Monday, 30 March 2009

Meditation and Prayer

Some Christians are a bit nervous about meditation because it doesn't quite fit their idea of what prayer is . Most Christians trying to maintain a regular prayer life, sooner or later come up with some pattern of prayer or other which involves talking(even if that talking is carried on within the confines of their own skull); for example the well used ACT pattern. In this, we go through a cycle of Adoration, Confession and Thanksgiving - telling God how great he is, telling him what we've done wrong lately and thanking him for whatever it is that has come our way lately: all stuff you might have thought he knew already. Usually we also ask for things to be done for us or for others, and again, presume upon the foreknowledge of the one who created our desires.

Down through the years many Christians have thought, 'surely there's got to be more to prayer than that', and in various ways and at various times, have begun and continued a great exploration of the human psyche which constitutes the huge mass of knowledge loosely called Christian mysticism. Within this tradition, meditation has been practiced for many many centuries. The desert fathers used to teach by giving their disciples a Word: a personal phrase for them to ponder repeatedly for years; in other words, a mantra. Meister Eckhart discovered and taught a discipline very like Mindfulness meditation. The anonymous medieval book of instruction The Cloud Of Unknowing assumed a mantra based meditation. From these medieval classics to the modern proponents of Christian Meditation such as Anthony De Mello and John Main the tradition has been strong, but also it has been regarded with suspicion by many Christians precisely because it is devoid of words and we Christians are usually very very fond of words - especially our own. How can it be prayer if you don't say anything? Or think anything? Or feel anything?

For those who are a bit nervous about it, there's a number of ways in which meditation is prayer in the usually accepted sense of the word as verbal communication with God. The use of a mantra can be a prayer: a repeated petition or act of worship. For many, a time of meditation is often ended by a brief period of intercession, in which the heightened consciousness and concentration of the meditation is brought to bear on some person or issue or other. For myself, I have certainly noticed that reading the Bible or the New Zealand Liturgy immediately after meditating invests familiar words with whole new depths of subtlety and meaning. But the way in which meditation is prayer is a bit more complicated.

Alan Firth has written a lovely narrative poem called The Gardener in which he tells the story of a grower of prize vegetables who wishes to communicate with the slugs who live in a wasteland beside his garden. Faced with the impossibility of communication across such a divide of perception and intelligence, he magically becomes a slug himself in order to talk to them. It is, of course a metaphor of the incarnation. It's a clever piece, both artistically and theologically, and one of its basic presuppositions is the enormous distance between God and humankind in terms of intelligence and consciousness. How could we possibly conceive of the mind which conceived our minds? When we talk to God, as we do in prayer - our feeble intellects making contact with The Old Wise One - it is slugs talking to the gardener. Our incoherent spur of the moment Eek! Save Me God! prayers or our most elaborate liturgies are all slugtalk. We are creatures trying to converse with the uncreated and we are working with all the limited resources of our creatureliness. The automatic patterns which govern almost all of our lives and our thinking don't leave off when we start thinking of or conversing with the Almighty. The language we use, the sense of our own self we bring to the conversation and the image we have formed of God are all part of the great complex of unconscious patterns which I spoke of a few days ago. All our language about and to God is limited. But when we manage to be still enough to leave the patterns behind us, we find ourselves able to break free of those limits.

Meditation is not in itself a religious activity; as a comment on an earlier post pointed out, an atheist could meditate without doing violence to his world view, but it does bring us closer to a perception of what IS - the universe freed of the preconceptions through which we normally view it. It brings us closer therefore to the God who defined himself as I AM. It might not look it on first glance but the prayer of utter silence is the purest prayer there is.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Ok...But WHY?!

Get up early and sit in an uncomfortable position in the dark for a long time and do nothing? You're kidding, right? 

It's hard to explain why anybody would want to meditate. For  a long time I didn't want to myself,  and then for an equally long time I did but couldn't gather up the requisite willpower to make a regular thing of it. But now there's been a corner turned and the quiet spaces in the day are my favourite bits of it. Partly, it's a cognitive thing. My life has been dominated by an insatiable quest to understand and lately there's been a sort of nagging inner certainty that the path to understanding somehow lies through this period of enforced inner silence. There's also Ian Gawler, who seems to think that meditation is as important, more important even, than any other lifestyle change you might want to make if you are intent on pursuing healing, and I have been quite predisposed to listen to him of late. And then there's lots of frazzled people out there for whom a little bit of completely stress free time in the day seems like a pretty good sort of idea and I can see their point. But wait.... there's more.

