Happiness research: everything useful we’ve managed to gather so far

“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?

Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.

Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.

No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.

I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.

Lottery winners aren’t happier right now

Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.

They had three types of people:

  • those who recently won a lottery
  • those who recently lost the ability to move their legs
  • those who haven’t had any major life events recently

The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.

The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.

Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.

It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:

“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”

We spoke about happiness being affected by expectations as well as reality. This research shows that the brain is quite adaptable in terms of expectations.

The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.

So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.

This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.

Long-term happiness is on a thermostat

There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.

The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.

The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.

Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.

So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.

Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.


Money is somewhat related to happiness still

So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.

According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.

Think about – and value – time

There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.

I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.

Experience nature

Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.

I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.

Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.

Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.

My personal research shows that ice-cream causes happiness, even if you’re just after spending 40 minutes running in the rain

Body language

Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.

In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.

It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.

Good relationships

Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.


You’ve heard all about this before.


I won’t bore you.


Imagining being happy

I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.

The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.

Happiness begets happiness

Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.

Side effects of meditation: be warned!

In the professional medical world, Medscape is probably the most trusted up to date online resource. I am delighted to see that yesterday they published an article that highlights some of the more challenging and distressing aspects of meditation based on a recent scientific paper in PLOS One.

The reason I am so glad is that it means we’re moving to a different approach to meditation, one with more well-warranted rigour in how people talk about this intervention and away from the perception that this is something without side-effects.

Crux of the study:

  • the challenging aspects of Buddhist-derived meditation practices are well described in Buddhist tradition but are less so in Western scientific literature
  • the researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan.dangers of meditation, side effects of mindfulness
  • the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organised into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (motivation or will), sense of self, and social.
  • all meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences across the seven domains of experience. 
  • the duration of the effects people described in their interviews varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade, the investigators report.
  • some meditators reported their feelings, even the desirable ones, went too far or lasted too long, or they felt violated, exposed, or disoriented. 
  • meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats sometimes persisted and interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.
  • the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history, trauma history and the quality of supervision are important factors that influence the meditators experience, but not for everyone.factors that influence quality of meditation
  • the study highlights that the one size fits all approach isn’t ideal: “The good news is that there are many different programs out there and different practices available, and with a little bit of homework and informed shopping, someone could find a really good match for what they are after,” she said. “But I think often people just sign up for whatever is the most convenient or the best marketed, and it’s not always a good match for their constitution or their goals.”

Dissecting the side effects 

Here are the reported side effects with the percentage of people who reported them in brackets:

side effects of meditation cognitive, perceptual, affective, somatic, sense of self, social

It’s fascinating to note that nearly 50% noted a change in worldview. Open mind, new philosophy – fair enough. I would be on the fence about saying that I have a different world view because of meditation. It’s clearer, it’s calmer, it’s more adaptable, but it’s not really changed. Thus, it is possible that people who try to meditate are often looking for a new worldview or are quite suggestible.

Nearly the same number of people reported delusional, irrational and paranormal beliefs! I guess this is all based on Buddhism and there is a strong religious element to it. However, people were clearly made uncomfortable by it. I certainly experienced this: this is why I tread carefully when I go exploring meditation resources. A huge number of them are zealous, either for reasons of unquestioning devotion, or commercial ones. Snake oil requires faith.

Again, over 40% reported hallucinations. Just as a reminder – delusions and hallucinations are the key ingredients of psychosis and good reason to admit someone to a psychiatric ward. Obviously, these must not be quite as persistent as those associated with psychiatric disease, but if I had seen this table before starting mindfulness, I would have thought much more carefully. In this sample, 32% of people had a prior psychiatric history. This doesn’t explain how common all these DSM-sounding symptoms are among them.

Fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia came up for over 80% of people. I think is more a reflection on the sample than on meditation. Why to people meditate? Often they come upon it as a cure for anxiety. Indeed, in my experience, besides actually getting rid of the anxiogenic stimulus, meditation is a great method to deal with it. Depression was very common too at over 50%. Anhedonia and avolition – being unable to experience pleasure and not having any desire to do anything – are hallmarks of depression and were experienced by 18%. Personally, anxiety has always accompanied meditation in some way or another, but not in a bad way. It’s a little bit like saying that exercise cause shortness of breath. However, panic and paranoia are step to far.

Where there are mood changes, there are autonomic function changes and indeed they seem to have been affected too: level of energy, quality of sleep, appetite, etc. It’s unfortunate to note that many of those changes were negative with common reports of fatigue and pain.

