Alan Watts – 21st Century Guru

This truly inspiring video from Zen guru Alan Watts has 7.5 million views on You Tube. Its a seeming mish mash of talks Watts gave during his life. It covers a range of topics such as human identity, reincarnation, the unconscious and The Cosmos. Yet it all comes together in a coherent whole. The music and graphics are great, too.

My favourite sentence from the video is:

“You are something that the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.”

So who is Alan Watts? – 10 Surprising Facts About the Millennials’ Guru

  1. Watts was a English/American philosopher who lived from 1915 to 1973.
  2. He is best know for popularising Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, for a Western Audience. He lived and taught in America for much of his adult life.
  3. His stature has notably grown in the digital era due to many of his talks being posted and available for free on You Tube. Many of his videos/audios have millions of views. He is particularly popular with young people, many of whom seem to admit themselves to the “spiritual, but not religious” category. Watts seems to meet this need.
  4. According to the critic Erik Davis, his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity”.
  5. Watts had a Christian upbringing and initially gained a masters degree in theology. He then became an Anglican priest, before becoming interested in Buddhism.
  6. He still referred to many Christian ideas in his Zen lectures.
  7. By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong, and talkative. He had a way with words, and a deep, gravelly laugh that endeared people towards him. He had the charisma that people who talk on spiritual topics with much certainty often have.
  8. There are rumours that Watts became an alcoholic in his later years. Wikipedia talks of “friends concern” at Watts “high alcohol consumption” in his later years. These rumours have tainted Watts’ guru status somewhat. How can you be enlightened if you are an alcoholic, after all?
  9. Watts married 3 times and had 7 children.
  10. The 2013 film “Her” features Watts as an artificially intelligent operating system, portrayed by Brian Cox.

Zen Story of the Week – “Empty your cup” – What Does It Mean?

Today’s Zen Story is one of the most famous, known as “Empty your cup”. The story is undoubtedly very ancient. This 19th/20th Century version comes courtesy of the blog “The Stone Mind“:

“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

So what can we learn from this brief tale?

This story comes with the trademark Zen brevity. Many Zen teachings are two line stories, proverbs and koans.

No extended philosophical treatise here!

The story seems to be telling us that the main barrier between us and enlightenment is our own “opinions and speculations”. In order to learn and experience reality, we must first drop our pre-existing ideas that we have brought to the table.

Its worth noting that the person who comes to the master is a professor – learned, knowledgeable, intelligent. But the wise master gives him a profound teaching.

This aspect of the story reflects the deep suspicion in Zen of book learning.

So what is wrong with reading books?

Nothing is wrong with it, per se. Its rather the attachment to the ideas that books tend to produce, a strong sense of ego, derived from the knowledge of other people’s ideas.

Zen is much more about intuition, a direct immediate grasp of reality, of Satori (sudden awareness or Enlightenment) rather than having many words, concepts and ideas from books.

Zen is not about second hand knowledge.

Zen is about seeing for yourself.

“Come and see,” as Jesus of Nazareth says in the New Testament.

The Christian word for the emptying out of our mind is “humility”. The Bible says God “gives grace” to the humble. This grace is, I imagine, the same that the Zen Master would give to his professor student once he had emptied his cup!

I’m reminded here of the line by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in his seminal book “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind”:

“In the beginners mind the possibilities are many. In the expert’s, they are few.”

The writer of “Empty your cup” is urging us to have a beginner’s mind, a “blank slate”.

So what is Zen, exactly?

The essential profound teaching of Zen is that we don’t need to gain anything to experience Enlightenment; after all, out truest self is our “Buddha nature”, our divine nature. What we have to do is not “gain” stuff, but drop it.

Drop our illusions, opinions, pre-conceptions about how life should be. And embrace reality as it is. Trouble is, so ingrained are these patterns of thought is that it takes years of meditation to begin to chip away at our “false self”.

Which brings me to the main point of the “Empty your cup” story, which I think that most people miss.

Many people see this story and think that the professor should “empty” his cup, in order to be filled with the Zen teaching. But that would be just more words, more ideas.

The truth is this: Zen IS the emptiness. The master would say he has nothing else to teach. Just to be empty of self. So you can fill up with…the Universe.

That’s it.




Why Mindfulness is Not Just for Sitting…!

When I was a kid, I used to do something a bit funny with a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. Don’t worry, not too odd, just a bit…strange.

