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.