Monday, 29 March 2010

Now. And then.

It’s Holy Week: the crux (and that’s precisely the word!) of the church’s liturgical year. The Gospels devote a surprising amount of space to the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth; six out of Mark’s sixteen chapters, for example. Like much else in the Bible and subsequent Christian teaching, however, we struggle to understand what it might all mean. We think we know and quite often reject the understanding we have inherited.

The genius of the Christian church was to preserve a memory of Jesus of Nazareth and his teaching. The problem for us in the 21st century is that it did so in terms which are now alien to us. However, the church also managed to preserve aspects of Jesus which contradict the orthodox view of him and his message. So Christians rapidly made him into a saviour and it’s doubtful whether he would have approved of that. By the way, didn’t they equally rapidly make the Buddha into a saviour?

‘Kenosis’ is a New Testament Greek word meaning something like ‘self-emptying’; letting go of my ego. Most of what Jesus taught only makes sense if we remember that. Good Friday also only makes sense in that light. Jesus taught and lived a life of ‘kenosis’. He did not ‘die for my sins’. He died because, at that point, in those circumstances, any other course of action would have been unthinkably inconsistent with his teaching and his way of living. His death was not unique. Lots of people have surrendered their lives willingly for the same reason.

What Jesus did was to point to and demonstrate profound truths about what it is to be truly human. His was the power of living each moment as it comes, as it is, without burdens from the past or worries about the future. The thrust of his teaching is: the Kingdom is always present and available to us – now, and if you look anywhere (or perhaps I should say ‘anywhen’) else you’ll miss it. This is what he called ‘the narrow gate’ which few find.

The effect of the church’s annual round of festivals is to obscure this fundamental truth. For example, if I attend a Holy Week service recalling that last week of his life, I do it now. On Maundy Thursday I do it now. On Good Friday I may be recalling the then of that first Good Friday but I am doing so now. I am writing these words now and you (whoever or wherever you may be) are reading them now (whenever that may be). There is only always the eternal Now in which I can experience the power of (to use the Christian word) the resurrection. A church service too often says, ‘Look back to where you’ve come from; and look forward to where you’re heading. Jesus says, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead’. Don’t be concerned about the future – ‘consider the lilies of the field’.

The Gospel, the good news, is: there isn’t anything else to know or do. The price (if that is the right word) is to let go of ego which is almost exclusively concerned with past and future. It’s not that we don’t have to remember and plan; only that to be fully human we must get the present right and then past and future begin to fall into place.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Welcome Prayer & Depression

As promised in yesterday's post – some thoughts on the Welcome Prayer when dealing with persistent low energy situations like depression. I must come clean and say that I have nothing useful to add to what you can find in a marvellous book called, ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn. If depression is what gets to you and if you don’t want to spend money on a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction therapist then this book is a must. The authors are not fly-by-night self helpers. Mark Williams is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford; John Teasdale is a research scientist at Oxford and Cambridge; Zindel Segal holds the Chair in Psychotherapy at Toronto University and Jon Kabat-Zinn is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Massachusetts University Medical School. We’re talking serious scientists here.

And by the way, if depression is not an issue for you, don’t be put off by the title. I found the book very helpful in my developing practice of meditation, not least because it includes a companion CD of guided meditations. However, back to the Welcome Prayer; or rather on from the Welcome Prayer to page 183 of my edition of ‘The Mindful Way .....’ where you find something called ‘the three minute breathing space’. Guess what? It’s the Welcome Prayer in Buddhist mindfulness clothes!

Which brings me to a vista which some devotees of every religion find disturbing; at this level of conscious there is a remarkable sense of the unity of all created things. If you depend on the idea that your religious commitment is exclusive, that what you believe is the TRUTH which believers in other religions don’t possess then this is a vista you will want to get away from as soon as possible. Of course the standpoint from which we each catch a glimpse of this wonderful vista is culturally conditioned. Most of us here in what was western Christendom share a cultural heritage which is deeply imbued with Christianity. The good news is that going deeply into contemplative prayer brings us to the point at which we can see how much we share with our fellow human beings, no matter what their cultural background. In our global society that is Good News indeed.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Welcome Prayer

After last night’s final session of St. John's Waterloo Lent course I feel a bit like St. Paul with his concern for the embryonic Christian communities that he has planted around the place. How will they survive, how are they doing now? Is there anything further I can do to help and support them in their deepening way of living the Christian life? (If Paul had had the internet we would not now have his letters to those fledgling communities.) Pioneers in this way of being-in-the-world (of any religion or none) need all the support they can get and it's not always obvious where to find it. I have provided links to some web sites in earlier blog posts. As a recovering human being I need to 'touch base' with others on the same journey, through web sites, books, the occasional lecture, and often chance encounters with fellow travellers. For many years I've had the following quotation in my file and I have no idea where it comes from (if you know please tell me):
From hand to hand the greeting flows.
From eye to eye the signals run.
From heart to heart the bright hope glows.
The seekers of the light are one.

