Photos from Mindful Safari 2015

We’re just back from Mindful Safari in Africa, and I’ve had a lot of messages from people wanting to know how it went.  I’m very pleased to be sharing a few photo highlights here.

This year’s Mindful Safari was held at Clive’s Camp and Xidulu – private game lodges on the Makalali Reserve, which borders Kruger National Park in South Africa. These family-owned lodges are not available to the public, and it was our very great privilege to enjoy staying in such exclusive and luxurious surroundings in the middle of the bush.

bedroom at CC2

bedroom at CC3

smart bedroom CC

Each morning we’d wake just before dawn and make our way to the beautiful thatched rondavel – round hut – at Clive’s Camp, which served as our place of meditation.  There I would give a few instructions, before we meditated, ending as the sun’s rays stretched across the veld, warming our faces.

There is something very special about meditating in an open setting in Africa, with the dawn chorus of birds in the trees around us, and the primordial sounds of the bush – the whooping of a hyena, or barking of a kudu.

gompa ready for sitting

david leading group in rondavel

group meditating in rondavel

Morning meditation was followed by coffee and cereal, fruit or rusks – a South African standard, and my own favourite start to the day!  Then, with our minds clear and calm, we’d climb into the Land Rovers and set out on our morning game drive.

chris and coffee

setting off on game drive

landrovers setting off

Because Makalali is a wildlife conservancy, not a zoo, you have to seek out the animals, and from one day to the next you never know what you’ll find.  Keeping a close eye on the bush is a wonderfully mindful experience – there’s little chance you’ll be thinking about your tax return when there’s the prospect of discovering a lion round the next turn of the dust track!  During the course of our 6 days we saw all a wonderful variety of game – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, impala, kudu, jackal, hyena, giraffe, hippo, eagles, vultures, starlings, African Hoopoe … the list goes on!


giraffe - koala picelie on MS 2015

lions feeding on kuduhippo yawning - koala picbuffalo - koala pic

Some mornings we’d stop for a coffee break in a clearing, such as a dry river bed.  Being the middle of winter in the lowveld, there has been no rain for months.  This makes animals easier to see in the bush – and more likely to visit the watering holes at both Clive’s Camp and Xidulu.

coffee in bush 2

Even on quieter game mornings, the extensive knowledge shared by our hosts Claudia and Robin, and our game guides, Patson and Frank, was truly fascinating.  We learned so much about the interdependence of all the different species of animals as well as the precarious balance of nature. We also came to understand more about current trends in conservation.

One morning, Patson demonstrated how burning elephant dung is a traditional remedy for headaches. The variety of digested plants and roots eaten by elephants produces a smoke which you then inhale. Two inhalations to get rid of a headache.  Four to get high!  There were plenty of jokes about getting into the import-export business with elephant dung.  Personally, I don’t see it catching on!


patson smoking elephant poo

After the morning game drive, we’d return around 11 am for a hearty brunch prepared by the lovely Lucy, who catered wonderfully for all dietary requirements.

lucybrunch spread

This was followed by time to relax.  Some people enjoyed simply pushing back and watching hippo at the watering hole.  Inspiring quotes and suggested contemplation exercises were provided for everyone to spend some reflective time in the tranquil comfort of their own rooms.  It was also nice to be able to freshen up in the outdoor showers, which are attached to each chalet.  One afternoon under the shower, I watched Dudley the Wildebeest ambling by, followed by a herd of zebra.  What a unique experience!

chilling at xidulushower at CC


quotes and contemplationschilling at Clive's camp

Afternoon meditation sessions were from 3 pm – 4 pm.  During the course of the 6 days people were introduced to a variety of different meditation types.  The powerful benefits of the practices were outlined.  And I put special emphasis on mind watching mind meditation, and also on compassion-based exercises (tong len).  Mindful Safaris are intended for meditators of all kinds – lapsed, newcomers and seasoned practitioners.  As Heraclitus once said ‘No man ever crosses the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’  So too with meditation.  There is always something different to observe and experience.

Learning how to cultivate this mind of awareness carries through beautifully when we get onto the back of Land Rovers and head into the bush.  We can observe everything with fresh eyes.  And not only eyes.  We learned how animals depend on sound and scent sometimes more than sight: by the time you see a predator, it may well be too late.  During the course of our time, we heard leopards cracking the bones of a waterbuck, elephants pushing down a tree and giraffes crunching through the branches of a thorn tree.  We learned to recognise the smell of potato plants blossoming at sunset and the sweet, clean smell of dawn each new day.  A wonderfully holistic, mindful experience.

Evening game drives were really special.  On most of them we were accompanied by our Mindful Safari mascot ‘Snack’ – the little dog adopted by our wonderful safari hosts Claudia and Robin.  Snack took a keen interest in all the animals – what a life of adventure she leads!

patson and snack in landroversnack in back of Landroversunset drive

sunset - watching elie zebra and giraffe


Around 7 pm we would return to Xidulu to relax by the campfire, enjoy a glass of wine, and wait for another gourmet meal to be served.

campire at Xidulu3campfire at Xidulu 2

Some testimonials

It was fairly early to bed and early to rise on Mindful Safari.  But what a truly memorable experience. Here’s some of the feedback from the Mindful Safari-goers:

“I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, but have been blown away with every new day.  I think the whole trip was run well and my only regret is that I wish we had longer to enjoy this place more.”

“You have provided me with the most memorable experience possible on planet earth!  I appreciate the high level of professionalism, extensive knowledge and amazing kindness that all of you guys have shown us in our short and fantastic stay.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you!”

“In summary, location, accommodation, hospitality and sumptuous food, the entire experience, I give it 10 out of 10.  When can I come back again?!”

“I have learned and gained insight into me as a person, body, mind and spirit.  The lessons David led provided me with wisdom and insight.  I feel very much more insightful into happiness and compassion.”

“How could you not be mindful of the African bush and all it offers.  Wild animals, birds, peace and tranquility.  Married together with David Michie’s insightful guidance and wisdom, this was an amazing trip of a lifetime!”

Thank you!

Mindful Safari only happened thanks to a lot of hard work from a co-ordinated team of people.  In particular I’d like to thank Barbara Turner, for managing all the logistics with such amazing efficiency. Claudia and Robin for being such wise, capable, friendly and professional hosts.  Patson and Frank for their tracking skills honed over decades.  Lucy for all the delicious food.  Every member of staff at both Clive’s Camp and Xidulu.  The owners of Clive’s Camp and Xidulu for allowing us the very great privilege of staying in their family homes.  And all the guests who came on this inaugural Mindful Safari.  It was one of the happiest and most memorable weeks of my life – and it could never have happened without you.  My heartfelt gratitude to you for your trust and support.

I gratefully acknowledge Claudia Schnell and my wife, Janmarie, for some of the photographs used in this blog.

For anyone interested in taking part in Mindful Safari 2016, please check out dates, prices and who to contact at:

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Discover Africa.  Come home to yourself – on Mindful Safari!

david with Patson and FrankDavid with Claudia Robin and Barb

(Pictures above: Patson, David and Frank; Claudia, David, Robin and Barbara)




A problem with: “I think therefore I am.”

contemplative cat

René Descartes, sometimes referred to as the father of modern philosophy, summed up his famous views on how mind and body are separate in his book Discourse on the Method, published in 1637.  In it, he explained the reasoning behind his seminal dictum ‘I think therefore I am’:

From this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is solely to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist. Accordingly this ‘I’—that is, the soul by which I am what I am—is entirely distinct from the body, and indeed is easier to know than the body, and would not fail to be whatever it is, even if the body did not exist.”

If Descartes had the benefit of attending a weekly yoga class, it’s highly unlikely he would ever have come up with a line such as ‘I think therefore I am.’ As practitioners of mindfulness, yoga students come to understand asmita, the mechanism that gives rise to the feeling of an ‘I’.

When we reflect on our inner monologue, it turns out that the vast majority of our thoughts are about ourselves. ‘Me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I’ are the focus of our ongoing narrative each day. So automatic is this process that, without even realising what we’re doing, we weave ‘self’ into whatever is happening at the time.

As Michael Stone explains in The Inner Tradition of Yoga, let’s say we adopt a yoga pose and experience pain in the knee. In our inner narrative, we don’t say, ‘There’s pain in the knee.’ Instead we say, ‘There’s a pain in my knee’:

In this instinctual moment, an ‘I’ is born that has inserted itself into the phenomenon of pain, but was not initially built into the sensation. In other words, the feeling of pain in ‘my’ knee is an addition to what is unfolding. This is the beginning of duality, because through aversion, a sense of self is created that separates the experience from the one who is experiencing.

