Thursday, 13 August 2009

The uncomfortable gap.

Back in the 1960s someone published a series of amusing sayings on postcards called ‘Potshots’. One read, ‘If things don’t improve soon I shall have to ask you to stop helping me.’ It occurs to me that the media are trying to help by giving us an unrelenting diet of bad news. They are saying, “This is not how things should be and if we keep on reminding you how bad they are someone, somewhere will do something to make them better.”
The fact is that lots of people, including politicians, are doing things to try and make life better but generally speaking they don’t get reported by news media. Or if they are reported it’s usually because someone thinks that it’s not enough or that the wrong tactics are being used. In some respects, of course, for many millions of people, life does get better. Even in my lifetime it has got infinitely better for me and for many people like me. But there’s always a gap between the way things are and the way we would like them to be.

We are dominated by the ‘doing mind’, left hemispherical thinking. Therefore we rarely begin by accepting what is the case about our present situation (either internal or external). We perpetually begin with the famous response, ‘If I were you I wouldn’t start from here.’ The gap between here where we are and there where we want to be is intolerable. We assume that rational thought will get us there and fast. But sometimes it’s a question of ‘don’t just do something, stand there!’ In fact it’s nearly always the right way to start tackling a problem. And it’s certainly the right way to start if the problem cannot be solved immediately or by me personally. The rush to judgement, condemnation, recrimination has become a pandemic more serious than swine flu. A little more stillness, being instead of doing, acceptance of what is now the case, of where we are, of where I am in this present moment would produce dramatic results for all the suffering about which we are constantly reminded.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


I'm re-reading “The Mindful Way Through Depression” by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn. I come across the following succinct and exact definition of ‘mindfulness’, “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to things as they are.” Every element of that definition is essential. As the authors point out, mindfulness involves, necessarily, intention (I am reminded of Martin Buber’s dictum, “Will and grace are two sides of the same coin.”); it focuses on the present moment; and it, again necessarily, requires a non-judgemental attitude. It's a pity about the book's title because it is a wonderful resource for anyone, depressed or not, who wants to know how to live 'wisely, agreeably and well'. (I can't remember the origin of that quote)

In a nice piece of synchronicity, Yvonne tells me later of a quote from Saul Bellows’s The Rain King: “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness is not required.” One might begin such a wonderful sentence with, “Confession is essential ....” One would then have a more ‘spiritual’ approach to mindfulness in which becoming aware of ‘things-as-they-are’ is ‘confession’; and ‘righteousness is not required’ is the non-judgemental bit.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Simple but not easy

An e-mail exchange with Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian newspaper:
Your column this week this week is a remarkably succinct account of a truth known
for centuries in Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and ancient Greek
cultures. However the reason many Buddhists (Christians etc. etc) seem
so "tightly wound", and why Seneca (and lots of monks) spent so much
time in seclusion is that the truth is simple but not easy. That's why
Jesus talked about the narrow gate which few find and why he told the
parable of the sower. How different the world would be if there was a
short cut!!
Richard Craig.
Dear Richard Craig,
Thank you very much for this email, and for your kind words, and my apologies for the delay in replying. Simple vs. easy: yes, this sounds like a very profound point. Maybe even one I'll try to explore in a future column head-on, since I suspect a case could be made that much of self-help culture catastrophically confuses the two.
All best wishes and thanks again

Sunday, 12 July 2009


In those last few minutes before bed time, when I feel too tired to do much, I try ‘intercession’. A contributor to Bishop Spong’s newsletter ( had written:
“When I pray any kind of prayer, there is an energy created within me that I believe in some way adds to a sacred energy in the world. I'm not sure how far it gets, or whether it does any good other than add to the positive energy in the universe. If I'm made of "stardust" then maybe there is an energy connection with others, perhaps through our "ground of being." I know that praying, saying formal prayers, taking the various liturgical prayers, prayerful reading of scripture, meditation and the like, are energizing for me and I hope the energy goes somewhere. I'm happy with the energy.”

