What I Have Learnt from Teaching Meditation

Teaching meditation is very rewarding!  Warms the heart and pleases the soul.

Teaching meditation is very rewarding, and in my experience (read my  Meditation CV here) over the decades, I have mixed with some lovely people and almost always have had the pleasure of watching  them catch on, and seeing them report better relationships and an easier sense of life.  And they invariably say they will continue to meditate… I hope they do.

But there are some occasional experiences that are different from most.  These are the standouts!

I’ve learnt

  • That I’m a bully for asking what time you plan to meditate

Goodness!  If you want to learn meditation,  it is in your best interests consider when you will meditate, and where you will meditate… otherwise the day will fly by in exactly the same way as it has done every other day before you ever thought about meditation.  If you want to establish a practice (Tips for Establishing Your Practice), you have to figure out how you will fit it into your day, and your week, and your life.

Most people find that helpful.  But one person… says I am a bully! And leaves the course.

  • That I won’t be able to teach you meditation (because you  are determined not to learn)

Imagine someone who introduced herself at the first session  by saying that each of those present would be able to meditate, but not her…she pointed her finger at each one and said, “You will be able to meditate, and you will, and you will,” around the room, “But I will not.” What a self-deprecating mind-set!

Curiously, as I remember, she did get it, at least for the duration of the program. One of the good things about learning in a group is that individuals, including those whose self-deprecation weirdly maintains a sense of specialness, learn how normal they are, after all.  In doing small normal practices, change can come about.

  • That I should lead visualisations of dolphins in the ocean…


Did the man who said that not hear what I said?  This was STILL-MIND meditation!!

I happily gave him his money back and we parted company.  I suspect he hasn’t learnt anything about how his mind works to this day.

  • That it was not what you were expecting, and so I am the one who knows nothing about meditation

Somewhat like the man who wanted pleasant guided fantasies.  If I didn’t give him that, I was the one who did not know anything about meditation.

But this attitude comes in many guises. Sometimes people have a rigid mind-set and are not able to look at their own processes.  Perhaps what they really want is some methods to get a better response from other people, and fundamentally it is a wish to manipulate.  Looking at how their mind works to project a view on to the world and others is a no-no. But stillness tends to make our own processes objective and visible, which may be uncomfortable. Meditation may have been mistaken for a way of glossing over all one’s attitudes… wrong!

  • That you see me through your lens rather than as I am, and then tell others that it IS how I am

This is another variant of the dolphin-man’s attitude, but it is very pervasive. And it goes in two directions.

To overstate a little, some think you are a saint, and present you as such all around the town, while some think you are just awful, and present you as such all around the town.

While I like to think the “sainted swami” is a compliment, I’d rather be seen simply as the human that I am.  On the converse, I am pretty sure that the “just awful swami” is not only a misrepresentation of who or how I am, but also that I am libelled in what is said about me. Nothing much I can do about it, either.

  • That people who don’t want to be there are hardest to teach

That’s not really surprising, is it?  And it is much better not to accept those who don’t want to learn, anyway.

Sometimes it happens, though. Those who don’t want to be there are  invariably pleasing someone else. They are quite pleasant but have predictable responses when I ask them how they went with their meditation. “Yes, did that. Yes, meditated every day. No, nothing, no difference. Waste of time, just did it because you said.”  Basically that’s how it goes. Occasionally there are some beautiful outcomes, though.

Beautiful surprises

  • Someone who is stitched up can have a big break-through

A person who came only at the insistence of a relative was very conservatively dressed, and even she said she was somewhat anxious. To me she seemed to be defensive, too,  and I assumed she probably also had a criticising attitude towards herself and others.  For most of the sessions, when I asked those present to describe their practice, from her I got the expected replies of “yes, did what you asked, no nothing, waste of time” … until one night…

It was an exercise in open eye meditation.  When we finished, I could see that she was just bursting to give her feedback.