Sometimes, when eating a bag of crisps, I used to eat them really slowly. Like, taking 15 minutes to eat a bag slowly. I used to lick the flavouring off, bit by bit, letting the salt and vinegar flavour zing on my tongue. I would then proceed to munch, very slowly through the remaining crisps, savouring the potato flavour as I went. I would repeat this charade through the whole pack, enjoying the whole process thoroughly.

What I didn’t realise then, as a kid, was that what I was doing was practicing mindfulness.

I guess I have an instinct for it!

For what is mindfulness if not savouring the present moment? I still occasionally do the same practice with food today (though not with crisps). As I slow down, I taste the food so much more. I let its taste tantalise my taste buds.

I was also doing it again the other day when going for a walk in a field. It was a sunny day, and the sky was a brilliant blue. As I looked up to take in the clear azure sky, I had the same feeling as when I meditate – stillness, peace.

I was mindfully looking up to the sky! Well done, Kevin.

The point I wanted to make with this blog post is that the practice of mindfulness is not just the 20 mins you sit still once or twice a day. What you need to be doing, to be an effective meditator, is to incorporate the patterns of stillness into your everyday life.

If you run, run mindfully. If you eat, eat mindfully. Whatever you do, pay attention undividedly and non-judgementally. Well that’s the goal. You will fall short.

But aspire to be a Buddha – permanently!

I found a good video that gives advice how to slow down and be mindful in every day life.


This nice video gives a few pointers to stay present during the day:

  • Be mindful of your thoughts – just be aware of what’s going on in your head can create a space for presence to arise. Just focus on one or two mindful breaths, and you will create a buffer between you and your thoughts. Just observe, that’s all. This buffer, in time, can become a vast inner space for you to dwell in, in deep inner peace.
  • Do one thing at a time – the old Zen masters used to say, when asked “What is Zen?” used to reply, “doing one thing at a time”. This still applies! When walking, walk. When eating, eat. When sleeping, sleep. The essence of Zen is throw yourself wholeheartedly at everything you do, with a purity of mind and mindfulness.
  • Try to take things slowly – My crisp example applies here!
  • Have a regular sitting practice. The skills you learn in practice you can apply in normal life.

So – mindfulness is not just for your 20 minutes on the cushion, it is about your whole life of lived experience.

Try using the tips here to open up to the vastness and intensity of reality inside you, and start living fully, not just on autopilot.


Worship Song of the Century? Hillsong’s “What a Beautiful Name” Wins the Internets

Ten Facts About “What a Beautiful Name” You Might Not Know

  1. The song was written by Brooke Ligertwood and Ben Fielding of the group Hillsong Worship.
  2. Hillsong is an Australian megachurch that has 100,000 attendants across 80 sites around the world, including London, Oxford and Birmingham.
  3. Millions of people all over the world every Sunday sing Hillsong’s songs – the church’s popularity is founded on its music.
  4. The song won a 2018 Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance”.
  5. The song has 125m views on YouTube – the most of any worship song on the web.
  6. The song was composed in Sydney, Australia in 2015 in preparation for the upcoming Hillsong Conference.
  7. Apparently part of the success of the song is due to its “singability”. The song has a small vocal range that does not strain the voice with too many high or low notes. Who knew?
  8. The song topped the Billboard Christian chart for 28 weeks making it the 2nd longest Christian chart topper in the chart’s history. (The longest topper in the chart’s history was Hillsong’s “Oceans” at 61 weeks)
  9. When asked about performing the song in church, Ligertwoord commented:

“Because the audience is part of the church and we sing these songs in church regularly, most of the people in attendance were already familiar with the tracks. As an audience, they are just super gracious and welcoming. Our mission is that the music will resonate with them. We’re not really performing—we’re simply vessels”

10. Amen for Hillsong’s awesome music!

Bible Passage of the Week – “Pride goes before a fall”

This saying has long been attributed to the Bible, but the actual text it refers to reads slightly differently:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” – Proverbs 16: 18

But what exactly is pride? Why is it so deadly? And how does it exactly trip us up?

Pride is one of the 7 Deadly Sins, as described by the medieval Catholic Church. In fact, the Christian tradition considers it be the deadliest of the sins.


Because it prevents us from changing.

