Writing about mindfulness and meditation

My overview of early Buddhist practice

An archway inviting further exploration and entry into a verdant garden

Welcome to my new website. This is intended to be a space where I write down my thoughts about Buddhism and meditation, and related issues. It’s a personal blog, so it reflects my views and experience. I do not claim to be any kind of authority. Instead, I will just talk about things how I see them, and perhaps readers will find some things useful or else be able to see my missteps and not repeat them.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark, I’m 43, and have a family. I’ve been meditating since 2010 and quite seriously since 2014. I practice in the Insight Meditation tradition, which can mean a lot of things. More specifically, I’m influenced by the Thai Forest tradition, the teachings of Laura Bridgman, and Gavin Milne, the cittanupassanā (mindfulness of mind) of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, and some of my thinking has been influenced by the Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation (TWIM) method of Bhante Vimalaramsi. The teachings of Rob Burbea and those in his lineage have also been part of my journey so far.

In terms of metaphysics, I am sympathetic to idealism: the idea that mind is fundamental—but, of course, I really don’t know! I just find this a more parsimonious and appealing theory of reality. Politically, I am left of centre. I am not particularly optimistic about climate change.

In terms of the dharma (Buddhist teachings), I have an open mind about the spiritual aspects of the teachings though the primary focus of my thought over the past ten years or so has been trying to understand the essence of early Buddhist practice and how to practice in the midst of life:

  • What did the Buddha teach?
  • How are we to make sense of the teachings?
  • What methods really work, especially in the midst of family life?
  • What’s the best way for a lay practitioner like me to live and practice, realistically?

I hope to write about some of these themes here.

What is my understanding of Buddhist practice?

So, what do I think I know about meditation? Where is my understanding after over ten years of dedicated practice? That’s a tough question, but I will try to answer it.

The TL;DR is:

  • Use mindfulness of mind to know what you are experiencing, how it’s affecting the mind, and what qualities are in the mind.
  • Gently and skilfully use what you know to keep the mind and heart in wholesome states. These will deepen as your mind increasingly dwells in the wholesome.

We see what’s here in the present and decide how to respond skilfully and with care. When there is wellbeing and collectedness, we can deepen that. And when the mind is stable, imbued with wholesome qualities, we can see clearly, reflecting on themes that support greater insight, letting go.

Meditation works

Firstly, I know that Buddhist practice and meditation helps. Not only does it potentially open up some peak experiences, it can bring a baseline increase in happiness, resilience, kindness, and equanimity. There is probably research along those lines, and I think it bears out in personal experience. I also find it interesting that meditation can open up states of profound wellbeing that you probably wouldn’t believe were possible unless you have given it a fair trial. It’s a bit like being a jogger when no one else can understand the benefits of exercise.

It helps to be informed

Secondly, it helps to know what we are doing. We don't want to be making it up as we go along. At the other extreme, purely academic work can sometimes be a form of procrasti-learning (thanks to my friend, Chris, for teaching me this word), where we never quite get around to practice. The middle way is to be informed, to know the approach we’re taking and its potential strengths and weaknesses, and to actually bring it into our lives and formal practice.

There are certain teachings that it helps to be aware of and to reflect on:

  • The four noble truths.
  • The eightfold path.
  • The Satipatthana Sutta.
  • Dependent arising and, ideally, transcendent dependent arising (the spiral path).
  • The Brahmaviharas.
  • The aggregates
  • The hindrances.
  • The indriyas.
  • The seven factors of awakening.
  • A range of sutta teachings, not just the Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta.

But we don’t need to know this stuff to get started. The practice can actually be very, very simple (see Right Effort, below).

Watching the mind

I have a strong interest in mindfulness of mind (cittanupassanā). This is a cornerstone of practice, and the third of the four satipatthānas (domains of mindfulness). Mindfulness of mind enables us to know what’s happening in our experience and in our minds and how to respond wisely. Sometimes, simple awareness is all that’s needed to alleviate a difficult mind state but at other times we may need to redirect our attention, or relax and let go of something that is hindering us. It is a practiced form of self awareness. It is a kind of meta-cognition. It also has the advantage of dispelling the idea that thinking and mindfulness are somehow incompatible, or that we can’t be mindful when difficult mind states are present, that meditation is all about sitting cross-legged on a beach in full bliss.

Just to be clear, this isn’t about watching the mind in a controlling or judgmental way, it’s about knowing and befriending the mind, becoming close to it, intimate with it, aware of it. It's useful to ask ourselves whether we subscribe to a mode of practice that is about being with experience as it is or one that is about manipulating experience, controlling energies to produce certain states. I lean towards the former, although I do believe that we ought to make wise choices, and can influence our experience in wholesome ways (see Right Effort, below). Whatever life presents us with is the path, and can be learned from. The way we influence experience is mainly about promoting wholesome mental qualities. We bring conditions into being that will ripen subsequently. Like a farmer sowing seeds, what we develop in the mind will bear fruit sooner or later. For example, the act of becoming aware of experience itself has a wholesome effect and conditions future moments of awareness.

Right Effort

And what are the seeds that we sow? We sow wholesome qualities of mind such as the Brahmaviharas (lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity); generosity; contentment; renunciation; mindfulness (present-moment and situational awareness, meta-cognition); calm and stillness; self-knowledge, insight and understanding, and so forth… basically states that diminish craving and aversion. These wholesome qualities may not be around much to begin with but we incline towards them. We may even come into contact with very difficult mental and emotional terrain once we begin to be aware in a deeper way, so it’s important to be gentle with this process.