I know what he’s talking about, I think. There’s a hint of Brian Swimme in the reference to ‘stardust’ and also the process looks something like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘lovingkindness meditation’.
So I centre down and begin to call to mind people I wish to ‘pray for’. I find I can visualise them quite easily and in doing so I see them just as they are, without judgement and without wishing anything for them except the love and acceptance in which we are all one. Does it make any difference? I don’t know about the people I have in mind but it makes a difference to me.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Letter to an old friend

Thank you for giving us a celebratory meal last night. One of the (many) things I like about you is – no nostalgia! (and not much medical talk either) which is refreshing and necessary at my age as we approach our 50th wedding anniversary.

It occurred to me this morning that next year will also be the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a Church of England priest but I have no inclination to mark that. One of the reasons why is contained in the book I am sending you. I first came across this French philosopher [Andre Comte-Sponville] when I was doing an OU course on virtue ethics about four years ago and read his ‘A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues’. This latest book [A Little Book of Atheist Spirituality] is a compassionate contribution to the somewhat sterile debate sparked off by Dawkins et al about the existence or otherwise of God.

For me the core of the book is on page 192: “Whether they are believers or not, mystics are those who no longer lack God. But is a God who is no longer lacking still God?” To discover in my mid 70’s that I no longer lack God (or as Martin Laird puts it in ‘Into the Silent Land’: “God does not know how to be absent.”) has been one of the most profound gifts of my life; my only regret being that I did not get it when I read Honest To God in 1963. But then I suspect even John Robinson himself didn’t fully realise the implications of what he was saying. Bishops, as well as us priests, had too much invested in keeping the institution going to see the implications of a ground of Being approach. Plus, nobody taught us the simple ‘how to’ of contemplative prayer. It was considered too otherworldly, too monkish, and what we wanted above all was to be relevant, God help us. (See, there I go again, expecting help from outside when it’s already here inside.)

Looking back I can see that, like a goldfish nosing against the side of the bowl, I was looking blindly for this insight. It caused grief to [my fiance] during our engagement because I felt torn between marriage and ordination. I hadn’t understood Bonhoeffer’s definition of chastity: ‘the total orientation of life towards a goal’. Nor had I understood (along with almost everyone else in Christian churches) what Jesus may have meant by ‘deny yourself....’. Just think how much unnecessary grief and suffering that verse has caused sincere Christian people! It has taken two non-Christian writers to help me over this threshold into the promised land – Eckhart Tolle and Andre Comte-Sponville. Of course since then, armed with their insight I have rediscovered that ancient Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. The irony is that those who are now teaching it in ways which ‘ordinary’ lay people can understand and practice are mostly Roman Catholic monks. Does the Vatican know what they are saying? I hope not because their most holy and reverend father Ben would probably silence them.

Perhaps with your combination of psychotherapy and Shakespearean insight you have avoided the worst excesses of our spiritual inheritance. Perhaps you have known much longer than me how to “take upon’s the mystery of things”. I hope so dear friend.
My love to you

Thursday, 18 June 2009


My daughter gives me a book of haiku for my birthday (The Everyman's Library of Pocket Poets. Edited by Peter Washington with translations from the Japanese by R. H. Blyth). Suddenly I realise that haiku are of the essence of the Now. Here are two by Basho:
Summer in the world -
floating on the waves
of the lake

I sit here
making the coolness
my dwelling-place.

Here's a modern one by Kerouac:
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
it closes anyway.

Then there's a section of haiku-like passages from what you might call 'traditional' western poets,like this one by Adlington:
A young beech tree
on the edge of the forest
stands still in the evening.

Or this from Walt Whitman
Far in the stillness
a cat
languishes loudly.

Monday, 15 June 2009


So, on my 78th birthday I make two resolutions. One, to stop telling people how old I am. It’s either a boast or it’s manipulative. Two, to be wary about reminiscing. The past is dead and gone. My experience may or may not be relevant to a younger person. The skill is to discern the relevance of what I have to offer, with a presumption that silent attentiveness is better.

