How we die: a brief explanation of the Tibetan Buddhist view

butter lamps

My last blog looked at the value of contemplating death while we’re still very much alive. This blog focuses on the death process itself as presented by Tibetan Buddhism. Western medicine defines death as what happens when our heart stops beating and we stop breathing.

In Buddhism, death is described as a sequence of eight stages.  The first four of these relate to the dissolution of all physical activity, taking us to the point where we would be defined as dead in Western terms.

But there are four further stages as our mental functioning becomes more and more subtle, and we are left with only the most subtle consciousness.  During the course of this mental dissolution, a small amount of warmth may still be detected at the heart, the seat of consciousness (significantly, the Sanskrit word for mind, chitta, refers to both the mind and heart).  It is only once the most subtle consciousness leaves the body that, in Tibetan Buddhist terms, a person is considered dead.

What is subtle consciousness and how does it differ from other forms of consciousness?  In Buddhism, gross consciousness describes all sense perceptions and cognitive activity.  It is where we spend most of our time.  Our whole construct of reality including our memories, emotions, acquired personality and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us, falls into the category of gross consciousness.  When we die, we leave that all behind.

Subtle consciousness can be accessed when we push aside the veil of cognition and experience the deepest levels of a mind free of agitation or dullness.  Because this state of consciousness is non-conceptual, using concepts to describe it is as unsatisfactory as using words like ‘sweet’ and ‘yummy’ to describe eating chocolate – the words may be accurate, but they don’t begin to communicate the full experience of what it’s actually like.  Subtle consciousness is variously described as a state of radiance, luminosity, blissfulness, non-duality, boundlessness, timelessness, oceanic benevolence, and pure great love.  A great state of being!  Through meditation we can evolve from catching glimpses of it, to being able to remain in the state for extended periods of time.

Evidence supporting the Buddhist version of the death process is provided by the fact highly accomplished meditators, familiar with abiding in a state of very subtle consciousness, do exactly this when they die.  The result is that, even though they are dead in terms of Western medicine, they are not from a Buddhist perspective.  Absorbed in a state of blissful timelessness, their bodies do not decompose, there is no loss of body fluids, their flesh remains soft and they appear as though asleep rather than dead.  They may remain in this state for hours, days or even longer.

(For a TV documentary on a case earlier this year in New Zealand go to:

Tibetan Buddhism has long been known for its focus on thanatology, or the science of dying.  While in the West, most of the past two thousand years of scientific exploration has focused on the outer world, in the East, this same period has been one of focus on the mind.  This is why we find an evolved and nuanced understanding of consciousness in Buddhism.

What can ordinary Westerners take from this?  Even if we are not highly accomplished meditators, it is considered very useful to become familiar with the subjective experience of the death process, and most Tibetan Buddhists rehearse their own death very regularly.   This is not only because our familiarity will better prepare us for when the inevitable occurs.  It is also because becoming familiar with our most subtle states of consciousness is the most wonderful experience we can have.

When we are able to let go of the waves of conceptuality, and abide in the oceanic tranquility of our subtle mind, the experience of most meditators is a powerful one of home-coming.  Of authenticity, happiness and profound well-being.  Even though leaving behind the construct of the ego may seem frightening, the truth is that free from this highly restrictive and changeable mask, we discover out nature to be of an altogether different quality, one that is boundless, benevolent and beyond death.  From the perspective of subtle consciousness, one might say, death is merely a conceptual elaboration.

What happens beyond death according to Tibetan Buddhism?  I will be blogging about this in future weeks.  Click the ‘Follow’ button to receive future blogs.

And if you live in USA or Canada, don’t forget to enter the giveaway for my new book to be published in USA on 27 January 2015 – Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate:  a Rafflecopter giveaway


5 Free Copies of ‘Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate’ to give away in USA and Canada

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With the publication of ‘Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate’ in USA and Canada planned for 27 January 2015, my US publishers are offering 5 free copies via a raffle.

Entering the raffle is free of charge, and should take you no more than about half a minute .  

If the page takes a few seconds to load, close your eyes, take a deep, mindful breath, and let go ..!


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Awakening to the true value of life – in a mortuary

 kariba sunset

A couple of weeks ago I had one of those ‘catching up on the last ten years’ phone calls with a friend who lives in Germany.  Jacqui is amazing, amusing and vivacious, a woman of great inner and outer beauty.  She had a successful modelling career in South Africa, where we met, as well as in Europe after she moved there.  She is also full of surprises.  She told me how in recent months she had volunteered to work in the local mortuary, helping stitch up corpses after post-mortems.

I asked what working at the mortuary was like.  She told me how there is nothing like arriving at work to a whole new batch of corpses each and every day, to make you realise that death is totally normal and inevitable.  How the number of corpses the same age or younger than you is a constant reminder that death happens all the time, irrespective of age.  How she’d learned that you can’t judge people from the way they look.  A body may seem quite normal on the outside, but then the doctors open them up to reveal the most grotesque abnormalities.

