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

Saturday, August 6, 2011

There's silence and there's silence

Ask most people what they mean by the word "prayer" and they will probably tell you it's talking to God. We are taught from the earliest age to "say our prayers" and our public liturgies are chock block full to the gunnels with wall to wall words. Some people, when asked to define prayer might give a different answer: talking with (rather than to) God or perhaps even listening to God. But listening to what or for what, exactly?

For some, silent prayer is an occasion for deep thought: perhaps a passage of scripture is thought about or an icon is observed, and worked over for the subtle messages it contains. This is of course another occasion for the use of words, albeit unvoiced ones. Sometimes silence is enforced on us, as in those times we must be without people to converse with, or sometimes silence is chosen, as when we go for a long walk in the countryside or take a few days on a silent retreat, and in these times our minds range freely, moving from one topic to another, and having the chance to come up with new perspectives or deal with old issues. What we find fruitful in these times of silence are often the illuminations or insights they give us; we come out of them with a message - from our subconscious or from God, and of course these are yet more words.

The silence of meditation is of another order. Rather than the free silence of a lonely walk or a silent vigil, it is an intentional silence, where words of any kind, inevitable though they are, are a distraction. The various meditation techniques are ways of dealing with and minimising the effect of these distractions. The reason for entering such an intentional silence is to encounter that which is beyond our words; that which any words -ANY words at all, even the most Holy - can never capture and must inevitably diminish.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Long Meditations

A few years ago when we were in the habit of  regularly walking, Clemency and I decided to walk from our place in Highgate to St. Clair Beach: ie. virtually from one side of town to the other. We weren't sure we were up to it and spent a week or two psyching ourselves into it. Then one Saturday we set out and .... er... we did it. It was all a bit of an anticlimax really. Our town is fairly small and walking from one side to the other only takes about an hour and a half. Have a coffee in one of St. Clair's myriad cafes, take a few snaps of the picturesque seaside and you can walk home again by lunchtime. We've done it many times since. The barrier to walking it and the difficulties of such an "enormous" trip were all in our heads, as are the barriers to doing a lot of things, such as meditating.  The thought that we might be able to sit still for 10 minutes (or 20, or 30, or 60 ) seems impossibly daunting until we actually just... do it. The barriers to doing it are all between our ears.

As a meditation practice develops  the ability and the desire to sit still for longer periods grows. It is important to have a regular regime of stillness, and whoever you learn from will probably tell you that 20 minutes twice a day is quite a good program to try for, but do whatever is manageable. It is best to be regular and committed to a program, even if your meditations are not really all that long; but it is helpful and will do a lot for your practice to occasionally try to be a bit more ambitious. If your usual meditation is 20 minutes, for example, have a shot at 40 minutes. Or an hour. The longer period allows for a deeper and richer   meditation and gives a better work out for  the associated disciplines of silence. All the usual positive side effects of meditation seem to increase, in a longer session, by multiplication rather than addition.  But whatever you do, be easy on yourself; meditation isn't an endurance contest. One way I have discovered of extending my meditation time is to break a longer period up: say, three twenty minute sessions separated by a 5 minute walking meditation gives the benefit of an hour long session but is easier on the knees.

Extend yourself. You might be surprised what you are capable of, and what it will do for you. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Cloud of Unknowing

I have been reading a new translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher of The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the fourteenth Century by an Author who chose to remain anonymous. Written as a series of small chapters, it is the words of an older man giving advice to a younger on the practice and theory of meditation. The author is a man with an intelligent grasp of language and a liking for a well honed phrase. He speaks directly, wittily and sharply, betraying a fine sense of humor and a certain salty realism. Like his contemporaries Chaucer and Julian of Norwich he chooses to write in English instead of Latin because, despite his preparatory warning against giving the book to those not yet ready for it, he wishes to be understood by a wide range of people. The book was very popular when first printed and has remained so; it is the most formative and important work of English Christian mysticism we have, and still retains all it's power to move and surprise and inspire, even after six centuries.

