Life confronts us with challenges. And in times of crisis, like the recent earthquakes in Turkey and the war in Ukraine, these often seem overwhelming. It is natural for us to feel disoriented, with low mood, low energy and struggle to feel ok during the day and night. The nervous system has in-built resilience to experience these phases of tension, difficulty and suffering. Over the past several hundred million years, we’ve developed an incredibly sensitive and intelligent capacity to remain alive and engage in the world, despite all these difficulties. One heart quality, in particular present for mammals such as us, has made a big difference: compassion.

Compassion is the ability to identify suffering, understand it, feel into it as well as the motivation to alleviate it. Compassion, for me, has been among the most difficult heart-qualities to develop. In my meditation practice and in my life, I have been very strong and committed on goal-achievement, and the cultivation of equanimity (equality of mind) and joy. But compassion is an entirely different posture, a new relationship to the dark side of our lives and minds. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of self- and other-oriented empathy, a deep quality of listening the quivering of the heart.

Being vulnerable, open disclosing a sense of suffering is often perceived socially as being weak or inadequate. We are often faced with a willingness to help but feeling powerless. I remember working with a client at one point, they were faced with chronic pains in the body due to the many operations they suffered. They said they stopped talking about their pain because everyone around them did not have the capacity to hear how much pain she was going through, did not have the required compassion, and therefore held that burden to herself. She did not expect people to find solutions to her pain, just that they could make some space hear her, be understood and welcomed. Because this did not happen, she was holding a second load of suffering, on top of the physical pain: the pain of being misunderstood, the pain of disconnection, the pain of exclusion.

In meditation we can develop this internal compassion, this posture of deep listening and caring for our own grief, pains and suffering. We can learn to hold ourselves dearly, softly, as a loving caretake would hold their baby. In times of crisis, there is so much suffering within us and around us that compassion can make an enormous difference to how we hold ourselves and others. Not expecting change, not expecting ease, not expecting for the suffering to go away, but instead being willing to make space for it. And paradoxically, when we bring ourselves to welcome difficulty, it becomes lighter! Ease and deeper breathing can emerge, a sense of softness and a larger heartbeat can be felt. Evolutionarily, compassion is a very recent but extremely powerful process of integrating our shadows, our suffering and challenges.

Finally, there is a time to celebrate our efforts in the development of compassion. Recently I worked with some individuals who were holding spaces for victims of the Earthquake in Turkey, and they were acknowledging how much more able they were able to stay present in the face of extreme pain. They were really growing their compassion to a whole new level, and even though this was a real challenge and not easy, they were able to see these steps forward. Celebrating these little steps together made a huge difference: we were able to rest a little bit, breathe some more. We were able to joke and enjoy one another’s company, appreciate our time together. It gave us a break from focusing on what was painful, and allowed more ease to be felt in the space and our bodies. It also gave us strength to go deeper, and take further steps for the development of this compassion. We all need to feel strong sometimes, and celebrating our little successes and moments of ease and joy are essential for that.

May compassion be present in us, for the benefit of all beings.

We are offering a online meditation retreat on April 28 – 30, on the topic of “Meditation in Times of Crisis”. Apart of a registration fee of CHF 5,00 it’s completely donation based. Learn more about it and register here.

One of the main insights from evolutionary theory is that as it unfolds, life becomes more complex, more intelligent and more skilled. In fact, this increase in capacity is a necessary condition due to the process of natural selection: the survival of the fittest. One of the great developments in living beings over the course of evolution is the emergence of the nervous system: a central intelligence which helps organize and coordinate resources, energy usage and interactions with the environment. Hundreds of millions of years ago, complex life increased its chances of survival by going into a freeze state: like the possum who fakes being dead in order to be able to trick the fox that he’s already dead and not worth eating. Later, we learned to flight and fight, further enabling us to remain alive in the face of threats. The fact that these nervous system responses evolved over time is very significant because it means that they are increasingly intelligent and complex. It also means our nervous system operates hierarchically: when faced with a threat, we will first evaluate the possibility of fight, then flight, then freeze.  These principles have big implications for the meaning of meditation and how to practice it! I’ll share a few insights here from my own practice.

First off, since I was a child, whenever I was confronted by something difficult I’ve had the tendency to go into freeze as my go-to threat response. And it served me well! I was able not to get into much of harm’s way and have a mostly happy childhood. However, when I started meditation, because I couldn’t tell the signals of freeze, often when I came across a difficulty I would leap into freeze right away. Due to my lack of awareness of the nervous system and how to regulate it – I didn’t even know about this state of freeze – I sometimes would do a very unhelpful thing: (pathologically) strengthen that pattern of going into freeze.