I asked if working at the mortuary had changed the way she lived.  She said it had changed everything.  Specifically, she now lives with the constant awareness that she is going to die.  She has cleared out her wardrobes of all the clothes she previously thought she might wear “one day”.  Now she keeps only a much smaller selection of the clothes she feels good wearing.  Similarly, the rest of the house has been cleared of extraneous clutter.  She joked how the family drinks orange juice at breakfast from the best crystal – why keep it only for special occasions in the future which may never happen?

She said she’d never touch a cigarette again, having seen what it does to your lungs.  She doesn’t bother keeping up with people for the sake of being part of the ‘in-crowd’ – life really is too short.  All the time she was telling me this, Jacqui was laughing and animated:  far from the reality of death being a burden, living in constant awareness of it seemed to make her feel liberated.  Keenly eager to make the most of each moment.  More acutely aware of what really matters.  And more grateful for being alive and healthy right now.

As it happens, these are some of the reasons that contemplating death is such a big subject in Tibetan Buddhism.  Buddha emphasized the importance of realising the truth of one’s own death – a ‘realisation’ being when your understanding of a subject deepens to the point that it changes your behaviour.  As it has for Jacqui.

Much of the time we are, to use a favourite Buddhist analogy, like sheep grazing in the paddock outside an abattoir, ignoring the steady stream of our fellow creatures who are disappearing from our midst, never to be seen again.  But waking up to the reality that we too, will face that doorway, and perhaps much sooner than we think, is critical if we are to get the most out of each and every moment of our lives.

Recognising just how finite our life is, helps us realise its value.  Prioritize what is important to us.  Let go of what is not.  Perhaps a few weeks stint as mortuary assistants would help many more of us discover greater happiness and meaning.  Though I’m not sure if that idea would catch on!

I will soon be blogging much more about the death process and the fascinating view of life after death from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective.  If you’d like to get these blogs, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now.

You’ll find more on this important subject in my books Buddhism for Busy People and Enlightenment to Go.

ETG cover US


BBP US cover

Christmas gift suggestions for the person with everything


There’s something sobering about watching a small child toss aside a half-opened Christmas present in the hope of finding a more instantly gratifying one in the pile beneath it.  Or observing an office manager remove a festive hamper from reception with a frown that seems to say ‘Not another delivery of shortbread and Chardonnay!’

Every year at this time, perhaps in a fit of Bah-Humbug-itis, I reflect on how much money we knowingly spend on unwanted gifts when a tiny fraction of it would dramatically change the lives of others.

Sometimes it is just not possible to give someone the benefit of a donation made on their behalf.    But sometimes it is.  It’s never too early for kids to learn the happiness that comes from giving as well as receiving (see Happiness versus pleasure  And how wonderful if, by giving a gift, we seed curiosity in a cause that helps provide new energy and purpose to someone’s life?

If you’re struggling to find a gift for the person with everything, I’d like to make the following suggestions:

Sponsor a Tibetan Buddhist Nun: $365


You can sponsor a nun for a year at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery for $365.  Nunneries in the Himalayas have traditionally been the very poor relatives of monasteries.  But the extraordinary and inspiring Western nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, who I have no doubt is a true bodhisattva, has established a wonderful nunnery in India where girls are accommodated, fed, cared for and provided with a mainstream education as well as taught about Buddhism.

This is a truly life-transforming gift for a girl who may otherwise be left to fend for herself in a society where there is no social support system, limited opportunities for self-improvement and where poverty and hardship are on a completely different scale from what most of us experience in the West.

For more information to to:  (As a suggestion, you may like to supplement this gift with a copy of one of Tenzin Palmo’s books: (

Befriend a bear: $100


Animals Asia is a truly amazing organisation and I believe its founder, Jill Robinson, to be the Mother Theresa of the animal world.  More than anyone else she has successfully fought to close down bear bile farms in China – prisons of the most barbaric cruelty.  For $100 you can ‘befriend a bear’ enabling one of the former bear victims to live a life of freedom and contentment.

Befriending a bear for $100 is just the beginning.  Animals Asia is also making huge inroads preventing the systemic cruelty inflicted on dogs and cats in China, both through direct action, as well as by successful public education campaigns.

For more about the befriend a bear package, which includes a photograph of the bear and a certificate, go to:

Adopt an orang-utan: $65


Orang-utans are the most extraordinarily, gentle, intelligent and curious creatures.  The world orang-utan means ‘person of the forest,’ implying their closeness in many ways to human beings.  Tragically, thousands of orang-utans are being killed every year because of rapid de-forestation in Malaysia and Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantations.  Within ten years, orang-utans will be mostly extinct in the wild.

The Orangutan Project is among the longest-established and most successful organisations working to create reserves where orang-utans can live without threat, to rescue those who have been orphaned or injured by plantation workers, and to confiscate those who are being kept illegally as pets.  The Orangutan Project is founded and led by the highly-regarded Leif Cocks who, for over 25 years has devoted his life work to ensuring the survival of the orang-utan.

For $65 you can adopt an orang-utan, with a heart-tugging wall of candidates to choose from.  Go to:

Restore a person’s sight: $25

fred hollows

Four out of five blind people in the world don’t need to be.  They are blind because they have no access to simple but life-changing surgery.  You may not believe yourself to be a miracle worker, but for every person whose eyesight you restore, you have most certainly achieved a miracle.