All the other sins, when someone is committing them or is tempted to do so, still has hope. Hope that they can see the error of their ways, repent and reform. For example: if you were tempted to steal a wallet you had just seen someone accidentally drop on the floor, in the process you would still be aware, by your God given conscience, that it was a wrong thing to do.

Right up to the point of doing it, and beyond, there is still scope that you will appease your conscience, and admit that stealing is wrong. There is scope for change, for redemption.

However, with the sin of pride, there is no such hope. For pride, most dangerously, prevents us from changing. It blinds us to the truth, and actually skews our perception in a way that threatens our very well being and right standing before God.

CS Lewis put it like this: “The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

Pride caused the angels to fall from Heaven; it rose in the heart of Adam and Eve and caused them to eat the forbidden fruit, casting them, and us, out of Paradise.

But what exactly is Pride?

If you look it up in the dictionary, you will see it likened to concepts such as vanity, ego, arrogance, over-confidence, and conceit. It is essentially thinking too much of yourself. Leading medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas called it “inordinate self-love”.

In a spiritual sense, pride is essentially the placing of the self above others, and above God. It’s a form of malignant self-centredness that places the person right at the centre of their thinking and actions, no matter the consequences for others.

It, not money, is the root of all evil.

Ancient Greece

In the classical world, the term used for the sin of Pride was Hubris.

In ancient Athens, like the Christian world, this sin was seen as the deadliest cancer that can infect human beings. In the Ancient Greek religion, Nemesis was the Goddess who would always take retribution on those who were guilty of hubris. Nemesis believed that no-one should have too much goodness in their lives, and she always cursed those who had been cursed with countless gifts, as it often led to hubris.

The Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus was used to illustrate the grave potential consequences of committing hubris. The story goes that it happened that Daedalus and his son Icarus were stranded on the Island of Crete. Daedalus, who was a master craftsman, hatched a plan for he and his son to escape by making them both a set of wings out of wax and feathers.

So, they made their escape, and flew out into the sea, to escape the island. But Icarus was enjoying the trip so much that he forgot his father’s warning to not fly too high. So he did, the sun melted the wax in his wings, and he crashed down into the sea.

The myth is a morality tale, warning against the dangers of hubris, of flying too close to the sun. It’s essentially a warning about over-reaching yourself; of the lethal dangers of trying to be God-like.  If you ever do so, the tale teaches us you will swiftly find your Nemesis and crash into the sea like Icarus.

Back to the proverb

So, we can go back to the Biblical proverb, and see it emphasises the destructive power of pride – “pride goes before destruction…” The writer of this proverb obviously had a few ways to phrase it, but they chose the word destruction above others. I think this echoes the Christian tradition’s extreme horror and dire warning about this deadliest of sins.

I think the worst thing about pride is that you mostly don’t realise you are committing it. You just think you are being “right”. In this sense pride is a hidden sin, and, as I mentioned above, can easily blind you to the truth. In this way self-righteousness is another term for pride.

Be wary and don’t be ensnared!

Can Buddhism Help With Anxiety?

The Origin of Anxiety?

Anxiety. Angst. Worry. Apprehension.

Fear – in all its forms – has been a perennial “thorn in the side” of humanity since we first became conscious.

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the “flight or fight” response – or fear, by another name –  evolved in us on the plains of Africa 200,000 years ago.

There, nomadic hunter gatherer proto humans faced many threats – other hostile tribes, wild animals, poisonous food. There was a strong need among the first Homo Sapiens to be aware of the many threats to their existence.

This need has served us well – over time, we have become the most successful species in history, spreading all over the planet, adapting to all environments. But it is said that this propensity to fear, this readiness to low-level anxiety – has not served us well in the modern world.

The psychologists tell us that modern psychiatric diagnoses and conditions, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, are merely the misfiring of the ancient human tendency to be concerned about their environment, in order to survive.

Following on from this materialist account of anxiety, treatments are offered according to the individual needs of the service user. Typically, medication and therapy.

Many people see recovery in these methods. But many struggle on.

So What About Buddhism? What Can it Offer the Anxious Person?

The Buddhist account of anxiety goes much deeper. It is much more psychological than biological, as described above. Rather than just trying to explain anxiety away as a epiphenomenon of evolution, the Buddha saw anxiety as laced within the very fabric of what it means to be an unenlightened human.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is usually stated as “Life is suffering”. The Pali word for suffering is “Dukkha” which can be translated as “dissatisfaction” or…”anxiety”.

