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Archive for the ‘meditation’ Category

nowhere to hide

When I started exploring the practice of meditation and contemplative prayer a number of years back one of the things that took me by surprise was that much of the practice in this sphere leads to a focus on a deeper knowledge of yourself. I always presumed that what is being contemplated was God but actually very often what is being contemplated is actually me (and I am aware of how clumsy (and subject-object dualistic that sentence is but go with it while I make this point and I might return to that another day).

Carl Gustav Jung was very interested in meditation (especially Zen meditation) as he saw it as a means whereby the unconscious becomes conscious, leading to greater wholeness. Much of Richard Rohr’s writing is actually about how the practice of contemplative prayer leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings and thereby a greater wholeness for us as people.

For me, an important part of this has to do with clearing away clutter and creating a space where you are forced to confront who you really are. In meditation and contemplative prayer there is really nowhere to hide – you have to face yourself.

Even in church – or whatever you call your holy place/gathering – there is a lot of ‘entertainment’….opportunities to distract yourself with the many good and noble things that are going on (and I am not suggesting we stop doing these things!). When you sit in silent meditation there really is nothing left to distract you. You have to look at the internal clutter and become aware of the white noise within.

No wonder many of us find it uncomfortable and make all kinds of excuses to keep from doing it. It is not meant to be easy but we must engage with it otherwise we will end up ‘entertaining ourselves to death’.

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I have been thinking recently about how prayer/contemplation/meditation resembles going to a gym:

the gym is not an end in itself, it is a means to another end.
You don’t go to the gym for the sake of going to the gym. You go to the gym so that you are generally fit and healthy and have energy i.e. you see the benefits of going to the gym in your life away from the gym. In the same way, when we set aside very focussed periods of practice – either individually or as a group – we do so to see the benefits elsewhere. We ‘practice’ awareness and presence (to God, ourselves, our world) in our prayer periods so that we can take that awareness and presence with us wherever we go and whatever we do.

if you only go occasionally to the gym, even if you work out like a maniac, you won’t see much change.
There’s not much point going to the gym once in a blue moon and doing a major workout; then eating junk food and not exercising for weeks on end before you next go to the gym. You won’t see the benefit. Better to try and find a pattern of exercising that is manageable but regular. Little and often. Better to do a small amount of exercise regularly than a big workout occasionally. In the same way, we need to find a regular rhythm of prayer if we are going to see the benefit (better emotional tone, depth, generosity of spirit, love, wisdom, compassion, peace etc. etc.)

I’m sure there are probably other parallels as well, but these are just a couple I have been thinking about. If any more occur to me I’ll no doubt post them!

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results

It seems to me that one of the shifts we need to make as we move into a more contemplative spirituality is to do with the whole business of ‘results’ in prayer.

When we were young in the faith God was like a cash machine – we entered our pin (=said our prayers/had a quiet time etc.) and expected to see some instant results – God would do the thing we had asked him to or perhaps he wouldn’t and then we would apply one of our well-thought-through theological reasons as to why that might be (we “weren’t praying in line with his will” or something like that).

So as we move into contemplative ways of praying we make a big disconnect here. God is no longer seen as the big cash machine in the sky. In fact we also make a disconnect between the period of prayer and the perceived benefits of praying. What I mean is this – I think we were used to expecting some sort of response from God in the period of prayer itself. i.e. we would have a sense of ‘meeting’ with God (again there is this sense of God primarily being somewhere else and moving towards us (or us towards him) that I mentioned a couple of posts ago), a sense of presence.

In contemplative prayer that is often not the case and the prayer period itself can feel quite unremarkable in many ways. Today for me was a case in point – I sat to meditate this morning and absolutely nothing interesting happened. It was very unremarkable, very average, I was quite distracted etc. But in contemplative prayer we start to disassociate prayer with mushy feelings (or at least we recognise these for what they are) and we look to see change elsewhere – better emotional tone, deeper thankfulness, greater generosity of spirit, gentleness, greater awareness (of God, for example) etc.

The prayer period is like a workout for the soul – it’s not the point in and of itself – we are supposed to see the benefits elsewhere.

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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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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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