The Fred Hollows Foundation is internationally renowned for its work mainly in Asia, Africa and Australia.  It is a professional organisation I would highly recommend.  For more information go to:

Save lions, servals, bats and monkeys: Any amount

vervet monkeys

The Twala Trust is an animal orphanage run in my native Zimbabwe by another inspiring animal lover and conservationist, Sarah Carter.  Twala Trust is a small organisation, but run by the most fiercely committed group of people who have opened their doors and their hearts to all kinds of orphaned animals, from lions and serval cats to vervet monkeys and others whose photos you can find at:

As a country, Zimbabwe is in deep trouble: basic utilities like electricity and water can’t be relied upon, the currency is the US dollar, and unemployment is around 80%.  Trying to manage any kind of organisation in such conditions is a struggle.  The fact that Sarah and her team continue doing it, year after year, shows their remarkable courage, dedication and love for animals.  All donations would be appreciated.  Email Sarah at:

There are so many extremely worthwhile causes, it’s really hard to pick out just a few.  But these are charities I know well and which do extraordinary work.  In some countries donations are tax deductible.  But so what?  Who cares?  Be guided by your heart, and if you find this short-list of suggested gifts of any use, please share it with your friends.

To receive my blogs, please click the Follow button on the bottom right hand side of your screen now!

(Photos sourced from the relevant charity’s websites)

Why meditating affects you physically

homer simpson meditating

Meditation has so many physical benefits that even Homer Simpson would be keen to benefit from them, if only he could get off the sofa.  I’ve already blogged about some of these (

But why does meditation affect you physically?  How is it that, by attaching the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair, and focusing your mind on an object of meditation for ten minutes, measurable physiological changes occur?

The very fact that we might ask this question shows how deeply engrained our dualistic notion of mind and body actually is.  It was Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, who in 1637 got us going on a concept which still holds sway today.

Many people hold the unspoken view that mind and body are quite separate.  They’ll say things like “He’s broken his leg and a couple of ribs – but he’s okay,” as though the fractured bones have little or no relevance to a person’s systemic wellbeing.

But a short while later, without realising any contradiction they might say, “She was really embarrassed and blushed deep red.”

Hang on a moment!  If mind and body are entirely separate, how can embarrassing thoughts cause the blood vessels in your cheeks to dilate?

The truth is that mind and body, far from being separate, form a systemic whole.  Something that affects one, affects the other.

In the West, with our externally-focused, materialist heritage, our default mode is to look first for physical solutions.  Even when we acknowledge we have a mental problem – say depression or anxiety – we readily accept the idea of the physical solution of medication to deal with it.

But instead of always looking to the physical to affect the mental, what about the other way around?  For the truth is that what happens in our mind can change our physical state, quickly and profoundly.  If you doubt this, consider sexual arousal.  Merely the desirous wish to have sex with someone can be enough to trigger a chain of complex changes in your body.  Without the wish, even the physical presence of that person will fail to trigger arousal.

Cognition creates change.  Every thought has a physical imprint.  Almost all the time this process occurs below the threshold of our awareness.  But we can take conscious charge of it, manipulating our conscious state to optimise our physical as well as our mental well-being.  This is meditation.

Rather than working at the physical end of our mind-body system, we are operating at the mental end.  Getting our mind into its most peaceful, coherent and optimised state, thereby conveying precisely the same impacts on our body.

It’s no coincidence that meditation and medication are only one letter different.  Both come from the Latin root medeor, meaning ‘to heal’ or to make whole.  For centuries the West largely forgot one half of the equation.  (To which one might say ‘Doh!’)

One of the reasons is so exciting to be alive today is to witness the rediscovery of meditation as a tool to effect holistic change.

You’ll find a lot more of this in my latest book, Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate (Australia).  I’m really excited that the book is to be published in USA as Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate on 27 January 2015.

To receive my blogs, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

Australia, UK and Kindle edition:

Chocolate front cover 

USA edition, Pre-order for 27 January 2015:


US cover



The Benefits of Mindful Safari in Africa


MS - male lion magnificent

A recent study conducted by Harvard University Psychology Department showed that 47% of the time we are not thinking about what they are doing.  Instead we are in what neuro-scientists call a ‘narrative state’ – i.e. lost in thought, as opposed to the ‘direct state,’ when we attend to our senses.

More interestingly, there is a direct correlation between thinking about what we are doing and happiness.  The study concluded that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, but that when we think about what we are doing, we are very much happier.

The practice of mindfulness, or ‘paying attention to the present moment, deliberately and non-judgmentally’ holds a very obvious advantage in our pursuit of happiness.  Which begs the question: is there any way we can give our practice of mindfulness a head start?

Going on holiday to a new and exotic place is one obvious method.  Out of our usual rut, being exposed to vividly different sights, sounds and flavours, we can’t but attend directly to our senses more than usual.  In so doing, we are quite naturally going to be more mindful.

My own experience of holidays in distant and unfamiliar places has, however, been mixed.  Foreign travel can be a challenge if you can’t speak the language, have only vague ideas where to go, and have the stress of constantly having to decide what to do and were to eat.