So our final session was called 'Pray without ceasing'; a title which highlights the difficulty of interpreting the experience of New Testament writers. The word 'pray' is a verb, suggesting something we do, whereas what we are discovering is a way of Being in the world; and I've used a capital letter there to indicate that this way of living always involves me in something greater than myself.

But the prevailing zeitgeist is doing, not being, so we have to unlearn stuff while developing under-used spiritual/psychological muscles and at first this feels 'clunky' like when we start learning to drive and have to think carefully about which foot pedal to press.

Earlier sessions in the course were about formal periods of meditation during which new muscles are being discovered, brain synapses are being reconnected and re-routed, we are coming home from the far country to that centre of our being which underlies everything. In Christian terms we are discovering that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. Then what? Then we have to get on with daily life in this 'doing' world. And, please, there's nothing wrong with doing! Without it we would not be human. What we are after is getting on with the doing without losing touch with the underlying being.

Last night we were concerned with what happens when things go wrong and we are blown off course. An appropriate foot pedal to press is called The Welcome Prayer. Developed by Thomas Keating and explained clearly and simply by Cynthia Bourgeault in her book 'Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening' it involves a four step process.

Focus: gently become aware of body sensations – thoughts, feelings, emotions
No judgement
No analysis
No ‘fixing it’ thoughts

It is as it is. Therefore I welcome it/all specific thoughts, feelings, emotions
NOT welcoming an outer situation only your reaction to it - the feelings and sensations of this moment.
It (this situation) is potentially for my healing/growth.

Let go of desire for
But only after taking the Welcome step.

Open to healing of the eternal presence; the healing action and grace within.

Do it as soon as possible after triggering event. With practice it becomes possible to do it almost instantaneously.

Surrender only to this moment after which you have three choices in dealing with the situation which provoked the ‘upset’:
change it;
if you can’t change it, leave it;
if you can neither change it nor leave it, surrender to it completely. This is not fatalism or quietism provided you have navigated the four stages (focus, welcome, let go, open).

Most of the triggering events we mentioned last night were of the high energy variety - resentments, fears, bad news, irritating behaviour - but what about low energy, persistent situations like depression? There's a helpful variation on this Christian approach in Jon Kabat-Zinn's 'The Mindful Way Through Depression'. As this post is already quite long enough I'll deal with it tomorrow.

Monday, 22 March 2010

God Is No More

'God Is No More' was the title of a book published in 1963 (What a year that was, with the publication also of John Robinson’s ‘Honest To God’!) The authors were Werner and Lotte Pelz who converted to Christianity from Judaism. Werner became an Anglican priest but I believe that they later returned to their Jewish roots. The book’s title is a quotation from William Blake:
If Thou humblest Thyself, Thou humblest Me.
Thou also dwellest in Eternity.
Thou art a Man: God is no more:
Thy own Humanity learn to adore,
For that is My spirit of life.

(I think one should take careful note of the words Blake chooses to begin with a capital letter)

In a foreword, the then Dean of Westminster, wrote:
“God is no more because he has become an idea – a mere word; and this has confined Him within neat and tidy systems. He is found at the end of an argument; His nature is formally stated; He is conventionalised, made familiar and respectable – and so he dies.”

Martin Buber,a Jewish philosopher, poet, and theologian, talked about ‘the eclipse of God’ as he grappled with the impact of Nazism and the holocaust on his people.
John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, published his groundbreaking book ‘Honest To God' in 1963. He wrote, ‘Our image of God must go’ in favour, he argued, of the idea of God as ground of our being. He thought it might take a hundred years for this idea of God to find its way into mainstream Christianity.

Nazism, the war and the holocaust, put skids under a process which had been slowly gathering pace since the mid nineteenth century. The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote in his melancholy poem, Dover Beach:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

But I suspect that the sea of faith to which Arnold refers depended on precisely the view of God which finally became untenable after Auschwitz; a God ‘out there’ who can be called upon to come in and help when the going gets tough.

What we have been exploring in our St. Johns Waterloo Lent course is based on the idea of God as ‘the ground of being’ which has continued as a more or less hidden underground stream in Christian history since at least the third century. The church (in western Christendom at least) has been like an beautiful ocean going cruise liner, well staffed by attentive stewards, and crew. The first class lounges have been marvellous places to be but somewhere in steerage, down in the bowels of the ship, there has always been a group of fellow travellers who possess some vital information about how the ship ought to be run. The irony is that these passengers might have drowned if they had not boarded the ship but their presence has been largely ignored ever since, in spite of the fact that they may be the only ones who know where the lifeboats are!

