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.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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.