16 November 2010

Ian Gawler Blog: Go with the Flow or Intervene?

As meditators are we being asked to learn to go with the flow in our lives, to allow whatever happens around us to happen, to not react and to make the best of it; or do we intervene, make choices and discriminate?

Aine was afflicted with difficult Multiple Sclerosis symptoms and a poor prognosis 15yrs ago. We met as she was embarking on the Gawler Foundation’s lifestyle program and she has been well for many years now. Meditation became a mainstay of her recovery and her life.

Through a Comment on my Blog: The Brain, The Mind and Relationships, Aine raised this great question that I imagine many meditators will relate to and I summarise as “go with the flow or intervene?” Aine was asking specifically are we wise to cocoon ourselves from some things and some people, or if we really have “got it”, do we open ourselves to all and sundry, and expect to be able to transform even the most challenging situations into peaceful bliss?

This question has certainly caused me a great deal of reflection in years gone. A need for some insight was prompted further through giving a talk recently for ATMA (The Australian Teachers of Meditation Association) on the topic: “What is all this about mindfulness?”

Let me go “Out on a Limb” and offer the insight that came. It will be useful if this provokes some reflection and comment as this to me is an important life issue.
The confusion in what to do; the uncertainty I believe is actually the product of how two words are used and the concepts they convey; the solution rests with clarifying the definition of those two words. Mindfulness and meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines Mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally”. Taken literally, mindfulness is non-reactive, non-discriminatory. It is a way of training your mind into a way of noticing, a way of being aware of what is going on around you, a way that takes the reactive stress out of things.

Mindfulness is how to be with the given, how to be with what is. It is non-judgemental. Mindfulness prescribes how to observe what is going on, not what to do about it. Without doubt it is a wonderful practice as it does bring our attention to the present moment, cuts through the reactive anxiety we call stress, and leads to a peaceful way of being. Mindfulness is easy to teach, easy to learn, easy to research. It has a lot going for it. A big part of its appeal is its simplicity. It has a standard answer for everything – be mindful!

However, of itself and in its pure form, mindfulness has nothing to say about wisdom, particularly the wisdom of discernment, the wisdom that helps us sort out what to do. This fact is covered in all the great traditions because mindfulness is taught within a context of other teachings that add the wisdom component.

In my understanding, mindfulness as a word is being used increasingly loosely and in a way that implies or covers all the other teachings. This is OK, but it can lead to confusion. If in modern times we fixate on the literal definition of mindfulness, and aim to only apply that way of training our minds, we may miss a vital point.

In our book “Meditation – an In-depth Guide”, Paul Bedson and I included an appendix of definitions of meditation from all traditions. We spent years with great colleagues working on our own modern definition:

 “Meditation in its simplest and most general sense is a mental discipline involving attention regulation. More specifically, the broad act of meditation can be sub-classified according to the processes it involves or the outcomes it leads to.”

Check out the book if you want all the details!

From this definition, meditation is a process and a state. It is something you do, and something you experience.

So what do you do, and what do you experience? You start by learning to relax your body and settle your mind; arriving at a state of inner peace. With this peace, you have the experience of your mind clearing. You begin to see more clearly what is going on around you and within you.

The most common Tibetan word for meditation is “gom”. This translates as “getting used to”. To what? Getting used to your own mind. Getting to know what its contents are, how it works, what it is capable of, how to use it and what its true nature is really like.

Here then is the key difference. Mindfulness is a way of using the mind. Meditation is a way of getting to know the mind. And for many of us, this “getting to know” is not necessarily plain sailing! The mind can be a pretty tricky beast – good, bad and indifferent. And the aim in meditation is to tame it. By definition, meditation is an intervention.

Meditation leads to clear seeing and with this clear seeing comes the natural wisdom of discernment. It becomes increasingly obvious that the task is to get to know ourselves. Wisdom suggests we get to know who we are, acknowledge where we are at, become comfortable with our limitations and capacities, and act accordingly. Yes, act!