Descartes need not even have put himself through the ordeal of performing sun salutations. Had he simply allowed his mind to settle into its natural state, he would have observed that thoughts arise quite naturally. They just happen. They require no active agent—no me, myself or I. In fact, they arise despite the wishes of the I. Some meditation teachers like to tease their students by asking how a session was for them. If a student says their meditation was disrupted by thoughts, the teacher asks: ‘Did you not choose to have those thoughts?’ When the student shakes their head, the teacher says: ‘If you didn’t cause the thoughts to arise, then who did?’

‘Thoughts arise’ admittedly doesn’t pack quite the same punch as ‘I think therefore I am’, but one can but contemplate the alternative course western philosophy might have taken had Descartes opted for the former rather than the latter.

The paragraphs above are a (lightly) edited extract from my book Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate.  I’ll be sharing more in the months ahead.  By the way, if you are a yoga enthusiast, I highly recommend Michael Stone’s book ‘The Inner Tradition of Yoga.’

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Chocolate front cover 

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US cover

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Read the first chapter of Enlightenment to Go here!


ETG US cover

I wrote ‘Enlightenment to Go’ to help share the wisdom of Shantideva, an amazing Buddhist sage who composed the world’s first self-help book, back in the eighth century.  If you really want to understand the essence of Tibetan Buddhism, there is no better source than Shantideva – who the Dalai Lama, and many other Tibetan lamas, frequently refer to.  

I am very happy to share the Introduction to my own book on Shantideva below.


Often when the Dalai Lama ends a public speech, a member of the audience will ask: ‘Can you recommend a book that explains how to put Buddhist ideas into practice?’

In all his years of teaching, the Dalai Lama has been remarkably consistent in the way he answers this question: ‘Read Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,’ he has repeatedly told audiences for more than forty years. One of the great classics of Tibetan Buddhism, its pages contain all the advice and motivation you need to make Buddha’s teachings part of your daily reality.

Shantideva’s Guide is not only one of the most revered texts in Tibetan Buddhism, it is arguably one of the most remarkable books ever written. Composed by an eighth-century Buddhist monk around the same time as one of the earliest English-language compositions, the epic work of fiction Beowulf, Shantideva’s Guide is a manual of advanced psychology. Writing to motivate his own practice, Shantideva authored what was probably the world’s first self-help book, outlining how to develop specific psychological techniques and reframe our experience of reality to achieve greater happiness and inner peace.

More than this, the Guide outlines a structured approach to the whole Tibetan Buddhist path, beginning with simple but powerful analytical tools and leading us, step by step, to the most profound realisations about the true nature of reality—and of ourselves. The word ‘bodhisattva’ in the title of Shantideva’s book describes a person who wishes to achieve enlightenment to help free all other beings from suffering. The bodhisattva way of life may therefore be regarded as the ultimate expression of compassion.

Shantideva’s Guide is extraordinary for many reasons. One thing I find amazing is that even though he wrote it in the eighth century, the wisdom it contains still has a direct application for us, here and now, in the twenty-first. More than twelve hundred years separate us from Shantideva, scratching at his parchment, trying to ignore the flicker of his butter lamp; nowadays we sit tapping at our computers, trying to ignore the ping of our email inbox, but in a more important sense, nothing has changed. Human nature is the same. We still strive for the same things. And no one had a more profound understanding of human nature than Shantideva.

Not only this, but like all great spiritual teachers, Shantideva understood the power of metaphor to make explanations come alive. Like an embroidered tapestry his instructions are richly illuminated with images that tumble off the pages—vivid, earthy and often quite unexpected. Shantideva had a poet’s understanding of language, and some of his stanzas are expressed with such poignancy and beauty that they rival the most lyrical passages of Shakespeare. It is said that there are some verses that still move the Dalai Lama to tears, despite his familiarity with them.

The best of Shantideva

But the most astonishing thing of all about Shantideva’s Guide is that it is still so little known in the West. Ask most people who Shantideva was and chances are you’ll be met with a blank expression, or a hesitant guess—an Indian cricketer? A Bollywood actor? Before I became a regular Buddhist class attendee in my early thirties, I had never heard of him, even though I am an arts graduate with a supposedly well rounded education. Such is the parochial nature of Western culture that if you go into any reasonably well stocked bookstore you’ll be sure to turn up a volume on Aristotle, Descartes or Freud. But Shantideva? We’ll have to order that in for you, sir.

Even specialist Buddhist sections are likely to stock a variety of books by Buddhist lamas and other teachers, all of whom would readily acknowledge the pre-eminence of Shantideva, but not the great man himself.

This is perhaps understandable. Sitting down to read Shantideva unplugged can be daunting for a newcomer to Buddhism. In the same way that someone unfamiliar with classical music might be intimidated by the prospect of sitting through an entire Beethoven symphony, or a stranger to art might hesitate on the steps of a famous gallery, even though we may feel drawn to some new field of endeavour we face a simple problem: where on earth do we begin? Even the name of his Guide, sometimes published under its multi-syllabic Sanskrit title, the Bodhicharyavatara (or BCA to Buddhist insiders), is somewhat confronting. With-out someone to give us the background, to explain the significance of this symbol or that reference, and to target the new material to our own experience and understanding, it’s easy to put any such new interest in the ‘too hard’ basket.

But with a guide to point out features of importance, and above all, to bring the whole subject alive with their own enthusiasm and purpose, then our new interest can quite naturally develop as a source of fresh inspiration.

In writing this book, I hope to be just such a guide. Enlightenment to Go is not a scholarly discourse on Shantideva—there are plenty of those already. Nor does it provide a comprehensive analysis of every one of his 800 stanzas—rather, only 75 of them. I have not slavishly followed the sequence of the verses presented in his teachings because, like a composer of a grand classical piece of music, Shantideva returned to several of the same key themes in different parts of his discourse, often with a different emphasis or turn of phrase. To enhance the practical application of his teachings for readers today, I have presented them thematically, rather than in the order they appear in the Guide.

Part I of this book discusses the compassionate mind of enlightenment from a Buddhist perspective. In Buddhism the word ‘mind’ is often used to mean ‘state of mind’, and we look at how such states of mind can be developed, what the benefits of developing them can be and how they may differ from the mind states we currently experience.

Part II moves from theory to practice. Exactly how do we set about cultivating an enlightened way of being? What precisely does this entail? What are the nuts and bolts—the psychological tools, the meditation practices, the methods and techniques—we can apply to effect personal transformation at the most profound level?

Like my book Buddhism for Busy People, Enlightenment to Go also provides a very personal account of how I’ve come to terms with Buddhist teachings in my own life. I offer my story not because I think I’m something special but for the very opposite reason. I know that the challenges and the frustrations, the happiness and the inner peace I continue to experience on my personal journey are not particular to me. Sure, I may experience them in a particular way, but they are experiences common to all busy people who seek to put Buddha’s teachings into practice.

Enlightenment to Go is not the book for readers preferring a rigorous textbook approach to Shantideva. However, I hope that those of you who join me on this highlight tour will find in the biographical passages something you can relate to: reassurance, perhaps, that you are far from alone as you make your way along this tried and tested path.

A structured meditation program

One way to use this book is simply to read it from start to finish like any other. And because most readers are busy people with precious little time to spare, I have written fairly short, manageable chapters that may be read during the course of a train commute, or perhaps in bed at night before turning out the light.

However, Enlightenment to Go has also been designed to provide a guided analytical meditation program. Each chapter is on a different theme and ends with suggested points for reflection or action. These meditations andexercises are based on traditional practices, some of which I have adapted a little to suit contemporary Western stu-dents. There are eighteen chapters in all, covering the full Tibetan Buddhist path. It is my heartfelt wish that many of you will find this book helpful not only as an introduction to Shantideva, but as a means to become acquainted with the most important Buddhist teachings in a truly life-enhancing way.

What is the difference between analytical meditation and simply reading something? In brief, our depth of understanding. While the intellectual knowledge we gain from reading can be helpful, if the significance of what we read is to have real meaning for us—if there is to be any possibility of it changing our view of ourselves and the world around us—we need to understand it on a deeper basis. Ultimately we need to experience it at a direct or non-conceptual level.

The impact of realisation

To illustrate, not so long ago I saw a TV news item about workers on a cacao plantation in west Africa. Although they’d been harvesting cacao beans for many years, each season dispatching large sacks to chocolate factories in Europe, the majority of plantation workers had never actually seen chocolate, let alone tasted it. They had, of course, heard about it. They possessed a good intellectual knowledge of chocolate: they knew that it was sweet, that it contained condensed milk, that it had a firm texture but melted in the mouth. And they knew that Europeans loved eating it. But despite having this intellectual knowledge, they couldn’t fully understand the ever-growing demand for the small bitter beans they harvested each year.

