Friday, 28 January 2011

Knowing me, knowing you.

To judge from media articles, interest in meditation appears to be exploding. This week the Guardian has a series of podcasts about it. Earlier this month New Scientist published an article on research into its measurable benefits. If all this translates into individuals’ established regular practice of meditation we should have a totally transformed planet in a few years time. The snag is that, in my experience, the interest is largely confined to white, middle class people. That’s not a bad place to start, of course, but let’s not get too excited just yet.

Meanwhile the meditation group that I run at St. John's Waterloo in London has just started a new series of meetings. Again, to judge from media interest, you might suppose that only Buddhists know how to practice meditation. Somehow the 2,000 year Christian tradition of it has got lost. Strip away the mythology in which both the Buddhist and the Christian approach is encoded and you have basically the same techniques and practices. Perhaps Christian mythology is too close to many of us western Europeans and we can’t see the wood for the trees.

At this week’s meeting I used a phrase from a Psalm as a sort of mantra (known as a prayer word in the Christian tradition): “Be still and know that I am God.” In Hebrew scriptures the word ‘know’ has some unexpected uses. For example, when Adam ‘knows’ Eve it means he had sexual intercourse with her. The Psalm is not advocating sex with God (Bernini's statue of Teresa's ecstacy notwithstanding): just that there are different ways of knowing.

The Jewish philosopher/poet, Martin Buber, was exploring the rich implications of the Biblical word ‘know’ when he wrote (In I And Thou) that there are two ways of expressing it. One he called I-It. Without this sense of knowing we cannot live. We must, observe, analyse, distinguish one thing from another, categorise, list, calculate and so on. The second way of knowing Buber called I-Thou. It is possible to have sex in the I-It sense but it is tawdry and manipulative and any sensible man or woman will not have much to do with that kind of relationship. In an I-Thou relationship each gives themselves to the other in unconditional vulnerability, without calculation. We can enter into that kind of relationship in any situation, not just sexual ones and not just with other human beings but with any aspect of our life on this planet. Buber sums it all up (in the non-inclusive language of the 1920s): “Without I-It a man cannot live; without I-Thou he is not a man.”

Then yesterday a friend showed me her i-Phone. With suitable ‘apps’ she can find almost any piece of information she likes – instantly. Her capacity for I-It is vastly increased. The internet is a wondrous thing. Here you are using it to read this and perhaps to click on the links provided in this blog. Our capacity for I-It increases exponentially every year. We know a hell of a lot.

Thank goodness more and more people are also discovering that other way of knowing through meditation.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


The new term begins at Morley College and I resume rehearsing Stainer’s The Crucifixion with our choir. I am profoundly disturbed by it.
“O come unto me, this awful price, Redemption’s tremendous sacrifice, is paid for you...”
“Yet in the midst of the torture and shame, Jesus the crucified, breathes my name.”
Both of these quotations are from hymns which Stainer stipulates should be sung by the choir and (significantly) the ‘congregation’.

Most classical composers of Christian religious music have managed to produce something which manages to transcend the specifics of Christianity. Byrd, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven have all written ‘Masses’ which a Japanese, and even a Muslim, choir could sing without too much offense. But Stainer’s is a piece of nineteenth century evangelicalism that proclaims a substitutionary version of the atonement, glorying in a Scorcese-like focus on the physical details of the process aimed at producing guilt and repentance in the listener. I will continue with the rehearsals because of the friendships I have developed with choir members but I cannot participate in a public performance.