Are Buddhists non-theists or atheists – and what’s the difference?

HHDL in St Stephen's Cathedral

Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, meaning that it does not involve a belief in God.  The focus of Buddhism is on the nature of mind.  What concerns Buddhists is an understanding of how consciousness works, not only in theory but more importantly in practise.  Our goal is to take charge of our own mental continuum, both for our own benefit as well as for the benefit of those around us.  We are offered not only a comprehensive tool box of techniques to help achieve this, but also a living tradition of more advanced meditators who provide living evidence that we all possess the innate potential of subtle consciousness, the nature of which is a boundlessness and radiance beyond anything that most people ever suspect.

Buddhists don’t invoke God in any of this.  Does that make us atheists?  In my view – and I should stress that this blog is necessarily personal – the answer to that question depends on two things.  The first is your definition of atheism.

If you define atheism as the absence of a belief that God exists, then you might say that such a definition equates to the non-theism of Buddhism.

But atheism can go way beyond the absence of a belief.  Some atheists don’t merely lack a belief in God.  They have a strong, emotional investment in the belief that God does not exist.  To me, these atheists seem every bit as intolerant of alternative views as religious fundamentalists – not to mention as evangelical in their determination to convert others to their own point of view.  It is not good enough for them to believe that God does not exist.  They want to impose their beliefs on everyone else.  Buddhism is definitely not on the same page as this version of atheism.

The second, much more interesting matter, is how you define God.  If you have, as your starting point, a notion of God as the uncle in the attic, then there is little common ground.  If, on the other hand, your starting point is that there can be only one ultimate reality, that the nature of this reality is beyond concept, that, over the past few thousand years different cultures have pointed to this non-conceptual reality in a variety of ways, and that ultimately we are all on the same journey, as Albert Einstein put it, ‘to attain liberation from the self’, then this is somewhere that different traditions can perhaps find some common ground.

Which perhaps goes some way to explaining how one of the first members of the Tibetan Buddhist group I belong to, was a Christian monk!

I’ve chosen as an image to accompany this post, a photo of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, in 2012.  The Dalai Lama has always urged people to stay with the tradition of their own culture, and to use Buddhism, not to become Buddhists, but to become better Christians, Muslims, atheists or whoever-they-are.

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Do animals have souls that go to heaven? The Buddhist view.

muse reading book cropped

Late last year there was quite a stir when it was reported that Pope Francis had told a young boy that animals have souls which go to heaven.  The story grabbed the headlines because it was the opposite of the previous Papal position.  Within 24 hours the story had been repeated so often that it was an assumed fact – until denied by senior Vatican observers.
According to the authoritative Catholic Herald, Pope Francis never said any such thing.

I was brought up as a Presbyterian and the ambiguity of the Christian view of animals was a cause of concern to me.  My parents and kindly church minister assured me that the souls of my dearly-loved pets would be looked after by God when they died.  These assurances could not be backed up with scriptural reference, however, and I always suspected a fudge.  I would have been more reassured by a definitive, Biblical quote, ideally from Jesus himself or, at a pinch, St Paul.

One of the many attractions of Buddhism to me is its common sense approach to this subject.  For starters, there is no notion of a soul.  Instead, Buddhism talks about mind or consciousness.  As conscious beings, we are aware that animals are conscious too.  The Tibetan Buddhist phrase for sentient beings is “sem chen” or “mind haver.”  Whether a being is a cat, human or cockroach, it has mind.

All sentient beings share three self-evident qualities.  The first is that the most precious thing in the world to us is our own life.  We are fearful of whatever threatens it and will go to any lengths to preserve it.  When my wife removed a snail from the step of the gym she attends, early one morning before the doors were opened, one of her fellow class goers wrinkled her nose in disgust.  ‘The snail’s life is as important to the snail as your life is to you,’ she explained to her fellow cyclist.  The latter clearly thought she was mad.  But several months later she confessed to my wife that she’d given a lot of thought to what she had said and couldn’t fault the logic.  She no longer put down snail bait around her roses, she added – now she removed snails and dropped them over the garden wall!