Mindful Safari has been designed deliberately to deal with all the above.  Each of the six days we spend on safari is structured to provide a balance between amazing wildlife encounters, formal meditation practice and the opportunity to simply enjoy the unabashed luxury of a private game reserve.  How many of the game drives or meditation sessions you attend is, ultimately, up to you.  But apart from that you don’t have to make any decisions.  Everything else is taken care of.  You are provided with daily stimulation of encounters with lion, elephant, giraffe, hippo, buffalo, and whoever else turns up, conjoined with inner adventures which may prove equally intriguing.

The idea is to create a space in your life where you can simply be in a different way from usual.  Free from the demands of work, home and your usual world, you have time both to engage mindfully with the wonders of Africa as well as to tap into the limitless wellspring of clarity, contentment and benevolence that is your own true nature.  It is also a time of reflection, a punctuation mark in your life to consider what really matters to you and what, if anything in your world, needs to change to more authentically reflect this.

It was only after launching Mindful Safari that I discovered that ‘safari,’ a Swahili word, means ‘a long journey.’  The perfection of mindfulness is certainly that.  But I can’t think of a more wonderful support for that journey than spending time on Mindful Safari in Africa.

For more info go to:

Please note: A deposit is needed to secure your reservation.  Only 3 chalets left!

Photos – courtesy of Alistair Swartz, who lives at the reserve and would be happy to give you some wildlife photography tips!

MS - baby leopard


Try this fascinating tool to check your own subconscious beliefs

subconscious image

Here’s a fascinating exercise to try out this weekend.

I recently blogged about the challenges we face when our conscious goals are sabotaged by our subconscious minds (

Part of our dilemma, when we’re unable to follow through with an objective we have consciously set ourselves – whether it is to start to meditate; to eat more healthily; to curb an  unwanted habit, and so on – is that we don’t actually know if our subconscious mind is the problem, for the very reason that it is subconscious.

But there is a very simple way to find out if our subconscious mind is in harmony with our conscious wishes.  I first learned of it when training in hypnotherapy, and more recently was reminded about it in Bruce Lipton’s wonderful book The Honeymoon Effect.  It’s variously called ‘muscle-testing,’ ‘arm-testing,’ or ‘the muscular resistance technique.’

You’ll need someone to help, so it may be an idea for you to take it in turns to act as subject, and assistant, to help each other muscle-test ideas.

The instructions are as follows:

Hold your arm out from the side of your body at shoulder height.

Assistant applies some force to try to push your arm down.  You resist the downward pressure.  This is not an arm wrestling match.  You are trying to find a balance where you can comfortably resist your assistant’s pressure with reasonable effort.

You now test a concept which your subconscious mind is highly likely to support.  For most of us, this is as simple as saying your name.  While keeping your arm out, and while your assistant continues the downward pressure, says ‘My name is ….’

The balance between downward pressure and the your resistance will remain the same.

Now test a concept with which your subconscious mind will not be in harmony.  Maintaining the same pressure, say, ‘My name is Barack Obama.’  (If you are reading this, Mr President, may I suggest you try ‘My name is George Bush.’)

At this point, your muscular resistance will weaken, and your arm will slump down.  This is because the statement conflicts with your subconscious programming.  You can repeat the exercise with another incorrect name or fact – the same thing will happen.

Having established the method, you can now move onto more revealing concepts to test.  Concepts like ‘I accept myself the way I am,’ ‘I am fully open to giving and receiving love,’   ‘I deserve to be financially successful,’ and so on.

This is a powerful way to find out the degree of subconscious harmony with what you consciously wish for.

How do we reprogram our subconscious mind to get it on the same page as our conscious mind?  Mindfulness, hypnotherapy, habit formation, repetition and energy psychology techniques are some of the answers, which you’ll find more fully explained in The Honeymoon Effect, and which I will write about more in future months.

I’ll be sharing more on this fascinating subject.  If you would like to receive future blogs, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

And please let me know how you get on with the test!

(Image source:





Is your subconscious mind sabotaging your conscious goals?

iceberg image

Have you ever wondered why you can’t seem to follow through with certain goals you set yourself?  Some goals may come easily, but there may be others that, no matter how keen your intentions, you just can’t seem to deliver on them?

As a meditation coach, I’m acutely aware that many newcomers experience the same, very simple challenge: they just can’t seem to get into the habit of meditating.

You may be convinced by the benefits of meditating (some of which I’ve outlined in  and ).  You may dearly wish to enjoy more calm, creativity and coherence in your daily life.  But whenever you make an effort to get into the routine of meditating, something gets in the way.

That something may be your subconscious mind.

When we are not consciously mindful – that is, paying attention to the present moment, we slip onto the auto-pilot of our subconscious programming.  In his intriguing book, The Honeymoon Effect, cell biologist Bruce Lipton Ph.D. describes how the subconscious mind is largely programmed when we are very young children.  ‘None of the programming you received before the age of six came from your wishes, desires and aspirations.  It came from observing your parents and your community …’

Bruce explains how, when we embark on romantic relationships, at first we are very mindful in the company of our new companion.  As we get used to one other, and this level of mindfulness drops,  we revert to auto-pilot, and our behaviour may be quite different.  We are no longer the version of ourselves we consciously strive to be.  We are, instead, the product of the subconscious programming we downloaded, in most cases largely from parents.  The behaviour that ‘leaks out,’ whether in the form of gestures, expressions, or automatic responses, may be far from attractive.  It may also not accord at all with how we consciously wish to be.