The problem with the book is of course the language. Even as an English graduate with a knowledge of Chaucer I find it a struggle. Consider for example this passage from chapter 8:

Now sekirly me thinketh that this is a wel movid questyon, and therfore I think to
answere therto so febeli as I can. First, when thou askest me what is he, this that pre-seth so fast apon thee in this werk, profryng to help thee in this werk: I sey that it is a scharpe and a clere beholding of thi kindely witte, preentid in thi reson withinne in thi soule.

Understandable perhaps, but hardly as direct and accessible as the author first intended. Translators over the years have tried to make the text understandable to their contemporaries, but recognizing the iconic and foundational nature of the text, and wishing to retain the felicity of the original, have been loathe to tinker too much. Consequently, translations have tended to be archaic in tone and only marginally less obscure than the original.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher in her new translation has done a wonderful job of making not just the ideas but the spirit and feel of The Cloud available to a contemporary audience. Her text is readable, lively and chatty in much the way that readers in the 14th Century must have found it. Her rendering of the passage above, for example, reads

You've asked excellent questions and I'll try to answer them as best I can. First, you want to know more about the thoughts that interrupt your contemplative time, incessantly offering help. This is just how your mind works. You're watching your soul reason.

Of course her work may upset the purists who treasure The Cloud of Unknowing as an example of the finest Middle English Prose and who resent any tampering with it. In this the purists may be right, but she has made this important and life changing little book accessible to a whole new generation of readers and I think the anonymous author would heartily approve and thank her for that.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Take Your Seat

Sitting still for a while is no real problem: it just takes a bit of will power. Sitting still for a while every day is another matter. It's amazing how the body reacts if it is held in the same position for 20 or so minutes, and this is repeated day after day. Small irregularities in posture make themselves known in aches and pains which seem to be only arbitrarily related to the body parts which are causing the problem. Slump a little far forward, or hold your neck awry or place your hands too far forward or too far back on your knees and little pains appear in your back or neck or chest or...

Some people try to overcome the problems caused by stillness in a very Western way: add more padding. So, a nicely comfortable chair or even a bed is used, and if problems arise, a few more cushions are added. This solution doesn't work: it encourages sleep, it discourages attention, and besides, even the most luxurious of cushions will develop pressure spots sooner or later.

Using a straight backed chair can work, and for a long time this was my solution but I never managed to find a chair which worked very well in the long term, and I tried all sorts: kitchen chairs, various types of office chairs, backless stools, you name it. Invariably, over times, small niggling pressure points showed themselves.

The classical meditation postures have evolved because of this. Either sitting cross legged or kneeling on a low stool seem to be the most effective ways of maintaining a comfortable position for a long time on a regular basis. The cross legged "Lotus Position" might be best, but for middle aged Westerners such as myself it is not really an option unless you are on very good terms with a chiropractor; so a small kneeling stool it is then.

It's easy enough to make your own stool, as this website, and this and this show you. The process of thinking through a stool design and making it and then altering/ refining it, is actually quite helpful. Like nothing else it forces you to think about your body and the shape it assumes when kneeling, and where the weights are, and what your posture is. My experience is that a bit of trial and error will allow you to come up with something suitable.

Of course you can always buy a stool. Amazon.Com sells a large number of models. My regular stool is one I bought in Australia. It is manufactured by Black Dragon, and it is a very well developed, very solidly made, very comfortable little piece of kit. It took me a week or two for my older than I would care to admit legs to get used to kneeling, but now I can quite comfortably use the stool for well over an hour. It comes with a little travel bag but I have a different stool for when I am traveling. When on the move, I use a small, light, folding one legged stool of my own devising, and for which I will post photographs and manufacturing instructions at a later date.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where Do You Come From?

Some time recently a change happened.

For the many years past that I have been practicing some form of meditation or other, the quiet place has been a place to go to: at the start of a day or at its ending there has been a still place where I have learned, over time, to persuade my inner voices to leave their shoes at the door and tip toe around while I take a little holiday from real life. Increasingly, over the past months, the stillness has become not so much a place to go to, but a place to come from. Increasingly, I realise, it is home base; a place I yearn for and long to return to whenever I am absent.

