Monthly Archives: March 2014

Painting Blogs, how they came about!

When I joined the Middle Way Society in September 2013 Robert asked if I would like to contribute by writing a blog;  I decided to revive my interest in Art History, concentrating on the work of painters.

I choose an artist then I look at some of his or her work, wikipedia provides information and images to copy  or I turn to art books in my small collection. I enjoy discovering the symbols and metaphors painters use, more so since I have been writing these blogs,  artists find many ways to express meaning, art critics and the general public sometimes discover new meaning in a work, it may not coincide with the artists’ intention, new interpretations are found. Robert describes embodied meaning as ‘an understanding of meaning based on a recognition of how the physical body creates meaningfulness’ unconscious themes may surface  and become conscious as the artist works.

These blogs can be seen on the MWS site,  under the heading of ‘Practice.’ I’m happy to answer questions about a painting, I will do some research if necessary. Do ask me to discuss your favourite painting, I gain more knowledge in the process!

The first reaction when looking at a painting is important I think, even though you may change your opinion at a later date, knowing about the artist’s life or the symbols he is using can wait. An initial aesthetic response probably takes place within minutes of looking.

My passion for paintings began in my twenties, in the 1960s I took a foundation course in Art & Design at Farnham School of Art in Surrey, after a gap of ten years while living in London, I was in a position to undertake a degree course, a further year followed when I obtained a PGCE to teach art at secondary school level.
I did some teaching in schools in Devon where I lived for twelve years. When I retired I set up two adult art classes in Devon village halls on a voluntary basis, petrol money was donated, it’s a great way to make new friends!
For the past seventeen years I have lived in Sussex, by the sea with the Sussex Downs close by. I am a mother and grandmother of five. I still paint for my own pleasure.

I have found several  recurring facts while reading up on artists up until now, firstly a handful of painters have been excused from military service usually on health grounds when called up to fight,  secondly, mental illness in the family is occasionally present, often it is the  mother of the painter who is ill  and finally I have noticed that Freud has been mentioned as having an influence on many painters together with other new theories about how the mind functions, it leads me to wonder what motivates an artist to dedicate his/her working life to Art, they often possess a determination to overcome any difficulty that makes barriers, although the struggling artist working in a cold attic no longer has the same romantic ring although many young artists do find funding dificult to come by! The process of painting is therapeutic, not all artists paint for that reason of course, some want to express historical deeds, some religious belief, others intend to shake up society or shock. Benefactors play an important role, in the past popes and cardinals paid artists for work to be exhibited in churches, wealthy land owners requested portraits or landscapes or work is commissioned by art dealers particular now, high prices are paid for paintings by the great masters which may not be available for the public to view. Prints have become popular for the home.

Art needs an audience, not to be locked away in private vaults. Painters and paintings may not be as popular now as in the past, other forms of media such as video are taking the stage,  whatever method of expression is chosen, creativity is here for good and has been around for aeons!

The MWS Podcast: Episode 18, The Forgiveness Project founder Marina Cantacuzino

In this episode, Marina Cantacuzino, the founder of the Forgiveness Project talks about the project, how it came about, it’s rationale and how she would like to see it develop. She also talks about forgiveness and its complex nature.

MWS Podcast 18: Marina Cantacuzino as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_18_Marina_Cantacuzino

Previous podcasts:

Episode 17: Rich Flanagan on the compatibility of atheism and MWP.
Episode 16: The ‘Thought for the Day’ presenter Vishvapani Blomfield.
Episode 15: Lesley Jeffries and Jim O’Driscoll, the founders of Language in Conflict
Episode 14: The writer and journalist Mark Vernon on agnosticism.
Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Earlier podcasts

Critical Thinking 11: Fallacies of Composition and Division

The fallacies of composition and division are concerned with the relationship between the whole and the parts. If you attribute a certain quality to a part of something, it will not necessarily apply to the whole, and if you attribute a certain quality to the whole, it will not necessarily apply to the parts.

For example, supposing you are building a house. Each of the bricks weighs 2kgs. However, the house as a whole obviously does not weigh 2 kgs. You could pick up the bricks and throw them, but you couldn’t do that to the house, and so on. That is the fallacy of composition. For the fallacy of division you just need to turn this round. The house as a whole makes a good shelter from the rain – but that doesn’t mean that an individual brick makes a good shelter from the rain.