These trends did not help my live a more meaningful and regulated life, on the contrary. Meditation started to have some perverse effects in the way I was interacting in relationships and my engagement with the world. For example, whenever I was experiencing difficult emotions with other people, I would favour states of ‘calm and equanimity,’ considering these to be higher states than states of fight or flight. Because the nervous system operates hierarchically, if we experience freeze, this means we’ve exhausted our ability to fight and flee the environment, and use our last resort solution to survive. In a way freeze is a higher state, but it also impacts the system more powerfully and destructively if accessed to often! So over time, I learned the importance of experiencing fear for instance (which would often get me in a state of flight), or frustration/anger (which would often get me in a state of fight).

That way, I’ve been learning to experience a broader range of emotions and states, more adaptively. And that word to adapt is really the key one: connecting to the experience that we are facing with the appropriate/adaptive response. There is a growing consensus that the essential skill of regulation is cognitive flexibility, which also means adaptive responsiveness. So instead of going into a disconnected, distancing and ‘calm’ state of freeze whenever I remember being criticized sharply and I’d been upset about it, I’ve been encouraging myself to explore emotions of anger, resentment, sadness, etc. Paradoxically, it now consumes for me less energy to feel a strong emotion like anger than to go into a state of ‘calm’ because once it’s felt, then the sympathetic arousal that was ignited through the criticism is discharged (rather than being stuck in the body as it does when going straight into freeze).

The key point, from a nervous system perspective on meditation, is that all emotions are actually essential to be experienced. Embodying the full range of emotions in meditation helps build a more resilient nervous system that is less dysregulated and has less energy stuck in the body system. Come and join us at the next Dharma Gathering to practice these skills!

What is the purpose of meditation? Shapiro (1) studied that question empirically with meditators in California, and found that participants’ answers fitted into at least one of three categories:

  • Self-regulation: achieving a sense of wellbeing
  • Self-exploration: knowing oneself
  • Self-actualization: embodying and developing the fullness of one’s character

A closer look at the early Buddhist teachings (the Pali canon) offers a similar goal for meditation, albeit in different terms: “freedom from stress.” While this may seem at first that being free from distress only relates to being regulated (the first category above), both knowing oneself and developing qualities are also essential to this task. Looking at my own experience, I went through a deep depression in my early twenties because I could not understand my place and purpose in life. I had just separated from my girlfriend, with whom I thought I would be “happy ever after,” and did not see a future for myself in the business and economics degree I was completing at university. I had all the ingredients to feel good: sufficient resources to cater for my basic needs (and much more), plenty of friends and a very active social life, a loving family, great physical health, and a bright future ahead in the line of my professional career. Yet, I fell into depression.

My mental health was affected not just by all the factors named above, but also by a need for a deeply satisfying sense-making framework of who I was and what my place was in the world. That was missing, and it felt like I was living an increasingly darker nightmare as my desperation increased by the day. That’s when I decided to go to Thailand and start an period of meditation in Buddhist monasteries.

I practiced intensive meditation in Thailand for about six months, and a lot happened. I’ll explain more details about that in another blog post, but what I’d like to share now is that my study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings offered a conceptual framework and a systemic set of teachings to relate to my experience that was inspiring and meaningful. Finally, I could start to understand more clearly, and validate a growing intuition, that there was more to me, who I was, the world I was living in and how I experienced others than the story I had been told of a Newtonian, objectified, separate and materialistic existence.

At the core of it, my main insights centered around

  • the need to cultivate a perceptual capacity in order to have more moments of harmony inside myself and with others and the world
  • the importance of working towards a transcendent goal (nirvana) because the quality of every one of my present moment states are directly impacted by it

I could quite easily fit both of these goals into the latter two categories in Shapiro’s study: understanding myself, how I perceive myself as well as the development of new ways of being amount to self-exploration and self-actualization. What was missing though? Self-regulation! I was very intent of understanding, expanding and transcending myself, but brought no importance to being grounded and feeling good. Instead, I practiced a lot of (sometimes extreme) asceticism, in order to intensify exploratory and transcendental experiences, which eventually got me into a lot of trouble, and why I turned very seriously to a nervous-system centered approach to meditation. What is that and how does it work? That’ll be the topic of next month’s blog post.


(1) Shapiro, D. H. (1992). A preliminary study of long term meditators: Goals, effects, religious orientation, cognitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24(1), 23-39.