As expected, 75% of meditators had their mind bent by Buddhist approaches to the self. We also know from MRI studies, that the anatomical self, seated in default mode network is modified by meditation, so this is expected.

Clarity, meta-cognition and increased cognitive processing – that’s our thinking clearly box ticked.

What does all of this mean?

To meditate or not? Meditate, but proceed with caution, a healthy balance of open-mindedness and scepticism – and preferably with supervision. In the words of Dr Walsh, it’s important to be challenged, but not overwhelmed.

As for me, I often take breaks from meditation. If it’s not happening, I don’t force myself too much. Thirty seconds of mindfulness is better than ten minutes of desperate striving effort and then feeling exposed, lonely and inadequate. To give it a Buddhist twist, we can think of the experience as if it is the weather. You may have decided that you are jogging today, but if it is stormy outside, it’s better to be a bit more adaptable, stay at home and practice your planks. Same here.


Lindahl JR, Fisher NE, Cooper DJ, Rosen RK, Britton WB (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

P.S. Have a look at this Christian blogger explaining the emotional conflict she experienced when exploring yoga. It’s not important to be religious to understand that imposing one system of beliefs over another, whatever it may be, can be highly distressing.

negative effects of meditation
Just a picture of Dublin in the sun


A downward facing doc explains the brain wiring behind mindfulness

Do you ever just wish you could get someone who knows virtually everything that’s known about the brain and quiz them about mindfulness? Well, I do – a lot – and I just got my wish!

It is my pleasure to present this interview with John McBurney MD. A practicing physician with of over 35 years’ experience, he is board certified in Neurology, Clinical Neurophysiology and Sleep Medicine. He holds an Integrative Medicine Fellowship… The list of his professional accomplishments is obscenely impressive, so I will jump to the bit we all really want to know about: Dr. McBurney maintains a daily mindfulness meditation practice as well as home yoga practice, hence the downward facing bit. Needless to say, I was beyond curious to find out his understanding of how mindfulness affects the brain.

For those of us who are put off by the mystical connotations that surround mindfulness, could you take us back to a schematic, reflex-arc type view of the process and describe the neurological response to mindfulness practice?

I think that the issue of mindfulness intersect with the leading-edge of neuroscience. It is supported by extraordinarily robust data. This area of study has been termed contemplative neuroscience. The Mind and Life Institute which is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the neuroscience community and the Dalai Llama  is an important sponsor of research and education on contemplative neuroscience. It ultimately comes down to the concept of neuroplasticity.

Donald O. Hebb coined the doctrine: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. It was an extension of the work done by an American philosopher and psychologist William James in the early XX century. You can practice “bad” things or “good” things – and neuronal ensembles form accordingly. In mindfulness, we are essentially practicing good things.

There is a resting ensemble of neural networks called the default mode network that was discovered using fMRI studies where individuals were asked to lay in the scanner and think of nothing in particular. This kind of mindless mental activity is accompanied by a lot of  self-referential ruminative recursive thoughts that are subserved by brain regions that lie along the midline, especially the prominent in medial parietal lobe. Those types of internal mental states that are remarkably robust and persist under deep general anaesthesia and even in a coma and are probably the neural basis for the self.

The more outward facing parts of the brain – like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – are more responsible for an outward orientation to the world have top down executive influence on the activation of those networks.

In mindfulness, in cultivating awareness of the breath and voluntary moment by moment awareness of the brain, we are training the brain – just like when you are learning to play the violin or any other complex skill – we are training to break out of those self-referential ruminative recursive mental states and to achieve an orientation toward the outer world and in the present moment rather than anticipating the future or reliving the past.

contemplative neuroscience mechanisms behind mindfulness

There is evidence that mindfulness leads to weaker connections in default mode network. Could we be losing something by focusing more on the external realities rather than the self?

Not everyone has a well formed default mode network. People who have been subjected to severe developmental trauma, neglect and lack secure attachment do not have robust default mode networks. Mindfulness can lower defence mechanisms that are there with good reason. However, most people with a well formed default mode network and secure attachment. We are “taming an elephant”: there is very little chance that we will significantly weaken the elephant.

Occasionally, we do hear of adverse experiences arising from mindfulness. With any robust intervention there are always potential risks.

How long does it take for mindfulness to have a manifest effect?