I would highly recommend The Honeymoon Effect, and not only for its clear articulation of the subconscious mind.  The book presents a lucid, science-based and at the same time contagiously joyful explanation of who we are and how we can improve our relationships.

Both interesting as well as useful is the list of suggested ways in which we can reprogram our subconscious mind to bring it into line with our conscious goals.  As Bruce points out, the subconscious mind works to a different set of rules from the conscious one.  Appeals to reason and emotion don’t work here.  What does work are hypnosis and the power of suggestion (see:, repetition and habit formation, new techniques in the field of energy psychology, and plenty of practice and patience.

While going through these, I was struck by how many of them are the same tools used by Tibetan Buddhists to transform our experience of reality.   Concepts such as ‘purifying karma’ may seem like religious terminology to outsiders.  In reality they refer to letting go of all the unwanted programming, the deluded thinking and habitual negativity which most of us carry around in the form of unwanted baggage.

When I decided to start meditating in 1994, I decided to see a hypnotherapist to help me get out of bed 10 minutes earlier every morning.  Living in London at the time, I found waking up a real struggle.   I also knew how powerful hypnosis can be in assisting new habit formation.  The hypnotherapist informed my subconscious mind that, when my alarm went off, I would get out of bed feeling bright, fresh and eager to meditate.  The result was to create a life-enhancing habit which continues every day.

Should meditation teachers be offering hypnotherapy at the end of their introductory sessions so that students can align their subconscious minds with their conscious wishes?  It worked for me!

To buy Bruce Lipton’s The Honeymoon Effect, go to:

The Honeymoon Effect cover


I will be blogging more on the subconscious mind in the next few weeks.  To receive future blogs, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!

(Photo source:

Read the Prologue and Chapter One of The Magician of Lhasa

Magician cover



Tenzin Dorje (pronounced Ten-zin Door-jay)          

Zheng-po Monastery, Tibet

March 1959


I am alone in the sacred stillness of the temple, lighting butter lamps at the Buddha’s feet, when I first realize that something is very wrong.

“Tenzin Dorje!” Startled, I turn to glimpse the spare frame of my teacher, silhouetted briefly at the far door. “My room. Immediately!”

For a moment I am faced with a dilemma. Making offerings to the Buddha is considered a special privilege, and as a sixteen-year-old novice monk I take this duty seriously. Not only is there a particular order in which the candles must be lit, each new flame should be visualized as representing a precious gift—such as incense, music and flowers—to be offered for the sake of all living beings.

I know that nothing should prevent me from completing this important rite, but is obedience to my kind and holy teacher not more important? Besides, I can’t remember the last time that Lama Tsering used the word “immediately.” Nor can I remember a time when anyone shouted an order in the temple. Especially not Zheng-po’s highest-ranking lama.

Even though I am only half-way through lighting the candles, I quickly snuff out the taper. Bowing briefly to the Buddha, I hurry outside.

In the twilight, disruption is spreading through Zheng-po monastery like ripples from a stone thrown into a tranquil lake. Monks are knocking loudly on each other’s doors. People are rushing across the courtyard with unusual haste. Villagers have gathered outside the abbot’s office and are talking in alarmed voices and gesturing down the valley.

Slipping into my sandals, I gather my robe above my knees and, abandoning the usual monastic code, break into a run.

Lama Tsering’s room is at the furthermost end, across the courtyard and past almost all the monks’ rooms, in the very last building. Even though his status would accord him a spacious and comfortable room directly overlooking the courtyard, he insists on living next to his novices in a small cell on the edge of Zheng-po.

When I get to the room, his door is thrown open and his floor, usually swept clean, is scattered with ropes and packages I’ve never seen. His lamp is turned to full flame, making him look even taller and more disproportionate than ever as his shadow leaps about the walls and ceiling with unfamiliar urgency.

I’ve no sooner got there than I turn to find Paldon Wangpo hurrying towards me. The pair of us are Lama Tsering’s two novices but we have an even stronger karmic connection: Paldon Wangpo is my brother, two years older than I.

We knock on our teacher’s door.

Lama Tsering beckons us inside, telling us to close the door behind us. Although the whole of Zheng-po is in turmoil, his face shows no sign of panic. But there is no disguising the gravity of his expression.

“This is the day we have feared ever since the Year of the Metal Tiger,” he looks from one to the other of us with a seriousness we only usually see before an important examination. “Messengers have just arrived at the village with news that the Red Army has marched on Lhasa. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has been forced into exile. A division of the Red Army is traveling here, to Jangtang province. At this moment they are only half a day’s travel from Zheng-po.”

Paldon Wangpo and I can’t resist exchanging glances. In just a few sentences, Lama Tsering has told us that everything about our world has been turned upside down. If His Holiness has been forced to flee from the PotalaPalace, what hope is there for the rest of Tibet?