I notice worries about not being able to remember details of some recently past events. Worries are like greenfly. You see one or two and if you don’t do something immediately, before you realise it, they have multiplied into thousands.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

When things go wrong.

Surfing, I stumble upon Fr. Thomas Keating on youtube He's a Roman Catholic monk from the USA. I have heard of his method of 'centering prayer'from Cynthia Bourgeault. These are people who practice what, in Christian terms, is called contemplative prayer. When I was a young man contemplative prayer was seen as an esoteric, other-worldly discipline practised by people shut away from the 'real' world in monasteries. It turns out, of course, that contemplative prayer is simply the Now Show in Christian tradition and it is, in fact, the most practical of human disciplines, instantly transferable to everyday life. For people who like to use the word 'God', Fr. Keating explains it in simple accessible language.
For centuries the Christian tradition suffered from the idea that God is not here. He's somewhere else and getting in touch with him involves an arduous journey away from everyday life into special places, using special language and religious ritual. So, when things went wrong on this journey, we blamed ourselves. We were sinners who needed to repent. Someone has said, 'most of our anxiety comes from our search for tranquility'. We get upset when things 'go wrong'. Then we add a distressing story about what has happened so we have two layers of 'upset' and then the mind can really have a field day making us feel bad. There's a telling line from a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, written when things were really going wrong for him. He begins,
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring."
It's a vivid evocation of the kind of mental distress we can get into if we start blaming ourselves when things go wrong.

Thomas Keating is one of those people who, in rediscovering the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer, is helping us to connect with folk in many religious traditions (and non-religious too)who understand that we have all the resources we need to cope with life already deep within us. Now, when things 'go wrong' there's no need to beat myself up. I just notice without judgement what is happening, let it be and let it go. It's a simple discipline. Sometimes when things really go wrong is not an easy one to practice but in essence it is simple.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Yesterday's technique

Yesterday my yoga/meditation was good. Today I try to remember exactly what it was that made it good. What technique was I using? But the Now Show doesn't work like that. Today is today. I have to start afresh, as if I had never meditated in my life before. What worked yesterday did so because it was appropriate for me then. To borrow yesterday's practice for today's discipline is to turn it into a technique. In the spiritual life I am like a recovering alcoholic. I am only as 'good' as this present moment. I can only say, 'today, at this moment, I haven't drunk the intoxicating draft of mind games and religious techniques'. Spiritually speaking I can't devise plans which will work in the future, nor can I be sure that what worked yesterday will work today. I can only trust that moment by moment I shall find the grace to be present and centred. The paradox is that such presence requires discipline and I suppose you could say, 'well there you are! - that's technique!' But somehow it isn't. The discipline is to seek to stay in touch with who I really am and that means not being carried away by mind games through which I seek the security of knowing how things are going to work out in the future

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


Sarah Montague does an interview on the BBC Today programme this morning with a French scientist, turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard. (sp?) He is supposed to be the happiest person on the planet according to the introduction. "How do you learn to be happy?" asks Sarah. Ricard tries to explain that meditation is not about finding happiness. It's about long term mind training which produces powerful gamma brainwaves which are associated with altruistic love. "So we should meditate to fill our minds with love?" suggests Sara,or "just sit still and think of something nice". Matthieu is, I suspect, somewhat perplexed by this line of questioning. "Are you ever sad?" asks Sarah. "Of course," replies Matthieu but then there wasn't any time left in the busy Today programme schedule for any more on the subject.

Do the Today editors and Sarah Montague really understand so little about meditation that they choose to approach the interview with this line of questioning? It's rather sad if this is the case. Meditation is not about trying to change anything. It's about noticing what is actually the case with me at this moment. It is good to know, however, that there is scientific evidence to show that such a simple discipline produces measurable effects in the working of the human brain. Perhaps one day we'll be teaching this discipline to school children just like we teach them to read, write, sing, and play games.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The Good and the Bad (but not the Ugly)

