Monday, June 25, 2012

Walking Meditation

In September Clemency and I are returning to Spain to walk the second half of the Camino Santiago. We booked the tickets last week and have started on the accumulation of packs, shoes, walking trousers, sunscreen, all that stuff. I have to get a bit fitter and I have to brush up on my Spanish. All that is the easy bit. The difficult part is what I am going to do to maintain my meditation.

It seems a strange thing, but participating in one of the world's great spiritual exercises actually threatens the practise I have been building up over the past few years. I will be sleeping in alberges (pilgrim hostels) for the better part of three weeks and sitting on aeroplanes for most of another one, which means finding a quiet space and a secluded place won't be easy. Sure I can meditate on planes but alberges have narrow floor spaces between rows of bunks and there's always someone snoring or walking or reading nearby. And then there's the extra weight in my pack that even my own self made, almost perfected one legged meditation stool will bring. Walking 400km means that before many days are through you notice every extra gram, and my stool will be a nuisance.

On some days I will find a quiet corner of one of the omnipresent churches, but mostly I will practice a walking mindfulness technique which I learned on the first half of the Camino. I woke early one morning to find the guy on the bunk next to mine sitting in the lotus position. As we packed up a half hour later, getting ready for the day's walking I asked if he was a meditator, talk about your stupid questions. He was Korean and spoke very litttle English. I of course, spoke absolutely no Korean, but we struck up one of those odd conversations that can happen across language and cultural barriers and  conversed (in memory I still can't quite understand how) at some depth about meditation. His was a Mindfulness practice and he managed to instruct me in a way of using Mindfulness while walking. I never did get to know his name, nor he mine, but we had, for the rest of the camino, one of those rare, deep understandings between people that we are sometimes priviliged to blunder into.

I had a day off today, and part of that involved walking a few kilometres along an almost deserted Otago beach. It was a still, cloudless winters day, and it was easy to fall into the rhythms of my body as it moved across the sand. The technique I was taught three years ago came creaking back. It was easy enough on a peaceful beach on a lovely day, but I hope that with enough repetition I will be able to use it on a varied and busy trail with interesting scenery opening up at every turn of the road.

It's not advisable, ever, to try and run two different practices at the same time, but Centering Prayer has enough similarities to Mindfulness that I think I can manage it, for a month anyway. I'll kep you posted.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Still Here

It's been a while since I posted, obviously, and a lot has happened; but in the interim I have learned a lot about the same old stuff. Mainly the worth of daily meditation.

So I sit still for a while? Big deal! At the end of any given meditation session I woulod be hard pushed to articulate what the benefits were.  Perhaps that it gives a nice, unhurried start to the day. Perhaps it teaches me that I am master of my own timetable and some other things besides. Perhaps it reminds me that I don't have to be at the beck and call of my impulses, for a few minutes, anyway. But none of those come anywhere near describing the true benefits.

It's only over the long term that the effects of my daily silence can be guaged. After some weeks, or even months I notice subtle but powerful changes. Body, mind spirit I am clearer and less hurried. Even in the times when I am not silent - in fact particularly in the times when I am not silent - God seems closer and more accessible. Ideas flow better. Stress and it's attendant pilot fish of bodily dysfunction are frightened off when they are still just looming shadows. Spiritual exercise is a bit like physical exercise, I suppose. You go for your walk around the block once or twice and wonder whether it really is worth the effort; you do it daily for a month and notice the way your breathing and waistline and heartbeat have all pleasingly decreased.

When I take the time to be still, to practice the discipline of letting go, everything, but everything works better.

Friday, September 23, 2011


It's not often that a spiritual director advises you to pray less, but that's what mine has done. And she's right, of course. There is a subtle trap that is always waiting for us in our spiritual lives:  we turn our practice into an achievement, set goals, steel ourselves to do more and more, push through, break barriers, all that stuff. It's all very commendable, of course, and makes us more proficient in the skills required but in the end our practice becomes just one more thing that I am doing. In other words, our practice, rather than being a way of dethroning the false self, becomes yet one more area where the false self can hustle around, pretending to run things, pretending to be all there is, pretending to exist.

I am reminded of a friend of mine who was very conversant with the need to give as a spiritual discipline. Rather than give a set amount each week, he would pray before he went to church, or while in church and ask the spirits guidance as to what he was to put in the plate, and usually his giving was well in excess of the Biblically recommended tithe. One week however, after entering the church with a large wad of high denomination banknotes in his pocket, and after his usual pre almsgiving prayer he heard the Spirit telling him this week's amount: 50 cents. He remonstrated and argued but the Spirit was very definite about this, so when the collection plate came around he put 50 cents into it. The plate was large, and brass, and his was the first offering  for the day. His single coin made a very loud clang as it landed, and sat there, obvious for all those around, as a reminder that we walk by grace, not law. The aim isn't to buy God's favour or work our way to enlightenment by the gift of large sums of money or large blocks of time. The aim is surrender, and working that pattern of surrender into the warp and weft of our daily lives.

