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Archive for December, 2008

Really interesting to be back at my old church last night. I went for a couple of reasons – principally because my friend (and my daughter’s Godfather) – Alan – is now the curate there. He was preaching and I haven’t had chance to hear him before now as there’s always a clash with our community gathering. He was good!

Anyway – it gave me an opportunity to reflect a little on my spiritual journey over the last few years since I was there. I’ve grown tired of expending negative energy and it’s not my place to judge others so that’s not what this is about. Nevertheless something helpful occurred to me.

It seems to me that many conservative forms of Christianity are predicated on the idea that God is always somewhere else. We are waiting for God to come to us and the problem to be overcome is how to get God to ‘show up’ – we have got to get closer to God or get God closer to us. And there are all kinds of ways we hope we might be able to go that.

I used to think like that too. But over the last few years there has been a seismic shift going on in my spirituality. Now I would say that God is always present. The problem then is not about getting God to come to us (and at this time of year we are particularly mindful of how the incarnation reveals God’s presence with us) but about waking up from our sleep and becoming mindful and aware of God’s already-present presence. The problem is not that God is not here, the problem is that we are not aware of God being here.

Spiritual practice helps deepen our awareness of God being right here, right now.

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I know Eckhart Tolle is a somewhat controversial figure – deemed dangerous by conservative Christians, a bit ‘new-age’ to others, and probably doesn’t lean deeply enough into any one tradition to satisfy purists – but I really enjoy his stuff. I think he is talking about contemplation but using his own language.

But we should be grown up enough to not require people to speak to us in the language we are used to.

Richard Rohr has written a short paper on Tolle which makes interesting reading. You can find it here. His main gist is that Tolle isn’t claiming to be a Christian teacher so we shouldn’t judge him as one. Tolle is teaching us HOW to see not WHAT we should see – he leaves that open. I think that’s a really helpful way of engaging with Tolle.

Anyway – I am half way through his latest book – ‘A New Earth‘ – and finding it really helpful. His main point (so far) is that what prevents us from really seeing reality as it is is the various constructs of the ego. And that our major task is to deconstruct the ego through developing awareness. This will allow who we really are to emerge. Our true nature is buried under layers of egoic mental constructs – roles etc.

As we go deeper in meditation and contemplation we will develop the ability to open up critical distance between our true and false selves and be able to step back and become more aware of the ego games we play. Tolle’s assertion is that such awareness will automatically dissolve the ego.

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Posture – Part 2

If you’re keen to explore this issue of posture in prayer further (by the way, in this blog I will be using the terms ‘prayer’ and ‘meditation’ interchangeably unless I say otherwise), then here are some very practical points.

I have not yet managed the full lotus but I am using the half lotus as shown in the picture on the left. It’s brilliant for keeping the back straight and opening up deeper breathing. Here’s a few things to note:

  • it will be quite uncomfortable at first – but don’t give up, it gets easier
  • your bottom needs to be raised – pile up some cushions or even better get yourself a meditation cushion (see below)
  • both of your knees need to touch the floor – this is worth saying as when you first start using this position one of your knees will want to be off the ground. You have to lean forward to get your knees on the deck
  • it’s worth taking your time to get into the position but once you get settled resist the urge to change position – it’s a form of distraction
  • it can be quite helpful to wear shorts or similar as clothing around the legs can get in the way (but it’s winter at the moment!!)

Getting into the Position

  • get into the position by sitting on your cushion and extending both legs straight out in front of you. Then bring one of your thighs up to your chest, twist the leg and put the foot on the thigh of the other leg. Then bring the still-straight leg up and under and adjust until both knees are on the ground. The higher foot will move down from the thigh until it is resting on the calf of the other leg
  • the most important thing is that your spine is absolutely straight

If you’re serious about this form of prayer practice – and I’d really encourage you to explore it – then it’s probably worth you investing a small amount of money in a meditation cushion and mat (like the guy is sitting on in this drawing). Believe me your ankles and knees will thank you for it. They are normally known by their Zen names – Zafu (cushion) and Zabuton (mat). I got mine from eBay here. Go for Buckwheat fill as it adapts better to your shape.