The second quality we all share is that we wish for happiness and constantly seek out what we see as the sources of happiness.  Interestingly, even these are very similar whether human or non-human.  Readers familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will note that most lower-order needs – food, shelter, security, social – are identical whether human, pig or bird.

The third quality is that we all wish to avoid suffering – and again, notions of suffering are more similar across human and non-human “sem chens” than many people ever consider.  In most cases, people actively avoid considering them so as not to confront the cognitive dissonance involved, say, in eating bacon given our understanding of the proven intelligence and sensitivity of pigs.

While the mental capacity of human beings is unique and, for this reason, Buddhists sometimes refer to the human form as being like a vase containing a great treasure, nevertheless, at the most basic level, we all possess consciousness.  What happens to this when we die?

Whether human or other beings, the end result of the death process is that very subtle consciousness moves onto new experiences propelled by the conditioning of previous ones.  As pet lovers we have the opportunity, even the responsibility, to help our pets have conditions where they can avoid harmful behaviour, and have their mental continuum imprinted with positive, peaceful experiences.   A very useful practice is to murmur mantras to your pet when he or she is relaxed and peaceful, thereby creating an association between the mantra and a positive state of being.  Repeating this mantra at the time of the pet’s death may hopefully help him or her die in a more positive way.

Buddhists sometimes use the phrase ‘mother sentient beings.’  This is to make explicit the notion that, since beginningless time we have had any number of relationships with every other living being, including them having been our mother.  Realising this simple notion revolutionises our attitude to animals.

In summary, the Buddhist view is that animals have minds; they seek happiness and the avoidance of suffering; and it is their subtle consciousness propelled by conditioning that has brought them to their current experience of reality – just like us.  They may have been our mother, lover or best friend in a previous lifetime.  If they share their lives with us, as pets do, there is an extremely strong connection between us.  Their capacity for self-development in this lifetime is limited, but we have the power to help them, in particular to imprint their mental continuum with the causes for future exposure to virtue and positive influences.  What a privilege and a joy!

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I have written a lot more about the nature of mind in my latest book:

Australia, UK and Kindle edition:

Chocolate front cover 

USA and Canada:


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(Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Otty – human companion to the delightful Muse!)

Why my new book is NOT called ‘Mindfulness is Better than Sex’

US cover

Book titles can be challenging for an author.  In a noisy world where everyone is competing for people’s attention, how do you distill the essence of a 300 page book into a title and strapline of just a few words?  And do so in a way that makes a reader want to pick the book up or click for more?

I am well aware that store shelves are heaving with books on mindfulness and meditation.  At first glance they may seem to cover the same ground.  But as a mindfulness teacher, I realised that none of them provided a lucid account not only of the stress management benefits of meditation, but also of the many other physical and psychological benefits.  An explanation of why mindfulness, coupled with cognitive behaviour training can profoundly shift our inner narrative from a negative to a positive trajectory.  And most important of all, an account of what exactly mind is, and the nuts and bolts of how we can experience our own true nature.

Grappling with a way to package together these diverse themes, I came up with all kinds of possible titles.  The problem was, they took themselves too seriously.  And there are plenty of worthy but dull titles out there already.

Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate suddenly bubbled up in my mind, appealing mainly because it is playful and provocative  (“Oh no it isn’t!” I could hear people protest immediately.  “What nonsense is this?  I have to read more …”)

Some weeks after coming up with the title I was at the gym where, over the years, I have discovered many parallels between mind training and physical training, duly shared in the book.  No doubt it was an excess of endorphins after a particularly vigorous workout which saw me return home and share my latest brainwave:

‘I’ve had a new idea for the title,’ I told my wife, who was working on her laptop.  ‘Mindfulness is Better than Sex.’

She looked at me with that expression of patient indulgence that women use when their partners present them with a particularly ludicrous idea.  (Or am I the only one?)

‘I thought,’ she said after a while, ‘that your readers are mostly middle-aged women?’

‘They are.’ I agreed.

‘Well then,’ she shrugged, as though the answer was obvious.  ‘You’re much better off sticking with chocolate.’

As it happened, when researching the book further I discovered a separate, scientific basis for my wife’s argument.  I didn’t tell her about it – of course – but it’s there in the book if you choose to read it.