And there is another, paradoxical realization: that the important part of meditation is not the time spent sitting on the stool with my eyes closed. It is, rather, the rest of my life. Spiritual practice is PRACTICE. It is the rehearsal of a way of being which, with glacial slowness, becomes my way of being even when my eyes are open and I am wandering around doing stuff. It is the rehearsal of ways of thinking and being aware which have application everywhere. It is opening myself to the Great Presence who begins then to colonize the rest of my life by reminding me that he was never ever absent from it anyway.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

iPhone Meditation Timers

You can get any amount of Meditation Apps for the iPhone. There are, for example various programs which play soothing music or some other sound for you to relax by. Others give you a step by step guided meditation using somebody's patented technique or other. I won't bother with those here as I've never actually downloaded any of them neither can I imagine myself doing so. I have tried a few timers though.

A timer is a useful meditation accessory. A clock on the wall is OK, but you really do need something with an auditory alarm if you are going to minimise the temptation to go looking at the thing all the time. If you are in a monastary a bell in a tower or a monk with a large gong and a hammer will do the trick nicely, but for those of us in more suburban environments, we just have to make do. The sort of little countdown timer you can buy from any electronic store will work fine, as will the stopwatch function of your watch. I have an iPhone, and its built in timer, works simply and well, and as my phone is nearly always in my pocket, it seems a good choice for me. There are a number of purpose built meditation timer apps as well , of course: as there are apps for just about everything else you can think of.

The simplest are ones like Mind, a free app which has a simple user interface, and is essentially just a timer which can be set for a period of from 1-60 minutes and rings a bell when the time is up. There are a lot of similar products  in the App store, most of which cost $US.99 but I can't quite see why you would bother with one of these instead of the inbuilt iPhone timer.

Other meditation timers offer other features of varying degrees of usefulness.  Most will give you a choice of alarm sound, and allow you to set a bell to ring at various intermittent points in your alotted meditation time: say, every ten minutes, for example. Some will allow you to set a "settling down" period before your meditation or a "recovery" period after. Many will keep a record of your meditation periods and some will provide statistics on your progress. Some will allow you to keep a journal, and make notes on your meditation sessions. Some will only time for a preset period, and some will allow for a more open ended approach.

I find the statistics and note taking features a mixed blessing. While it is salutary and helpful to have an objective record of how my practice is going, at least in terms of time, the numbers continually invite me to treat my practice as a performance, and to judge myself with the resulting traps of guilt and pride. Similarly, a journal can open the temptation to "rate" myself on the quality of the session, which is, again, to miss the point entirely.

With that in mind, of the apps I have seen, Equanimity is no doubt the most elegant and simplest to use. The interface is clever, and easy to see in dim light. It has a thorough set of statistical information, including a graph, and allows for a journal. It does not allow for the use of presents, and when the final bell sounds the app abruptly shuts down, which I find a nuisance.  

Insight Timer  has a quite complex interface, though it is easy to use, once you have learned it. It allows for the user to set up a meditation session: length, interval bells, warm up and cool down period, all that stuff, and then to save that session as a preset; it allows for any number of presets. It has a satistics feature and a journal, and one other intriguing, though only marginally useful feature. Using "Insight Connect", you can see who else in the world is currently using Insight Timer, how long they are meditating for, and even a little map of whereabouts they are. Clever! But why?

Meditate has a very pretty interface, with user selectable background pictures. It is clear and simple to view, but I found it a little confusing to set up and use. It has a very basic statistics feature, accessible only through the iPhone settings menu. The statistics records only completed sessions, so if you are worried about such things, don't quit 30 seconds early!

The program I have been using mostly is iSamadhi. It has a clear, simple set up screen and is easy to use. it allows for customisable presets, but the feature which I use the most is a simple button which sets the timer going with no preset end point, but which rings a chime at regular, user selectable intervals. It has a basic statistics gathering function which allows for note taking. It allows for a choice of background pictures, including your own if you so wish.

All of these apps are cheap enough that you can purchase a couple of them, try them and see which one suits you best. Otherwise, get your best beloved to dress up in an orange robe and whack a gong.