I am only a novice when it comes to things like this but I hope I can share the little I have learned on this blog as I go along. Of course, there are much more qualified writers and guides around but I thought it might be helpful for the beginners out there to have some thoughts from another beginner like me.

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Posture

I think we’re slowly waking up to how spiritually arrogant we have been in the West. For literally thousands of years people of pretty much every faith tradition have talked about the importance of the body in prayer. Yet since the enlightenment (when we were told that rationality was pretty much all that mattered) we have ignored this wisdom and done our own thing.

But it does matter.

If you learn to sit in one of the ‘eastern’ positions for example – the lotus or half lotus – you have to sit with an erect spine. This keeps you alert. It also opens up deeper breathing – breathing from the abdomen which helps to still the mind and opens up a deeper level of prayer.

Most of us probably already know this. It’s something that I have been learning more recently. What amazes me is that I haven’t been taught it before – things like this just aren’t seen as important in the protestant tradition.

I am glad more people are rediscovering this important sense of our connectness as whole human beings.

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double tracking the mantra

As you probably know, basic meditation practice often involves use of a mantra or ‘prayer-word’. This is to give the mind just enough to do to quieten the incessant ‘crazy cocktail party of the mind’ to use Martin Laird’s wonderful description.

I don’t know about you but I have found in my practice that, while this helps, I am quite capable of repeating my mantra on one level of my mind and find that I am daydreaming concurrently. I find that I suddenly realise that for the last few minutes I have been saying my mantra AND thinking about the shopping (or whatever)! The mantra seems to operate ‘below’ the buzzing, discursive mind.

The other day I tried what you could call ‘double tracking the mantra’ – if my mind is operating on two (conscious) different levels well how about giving both levels a mantra to work with? So then I had two mantras running concurrently. This probably all sounds quite chaotic and busy – it wasn’t particularly. The ‘lower’ mantra stayed quite stable and the ‘upper’ one came and went as I needed it too.

This probably isn’t text-book meditation teaching! But it was something I found helpful on that occasion.

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a new mind

John the Baptist, as we know, is one of the key voices in Advent. I shared some thoughts about him at our community eucharist on Sunday.

The main point I was making was that perhaps we need to hear his call to repent in a different way. We have understood repentance to mean either ‘say sorry to God for all the wrong things you have done’ and/or ‘turn from doing wrong to doing right’. And neither of those things are bad!

But the greek word translated in Mark 1 (and parallels) as ‘repentance’ is metanoia and although I am not a greek scholar I understand this word to mean something like ‘change your mind’. Again we need to think of this differently I would suggest. What about if we heard this to mean ‘receive a new mind’?

Why is this important? I think that without a new mind we will be unable to perceive the presence of the Kingdom which – as Jesus goes on to announce – is ‘close at hand’ and even ‘within you’. We will still think that God is somewhere else and we have to get to him (or get him to come to us) through religious observance (in the Jesus context this meant going up to the Temple etc.) because he is not normatively present with/in us.

We need to repent – we need a new mind : so that we can recognise the presence of the Kingdom around and within us. Meditation and contemplation will help us to develop this new mind.

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watching and waiting

Advent is a season of watching and waiting. We watch and wait with John the Bpatist, Zechariah and principally Mary.

This speaks to me of contemplation. The goal of contemplative prayer is to make us present to the moment where we can encounter Christ. In fact it’s the only locus we can encounter Christ. Christ has come, and Christ will come again – the two great themes of Advent – but we need to watch and wait and encounter Christ in the present, in the NOW.

We are too often asleep, walking around in a daze, perhaps too stimulated to delight in the ordinary (HT R Rohr) and so we are not awake to Christ in the present.

Contemplative prayer should help us to watch and wait.

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