This example may seem obvious and absurd, but there are other instances where fallacies of composition and division are less obvious. It can even apply to colours. You might think it obvious that a whole made up of parts will be the same colour as its parts: but if the parts are blue and yellow, they may blur into green from a distance. A house that is white on the outside may also be built of bricks that are black on every side except the one that shows on the outside of the house. You might think that your body is alive, but it contains dead cells as well as live ones: what is true of the whole is not necessarily true of all the parts.Fractal_Broccoli

The reverse of either of these two fallacies is also fallacious. I can no more assume that parts necessarily do not share the properties of the whole as I can assume that they do.

One interesting application of this fallacy is that it seems to offer a good refutation of those who take either kind of metaphysical position on the mind-body problem, whether they are reductionists who think that our minds must be entirely material, or essentialists who think that the mind must be irreducible and essentially different from the body (for example, if it is a non-physical soul). Reductive materialists seem to be subject to the fallacy of composition: just because the components of the mind can all be understood as material objects, does not necessarily mean that the mind as a whole can be understood in that way. On the other hand, essentialists who want to insist that the mind is special and different are subject to the negation of the fallacy of division: just because the mind has certain special characteristics, such as consciousness, does not necessarily imply that its parts do not share those characteristics.

These fallacies can be similarly employed to point out the kind of mistake made whenever metaphysical conclusions have been drawn about a higher level of explanation being essentially different from or reducible to a lower one (in philosophy this is called supervenience). For example, whether life is or is not essentially different from mere chemical compounds, or whether reasoned behaviour is or is not essentially different from instinctual behaviour. I think we just have to live with the vagueness of these divisions in our ways of understanding the world, but it is too easy to rush into assumptions about rigid divisions.

To identify these fallacies in practice, you need to identify what the whole is and what the parts are. There may be good reasons in experience for believing that the whole either does or does not have the same characteristics as the parts, but a fallacy is taking place if it is being assumed that they necessarily have the same characteristics without further evidence.


Are the following examples of the fallacy of composition or of division (or not)?

1. “Should we not assume that just as the eye, hand, the foot, and in general each part of the body clearly has its own proper function, so man too has some function over and above the function of his parts?” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

2. Manchester United are likely to lose this match. Two of their strikers and several midfield players have chronic injury problems, and are likely to put in a disappointing performance.

3. Communism in the Soviet Union was a failure. Universal state employment meant that nobody was motivated to make an effort in economic life, and it was the economy that destroyed the Soviet system in the end.

4. I’ve tried one strand of spaghetti and it’s cooked, so the whole pan must be ready.

Picture: Fractal (Romanesco) Broccoli: In Fractals the parts do have the same qualities as the whole!


Rigorous even-handedness seems to me a central skill involved in practising the Middle Way, and I’ve been thinking about it especially after recent discussions on the site with Richard Flanagan and Mark Vernon. I thought I’d share a bit more about what I think even-handedness means, how we might practise it and why it is important.

The central metaphor involved in the Middle Way is balance – trying not to lean too far either to one side or to the other, because both sides offer rigidities of view that stop us making provisional judgments that address the changing conditions around us. Of course, the way we each find a point of balance as individuals depends on our background, and our approximation to balance may seem like a series of corrective lurches from one side to the other. But we can only maintain even corrective lurches if we have a clear idea of what we are avoiding. If we’re avoiding both positive and negative metaphysical claims, we need a clear view of each so that we can spot them before we hit them. Even a drunken steersman with a rather blurry idea of the strait ahead of him still has to have a sense of both sets of rocks to be avoided.Blondin_sculpture_Ladywood

That lays some conceptual demands on us, as the way people are accustomed to talk about views does not necessarily make it very clear what the positive and negative metaphysical poles are. We’re probably all fairly clear that the Taliban on one side, or an addict trying to fill a meaningless life with drugs, on the other, represent extremes of both belief and practice to be avoided. However, in between such obvious extremes there are lot of positions that lay claim to the middle ground. The sheer amount of jostling for the middle ground itself provides evidence that in some sense people intuit the Middle Way to be right. Labels that we may have thought were extreme may be re-presented as the Middle Way, or at least a middle way. To some extent they often are, but to some extent also mingled with metaphysical commitments.