Today my morning session of yoga/meditation went well. I wasn't thinking about the next posture while in the one I was in. I was centred on my body and aware of the difference between imagining this limb, this organ and actually experiencing it in the here and now. 'This is good' said my mind, until I remembered that, to the witnessing presence in me, 'good' thoughts, like 'bad' thoughts, are just ... thoughts. They are not who I really am, this wordless, silent consciousness/Being which I share with the rest of the universe. I am offered a glimpse of the radical trust in this witnessing presence in my depths which Jesus called for when he said, "Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not neither spin. Yet I tell you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." But in his parable of the sower Jesus talks about the seed which falls where weeds grow up and choke it, with the cares and worries of the world. So it is as I move into my daily life after meditation. Decisions, decisions! Planning, ethical choices, chores, things I 'ought' to do, the kind of person I 'ought' to be; they can all crowd in demanding attention, distracting me from the present moment which is the only one I have to be alive in, the only one in which I can stay trustingly centred. If I am centred then most of the decisions and 'issues' seem to fall into place.

Cynthia Bourgeault points out that when I am present as the witness of my thoughts and emotions it is as if I 'back into' the still, silent centre which is within me and everywhere. I don't have to fight the thoughts and distractions. Centredness is there as I witness them - the good and the bad - without judgement.

Sunday, 10 May 2009


Here I am sitting in a Cafe Nero opposite St. Clement Danes church in The Strand where the bells are ringing for Sunday morning worship. I've just come from a service in St. John's Waterloo where the words were an interruption of the profound silence and stillness within me. "God does not know how to be absent", says Martin Laird so there's nothing out there to pray to. There's only the silent presence deep within. Here in these depths I am one with all that is. But the priest at St. John's has a cold and there I was worrying about catching it from him. If God does not know how to be absent, if this spacious, silent stillness is the universe becoming conscious of itself what about viruses, cancers? Sebastian, in Petru Dimitriu's novel, 'Incognito' discovers 'God' while being tortured in a Romanian Communist prison cell. "They went on beating me, but I learned to pray while the screams issued mechanically from my ill-used body - wordless prayers to a universe that could be a person, a being, a multitude or something utterly strange, who could say? We say 'thou' to it, as though to man or animal, but this is because of our own imperfection: we may no less say 'Thou' to the forest or the sea."
Earlier I was 'visited' (I can think of no better word) by an embarrasing memory which is now 13 years old. I felt embarrased all over again. It is like a mental virus, one which never goes away but lies buried in my brain to be activated at random intervals (rather like herpes). Some of these mental viruses are much more active; resentment for example, or censoriusness which are easily activated by some immediate event. And yet, underneath it all is 'God', this silence and stillness which is not disturbed by these viruses. Sometimes the viruses take me over and I get 'ill', dysfunctional. Quite often, these days, I am able to stay in touch with the still centre but it has to be a wordless experience. If I think about it I lose it. As a 3rd century Christian contemplative said, if I think I am praying then I am not praying.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

David Bohm

This morning in Cafe Nero a friend tells me about David Bohm who I had never heard of. I look him up on Wikipedia and find the following:

"Bohm was alarmed by what he considered an increasing imbalance of not only 'man' and nature, but among peoples, as well as people, themselves. Bohm: "So one begins to wonder what is going to happen to the human race. Technology keeps on advancing with greater and greater power, either for good or for destruction." He goes on to ask:

What is the source of all this trouble? I'm saying that the source is basically in thought. Many people would think that such a statement is crazy, because thought is the one thing we have with which to solve our problems. That's part of our tradition. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems with is the source of our problems. It's like going to the doctor and having him make you ill. In fact, in 20% of medical cases we do apparently have that going on. But in the case of thought, it's far over 20%.

In Bohm's view:

...the general tacit assumption in thought is that it's just telling you the way things are and that it's not doing anything - that 'you' are inside there, deciding what to do with the info. But you don't decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us. Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally. This is another major feature of thought: Thought doesn't know it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It doesn't want to know that it is doing it. And thought struggles against the results, trying to avoid those unpleasant results while keeping on with that way of thinking. That is what I call "sustained incoherence".

