Thursday, 27 November 2014

The rational mind should really be just an advisor to the king

After writing my article a couple of weeks ago on intention and gut feeling, I've been thinking some more about how our rational, thinking mind interacts with our emotional, feeling mind. Do you ever catch yourself in a situation where it seems these two sides seem at odds with each other? I do.

Let's say it's raining and I'm trying to decide whether to cycle into town or take the bus. Rationally it would make sense to cycle – it's free, much quicker, and the exercise is good for me. However, I'm a bit tired and I know it's raining and cold, so the bus makes for a very attractive option!

It's very easy to fall into the trap of seeing this as a battle. Do I side with my feelings or my calculations? Which option is best?

My Zen teacher, Daizan Roshi, likes to say the rational mind is like an advisor to the king. If we're not careful, this advisor can easily have delusions of grandeur and assume the role of leader. And I think this position is encouraged somewhat by our society.

In nursery and primary school our education focusses on our whole bodies – we dance, do drama, and paint with our hands and feet. By secondary school, we're only being educated from the waist up (with occasional classes of PE), and by university we're focussed solely on head-learning. We train the mind to gather and process information – facts, figures, critical thinking, logic, reason – and we test these abilities (and these alone) via incessant exams. The people best at this are ones admired and rewarded most highly in our society: scientists, lawyers, doctors (because western medicine is essentially all reductionist), bankers, computer programmers, etc. On the whole our Western society is skewed towards the rational over the emotional. Einstein knew this when he said
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
― Albert Einstein 
The problem is the rational mind is not a good leader. It's too cold and calculating. But it is an excellent advisor. When we let the intuition, the true king/leader, assume its rightful place then logic and reason becomes only one source of information among many. By the same account, emotions and feelings are also just another source of information. In the end I decided to take the bus not cycle!

To take another example, back when I was deciding whether or not to quit my job as an astronomer, my rational mind was screaming "Why quit? You're well-paid, an expert at what you do, and have put in years of training." But it could also calculate how difficult it would be to get a job in the UK and what impact that would have on my relationship. This was all excellent advice. I also knew I wasn't enjoying the day-to-day aspects of my job, feeling quite isolated and frustrated with my colleagues, and I wanted to work more with people in an everyday, grounded sense. All of these things informed my eventual decision, which I feel almost bubbled up out of the muddy quagmire of swirling thoughts and opinions.

I guess you would call that my intuition...

I am part of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner, and we meet twice a week at our dojo in Camberwell, London. For more info see


I'd love to hear from you

Any comments or thoughts about your king and advisors, I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

The benefits of mindfulness on your health & wellbeing

Many of life’s demands can cause stress, particularly work, relationships and money problems. When we feel fearful or anxious, our body's hard-wired response, evolved over millennia of dangerous encounters in wild, is the "fight or flight" reaction. The problem is that these days, probably the two worst things we could do when faced with, for example, an impending deadline, or an overbearing relative is (1) punch them/someone or (2) run away...


Practising meditation and/or yoga, particularly with an emphasis on awareness and mindfulness, has been shown to be an incredibly effective way of stress-proofing ourselves. It does this in two ways: firstly by providing us with a little oasis of quiet in amongst the business of the day (some me-time); and secondly by teaching us how to see things clearly. There's a huge difference between conscious and unconscious stress. The great Zen master Hakuin compared people who were conscious and aware to water whereas ordinary people are like ice. Our mindfulness is like the warm sunlight that can melt away the perceived stress. It's our relationship to the feeling that changes.

Science has been making some great progress in understanding the why exactly lowering our stress levels boosts our health and wellbeing. Let me talk about just a few of the recent discoveries.

Tell me about telomers

Telomers: chromosome caps
Why of course... Telomers are a repeating DNA pattern that act as a kind of protective cap on our chromosomes, shielding their ends from potential damage each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied. In the 1980s an enzyme called telomerase was discovered that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Even so, our telomeres dwindle over time, and when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a phenomenon that is now recognised as a key process in ageing. The discovery of telomers won Elizabeth Blackburn the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As detailed in this lovely article, Blackburn and her group began a study back in 2000 to test the effect of stress on telomer length (at the time genes were seen as being the most important factor, so at the time this idea was highly controversial). The results from their pilot study showed that the more stressed the participants were the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase. Scientists are always marvelled when they manage to connect real lives and experiences to things happening on the molecular level, and in this study they'd done it! Feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health – it literally ages us!

Researchers have since linked perceived stress to shorter telomeres in Alzheimer’s caregivers, victims of domestic abuse and early life trauma, and people with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How does it work? The presence of the stress hormone cortisol seems to reduce the activity of telomerase, while oxidative reactions and inflammation (all physiological effects of the stress response) appear to erode telomeres directly. Age-related conditions from osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke have all been linked to short telomeres.