We sat in a heated room around a table with a candle sitting on it. The fan from the heater blew the flame about.  She said that she was looking at the flame, and as she did so, the rest of us became shadows. Then, she said, she felt that she was the flame being blown about.  And then… she said she was up on the ceiling watching us all!!!

I discourage “wow, gee whizz” experiences.  I am only interested in helping people to recognise that thinking is not the whole of consciousness and that there is already a non-thinking awareness as well as the neuronal function of thinking. Nevertheless, this person had a full-blown mystical experience.  What do you suppose I said?

Heheh, what I said was, “That was a mystical experience.  But did you find stillness?”

I think that her mystical experience, so drastically different from anything she was expecting, may have been enough to pierce the shell of defensiveness and criticism that kept her tight and closed off from others.  But in the long run, I hope that she learnt to maintain a daily meditation practice without any phenomena,  and observe the processes of her mind, which are the source of whatever stress, anxiety and unhappiness any of us have.

  • The man who had no interest in meditation but found ten-minute breaks in a 3-minute exercise

Another one who didn’t want to be there was a very nice middle-aged man who had made a pact with his partner or wife. The deal was that every month they would take it in turns to do something the other wanted. This time it was her turn, and she chose to enrol them both in the Learn to Meditate.

He was very sweet, but had no interest in meditation, and no background remotely like philosophy or life-investigation of any sort, and the predictable replies came fast and thick – “Yes, did what you said, no, didn’t notice anything,  no difference, just normal” Then one day I gave them a 3-minute exercise in keeping their minds absolutely still.

Have you ever tried to do that? It’s surprisingly hard, and most people only manage a second or two before they are back into thinking.  So I was expecting the same response from him.  But no.  In his amiable, unfussed way, he surprised me by saying, “Hmmph … there were a couple of 10-minute breaks in that 3 minutes.”

Hahaha, he had slipped into profound stillness where time seems to stop. If he had slid out again into thinking, he slid back into the stillness. And on being called into normal thinking and talking, he was able to give that clear description of an experience that the others were only hoping for.

  • The girl who realised that there was thinking happening but found herself to be awareness of thinking rather than the thinker

And another that sticks in memory… a young woman who was cynical and sceptical, and she came only because her partner was coming.  Really, she may have had a hidden agenda to sabotage his practice or belittle the whole idea of meditation.

Anyway, as with the others, she was compliant and did all the tasks, including home practice, as requested.  And every time her report was, “No, nothing, did what you asked, no difference, a waste of time.” Until the week she virtually ran into the room, eager to give her feedback on her week’s practice.

She said, “I was practising, just as you said, set the alarm and didn’t get up until the bell rang… except I noticed that I was thinking.”

Well, I thought, nothing different there, then.  But she insisted,

“NO, I NOTICED that I was thinking. I mean it was like I was still, but I could see my mind thinking.  I was quiet and I was the quietness, and somehow thinking was just happening.  It was as though it was something incidental, and not what I am.”

Hmm…  OK.  She got it!! while her partner, who wanted it, never quite did.  His was to practise and practise, hers was to practise and experience.  Maybe it partly happened because she did not try to get it.

You can’t make stillness happen

And that’s a thing about stillness of mind.  The part of us that thinks… cannot make it happen. Practice can only prepare the ground.  But wanting it somehow chases it away, even though that part of being human, that awareness, or non-cognitive consciousness, is always there.

And after all is said and done

So the old Zen saying comes into its own: Meditation is practice and practice is meditation. And, actually, even if you never did experience the sublime state, such practice will make a big difference to your sense of self, to your life and relationships – in fact, it makes a difference to how you do “being yourself.” Easier. More comfortable with the ups and downs of life. More tolerant. And perhaps, kinder, more loving.




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Beliefs have no place in law

Beliefs have no place in law. They are just a bunch of thoughts and they do not establish anything about truth or reality. They ought to have no protection in law.