So you could say that The Buddha’s entire project of Enlightenment is founded on eradicating worry or un-ease.

Remember when the Buddha says “Life is suffering”, he is not saying that every moment of life is miserable. That is clearly not true. What he is saying is that within all unenlightened experience, the is always an undercurrent of worry, or concern, or anxiety, or un-ease, like a “hum” in the background. This “hum” is a times, loud, at other times, just in the background.

From the Buddhist perspective, more-or-less perennial anxiety is so endemic to the human condition that just to it as recognise as a thing in itself, is a big achievement. After all, as the saying goes, “the fish is last to know the water”.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is that suffering, anxiety, in life is caused by desire. There are a number of aspects to this statement that need clarifying.

What is desire?

Desire is, in essence, an unwillingness to have a still mind and to selfishly cling and grasp to thoughts and experience. To understand the nature of this desire, and how it disrupts your consciousness, you must understand the three poisons, as described by the Buddha himself (He was a keen listmaker!).

The Three Poisons

The Three Poisons are the unskilful roots or thoughts that keep us bound to suffering, and are the central causes of our unhappiness.

They are – Greed, Hatred and Delusion. They are the Buddhist version of the Christian “7 Deadly Sins”.

Essentially what these three attitudes mean is that in meditation, and life, we tend to cling greedily to good thoughts, emotions and experiences, and push away those that are painful or “bad”. So we are greedy for good things, and hating of bad. Delusion is the ignorance of the whole situation that keeps the whole thing going.

I noticed the three Poisons at work in a meditation yesterday, when I noticed that virtually my whole meditation time is currently used to try to escape anxious emotions.  I have also been at the same time chasing pleasant thoughts and emotions in my meditation.

This constant pushing and chasing, Buddhism says, is a great hindrance to peace of mind. The goal of meditation is to be free from greed and hatred, and to accept, non-judgementally what ever enters your mind in each moment. This is the path to peace.

So what’s the solution to anxiety?

Well, the Buddha taught that the only real solution to this problem of suffering in human life, of anxiety, is self-knowledge through meditation. Scores of scientific studies have shown that meditation is a great healer of anxiety and depression (which often go together). Many GP’s now prescribe it instead of antidepressants.

It’s hard to give one-size-fits all meditation advice. Just having a regular practice, finding a technique that works for you – this is half the battle. As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just turning up”.

Just through regular practice you will increase in self-knowledge. Try to find a place where you accept, non-judgementally, the present moment completely. This attitude will keep your mind still and clear, and release you from the unskillfulness of the Three Poisons.

With regard to anxiety – just try to “see into it”. Observe it. What does it really feel like? How does it change? Over time, with daily practice, just doing this this will decrease its power and hold over you.

True non-attached awareness is like the sun burning away clouds. Energy is always dissipated in the light of awareness.

Not even anxiety can survive it.

5 Meditation Tips For An Overactive Mind

Many gurus, spiritual teachers, and psychologists talk about how meditation is easy, relaxing, and soothing.

This may be true for some people.

However, for those of you, like myself, who have an overactive mind, meditation never really has come easy to me and sometimes it is not exactly relaxing for me either.

In fact, about a couple years ago, my mind was so preoccupied with some difficult circumstances I was going through, that I couldn’t even meditate. This surprised me because I had been practicing meditation and breathing exercises for over 10 years.

I remember I spoke to a spiritual life coach about my difficulty meditating and she told me that I probably was not able to actually meditate now; and that it likely was difficult for me to meditate because I had an overactive mind.

Meditation was supposed to be something I could use to soothe and quiet my mind.  However, it eventually had become a chore for me and even somewhat stressful at times.

I asked my life coach for advice and she gave some specific tips to help me with my meditation practice that actually worked and helped me quiet my mind.

I believe these strategies will help anyone who has an overactive mind or has found it difficult to meditate….

5 best strategies to tame an overactive mind

1. In order to help quiet my mind, I began to listen to guided relaxation before I began to meditate. I searched for guided relaxation and guided meditation on YouTube and iTunes and found some that I particularly liked. I found Davidji and really liked his guided meditations.  I would listen to that and others immediately before my meditation.

2.  Another strategy I found helpful to quiet my mind is to start my meditation immediately after I had done yoga.  Yoga seems to help me release some tension and makes it easier to focus my mind. So, I would start my meditation immediately after I did some yoga.