The results can happen almost immediately, however, they are also cumulative. We are still figuring out what the minimum effective dose it. This reminds me of the discussion of the minimum effective dose of aspirin in stroke and heart attack prevention. When I was a resident, we were advising patients to take two 325 mg tablets twice a day. Over time this dropped to 81 mg of aspirin a day. There is speculation that the required dose may even be lower.

There is a study that defines a new marker. The original fMRI/EEG studies were done by Richard Davidson in Tibetan Buddhist meditators with over 10,000 hours of meditation. This number is somewhat arbitrary and refers to this idea that is the number of hours to become an expert at anything. However, the question arises: what is the relevance of the changes in functional connectivity in the brain in someone who has devoted such a monumental amount of time to meditation to the likes of you and me?

A very neat study was published by David Cresswell in Biological Psychiatry in 2016. They invited individuals with high level of stress, unemployed adults, to a weekend retreat experience. They were randomised to in 2 groups:

  • a 3 day mindfulness retreat (the treatment group) and
  • a 3 day relaxation retreat where they read stories, told jokes and had a good time (the control group).

The study was conducted in one centre over one weekend, so it is well controlled. Initially, both groups rated the interventions as being equally helpful to them, subjectively.

The researchers looked at the functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus. They also looked at Interleukin-6, a known marker of inflammation, that has been previously shown to be elevated in stressed out unemployed people.

Even with this brief weekend mindfulness intervention, the treatment group developed increased connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cyngulate gyrus. There was a neuroplastic response even after a 3 day mindfulness retreat. This was also associated with a decrease in the marker IL-6. Even after 4 months, IL-6 was decreased in the treatment group, but in the control group, IL-6 levels continued to rise, independent of whether they managed to get a job or not.

This is also relevant to doctors, who are at high risk for burnout. Because of their work commitments, the mindfulness retreat for doctors was condensed from the standard 8 week model developed by John Kabat-Zinn to a weekend intervention. The question was: does the weekend model work? The research at the University of Wisconsin where this was developed was reassuring: the residents are less stressed out, more effective and have a greater level of satisfaction.

We still don’t know the absolute minimum dose, but it seems that a weekend of mindfulness can be life-changing for the brain.

Another paper published in PLOS ONE from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Harvard looked at the practices such as meditation, prayer, mindful yoga, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong, etc, i.e. ones that elicit a relaxation response (as opposed the stress response).

This study showed that in both novice and experienced practitioners of relaxation response modalities, there were changes in the epigenetic transcription of the genome. There was upregulation of pathways associated with mitochondrial integrity, downregulation of inflammatory pathways, improved insulin-related metabolism and improved nitric oxide signalling.

Long term potentiation, the standard mechanism for memory formation, strengthens existing neural connections. This happens immediately, as you read this. Over time, long term potentiation leads to formation of new connections,through synaptogenesis, dendritic arborisation and neurogenesis i.e. brain structure changes. In turn, this affects the most neuroplastic neurons located in the hippocampus.

mindfulness minimum effective dose response neurology

In reference to this fascinating recent study of the fight or flight response, it seems plausible that breathing regulates our stress levels much more than conscious thought. Could you explain the significance of this in terms of mindfulness?

The ancients believed that emotions reside in the body. This comes up a lot in serious yoga classes.

This highly innovative study shows that the control of the adrenal medulla – the main effector of the stress response – is not from the conscious ruminating thinking centres, but by the motor and sensory cortex.

This explains why breathing, as well as yoga and Tai-Chi, are an important part of meditative practice. In my experience, these kind of interventions do affect the stress response in a beneficial way.

Mindful exercise exists in many form. For example, weightlifters need to be very mindful to maintain perfect form. Cycling is another example: it is vital to concentrate on every pedal stroke and maintain an even cadence. Once you start to day dream, you notice straight away that your output is way worse. This overlaps with the concept of flow. It is about getting in the zone. There is a very inspiring TED talk by Judson Brewer MD, Ph.D. that explains the physiology behind flow and how it is augmented by mindfulness. Mindfulness is work, and it does require discipline. There is a paradox here of non-striving and non-doing while also being disciplined.

You are a sleep medicine expert. Could you comment on the relationship between mindfulness and sleep?

Insomnia is a complex problem with many causes. However, for most people with idiopathic insomnia, the cause it these self-referential recursive ruminations. They aren’t able to “turn their brain off”. Through mindfulness practice, they are generally able to tame the default mode network that’s responsible for ruminating and daydreaming. A simple strategy would be to lie in bed and concentrate on the breath. This would ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

mindfulness default mode network neurological basis for the self

Mindfulness is a mainstay treatment for many mental health disorders. What about use of mindfulness in the treatment for organic pathology of the brain usually treated by neurologists?