Think of the last time you drove somewhere. No doubt you made the journey with very little thought, if any, about the actual process of driving. We drive, and simultaneously converse, or talk on our cell phones, or listen to lectures on the CD player, or take careful note of the real estate for sale along the road and all the while our brain is performing all the complex operations associated with driving completely automatically and unconsciously. Now think about how much you knew when you were new born and what you know now. You have learned countless things, and perform them so unconsciously that some tasks - walking, controlling your bowels, talking, standing upright for example - you have forgotten that they are learned and that there was a time when you didn't know how to do them. You run through your day performing thousands of different operations unconsciously. Which is wonderful, but it does mean that the way you learned to do something  sticks fast, and is not accessible to change. Try changing the accent with which you speak, for example, let alone the language. 

These automatic patterns are not just to do with physical activities. They also dominate the way we think, the emotions we feel, the way we relate to other people, and the very way we perceive the world. Our whole sense of self is a collection of these automatic patterns: patterns so automatic and so unconscious we don't even know that most of them are there. Most of our physical, emotional, intellectual, and cognitive lives are lived unconsciously, on autopilot. Despite our illusion to the contrary, we are not in control of much of it at all. Anthony De Mello says, 

Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep.They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children their sleep, they die in their sleep, without ever waking up.

Meditation is about waking up. It is about escaping from the clutches of the automatic patterns: patterns of our bodies, of our minds and of our spirits. It is about being aware: of the world around us that is normally seen through the lens of our habitual patterns and being aware of ourselves, including the bits our patterns have long since numbed out and kept well away from our conscious minds.The patterns are very resilient and hard to escape.  They are shy of awareness and like to scurry for cover at the first opportunity.The sense of self that is made up of the sum of all those patterns is also very resistant to being sidelined and protests about it. This is why this little thing: simply doing nothing, is such a tricky thing to acheive. But when you do manage it, there is the momentary inner reward of knowing that you are awake (momentary because immediately the old patterns kick in: Hey! I've done it! and you're thinking again and immediately back where you started from.)

Meditation has its physical rewards. Fairly robust testing shows that ,performed regularly, it lowers stress levels, increases immune functioning and has a positive effect on pretty much any bodily system you care to name. I find that after meditating I am more focused and efficient, my relationships seem to run more smoothly and I have a much improved inner sense of equilibrium. But in a way these are secondary. It is the short but increasing periods of the day when the old patterns are shelved that is the real reason I do this. It is the realisation that the sense of deepened reality that comes with the shelving is starting to very very slowly leach out into the rest of my life. 

So that's why. And once that question fades from people's faces, there's another one waiting, especially if they are Christian: is meditation a form a prayer and should Christians be doing it? The short answer is well...maybe and yes. The long answer will take a bit of time and I'll get onto it in the next day or so. 

Thursday, 26 March 2009

How To Meditate

There is nothing simpler than meditation, but that doesn't mean that it's easy. Also, it is a bit fruitless discussing meditation and learning about it in an academic sort of way. In order to really know anything about it you have to do it. More than that, you have to do it regularly and often and in a disciplined fashion and for a reasonable length of time before you can understand much about it, because meditation is about will and consciousness. Of course people dabble with it, which is perfectly OK and in truth, almost all meditators start as dabblers, but as part of the benefit of meditation lies in the discipline of it, dabbling won't get you very far in the long run.

If you are serious, you will need someone to help and encourage you. A meditation group is a good idea, and the World Community of Christian Meditators has groups in many areas of the world, maybe even yours. You can get a fair way with a meditation practice by using a good book. An excellent primer is Ian Gawler's Meditation Pure And Simple as is Laurence Freeman's Christian Meditation: Your Daily Practice . Best of all, find someone who does it and talk to them, but note: the conversation won't go very far unless you are actually meditating and thus have something to talk about.

There are many different methods of meditation - the Buddha identified 80,000 apparently - but basically they all fall into two broad categories, both of which are trying to do the same thing, i.e. get the chattering machine between your ears to shut up for a a few minutes so that you can just BE. One way is to find a way to distance yourself from your thoughts and just observe them. This is the type of meditation taught by Ian Gawler. The other way is to give the mind something to do, such as being aware of the breath or repeating a phrase. This is the type taught by Laurence Freeman. Both types of meditation have a long and honourable history in the Christian church, albeit a not very widely known one. A variant of this second type of meditation which has its origins in the Orthodox churches, and which I have used for some years now is the Jesus Prayer. If you want to dabble in meditation, it's not a bad place to start.