That is, until the day a TV crew arrived, bringing a variety of chocolate products. There was something compelling about watching the cacao workers undo the foil wrappers, scrutinise the mysterious brown tablets—and take their first bite. Seeing the expressions on their faces suddenly change as they realised: this is why people can’t get enough cacao beans! Their understanding was no longer intellectual. It was first-hand and non-conceptual. They had experienced it directly.

When we meditate, we create the possibility of experiencing ideas directly. We take our first bite of reality. While most of us have no shortage of notions about who we are and the world around us, and many of the other subjects Shantideva writes about, like the plantation workers before the TV crew arrived, our understanding is mostly intellectual and therefore necessarily limited.

The word ‘realisation’ is sometimes used in Buddhism to describe the point when our understanding of a particular subject ripens to the extent that it changes our behaviour. The middle-aged executive may know he needs to work less and exercise more, but perhaps he will only fully realise this in the back of an ambulance on his way to hospital having suffered a heart attack. Realisations may also refer to changes in attitude. Like the crusty old homophobe I introduced to a gay friend—of whom, after a thoroughly enjoyable dinner, he couldn’t speak highly enough. When I told him my friend was gay, there was a marked shift in his hitherto incorrigible prejudices: a realisation had been made!

Through meditation we can go beyond a surface or intellectual understanding of a subject towards achieving truly life-enhancing realisations. And the curriculum pro–vided by Shantideva offers the most profound benefits of all. We all know that every day of our life could be our last and that we shouldn’t take a single moment of it for granted—but do we really live like that? We are all aware that failure and misfortune offer incomparably better opportunity for personal growth than smooth sailing and success—but how many of us remember this in the midst of a crisis? Many of us have an inkling that our existence holds possibilities far more panoramic than the biographic summaries we’re familiar with—but how much energy do we invest explor-ing these?

Analytical meditation holds the key. For readers who are unfamiliar with the process of meditation, I’ve provided a ‘how to’ in the appendix on page 311. Even those of you who already have a meditation practice may find it useful to quickly read over the suggestions provided in the appendix before you begin the analytical meditation exercises.

One positive side-effect of analytical meditation is that when we focus on a subject during meditation, it will often pop up in our thoughts later during the day. We’ll find fresh relevance in a newspaper headline, or a snatch of conversation will return us to the subject again. And by focusing more and more of our thoughts on useful material, and steering them away from negative feedback loops that often dominate our inner self-talk, the balance of our preoccupations starts to shift—and with it, our behaviour.

When you order your regular cappuccino or latte, your pizza, pad thai or any other consumables to go, you are essentially taking whatever you are buying to enjoy in an environment of your own choosing—to savour it in private, on your own terms. In just the same way, Enlightenment to Go provides a complete package of teachings and meditations for you to study and use at a time and in a way that suits you. Within it is contained all the main teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist path, as well as the means to help penetrate the true essence of these teachings.

Random reading

On a shelf in my office is a well-thumbed copy of Shanti-deva’s Guide that I use in a way you may also find helpful with this book. During challenging moments, I will take the Guide off the shelf, flick it open, and read a few verses at random. The effect is almost always beneficial. However disturbing the subject previously occupying my thoughts, I am reminded of the much broader reality in which it is of little importance. Often, curiously, the page I open directly addresses my agitation, as though Shantideva himself was right beside me in his red and gold robes—usually, wagging a finger at me and telling me to get a grip!

I hope you also find this book opens at just the right place for your needs at a particular moment. Whether you find yourself having to confront a difficult situation, or are simply looking for stimulation, I have no doubt that Shantideva can also offer you a fresh perspective on whatever challenges you may face.

Enlightenment for whom?

The objective of Buddha’s teachings, as illuminated by Shantideva, was not to convert people to a particular belief system but to offer access to a set of psychological tools which, at the very least, can improve our sense of inner peace and happiness. More than this, with patient application these tools transform our whole experience of reality. The Tibetan Buddhist view is that all beings with consciousness have the potential to achieve enlightenment. Whatever our background and cultural conditioning, whatever negative states of mind we may experience or wrongdoing we have committed, like clouds passing through the sky none of this can taint the natural state of our primordial mind, which is boundless, formless, blissful and unceasing.

In writing this book, I am assuming my readers have no prior knowledge of Buddhism, and I hope that whatever the background tradition you may come from, you will find in Enlightenment to Go some useful insights and practices. My own formative years were in mainstream Presbyterianism, and I was a regular Sunday school attendee until my mid teens. My parents were devout in their own private way, and in retirement my father has become a lay preacher in northeast Scotland. When Buddhism for Busy People was first published some years ago, I think he felt a sense of paternal obligation to read it. I could picture him, the day that it arrived in the mail, sitting down in his favourite armchair, steeling himself to read the combustible contents that were likely to have steam coming out of his Calvinistic ears.

But, to his own surprise as much as mine, he actually quite enjoyed the experience—partly, I expect, because he discovered some useful observations and anecdotes. He is always on the lookout for fresh material for his next sermon, and Buddhism for Busy People became an unexpected source book: I suspect that in the following months a number of ‘Buddhist’ ideas were repackaged and found their way into a variety of pulpits around Scotland!

The point is that no tradition has a monopoly on compassion. The same ethical framework underpins all the world’s major traditions, along with the yearning for the wholeness that comes from a direct experience of ultimate reality, whatever we choose to call it. Compassion—exemplified in the bodhisattva way of life—is the force which is supposed to motivate the followers of all the world’s great traditions.

While Enlightenment to Go has not been written specifically for seasoned Buddhist practitioners, I also hope that fellow students who read this book may find in it a fresh source of stimulation. When trying to penetrate the meaning of a subject, particularly subtler concepts, I’ve often found that a slightly different presentation of even a well-explored theme can illuminate the idea in a more accessible way. The effect can sometimes be that our understanding ‘clicks’ into place.

It may seem audacious for a Western student to be offering even a highlight tour of Shantideva, but I would like to emphasise that I am not doing so from an assumed position of superior learning. Instead, I am offering ideas that may provide catalysts for your own inner development. It was, after all, one of the Buddha’s most important teachings that enlightenment isn’t something that can be given to us by others, but rather a state of being which it is our own personal responsibility to develop.

The prince who gave up his kingdom

You may well be wondering about Shantideva himself—where did he come from, and what kind of person was he? In some ways, Shantideva’s life story reflects that of the Buddha himself: although born into a royal family, he chose to reject his comfortable lifestyle of wealth and status.

Born in Gujarat, western India, from an early age Shantideva showed a strong interest in practising the Dharma, as Buddha’s teachings are collectively known. After the death of his father it was, dramatically, on the eve of his coronation that he decided to flee the palace, travelling to a highly regarded seat of learning, the great monastic University of Nalanda.

It’s important to put this part of Shantideva’s story into context, because to be a member of a royal family in pre-industrialised India was to occupy a position of immense privilege. Unlike these egalitarian times, when most of us in developed countries live in relative comfort even without the benefit of any particular social status or great wealth, in eighth-century India, if you were not part of a tiny elite, everyday life was usually nasty, brutish and short. The gulf between rich and poor was huge. And the lifestyle of a monk demanded austerities which Shantideva would have been completely unused to. For him to give up a life of ease and privilege in pursuit of inner development would equate, in modern times, to the youthful heir to a multi-billion-dollar business dynasty permanently forsaking the luxury homes, fast cars and glamorous lifestyle to become an aid worker in Africa.

On the surface of things, such a decision may strike us as eccentric at the very least. But for someone with first-hand experience of all the pleasures of wealth and status to shrug them off perhaps tells us as much about the value of such things as it does about the person. Our own experience of life in a consumerist age confirms that despite enjoying a level of affluence far greater than our forebears ever dreamed of, our life’s central challenge remains essentially the same: how to live with a sense of enduring happiness and purpose.

The conspiracy that backfired

Once at Nalanda Monastery Shantideva continued to be a non-conformist, but here it was monastic convention against which he rebelled. Instead of studying, meditating and debating with his fellow monks during the day, he used to sleep, carrying out his own meditation practices at night in the strictest privacy. This unconventional behaviour didn’t endear him to his contemporaries, who used to refer to him sarcastically as the ‘Three Realisations’ because they believed the only things he knew about were eating, sleeping and defecating. Over time, some of them became determined to evict the monk they saw as a useless layabout who besmirched the fine name of Nalanda. In a scheming fashion you can’t help feeling was decidedly un-Buddhist, they set up Shantideva for a very public humiliation. He was ordered to deliver a Dharma discourse to the entire monastery.