Friday, July 8, 2011


This morning, sitting in the half light, old cloak around my shoulders, just me and the divine presence, I was suddenly hit with an earth shattering, epoch making, universe changing piece of insight. I cannot for the life of me remember now quite what it was, but it was pretty darned good. It was so important and so compelling that  it took me quite some time to settle back down to just being in the half light, old cloak etc etc.

When it comes to distractions, some are more difficult to handle than others. Daydreams and fantasies and reveries and remembrances are easy enough; as soon as I realise I have wandered away I'm back. The really hard ones are the ones that bamboozle me into thinking that they are important somehow: you know, the fresh breakthroughs into the mind of God, the glimpses of the train filling the temple, the moment of clarity where some problem whose solution has eluded humankind for millennia suddenly becomes ridiculously clear - all that balderdash. These great visions and insights are no different from the other fripperies: they are also just my mind having a mild and temporary case of gas. But because they seem at the time to be so attractive and so important to me and to others, it does take a while to surrender them.

It's significant that now, only 5 hours later I cannot remember even vaguely what my great insight was all about. Perhaps it was important; perhaps the daily doses of silence have softened up the crust of my ossified mind enough that something of significance did bubble up from the deep places. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was speaking. But if that is so, the insight will return at a more convenient time, and either way, the world continues to turn whether I remember or not.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Divine Therapy

One of the aspects of Centering Prayer which Thomas Keating  and Cynthia Bourgeault both speak of at length is the effect it has on the unconscious. Rather like hot water softening the encrustations on a well used pot, the quiet, repeated surender of CP works away at the long ossified strata of that part of our minds hidden from our normal consciousness. What this means is that after a while bits break loose and drift up into the light. Memories or emotions or thoughts from our long forgotten past surface and are present to us again. We can then treat them how we like: shoveing them back down into the place from which they have so recently and inconveniently risen, or dealing with them in a hopefully more healthy and complete way than we did when they last took centre stage.

This is nothing to be alarmed about. Firstly, because not all of these little bits of detritus from our unconscious are unpleasant. Some of us, particularly those of us that are Kiwi blokes, have as much trouble with joy as we do with other more painful emotions, and therefore some of the things we have jammed down into the dark and are now being re - presented with are quite pleasant. Some of the other things are less so. Secondly, the great joy of CP is the sense of there being another intelligence than mine at work and this intelligence seems very much aware of  1 Corinthians 10:13 (No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.) That is, nothing bubbles up that I am not perfectly able to  handle.

And the way suggested by Cynthia Bourgeault for handling these things has been something of a revelation to me. Welcoming Prayer is a simple but effective tool which avoids my natural inclination to let one part of myself psychoanalyse another part to no effect except confusion.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Still Centering

Its been a few days since I began the serious practice of Centering Prayer, and I must say, so far so good. I was away from home for some of this week, and travel always means compromises for my spiritual practice as my timetable and routines get shaken and stirred. I took my folding portable prayer stool, and managed my morning quitness without any bother, and was able, mostly, to fit in a session in the early evening.

Centering prayer uses a "prayer word" which functions in quite a different way than a mantra, and it has taken me a little time to stop using my word as a mantra. That is, I have had to learn to use it as a signpost to stillness rather than as a focus of attention and concentration. I am finding that the whole energy of Centering Prayer is different. At the heart of the practice is surrender, letting go, and as I rehearse this a hundred or a thousand times in the little islands of stillness at the beginning and end of each day, already, even in this short time I find myself being changed by it.

One small measure of the difference Centering Prayer is making, is that the time seems to go faster when I am in silence. My timer rings a bell every ten minutes, and these periods seem to whizz by. I have not yet finished a period of CP without a vague sense of disappointment that it is over, and a small wish that it might go on for just a little longer. Of course, it's early days yet.

One other thing during this week has been my re reading of The Cloud of Unknowing. I have a translation by Evelyn Underhill, of this middle English work  on my iPad, which seems slightly incongruous, but I am finding the words of this unknown spiritual master even more illuminating, even more challenging and exciting than when I first read them some months ago.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Centering Prayer

For the past couple of days I have been using Centering Prayer as a method of meditation in place of my usual mantra based practice. I am using two books to guide me: Cynthia Bourgeault's Centering Prayer and inner Awakening and David Muyskin's Forty Days to a Closer Walk With God: The Practice of Centering Prayer. I made this change, of course, only after talking it through with my spiritual director.

