Travelling Chaplain

It was great to have lunch at Imperial with Geoff Boyce, Chaplain at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

He has done some great work creating a multi-faith chaplaincy team at Flinders. He has recently been visiting our European network partners as he thinks about where multi-faith chaplaincy in Adelaide might develop next.

I met Geoff  four years ago through the European Chaplains Conference – where he is a regular visitor. Here is the link to his blog and some photos of our colleagues and the places they work.

me and geoff

‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road?’

This is the title of Brian MacLaren’s latest book. It’s the best theological writing I have seen for Christians about the practice of building good relations between people of different faiths.

MacLaren suggests ways to create a strong and deep Christian identity that does not need to be hostile to people who have different beliefs and views. He calls this ‘non-oppositional Christianity’.

He argues that much contemporary Christian identity is  based, wrongly,on a strong and hostile opposition to certain ideas, groups and people – anything ‘other’ than ones own limited tribal version of Church.

Why has this become acceptable Christianity? Especially when Jesus constantly sees ‘other’ people from outside his own tribe/group as being part of  the Kingdom of God.

MacLaren offers a way of being Christian that I wish more of us Christians could enact and that more people who are not Christians would get to see first hand.

Here he is with a trailer for his own book. But you have to read the book to find out what does happen when everyone crosses the road – no great surprise if you are already into dialogue!

Mindfulness – the Chaplaincy story

Here is a much longer post than usual. It is an article that I have just written for ‘Felix’ the Imperial College Union’s weekly newspaper. It is both the story of how Chaplaincy started offering Mindfulness Meditation and a short – and simplistic!- explanation of the science behind  Mindfulness. The image is from last summer’s trip to MIT.

sculpture of sitting human form

 “I’m an atheist and I’m interested in meditation.” Last year I had a number of conversations with people who all began with this comment. It is too small a sample from which to interpret the changing nature of atheism or if there is an increasing interest in meditation. (And anyway all of these comments may have arisen from the realisation ‘OMG, it’s the vicar, quick what can I talk about?’)

But these conversations did get me thinking. Meditation is part of my religious experience. But I know that Buddhists and some Quakers practice meditation but describe themselves as atheists. I had learnt about Buddhist meditation from sharing a weekly time of silence at the Royal College of Art with a Buddhist monk. From him I had learnt of ‘mindfulness’. He used it to describe the practice of paying conscious attention to sensory, cognitive and emotional experience. The technique was to become aware, or ‘mindful’, of sensations or feelings but without getting caught up in them.

With all this ‘in mind’ I came across the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Profesor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn had noticed positive results in clinical trials using mindfulness meditation with patients suffering from depression. Professor Mark Williams, a psychiatrist at Oxford University, used this research to develop a mindfulness meditation for stress reduction and to improve mental well-being.

This seemed to be the kind of meditation that has an evidence base and does not require a religious belief. It also promoted emotional health. Recent research in psychology has demonstrated the two-way links between our emotions and our bodies. For example, if we feel sad our bodies will reflect that sadness in the way we walk and sit. Conversely, if we are not feeling sad but adopt a sad, slumped, posture we will then very quickly start to feel sad.

Kabat-Zinn and others also used MRI scans to show that upsetting emotions can be seen clearly in the right pre-frontal cortex. Positive emotions on the other hand show up more clearly in the left pre-frontal cortex. The ratio of electrical activity between one side of the pre-frontal cortex gives a picture of a person’s emotional state. Kabat-Zinn explored this in relation to mindfulness meditation. He taught a group of bio-tech workers the meditation practice. After eight weeks of meditation practice the participants became more energised and less prone to low mood. It was also found that this state was maintained even when participants were reminded of memories and music that were linked to sad personal memories. It appeared that with meditation training people were able to accept the negative personal memories but without being overwhelmed by them. The other outcome was that the participants also developed measurably stronger immune systems.

This evidence based approach to meditation seemed like a good response to those who wanted to learn meditation but who did not want a religious practice. Using Mark Williams’ book as a basis the Chaplaincy started offering mindfulness meditation in October. Over two terms we have found that this is something that people find helpful in the realities of daily life. This includes those with philosophical world view (atheism, humanism, materialism) and those with a traditional or personal religious world view.