*Systemics: the need to include my place in society, and how society affects me

“What you frequently ponder upon, that becomes the inclination of your mind

Buddha (1)


I am my perception. As I walk down the forest close to my home in the autumn, I smell the pine trees, I see the wide variation of colours as all other trees lose their leaves, and hear some birds singing softly. I am momentarily mesmerized by how beautiful and enjoyable it is to be surrounded by all this life and vibrancy. And from that, there is a sense of greatness of life, of oneness and a deeply harmonized sense of who I am and my place in the cosmos.

The thing is, as I am Swiss, I have grown up going to the mountains and forests very often, yet never got to perceive nature and myself in this way before. Undoubtedly this comes from a prolonged meditation practice and deepening appreciation of nature, both of which help to beautify a relationship to myself. Training in perception, as we do in meditation with qualities such as mindfulness, love, compassion, joy, equanimity and somatic sensitivity have influenced how I perceive myself, and vice-versa.

I have often been taught that meditation is about “being the present moment with what is.” However, though acceptance is obviously a key component of meditation, as I follow my perceptual development over these last 15 years of practice, I see other patterns emerging: more beauty, more belonging, more calm and more joy for example. And so why not intentionally develop these outcomes

This is something I have been growing into these past few years: intentionally orienting my mind towards ‘positive’ qualities such as beauty, space, pleasure, contentment and gratitude. I have found that there is most often something, even the tiniest little thing, in my perceptual experience that involves some kind of positive quality, and with a sustained attention towards that, it grows (2). At this point in my practice, I spend most of my time co-creating my experience along with spontaneous impulses coming from my nervous system, the external environment as well as imaginal drives. This last dynamic of imagination, seems to be most attractive to me now, where I allo.w my mind to create shapes, forms and colours that seem to be most harmonizing to my experience (in my imaginal repertoire). One of the indicators for this harmonizing quality that I intuit around is the somatic resonance of these imaginal impulses. For example, in my meditation this morning, I felt some narrowing perceptions on my body which got me feeling more anxious, and spontaneously I would reach out for more space and orientation outside my body, I literally created space and broadened the size of my energetic and perceptual field. It then got to the point where it felt too large and anxiety started creeping in again, with agitating waves and a feeling of fear, so I relaxed by coming back into the body softly, feeling the earth under me and gently sensations of ease and pleasure also available. This creative-imaginal movement from the creation of space, back to orienting towards palpable somatics of pleasure and groundedgrowness is an example of the intuitive skill I call somatic imaginal: allowing the nervous system to feel soothed, brightened and dynamized (“somatic”) by producing whatever impulses coming to mind spontaneous (“imaginal”).

Next time you sit in meditation, it may be worth experimenting to find out: “what images (forms, colours, sounds, voices, dimensions) help to soften and dynamize my somatic experience in this moment?”

Come and join our next Dharma Gathering on December 4th to further embody your imaginal capacity!


(1) Two Kinds of Thought, Majjhima Nikāya 19

(2) See Broaden-and-Build theory from Barbara Fredrickson


“The climate crisis is a crisis of view

Rob Burbea (1)


Our moment-to-moment experience is influenced by many factors, including the environment we are in. By the environment, I mean the immediate surroundings as well as the larger ecological and societal context we inhabit. I remember a time on silent retreat when it was cold because of winter, and I practised meditation for long periods indoors. It was enjoyable to feel the warmth of the fire, listen to the crackling wood and see its embers. It felt so alive, so vibrant, such a presence despite the loneliness in my hermitage. I thank the gods and goddesses of nature for being such a support during difficult times.

We evolved intimately with nature, and whether we feel our immediate environment matters to our sense of belonging and embodiment in each moment. Nowadays we urban people spend so much time on our tech equipment (phones, computers, cars), that feeling intimate with nature is not a given. There has recently even emerged a new mental health diagnosis of Nature Deficit Disorder (2). Our modern industrial societies, influenced by secular humanistic and Cartesian body-as-object-of-mind, have conditioned a challenging dynamic to our relationship with the environment and nature.

Sacredness can be felt in many varieties and infinite ways. What do we hold sacred in life? Is nature included in this sacredness? It is worth contemplating our relationship with nature and explore ways in which we can enrich our meaningfulness and sense of belonging on this planet. Let’s take a moment and feel Earth’s embrace – the pull of gravity on our bodies and hearts – and allow that to ground us and enable a letting go right now.

How is it to rest on Earth’s force and holding?

Let’s feel into the breath…

How things look outside as we allow this?