Cynthia Borgeault categorises Centering Prayer as belonging to a third group of meditation practices: it is a Surrender method, as opposed to the other broad groups of meditation practices, Concentration and Awareness methods. I have found it quite easy to shift from my usual practice, although there are some small hurdles to jump. A mantra based meditation is a concentrative method.  The monkey mind is given a simple task to do, namely the saying of the mantra in order to allow the consciousness to settle, and to be in the present The task required of me during meditation is, when I realise my consciousness has been kidnapped by one of my never ceasing supply of reveries, imaginations, memories or insights, to gently bring it back to the mantra. And bring it back again. And again. Paradoxically, there is thus an inner discipline and attention required in order for me to be still. Centering prayer requires no such discipline. I am required to relinquish control and to be still, attentive and receptive in the presence of the Other who is there in the deep silence, in the cloud of unknowing, hidden by my constant smokescreen of mental activity. It is different, but I find it easier. When my mind strays from the present I bring it gently back by the use of a prayer word, which is used not so much as a mantra but rather as a sort of anchor point.

 I personally had no issues with the authenticity of Concentrative meditation as a particularly Christian discipline, but I am of course aware that some are suspicious. Centering prayer is far more directly theistic than other forms of meditation that I have tried, and I think this will make it more accessible to many Christians. It is also rooted very firmly in the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina and thus in the close reading of scripture. Cynthia Bourgeault outlines the historical and theological credentials of centering Prayer very thoroughly in several of her works.

I will use centering Prayer for a while. 40 days seems like a good biblical number, and will enable me to assess it for my own use and as a practice to recommend to others. And ultimately, it is the encouraging of others into the path of closer union with God in stillness that it my main goal here, and in pretty much everything else that I do. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Matter of Style

The Buddha identified, apparently, 80,000 ways to meditate. Me, I've tried three or four. At the Gawler Institute I learned a version of Mindfulness meditation, and, before and since, I experimented with a variation of mindfulness, meditation on the breath. For many years I have used, off and on, the Jesus Prayer, which is a form of mantra meditation, and for the last couple of years I have settled on the version of mantra meditation taught by Laurence Freeman and before him, John Main, which works pretty well for me. I am aware  of the importance of faithfulness to a way of meditation once a suitable one has been arrived at. To chop and change between methods will lead to a very circumambulatory spirituality. It  may well be that "all paths  lead to the top of the mountain", but unless you choose a particular path and stick to it, all you will do is thrash about in the underbrush at the foot of the mountain. But here lies a problem.  While mantra meditation works well for me, I appreciate that it doesn't always work for other people. Further, the particular Eckhartian worldview which underlies my practise is a bit puzzling to many people.  I am also aware, acutely, that it is important for me to lead others into the path of silent prayer, and that to do so on a broader scale than I have yet managed, I might need a more accessible method.

My chaplain, John Franklin, is a disciple of Father Thomas Keating, and uses his Centering Prayer method. Cynthia Bourgeault has written extensively of this method, and I am currently reading her book Centering Payer and Inner Awakening. I am intrigued by the possibilities this method offers as a more accessible approach to contemplative prayer for orthodox Christians. Perhaps, before I get up as far as the snowline, there is still time for a quick switch of paths?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Thomas Keating: Spirituality and Religion

This Video is part of an interview with father Thomas Keating. He speaks profoundly of the difference between spirituality and religion, faith and belief

Monday, June 13, 2011

Week of Guided Prayer

This week I am in Southland helping lead a Week of Guided Prayer (aka Retreat In Daily Life).