The first name that springs to mind to illustrate this is Tony Blair with his ‘Third Way’. The Third Way was quite a specific policy, and was about combining a goal of increasing social equality with the pragmatic effectiveness of market economics. Blair’s Third Way was a re-labelling of a once Socialist British Labour Party, a re-orientation of its economic policy. Although he made little impact on rising levels of inequality in Britain, Blair did manage to change the agenda. Since then British politicians (in marked contrast to the polarisation of the US) have been jostling for the centre ground, all claiming to offer the middle way between extremes. Many of them may be sincere about this. But I’ve yet to find a politician that I found convincingly rigorous, consistent or even-handed in developing a genuinely Middle Way position. The middle was appropriated mainly because Blair showed how politically advantageous it was, not because it was perceived as the morally objective option. It was a partial achievement, but Blair’s Third Way has also become a bit of a hazard for a practitioner of the Middle Way – a narrow interpretation of it that might be mistaken for the whole thing.

As with the Third Way, there are a number of other positions that I continue to argue are at least partially inspired by metaphysical assumptions, but that various people have suggested (some on this website) are compatible with the Middle Way. These include Scientific Naturalism (particularly of the ‘methodological’ variety), various types of liberal Christianity, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, Kant, Natural Law, Deep Ecology, the ‘Radical Middle Way’ in Islam, Social Democracy, Conservatism, Atheism, Humanism, and of course, Buddhism. Now, I don’t want to be mistaken for a purist simply rejecting all these positions because they’re not perfectly right. The Middle Way Society isn’t perfectly right either. All these positions address some conditions to some extent, whilst neglecting others. But we will only be in a position to assess them critically if we maintain some conceptual distinctions between the Middle Way and any one of them, not allowing any of them to appropriate the Middle Way as we understand it. I would then expect lots of quite reasonable disagreement on the extent to which any of these ideologies fall short of the Middle Way, but you won’t be able to assess that extent unless you have an idea of the Middle Way that is distinct from any of them, to start with.

That’s where the practice of even-handedness comes in. I’d suggest the following method, whenever you’re in doubt as to whether a particular belief is part of, or is compatible with the Middle Way:

  • Identify the extremes of view in the area you’re thinking about – i.e. a pair of polarised beliefs that lie beyond experience. See About Metaphysics page for examples.
  • Clarify the vocabulary, checking that you’re not just using the same word for a position that might or might not be interpreted metaphysically. If necessary, stipulate two meanings for yourself, e.g. atheism 1 & atheism 2 (this might be a temporary measure just to avoid confusion).
  • Reflect on the need to avoid both extremes. Most likely your background will steer you in one direction or the other. But both extremes offer equal dangers.
  • Imagine that you come from the opposite background (e.g. Conservative instead of left-wing, or theist instead of atheist) and see if what you thought was the Middle Way still looks like that from the other angle.
  • Try to define the Middle Way for yourself in rigorous avoidance of both the extremes.
  • Think about the practical implications of the Middle Way in this area.

I hope this kind of method might help you to avoid confusions merely arising from terminology. I have developed my own uses of terminology in Middle Way Philosophy in accordance with this method, but I think it’s the method that determines the use of terminology that is more important than the terminology itself. If you can use this method, I hope I will accept your corrections if you can show me that I haven’t used it rigorously myself.

I think this is important for individual practice of the Middle Way, but it’s also vital for the society whilst it is still in its early phase of development. It would be very easy for the Middle Way as a concept to be appropriated and eclipsed by one of the ‘false friends’ mentioned above. The consequences of this would be disastrous, because the whole purpose and central originality of the society would disappear. It would also cease to have the reconciliatory role it could potentially have in entrenched conflicts, because it would start to be seen as a cover for ‘the other side’. Theists would assume it was really atheistic, scientistic types that it was a cover for woolly new-ageism, Conservatives that it was really Socialist, etc. Even-handedness is just a vital part of what I conceive the society to be about, but it would be all too easy to let it slip.

Meditation 10: Mahasi Vipassana (or The Art of Noting) – Part 1

And when my mind is wandering,


there I will go.
And it really doesn’t matter
if I’m wrong, 
I’m right where I belong.
(from ‘Fixing a Hole’ by John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

I like my meditation practice to be simple and yet usually, I also like to have some kind of structure.  The hope being that this structure might just help to reduce the wanderings of my restless mind into those places that lie just beyond my field of conscious observation.  Developed by the influential Burmese Buddhist monk Mahasi Sayadaw (1904 – 1982), this particular method of Insight meditation provides the structure needed to aid concentration and awareness with each passing moment.