I’m especially thrilled that the US edition of the book was published just last week.   Yes, it’s in-store and online right now! The covers for both English language print editions are shown below.  And you can find audio editions in all the usual formats if you prefer listening to reading.

In future weeks I will be blogging about a number of different themes from the book.  They are subjects I get really excited about like how is it that mindfulness can make you happy, and what exactly is the nature of mind.  I’ll also be throwing in a few curve balls like – do animals have souls?  If all this sounds like it’s up your street, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom right hand of your screen now.


Australia, UK and Kindle edition:

Chocolate front cover 

USA and Canada:


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The bardo states and achieving positive rebirth

 kariba sunrise

In the past few weeks I’ve been blogging about the death process according to Tibetan Buddhism.  I have been very encouraged by the number of readers showing an interest in what I believe is such an important subject.  To complete the brief overview, this blog is about the Tibetan Buddhist approach to after-death bardo states and rebirth.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll take the previous blogs as read.  If you haven’t seen them yet, you’ll find links at the end of this blog.

People who have prepared well for their death are able to use it as an opportunity to break free of the endless cycle of birth, ageing, death and rebirth.  Experiencing the most subtle states of consciousness, they are able to identify with the boundless nature of their own primordial mind, rather than suffering from existential self-grasping.

Many of us are not like that.  Even in our most subtle state, such is the strength of our habitual clinging to a me, myself and I, that we continue to do so, thereby unknowingly directing our consciousness towards embodiment.  The process we go through, sometimes known as a bardo state, can see our subtle consciousness have all manner of experiences, lasting from just  a few moments to up to 49 days.

Just as there is no ‘standard’ experience of life, there is also no standard experience of the bardo.  But as Tulku Thondop says in  Peaceful Death Joyful Rebirth – a book I’d highly recommend if you’d like to explore this subject further – ‘If the awareness of peace, joy, and openness has become part of our mental character while we were alive, then in the bardo all our mental states and the phenomena around us will arise as positive appearances and experiences.’

The opposite is also true.  Whether our experience of bardo is like a pleasant dream or a hideous nightmare is entirely dependent on our mental conditioning.  Without the physical anchor of our body, our consciousness is capable of traversing all manner of experiences with the same levels of intensity we have when dreaming.  It’s important to note that our experiences, positive or negative, are a projection of our own minds, just as they are when we dream.

In the bardo seeking self-existence, our conditioning propels us towards beings and places with whom we share a strong connection.  I sometimes hear people confidently say that we all consciously choose to be born in a particular place, or choose to go through certain experiences/relationships in any particular lifetime.  This is not the view of Buddhism.  It certainly doesn’t explain why the majority of beings choose to be born as insects, fish and other animals, whose opportunity for personal growth – and, one imagines, happiness – is limited.

The Buddhist view is that the force of conditioning is what propels us into future lives, and also what predisposes us to be drawn to our future parents. At some point we make a connection, entering a fertilised egg, thereby setting the parameters of the next lifetime’s experience of reality.

As Westerners, when we first encounter Buddhist teachings on death, they can seem weird and/or daunting.  I guess the basic questions we all need to answer for ourselves are: what is the nature of consciousness and where does it come from?

The Buddhist view that subtle consciousness has an energetic quality is something that resonates with me personally.  While energy may change form, it is never destroyed.  It also makes sense to me that that causality applies to our experience of reality.  Looking around at people who represent extreme cases of misery or optimism, it’s easy to see how one’s world view is shaped far more by what goes on in one’s mind than by anything external to it.

What we take from all this is that even if we are unable to free ourselves from our own, self-grasping instincts when we abide in clear light at the end of this lifetime, if we strive to live in a positive, altruistic way, we are creating the causes for future positive experiences.  Whether we find inspiration in Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or Richard Dawkins – or none of the above – a life of generosity, ethics, patience and mind-training can only yield the sweetest fruits.

Buddha once summarised his own teachings as ‘Abandon harmfulness.  Cultivate goodness.  Subdue your mind.’  One thing that excites me about the increasing weight of contemporary research on wellbeing is that these same principles also underpin the basis of happiness and fulfilment in this life.  So if there are some aspects of the Buddhist view of death and rebirth you can’t get your head around, or disagree with, then no problem.  If you believe that consciousness is purely a brain function, that’s okay too.  Seeking well-being and inner peace in this lifetime by leading a positive and wholesome life, you are also optimising your future experiences of reality.