“We must assume that the Red Army is coming directly towards Zheng-po,” Lama Tsering continues quickly. From outside we hear one of the women villagers wailing. “If they travel through the night, they could arrive by tomorrow morning. Definitely, they could get here within a day.  In other parts of our country, the army is destroying monasteries, looting their treasures, burning their sacred texts, torturing and murdering the monks. There’s little doubt they have the same intentions for Zheng-po. For this reason, the abbot is asking us to evacuate.”

“Evacuate?” I can’t contain myself. “Why don’t we stay and resist?”

“Tenzin Dorje, I have shown you the map of our neighbor China,” he explains. “For every soldier they have sent to Tibet, there are ten thousand more soldiers ready to take their place. Even if we wanted to, this is not a struggle we can win.”


Paldon Wangpo reaches out, putting his hand over my mouth.

“Fortunately, our abbot and the senior lamas have been preparing for this possibility. Each of the monks has a choice. You can return to your village and continue to practice the Dharma in secret. Or you can join the senior lamas in exile.”

He holds up his hand, gesturing we shouldn’t yet reply. “Before you say you want to join us in exile, you must realize this is not some great adventure. Traveling to the border will be dangerous—the Red Army will shoot dead any monks trying to leave. Then we must try to cross the mountains on foot. For three weeks we will have to travel very long distances, living only off the food we can carry. We will have to endure much hardship and pain. Even if we finally arrive in India, we don’t know if the government will allow us to stay, or send us back over the border.”

“But if we return to our villages and continue to wear our robes,” interjects Paldon Wangpo, “the Chinese will find us anyway, and punish our families for keeping us.”

Lama Tsering nods briefly.

“If we disrobe, we would be breaking our vows.” Paldon Wangpo has always been a sharp debater. “Either way, we would lose you as our teacher.”

“What you say is true,” Lama Tsering agrees. “This is a difficult decision even for a lama, and you are novice monks. But it is important that you choose, and do so quickly. Whatever decision you make,” he regards each of us in turn, “you will have my blessing.”

From outside comes the pounding of feet as people hurry past. There can be no doubting the crisis we’re facing.

“I am getting older,” Lama Tsering tells us, kneeling down to continue packing a leather bag, which is lying on the floor. “If I had only myself to think about, I might go into hiding and take my chances with the Chinese—”

“No, Lama!” I exclaim.

Next to me, Paldon Wangpo looks sheepish. He has always been embarrassed by my impetuousness.

“But the abbot has asked me to play an important part in the evacuation.”

“I want to come with you!” I can’t hold back any longer, no matter what Paldon Wangpo thinks.

“Perhaps you like me as a teacher,” Lama Tsering is cautioning. “But as a fellow traveler it will be very different. You are young and strong, but I may become a liability. What happens if I fall and hurt myself?”

“Then we will carry you across the mountains,” I declare.

Beside me Paldon Wangpo is nodding.

Lama Tsering looks up at us, an intensity in his dark eyes I have seen only on rare occasions.

“Very well,” he tells us finally. “You can come. But there is one very important condition I have to tell you about.”

Moments later we are leaving his room for our own, having promised to return very quickly. As I make my way through the turmoil in the corridor outside I can hardly believe the condition that Lama Tsering has just related. This is, without question, the worst day in the existence of Zheng-po, but paradoxically for me it is the day I have found my true purpose. My vocation. The reason I have been drawn to the Dharma.

Opening my door, I look around the small room that has been my world for the past ten years: the wooden meditation box, three feet square; the straw mattress on the baked-earth floor; my change of robes and toiletry bag, the two belongings monks are allowed at Zheng-po.

It is hard to believe that I will never again sit in this meditation box, never again sleep on this bed. It is even more incredible that I, Tenzin Dorje, a humble novice monk from the village of Ling, have been accorded one of the rarest privileges of Zheng-po and of our entire lineage. For together with Paldon Wangpo, and under the guidance of my kind and holy teacher, we are to undertake the highest and most sacred mission of the evacuation. It means that our flight from Tibet will be much more critical, and more dangerous.

But for the first time ever, at sixteen years of age, I feel in my heart that I have a special part to play.

My time has come.




Chapter One


Matt Lester

Imperial Science Institute, London

April 2007

I’m sitting in the cramped cubby-hole that passes for my office, late on an overcast Friday afternoon, when my whole world changes.

“Harry wants to see you in his office,” Pauline Drake, tall, angular and not-to-be-messed with, appears around the door frame two feet away. She looks pointedly at the telephone, which I’ve taken off its cradle, before meeting my eyes with a look of droll disapproval. “Right away.”

I glance over the paperwork strewn across my desk. It’s the last Friday of the month, which means that all timesheets have to be in by five. As research manager for Nanobot, it’s my job to collate team activities, and I take pride in the fact that I’ve never missed a deadline.

But it’s unusual for Harry to dispatch his formidable secretary down from the third floor. Something must be up.

A short while later I’m getting out from behind my desk. It’s not a straightforward maneuver. You have to rise from the chair at forty-five degrees to avoid hitting the shelves directly above, before squeezing, one leg at a time, through the narrow gap between desk and filing cabinet. Then there’s the walk through a rabbit’s warren of corridors and up four flights of a narrow, wooden staircase with its unyielding aroma of industrial disinfectant and wet dog hair.