There is some preliminary data that mindfulness training has a beneficial effect of seizure frequency in patients with epilepsy. It is a medical condition associated with tremendous anxiety and stress, so mindfulness could have a significant benefit in more than one way. It may even have a benefit it terms of remembering to take medication on time, etc.

Some robust studies show that the frequency of relapse in multiple sclerosis decreases with mindfulness intervention. The effect from mindfulness is similar in magnitude to the effect from beta-interferon. There is also some research showing that the frequency of inflamed Gadolinuim-enhancing lesions decreases with mindfulness.

John Kabat-Zinn used to take the patients who suffered from chronic pain or had diseases for which we had no answer, and those patients got better. Even beyond neurology, there is some evidence that mindfulness can have benefits in psoriasis. We are probably only at the bottom of this mountain.

Dr McBurney is a board member of Mindful Medicine. It is a non-profit organisation that focuses on teaching mindfulness to health professionals using retreats. He is founder of McBurney Integrative Neurology and is a clinical assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Dr. McBurney is a native of Alabama and a graduate of Auburn University and the Emory University School of Medicine. He completed his neurology residency and EEG/Epilepsy fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In 2014 he completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

Dr McBurney has given me so much to think about. I will follow up with part 2 of our discussion that focuses more on the philosophical and life experience aspects of mindfulness once I wrap my head around it.

neurological path mindfulness default mode network adrenal medulla

12 tips for thinking more clearly and making better decisions

This is one of those articles that I wrote for myself: for those mornings when the only things you want to do are browse Facebook and watch BBC1, or at least you think you do. Then you remember that you’ve about 20 problems to solve that day and get that feeling in your stomach like both your adrenal glands just emptied their contents into your bloodstream.

1. Enter into deep work mode

Wall off some distraction free time. The phone goes on airplane mode. Close all the tabs you don’t need.

Let’s be honest, if you are reading this, you are probably dealing with quite challenging and cognitively demanding.

These things require extreme levels of focus and uninterrupted immersion for an effective resolution.

As such, the goal is to enter into a state of flow. It is a paradoxical mix of mindfulness and being very goal-directed at the same time. Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

how to think more clearly deep work

2. Do a brain dump

If you are at a loss, the thoughts are messy and you don’t know where to start, an unstructured flow of consciousness style “brain dump” is required. It straightens out circular ruminations and allows the writer to identify what is really wrong. There is something liberating about getting things down on paper. You can always throw it out. Nobody has to see it. It is only for you to see.

In the best possible way, it lowers expectations and gives you the licence to be really honest.

I am putting my money where my mouth is with this tip: a lot of this blog is really me writing for me. I often reread what I have written because it answers questions that bother me (and catch a few typos on the way!) It turns out that the same questions bother a lot of people, hence our little community.

3. Draw a spider diagram

Difficulties in solving problems often arise from the fact that problems are interdependent, they are not isolated. Drawing a spider diagram (a mind map) is a very good way to figure out what’s going on.

how to think clearly

As a one-time medical student in the rather fundamentalist anatomy department, I had to learn everything about the brachial plexus (pictured above).  The structure was just the starting point of what I needed to know. The the origins at the spine and the muscle activation were at least as complex on top of that. I drew a spider diagram.

When my father was splitting from his second wife and I arrived home to find my stuff packed away in boxes by the latter, well, I also drew a spider diagram. Because I needed to understand what’s going, what everyone is thinking and where to move (not just literally) from there.

This approach to thinking is resonant with the structure of our brain with its nodes and links.

4. Make a to-solve list (not a to do list) and tell a story

Lists are great, says the ENTP. Even checklists. They really are great because they give us a sense of control. I have studied motivation in great detail as I deal with students doing their final school exams to get into college. They keep asking me about motivation. These 17 year olds have the most fine-tuned BS filter on the planet, so I really need to try hard. I finally found a solution for them, which is: a sense of control.

Feeling in control is the key to being motivated.

There is a mountain of evidence about this. However, a small study done on nursing home residents really illustrates it best. Some people who go into nursing homes don’t do well and fade away in less than 6 months. Others seem more alive than any of us. What’s the difference? Well, as one of the lively 85 year olds explained: “I trade my chocolate desert for a piece of fruit from one of the other guys at every dinner”. Why? Doesn’t he like chocolate? The answer lies in the fact that now he has control: in an environment where you are told when to sleep, where to sit and when to take your tablets, it is crucial to eke out a sense of control by being in charge of something small like that.