Religious beliefs are simply a bundle of preferential thinking. Any belief that rests on divine revelation is categorically untrue.

Did God give the world  10 commandments? No, somebody said that he did. Wasn’t it Moses that said so? No, somebody said that Moses said it.

Did the Buddha say there were four noble truths? No, somebody said that he did.  The Buddha left nothing written, and at the time of his life he was not even called the Buddha, he was called Gautama. And he didn’t speak Pali, it had not evolved into a language in his lifetime.  He probably spoke like a northern yokel when he went and mixed with other yogis in Benares, the city of religious scholarship on the Ganges.

As with Christianity, somebody said, “All this is what the teacher said.” And in  Christianity and Buddhism, a Canon of accepted doctrines was developed on the premise of someone said he said. Chinese whispers, taken for evidentiary statements and believed as truth – and it can only ever go back to a man said that a man said that a man said that the Buddha said. A man said that this is what Christ said.  Even though Jesus did not speak Latin or Greek, the gospel writers who had never known him did, and the canon of teachings came down in history in Latin. And he was not called Christ (The Anointed One) in his lifetime any more than Gautama was called the Buddha (the One with the Awakened Intellect) in his lifetime – Gautama who never spoke Pali, though the later writers, borrowing authority from their ascriptions to him, did.

Reliance on religious texts always invokes a slippery sleight of hand by which what is human appears to be divine.  The limiting factor of someone said is magicked into Revealed Truth – that which makes any repudiation inherently blasphemous and sinful.

Would you like to look at a few beliefs?

Here is a line from Psalm 42 of King David, which used to be quoted in the old Latin Mass

“Quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea: quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?” (Where are you, oh God, my strength? Why have you rejected me, and why do I go about sorrrowful while hateful people afflict me?)

King David speaking.  Don’t you feel like giving him a good talking to about taking responsibility for his own moods and actions?  Oh no, for the believer, it is all because an invisible divine Someone is supposed to be on his side and is not doing his part to bring down his enemies, so of course he has a right to be dejected and feel abandoned.

Beliefs about the immaculate conception?

Joseph was going to marry Mary but found she was pregnant.  When he understood that God had made her pregnant with His son, no sex involved, then everything was A-OK.

Well, in those days a pregnant fiancée would be handed back to her family. Unusually for the time, Joseph honoured the engagement.  Two other very reasonable possibilities suggest themselves for this unusual fidelity. One is that Joseph and Mary didn’t wait till the wedding day for intimacy, and made up a preposterous story to cover it – maybe tongue in cheek.  Another is that Mary’s father molested her, and Joseph saved her from her incestuous father.  This would make some sense of Jesus saying that he was the son of the father – that his father was the father of his mother.

Now, why do you suppose that people would come at me and say this is blasphemy?  Oh, because somebody said that a fantasy about conception was divine truth! and we like to believe any fantasy more than an unbearable reality, that Mary gave birth to a human child after having sex with a human man.

Beliefs about the Virgin Birth

To be a virgin you must have an intact hymen. As there was no sex in the Immaculate Conception, what about the hymen (proof of virginity) when the Divine Baby was born?  Can you believe there has been serious theological debate as to how Mary retained her hymen after giving birth to Jesus? Because without it she would not be a virgin.

This is where beliefs take you – they take you into idiocy, and the more idiotic the harsher the penalties for the blasphemy of pointing it out.  Showing the holes in belief used to be a short route to a place on top of a bonfire.

The Ascension  and the Assumption

One of the beliefs  required for Catholic faith is in the ascension of Jesus and the assumption of Mary.  Jesus by his own power ascended up through the sky into heaven.  His mother Mary, being mortal, was “assumed”, that is, taken up by God’s divine power.  Wouldn’t you just love to have seen the bodies of Jesus and Mary floating up into the sky? Because where is heaven if not above the clouds? To be a Catholic, you are required to believe something that is beyond comical when you envision it.