In one follow-up project, Blackburn and her colleagues sent participants on a three-month meditation retreat, and found that afterwards they had higher levels of telomerase than the control group. A study in 2013 of dementia caregivers found that, after practising 12 minutes of meditation a day for eight weeks, they had significantly higher telomerase activity than a control group. And in another study in 2012 Epel et al. measured the association between telomere length and peoples' natural level of mindfulness. They found those who reported high mind wandering (i.e. lower mindfulness) had shorter telomeres, even after adjusting for stress.

So stress and ageing are clearly very related. No wonder Wallace et al. back in 1982 found that people who'd been practising meditation for five years were physiologically (as shown by their blood pressure, vision, hearing, and skin elasticity) up to 12 years younger than their non-meditating counterparts! For more on that, see this article showing some photographic evidence, or just look at any photo of a prime minister or president – in just a few years they go from looking fresh and vibrant to grey, haggard, and worn out!

New genes, new neurons

In another study, a group based in Massachusetts took blood samples from a group of 19 people who had regular meditation practice, and 19 others who never meditated, and ran genomic analyses (identification of genomic features such as DNA sequence, gene expression, etc) of the blood. They found that the meditating group had suppressed more than twice the number of stress-related genes than the non-meditating group. This is an incredible result, since the more these stress-related genes are expressed, the more the body will have a stress response. This study is in the field of epigenetics, which I've written about before.

Lastly, I just wanted to mention this article detailing some work done here in London that found that increased levels of cortisol seems to decrease neurogenesis (the ability of the brain to produce new brain cells) in adults. Studies have shown that these adult-born neurons appear to have a role in the regulation of stress by possibly augmenting the role of the hippocampus in controlling the stress reaction and/or inhibiting the amygdala (the region of brain responsible for the fear reaction). Neurogenesis has also been linked to brain plasticity.

So, it's never too late to start practising mindfulness and meditation, and slowing down – possibly even reversing – the ageing process!

My next 8-week course in Mindfulness for Health & Wellbeing will start on Friday 16th January, and I'm now taking bookings. See my website for further details.


I'd love to hear from you

If you've noticed that, like me, your mindfulness practice is leaving you looking younger and more radiant, your skin is shiny and there's more of a healthy glow about you, I'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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Thursday, 13 November 2014

Intuition and gut feeling

In Zen practice we purposefully cultivate attention in our hara, our belly, our gut. We emphasise turning off our discriminating, thought dominated mind, and develop a kind of knowing that is beyond this’s and that’s, right or wrongs – essentially beyond language itself.

One word in English that we often use to point to this direct knowing is “intuition”. Intuition is defined as an "almost immediate situation understanding” – a kind of direct, immediate knowing. “How do you know that?” someone asks, and you reply “I don’t know, I just do”. This is intuition speaking. Like a hunch or a feeling. You arrive at a conclusion through processes that typically remain mostly unknown to your conscious mind.

The word intuition comes from the Latin intuir, which means ‘knowledge from within.’ In the last few centuries intuition has been kinda poo-pooed because it’s not rational - it's “just a feeling”. With the rise of science in the West, rational thought has rather taken superiority.

Second brain

Recently there’s been quite a bit of discussion about what people call our "2nd brain” down in our gut. This 2nd brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of our gut – intestines, stomach, etc. – about 100 million of them in total. That's more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system (but a good deal fewer than in our 1st brain!). The feelings from these gut-nerves influence, to quite a large degree, our emotions, so you could say our second brain very much informs our state of mind. One obvious example is when we feel butterflies in the stomach. The butterflies sensation arises as blood is redirected out of our digestive system as part of our flight or flight response, and it signals to us we’re feeling nervous or anxious. As it says here, a lot of the information that the gut sends to the (head) brain is about well-being, which is understandable since eating and digestion are fraught with danger! Like the skin, the gut must stop potentially dangerous invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, from getting inside the body.

Intuition is a very undervalued and underused skill in most people. But interestingly, people with certain types of brain-damage who can’t form emotional intuitions can take hours to decide between two kinds of cereal! They’re caught trying to reason out whether they want Frosties or Coco Pops, and ultimately it’s not a rational decision (any rational person would choose muesli...).

In research, you’ll often start solving a problem by going with a hunch – it’s what sends you off in one particular avenue of enquiry over all the others you could go with. Einstein knew:
The workings of intuition transcend those of the intellect, and as is well known, innovation is often a triumph of intuition over logic. – Albert Einstein

How does intuition arise?

