Tuesday, 6 May 2014


These are dhamma notes based on a talk by Martine Batchelor, but any errors are "mine".

Mindfulness is awareness of the thoughts that arise and pass, not to get rid of thought, but to refine it. Are these thoughts useful to us? When the mind is at rest, brain scans show that a lot of brain activity is still happening for most people. But in those who meditate regularly, the scans show a very different, … quiet mind. This is not just true scientifically, objectively. Those who meditate regularly also experience that their minds are quieter.

So what are the rest of us thinking about? A lot of the time, self-referential thoughts: identifying ourselves (creating a thick sense of self — its likes, dislikes, needs, wants, fears, nationality, profession, gender, appearance, age, religion, the football team we support, the friends we have, the number of likes we get on social networks, our sense of being introverted or extroverted, liberal or conservative, wealthy or poor, restricted or free), also identifying others in the same way, even identifying how others might identify us. Often these speculations are completely wrong. Through practicing vipassana meditation, we can avoid the habit of what Martine Batchelor calls "selfing". 

Vipassana meditation is the act of just sitting, watching the thoughts arise and pass, observing the impermanence of these thoughts and the tendency of these thoughts to self-identify  ("I must do this", "I wish I hadn't said that", "I wonder what they think of me"). The purpose is not to stop these thoughts, but rather to question, are these thoughts useful? If a car is coming, we need the self-referential thought in order to react! The purpose is not to be rid of our sense of identity, but to be aware what kind of identity are these thoughts building? Are we outsourcing our identity to those outside of us? We are habituated to do this from a young age.

At the beginning when we meditate, our awareness radar picks up on negative thoughts. However, once these disappear, we can refine a positive healthy sense of self. The Buddhist idea of no-self doesn't mean no identity, just recognizing identifiers are just thoughts and are these thoughts useful? The best kind of self-identification are personal qualities and aptitudes which we can develop and become more proficient and self-confident in. Even these are impermanent, because our identities are always subject to change and dependent on conditions. The error we make is to mistake our state with our identity. Our identity is our creative functioning, not a permanent fixed state, but a capacity, for example to speak a language, to teach, to respond whatever comes up in a wise and compassionate way.

Martine Batchelor was once a French nun practicing Zen in Korea for many years, now a teacher of Zen. Both these, nun & teacher, were self-identifications for her. When under the needle, she became quite self-consciousness about her own nervousness, thinking "I'm a Zen teacher, I'm supposed to stay Zen" though she wasn't feeling Zen. Even a Zen teacher has distracting self-identifying thoughts... but she recognised them. It didn't make them go away, but then the doctor gave her a local anaesthetic and everything was fine. When she left being a nun, the experience at first was quite deflating, a blow to her sense of self-identity, but it also liberated her from that identity.

The Zen meditation technique they taught in Korea was to drop the question into consciousness, "what IS this?" not to find an answer but to experience the question turning you back to your whole experience in this moment and feeling in your whole body a sense of curiosity without affirmation, negation or expectation. The question is sometimes called the hwadu. Unlike the selfing thoughts that occupy and re-enforce our thick sense of self, the hwadu brings us back to experience, being with sensation without thought of "I" or "mine". 

Both Vipassana and Zen meditation help us to recognise selfing thoughts, bring us back to the moment and so develop quiet mind and a creative awareness of our inner self, creative so it's not fixed, but better able to respond to life in a wise and compassionate way.

Photo: Cast of Hestia from the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge's Classics Faculty


  1. Thanks for this greatly. Chris.

  2. this is super! Brings it all back. She's got a great voice...

  3. Thank you Chris & Kate. And yes, I write up all this stuff but really need to put it into practice! Practice, practice, practice... lol. Much metta to you both!