One can imagine the atmosphere in Nalanda’s meditation hall, or gompa, when the appointed day finally arrived. How the monks would have awaited the speaker’s appearance with unusual excitement. Did the plotters mask their glee behind poker faces, or were surreptitious smirks exchanged during prayers? Whatever the case, the anticipation in the gompa must have been electric when Shantideva finally made his way to the teaching throne, centre stage, and began to speak.

Within a few minutes, however, the schemers’ plans began to unravel. Far from embarrassing himself in front of his assembled peers, Shantideva delivered teachings which immediately captured the attention of all present. His lecture was so incisive, so learned and so eloquently expressed that it was soon recognised—however grudgingly by some—for its brilliance. Even more ironically, when transcripts of the teachings were copied some time later, they become far better known than any of the other learned teachings to have emerged from Nalanda. They are sometimes referred to as the best practical guide to achieving enlightenment.

They are the teachings you now hold in your hands.

A number of English translations of the complete Guide exist, but my personal favourite has always been the work by teacher and writer Stephen Batchelor. A former monk who combines impressive scholarly credentials with an incisive understanding of the Western mind, his translation is outstanding because it captures both the poetry and the power of Shantideva’s language. It has an immediacy and freshness that keeps the text alive.

As the author of the bestselling Buddhism without Beliefs, and more recently Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen’s ability to capture the essential wisdom of Buddha’s teachings is extraordinary, and he has applied this same ability in reviewing and, as required, revising the verses presented here specifically for this book. I am sincerely grateful to him for bringing Shantideva’s voice to us down the ages with such wonderful clarity.

Going beyond ordinary reality

You will have already gathered from this introduction that while knowledge and intellect are admired in Buddhism, far greater value is placed on the practical application of learning. It is significant to understand this if we are to make sense of what happened when Shantideva got to what is now known as the ninth chapter of his Guide, because it was at this point in his lecture that, we are told, something strange and magical—even by Himalayan standards—began to occur. Instead of remaining on the teaching throne, Shantideva began to levitate. Up and up he floated in meditation posture, a mesmerising presence, carrying on his lecture as though nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Higher and higher he ascended until he’d disappeared from sight—but through an amazing and hitherto unsuspected power, he continued to speak, his disembodied voice carry-ing on quite clearly until he’d finished his teachings.

From a twenty-first-century West-erner’s perspective, the idea of such a thing happening may seem altogether fanciful—another mystical tale from far, far away and long, long ago. But what Westerners would sceptically regard as claims of ‘psychic powers’ are in Tibetan Buddhism, even today, considered to be significant but by no means excep-tional manifestations of a highly experienced meditator.

It is especially relevant that the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Guide concerns the nature of reality, a subject which goes to the very heart of Buddha’s teachings. More than two millennia before quantum scientists and neuropsychologists made their startling discoveries about the illusory nature of reality, the inaccuracy of divisions between subject and object and the deception of dualism, Buddha and other teachers were saying exactly the same things. Eastern mysticism and Western science have arrived at the same conclusion—summarised by physicist Sir Arthur Eddington when he said: ‘The concept of substance has disappeared from fundamental physics.’

What if, instead of only understanding such concepts at an intellectual level, Shantideva was able to apply them to reality? Perhaps the famous story of his levitation wouldn’t then seem quite so fanciful—it would, instead, merely have been an appropriate illustration of the wisdom he was conveying. And if the practical application of this wisdom wasn’t unique to Shantideva, what is to stop us from doing the same? Why should we not also strive to achieve an understanding which takes us beyond our usual conception of reality—an enlightenment to go?

It is with such a motivation that we should set out on our ‘best of’ tour of Shantideva’s Guide, an exploration blessed by the Dalai Lama’s repeated and emphatic endorsement. While grounded in the practical reality of daily life, Shantideva’s teachings offer us truly awe-inspiring wisdom about a different way of being. Penetrating the meaning of this wisdom is exciting enough: experiencing the wisdom we taste reality in an entirely different way.

For it is the ultimate purpose of Shantideva’s Guide to help awaken the Buddha potential which dwells in each one of us: to provide step-by-step instructions on how to develop this potential; and, like Shantideva himself, to help us achieve a personal transcendence which goes beyond anything we might currently even begin to imagine.

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7 things the Dalai Lama’s Cat would tell Grumpy Cat

grumpy cat

We all love Grumpy Cat.  Not just because she is a feline with an amusing frown and scowl.  Nor because her response to everything seems so irredeemably – if humorously – grouchy.  I suspect we also love her because we recognise that there is a little bit of Grumpy Cat in us all.  She is the outer manifestation of our own inner Grinch.

So what would happen if His Holiness’s Cat (HHC) was to cross paths with Ms Grouch?  Assuming there wasn’t an almighty cat fight, what words of wisdom, learned in the inner sanctum of her home in Dharamsala, would HHC share?

  1. You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you think about it.  Your thoughts are your choice, so cultivate an inner narrative that serves you well – not one that puts a scowl on your face.
  2. You may like to think that if your world was a particular way you would be happy.  But get real.  Is every feline who has a beautiful cat basket in a state of permanent, unalloyed bliss?  The correlation between outer conditions and inner well-being is indirect.  Getting the external aspects of your life perfect is actually irrelevant if you lack inner contentment.
  3. Who is the grumpiest cat you know?  What does he or she think about?  Himself, or herself, right?  There is no quicker way to cultivate the grouch within than by focusing all your thoughts on your own tiny world.  Think of the happiest feline you know?  Chances are he or she focuses a lot of thought on others.  Enough said.
  4. Sometimes it helps not to think at all.  Harvard Psychology Department, no less, did a study showing that when we pay attention to what we are seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting, we are much likelier to be happy that when we are caught up in rumination.  Sometimes it pays to stop and smell the catnip!
  5. ‘I’ll be happy when …’ is one of the biggest causes of Grumpiness.  Don’t buy it.  You won’t be happy when.  You’ll just move the goal-posts.  What’s stopping you being happy here and now?  It’s about the journey and your intentions, not the destination.
  6. Cat food becoming a bit repetitive?  Little excitement on the horizon?  Most of your problems are of the First World variety, Grumps.  Try thinking about the day in the life of your average African, Indian, Asian or South American cat and you’ll get a bit of perspective.  Practice gratitude for the all the wonderful things you do have, and think how many felines in the world would love to have your life.
  7. Remember that life is impermanent.  Don’t avoid this important truth.  The hours we have to live are finite and precious.  Live with this awareness.  When you are on your deathbed, do you want to reflect on a life of untrammeled grumpiness?  Or would you rather the knowledge that you were able to find happiness and purpose as well as give it to others?  The choice is only yours to make.

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For more insights from the Dalai Lama’s Cat, check out her latest book:


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How meditation helps create ideas that resonate



painting cat

As every creative person knows, coming up with fresh ideas is often not the challenge.  The challenge is coming up with fresh ideas that resonate.  Whether you wish to be taken seriously by the literary elite, sell truckloads of paintings to hotel decorators, or have your sculpture find a permanent home on a municipal plinth, at some level your creativity has to appeal to an audience and its gatekeepers, typically in the form of gallery owners, agents, commissioning editors and the like.

I have always been amused by a quote from British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who once said: ‘As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas.  Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.’  Our challenge is: how to come up with an idea that’s both original and sound?

One clue should come from the fact that the most successful consumer companies of our era – the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and others in the Silicon Valley set – choose to focus on mindfulness and meditation at their annual Wisdom 2.0 conference (see:  When companies that live or die according to their ability to innovate show this level of interest in meditation, you have to ask why?

Neuroscientists go some of the way to providing an answer.  When we meditate our brains demonstrably produce more gamma waves.  These are associated with ‘aha’ experiences.  Joining of dots.  Seeing the wood for the trees.  We may not be consciously searching for a particular insight but, whether on the meditation cushion or recently off it, we find we are struck by an insight that was staring us in the face all along but that we may not have otherwise noticed.  Often this insight is all we need to help us come up with that original and sound idea!

Over years of meditating I have had many such experiences.  And speaking to fellow meditators I know my experience is the norm.  Insight and creativity go with the landscape.  What’s more, you don’t even have to be a particularly accomplished meditator for the lights to go on.

One of the most striking examples of this happened to me only months after I began meditating.  By way of background, from the age of 18 I had set my heart on being a writer.  I wrote novel after novel, each of which was rejected by publishers in London, New York and South Africa, where I used to live.  By my early 30s, all I had to show for my efforts was 10 completed manuscripts and a thick file of rejection letters.  I created a montage out of the more entertaining of these, which I framed and hung on my wall. (“No, no, no, this simply will not do!” I remember one of them saying!)  For all the bravado, however, the phrase “frustrated writer” hardly began to describe me.