Additionally, while I meditated, I tried two different techniques that I previously had not tried that also helped me quiet my mind more.

3. I focused on a candle rather than my breath or a mantra.  I don’t know why, maybe because I am more of a visual person, but looking at a candle did seem to give my mind something to concentrate on rather than my breath or a mantra.

4. Sometimes, I also would close my eyes but focus on placing my awareness or looking at my third eye or the space where my third eye is. Again, this gave me something to visually focus on, which seemed to help my overactive mind quiet down a bit.

5. I also changed my attitude about meditation.  Some of the spiritual gurus talk about how meditation should result in enlightenment, quieting your mind, or finding the “gap” between your thoughts.  I have been meditating now for over 10 years and I have never been able to fully quiet my mind for a long period of time or get into the “gap” between my thoughts; let alone enlightenment.

What I have found, though, is the conscious act of coming back to placing my attention on my third eye or a candle while my mind starts to drift during meditation does provide me with some moments of peace and solitude.

I believe the conscious act of coming back to what you are focusing your attention on while meditating when you become distracted is as equally important as the moments of quiet you experience.

I also believe this has helped me become more discipline with my thinking and behavior throughout the day, which tends to help me generate more peace, purpose, and gratitude as I go about my daily tasks and responsibilities.

This is something that I am truly grateful for and one of the reasons why I continue to make meditation a daily practice in my life.
This post was written by Matthew Welsh, Founder of Spiritual Media Blog, a place for psychology, spirituality, and inspirational entertainment.

Bible Passage of the Week – “A Time for Everything”

Today’s passage comes from the lesser-known Testament in the Bible – the Old Testament. Despite having some confusing or difficult to understand passages, the Old Testament is actually a great storehouse of ancient wisdom and Truth.

See here, from Ecclesiastes 3:

A Time for Everything

“3 There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.”

A Short Commentary

  • I just wanted to share a few thoughts on this famous passage:
  • The writer attributed to this passage is Solomon, a character in the Bible noted for his wisdom.
  • I think the main point Solomon is seeking to make here is about taking the long view in life, the big picture. That everything has a time, a season, under Heaven and we shouldn’t be perturbed when many things (good and bad) happen to us as they do. There is a plan at work.
  • Timing is so important in life – a well timed joke can go down a storm; a badly timed one can dive like a lead balloon. Getting the timing right in life, can be equally important.
  • By giving us this big picture view of life, Solomon is indicating that there is not only a time for these things to happen, but that they also have a higher purpose.
  • The point is that yes bad things happen (killing, war), but there is somehow a great benevolent plan at work with these things, that things will all work out for good in the end.
  • The book of Ecclesiastes is noted for its bleakness – a recurring theme is the vanity of life, the meaningless of suffering, of all things. This theme is touched upon here too: Solomon seems to be saying that we are prisoners to our fate. That we are destined to all live out our lives in this reciprocal manner, with good and bad equally in measure. There seems to be little hope of changing our fate, Solomon seems to be saying. I think we all feel like that sometimes!
  • Yes, we have free will, but ultimately the grand sweep of events in our lives are in God’s hands. We’d  do well to commit these things to Him, where they are already.

Reflection of the Week – From Barack Obama, on the Spiritual Hunger in Every Human Heart

Today’s reflection of the week comes courtesy of none other than former President of the US, Barack Obama. In his book Audacity of Hope, the ex-President describes on his own conversion to Christianity. Obama lyrically goes on to describes the spiritual hunger that is present in modern day-America:

“Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets – and coming to the realization that something is missing.

They are deciding that their work, their possessions,
their diversions, their sheer busyness are not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless toll of daily life.

They need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down along highway toward nothingness.”

Barack Obama – From “The Audacity of Hope”

Russell Brand and Sam Harris in Conversation on Topics Such as Faith, Islam and Meditation

  • V interesting recent debate taken from Brand’s “Under the Skin” podcast.
  • Issues debated include the nature of religious faith, militant Islam, consciousness and secularism. Brand is coming from the spiritual viewpoint, whereas Harris is an avowed atheist.
  • They do get bogged down slightly in minor philosophical points (especially in the first half), but after that there is a real honest and frank exchanging of views.
  • Being an academic, Harris is, I feel, the intellectual superior to Brand’s autodidact learning. Still, he does have a lot of interesting things to say.
  • Will be interesting to see what the Reddit community have to say on this video!