The Pope

What about the Pope?  A word which means “father”, etymologically.  Our papa.  And not only our loving father but the Vicar of Christ.

Because the word Vicar has so easily become associated for us with “the one who conducts religious services in local churches”, we forget that the word vicar has the same meaning as its adjective, vicarious, “acting in place of another.”  The Pope is the one who stands in place of Jesus and has a direct line with God the Father.  Are you blinking in disbelief?  Well, of course, you would be blinking, in  astonishment!  A dozen or so very old men, the College of Cardinals, who worked their way up through the church to have great esteem and quite a luxurious lifestyle to go with it, despite their teachings about the virtue of poverty, choose another old man, and tell the rest of the world that this man is the Pope, the Vicar of Christ – someone said that God guides their choice of the one who stands in place of Jesus Himself.

Jesus, by the way, has saved the entire world from their sins so that they can be happy with the Father for ever in Heaven – so long as they do what the religious teachers and texts tell them, that is.

And the Pope, in his seat (ex cathedra) as the Vicar of Christ, can make pronouncements and judgments which are infallible – cannot be wrong and can never be disputed – because it is not his own opinion, but rather  God speaking through the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra.

How preposterous.

It is absurd to to enshrine in law  any status or privilege related to belief at all.  Would you like to hear a bit more about  Christianity? Try Pentecostalism. Or more about Buddhism?  Or Islam? Or Hinduism? What about Voodooism?  Rastafarianism? Judaism? or Wicca? What about the differences between various branches of Christianity, or Buddhism?

What about my beliefs?

You might ask about my beliefs.  I certainly have beliefs.  From my earliest days I have felt a sense of presence – I can’t remember any time that I have not –  and I have some beliefs about that.  I have taken sannyas in the Shaivite stream of Hinduism.  I have beliefs and practices. I wear orange clothes to remind myself of my purpose. But the last thing that I would ask from the rest of the community is to require them to pass laws to protect my beliefs.  And I would query why any one else would want that for their own beliefs.

Actions speak louder than words

What I do say is, let’s see how people behave.  Let’s see if their beliefs broaden their outlook, and give them a greater capacity for reality-based reasoning rather than magical reasoning, or whether their beliefs make them narrow-minded instead.  Let’s respect the behaviours that bring peace and love and kindness into the world.  Pope Francis might be an example, the Dalai Lama might be an example, of those whose behaviours do in fact bring kindness into the world. But don’t ask them what they believe, or say that their beliefs ought to have legitimacy in law.  Respect what they do, and what they bring about, and let that be sufficient.

And if a religious belief brings about division, judgment of others, unkind or hateful behaviour towards others,  or discrimination in employment or accessibility to goods and services, call it for what it is – self-serving self-righteous twaddle, not divinely ordained belief that bestows entitlement on believers.

And don’t bother me with your beliefs, either. Show me your behaviours and tell me about your experience in living peacefully with the rest of the community. That will show me much more about your relationship with reality than your beliefs ever will.

And keep beliefs and a “right to believe” out of the statute books.


Mataji’s Meditation Background

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The Bishop and Me

As an intelligent Catholic girl from a poor family, when I was 17, I began studies at the University of Melbourne, the first girl in the district to go to university, and one of only 2% of tradesmen’s daughters who went to university in those days.

The Bishop and me

One of my first year subjects was Philosophy A, taught by Dr Eric D’Arcy who went on to chair the Philosophy Dept at MU. At that time, Dr D’Arcy was also Fr D’Arcy, parish priest of Parkville, whose church career saw him become Bishop of Sale and then Archbishop of Hobart.