Then I took up meditating.  And it was a couple of months later that I was mulling over how the media was filled with stories of spin doctoring – particularly those who advised politicians.  Tony Blair and Bill Clinton seemed part of a new era where unseen, influential and unelected spin-meisters seemed to wield huge power over the media.  Journalists often portrayed this development in dark and sinister terms, which I found quite amusing given that I had worked in public relations my whole career and knew that the real story was somewhat, and intriguingly, different.  It seemed to me that most people had no idea who spin-doctors were or how they operated.  I wrote a short proposal suggesting I write a book explaining exactly that, sent it to half a dozen publishers, and weeks later it was accepted by a major publisher.  I had my first book deal.

After decades of tireless energy, nights and weekends at my bedroom desk, knocked-back social invitations, and having hopes raised and dashed numberless times, I can’t tell you how good that first publishing contract felt.  Nor, how ridiculously easy.  I hadn’t had to write a book.  I hadn’t spent weeks agonising over character development, story lines or narrative tone.  Bang!  It just happened.  Right place, right time, right idea with the right pitch.

There’s no way I can prove that it was meditation that helped me join the dots.  But I personally have no doubt.  Having spent the previous decade and a half trying all manner of genres, it seems a bit coincidental how things fell so beautifully into place just weeks after I started a meditation practice.  Other people have similar experiences.

For creative people, generating ideas that resonate with others is one of the benefits of meditation.  But it’s not the only one.  There are other ways in which meditation reshapes not only our effectiveness at what we do, but also, in a more profound and wonderful way, how and why we do it.

I look forward to sharing more on this subject in future blogs.  To receive them, click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now.

If you live in Perth, Australia, I will be discussing this and other themes, as well as providing some practical meditation tools at my seminar on Mindfulness and the Creative Process on Sunday 26 July:

You’ll find much more about the benefits of meditation in my latest book, The Power of Meow!


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Mindfulness and the Creative Process – Perth Seminar with David Michie!

sistene chapel image


Do you often start creative projects but can’t seem to follow them through?

Are you frustrated by the results of your creative efforts to date?

Do you know you could do more with your creativity but aren’t sure where to start?

Would you benefit from a creative kick-start?

David Michie is the internationally best-selling author of The Dalai Lama’s Cat series, Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate, Buddhism for Busy People and other books.  He is also a mindfulness teacher and coach.  In this seminar, David shares the experiences of his own career and provides both the theory as well as practical tools to help you:

  • Get clear about your creative intentions;
  • Understand the importance of authenticity and integrating creativity with your inner values;
  • Create the optimal mental climate to germinate and nurture new ideas;
  • Cultivate objectivity when seeking to match ideas to markets;
  • Develop tools to use criticism positively and cultivate non-attachment to rejection;
  • Build the foundation for a more mindful, coherent and purposeful creative life.

This is an exclusive event with a maximum of 20 people to enable direct interaction with David.  Booking essential!

Where: The Bodhi Tree Bookstore Café, 416 Oxford Street, Mount Hawthorn, WA 6016

When: Sunday 26 July, 8 am – 11 am.  David will be available for a further hour of informal conversation afterwards.

Cost: $140 per person


(Painting cat image courtesy of:


Exciting news: The Dalai Lama’s Cat Movie

cats at movies

I am thrilled to let all my enthusiastic supporters around the world know that work has begun on The Dalai Lama’s Cat Movie!

It is especially wonderful that seasoned movie producer, Ileen Maisel, has optioned the book and is driving the project.  Ileen’s stellar line-up of films includes such hits as Dangerous Liaisons, Romeo and Juliet (screenplay by Downton Abbey’s Sir Julian Fellowes), The Golden Compass and Ripley’s Game.  Ileen’s team at Amber Entertainment have been hugely supportive ( And earlier this month I met with award-winning screenplay writer Jon Tilley who is already working on a movie outline.

Every movie needs its guardian angel and for more than a year US-based Sid Maestre has been constant, energetic and very focused on his quest to bring His Holiness’s Cat to a screen near you!

The Dalai Lama’s Cat movie will be an adaptation, rather than a direct translation of the first book in the series.  As I am involved in the production team, I will be a custodian of HHC and the valuable messages we want to bring to a whole new and wider audience.  We plan having a screenplay that everyone can get excited about by the end of the year.  Next step will be to appoint a director as positive about the movie as we all are.  Then we arrange the funding.

So, there’s hard work ahead of us, and we’re all on a journey.  But I thought you’d want to know about what’s happening and share the journey with us.  In future months, I’ll keep you posted as we keep making progress.

For my own part, it is exciting to be part of a broader team, with complementary talents, all of whom share the same wish to see HHC and the wisdom she learns, find a place in the hearts and minds of people around the world.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.

May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

May all beings abide in peace and equanimity, free from attachment, aversion, and free from indifference.

Just for fun, tell me which actors you would like to see play your favourite characters in the film of the book?!  Use the Comment box below.

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(Image of cats at the movies from:

What does The Power of Meow really mean?

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In recent weeks I have been asked by some readers to explain the meaning behind the title of my third book, The Power of Meow.  Just as the second title, The Art of Purring is a play on The Art of Happiness – a book closely associated with His Holiness – this third title is a similarly feline allusion to a little-known tome by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now.

No doubt my own book is helping draw more public attention to Eckhart Tolle’s work.  While a thank you note from Mr Tolle has yet to find its way up the hill to my home in Dharamsala, I have no doubt that in time it will – accompanied, I very much hope, by a delivery of fresh catnip!

Being ‘in the now’ is a subject of growing interest among humans – as it should be!  Not a month seems to go by without the discovery of some new evidence attesting to the benefits of mindfulness.  In my book I explore the power of this holistic and transformational practice.  If, dear reader, you are among that discerning elite who prefers wisdom to be imparted in the uniquely quirky and adorable way of we cats, you need look no further.  You have found your Holy Grail and it is called The Power of Meow!  (Shameless self-promotion?  Me?!)

By way of a taster of the life-enhancing wisdom you will find in my book, I am happy to share the following titbits:

  • Focusing your attention on the present moment is powerful because now is the only time you can ever be happy. Neuroscientists call it ‘direct’ mode when we pay attention to what we are seeing, hearing and tasting, as opposed to ‘narrative’ mode when we pay attention to our inner thoughts.  Both clinical research and personal experience show that when we are in direct mode we are far more likely to be happy.
  • We can learn to practice mindfulness in relation to many different things. One of the most life-changing is mindfulness of thoughts.  Learning to observe our thoughts, rather than become automatically absorbed by them, gives us a tremendous power.  We come to see our thoughts merely as thoughts, not as facts or truths.  We get better at letting go of them.  We stop beating ourselves up about that mouse we once hunted, or believing that some incident that happened to us in kitten-hood must permanently blight our life.  We are able to be more self-accepting.  Instead of being victims of our thoughts, we become their observers.
  • Only by direct experience can we know the true nature of our own mind. Practising mindfulness, we discover that our thoughts are not the only manifestations of consciousness.  Like waves emerging from the surface of mind, when we abide in our oceanic nature we find it to be boundless, lucid, tranquil and benevolent.  We have come home.

If any of this arouses your curiosity, dear reader, or has your whiskers tingling, I suggest you read The Power of Meow to find out more!  Some helpful links:


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Prague launch of ‘The Magician of Lhasa’

David with Ivana and Nela

Earlier this month, Robert Gajdos and the team at Synergie Publishing hosted the launch of my novel The Magician of Lhasa in Prague, Czech Republic.  Launch activities included a signing at Neoluxor Books – a very large bookshop in Wenceslas Square – and a separate media launch.  Two Czech TV and theatre stars, Ivana Jiresova and Nela Boudova, who enjoy the Dalai Lama Cat books, generously provided their support, ensuring a wonderful turn out of journalists at the media event.  I’m delighted to share a few photos of the happy events in this blog.

My heartfelt thanks to Ivana and Nela for your warm support of my work; to Robert for being such a generous host and astute publisher; to Zdenek for translating The Magician of Lhasa and for being such a helpful interpreter during the visit; to Stepan for your reading and ongoing support; to Petra for translating so many of my books into Czech; to Jana and Magdalena for being such savvy publicists; to Petr and his team for being such accommodating hosts at Neoluxor; to Hubert, our tea master, for hosting us at Dobra Cajnova in such style; and to Marketa who has been a staunch advocate of my work from the beginning.

It is wonderful to have discovered that the Dharma is flourishing in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and that so many readers are finding my books useful.  Prague has a very special place in my heart, and I hope it’s not long before I’m back again in your beautiful city.

Robert, David, Ivana and Nela about to launch Magician

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david with Hubert, host at dobra cajnova

media scrum at Magician launch

David with Lucie from Prime TV

prague - david and robert outside neoluxor

Prague - david with zdenek and stepan

prague - stepan reading

prague - david meeting readers in prague

prague - book signing

Here are a few links to the resulting media coverage: – akce 5.6.