This is the kind of effort the Buddha was asking for, he referred to it as Right Effort, and it’s absolutely central. I think translating this phrase, samma vayama, as Right Effort is a little misleading. We might think it just means a kind of middle way: not too much effort, not too little—which is absolutely true—but Right Effort has a specific technical meaning that I would perhaps translate as Right Method. It’s the effort we make to:

  1. Prevent the arising of unwholesome mental and heart qualities.
  2. Abandon unwholesome mental and heart qualities that have arisen.
  3. Cultivate wholesome mental and heart qualities.
  4. Protect those wholesome mental and heart qualities that have arisen.

As the meditation teacher Christoph Köck has said:

I tend to think of practice not so much in terms of mindfulness or concentration but when people ask, ‘What is your practice?’ I tend to say, ‘Well, my practice is to keep my mind in a wholesome spectrum.’ and that’s quite independent of whether I feel well or unwell, or whether I’m engaged with other people or on my own.

Right Effort does not mean that when we are sad or angry we repress that feeling because it’s “unwholesome”. Aversion to sadness, for example, would be unwholesome, but compassion for our sadness would be wholesome. So it’s about finding a skilful way of relating to what’s here rather than pushing it away. Of course, if it’s genuinely possible to let go of a difficult feeling then that’s a different case.

We can also see that to be obsessed with some meditative outcome is counterproductive because craving for our preferences—for experience to be other than it is—would not be entirely wholesome. This skilful effort leads to skilful mindfulness and skilful samādhi (collectedness of mind) which in turn deepens our practice of ethics and Right Effort in a feedback loop. This makes profoundly wholesome states possible and these enable us to see the movements of mind with increasing subtlety... all without suppressing the difficult or insisting on the lovely.

Why mindfulness and discernment are needed

As you can imagine, in order to fulfil Right Effort, we need to know what kind of mental qualities are present. This requires mindfulness. And rather than be haphazardly aware, we can try to know whether we are aware or not. We can know what we are experiencing as we experience it. Sayadaw U Tejaniya uses the example of not just seeing a red car pass by, but knowing that we’ve seen a red car pass by. Upasika Kee Nanayon speaks of mindfulness of the breath and mindfulness of mind as a kind of double barrier, a twofold protection from getting lost in experience. I see this as part of sampajanna (a broader contextual awareness) and dhamma vicaya (investigation, meta-cognition): knowing what’s present in our minds.

So, we can know that we are mindful, and this protects and deepens mindfulness. We can know that we are knowing the breath. We can know that we are radiating compassion. We can know that the mind has become absorbed in something that has the potential to produce an unwholesome mind state. This knowing sometimes is sufficient to bring the mind back to balance; sometimes we will need to wait for the fixation to subside, or perhaps look at the situation through a different lens (impermanence, or emptiness perhaps). This is watching the mind, becoming familiar with it.

We also need to be able to clearly perceive unwholesome and wholesome states, and discern what should be cultivated and what should be let go of, and how to do that. This takes practice. Mindfulness and understanding are indispensable for this.

We also use mindfulness to notice when something has taken our attention away from our intended cultivation and to learn how this happens. This gives us a practical understanding of dependent arising: how a pleasant or unpleasant feeling tone causes craving or aversion and drags mind away from the wholesome and into suffering. And when we do this, we weaken the strength of the hindrances, those obsessions of mind that pull us away from our intended place of dwelling: the wholesome spectrum of mind and heart. Sri Ramana Maharshi speaks of this as weakening a garrison by destroying the defending forces whenever they emerge from the gate to attack.

What techniques do we employ to fulfil all this?

I won’t write much here because Buddhism has many, many techniques and often it’s the techniques that receive the most attention. As I wrote above, in a sense the technique can be very simple. We might use an object such as the breath or a wholesome feeling like friendliness or equanimity to very gently anchor the mind. And we watch the mind and see when it gets pulled away towards unwholesome states. We understand how this happens (seeking a pleasant feeling, for example), relax and let go, and return to cultivating the wholesome.

I feel that the important thing is that we understand what a technique is trying to achieve and, for me, techniques should be used in such a way that supports the understanding I have outlined above. I would particularly recommend these approaches:

  • The Thai Forest tradition. I particularly enjoy Ajahn Amaro’s talks and writings, and of course those of Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Chah.
  • The writings of Bhikkhu Anālayo, the German scholar and monk. His practical guides to Satipatthāna and Ānāpānasati might be a good starting point.
  • The teachings of Laura Bridgman and Gavin Milne, especially if you want to work with the inner critic.
  • The teachings of Sayadaw U Tejaniya, who specialises in mindfulness of mind and including the everyday in our practice as we watch for craving, aversion, and delusion creeping in.
  • A particularly good book for understanding the approach of Sayadaw U Tejaniya is Uncontrived Mindfulness by Vajradevi.
  • Richard Shankman has a lot of pragmatic and useful things to say in his book, The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation, particularly in clarifying the difference between meditation practices of the early Buddhist tradition and some of the practices and ideas we've inherited from the Visuddhimagga, 1,000 years later—not to disparage the latter but it's good to know the provenance of what you're practising.
  • Bodhi College offers diverse voices on the early Buddhist tradition.
  • The Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation (TWIM) of Bhante Vimaralamsi offers a thought-provoking challenge to some of the assumptions about practice we've inherited. I would recommend Mark Edsel Johnson’s book, Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation, if you're interested in a fresh perspective.

That should be enough to be going on with! And hopefully, if you are familiar with these traditions, you will be able to see how they all use mindfulness of mind—watching the mind, being aware of the mind—to dwell in wholesome conditions of the heart, and to learn from the movements of mind towards and away from experiences.


So, thanks for your interest. This was a longer post to lay out my stall, but there will probably be a range of content on this blog. Sometimes I will unpack these topics in greater detail, sometimes I may just chat about what’s going on for me. In this age we may be entering of soulless AI-rehashed content, I want the writing here to have a companionable feel.