the great religions taught there was no need to teach about emotional intelligence – everybody was in touch with their emotions – they just had to teach about which emotions to support and cultivate and which emotions were unhelpful and should have energy withdrawn from them. For many of us, there is a lot of work to do in connecting more honestly with our emotions and feelings, as only then can we begin to transform them. If we don’t, then we run the risk of deluding ourselves, and will struggle to connect effectively with others.

The simplest way to do this is to learn to notice the subtle sensations in our bodies, particularly in the front of the body: the heart, the belly, and the crossroad of nerves between them called the solar plexus. Although we’re all familiar with carrying emotional tension in our shoulders and other muscles, it is in this tender front of our bodies that we can most fully connect with our feelings and emotions.

There’s no need for me to go into the philosophy of this stuff here, but everybody is familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”. I believe it would be much more helpful for us to be able to say “I think and feel, therefore I am”.

This is another in the series of pieces on emotions that I ghosted a few years ago for a book on The Inner Work of Leadership, which I don’t think was ever published. Rereading this piece I’m reminded how much of the material was simply stuff we all need to address in the process of personal and spiritual development, just with a few phrases inserted to highlight its pertinence for leaders in organisations. I guess that’s why I feel it’s worth publishing here.

Loneliness and Aloneness

We all feel lonely from time-to-time. Humans are social creatures, and we need to have a sense of connection to other people in order to be fully human.

Ironically, the experiences of disconnection and isolation that loneliness engenders have a tendency to distance us from others, so that we send out signals that drive people away at the very time when we most need connection. You will need to develop the ability to reach out to others, both when you are being rebuffed by someone in distress, as well as when you feel lonely yourself.

It is important to be able to distinguish between loneliness and the existential experience of aloneness, because this experience of aloneness is often accentuated for leaders. In your work there will be many problems, challenges and successes that you are not able to share with anyone else in a meaningful way: confidential and business sensitive matters, and things that others will not fully understand.

To lead effectively, you need to be able to step away from those seeking to influence you, as well as to be aware of your extrinsic motivations – your tendencies to look to others for approval and guidance, and to seek recognition and reward. It is unlikely that all of your motivations will be intrinsic to you, and so it is essential that you are aware of these extrinsic motivations so that you can take them into account and take advantage of them, make allowances or compensate for them as appropriate. If you are not able to stand alone in this way your decision-making processes will always be compromised.

It’s true that it can be lonely at the top, and you need to be able to balance your human need for connection with the resourcefulness to make best use of your aloneness.


This is another in the series on emotional competence from a book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on a few years ago, but (as far as I know) was never published. There are links to the other emotions that I’ve posted at the bottom.

Jealousy and Envy

Jealousy and envy are another pair of related feelings, both of which can be seen as evolving from competition, and rooted in the competition for love and care in our early family environment. The distinction between them is unclear so that they are often confused, with the terms used interchangeably; indeed most definitions of one word include the other!  As mentioned previously, as long as you are not trying to discuss them with someone else (in which case you will need to ‘rectify terms’ as Confucius put it), what you call your emotions is less important than your capacity to distinguish between them. This being the case, the descriptions presented here are offered as practical aids rather than authoritative definitions.

Jealousy can be seen as having two aspects, one anxious and one acquisitive. The anxious aspect is the fear that another will take from you something that you value or cherish, so that we speak of someone ‘jealously guarding’ a secret, a treasure, or a sexual partner. The acquisitive aspect describes the desire one has for something that another has, perhaps the same treasure that they are jealously guarding.

Envy has been described as ‘a peculiar combination of both desire and resentment fused in bitterness’. One way that envy can be distinguished from jealousy is in desired outcome: you seek to acquire an object of jealousy, but the goal of envy is simply to deprive the other party. It could also be argued that one feels acquisitive jealousy about something that someone else has, but that one feels envy towards someone who has something that you do not. The distinction being that jealousy is felt towards the object first and the person second, whereas this order is reversed in envy.

Envy can be seen as having four key aspects that make it up.

