Monday, 31 October 2011

Pitch Perfect

I don’t suppose they planned it but the Occupy London protesters could not have chosen a better site for their tents. The symbolism of a protest about mammon and democracy pitched on land jointly owned by the Corporation of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral is exquisite. What they want is a more just society. Confusion about their message arises from their failure to distinguish between two aspects of justice: the legal and the moral.

Their tents may be illegally pitched. Lawyers for both sides are making a strong case so the law must be unclear. But both sides are appealing to justice as legality. As I understand them the protesters want a better congruence between moral justice and the law, for example in financial institutions. Breaking the law can sometimes be justified on moral grounds provided the issues are carefully thought through. Neither side seems to have thought through the confusion between justice as law and justice as moral virtue.

It is a pity that St. Paul’s Cathedral Chapter appears to have concentrated too much on the legal side of justice. I presume Canon Giles Fraser has resigned because he could see this and knew that the Cathedral was missing a chance to engage with the protesters about justice as morality and thus help them to clarify exactly how they would like the law to enshrine greater financial fairness and how democratic institutions might better represent the wishes of the people. Many people feel that capitalism isn’t working as well as it might (as well as it should?). They suffer the consequences of capitalism’s unfairness while its masters smile, pull the levers and pocket too much of the profits.

There is a sense however in which we get the kind of capitalism we all want. We allow ourselves to be defined as consumers rather than human beings (or perhaps we could say spiritual beings on a human journey). Capitalism brings enormous benefits to a lot of us (but by no means all of us) human beings. Some of us are beginning to say, let’s examine where we have got to and see if some course corrections are needed.

On Saturday 19th November Southwark Cathedral will host a day of workshops on prayer one of which will be on Prayer and Justice. I hope the symbolism of the Occupy London site will help us to discern how best to serve both God and mammon.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

More listening

How much of what goes on in your head is actually useful?
How much of it is about the past which cannot be changed (though of course we can learn from it)?
How much of it is worrying about the future (as opposed to planning for it)?
How much of it is designed to help you avoid the present (which is actually the only point at which we live)?
For many of us what goes on in our heads is considered normal. We rarely examine it and we assume there’s not much we do about it.

At last night’s meeting of the St. John’s Waterloo Contemplative Prayer Group we extended last week’s reflection on listening to include noises in the head, usually known as thoughts.
The contemplative tradition in all major religions emphasises the discipline of getting used to observing our thoughts without judgement. As we practice meditation we gradually get to know the familiar pathways down which our unobserved mind loves to roam and thus we begin to have some choice about where it goes.

Here’s an example of something that happened to me yesterday morning.
The following sequence was triggered by a slight contact between my heel and the foot of another pedestrian walking behind me.
Phase 1. A slight feeling of annoyance erupts in me.
Phase 2. As the man overtakes me, I give voice to the feeling by saying with a hint of sarcasm, “excuse me!”
Phase 3. He turns and says, “You stepped straight in front of me!”
Phase 4. As he continues on his way I continue the exchange in my head, thus amplifying the original trigger feeling. “Do you thing I’ve got eyes in the back of my head?” “How could he have been so arrogant?!” and so on.
Phase 5. I realise that I am off on this fruitless internal dialogue which is keeping the original rather minor feeling going and thus continuing to amplify it.
Phase 6. I add to my affliction a feeling of guilt that I have succumbed in this way to a simple temptation to retaliate. I berate myself for not practicing present moment awareness. So far the process has occupied perhaps 15 or 20 seconds during which I have crossed a busy road.
Phase 7. I finally get into a non-judgemental listening to this racket in my head, just a straightforward acknowledgement of it all, and find that I have returned to a degree of centredness in the present.

That primitive part of our brains, the amygdala, provides hair trigger responses to most situations by asking, do I eat it, mate with it, fight it or run away from it? You can see how useful it must have been to our very earliest ancestors and it still has its usefulness. It proves troublesome however when we lose the capacity to monitor it or when it triggers other bits of our brain so that we rush or roam down well trodden pathways. Eventually I could become a cantankerous old man, always ready to take offence when someone intrudes upon my personal space.

The practice of meditation and contemplative prayer is in part, the discovery of fresh (neural) pathways leading to the great open vistas of love, joy and peace. As our practice deepens, those other distracting paths are less used. The pathway of love becomes clearer. The road less taken becomes a highway to the present moment in which we are free from all that unnecessary, unexamined mental chatter and distress. But let’s not talk about progress here: that’s another bit of alluring mental distraction. Always the secret is to come back to this present moment because this is the only place where Presence, what Jesus called the kingdom, is available.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


LISTEN!! – mostly these days a demand to be heard, not an invitation to dialogue. But several recent ‘coincidences’ have reminded me of the importance of true listening.

A couple of weeks ago my lovely yoga/meditation teacher at Morley College, Donna Malcomson, took us (her class) into the nearby Tibetan Buddhist Peace Garden (appropriately, beside the Imperial War Museum, here in central London). She invited us simply to listen to whatever we could hear: traffic, planes overhead, a referee’s whistle at a nearby football match. Now, in this blog, I am telling you what I heard but then we were invited to avoid labelling any of the sounds that our ears picked up, to avoid identifying the sounds but just to listen to them. Doing this I began to relax, to feel more peaceful. I became aware of a deep stillness at the centre of myself.

So at this week’s Beyond Words Contemplative Prayer Group at St. John’s Waterloo, I reminded the group that our core activity, lectio divina, is basically a process of listening, in this case to words from the Bible read aloud in the group. We avoid rushing to a conclusion like, ‘Oh I’ve heard this before. I know what it means!’ in order to leave space for hearing the words afresh, without judgement, allowing them to seep into the synapses of the brain and marinate there in the shared silence.