The text for Philosophy A was Plato’s Republic.  I loved the program, and my teacher brought such clarity to Plato’s Socratic investigations that I experienced an opening of the intellect. Issues such as justice, goodness, reality itself… these were for consideration without doctrine or dogma. My mind began some serious contemplation, and a glimmer of light fell on the way my mind had been formed in a rather one-sided way by my religious upbringing. Because he was so illuminating in encouraging open-minded enquiry into profound issues, I took one of his topics in a later year, too. The fact that I majored in Philosophy was partly influenced by his teaching.

Years later, when I had established a meditation practice but then moved to the country, I sent my children to a Catholic school, so that they might have a benchmark for making their own decisions later in life. Nothing so dogmatic as what I experienced, just an environment that purportedly espoused love as the foundation of living well.  Then came time for their Confirmation… and along came Bishop D’Arcy of the Diocese of Sale to do the confirmations.

It was not the first time I had heard him preach – I guess I went to the Parkville church from time to time.  And he had appeared occasionally at Newman Society camps.  At the time of the confirmation, though, I must have been aged about 4o, and certainly some maturing had happened since I was the wide-eyed teenager considering The Republic as expounded by Eric D’Arcy.

This experience was disheartening, though.  From those early investigations stimulated by first year philosophy, thanks to Eric D’Arcy, my inner life had developed considerably, and was further broadened by meditation.  But his seemed to have shrunk. The man before me was a religious duffer whose way of maintaining his Catholic faith had been to separate intellect from belief.  And it did not matter how narrow or absurd those beliefs were, he stuck to them, even though his insight must have said, please don’t do this.

In fact I have a vague memory of him saying something along those lines, that faith was superior to intellect, perhaps at a Newman Society camp – that if there were a dichotomy between faith and intellect, a Catholic had a duty to stick to faith.  That is, never question the superstitions, corruption, or obvious non-sequiturs of faith,  or the egocentric or cultural biases of religion… just close off the mind and maintain a weird sense that doing so is heroic.

As it happens, I never read The Republic at university. I swanned through the exams because  he was such a good teacher that my mind considered the material in absorbing detail, so that writing for the exam was a pleasure.

In the picture above, Bishop D’Arcy is asking me how I enjoyed The Republic.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him I hadn’t read it.

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Christmas Resentment

Years ago my yoga teacher at the time invited us to a Christmas break up after the last class for the year.  We all sat round and had a nice time, and of course the talk got around to Christmas plans.  And then one of the women, who’d been quite amiable till then, suddenly went into full Christmas Resentment.  Her face twisted into an angry grimace, and she began to speak very bitterly about Christmas Day coming up.  She said she was going to have about 15 people at her place, most of whom she didn’t like (relatives, that is – either on her side or her husband’s side) and she was going to be left to do all the work, including cleaning the house, doing all the cooking, and all the cleaning up afterwards.  And then she was going to have to do the packing for the family to go away early next morning on Boxing Day.

Well, I being always the undiplomatic one, said, “why don’t you refuse to do it?”

Most of us have experienced Christmas stress and Christmas resentments.  And the TV ads that show happy families at a big table having fun and enjoying each other’s company is rarely the case in real life.  Some have managed Christmas Resentment eventually by – yes! – refusing, giving up the charade of giving pointless gifts with money that you can’t afford, or giving so cheaply that you feel ashamed to give, whatever the present is, when it’s all you can afford for anybody.

And some have given away the Christmas gathering altogether.

Personally I think that’s fine.  Once upon a time gifts were handmade, or a gift was something that was of value to yourself, that you owned, and that you chose to give to a loved one or to a dear friend.  The current notion of grabbing something from anywhere off-the-shelf and paying somebody else for it, even for the wrapping, and all this by people who mostly don’t even believe in Christmas as a religious festival anymore, really is ridiculous, isn’t it?

In my case, my much loved long-term friend, partner, former husband and beautifully supportive person in my life, has his actual birthday on 25th  December, while Jesus was certainly not born on 25th  December.  So we tend to have a small Christmas Eve lunch for family and invite a couple of close friends, and it is a sweet time.  And then on 25th  December we celebrate Rob’s birthday – just us, his own family.