Read the Prologue and Chapter One of ‘The Power of Meow’

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I am ashamed to have to begin this book with a confession. A revelation so embarrassing I’d much rather not be making it. Living with the Dalai Lama, surrounded by monks at Namgyal Monastery, and constantly encountering the most revered meditation masters in Tibetan Buddhism, one would assume that among my many admirable qualities I am an accomplished meditator.

Alas, dear reader, I am not!

I may be gorgeous beyond words, with my mesmerizing blue eyes, charcoal face, and sumptuous cream coat. I may be a global celebrity whose well-being is a subject of frequent inquiry by luminaries as diverse as the occupants of the Oval Office, Buckingham Palace, and the more rarefied enclaves of the Hollywood Hills.

But a natural meditator? If only!

I have tried, on several occasions. But no sooner have I settled my mind on the sensation of my breath than I find myself thinking about Mrs. Trinci’s diced chicken liver. Or the discomfort in my hind legs. Or, somehow, both of those subjects mixed up at the same time.

There is a general belief that we cats are mindful creatures, who constantly “live in the moment.” While it’s true that we can focus our minds with great intensity, especially when our hunting instincts are aroused, it is equally true that we spend much of our time thinking. We give little outward show of this. But how many of your own thoughts are visible? And if they were, would you have any friends left, pray tell?!

If you ever doubted that your feline companion has her own inner life, just watch what happens when she falls asleep and loses conscious control of her physical being. Inevitably you will notice a twitching of limbs, a quivering of the jaw, sometimes perhaps a snuffling noise or a meow. What are these, if not the involuntary accompaniment to the imagined drama playing out in her mind? Cats may indeed be capable of great mindfulness. But we are thinking beings, too.

In my own case, unfortunately, a being who thinks rather too much.

For exactly this reason I had come around to believing that even though meditation is useful, transformational, a practice to which I should definitely apply myself, it wasn’t something I was going to do—at least not just yet. Maybe next year, when the Namgyal monks went on retreat. That would be a good time to make a concerted effort. Or perhaps during the dark winter months when most beings feel a natural inclination to withdraw from the world, to go inward. There seemed to be plenty of ideal occasions to restart my meditation practice.

Just none of them happened to be today.

The world is full of meditators who have lapsed, dabbled, or read a dozen books on the subject but don’t regularly meditate. I, dear reader, have until recently considered myself one of them. But something happened to change me. And I have come to discover that, for most meditators, the same is true. Some event, some trigger, propels you in a direction you may have been contemplating, but to which you were never fully committed.

Very few people are born meditators. Others learn to become great meditators. Most of us, however, have meditation thrust upon us. In sharing my story with you, I am doing so not because I think it’s very special—I am distinctly special, of course; that matter is beyond dispute. What I’m talking about here is the story of how I came to meditation. The reason I share it is because I feel it may be one you can relate to. One you understand. You may even see a teensy-weensy bit of yourself in me—how lovely for you!

So how is it that I came not only to comprehend but to experience what I call “the power of meow”?

Settle yourself in a favorite chair or sofa, dear reader. Ensure a ready supply of your favorite beverages and snacks. Turn off that irksome phone, or better yet, leave it in another room entirely. Beckon your own beloved feline to join you.

Are you ready? Quite comfortable?

Very good, then. Let’s begin.





Chapter One

It all began through casual curiosity. A stray dog had taken to sleeping part of the night on the doormat of our building. On my way out one morning, I paused to take in the pungent odor left in its wake, trying to place the breed. On my way back inside, I paused again.

A short while later I was resting on the windowsill of the Dalai Lama’s first-floor room. This was my all-time favorite spot, not least because it offered the ideal vantage point from which to achieve maximum surveillance with minimum effort. Simply being in the same room as His Holiness is the most wonderful sensation you can ever have. Whether you call it his presence, his energy, or his love, when you are near him, you can’t help being touched by a sense of profound and abiding well-being. The heartfelt reassurance that, whatever else is going on, beneath the surface, all is well.

That particular morning I had no sooner settled on the sill, eager to be absorbed into the field of benevolence surrounding the Dalai Lama, than I suddenly felt my skin crawl. In an instant I twisted my head around and began a frenzy of licking. But the itching only got worse! I scratched and gnawed, even biting the skin of my stomach and back. I had never felt anything like this. It was as though my whole body was under siege from an army of invisible assailants!

His Holiness looked up with concern from his desk.

Moments later, the itching stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Had it all been something in my imagination? Some perverse quirk of karma originating from who knew where?

Later that same day, following my return home from another outside visit, I came under attack again. The pain was so unexpected and intense that I leaped down from my perch on the filing cabinet in the executive assistants’ office, landing unsteadily on the floor. I twisted into another spasm of furious back-licking and biting. A hundred tiny attackers seemed suddenly upon me, crawling all over my skin, nipping me with red-hot fangs. Their assault was comprehensive—I could think of nothing except how to chase them off me, whatever they were.

Tenzin, the Dalai Lama’s right-hand man on all secular diplomatic matters, peered over the side of his desk. Midway through writing an e-mail to a prominent Scandinavian ’80s pop icon, he regarded me with surprise.

“HHC?’’ Ever punctilious, he referred to me using my official title, His Holiness’s Cat. “This isn’t like you!”

Indeed it was not. Nor were the further bouts of prickling, scouring, and writhing that continued for the rest of that day and all through the night. I felt like I was losing my mind.

His Holiness summoned his assistant first thing the following morning. “Tenzin, our little Snow Lion is in trouble.”

The Dalai Lama’s personal term of endearment for me usually filled my heart with gladness. Not on this occasion. As though on cue I doubled back, attacking the upper part of my tail in a tumult of savage gnawing.

“She was doing that yesterday, too,” observed Tenzin. The two of them stood, watching me for a few moments before they met each other’s eyes. They reached the same diagnosis in unison: “Fleas!”

Tenzin immediately sent out for a flea collar, which he clearly intended to attach to my neck. Not only would this get rid of the cause of my unhappiness, he assured me, it would also prevent fleas for the foreseeable future.

I was struggling, trying to come to terms with what had happened. Fleas? Me?! Was the Dalai Lama’s cat not immune to such a common and squalid vexation? And could there be any deeper humiliation than having been infected by a stray dog, of all things?

Initially I resisted Tenzin’s efforts, not wishing to parade my infested status in public, but with a firm grip and reassuring tone he fixed the collar around my neck. Next he quarantined me in the first-aid room while the Dalai Lama was out, supervising an important monastic exam. During his absence, Tenzin oversaw a top-to-bottom spring clean of His Holiness’s office and all the corridors I ever used.

Word of the stray dog came to light, and, when the doormat was studied, it was shown to be so heavily infested that it had to go. It was soon replaced with a handsome new coir mat with short bristles and a red-colored border. The security detail was put on notice to be alert for the stray dog and told that if it reappeared it was to be taken to the monastery until a permanent home could be found.

It seemed the whole flea incident had come to an end.


But life is more complicated than that. Even though I was soon thankfully rid of fleas, such had been their impact that, at odd times of the day and night and for no apparent reason, I’d imagine them upon me. I’d be sitting at the window, absorbed in tranquil contemplation, when suddenly my skin would crawl. Or I’d settle down to meditate and, from nowhere at all, the idea of them would burst into my mind. I’d find myself twitching and scratching at a half dozen imagined pests scrambling in different directions beneath my fur. Even if I managed to hold off reacting physically, my mind would become a tumult of distraction. In occasional moments of peace I’d try to reassure myself that my traumatic past was behind me, but I couldn’t ignore the truth of my own experience: I may no longer be infested, but I still suffered from fleas.

It was at this very same time that something else happened that sent shock waves through the whole community. I was there at the time, an inside observer. What I would never have guessed was the direct impact it was about to have on my life, or the way that I would be drawn inevitably into being a participant. In particular, it made me aware that cats are not alone in suffering from fleas.


The incident happened during one of the VIP meals occasionally hosted by the Dalai Lama. A high-powered delegation from the Vatican was visiting for lunch. Downstairs in the kitchen, Mrs. Trinci, the Dalai Lama’s VIP chef, had spared no efforts in making sure that His Holiness’s guests would be dazzled. For the past three days she had been hard at it, fussing and fretting over every last detail. Being Italian herself, it was as though she wanted to prove that whatever gastronomic heights might be scaled in the finest restaurants of Rome could be equaled, if not surpassed, here in the Himalayas.