Now it's that problem which Eckhart Tolle so brilliantly analyses in 'The Power of Now' and offers a solution to; a solution which I call, The Now Show. I must get hold of a book which Bohm wrote together with J. Krishnamurti - 'The Ending of Time'

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Yes, but how?!

Being new to the blogging business I have only just realised that the most recent posts are displayed first, so the title of this post might be somewhat mystifying unless you read the preceding one. Maybe I should stop trying to be consecutive!

The question is how do I live the Now Show? How do I live in the present moment? How do I deal with the mental chatter which obscures the present moment by focussing my attention on either the past or the future? How do I deal with the mental commentaries and videos, that I constantly run on everything that I encounter and do? How do I just accept what is in each present moment? The answer, I discovered in 2005, is simple; not easy but simple. I become the observer of all that is going on mentally. I realise that Descartes was wrong. It's not,'I think therefore I am'. It's just 'I am. Therefore I am.' There is in me, as in all human beings, a depth, a presence, a spacious, silent,stillness which is the real me and from which I can observe all the mental goings on which, for so long, I thought was all there was to me.

In a recent book on Dostoevsky the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams asks whether we could imagine, "living in the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering, or desolation could eradicate." It's not just that we can imagine it. We can do it! What's more people have been doing it in most cultures and most religions for most of recorded human history. What seems to be significant about the contemporary situation in cultures which have been based largely on Christianity, is that a profound transformation of consciousness is taking place. We can no longer believe in an interventionist God 'out there' who drops in from time to time. Instead we discover that 'God' (whatever we might mean by that) does not know how to be absent. Now, that is good news!

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Oxford Street blues

Springtime, 1945 - I am standing on a footbridge over the river Ouse at Bedford. I am nearly 14 years old and I am having a Wordsworthian experience. Beneath me willows trail their fresh green leaves in the river’s dark placid waters. A slender church spire emerges from distant trees. It is still and quiet. (No traffic). I too am utterly still; one with all that fresh growth and promise. Having just discovered Wordsworth, the opening lines of the Ode Intimations of Immortality are floating through my mind.

“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,”

Being a teenager the mild regret of the poem moves me too as I realise that the intense ‘nowness’ of my experience soon passes.

London 60 years later. I am walking along Oxford Street. People hurry by. Or they dawdle when I want to walk faster. Faces are strained or vacant or both. I have to avoid the younger ones talking on their mobiles, oblivious to the social niceties. I notice my 74 year old’s increasing irritability and querulousness about thoughtless public behaviour. I feel isolated and tense. Not a willow tree in sight. No placid waters here.

Then, fortunately, as I said in my first post, I stumbled upon Eckhart Tolle's books and they transformed the way I live. I am excited and delighted that I have been granted such experience 'at my time of life' (as they say). My Oxford Street blues are largely dispelled. Now I can make worldly sense of what used to be called 'the practice of the presence of God' - except that I am extremely reluctant to use the word 'God' any more. 'He' causes so much trouble! The question is not, how can I find a gracious God? but how can I find a gracious neighbour? Answer - "Your life is with your neighbour" says Rowan Williams in 'Silence and Honey Cakes'. Yes but how?

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Why 'The Now Show'?

After 35 years as an Anglican priest, followed by nine years of retirement during which I 'let God go', I stumbled upon Eckhart Tolle's 'A New Earth' and his 'The Power of Now' and had a profound Aha! experience. So that's what I had been looking for all those years! (since about 1957 actually). I was so excited that I called my new way of living The Now Show, after a BBC Radio comedy programme, to keep my feet on the ground and not take myself too seriously. That was nearly four years ago and here I am now beginning to explore this (to me) strange world of blogging to see whether my sense of being part of everything that is can find expression in this medium.

The Now Show is about living in the present moment so maybe a blog is imediate enough and I will try to say what is happening for me now. However, one of the puzzles for me is, why didn't I get it sooner? Why did I keep on coming so close but never quite getting it? I have been exploring why being a priest both helped and hindered and I want to talk about that in later posts.