Now there’s a happy coincidence!

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Links to blog on:

How we die:

Life after death:

You’ll find an extensive explanation of the nature of mind in my new book Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate, out now in print, ebook and audio formats around the world:


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Chocolate front cover

To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to:





A meditation for this precious New Year

 meditating monk


Happy New Year!  You and I, dear reader, are among the top 0.0000001% of the world’s population.

How can I make such an extraordinary pronouncement?

The population to which I refer is that of all sentient beings – not just humans.  To be born as one of only 7 billion humans on a planet of numberless billions of other life forms, with far less capacity for personal growth or happiness, is extraordinary.

Among the tiny proportion of people, if you are reading this on your own computer, you are among only 4 out of every 100 humans.  Materially you may think you’re fairly normal, but taking a broader view of the world’s population, you are probably among the more affluent fraction of the top few percent.

That’s just the start.  What about your education, formal or informal?  Your IQ and emotional intelligence (EQ) – the ability to delay gratification?  Your ability to access information about wisdom traditions which, until even 10 years ago, were unavailable without the most strenuous effort?

More importantly, the fact that you have an interest in understanding the nature of consciousness and optimising it, transports you to a preposterously tiny fraction of a fraction of one percent.  Seeking to illustrate this very point, Buddha once used the analogy of a blind, crippled turtle that rises to the surface of the ocean every hundred years and just happens to stick its head through a wooden yoke that’s floating on it.

That’s you.  And me.

What can we take from this analysis at the start of 2015?  Plenty.  But an obvious implication is to make the most of this precious life.  We are among a very, very rare, privileged few.  This opportunity is fleeting and may be over before we imagine.  How can we use it to best effect, both for ourselves and for others?

Let me offer the following meditation for the New Year:

Adopt a meditation posture and settle the mind with breath-based meditation for a few minutes.

Having calmed the mind to some extent, ask yourself this: ‘What is my highest purpose in this life?’

Observe what arises in your mind.  If you become distracted, return your focus to the question.

After 5 or 10 minutes, ask yourself: ‘What resources do I need from the outside world to make this happen?’  Visualise breathing in these resources, and intend that you have access to them.

After 5 or 10 minutes, ask yourself: ‘What resources do I need from myself to make this happen?’  Visualise breathing in these resources, and intend that you have access to them.

After 5 or 10 minutes end your meditation thinking:

May I achieve my highest purpose

Quickly, easily and completely,

Not only for my own sake,

But for the sake of all living beings without exception.


May all beings have happiness and the true causes of happiness,

May all beings be free from suffering and the true causes of suffering,

May all beings enjoy vibrant good health and abundance, and

May all beings find their highest purpose and be an inspiration to others.


(Photo source:

Three questions to help set priorities in the year ahead

3 questions to ask

At this time of year, many of us step back from our usual routine, and take time to reconnect with family and friends from our past.  We also, quite naturally, contemplate the year/s ahead.  Whether you are a formal goal-setter, or prefer to reflect on your purpose in a less structured way, I hope you find the following three questions helpful.

They are not my own questions.  They come from George Kinder, father of the life planning movement.  And they really resonate with me:

  1. If you had all the money in the world, how would you change your life?
  2. If you knew you had only 5 – 10 years to live, how would you change your life?
  3. If you were told you had only 24 hours to live, what would you have missed?

Each of these questions in turn prompts other questions.  For example, if I had all the money in the world I would have a schedule based on what I want to do, rather than what I feel I have to do.  I would want to do more regular yoga classes. But could I re-arrange my life so that I could do that now ..?

I hope these questions bring a richness to your reflections.

For more on George Kinder, go to:

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Life after death – the Tibetan Buddhist view


 candle lighting another

In the West, there are two mainstream models to describe happens when we die.  On the one hand, the Judao-Christian tradition teaches that each of us has a soul which separates from the body at death and goes to heaven or hell for eternity.  On the other, the materialistic model suggests that matter is all that exists, and that our mind equals our brain, so that when we die, consciousness dies too.