How do you structure a list? There are two great ways:

  • list of problems to solve
  • a chronological story-plan

A plain to-do list just makes you feel like you are doing chores. A list of problems to solve automatically gives both purpose and perspective.

As for the story plan, there is something about our brains that makes us dead set of prioritising stories over any other kind of information. It is therefore important to tap into that. A fair portion of NLP is snake oil, but their emphasis on story-telling is right on. Things seem far less daunting if you write them down on a piece of paper as bite-sized steps. For example, recently, I have been moving between countries. It’s an overwhelming amount of paper work, a complex process with many catch-22’s to machete through like you need a lease to set up utility bills, and a utility bill to set up a bank account and a bank account to set up a lease. By writing it down, it is easier to see solutions and the impossible soon becomes possible. There are 2 reasons for this:

  • we find it difficult to store long sequences in our heads, so a written down prop is key (this is mentioned a lot in Thinking Fast and Slow and GTD)
  • by going through the steps required to build out the story, we think of the entire contexts – the things we would have otherwise forgotten about

think more clearly write things down

5. Snap out of being on rails by getting perspective

It’s precisely when we are “on rails”, when we have some kind of contagious emotion unfolding in us, when we want to “just get this done”, that we need to pause and switch to something else. Ideally, we would go straight to taking 10 minutes to be mindful, but for most of us mortals that just seems impossible. Instead, it is a good idea to think of something completely different.

Let’s say there is an enraging email that you can’t wait to respond to so as to make it go away. Mindfulness? Now? No!…

To ease yourself out of the hijacked state, think of something completely different, preferably something even more challenging, that makes the original issue seem like nonsense.

Recently, I was dealing with an unruly real estate agent who just wouldn’t listen and kept sending me emails with unreasonable demands. I thought to myself: there are lots of people who don’t have this problem – because they simply cannot afford to live on their own. It’s not even that it made me feel grateful and empowered, that’s not the point, but it gave me perspective and an ability to deal with the tyrant in a way that accomplished my aims rather than just telling them “for the n-time, will you…”

6. Take 10 minutes to meditate

It is when we are busiest that we need to take the time to be mindful.

I recall Ray Dalio talking about it. Yes, the guy is filthy rich, but I can just imagine him losing a billion bucks (it happens in that business) and going into his office to do his TM routine. What else would he do? Shout at the researchers for not seeing into the future? The traders for not getting out of the trade earlier? There is no point. It is much better to get centred again and then do what is actually going to help the situation.

7. Have a cup of matcha, or any good green tea

I’ve always loved green tea. However, after my trip to Japan, it became clear to me that there is something quite magical about certain varieties of green tea. I am a big fan of Ippodo and specifically Ummon-no-mukashi.

Like salbutamol opens the bronchioles, this stuff clears the head.

For those who aren’t keen on concentrated green goo, a cup of Hosen Sencha will do wonders too. The way the Japanese drink tea is more or less an exercise in mindfulness, so I would make use of that aspect too. It is part of my morning routine. It is especially something that people who can’t drink coffee should consider. Unlike coffee, matcha doesn’t give you a jolt of energy and then a come down, but a steady state of clarity.

thinking more clearly mindfulness meditation

8. Listen to some upbeat classical music you’re not very familiar with

Listening to something you know well calls in all kinds of associations and other hardcoded Pavlovian nonsense we don’t always need.

Thankfully, there is so much classical music out there, we’re unlikely to ever be stuck. Some may prefer house music. Sometimes house music has lyrics or distracting sexy sounds. My personal recommendation would be listening to Béla Bartók or anything played by Lang Lang, a virtuoso pianist. You may also like some great apps for mindful focus.

9. Jump in for a very short burst of exercise

Even two minutes of HIIT or a quick few sets of sun salutations are likely to be quite refreshing. In an upcoming post, a neurologist will explain that

our adrenal medulla – the seat of the flight-or-fight response, the ultimate thinking and creativity saboteur, is controlled more by the motor cortex than it is by the conscious decision making centres.

10. Don’t even attempt it if you are tired

Sleep is massively undervalued in today’s society. Sleep deprivation has incredibly significant effects. Not that much sleep deprivation at all will give you the insulin resistance of a type 2 diabetic.

All the most intelligent people I know sleep at least 8 hours a night and don’t even attempt anything cognitively taxing unless they are refreshed.