Obviously intuition doesn’t just arise out of nothing. The more experience you have, the better your intuition. Intuition arises out of a rich array of, what you might call, patterns of experience – memories, understanding, learning, observations, that all become integrated into your being. 
As Massimo Pigliucci explores in his book, "these days cognitive scientists think of intuition as a set of nonconscious cognitive and affective processes; the outcome of these processes is often difficult to articulate and is not based on deliberate thinking". In his famous book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman notes that "thoughts come to mind in one of two ways: either by “orderly computation,” which involves a series of stages of remembering rules and then applying them, or by perception, an evolutionary function that allows us to predict outcomes based on what we’re perceiving. It is the latter mode that precipitates intuition."

So let's say you're a company executive conducting interviews for a job. You've been at it all morning and none of the candidates have been any good. On paper, the next two candidates have everything and you're excited. The first one interviews very well, comes across confident, gives well thought-out answers, and has great body language. The second one also answers well, is inquisitive, quick, and well-presented.

So who do you choose? From a rational point-of-view, both are equally good, but you just get a feeling that the first one hasn't got what it takes. The feeling arises from your gut (what in Japanese they call the 'hara'), and informs the decision made by your brain.

Intuition in Zen

In Zen, however, we're moving to a place of intuition that's not based on memory, experience, or discrimination. By going beyond just knowing about things to actually perceiving things directly, we come to understand our true nature and in doing so literally become the whole Universe. And if we are the whole Universe, then there's no finding out – we know. We enter the flow of the Universe so fully that the 'knowing' is no longer ours, but an obvious, immediate response of the Universe.

As a teacher, this is a very valuable tool. The more sensitive you are, the more you can enter this flow, and the less our feelings are coloured by our own desires, wishes or judgements, then the more truthfully we can 'intuit' how another is feeling.
Years of training, repetition, beds experience into being,
And from the gut arises direct knowing, a felt sense.
So easily coloured by desires,
Train hard and make discernment clear.

I am part of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner, and we meet twice a week at our dojo in Camberwell, London. For more info see


I'd love to hear from you

If you've read any of the booked I mentioned, or have any other comments about intuition, I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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Thursday, 6 November 2014

Feeling sad, being depressed and how mindfulness helps

We all feel sad, lonely, or depressed at times. Feeling depressed now and then is normal, perhaps we feel a little lonely, we're grieving a loss, maybe lacking in sleep and exercise, or work is being particularly difficult. Depression is a continuum of feeling. For some of us, though, we end up edging towards the dark end, and that's when these feelings can become overwhelming, begin to involve physical symptoms, and last for longer periods of time.

Depression is when we feel sad and low for weeks or months on end. It's not just a passing blue mood. The exact symptoms of depression can be complex and vary widely between people, but it's often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, a lack of energy, and taking little or no pleasure in things that you once enjoyed. Sadly, anxiety and depression are the most common mental issues in Britain, and between 8-12% of the population experience depression in any year.

Many people come to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with them, but that isn't the case at all. Often it can be to do with lifestyle and external factors, like isolation, grief, or stress.

Happily, mindfulness, either practised in stillness or through yoga, has been shown to be incredibly effective in helping people deal with depression. In this interview with leading mindfulness and depression expert John Teasdale, he explains that depression is often fuelled by streams of negative thoughts going through the mind. This replaying of negative or unhelpful thoughts is termed "ruminating".

Even if you don't suffer from depression, we can all connect with what it means to ruminate, to dwell on negative events, or (more technically) to compulsively focus your attention on the symptoms of your distress. I found myself doing this the other day when I broke a dish in the kitchen...

Replaying of negative or unhelpful thoughts is termed "ruminating". In mindfulness, we gently redirect our attention away from these ruminations to what's happening in the present right now, thereby breaking the cycle.

In mindfulness, we practice bringing our awareness to what's happening or we’re doing right now, gently redirecting our attention away from these ruminations as and when they arise. As John Teasdale describes, by doing this we 'starve' the thought streams of the attention they need to keep going.

By bringing our attention back to the here and now each time we wander off into a thought stream, we learn to live more in the reality of the present moment and less in our heads, going over and over things that happened in the past, or worrying about the future.

But it's important as we practice, as we notice the "magnetic pull” of the negative thoughts and feelings that we apply an attitude of kindness, acceptance, and non-judgement. It only adds suffering to suffering to add criticism and judgements to what we find. It may be that, up to now, these negative thoughts formed a big part of who we perceive ourselves to be, so it's even more important to be gentle, patient, and forgiving of ourselves.

My next 8-week course in Mindfulness for Health & Wellbeing will start on Friday 16th January, and I'm now taking bookings. See my website for further details.


I'd love to hear from you

If you've found mindfulness or yoga to help with negative feelings or moods, I'd love to hear your experience. Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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For more on the clinical research into the effectiveness of mindfulness on depression see here