Tibetan Buddhism offers a third view.  It is that a very subtle form of consciousness remains after physical functioning ceases (see my last blog: ).  This subtle consciousness might be regarded as a form of energy and is something that cannot be created or destroyed, but it can and does change form.  It is subtle consciousness that moves onto new experiences of reality.

Some key concepts

To step back for a moment, the Tibetan Buddhist view of consciousness is panoramic.  One single lifetime in the context of eternity is like a flash of lightening, or a waterfall cascading down a mountainside – extremely brief.  (How often people facing death ask: was that it?  Is that all?)

Also, although our experience of reality right now may be that of a human being, it may not always be so.  Consider all the possibilities of consciousness we are aware of – how many animals there are on planet earth compared to humans, just for starters.  Buddhist cosmology sees the earth as being like a grain of sand on an endless beach – that is, there are limitless other possibilities of consciousness beyond those we currently perceive.

Along with these concepts is another important one.  Although we believe there to be an external and independent reality outside ourselves with which we interact throughout our life, this notion is flawed.  As  Erwin Schrödinger, a quantum physicist summed up: “Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his own mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence.”  Two and a half millennia before, Buddha explained the same principle in much the same way: “The objective world rises from the mind itself.”

The big picture over time, therefore, is of a myriad subtle consciousnesses taking a myriad different forms, living and dying and being born in different forms again, each time manifesting different experiences of an apparently objective reality, which is actually nothing other than a projection of their own minds.

What is driving this constantly revolving wheel of conscious experience?  Mind itself, propelled by conditioning.

The subjective experience of death

Given this very brief overview, let’s return to the question of what happens to our subtle consciousness when we die.  The death process ends with our experiencing the most subtle form of consciousness, sometimes called clear light (as described in my previous blog).  If we are not familiar with our own subtle consciousness, when death comes we will not recognise clear light as the nature of our own mind, but as an existential void.  We will wonder ‘What about me?’  This habitual grasping for a self, our most instinctive conditioning, is precisely what propels us into a state of future embodiment, and depending on what arises in our mind at the time, that embodiment could be in any number of forms – human, animal or other.

But death also presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break free from the cycle.  If we can achieve some familiarity with our own subtle consciousness during life, we can take charge of our future destiny.  Step off the wheel.  Abide in a state of abiding peacefulness and bliss.  With the motivation to help others to achieve freedom, Tibetan Buddhism sets out a path to complete enlightenment.

In short, death presents us with a choice.  Not one which will be decided by an external deity.  Instead, one which is determined by our own actions.  Most beings are unaware that such a choice exists, so unknowingly perpetuate an endless cycle of birth, ageing, sickness and death.  But every act of body, speech and mind conditions our mental continuum for future experiences, whether inside this cycle – or out.  I have more about this in future blogs.

I’d like to end this longer than usual blog with a reminder of one of Buddha’s best-known suggestions: we shouldn’t believe a word he, or anyone else says, until we test it against our own experience.  I would urge you to investigate the nature of consciousness for yourself through meditation.  To explore the implications of quantum science on your experience of reality (I’d recommend Einstein and Buddha edited by Wes Nisker, or The Quantum and the Lotus by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan). To read the accounts of meditation masters who go beyond death and return to share their experiences (Incarnation by Tulku Thondup).

A human life has been described as being like a visit to an island of jewels – the opportunities we have for personal growth, compared with other beings, are abundant and easy to find.  It is up to us not to waste our precious time being overwhelmed by mundane pursuits.  We can instead choose to focus on what is of ultimate importance.  Each one of us already possesses the potential for freedom and transcendence – it is implicit in the nature of our own minds.  We only need discover this liberating reality for ourselves.

In future weeks I will be blogging about the bardo states and achieving positive rebirth. If you’d like to see my blogs, please click the ‘Follow’ button on bottom right hand of your screen now.

Here’s wishing all my readers a very happy festive season!  May you have time to withdraw, reflect and find peace in the week ahead.

And if you live in North America, feel free to enter the giveaway for my new book (below), to be published on 27 January 2015, which includes extensive information on the nature of mind.

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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 .  

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