We began last night with a short Bible study of Matthew 13:44-45, the parables of the Treasure and the Pearl. I talked about how these pared parables speak of two different ways of encountering the divine: in one parable the great treasure is stumbled over, accidentally on enuexpectedly in the course of doing other, unrelated things; in the other parable the treasure is heard of, then, with diligence and skill and effort, relentlessly pursued until it is discovered. In both parables the discovery leads to a complete reorientation of life, in which all is forsaken for the sake of possessing the great treasure.

I also spoke of an alternative reading, in which the one who discovers the great treasure is not us but Jesus. What he discovers in the field, or hears the rumour of is us. He finds us and desires us so much that he sacrifices all until he possesses us.

Either reading of the parable (and of course, these being parables and all, there is no need to choose between them; you can hold both and let both in form you) will inform the process that is going to unfold during the course of the week. And as a prayer exercise, I asked participants to take a black and white line drawing of the parable of the field and to colour it in.

Colouring in is a very simple and effective way to pray. By association it pushes us back into childhood. It gives the monkey brain something to be getting on with and requires us to be focused on a simple task in the present, so it can (and often does) facilitates meditation. By examining the way we have coloured the picture, and the thoughts and feelings which were evoked in us during the process, there is more than enough material for the Holy Spirit to be given a foothold in the ensuing conversation.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Just Do It

My daughter has never bothered getting her driver's license: she's an urban girl, living in flats on crowded streets and working in shops on other crowded streets and going to theatres on still other crowded streets. Up until now, a car would have been more of a liability than an asset, and more expensive to run and maintain than public transport, so she has remained licenseless. Now she has a new job, which requires a license . She will leave for her new post in  a country where they drive on the other side of the road, in August sometime, so between now and then she will have to acquire the appropriate bit of plastic. Which means one thing: she will have to learn to drive, and there's only one way to learn to drive, and that's by driving. So, she'll come back to Dunedin for a while and it will be white knuckle time for me in the passenger seat of the Honda at every conceivable opportunity. There is no alternative. You learn ONLY by doing. Practice makes perfect.

Like meditation. You can read all the books you want, discuss all the theories, make  meditation diaries, buy stools and mats, light candles and accumulate resources til the cows come home, have their dinner, put on their jimjams and watch a bit of telly before bed but you will learn nothing until you actually do it. Nothing. Not a darned thing. In fact making all the preparation but not doing it might even be counter productive by allowing you to fool yourself that by accumulating the the external fripperies you have actually achieved something, and even that you are some kind of expert. There is no alternative. You learn ONLY by doing. Practice makes perfect

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Yes, But

The following is chapter 8 of Richard Rohr's marvellous book The Naked Now:

"Yes, the mind is necessary, but it can't do everything.

Yes, the mind is receptive, but reason is not our only antenna. We also need our bodies, our emotions, our hearts, our nose, our ears, our eyes, our taste, and our souls.

Yes, the mind can achieve great things, but through overcontrol, it can also limit what we can know.

Yes, the mind can think great thoughts, but also bad and limiting ones. The mind can be a gift and a curse.

Yes, the mind can tell left from right, but it cannot perceive invisible things such as love, eternity, fear, wholeness, mystery, or the Divine.

Yes, the mind can discern consistency, logic, and fairness, but it seldom puts these into practice.

Yes, the mind and reason are necessary, but they must learn to distinguish between what lies beyond its reach: the prerational and the transrational.

Yes, the mind is brilliant, but the more we observe it, the more we see it is also obsessive and repetitive.

Yes, the mind seeks the truth, but it can also create lies.

Yes, the mind can connect us with others, but it can also keep us apart.

Yes, the mind is very useful, but when it does not recognize its own finite viewpoint it is useless.

Yes, the mind can serve the world, but in fact it largely serves itself.

Yes, the mind can make necessary distinctions, but it also divides in thought what is undivided in nature and in the concrete.

Yes, the mind is needed, but we also need other ways of knowing or we will not know well, fully, or freely.

Yes, the mind is good at thinking. But so much so that most humans, like Descartes, think they are their thinking.

Yes, the mind likes to think, but until it learns to listen to others, to the body, the heart, and all the senses, it also uses itself to block everything it does not like to do or to acknowledge.

Yes, the mind is our friend, but when we are obsessive or compulsive, it can also be our most dangerous foe.

