Are ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ the same?

brain light

The most obvious problem with claiming that mind and brain are the same is the lack of an explanation as to how consciousness can arise from matter. In the past, some scientists adopted the denial strategy, saying that mind and consciousness didn’t actually exist. The American behaviourist B.F. Skinner went as far as to say in 1953 that they were ‘invented for the sole purpose of providing spurious explanations … Since mental or psychic events are asserted to lack the dimensions of physical science, we have an additional reason for rejecting them.’

Others, such as Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, explained that consciousness was simply the subjective experience of brain activity: ‘ “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules …’

What materialists failed to explain was how cells, molecules and atoms could give rise to consciousness when they have no consciousness-creating properties. Scientists wishing to account for this problem would invoke ‘complexity’ as the reason. Create a complex enough network of neurons and—whoosh!—consciousness arises. But in the words of B. Alan Wallace:

No matter how complex this network of cells might be, it strikes me as mystical thinking to imagine that something as radically different as an emotion or a dream could emerge from neurons. We could just as easily believe in the emergence of a genie from a magic lamp.” (Quote from Minding Closely – a book I highly recommend.)

The hold of reductionist materialism, still strong today, is especially puzzling when you consider that it fails to explain some of the most basic aspects of mental activity. Take memory. Recall ability is an assumed part of our moment-to-moment consciousness. If mind really is brain alone, then memories must be physically stored somewhere in the brain. But attempts to find memory traces have been unsuccessful despite billions of dollars spent on decades of research.

In the early twentieth century, psychologist Karl Lashley carried out a gruesome series of experiments in which he destroyed different parts of rats’ brains in an attempt to locate the centre of memory. To his surprise, he found he could burn out even large amounts of brain tissue and the rats would still remember how to find their way to food. From this emerged his theory of ‘equipotentiality’—if certain parts of the brain were damaged, other parts would take on their role.

Exactly how memories might be physically stored in brain cells is a particular conundrum given that these cells, like all others in our body, are subject to ongoing death and replacement. How are memories handed on from one cell to another? Or leap from destroyed brain cells to cells that were intact, in the case of the rats who had parts of their brains destroyed?

The loss of memory due to brain injury or the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes offered as evidence that memory resides in the affected areas. If that were the case, then other people lacking these same parts of the brain would be similarly affected. But British neurologist John Lorber, who scanned the brains of more than 600 people, discovered that the cranial cavity of about 10 per cent of these was more than 95 per cent filled with cerebrospinal fluid. In other words, they had tiny brains. While some individuals were retarded, others were mentally normal and several performed extremely well in IQ tests. One individual, with a first-class degree in mathematics and an IQ of 126, had a brain only 5 per cent the normal size. This led Lorber to ask a provocative question: is the brain really necessary?

The paragraphs above are a (lightly) edited extract from my book Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate.  The book explores the nature of mind in much more depth.

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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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Read the first chapter of Enlightenment to Go here!


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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

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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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How meditation helps create ideas that resonate



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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!

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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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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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