So as a beginner on the meditation path it can make great sense to develop mindful awareness. To learn to be present, attentive and non-judgemental. But to do even this we may need to intervene, use some common sense (or is that wisdom?) and select what we expose ourselves to; what we do and who we hang out with.

As beginners, even for the more advanced, there are bound to be some people, some situations, some thoughts, even some feelings that we find so difficult, so challenging that we need to intervene and cocoon ourselves away from them. It is perfectly sensible to accept that some things require this active intervention and prompt us to find the best way to protect, avoid, change or maybe even transform.

Many of us will have heard of the great Tibetan practitioners who spent years being tortured in Chinese prisons. On release they smile, thank their persecutors for teaching them about compassion, demonstrate no post traumatic stress and calmly go about their lives of service.

Chogyam Trungpa had something to say along these lines: “The general idea is that you open yourself to what the given situation is, then you see its completely naked quality. You don’t have to put up a defence mechanism anymore, because you see through it and you know exactly what to do. You just deal with things rather than defending yourself.”

This is no casual accomplishment! The great practitioners may make it look easy, as if it is just a matter of going with the flow; but what they are really demonstrating is the fruit of serious intervention –a great deal of very deliberate and well thought out mind training.

Progressing from being a beginner to an accomplished practitioner is quite a piece of work. It can be arduous, demanding, confusing, delightful, joyous, frustrating, wonderful and nearly always challenging. Once you awaken to how precious life is and how short it is, then there is little choice but to plunge on in and make the best progress you can.

As clear seeing and the wisdom of discernment do begin to dawn, what they lead to is flexibility. There are bound to be situations in life where accepting things as they are makes sense; others where putting huge effort into intervening makes sense.

The answer then is not to mindlessly go with the flow, the answer is to go with the flow accompanied by the wisdom of discernment. The wisdom that comes from getting to know yourself, and particularly your mind, through meditation.

Practice CDs:



  1. G'day Ian,
    that was a great way to clarify and give some more meaning to Meditation and Mindfulness. It is great to tune into your Blog and read your words of wisdom! Have a great day...Adrian in BB.

  2. I agree that just being mindful is sometimes not enough in situations. The 'experience' of meditation allows you to get in touch with the deeper you - you acquire a wisdom and a perspective on life that allows you to deal with what ever is put in front of you.
    Being mindful, to me, is a pratical way to help people with 'living in the now' - you are observing your self and reactions. However experiencing the benefits of ongoing meditation (increase in wisdom and intuition) allows us to 'live from above' where you can see everything from a different perspective and you simply just 'know' what to do or say or feel.

  3. Thank you Ian - I found your explanation of the the two most helpful. The last paragraph summed it up for me in a very concise nutshell and I will copy that out to reflect many times. I really enjoy your Blog - the information is enough to get to grips with and I have been a follower of yours for many years.

  4. Thanks Ian, another thought provoking article. I'm really enjoying reading the recent blogs and appreciating the obvious thought put into each of these postings.

  5. This is really helpful as I have read Jon Kabat-zinn's books and it seems he advocates a lot more than the mindfulness as he defines it. Thanks Ian, this makes it clear

  6. Hi Ian,
    Thank you for understanding this problem in the use of terms like mindfulness and meditation. It is so good to get your view on it as many of those using the terms are using them so loosely that it just becomes what ever suits their purposes. It is a kind of laziness as well as the fact that it is early days in the Western academic world of these concepts.

  7. Right on Ian. Mindfulness is not enough, we need mindfulness AND awareness. The awareness is the intelligence.

    My mountain guide in 'Lethal Inheritance' (YA novel)is quite clear on this in his instructions to his trainee Warrior. The awareness is the power she needs to kill the demons.

  8. "The solution [to confusion] rests with clarifying the definition of those two words, mindfulness and meditation"??

    With respect, this seems amusingly back-to-front, i.e. prioritising the underlying causes of "confusion" (principally from relating to meditation practice as a "tool") over the actual simplicity of practice: "Just Sitting"


    Warm regards,
    Seikan :)