That’s why I am wary of using the word ‘God’. Is it time to abandon ship? Lots of people think so but it’s still a difficult call to make.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Lectio divina

Feedback at last night's session of St. John's Waterloo Lent course on contemplative prayer suggested that some folk were surprised that they could feel so bonded with other members of the group even though we spend time in silence together. It's common in many new groups for each member to introduce themselves by saying something about who they are. They usually do this by offering a few selected facts about ourselves - job, where I live, what my hobbies are and so on. We didn't do this and yet people feel they 'know' one another. In other words, there's a difference between 'knowing about' and knowing another person. We are tempted - seduced even - into thinking of ourselves as a set of facts. As we explore the art and discipline of contemplative prayer we are discovering that sets of facts are essential for our survival as human beings but they are not the most important truth about us; indeed they can obscure it.

And the most important truth about us is? That deep within each of us is the capacity for unconditional love. Without facts we cannot survive as human beings; but without unconditional love we are hardly human at all.

There's facts and there are opinions, which are easily confused or conflated, and which also help to boost our idea of who we think we are while hiding the deep truth about ourselves. Lectio divina is a way of reading the Bible (and other significant texts) while ignoring both facts and opinions about the passage we are looking at. It means 'sacred reading' and you might call it 'reading with the heart'. We tried it in last night's group. It goes like this:
It begins with a centering silence.
Then someone reads a short passage aloud and s-l-o-w-l-y.
Another silence.
A second slow reading of the passge.
Out of the silence each member of the group who wishes to speaks aloud the word or phrase which has 'lit up' for them.
A final reading, silence and prayer.

Perhaps you can see that this is not Bible study or discussion. What happens is both intensely personal and an intimate sharing which enriches the whole group. Have participants understood the passage in an intellectual sense? It doesn't matter. That would involve 'knowing about' which has its place but not here.

Traditionally monks and nuns did this alone and inevitably the process became systematised into this format:
Lectio: Reading the passage, preferably aloud and slowly - twice.
Meditatio: seeing (non-judgementally) what lights up for you.
Oratio: does your insight shape itself into prayer?
Contemplatio: resting in the eternal presence.

You perhaps notice that I say, 'in the eternal presence'. Why not 'God'? I'll talk about that in my next posting.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Body work in prayer

In my last but one blog I promised to say something about the importance of the body in contemplative prayer.

My daily practice owes much to three sources:
1. Cynthia Bourgeault has given me ‘Centering Prayer', a way of meditating taught by Fr. Thomas Keating, which recommends a prayer word as a symbol of one’s intention to be available to the eternal presence deep within. From her I have learnt the way of ‘kenosis’ (a New Testament Greek word for self emptying) so beautifully expressed in Paul’s great hymn in his letter to the Philippians:
Though his state was that of God,
yet he did not claim equality with God
something he should cling to.
Rather he emptied himself,
and assuming the state of a slave,
he was born in human likeness.
He, being known as one of us,
Humbled himself obedient unto death,
Even death on a cross.

2. Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed a sequence of simple yoga postures and the art of ‘body scanning’ to help people attending his clinic for those with chronic pain. From him I have learnt the importance of the body both as the inescapable reality of our human life (including its spiritual aspect) and as indispensible aid to meditation.
3. Donna Malcomson, a teacher of therapeutic yoga at Morley College in south London who has helped me to see the importance of moments and movements of transition; for example between one posture and the next and between the period of formal practice and one’s everyday life. She helped me to experience each body movement in minute detail and thus to stay with it rather than start anticipating the next posture.

Saturday, 13 March 2010


Today’s Times, Weekend section, proclaims that in “Anxious Britain” 70% of us are stressed, 55% have been depressed, 20% have had therapy and 31 million antidepressant drugs are dispensed every year. Inevitably these days, meditation is one of the recommended strategies for dealing with this onslaught. Earlier this week I read somewhere of the ‘commodification’ of meditation and it is apparent that self help gurus can make a handsome living, especially in the USA.

So, from the religious viewpoint, what are we to make of the current popularity of meditative techniques? Surely, we must welcome anything which might help people to develop a new way of being-in-the-world? They certainly don’t find much help in contemporary Christianity; perhaps the churches are rediscovering too late and too slowly, their ancient tradition of meditation and contemplative prayer.

There are pitfalls (for everone including religious people) when one uses meditation merely as a ‘technique’ to cope with stress or to enhance one’s life prospects. Jesus warned of these dangers when he is reported to have said,
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.”
It’s not that Christians should be tempted to claim exclusive rights to meditation. We should welcome any signs that people are discovering what it might mean to be truly present in the world from the depths of their being. But as Jesus also said.
”Beware of false prophets .... you will know them by their fruits.”