This is obviously challenging for people with young children, for example, but if you can work to put yourself in a situation where you can be refreshed, it will really pay off.

11. Have a shower

Special troops are told to prioritise staying clean even in extreme circumstances. It raises morale. There is something life-affirming about water and cleanliness. The chemical changes, such as an oxytocin increase, is likely to have a positive effect on one’s emotional state.

12. Talk to a human being

We are social animals: that is just how we’ve evolved. Not all problems need to be attacked by the entire tribe, but calling in help is required sometimes because other will help us navigate through our weaknesses, see new perspective and just feel like a human being again.

think clearer mindfulness meditation deep work

Why Christians practicing mindfulness should learn about the Gospel of Thomas

On my quest to figure out the philosophy behind mindfulness, something that I came to be interested in through a neuroscience/psychiatry angle, I came across an intriguing presence here among the philosophically inclined bloggers: Nguyên Giác. It is my pleasure to share his views on some difficult questions that have been on my mind. As this topic concerns religion, some readers may get sensitive. Please remember Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Enter Steven.. (I try to stay silent for most of it, but alas…)

Who am I?

I’m Steven J Barker Jr., or Nguyên Giác. I share my insights at gnotruth.com. I’m always reluctant to put forward any view, but for the sake of the people like me who benefit from the formless teachings, I type words and share them on the internet. For the sake of people like me, who have been burned by modern Christian dogma, I share alternative early Christian views. For the sake of the little ones arising in this Saha Realm, I gently shine my light so that others may see.

Not forcing any particular view, but smashing all views with Nietzsche’s hammer – I am that kind of philosopher. The anti-philosopher.

do christians practice mindfulness
Martina butting in for a sec: this is one of the key Buddhist temples in Japan. It has to be one of the most serene places I’ve ever been. Over and out.

A journey through religion towards mindfulness

I was introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing when I was 12. My mom saw that I was struggling with big questions. She bought me a book: “Living Buddha, Living Christ”. I had already become quite absorbed in Christian thinking, but it was starting to bring huge conflict as my intellect was developing and Christian theology makes n0 sense. It is anti-intellectual.

mindfulness in christianity and buddhism

Thich Nhat Hanh introduced me to a new way of thinking about the teaching of Jesus. He helped me to understand my own spiritual tradition. Understanding my own spiritual tradition, I also began to understand the words of Buddha. As a child, I began to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life.

I began to understand that mundane daily life is the chess board – it’s the actual playing field – the meditation cushion is nice, but, eventually, we have to actually stand up and face the real world.

mindfulness gnosis gospel of thomas

I am Buddhist. I am engaged in the practice of continual mindfulness. In Christian terms, this practice can be called ‘walking in the Kingdom as a Child’. Before I start rambling, I want to share this beautiful description of Mindfulness by Sadasiva Saccidananda (my Dhamma friend and internet ally):

Simple practice of mindfulness, awareness of anything external or internal passing before your mind-camera, culminates in awareness of awareness itself. Naturally you shall rest in the common factor of all observations: awareness itself and seeing all as awareness, as mind in mind.

Seeing all things as equal data, even your “ego” as another observable actor among others, leads to equality & equanimity.

A mindful Jesus and a non-religious Buddha

A Buddhist is one who works toward Buddho. Buddho is unfiltered, explosive and serene awareness. Awakeness. Enlightenment. A Buddhist is one who practices mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to equate mindfulness with the Holy Spirit.

mindfulness in christianity gnosis

In another of my spiritual traditions. the teachings of Yeshua, or “Christianity”, this energy or experience is called Gnosis. Perfect Gnosis is Buddho. This might sound far flung, wild and/or weird, but the path to PrajnaParamita (perfection of wisdom) is as simple as following one’s own breath.

Gospel of Thomas, 3:

Yeshua said,

If your leaders tell you, “Look, the kingdom is in heaven,”

then the birds of heaven will precede you.

If they say to you, “It’s in the sea,”

then the fish will precede you.

But the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.

When you know yourselves,  then you will be known,

and you will understand that you are children of the living One.

But if you do not know yourselves,

then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.

The above quote, from a text which is as “authentic” as any in the New Testament, has Jesus telling us to ignore televangelists with their promises of heaven.