Sit somewhere where you are comfortable enough not to move for the duration of your intended meditation. Try and keep your back straight. Close your eyes. As far as you can, try to relax every part of your body; be especially aware of contracted muscles in the face, shoulders and neck. Silently repeat the phrase Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God Have mercy on me a sinner. If that seems too long, shorten it. Try just the first 8 words. Or even, just a couple of selected words: Lord...mercy... Repeat the words slowly giving equal weight to each word. I find it helpful to pace the words with my breath. Don't go theologising or thinking or trying to feel the presence of God. Don't worry that you suddenly remember that the washing machine needs turning on or the cat needs combing; it can wait. Don't get all excited by any mental pictures or "profound" thoughts that might burble up from the unconscious: that's just your brain having a dose of gas and it doesn't actually mean anything. If it really is a message from God, he knows your number and he'll get back to you later. If your mind wanders off, it's no big deal. Just pick up your phrase again and continue repeating it. Do this for a reasonable period; 10 minutes would be a good start for a newbie, but 20 would be better. Do it a couple of times a day. Do that every day for a week. See what happens. You might be surprised.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Gawler Foundation's 10 Day Life and Living Programme

About a week into the ten day residential Life and Living programme I texted home:

Awake at 5 so excited about the day. I know I am going to live. I have looked into the great festering abyss and realised that it is in the past and doesn't exist! It has left a legacy in my present but each thing can be easily dealt with. I am completely and utterly free.

It's not that this programme changed my life. Cancer changed my life, but the Gawler programme shaped and focused the changes and showed me where I might pick up the tools to build a future with. The programme is non religious but is founded squarely on the practice of mindfulness meditation. The first activity of the day following the wake up bell and the daily tot of lemon juice and water, was 45 minutes in the sanctuary being gently led into silence. The aim of mindfulness is to be quiet: quiet in body mind and spirit. Quiet but not asleep or in any sort of trance. Quiet but alert and aware of the now, undistracted by thinking or imagining or fretting or scheming. Dont just do something, sit there! It sounds easy but it's not. The chattering machine between my ears takes some subduing.Or rather, some ignoring. The self doesn't like being told it is surplus to requirements and sidelined. I come up with all manner of devices to subvert myself, but we are instructed well. The phrases used in our guidance quickly become catch-phrases in the jokes of the 32 of us on the course:
...softening, loosening, letting go...
...let it come when it's ready and go when it's ready....
...that's good....

And there are a lot of jokes. Cancer is the nice person's disease. We are type C personalities every last man Jack and woman Jill of us. We survive by mediating and putting our own interests last. We kill ourselves with kindness. And here we are a congenial group; shy at first but forming deep bonds as the days progress. Everyone has a story of the progress of their disease. Everyone has a story of the trauma which has led their body to react in this way. Many have lost their hair. I sit at lunch and wake from a personal reverie to find my five women table companions are discussing breast reconstruction in quite intimate detail. These are not victims. These are all people who have also looked into the abyss, and given it the two fingered salute.

Mindfulness also shapes the other great pillar of the programme: food. We eat fresh vital food; delicious and plentiful. We are not just being fed in the dining room, we are being taught. We are being coached into mindfulness: being present with what we eat: knowing what is in the food and what it is doing to us. Being encouraged away from the laziness and the habits which lead us to ingest the things which in all likelihood have contributed to our illness. Before every meal the chef teaches us what is in it and how it was prepared. She is a huge personality, who, not so long ago, was a belly dancer. Her hands still dance as she talks and so do her words. We listen and laugh.

The days are long, but feel unhurried. We stop every hour or so for juice, and some of the instruction is aimed at getting us moving. I learn about Chi Gong and breathing and energy. Every afternoon there is a lengthy break and I use it to go walking. Evening sessions are often a bit lighter: perhaps a film or a discussion, but I find myself going to bed early to allow my mind to assimilate the day's learnings through sleep. There are six people who operate a sort of tag team in teaching us. In most of what is taught, there is the thread of mindfulness: in dealing with our emotions and life patterns; in knowing exactly what our disease is and how it develops; in knowing the medical profession and what it can offer us, and what it cannot; in taking charge of our own lives and establishing patterns that build life not death.

Of course, the over riding personality in all this is Ian Gawler. His own remarkable struggle with cancer is recorded in his book You Can Conquer Cancer, and we hear it again, in more detail. He is a tall skinny guy with crutches. His strong will is evident in all of the details of the place, as is indeed his name, but he is curiously unassuming. He smiles a lot and laughs at his own expense. The staff treat each other with mutual respect and kindness, modeling the sort of mindful self awareness they are hoping we will establish for ourselves. In two weeks I don't hear any of them personally condemn anybody , not even those whose opinions run counter to all the foundation stands for. Ian Gawler invites us to research what he tells us, and encourages mindfulness: alert, aware questioning of all that anybody (including himself) tells us. The kaftan isn't about setting himself up as a guru; it's about finding the most comfortable clothing possible for a one legged man living in the Australian heat.

A week in and several things have gelled for me. I have begun to consolidate and refine the routines I had established before coming to Australia. I had hoped to strengthen my meditation practice and now the parts of the day I most look forward to are the times in the sanctuary. I know it hasn't been long, but now that I am back home I am managing to continue the routine of an hour and a half a day of mindful silence. Clemency and I are fine tuning our diet and making plans about preserving the integrity of what we eat when we go overseas in a in a few weeks.

It cost around $NZ4,000, for a return ticket to Australia and the course fee. Considering that this included  accommodation, all meals, instruction and materials for ten days, it was money well spent and it is something I would strongly urge anyone who is dealing with cancer - either as a supporter or a survivor- to invest in.

Yarra Valley Living Centre

I have just returned from a ten day residential programme at the Gawler Foundation's Yarra Valley Living Centre. I will write later of my impressions of the programme, but in the meantime, here are some snaps, fresh from the SD card.

What is missing from these shots is, of course, the main ingredient of the place: people. I shared the experience with 31 others, all of whom, like me, were coming to terms with a life threatening illness and at this vulnerable point in their lives, whatever they were expecting from the programme, it certainly didn't include having their photos on someone's blog. Hence the unpopulated look of these shots. But I hope they give a sense of place anyway.

The Yarra Valley Living Centre is located (surprise, surprise) in the Yarra Valley, an hour and a half North East of Melbourne

First view from the long, tree lined driveway is of The administrative building

Corridor in one of the dormitory blocks

Where I slept: clean, well maintained, comfortable

The resource centre, as seen from the dining room


The heart of the centre and the programme... the meditation sanctuary

The fountain in the herb garden

Exterior view of the meditation sanctuary

A track circumnavigates the 40 acres of grounds, and passes this labyrinth

Most of the centre's vegetables are grown on site. Organically, of course.

One of the residents who is not dealing with a major illness

A mob of several dozen Eastern Grey Kangaroos includes the centre in its range. There is abundant birdlife, and wombat holes although, sadly,  I never saw a wombat

A small gazebo sits on a hilltop in the changeable Melbourne weather

Monday, 9 March 2009


Very soon I'm off to the airport. I'm going to Christchurch and tomorrow to Melbourne to spend 10 days at the Gawler Institute. I'll eat vegan food, meditate for a period every day and participate in classes on the relationship of body mind and spirit in the company of about 30 people in much the same position as me. I hope to walk a bit. Take photos of Kangaroos and Koalas and bright raucous birds. It's the deferred beginning of the sabbatical which was the starting point of this blog, all those months ago. The Gawler Institute doesn't offer an internet connection and doesn't encourage cell phones. So it'll be a week or two until you hear from me again. TTFN

Monday, 2 March 2009

Giving Up

There is a paradox about Lent which actually clings to the whole business of asceticism. We give stuff up for Lent, things which we enjoy or things we know are harmful to our spiritual well being -or both. We do this for a number of of reasons, such as to implant a reminder of God''s presence into each day; or to make a genuine start on that simpler lifestyle we have been putting off 'til tomorrow since 1997. Mostly though, the discipline of Lent is an aid to weakening the hold of our egos. Jesus said, If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mtt 16:24) In other words, to follow Jesus we must forsake the control our egos have over our lives and allow Jesus to have control of our daily actions and decisions. It's a big ask, but saying "no" to the chocolate biscuits for six weeks will be just the help we need to make a start on it, right?

Well, maybe. There is the small matter of that pesky paradox. The act of giving something up in order to diminish our ego is actually quite likely to strengthen it instead. Our noble tilt at tobacco or fat is a tiny version of the sad ego game played by anorexics. The deadly tyranny of the anorexic's ego has persuaded her that her "noble" "disciplined" dieting is something that makes her purer and stronger than the rest of us poor flabby weaklings. Even as she slowly starves herself to death, she feeds her damaged ego, and this is what makes the disease so difficult to fight. To give up the disorder requires massive inner work. Similarly, on a much smaller scale, we fight our temporary nemesis and win (woohoo!) and feel a surge of righteous achievement. Our ego emerges a little stronger than it was before.

Lent is a preparation time for our understanding of the one who loves us unconditionally. Unconditional love cannot be controlled - not by the lover, not by the loved. It pours out regardless of whatever meets it, good or bad. Our Lenten fast will fail in its intended purpose if it is in the slightest way an exercise in trying to control God's love for us. That is, if we are trying to make ourselves more acceptable to God (and thus more loveable) or to persuade God to open the taps of love a little wider our Lenten fast is well into tits on a bull territory.

When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die
said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me said Paul. What is required of us is not small sacrifices of pastry or TV programming but a complete surrender of anything that seeks control; even, or perhaps particularly, those things we are secretly quite proud of. The church has long recognised that some disciplines help us to achieve this. It is appropriate in Lent to remember the magnitude of what is required of us and perhaps strengthen our practice of some of those disciplines. But if our Lenten fasts don't move us towards the total giving of ourselves they are worse than useless. Give them up.