Perhaps that’s easy for me now that I’ve been a Swami for 10 years – people are a little uncertain about what to expect from me.  And I learnt to handle the stresses of Christmas much better years ago when I learnt to meditate.  With meditation, little by little, perception changes.  For me, quite a long time ago, there was a shift out of the programmed ideas about Christmas and family that had been instilled without my knowledge or consent, and I recognised the difference between loving consent and programmed behaviour.  With meditation came insight and choice.  With insight and choice came a more realistic understanding of how resentments arise from doing something as an unchallenged duty when so much of you is resisting and seeing it only as an imposition.

What about you?  If Christmas is sweet and lovely and loving, and there is a spirit of generosity not only from you, but also amongst the people who share Christmas with you, with nothing being repressed, no passive rage, if there is is full-hearted sharing of gifts and the work entailed in putting on Christmas festivities amongst your family –  the close and the extended relatives – and if Christmas for you includes a joyful spiritual connection with the great being that was Jesus, then fine… Enjoy.

If you feel totally imposed on, resentful, resistant, angry, bitter….  Then gosh,  don’t you think there might be a better alternative?  You can read my last year’s  Christmas reflection, on ways to handle Christmas stress, if you like… but what else can you do?

What do you think?

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Anger…meditation…mindfulness… or Resilience?

When was the last time you were angry?  Finding out about why we stress out is just the best thing we can do for ourselves. Learning how to deal with anger and stress is good for our health and wellbeing, and better for the people around us, too.

Anger is a stress response. Your pulse went up and so did your blood pressure. Hormones flooded your body. You may have felt hot or flushed.

Can you remember what caused it..?  How long did it take you to calm down again? (That is, how long until the body turned off the hormonal response, your pulse returned to  normal and your blood pressure lowered to a healthier rate…) Which is the best way to handle it – by meditating, practising mindfulness….or maybe by finding a way not to be angry in the first place?

Continue reading

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A Night in Hospital

Feeling ill after a week of wildly fluctuating pulse rates… weak, cold, poor concentration,  feeling so unwell… loved ones insisted on taking me to Emergency Department (ED) at the local hospital.  Me expecting to have to wait at least four hours.  But no… triage put me straight into care. And to my astonishment, kept me overnight.  So … my night progressed with being “plugged in” to monitors and automatically timed blood pressure machines squeezing my arm, and an IV catheter (which was never used) plugged into my other arm, right in the curve of my elbow.  It was quite sore by the morning. And so many questions, constant questioning!  And odd experiences…. Continue reading

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Resilience vs Meditation

Resilience…really, I wish that everyone who has learnt meditation and mindfulness from me – or from anyone else – would also take the Resilience program that I teach. And I wish that people who have learnt resilience with me would follow up by learning meditation with me, too. They are  two different, but very complementary techniques – together, they give you a stronger, more flexible mind that can be both forbearing and insightful, calm and purposeful, peacefully quiet but also fully engaged and self-validating while active. Continue reading

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Handling Christmas Stress

Four hacks for handling Christmas Stress – and change your life:

When you begin to feel stressed – particularly Christmas stress –  and you feel frustrated, put upon, rushed, angry, remember these fours simple truths that will change your Christmas – and your life. Continue reading

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Scientific Meditation Research

There is a plethora of meditation research – the biology of meditation, the psychobiology of meditation, health and well-being outcomes, and research that shows that meditation changes brain structures. Continue reading

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Spring, Growth, Equinox, Balance, Satsang

Spring – Time of Renewal and Growth – and the Equinox

pictures of Spring flowers

Spring, lush, optimistic

Spring has come to Melbourne with it burst of lush and colourful growth. And with it, a magical moment – the Vernal Equinox.  Two fantastic aspects of the  natural cycle.  Do you feel the change in yourself? Continue reading

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