Instead, we find him encouraging us to practice mindfulness. The simple process of Gnoing ourselves is healing: this is mindfulness.

jesus mindfulness gnosis gospel of thomas

And, this rebellious Jesus, where did he come from!? Well, obviously, the early Church wouldn’t have survived into the present if it had openly rebuked its own leaders and encouraged people on their own spiritual journey instead of conforming to its dogma. The Gospel of Thomas’ position was thoroughly attacked by the author of the Gospel of John (check out the work of Elaine Pagels). Sadly, today’s Church is founded on the belief that Jesus is totally unique – the only son of God – this is John’s position.

John abhorred Thomas’ message that we are all children and the kingdom is already here.

Gospel of Thomas, 108:

Yeshua said,

Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me.

I myself shall become that person,

and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.

As you can tell, I’m not very stoked on John’s message. And, I am very stoked on Thomas’ (Thomas means “twin”). I understand the message.

I could try to outline the process; I could try to describe the mind’s journey from ignorance and suffering to awareness, understanding and love – but this has already been done before me. There are many, many maps already – the problem is not that there aren’t enough maps, the problem is that the territory is real, alive, and changing. Old maps quickly become useless.

jesus mindfulness buddha

The ancient “map-makers” of the territory of the mind are not at fault for our foolish clinging to dead doctrine. The fault is ours.

With our fear, greed, laziness, addiction and delusion we have developed all sorts of wrong views that propagate through the mind system and create the painful errors of war, famine, disease, etc.

Gospel of Thomas, 52:

His [Yeshua’s] students said to him,

Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel

and they all spoke of you.

He said to them,

You have disregarded the living one among you

and have spoken of the dead.

There must be a way forward that honors the past, but also releases its grip upon our minds. We would all do well to learn to ‘philosophise with hammers’.

History of religion: a case of oversimplifying the (very) complex

History is a nice and tidy story.

History is, necessarily, always an oversimplification.

We don’t have the capacity to know this present moment in totality, so how can we hope to know the twists and turns of ephemeral ideas through rough and bloody history? I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive for historical accuracy. I’m saying we should always be skeptical of this or that narrative.

The Christian church’s “history” has been revealed to be a fabrication.

The idea that Early Christianity was one cohesive movement has been thoroughly discredited and replaced with the understanding that it was a very diverse movement with many ideas about who Jesus was and why he was important.

history of mindfulness in Buddhism and Christianity

The same must be true about Buddhism. The West has a nice story about it’s development, but that story is just a nice summary that is most likely missing some huge pieces. I read a passage from the Encyclopedia of Religion (article by Frank Reynolds and Charles Hallisey) the other day. It boggled my mind for a bit:

The concept of Buddhism was created about three centuries ago to identify what we now know to be a pan-Asian religious tradition that dates back some twenty-five hundred years. Although the concept, rather recent and European in origin, had gradually, if sometimes begrudgingly, received global acceptance, there is still no consensus about its definition.”

Buddhism” is, in many ways, a European idea! Interacting with the actual cultures that practice Buddhism, you quickly find that their practice is not what you expected- it is not what you read about. Sure, there are lots of familiar things that we Europeans have accurately portrayed, but the pulsing reality of Buddhism in practice is always different from any explanation of it. It is the practice that goes beyond, beyond all thought, beyond all concepts – this practice simply cannot be made into a system. All such systems are merely hindrances.

In short, Buddhism’s history is complex and frequently oversimplified.

In the West, we have this idea of a singular Buddhism that puts forth one coherent message. However, in truth, there are many Buddhist schools and traditions with various stances on all sorts of weird issues.

This is why I have to stand back and redefine my Buddhism. I chase Buddho. I chase Gnosis. Wherever it arises, with whatever name, wearing whatever clothing – I chase Buddha. The big Buddha. The ineffable Buddha.

At the same time, I don’t want to disrespect the religious traditions that have nurtured my growth. I’ve benefited from the support of a Vietnamese Buddhist community. Taking the five precepts, becoming an “official lay Buddhist”, I received the name Nguyên Giác”. It means something like, “awakened source” or “source of awakening”. If you like labels, you could say that I practice a mixture of Zen, Pureland and Yeshua Buddhism.

I was not raised in a “religious household”, but for whatever reason, even in my earliest memories, “religious” issues have always been extremely important to me. I did attend a Lutheran Church when I was young. I’ve read the Bible many times over and have dug through all sorts of academic papers that analyse the larger cultural context of early Christianity. I’ve spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the texts that arose over the course of Christianity’s evolution. It has been fun and challenging. As a child of the West, the figure of Jesus has played a huge role in my development. Jesus has been with me – as both irritant and as comforter.

mindfulness early christianity

Gospel of Thomas:

Yeshua said,

Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.

