Desert Fathers and Mothers

The name Desert Fathers and Mothers is given to those early monks in the Christian Tradition who went into the desert in Egypt in the third century. Even though life then was probably much simpler than now, they were convinced that they could develop their inner life better in the quietness of the desert rather than in the distractions of the city.

Their thoughts on the practice of meditation and prayer have been passed down to us in the form of short sayings and stories. Many of these have strong resonances with the practice of mindfulness meditation. They emphaisize paying attention to thoughts, staying in the one place or the one activity, patience with one’s self, compassion for others.

Abba Anthony said:
When you sit quietly alone,
you escape three sources of distaction,
hearing, speaking and seeing.
The only thing you will fight the whole time
is with your own heart”

Plan to be surprised

Sometimes things don’t go quite like you anticipated them.

Watched a movie the other evening in which the main character has a chance encounter in a bookstore opening up for him a chance of love and a new direction in life. At the end of the movie this line came up: “So instead of asking young people, what do you plan to do with your life? Maybe we should tell them this: plan to be surprised”. It is probably better to cultivate the capacity to be surprised by life rather than think we can control it. Certainly I could never have anticipated the turns in my life which have led me to this day, or encounters which have happened along the way. You just do not what may lie around the corner, and often the things you find yourself hoping for, do not work out.

Despite this happening so often, however, we still find ourselves planning and hoping. It is almost too difficult to not seek things which we perceive at the time to be good for us. It is hard to distinguish the things which lead to genuine happiness or the things we should continue to fight for. And so all of us get disappointed once in a while? We live in an imperfect world and bad things happen. And despite our practice and our life experience, it still can take a lot of energy to cope.

Our practice can help. There are some types of disappointment which come from us leaning too far into the future, imagining a certain development which never really had the potential to emerge. Developing the capacity to live in the present is a counter-balalnce to that. Another thing which can give hope is the understanding that we are just seeing part of the picture. The end of the story is not written yet. We try to stick simply to the feeling of disappointment without adding a fully ended story.

All the major wisdom traditions state that growth can come from working with pain and disappointment. It can help us develop compassion for others, patience with ourselves and, most of all, wisdom about the fragility, unpredictability and mystery of this life. Keeping an ability to be surprised leads to openness to this mystery and lets us receive growth from places where we probably would not go freely.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.

Woody Allen

Stop Running

“Don’t turn away.
Keep your gaze on the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.”


This quote has been helpful regarding facing my fears. The earlier chapters of my book chronicle all of the disorders I experienced as a child and teenager-OCD, anorexia, substance abuse. I kept running away from the sadness and the depression, which would morph into these other illnesses. So when I finally sat tight long enough to feel the raw depression, that’s when I could begin to heal. As you know well, I think taking a moment of silence to pray or meditate or center ourselves everyday should be part of everyone’s treatment … because when we stop running, we are able to hear what we most need to be whole.

Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes

Media use and distractions

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit, private operating foundation focusing on the major health care issues facing the U.S. They conduct research on issues affecting health, including the effects of media usage on young people. This month they published a study which found a huge increase in TV, music, phone, computer, and video game usage among 8-18 year olds compared to just five years ago. The rate of increase also accelerated over those years. What was also interesting was the increase in multi-tasking in that age range, where people are using two devices at once, such as texting while watching YouTube videos or talking on the phone while watching TV.

This would seem to be the situation with adults also. It is quite easy to observe today that as soon as the television programme, meal or meeting gets less interesting, people pull out their Blackberries and iPhones and starting checking messages, mail or the net. Now that laptops are much smaller it is possible to work on them while watching TV, and working on them may entail social networking while actually writing a report.

It is clear now that the speed of technological advances is not going to slow down. If anything it will get faster, and we will increasingly live in a connected and media-saturated world. Although many of the advances are helpful it is not clear that all lead to a greater sense of calm. Indeed many studies show links between increased stress and the breakdown in work-life and home-life boundaries.

Mindfulness encourages us to pay attention to what is happening and to simplify our focus of attention. Continually practising being divided in our attention only strengthens the possibility of being scattered and having no sense of being centred. It can increase our sense of anxiety. So we can become aware of our urge to immediately check emails or send that text right now. It can be useful to interrupt the urge and see if our life will actually fall apart.

Ocean waves

Jon Kabat Zinn drawing attention to the normal way the mind is, which we come to notice especially when we start meditation practices.

“… the first thing you notice is how impossibly jumpy the mind is… it is very hard to pay attention to any one thing for any period of time because the mind is so agitated that it distracts itself virtually moment by moment. It doesn’t need outside distractions… And this is totally normal. Everybody experiences this as soon as they start paying attention. And then you think ‘Oh my goodness! I could never meditate because my mind is like a train wreck.’ But the fact is everybody’s mind is like that…”

Another description he uses is that the mind is like the ocean. It can be agitated by the waves and the activity on the surface, but deep down below the surface is calm and peaceful. What begins to happen in our mindfulness meditation practice is that we are able to drop below this surface movement and experience brief moments of tranquility. Over time, and with practice, these brief moments of tranquility become more extended.

Each meditation practice is a journey of discovery to understand the basic truth of who we are. In the beginning the most important lesson of meditation is seeing the speed of the mind. But the meditation tradition says that mind doesn’t have to be this way: it just hasn’t been worked with.

What we are talking about is very practical. Mindfulness practice is simple and completely feasible. And because we are working with the mind that experiences life directly, just by doing nothing, we are doing a tremendous amount.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche