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.