Yes, the mind welcomes education, but it also needs to be uneducated, to learn how much of what it "knows" is actually mere conditioning and prejudice.

As a result, the great religions of the world found methods to compartmentalize, but not eliminate, the over-control of the thinking, rational mind through practices such as prayer, meditation, or contemplation. This was the "new mind" which allowed
1. other parts of us to see
2.other things to be seen
3. the rational mind to be reintegrated, but now as a servant instead of the master.

I risk the criticism that "It can't be that simple.". But it really is almost that simple - yet, for some reason, very hard to do. "

Maran ...cough...hack...splutter.... atha

I have had a bit of a cold for most of the week, and this despite the fact that I allowed myself to be injected with something that was supposed to ensure it wouldn't happen. I have also spent some of the week in hard physical labour, pulling cables, shifting dishwashers, lifting desks, pulling trailers - don't ask. For meditation it has meant sitting down twice a day with aching limbs, a slight fever, difficulty breathing and an incessant urge to cough. If I was in a mind to be distracted I had a lot of excuses, and some jolly good ones at that.

Dealing with all that has been, I am relieved to say, no big deal. The aim of meditation is awareness and the vagaries of my body are only distractions if I sit down with some preconceived idea of what awareness looks and sounds like. So coughing is an issue only if I believe somehow that awareness is precluded by it, which is of course, nonsense. As I still myself and leave both past and future to look after themselves, the aches and tickles and  itches are just a few more things to be aware of. Of course coughing or sneezing or itching become issues when they claim my focus and lead me off into reverie, or perhaps into some sort of inner struggle with myself in an effort to prevent them. But really, they are just part of how I am today. I deal with them as I deal with other distractions:  by acknowleding their presence; by recognising that my body has certain inconvenient ways of acting, by allowing them to do their thing if necessary while still keeping my attention on my word; by letting them be there without being captured by them. It's an odd thing how an awareness of the need to cough and of the lack of need to fight it means that often the tickle in my chest just recedes away. Or not as the case may be. Maranatha. The stillness can be there anyway.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Keeping Time

Part of the practicing bit of my spiritual practice is rehearsing resistance to the impulses which control most of my life most of the time. So, I sit, and in a small island of quiet, do not obey that endless stream of small requests to itch or shuffle or shift or think about this that and the other thing and this again. It's a simple enough process in theory, but in practice, sorry about the pun, it can be tricky. My little impulses are so ubiquitous and so much part of the way I conduct my day that I never really notice the way they lead me around by my nose until I sit down and, er, notice them. And then, being noticed, they tend to insist with more than usual force on my following them. I must get up and check the car is locked, and I must do it now. That itch in my shoulder simply cannot be left alone. I wonder what the time is and how long I have been sitting here. I simply must check. There is a simple enough technique for handling these, and I'll speak of it on another day, but one of the easiest ways of coping with these small distractions is to pre-empt them. Cut them off at the pass. Get in before them.

So, as I sit down on my stool, I tell myself some stuff I already know. I remind myself why I am here, and why it is important to me. I remind myself that I have set aside X amount of minutes, and that I have nothing else that needs doing in this time. And to stop myself wondering if  X minutes is up yet, I set a little timer and remind myself that a bell will ring when the time is up.

I use an app on my iPhone called iSamadhi to time myself. I've tried several iPhone apps, and I'll review some of them later, but this is the one that suits me. I have it set so that it rings a bell every ten minutes and at the end of my session it records my time in a little auto log, which is a mixed blessing. It is quite interesting to see how much time I spend in meditation on any given day or week or month, but a log presents me with two equal and opposite dangers: guilt when the times are not as lengthy as the eternal haranguing should machine tells me they need to be, or smugness when my times indicate an imminent ascent into sainthood. Either way, the log becomes a means by which the ego strengthens itself and it is thus counter productive. So, I let the log entries accumulate, and sometimes let them remind me to take a firmer hand on my daily schedule, but mostly I delete them on a very regular basis and try not to take them too seriously.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Meditation like many other activities is fine to start with but begins to pall after a while.The pattern is familiar to many: we read the books or hear the inspired talk and think we might just give this meditation thing a bit of a whirl. So we sit and say the word and, just as the book of the speaker says, it works. There is a feeling of well being and in the 23 hours and 20 minutes of the day when we are not meditating everything seems to hum along with a new fluidity and sense of depth, and so we continue, for a week; for a fortnight; or a month even. But sooner or later what began as a novelty and a pleasure becomes a duty; it becomes harder to drag our meditation seat from the corner and easier to find reasons why  it won't matter if we give it a miss, "just for today".