So is there an added ingredient to Christian meditation? Well, compared with self help meditation there might be. It is already present in the Buddhist mindfulness approach since Buddhism regards the self as an illusion anyway. For Jesus the self was something to be 'denied' and the modern recovery of the Christian contemplative tradtition comes close to Buddhism in asserting that the self to which we are so attached is a 'paste up' job which is also pretty illusory. Illusory it may be but the ego - my picture of myself - will defend the illusion even if it is pasted up out of a random selection of memories, attitudes and roles which we play. Maybe most of our stress comes from our dogged attempts to preserve the ego we have so painstakingly constructed since childhood. As someone has said, 'Our anxiety comes mainly from our search for tranquility'.

The Christian added ingredient is 'kenosis' - the New Testament Greek for self-emptying - letting go of any idea we have about who we are until we find the truth deep within us. With no ego to defend stress is taken care of.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

John Main

"The important aim in Christian meditation is to allow God's mysterious and silent presence within us to become more and more not only a reality but the reality which gives meaning, shape and purpose to everything we do, everything we are." John Main.

Last night at St. Johns, Waterloo Lent course on contemplative prayer we heard the story of two monks walking along a riverside. The younger one keeps asking the other questions about the nature of the river: how long is it? how much water flows past every hour? what kind of wildlife does it support? how wide is it when it reaches the sea? Finally in exasperation the older monk pushes his companion into the water, waits a few minutes, then hauls him out and says, "Well now you know what the river is like!" Liz Watson, our storyteller, had come to push us into the river but first she gave us some guidelines on how to survive in the water; guidelines worked out by John Main whose life of contemplative prayer has given rise to a stream of meditation known as The World Community For Christian Meditation. As with Jill Benet last week, the guidelines are simple (though subtly different from Jill's):
Sit still and upright with eyes lightly closed, relaxed but alert. Silently begin to say a single word (a prayer word or mantra). The word 'Maranatha' is recommnded, recited as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it, gently and continuously. Try not to think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise. If thoughts and images come these are distractions during the time of meditation, so keep returning to simply saying the word. Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty and thirty minutes.

As Liz said, it is for each of us to discover what method of meditation best suits our temperament. The important thing is to find one and stay with it; to jump in to the river and find out what it is like.
Afterwards one member of the group reported that she found it quite possible to 'multitask' mentally while saying the prayer word. She could happily think about things which are labelled 'distractions' while saying the prayer word. Result - no experience of real silence. Perhaps this is not so unusual and it may be why some folk find that combining meditation with yoga is helpful (actually, yoga is meditation). We are creatures of the earth and spirituality is never an escape from that fundamental fact. Remaining anchored in the body is often a help with 'distractions'. I'll return to this in a later blog. I will also pick up another member's concern that maybe she is trying too hard.
Meanwhile, by request here is the prayer I use to end each session of our course:
O thou eternal Wisdom
whom we partly know and partly do not know,
in whom we live and move and have our being,
our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
Grant that we may be still and know the truth of eternal presence,
and in that stillness and that presence may know the love and peace
which pass all understanding.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Centering Prayer

Last week we were thrown in at the deep end of silence without any instructions on how to swim. This week at the St. John's Waterloo Lent course Jill Benet of Contemplative Outreach came to teach us how to swim in our silent depths using the Centering Prayer approach developed by Fr. Thomas Keating. You can see a video of him describing the approach on Youtube.

Jill reminded us that contemplative prayer was quite common in the first 1000 years of Christian history. Then, somehow, in the middle ages it came to be seen as the preserve of highly specialised people - monks! Not nuns, in spite of the fact that there were some remarkable women in England and Germany for whom this would have been a perfectly natural way of praying if the men had not said females weren't up to it. Fortunately they got on with it anyway and even managed to write about it which is why we know about them now.

Jill gave us a set of guidelines for Centering Prayer:
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably with eyes closed,settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.
3. Whenever you become aware you are engaged with thoughts return ever so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period remain in silence with eyes closed for a few minutes.

The sacred word can be any short word (or maybe two)not necessarily religious. "I do," as the answer to "who wants to be a millionaire?" is totally different from the answer to "do you take this man/woman to be your wife/husband?" It's the context and the use of the word that makes it sacred.

Jill's handout gave us four "Rs" about 'thoughts' when engaged in Centering Prayer:
Resist no thought
Retain no thought
React emotionally to no thought
Return ever so gently to the sacred word

The purpose of Centering Prayer (and indeed of all meditation/contemplative prayer) is not having no thoughts but having detachment from them. "The only distraction or failure is if you get up and walk out or deliberately entertain thoughts."

So now there are 20 of us who don't need to become monks or nuns. We can carry our cloister around with us, rather like a snail who takes home with it - except that our 'home' is deep within.