  • The first and most significant is a sense of deprivation: that in some way you are being deprived of the pleasure or fulfilment that an item, relationship, talent or reputation would give you.
  • Secondly, you must perceive someone else as having and benefiting from whatever it is that you believe yourself denied. The relationship between these two items is significant, in that we seldom desire something until we see that someone else has it. The underlying experience of lack that so many people carry can thus be triggered simply by the knowledge that someone has something that you do not, even if it is something that you have not previously conceived of as being of any benefit to you. Such is the basis of many thousands of marketing campaigns!
  • The third aspect of envy is a feeling of impotence in the face of the perceived inequality, and it is this feeling that introduces the resentful aspect of envy.
  • The final aspect is the unfounded and illogical, but deeply felt belief that it is because the other party has what we desire that we do not have it. It is this introduction of an entirely spurious causal relationship that characterises envy: a belief that life is a zero-sum game, and that if you have love, happiness, wealth, prestige, or success then I can not have it.

Such a belief is a deeply damaging one for a leader, as it can easily divert you into false competitions that are wasteful and destructive. It has been observed since at least the 15th century that comparisons are odious, and the tendency to compare oneself with others is usually not just a waste of time and energy, but positively unhelpful. The obvious exception being those occasions when you are directly competing for a role or position. When you allow your tendency to compare to slide into a desire to compete you have lost your initiative, and your energies will be directed away from your long-term goals.

Both of these emotions are painful, and if you have not felt the torture of sexual jealousy then you are a lucky person. However, jealously can trigger ambition and thus be a stimulus to action, whereas envy is an intensely painful and ultimately humiliating experience, a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating form of masochism.


The other emotions that I’ve posted on so far are:

Anger – and Emotional Competence

Guilt and Shame

Tiredness, Grieving and Depression

Feeling Bored

Feeling Hurt – Distress and Vulnerability

Feeling Good

On my Buddhist Coach Facebook page I just posted a link to this piece on mindfulness of the body, observing just how much emphasis has been placed on mindfulness as a primarily mental (i.e. thinking/ cognitive) activity. However, as the author elegantly puts it, “what we translate as “mindfulness” cannot properly be understood as a purely mental activity.”

I’ve been very struck by the huge cognitive bias in the way in which mindfulness is being promulgated, and I suggest that a key reason for this is that the people who research stuff are very heady, and that’s how they make sense of the world. I’ve been delighted to see the results of all the research that has been undertaken into meditation and mindfulness in the last few years, and at the same time there’s a little bit of me that complains “we’ve known this works for nearly 3,000 years, why do we need a a CAT scanner before anyone believes us?”

However, this isn’t just a modern phenomenon, the same process is evident in the Pali canon, where emotion-based practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity (the Brahma Viharas) were downgraded as practices by the monks who transcribed the Buddhist oral tradition. That’s because the kind of people who want to write down and tabulate an oral tradition are the kind of people who make sense of the word primarily through the medium of ideas, and so don’t really understand or value body-based emotional experience.

The biographies of Tibetan teachers often show them as being expert scholars, who then have a spiritual crisis of some sort that forces them to recognise that they have to go beyond the intellect – Naropa being a classic example. The important thing for us to remember is to avoid the temptation to swing to the pole of rejecting rational thought altogether  – as happens sometimes, especially in New Age circles) – we need to be mindful of both the mind and the body.

This stuff is important to me because it has been, and continues to be, my working ground. I came to Buddhism with very little awareness of my body or my emotions, and the longer I practice, the more important I understand the body to be. I have a lot more to say on this issue, but I’ll leave it there for now.

Eh Ma Oh !

Vajrasattva painted by Aloka

Vajrasattva painted by Aloka

Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Birthless, all things take their birth,
Yet in that birth, nothing is borne.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Ceaseless, all things cease to be
Yet in that ceasing, nothing ceases.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Non-abiding, all abides,
Yet thus abiding, there abideth naught.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
In Non-perception, everything is perceived,
Yet this perceiving is quite perceptionless.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
In the Unmoving, all things come and go,
Yet in that movement, nothing ever moves.

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