My intention here is only to provide a brief overview, based on my own experience and interpretation, of the practical elements of this technique and as such I will not be discussing it within the original Theravada Buddhist context.  If what follows is of interest to you then I must recommend that you seek further, and more expert, advice – ideally in person (such as on a retreat) or via a website or book.  It is highly likely that this advice will come in the form of Buddhist teaching, however there is no need to be Buddhist or subscribe to Buddhist doctrine to partake and enjoy the benefits.  A couple of recommendations that I offer are this article, which is a translated transcript of an instructional talk by Mahasi Sayadaw and the retreat centre where I was taught to ‘note’, Satipanya – on the Shropshire/ Welsh border, run by Bante Bodhidhamma (who also leads regular retreats at Gaia House in Devon).

Okay, so with the passing of that all too brief introduction – owing as it does to the referencing of more detailed sources – I will get right on to my semi-instructional account of Mahasi Vippassana, or as I prefer to call it – Noting Meditation.

Noting – well what is it anyway?

The most popular form of meditation in the UK at the moment seems to be that of concentrating on the breath, which I believe (in the Buddhist tradition) is a form of Samatha.  The idea seems to be that this develops ones powers of concentration between each passing moment, with additional benefits arising out of this.  While Noting Meditation does incorporate a significant amount of breath focus, it also allows the mind to roam by switching the meditator’s attention to the object of the minds wandering.

Most other forms of meditation teach that it is best to avoid language, or any intentional mental formations, and to instead just experience each moment as it is.  There are good reasons for this but it can be difficult to maintain – I for one need an anchor.  Noting breaks from this convention by allowing the use of words to identify (note) and maintain concentration on experience, although one must be careful to select words that are least likely to lead off into unhelpful mental ruminations.


When meditating I tend to sit cross legged in the formal, and perhaps poncy looking Burmese style – but I do not feel that this is an imperative, as I will discuss in the part 2, noting can be employed in pretty much any situation.   Although the predominant school of thought teaches that sitting cross legged enables the greatest level of concentration and alertness, there have already been several discussions here arguing the merits, or lack thereof, of such a view.  I would personally say that if you already sit cross legged for meditation then continue to do so, but if you prefer to sit in a chair, stand or even lie down then these techniques will still be easy to follow.  The important thing is that you can be safe, comfortable and able to maintain a good level of focus – it’s not easy to do this when you are asleep.

How do I note?

Once you are in your preferred posture it is a good idea to try and settle the mind – again if you already have a routine for this, such as a body scan, then stick with that.  If not then you can begin noting right away.  Perhaps begin with a couple of deep breaths and then start noting the word ‘sitting’ or ‘standing’ or whatever word best describes your chosen position.

By ‘noting’ what I mean is to repeat your chosen word over and over again – this should be internal, there is no need to audibly vocalize.  The word, however, is only a tool by which to frame your experience, so at this point just feel what it is like to sit or stand.  As you are repeating the word (sitting, sitting, sitting… standing, standing, standing) also experience the physical sensation of sitting (or standing) as a whole activity  – at this point we are only settling and focusing the mind.

After a few minutes transfer your focus to the breath, where it will remain for a while before allowing your mind a little more freedom.  As you breathe hold your attention at the abdomen, feeling how it rises with the in-breath and falls with the out-breath.  As the abdomen rises note ‘rising… rising… rising’, and as the abdomen falls note ‘falling… falling… falling’.  As with many other forms of meditation the idea here is not to take control but to experience each breath as it comes.  I would recommend trying to maintain this intentional, Samatha style concentration for around 5 – 10 minutes, the purpose being to nurture a basic level of focus and provide a platform from which the attention can start from and return to as necessary.  So, for this first period just gently bring your attention back to the abdomen each time that it wanders.

After 5 -10 minutes you should be ready to gently release some of the slack from those mental reigns.  Continue to focus on the breath, but now if the mind is stimulated by a distraction change your noting word appropriately.  The word that I would choose depends on the nature of the distraction and I will discuss some possibilities below.