When you find, you will be troubled.

When you are troubled,

you will marvel and rule over all.

Marvelling is a wonderful practice. I think marvelling could be classified as a type of mindfulness meditation.

There have been experiences that have revealed ‘deep’ things that are difficult to put into words. Putting words to these types of experiences, if not done with extreme care, can be harmful to oneself and to those who hear. So, instead of pointing at the goal of supreme Gnosis, I try to point at the path of mindfulness. It is something everyone can see and touch. The biggest truths cannot be conveyed with words: mind-to-mind is the only way. Set on the path of marvelling, an individual will find their own way by following beacons of joy.

Best guided meditations for beginners

I don’t really use guided meditations anymore. They get  little “interrupty” after a while. I am at that point now that in any troubling situation, my mind goes straight to mindfulness. Tired? Mindfulness. Don’t know what to do next? Mindfulness. Want to check email for the 25th time today? Mindfulness. I don’t mean a full on session with all the (unnecessary) bells and whistles – I mean taking a few minutes to ground myself in the situation through conventional mindfulness techniques – breathing is a good one for me. I’m not giving up this habit any time soon.

best app for mindfulness review

Having said all this, I would consider guided meditations the best starting point to get into mindfulness. Most of these are free or have a free trial. Here are some recommendations:

1. Relaxing visualisation

This relaxing visualisation to bring stress levels down is narrated by a very talented practicing clinical psychologist from Trinity College Dublin Angie McLoughlin. It’s free and a good place to start. It get you to visualise a place you like. Angie speaks in a, I don’t know, Scottish or maybe Northern Irish accent? Showing my ignorance here. She trained in San Francisco, and so

I am primed to always think of the San Fran Pacific coast and sitting under a pine tree in Presidio when I listed to it.

This grounding exercise for anxiety is also narrated by Angie. More suitable for acute stress.

2. Headspace

Headspace: there’s a free trial that then leads into a subscription at about 70 euro per year. This app sends push notifications to practice for 10 minutes a day. It has some animations. The meditations are a little bit too preachy for my liking: it is almost like the narrator is trying to sell the concept. “You will feel the benefit of x, y, z…”

I found the animation about taming one’s mind like a horse by tying it to a stake using a long rope and shortening the rope every day disturbing.

I think their analogies are a little too crude, but to be fair they probably have been able to reach more people that way. It’s narrated by a man in a British accent.

3. Calm

Calm. Calm and Headspace are direct competitors. Calm is marginally cheaper. The difference is that Calm has no animations and is more psychology-driven. For example,

the narrator would deconstruct the beliefs that often underlie stress and anxiety – or goes through the cognitive processes behind judgement and self-esteem.

It’s more intelligent and less preachy than Headspace. It’s narrated by a woman in an American accent. The exact intonations are a little bit overemphatic at times – but that’s probably just an American thing. There are also a ton of “soothing ocean sound” type settings that can be nice on occasion as a kind of white noise that somehow automatically leads to more present moment awareness. I found it easier to stick with Calm than Headspace because it goes into the reasons behind feelings, allowing for relevant questions and insights.

4. Tara Brach

Tara Brach is a bit of a meditation-guru. She brings the whole Buddhist vibe in – if you’re into that. I once heard her story – it is very interesting. A few dodgy things happened to her at the hands of yogis, but she didn’t run away.  For me, Buddhism is endlessly interesting but not something I want to commit to. If you are different, Tara will be great for you.

She has a very gentle manner and doesn’t take herself very seriously, which is so endearing.

I’ve never met her, but I imagine that if I did, it would completely change how I felt for the day. She kind of radiates this feminine loving-kindness-acceptance vibe. She speaks in a very non-grating American accent.


UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center meditations are free and complete.

UCLA probably cover the lion’s share of what Calm and Headspace cover – but they are less personable.

They are more clinical, kind of like the safety instruction on a plane. They are narrated by a woman in an American accent. They are also available in Spanish.

There a lot of meditations on YouTube. I’ve bumped into a few too many dodgy ones, so I would recommend sticking with the tried and tested above.

6. Simple Habit

Simple Habit is much like Calm. However, it is 5 minutes every time. There are a variety of speakers and styles, so it’s a great starting point.

For the sake of balance, I include this FT article that reflects the limitations of mindfulness apps. Apps and internet resources are a great starting point. However, really, it’s not just a ritual. It’s about being in the moment in our daily lives.

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