After the pasta dishes had been cleared away, there followed a delightful interlude while His Holiness communicated with his guests—not only with words but also through his mere presence. I observe the effect that the Dalai Lama has on visitors every day of my life, and still I never tire of it. Today it was the Vatican visitors’ turn to enjoy basking in the sense of abiding well-being. As they did, I remained on the first-floor windowsill, waiting for my own lunchtime treat with mounting anticipation.

Of all the people at Namgyal Monastery, had I been asked who was my favorite—apart from His Holiness, of course—I would have had no trouble in naming Mrs. Trinci. Effusive, flamboyant, a commanding presence in the kitchen, from the very first time she’d caught sight of me, Mrs. Trinci declared that I was the Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived. I need only appear in the kitchen for her to swoop me up, place me like the most delicate piece of Ming porcelain on the countertop, and produce some succulent morsel for my delectation. As I devoured a saucer of diced chicken liver with noisy relish, she would watch me through her amber, mascara-lashed eyes, murmuring sweet nothings in my ear.

Even when I was out of sight, I was not out of mind. Mrs. Trinci could be preparing a most elaborate meal for visitors from as far afield as the White House, Prague Castle, or Palácio da Alvorada, but she would never fail to remember me. Along with the mouth-watering treasures of the dessert cart, she always made sure that a bowl of lactose-free milk, or perhaps—as a very rare treat—a tablespoon of clotted cream was provided for yours truly.

That particular day saw a procession of panna cotta, tiramisu, and tortes to the dining table. Accompanied, as usual, by smiles of appreciation from His Holiness’s guests. The waiters served each of the guests. After dessert, one by one they withdrew, leaving only the head waiter, Dawa. I looked over to the dessert cart, but my usual small, white ramekin was nowhere to be seen.

Surely I hadn’t been forgotten? Was such a thing even possible?

I wasn’t the only one who noticed. As I sat, bereft of my usual indulgence, His Holiness glanced up from an involved discussion about St. Francis of Assisi and looked directly from Dawa to me to the dessert cart. There was no need for him to say anything. Moments later Dawa was opening the door and whispering urgent instructions.

But my attention was quickly distracted by something else: the distant wailing of an ambulance. It seemed to be heading directly toward us.

Ears pointing forward, I tuned in to the approaching sound. There was no question—it was coming up the hill. As the white vehicle with flashing lights appeared at the entrance to Namgyal, I rose to my feet.

As did Tenzin. With conversation around the table becoming impossible on account of the siren, he excused himself and stepped over to the window. For a few moments, the two of us watched together. The ambulance entered the gates and drove slowly across the courtyard. Groups of monks and small bands of tourists scattered out of the way, staring at the clamorous apparition. The siren intensified even more as the vehicle drew closer, rising to an almost unbearable level. Then there was sudden quiet as the ambulance drove around to the front of the building and disappeared from view.

An eerie silence followed. Around the dining table there were raised eyebrows and expressions of concern. Several of the Vatican delegates crossed themselves while glancing upward. Tenzin returned to his seat, and conversation slowly resumed.

Watching the courtyard below fill with the usual mix of red-robed monks, umbrella-wielding tourist guides, and couriers in their high-visibility vests, for a short while I forgot about that lunchtime’s inexplicable omission—until Dawa arrived with my usual ramekin, which he placed on the sill with an elaborate bow.


A short time later the Vatican envoys were bidding His Holiness farewell. There was talk of future contact being made via Skype, and then they began making their way outside in a swirl of cassocks. For a few moments the Dalai Lama stood alone, his hands folded at his heart, murmuring mantras under his breath. It was something I’d observed him do on several occasions before. Intuition told me that something significant was afoot.

Only moments later, Tenzin returned quickly down the corridor.

“I’m sorry to tell Your Holiness, but Mrs. Trinci seems to have suffered a heart attack.”

I looked up—had I heard correctly?

Compassion filled not only His Holiness’s face but the whole room. It was as though his concern could not be contained; it seemed to flow outward, touching every living being in Namgyal and far beyond.

“The ambulance came quickly,” Tenzin continued. “She is being taken to the hospital. I’ll let you know as soon as I have more news.”

The Dalai Lama nodded. “Thank you,” he said softly. “May she make a full and speedy recovery.”

Tenzin, too, brought his palms to his heart before turning to go.


The days that followed were unusually somber. Word of Mrs. Trinci’s heart attack spread through Namgyal and beyond. Although she wasn’t a daily presence at Namgyal, she was one of its most colorful members of staff, as well known for her volcanic temperament as for her generous heart. There were few at Namgyal who hadn’t sampled her superlative cooking—even if it was only one of the delicious cookies she baked regularly for the monks.

The first official news from the hospital confirmed the diagnosis of a heart attack. Tests were under way to determine the extent of the damage. For a while there was no further information at all about what was happening at the hospital. Then, a few days later, Mrs. Trinci’s daughter, Serena, phoned to update His Holiness. He was in the middle of reciting mantras, so he put the phone on speaker as he continued to move mala beads between his fingers.

Serena had grown up in McLeod Ganj and had been a sous chef in the downstairs kitchen from the time she’d been able to slice a carrot. Because her mother had been widowed at an early age, His Holiness had occupied a fatherly position in her life, doting on her when she was a little girl and offering paternal love and reassurance as she grew up.

Even though she’d spent most of her adult life in Europe studying as a chef and working in several famous restaurants, Serena retained a special connection to the Dalai Lama. As she did to me. From the moment we met, Serena and I were the very closest of friends. She explained that her mother had been discharged from the hospital. The heart attack caused no major damage. There was no need for surgery, nor was Mrs. Trinci in any pain. But she was suffering from high blood pressure, and from now on, she needed to take medicine every day. In addition, the doctor had strongly advised her to find a complementary method to help manage her stress: meditation.

His Holiness immediately volunteered to be her teacher—an offer that delighted Serena. “Personal instruction by the Dalai Lama!” she exclaimed.

“And of course you are welcome to join her,” His Holiness added. When the Dalai Lama made such offers, they were never casually intended. “If we suffer from stress, if we lack peace of mind, meditation becomes more important. For all of us.”

On a nearby armchair, I was following the conversation with interest.

“Pain is inevitable,” the Dalai Lama continued. “Suffering is optional. We will all have to endure trauma and challenges. What matters is how we move forward afterward. Do we keep carrying the trauma and its causes in our mind? Or can we find a way to let go of them, to end our own suffering?”

The conversation was starting to have a personal

“This is where mindfulness can help us.”

As I turned to observe His Holiness, I discovered that he was looking directly at me.


I expected Mrs. Trinci and Serena to appear in His Holiness’s rooms within days. But a whole week went by, followed by another, and still there was no visit. There seemed to be some kind of obstacle. Surely Serena wouldn’t have forgotten? And what possible reason could Mrs. Trinci have for not seizing this opportunity? My own Post-Traumatic Flea Disorder was nowhere near as threatening as a heart attack, but it was still the cause of deep mental agitation, a gnawing concern that I was eager to hear the Dalai Lama explain.

As it happened, I had to wait more than a month before, late one afternoon, Mrs. Trinci and Serena appeared at the main gates to Namgyal. A short while later, the two of them were ushered into His Holiness’s chamber. Ordinarily, his visitors would be seated demurely on one of the chairs opposite him, but these were no ordinary visitors. They were family. Catching sight of me on the sill, Mrs. Trinci immediately came over to where I was sitting.

“Oh, little dolce mio!” she exclaimed.

I got up, stretching my front paws out ahead of me with a luxuriant quiver, then arching my back appreciatively as she stroked my neck.

“But what is this?”

“Flea collar,” said His Holiness.

Mamma mia, my poor little treasure!” she said as she bent down, nuzzling my head with her face. “How you have suffered! And how I have missed you!”

“She has missed you, too.” His Holiness was standing by his chair, observing this all with a smile. “And all the special treats from downstairs,” he added with a chuckle.

“Don’t worry, she gets plenty of those at the café,” came Serena’s droll voice from next to him. Serena was co-manager of the Himalaya Book Café, one of my favorite haunts, conveniently located less than ten minutes away.

Once the three of them settled into their chairs, I made my way toward them, eager not to miss out on anything.

“Tell me, my dear,” His Holiness said as he reached over and took Mrs. Trinci’s hand in his own, as was his custom no matter who was visiting. He gazed deeply into her eyes. “How are you?”

Finding herself in his compassionate presence suddenly became too much for Mrs. Trinci. Overwhelmed, she dissolved into tears and had to retrieve a handkerchief from her purse. Through sobs, she explained how much of a shock the heart attack had been. How desperately she had just wanted things to go back to normal. But her doctor told her there could be no such thing. There had to be a new normal. She needed to make changes to her life if she was to manage her high blood pressure and to avoid future heart problems.