Before I continue, it is worth saying a little about how often one should keep the focus on any given experience.  Some sources say that one should keep the focus where it is, until the distraction has passed.  For example if it is a sound – a dog barking for instance – then one might repeat the word; ‘sound… sound… sound…’ until either the noise has ceased or it has no longer become the main focus of attention.  If the noise has ceased and there is nothing else to grab your attention then return to the breath.  If there is something that muscles in on your focus then make this the object of the noting.

Other sources that I have come across suggest a slightly different approach, where by one notes the distraction in between breaths.  With the example of the barking dog that might go a little like this; ‘rising… rising… rising… falling… falling… falling… sound… rising… rising… rising… falling… falling…’ and so on.

I tend to use a combination of both depending on how pervasive the distraction is and how high my levels of concentration are at the time.  If they are high I might stay with the sound but if they are low and I am regularly wandering without any particular point of focus then I will incorporate the breath as a helpful foothold.

Which Words Should I Use?

As mentioned above it is important that any words used are as neutral and free from judgement as possible, they should be single words and not preceded or followed by any intentional embellishment.  If your face is itching then the word should just be ‘itching’, not ‘face itching’ and certainly not ‘my face is itching’.  You should not be attempting to imagine a face itching or an abdomen rising or a dog barking – although that will happen – rather one is only trying to experience these things as they occur.  The purpose of noting words are not to describe or add to what is happening but rather to assist us in our mindful observations.

The amount of possible distractions is practically infinite and it is not possible to suggest words for each and every eventuality.  Instead I will briefly discuss what I think are the three main categories of distraction Physical, Cognitive and Emotional.


For me it is the physical events that are easiest to identify and it is here that I spend most of my time.  I also think that it is the physical occurrences that are easiest to note.  Here are the most common (or perhaps obvious) sensations with examples of words that I use in my practice:

  1. Itching.  I use the word ‘itching’, as discussed above.
  2. Pins and needles.  Usually it’s ‘tingling’ although this might alter with varying intensities.
  3. Pain.  I tend not to refer to it as ‘pain’, which I think has negative connotations. Instead I will note the type of pain – so it might be ‘sharp’, ‘tight’ or some such identification.
  4. Temperature.  Again this depends on what the temperature is, so it could be ‘cool’, ‘warm’, ‘hot’ or ‘cold’.

There are many other, more subtle physical sensations that will arise, such as the sensation of the hands touching each other or the feet touching the floor.  The key word here is touching – as the attention if focused on the hands resting against each other the noting word ‘touching’ can be used.


Cognitive distractions are very common in my practice and are the ones that lead inevitably away from the mindfulness that I am trying to nurture.  My method of noting thoughts is very simple but it can be more complicated if you wish.  For a more detailed account of how to note various cognitive thoughts you can probably not go too far wrong than referring here, to Mahasi Sayadaw himself.

Rather than analyse the type of thought too deeply I only note the very basic characteristics.  This might just be a word such as ‘thinking’, ‘planning’, or ‘remembering’.  I think that it’s here where it may be easiest to fall into the trap of feeding – rather than being mindful of – an over-active imagination, which is why I like to keep the words very simple and nondescript.  If done effectively the very act of noting will stop the train of thought in its tracks and one can return their focus to the breath, or whatever object happens to tickle our restless fancy.


I find emotion very difficult to identify while I am meditating, unless it happens to be quite strong.  More often than not, however, my emotions are very subtle and do not grab my attention.  When they do it is usually a response to some kind of cognitive activity like anticipating an exam or remembering doing something well, the former might make me anxious and the latter happy – both of which would also be my noting words.

There are of course, a huge array of emotions, some highly intrusive and many understated.   I imagine that with experience one can become able to note many emotions with ease but until this happens automatically I do not think that it is a good idea to spend time searching  – only note what comes to the surface, of it’s own accord.

I like this technique a lot – it is the one that I use most often.  I like the relative freedom that it affords but I also like the structure it enables – with this method, what might be considered distractions can be transformed into phenomena on which we can meditate.  However there is a slight paradox here:  in order to develop mindfulness, which supposedly exists before our brains create their mental formations, we are using a kind of mental formation.  It is helpful then, to consider this technique as a stepping stone from which the active process of ‘noting’ can gradually be dropped.  I would also suggest that this technique is used in conjunction with other styles (not necessarily at the same time), although this is only my personal view.

Noting is not only for use in formal meditation and Part 2 will discuss how this technique can be useful and rewarding in almost any situation – from opening a door to cleaning a toilet.