As I make my way across the open plan section of the third floor, I’m aware of people staring and talking under their breath. When I make eye contact with a couple of the HR people they glance away, embarrassed.

Something’s definitely up.

To get to the corner office, I first have to pass through the anteroom where Pauline has returned to work noiselessly at her computer. She nods towards Harry’s door. Unusually, it is closed. Even more unusually, an unfamiliar hush has descended on his office, instead of the usual orchestral blast.

When I arrive, it’s to find Harry standing, staring out the window at his less-than-impressive view over the tangled gray sprawl of railway lines converging on King’s Cross station. Arms folded and strangely withdrawn, I get the impression he’s been waiting especially for me.

As I appear he gestures, silently, to a chair across from his desk.

Harry Saddler is the very model of the mad professor, with a few non-standard eccentricities thrown in for good measure. Mid-fifties, bespectacled, with a shock of spiky, gray hair, in his time he’s been an award-winning researcher. More recent circumstances have also forced him to become an expert in the area of public-private partnerships. It was he who saved the centuries-old institute, and all our jobs, by completing a deal with Acellerate, a Los Angeles-based biotech incubator, just over a year ago.

“A short while ago I had a call from L.A. with the news I’ve been half-expecting for the past twelve months,” he tells me, his expression unusually serious. “Acellerate has finished their review of our research projects. They like Nanobot,” he brushes fallen cigarette ash off his lapel. “They really like Nanobot. So much that they want to move the whole kit and caboodle to California. And as the program originator and research manager, they want you there, too.”

The news takes me completely by surprise. Sure, there’ve been visitors from the States during the past year and earnest talk of information exchange, but I never expected the deal with Acellerate to have such direct, personal impact. Or to be so sudden.

“They’re moving very quickly on this,” continues Harry. “They want you there in six weeks ideally. Definitely eight. Blakely is taking a personal interest in the program.”

“Eight weeks?” I’m finding this overwhelming. “Why do I have to move to California at all? Can’t they invest in what we’re doing over here?”

Harry shakes his head in weary resignation. “You’ve seen the new shareholder structure,” he says. “As much as Acellerate talks about respecting our independence, the reality is that they hold a controlling interest. They call the shots. They can strip what they like out of the institute and there’s really not a lot we can do to stop them.”

I’m not thinking about Acellerate. I’m thinking about my fiancée, Isabella.

Harry mistakes the cause of my concern. “If you look at what’s happened to the other research programs Acellerate has taken to L.A.,” he reassures me, “they’ve gone stratospheric.” Pausing, he regards me more closely for a long while before querying in a low voice, “Isabella?”


“She’ll go with you!”

“It’s not that simple. She’s only just been promoted. And you know how close she is to her family.” I glance away from him to the where a commuter train is chugging slowly into the station.

Harry and I go way back and he knows a lot about Isabella and me—he’s been there since the beginning. But the main problem with Isabella leaving London is something that’s only happened very recently. Something I haven’t told him about. The truth is, Isabella and I are still getting to grips with the enormity of the news ourselves.

“A girl like her,” Harry has met her at institute functions over the years, “she’ll get a job like that in Los Angeles,” he snaps his fingers. “And you’ll be giving her family a good excuse to visit Disneyland.”

As always, Harry is trying to focus on the positive. I understand, and I’m all the more appreciative because I know how hard this must be for him. Nanobot has always been one of his favorites. It was Harry who brought me into the institute when he discovered the subject of my master’s thesis. Harry nurtured the program through its early stages. He and I enjoy a close relationship—more than my boss, he’s also my mentor and confidant. Now, just as the program’s starting to get interesting, he’s having it taken off him. What’s more, who’s to say it will end with Nanobot? It seems that Acellerate can cherry-pick whatever they like from the institute and leave Harry with all the leftovers. Small wonder he’s in no mood for the Three Tenors.

“Try to see this as the opportunity that it is,” he tells me. “With Acellerate behind you, you can ramp up the program way beyond what we can afford here. You could get to prototype stage in two to three years instead of seven or eight. The sky really is the limit.”

I’m watching the fingers of his right hand rapping the desk.

“You’ll be working at the heart of nanotech development for one of the best-funded scientific institutes on earth. Plus you can catch a suntan.”

I look up, eyebrows raised. Tanning is not a subject in which I’ve ever had an interest. As Harry well knows.

“Think of it as a great adventure!”

His phone rings, and we hear Pauline answering it outside. Evidently Harry has told her we aren’t to be disturbed—something he’s never done before.

There’s another pause before I finally say, “I guess whatever way you package it, I don’t have much choice do I? I mean, Acellerate isn’t going to leave the program in London just because of Isabella and me.”

Harry regards me significantly, “Of all the programs we’re running, yours is the most likely to make the most revolutionary impact. You’re the first cab off the rank, Matt. It’s flattering that Acellerate is so keen to take you off us.”

“It’s a bit sudden, that’s all,” I’m nodding. “I mean, ten minutes ago, my main concern was getting the time sheets in.”

Harry regards me with a look of benevolent expectation.

“I’ll have to get used to the idea.”


And speak to Isabella.”

“Of course.” Harry reaches into a desk drawer, takes out a large white envelope which he hands me across the desk.