From the carpet I studied Mrs. Trinci’s face closely. I don’t know whether it was that she wasn’t wearing her customary mascara or that she was bereft of her signature bracelets, which would clang emphatically whenever she moved her arms. But it seemed to me that something had changed. Something about her energy was less vital. That unquestioning invincibility about her presence had gone. For the first time that I could ever remember, Mrs. Trinci looked vulnerable. Walking over to her chair, I hopped up and settled beside her, offering reassurance in the form of a gentle purr.

“The doctor said I should take up meditation. I am very grateful to you for offering to show me how,” she said, reaching over to stroke me.

“Yes, I remember saying this to Serena,” replied His Holiness. “When was that?”

Mrs. Trinci turned to Serena. “Ten days ago?”

“A month.”

“One month,” confirmed the Dalai Lama in a thoughtful tone.

There was no need for him to say anything else. As twilight deepened, an unasked question became so loud, so self-evident, that Mrs. Trinci felt compelled to answer it. “I . . . I didn’t come to see you earlier because, well”—she was shaking her head sadly—“I’m not sure I can meditate.”

Perhaps she had expected His Holiness to chastise her. It was hard to tell from her tone if she was embarrassed or despairing. But the Dalai Lama glowed with amusement, as though what she said had to be a joke. In that moment, whatever tension had been present in the room seemed to shimmer away. First Mrs. Trinci and then Serena picked up on the Dalai Lama’s mirth, and they both got caught up in the hilarity of what Mrs. Trinci had just said.

“Tell me,” said His Holiness, eyes still twinkling with amusement, “why do you think you can’t meditate?”

“Because I have tried!” Mrs. Trinci’s voice rose. “Several times.”


“My mind.” She met his gaze. “It’s out of control.”

“Very good!” He brought his hands together, chuckling at her observation. “Had you ever noticed this before?”

“No.” It didn’t take her long to ponder the question. “Not really. I’d never tried to focus like that.”

“Then you have already made the first, most important discovery,” said the Dalai Lama. “It is only when we acknowledge we have a problem that we can do something about it. You now have first-hand understanding of how out of control the mind is. You see, my dear,” he said, regarding her closely, “when we are suffering from stress, it isn’t only because of our circumstances. Generally, we think everything is about what’s outside of us. The externals. We think that if I didn’t have this problem, if I wasn’t in this situation, then, no stress. But there are other people in even more challenging situations who are thriving. The stress isn’t coming from ‘out there.’ Mainly it is coming from our mind.”

The Dalai Lama leaned forward in his seat. He was including all of us in what he was saying—not only Mrs. Trinci. “When we practice meditation, we begin to monitor our mind. And when we pay much closer attention, we can start to manage it.”

“But is there really any hope for me?” Mrs. Trinci asked. “When my mind is so crazy?”

His Holiness regarded her solemnly. “When we begin trying to meditate, most of each session we are thinking about everything except the chosen object of meditation. This is the same for everyone. Normal.”

I had never heard the Dalai Lama speak so directly to a beginner before. But what he said came as a massive relief. I wasn’t the only one! It seemed that Mrs. Trinci and I had an important thing in common—apart from our love of gourmet cuisine. We both suffered from fleas. We might want to enjoy meditative calm, but no sooner would we begin a session than there’d be a scurrying, an agitation. Our contemplation would be abruptly overturned. Unwanted thoughts would intrude into our concentration, utterly destroying our peace of mind. Cats evidently weren’t alone in this. When it came to meditation, it seemed, humans were flea-infested, too.

“It is the same for all of us,” continued the Dalai Lama. “All of us have to start somewhere. Where you start is unimportant. What matters is where you finish.”

There was a pause as we contemplated this. Then Mrs. Trinci spoke, her voice softly apologetic. “So you are willing to teach me how to meditate, even though my mind is so bad?”

“Of course!” His Holiness’s face lit up. “This is why we are here.”

The Dalai Lama seemed to be referring not only to the fact that we were gathered in his room; he seemed also to be hinting at a greater purpose, an underlying connection.

“You have always been so generous, cooking wonderful food for our visitors,” the Dalai Lama said as he brought his palms to his heart and bowed to Mrs. Trinci. “Perhaps in some small way I can repay your kindness.” His expression turned suddenly serious. “But you must never say ‘my mind is so bad,’ because this is mistaken thinking. You may experience great agitation. Much distraction. But this is temporary. Thoughts arise, abide, and pass. They are not permanent. Like clouds, no matter how completely they fill the sky or how long they seem to stay there, they, too, will pass. And when they do, even in brief moments after the end of one thought and before the next one begins, you can catch a glimpse of your mind. You can see it for what it is. Your mind, my mind, all our minds have the same qualities—perfect clarity, lucidity, boundlessness, serenity . . .”

As he spoke, Mrs. Trinci began to well up. His Holiness was communicating, and not only with words. He also conveyed the meaning of what he said in such a way that the feeling of it became wonderfully palpable.

Looking over at her daughter, Mrs. Trinci noticed that Serena’s eyes also began to fill.

“As you abide with mind,” he continued, “more and more you will also come to discover that your own primordial nature is one of pure, great love and pure, great compassion. All begins with abiding in this moment, here and now.”

For a while we sat in silence. An early-evening breeze rippled through the open window—air that was fresh from the mountains and steeped in pine. It seemed to carry the promise of something new.

Then the Dalai Lama said, “I would like to give you all a challenge. I would like you to meditate for ten minutes every day, for a period of six weeks. At the end of the period, we can all review whether meditation holds some value. If so”—he nodded—“if there is some change, then we carry on.” He shrugged. “If not, we can say ‘I tried.’ Does this seem fair?”

“Only ten minutes?” Serena raised her eyebrows.

“To begin with, yes. You may be surprised how much change we can experience with only a short period of focused attention each day.”

Serena was nodding, accepting His Holiness’s challenge. She glanced over at her mother, who, after initial hesitation, began nodding, too.

On the chair, I felt the full gazes of the Dalai Lama, Serena, and Mrs. Trinci upon me.

Responding to the attention, I looked up. And meowed.

All three of them laughed.

“The power of meow?” suggested Serena as Mrs. Trinci stroked me.

“Exactly,” said His Holiness, chuckling. “It is the pathway to well-being and to discovering our own true nature.”


That night, the Dalai Lama attended a session in the temple. By the time he returned the moon had risen, casting the courtyard in ethereal silver.

I always love how the moon transforms a familiar scene into something quite magical. If daylight belongs to the dogs, then we cats are creatures of the night. We are the feline yin to the canine yang. Denizens of a time of mystery and wonder. For my own part, I enjoyed nothing more than sitting in nocturnal reverie beneath the brooding Himalayas, their icy peaks coolly gleaming in the starlight.

That particular evening, I noticed a curiously beguiling new scent carried on the breeze. It wasn’t a fragrance I had ever detected before, and there was something powerfully compelling about it. My nostrils flared. I had no doubt that its origin was a flower or plant of some kind. But where was it coming from exactly? And why had I never noticed it before? As I lifted my face to the wind, I knew it was a mystery that deserved further investigation.

But not just yet. Just then, His Holiness returned to the room. Seeing me sitting in the darkness, I think he, too, sensed something of the magic of that moment. Instead of turning on the light, he came over to where I sat looking out the open window to the brightly lit temple. He eased himself down next to me, and for a few moments the two of us became watchful observers.

Snatches of conversation rose from the courtyard as monks made their way from the temple back to their residence, where orange squares of light flickered to life. A cooling breeze stirred, bringing with it ribbons of night jasmine—along with that enchanting new scent. Over at the temple, the lights were being turned off one by one. First the roof and the auspicious symbols that decorated it suddenly fell into darkness. Then the steps leading up to the entrance and the intricately colored doorway became instantly monochrome.

For a moment, all that remained lit was a solitary gold lotus flower—the Buddhist symbol of transcendence, renunciation, and hope—on the front of the temple. It floated on the unseen surface of an ocean of shadow.

“A good reminder, my little Snow Lion,” murmured the Dalai Lama. “Lotus plants grow in poor conditions. Their roots are in the mud, sometimes dirty swamps. But they rise above that. Their flowers are very beautiful. Sometimes when we have problems we, too, can use our difficulties to create something we may not even have considered before. We can turn our suffering into the cause of extraordinary growth.”

Like so much else of what His Holiness said, his words could be understood in different ways. I knew he was making not only a general observation but offering a deeply personal message—one that referred not only to my own recent challenges but to Mrs. Trinci’s, too. And, more important, to the fresh direction in which they could propel us. Instead of believing my infestation to be a cause of nothing but biting misery, I was beginning to see that it seemed it could become fuel for personal growth.

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