Introducing this week’s session I spoke of the Marriage Enrichment weekends my wife and I used to run back in the 1970s for couples who wished to deepen their relationship. A highlight of such events was telling 'the story of my marriage’ to one’s partner. The ground rules were that each partner had an equal amount of time to speak while the other one was simply to listen while keeping eye contact, resisting the desire to interrupt by saying, “that’s not how it happened”, or even, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” As we introduced the session people would almost invariably say, “Don’t you mean the story of our marriage?” “No,” we would reply, “this is an opportunity for each of you as an individual to tell your story and for it to be heard by your partner. It’s a chance for you to be truly listened to.” I was delighted to discover that Thursday’s Times 2 supplement carries an account of similar events based at St. Paul’s Church Kensington in London. See

Meanwhile, on Tuesday at the St. John’s Waterloo meeting of the Isaiah Community, we heard an address from Ruth Scott about reconciliation through story-telling, reminiscent of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I dug out a short paper hidden away in my files for perhaps 30 years by the Revd Morton R. Kelsey titled simply, 'Listening'. I’ve forgotten who he is or was but he writes:
“The first step in listening is allowing oneself to be with other people and to be silent with them. We are silent not only with our lips but also in our inner response. We listen to them and are silent inside. ..... Real listening is a religious experience. Often, when I have listened deeply to another, I have the same sense of awe as when I am alone in the church at night. I have entered into a holy place and communed with the heart of Being itself.”

Let today be one in which you just ..... listen.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


An e-mail yesterday from a friend whose writing and living I admire. He writes:

November 1st is a big day. It's All Saints day, obviously, but also marks the publication of my new book, "Solitude: Recovering the power of alone". Ahh! Can't you just feel the frisson of Luke-warm excitement!?

Traditionally, this is the day when light recovers its poise after the dark and dangerous happenings of Halloween the night before. So it seemed an appropriate moment to free this 280-page child of light into the hushed and waiting world.

The book is a quiet revolution, as all the best revolutions are. Defining solitude as "the active path towards inner silence" and using a Q and A format, it leads us to the life beneath our life and charts the inner movements from loneliness to solitude, from confusion to identity, from busy to still, from fear to discovery, from madness to sanity and from separation to union. There's more to us than meets the eye.

And here's the thing: I'd like you to join the quiet revolution by ordering the book on November 1st, the day of light. That's the book's birth day. That's the day -- if you've so far resisted the temptation -- to skip merrily towards your computer and click on Amazon or some other online outlet and say, "Solitude, please! And in double-quick time, my man!" (You don't have to use these exact words.)

And the history of the book? I started writing it while on holiday beneath a large mountain and a scorching sun. I continued writing it to the sound of breaking glass, violence and burning buildings in my Tottenham neighbourhood during a week of insanity and fear over the summer: a contemporary Halloween.

But wherever I was writing, nothing felt more topical than our need to re-learn the lost art of solitude and to recover the power of the alone. "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone," observed Blaise Pascal in the 17th century. It's an unfashionable diagnosis, but it has never felt more true.

So why do we find it so hard? Partly our education. As parents fill the lives of their children with activity and external stimulation, it creates a half-developed adult. When this is all you know and all you long for, then silence – the silence we enjoyed in the womb – becomes a fearful thing. Untutored in stillness, we have unwittingly been trained for loneliness and distraction and we now pass this condition onto the next generation.

It's time that changed. It's time solitude became a delight and a friend and a revelation once again, both for ourselves and for our children. Solitude brings kindness and awareness in its wake; and a coming home to ourselves.

So can you join the quiet revolution – and the silent barricades – on November 1st?

To mark the day, there's a little launch party -- OOOH! in large letters! -- that evening in The Coronet on the Holloway Road in London N7, because web friends like yourself have been very kind while I was writing. You even appear in the acknowledgements.

Here's the venue... I'll be in The Coronet from 6.30 to 9.00pm. I may be alone, of course, but then how entirely appropriate that would be.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Waking up

“It’s too bad,” says Henderson in Saul Bellow’s ‘Henderson The Rain King, “but suffering is about the only reliable burster of the spirit's sleep. There's a rumour of long standing that love also does it." I would add: age can sometimes do it too. Seventy five years old, I was, before it happened. (See the first two entries in this blog back in 2009.) When the AIDS epidemic erupted here in the UK some decades ago there were moving stories about young men with only a year or two to live discovering too how to live that remaining time with a fullness and richness they had never before known or believed possible. The realisation that life is a vulnerable, fragile business can be a ‘burster of the spirit’s sleep’.

Increasingly however, it seems that people are waking up into reality without the pressure of pain or loss. For whatever reasons they are discovering a way to live which is fully awake. Mostly they do it through meditation and contemplative prayer. Some apparently just .... do it. They don’t wait until something awful happens to them, or until they get old. They just ‘get it’: the truth, I mean, that the only time we have to live is now. They realise that they have been spending far too much time and energy dealing with the past or anticipating the future.

In theory most of us would all agree that it's not a good idea to wait: until things are less pressured, until I can get away on holiday, until I have the space to get around to it, until.... until....

Eckhart Tolle writes, ".... you don't have to wait for your world to shrink or collapse through old age or personal tragedy in order for you to awaken to your inner purpose."

Sometimes I find myself beset by resentment, anxiety, fear and thinking at the same time, ‘I must get home and meditate, then things will be better’. Tolle also reminds us, don’t look for any state other than the one you are in right now. In ‘Stillness Speaks' he records the following dialogue:
Accept what is.
I truly cannot. I’m agitated and angry about this.
Then accept what is.
Accept that I’m agitated and angry? Accept that I cannot accept?
Yes. Bring acceptance into your non-acceptance. Bring surrender into your non-surrender. Then see what happens.