“Before you make up your mind, you might like to study the terms and conditions,” he says.


A short while later I’m heading back to my office in a daze. Not only is Harry’s announcement life-changing, the conditions of my appointment are way beyond anything I could have imagined. Almost too much to believe.

As I return through HR, I’m so preoccupied I don’t notice anyone. Even the reek of the stairs passes me by. I’m trying to get my head around the paradox that this is terrible news for the Imperial Science Institute, but an amazing opportunity for me. It’s even more confounding that Isabella is about to be upset by what is an opportunity for me beyond my wildest dreams.

I have to speak to Isabella.
The Magician of Lhasa can be ordered through your local bookstore and is available from major online retailers.

David at Tiger's Nest

I will be blogging about some of the themes from the book in future weeks.  To get blogs, please press the yellow Follow button on the bottom right hand of your screen now!


Mindfulness at Work Seminar: Perth, 12 December 2014

meditating at work

Challenges At Work

The challenges we face at work are unprecedented and multiplying.  They include technological advancements demanding immediate, round-the-clock responsiveness; increasingly onerous regulation, tougher performance measurements; unprecedented volatility in our external environments and the constant need to do more with less.

These challenges are not insurmountable.  But they do require a new approach. Sustained stress is enough reason to explore new ways of working.  But its impact can be a lot greater than on ourselves alone.  When we suffer from stress, our behaviour cascades through the workplace. Culturally stressed organisations promote fear-driven, risk-averse behaviour that limits corporate performance.

By contrast, when we’re able to access sustainable ways to self-regulate, and operate at an optimal mental level, we promote very different dynamics.  We are at the top of our game, benefiting from high level critical thinking and innovation, objectivity and perspective, greater empathy and the promotion of happier relationships and teams. Research shows that more mindful workplaces are also more productive, engaged – and profitable.

How You And Your Organisation Benefit From Mindfulness At Work

Just as physical training delivers quantifiable performance improvements, neuro-scientific research shows that mindfulness training can deliver dramatically enhanced working capabilities.  These may be categorised under the four pillars of mindfulness:

Self Awareness

  • Greater self-awareness, including of your own strengths and weaknesses and how your behaviours impact on others
  • Enhanced clarity supporting more objectivity and the ability to mindfully respond rather than automatically react
  • The capacity to recognise habitual thinking patterns – avoiding those that don’t serve you well, and promoting those that are helpful
  • Understanding the nature of your own mind, and how to tap into your underlying qualities of tranquillity and well-being


  • Increased capacity to see thoughts merely as thoughts – not facts or truths
  • Diminished engagement in negative self-talk and destructive self-criticism
  • Improved ability to experience situations and encounters without judgement, especially self-judgement
  • Enhanced self-acceptance and willingness to ‘be yourself’ without the need for role-playing
  • Greater connection to those values important to you


  • Keeping calmer under pressure, enhancing decision-making and supporting greater output
  • Stronger resilience to stress and emotional upset, making you less vulnerable to distraction
  • Enhanced feeling of purpose and ability to prioritise
  • Creating space in your schedule by changing  not what you do, but how you do it
  • Greater innovation and creativity arising from a more relaxed, playful state of mind
  • Ultimately, developing a more coherent sense of the meaning you find in your work


  • Improved ability to pay attention to others when engaging with them
  • Techniques to improve your meetings and conversations
  • Cultivating greater self-compassion arising from greater objectivity
  • Deepening your relationships with others
  • Helping create a culture of compassion rather than ultimatums

When:      12 December, 2014, 9.30 am – 4 pm

Where:     Heathcote – Murray House, 58-60 Duncraig Road, Applecross

Cost:        $985 (plus GST)

Contact:   Email:

Who will coach you?

Mindfulness at Work has been developed over several years by two of Australia’s most experienced corporate mindfulness trainers, Clare Goodman and David Michie.

Clare Goodman pic

Clare Goodman works exclusively with CEOs and executives to achieve business growth by enhancing their skills and abilities to unify, engage and lead their people. Her focus is to build the strength of the organisation via the development of strong leadership capability. She has held a series of senior leadership roles in Australia and Europe and has also established and grown successful consultancy practices in the UK and Australia. Her advice and insight is based on significant commercial experience as well as academic rigour.

Using a range of interactive and communicative approaches, she engages individuals, understands their motivations and resolves conflicts. By delivering intense and comprehensive feedback to each participating individual, a strong and enduring platform is built that ensures their reflection, learning and development as leaders.

David Michie is the internationally best-selling author of a number of books on mindfulness and meditation, including Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate, Hurry Up and Meditate, Buddhism for Busy People and the much-loved Dalai Lama’s Cat series of novels.  His books have been translated into over 20 different languages and are available in over 30 countries.

Living in Perth, David regularly teaches mindfulness and meditation seminars to a variety of audiences through the AIMWA-UWA Business School Executive Education as well as to a wide range of corporate, non-for-profit and other groups. He is a regular speaker at leading Australian forums such as the Happiness & Its Causes conference series.  Having spent most of his life working in corporate public relations, David has a passion for sharing the practice of meditation and mindfulness training from which he has personally benefited so greatly, and which he believes are more important than ever before to busy, working people.


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