Our minds are often pulled in many directions, and yet there is also this opportunity to enjoy Earth’s embrace. Perhaps there is a way in which the pull of gravity can be felt as Earth’s love for our bodies and hearts.

We are right now at a key moment in our human and history of evolutionary life altogether. The climate catastrophe is starting to be widely felt in its impacts on our societies, at the edge of civilizational collapse (3) (notwithstanding the extinction period we have just entered). Is life around us and as the species itself a part of our sacredness? Let us take another moment and feel into the goodness and liveliness of having other beings around us. How is it to feel the birdsong in the morning, walk with dogs, caress cats, ride horses, or other animals resonating in our imaginal space?

Let’s bring to mind a moment when we felt an animal’s love.

Sensing into that experience, sensations, breath.

Taking time to enjoy and appreciate.

As we feel the nourishment from the life around us, and our dependencies on many many other species, perhaps our hearts open. And from this open heart, we can feel a deeper belonging with others, on this planet, together. I encourage all of us to include life and the Earth itself to be included as imaginal forces in our meditations, uplifting our hearts and grounding our bodies. From this love of nature and a felt-sense understanding of ecology, our activism, belonging, groundedness and contemplative practices can enable new ways of being into this world. This sacred world, with its myriad beings and mysterious ways, is worth protecting.

Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to further embody Earth’s embrace and love for life!


(1)  « An ecology of Love » Dharma talk by Rob Burbea, 21.12.2015:

(2)  “Ming” Kuo, F. E. (2013). Nature-deficit disorder: evidence, dosage, and treatment. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, 5(2), 172-186.

(3)  Degroot, D., Anchukaitis, K., Bauch, M., Burnham, J., Carnegy, F., Cui, J., … & Zappia, N. (2021). Towards a rigorous understanding of societal responses to climate change. Nature, 591(7851), 539-550.

“We inter-are”

Thich Nhat Hanh (1)


With mainstream values of individualism, we will often tend to consider ourselves as separate from others, nature and the world. However, a new research paradigm in somatic neuroscience emerging called “radical embodiment” (2-3) ), shows that the shape of our sense of self differs based on our social context. This has profound consequences for our meditation!

When we feel safe with others, we broaden the edges of our self to include others and when we feel threatened, we tend to close up and narrow our self-construct. And this relational phenomenon has direct impacts on how we experience our bodies and can self-regulate. Because we have a wider sense of self with good friends, actions require less effort than if we were alone or with difficult company. Actions are less “bioenergetically costly” (4) because we assume that others are a part of our body and therefore budget our efforts based on a larger pool of resources. Others literally become resources for us. This means that the people we have around us really affect how we experience our bodies, our immune functions (5) and many other foundational physiological process for basic health.

Moreover, the presence of other people also affect how we relate to ourselves psychologically and attentionally (6) . I have been experimenting with groups of friends and in teaching retreats how paying particular attention to others, and meditating together with short phrases of loving-kindness and noting of one’s present-moment experience offered a different way of connecting to one’ own internal experience. And I totally love it!

I have spent many years in retreat, in silence, alone and certainly benefited in immensely powerful, unique and life-transforming ways from this. I do think that developing this form of self-reliance, calm and depth of commitment to any practice opens to high levels of devotion, insight and transcendent opportunities. AND, there is so much that can also be experienced and explored in relationship and with a deeply trusting relational container.

In NeuroSystemics then, we pay attention to the interaction between relationships and our quality of presence. We learn to practice and nourish a co-created safe space so that we can all go deeper inside and free ourselves from suffering. Being in relationship with others takes some work, and at school we don’t learn basic listening, emotional expression or conflict resolution skills so these do not come easy. However, as we learn to engage with others a participate in the design of a skillful social space, we can all go deeper.


Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to further embody this quality!


(1) “Call me by My True Names  – The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh”, Parallax Press, 2005

(2)  Raja, V. (2021). Resonance and radical embodiment. Synthese, 199(1), 113-141.

(3)  Beckes, L., IJzerman, H., & Tops, M. (2015). Toward a radically embodied neuroscience of attachment and relationships. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 266.

(4)Coan, J. A., & Sbarra, D. A. (2015). Social baseline theory: The social regulation of risk and effort. Current opinion in psychology, 1, 87-91.

(5) Dos Santos, R. M. (2020). Isolation, social stress, low socioeconomic status and its relationship to immune response in Covid-19 pandemic context. Brain, behavior, & immunity-health, 7, 100103.

(6) Sieber, A. (2015). Hanh’s concept of being peace: The order of interbeing. International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 5(1).