This is where commitment to the regime of silence becomes absolutely necessary. For me, I need to remind myself of the worth of meditation in my inner, daily self talk, and very specifically, when I sit down. At the time before breakfast when i usually meditate I need to remind myself very forcefully that this is the most important part of my day and that nothing takes preference over it. As I first take my seat, I remind myself why I am doing this. Before I close my eyes and say my word, I remind myself that I have all the time necessary and that nothing else needs to be done right now. And then I can relax, and surrender to my little automatic bell  the decision about when I will rise to my feet again

For me, the morning meditation session has proven comparatively easy. Where I tend to come unstuck is the afternoon session, the one at the close of the day. My timetable is so fluid and my days so unpredictable, that it is difficult to schedule myself to be in one set place at a given time every day, and it is all that much harder to commit myself to the discipline of stopping and being still late in the day. By way of compensation, I have tried often, the extend the length of my morning meditation, but it's not the same thing and while it is beneficial to be still for a longer period, there is a benefit to both opening and closing my day in meditation. Bracketed in silence, the whole day becomes in some way a part of my prayer. I find myself more attentive, more  aware in that piece of the day spent between the silences.

In the past short time I have been absolutely rigorous with myself in making provision for the afternoon session and the effect has been not just a doubling of benefit, but a quadrupling.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Silence is the quieting of our own voice in order that other voices may be heard. In ordinary conversation we cannot  truly listen to another unless we are silent.

Silence is more than the mere cessation of noise. As an introvert I am quite used to being in company and not saying much, but this taciturnity is not real silence because even though it might not be audible to others, my voice is not still. Inside my own mind my opinions continue to be expressed, judgements and observations are still made, and whole lines of arguments are developed, entertained and discarded.  Imaginings rise and drift past and disappear only to make way for other imaginings. My own voice drowns out the voices of others just as much as, or perhaps even more than the voice of the most prolix extrovert.

Silence is a quality that I need to work at. I need to cultivate it as deeply as I can. To choose to calm the inner voices requires effort and concentration but it is effort that is well rewarded because when I can be truly silent, it is possible for me to be  present to what is here, present before me in the eternal now.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Be Quiet For A Change

Jesus' disciples said, "Lord teach us to pray."

Jesus' disciples still ask that, but by and large the Christian Church has been remiss in teaching them. For most of us, prayer is reduced to words: words addressed to God, or, when we are praying publicly, words addressed to the people around us. These words generally try to inform  God of some dire circumstance and then persuade the Almighty  to take the course of action that seems good to us.

Jesus' response to his disciples' question shows a very different approach. The prayer he recommends doesn't have many words: not enough, anyway, to fill up the long hours he reportedly spent alone with his Father. He tells us to revere God and seek God's Kingdom. He recommends doing God's will. He tells us to be satisfied with the bare necessities of daily life and, in the certain knowledge that we are forgiven, to forgive others. He tells us to keep out of trouble. And that's it really. His prayer is not so much an intercessory shopping list as the outline of an attitude to life. 

On another occasion he tells us to use few words. He tells us to go into the private place and seek our Father secretly. It seems that Jesus' prayer is about faith and not about belief, which is quite a different thing. It is not, in other words, concerned so much with concepts and facts as with a particular attitude to life.

Prayer  is about developing faith, which is living in trust. It works best when it is simple, silent, still and regular. This is the sort of prayer I have been stumbling into for about 30 years now, and which I have been taking increasingly seriously for the last 10. I am starting this blog to encourage it, share it, teach it and learn it, within my own diocese, and who knows? perhaps beyond it.