So to help me do just that, for the immediate forseeable future, I  am contentedly, and in gratitude imbibing the minimum recommended daily  dose of centering prayer

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I have been reading Thomas Keating's Open Heart Open Mind lately. It's one of those books which gets festooned with yellow highlighted marks as every couple of pages or so I come across an especially good bit. Two of the highlighted passages in my copy are these:

Since the will is designed for infinite love and e mind for infinite truth, if there is nothing to stop them, they tend to move in that direction. It is because they are all wrapped up in other directions that their freedom to go where they are naturally inclined is limited.
-p 33

God's presence is available at every moment but we have a giant obstacle in ourselves - our world view. It needs to be exchanged for the mind of Christ, for his world view. The mind of Christ is ours through faith and baptism, according to Paul, but to take possession of it requires a discipline that develops the sensitivity to hear Christ's invitation: " Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens, I will come in and sup with him and he with me" (Revelations 3:20). It is not a big effort to open a door.
-p 34

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Blest Are The Pure In Heart

I am indebted to Cynthia Bourgeault for a subtle but profound insight into the Beatitudes. She points out that the heart, in Jesus time, was not thought of as the seat of the emotions, but rather as the organ of spiritual knowing. It was the heart which enabled the first disciples to recognize Jesus for who he was. When they headed off into the wilderness behind their enigmatic new teacher, they followed their hearts, not in the sense of taking some irrational and emotive action, but rather in the sense of following their deepest and truest intuitions. Their hearts enabled them to perceive deep truth inaccessible to the faculties of reason or affect.

Which suddenly makes a lot more sense, to me, of Jesus' words is Matthew 5, Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. He is not speaking about us keeping our emotions or our actions or our thoughts pure in order that we might somehow earn God's favor, but rather of us gaining clarity in our intuitions and thereby perceiving the Truth from which we are never really absent.

It is this clarifying of our perceptions that is the fundamental aim of meditation. What keeps our spiritual insight clouded is the same thing that keeps our reason and our emotions clouded: the unconscious and usually unsuspected residue of a lifetime of defending ourselves from real and perceived dangers. The only way we can stop our faculties from being continually clogged by this residue is to let go of all thoughts, all emotions, all intuitions, both good and bad, and let the deepest parts of ourselves free for a short while to turn to and follow the voice of God which continually calls us home.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011


Look at anything long enough and you can begin to see subtle patterns and variations and details that you never noticed before. The darkness behind a pair of closed eyes, for example. I have been looking at that often enough and long enough now to be familiar with some of the landscape of my silence. There is a difference in the arising imagery and the clarity of it, for instance, that depends on how close I am ( retreating or approaching) to sleep. There are the half memories that can arise as associations from whatever it is I have been doing during the day. There are the chains of thought which snake out from the anchor point of some noise or distraction in the room.

None of these need necessarily be distracting, but of course some are, and some are easier to deal with than others. The simplest are ordinary daydreams and woolgathering.with these it is simply a matter of waking up- of noticing that I am away with the fairies, and in the act of noticing I am back.

More difficult, but only slightly more, are the persistent aches and itches that demand attention from time to time. Trying to ignore then is fruitless, as the effort required in trying to pretend they are not there are in themselves a distraction. Quietly acknowledging them, feeling them and allowing them to continue without surrendering to the urge to scratch works, and they disappear once the ego realizes you aren't going to rise to the bait. Related to these are the various distractions arising in the environment: noises, smells, drafts, doorbells, cell phones and the other detritus of the noise sodden culture in which we live. They clamour to be attended to now, or they send us off into side alleys of annoyance or they awaken reveries. They can of course, be lived with, by acknowledging their presence but otherwise not attending to them.

More difficult are the ideas and insights and interior pictures that present us with some profundity or other: The answer to some knotty problem in the diocese, or to a theological question that has been bothering me for ages, will suddenly present itself with complete logical clarity and in intricate detail; the design for the perfect meditation stool will pop into my head; I will have a profound sense of peace and see some picture in Daliesque shapes and colours. All of it is bollocks of course. If I was to follow the thought, or worse, rise and write it all down, the clear light of day would show it to be pretty average, and my silence would be shattered; that is, the ego would have scored a points victory this round.

Most difficult of all are my self reflections. I will start to psycho analyse myself or wonder why certain distractions pop up so often. I will make the connections between my mental images and the state of my consciousness/ belly/ sitting position/ state of dress /whatever. I will suddenly be aware I am meditating and wonder if I could improve my technique. I will then congratulate myself for noticing my self awareness and realising it is a distraction. Which leads of course to annoyance at myself for having been distracted yet again. Which leads.... and around and around the mulberry bush I dance. I will wonder what the time is, and whether I should extend the quiet this morning, seeing as it is going so well - or shorten it because I seem to be off my game this morning. These are the hardest because they are the most persistent, the most insidious and the most difficult to recognise for what they are: mental chaff like all the other distractions.

In all cases, the answer is simple. Return to my word, and let it fill me again and again. Easy! Right? Yeah, right.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Side effects

There's not much to write about when things are going well with my practice, as they are at the moment. I know that this can't be the permanent state of things; the way spiritual progress goes is like a flight of steps: a steep improvement is made in  a very short time, followed by a plateau where it continues calmly on until the next steep learning. But I do notice, that as I am able to maintain a regular meditation twice a day and for a reasonable length of time two unexpected things have happened:
1. I find in myself a growing and urgent need to read the New Testament. The Gospels, and, surprisingly, the Epistles of Paul.
2. Small things in my body - long standing minor (trivial even) bumps and irregularities - are slowly but significantly healing. Ian Gawler told me this would happen, but I was never greatly convinced. He said that the time spent in meditation was time when the body's immune system could work unimpeded, which is why he makes meditation the centre point of his cancer treatment program.

Whether these things continue or not is unimportant. What is interesting to me is the way that these islands of quiet  at either end of my days are working their way into the rest of my life: colonizing me. Again, I was told that this was to be expected but it's always a bit of a surprise to see it actually happening