The simplest way to describe mindfulness is through a simple exercise. Raise one arm above your head. Close your eyes. Slowly lower your arm. As your arm descends track the different sensations that occur. You might be able to notice what you are thinking, or the emotions you are feeling. So a short 3-5 minute mediation lets us notice the range of our personal sensory, cognitive and emotional data. So you might notice ‘eyes feeling tired from a day in front a screen, niggling anxiety about unfinished tasks, trying to remember if there is anything in the fridge for dinner, and an anticipation about…’). It is important not to judge the data – it is just what is being thought, sense and felt at this moment. There is a positive element of self-acceptance that comes with practice. And there is the sense of calm.

This is the season in the university for increased stress and anxiety. Small amounts of meditation practice can make a difference – and by this I mean 5-10 minutes daily. It is described as a practice – for good reason. But it does not take long to start showing benefits.

 Whatever your worldview ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ takes place in the Chaplaincy Centre in Beit Quad every Tuesday 1-1:45pm.  For those wanting a particular religious framework for meditation we have Buddhist and Christian meditation each week, and we can link you up with someone to talk about Hindu meditation.

On Thursday 9th May join us for ‘How to be Mindful in a Digital Age’ a talk by the Venerable Narayan Prasad Rijal, a Buddhist teacher who is also a lecturer in Physics at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. This event is being hosted by students from the Buddhist meditation group and by the Chaplaincy from 7-8pm in the Pippard Lecture Theatre, followed by discussion and refreshments. More details of all events www.imperial.ac.uk/chaplaincy

Love could not bear that – after Boston

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike many, many others I’ve been reflecting on the bombing of the Boston Marathon and the events that followed.

Last Summer I spent a week in the Boston area visiting Chaplains.  So I could recall the places around Copley Square where the marathon ended.

During my visit I met with Cameron Partridge, Episcopalian Chaplain at Boston University. Lu Lingzi, a graduate student from BU was one of the people killed in the Marathon Bombing.

I also spent a sunny day at MIT with  Kari-Jo Verhulst the Lutheran Chaplain. Sean Collier from the MIT police was shot and killed by  alleged bombers.

One of the issues in any response to violence and terror  is how to regard those who commit violence and atrocity. The acts were horrific and need to be named accurately. However, we have also seen the unwelcome and unacceptable demonising of Muslims and other minority groups.

Thinking about this backlash phenomenon I came across this short blog piece called ‘Love could not bear that’. It draws on an old Christian story that warns against projecting our own inner conflicts and violence onto others. It is from a source of orthodox Christian stories that were new to me.

It has another  contemporary message for Christians who feel they always need  some group to be ‘against’. But I will let you read that for yourselves.

Thanks to Rev Michael K. Marsh, a priest of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of West Texas for his blog ‘Interrupting the Silence’.

The light we share

Hindu CandleA quick post to say a big ‘thank you’ to the students who gave me such a great candle  for helping them to welcome his Holiness Radhanath Swami last month.It was such a great evening with Radhanath – as he told those inspiring  stories about love, truth, reconciliation and genuine service of others.
So a week later we placed the candle in the centre of our table when we had our Easter Day meal with friends and family.
Thanks to you all – Anesh, Janaki, Nikhita,Varun, Aman, Ishani, Nandita, the rest of the crowd!

His Holiness Radhanath Swami – the Guru comes to town

It was a great pleasure to welcome His Holiness Radhanath Swami to Imperial just before Easter. Around 150 students came to hear him speak at an event hosted by Sachi Kishore the Chaplaincy’s Hindu Chaplain. Sachi was  working with

Rahdanath and me

the students who come to his regular  Bhagavad Gita study group. The event  also had great support from Imperial’s Hindu Society. They have impressive skills and experience at putting on large events.

So the event was also a satisfying moment to look back on three years work developing Chaplaincy provision for the Hindu communities at Imperial. Thanks to the students for making the event happen. And also to Professor Debra Humphris,  the Pro-Rector – Education, who kindly offered an official welcome to Radhanath on behalf of the College.

This was my second meeting with Radhanath. For me as a Christian it was inspiring to hear this great Hindu teacher talk about finding ways to allow ourselves to be motivated and prompted by love of God and by God’s love for us. Radhanath  used stories from his own life alongside stories and sayings from Hindu and Christian scriptures. He grasped the issues facing this generation of students – pressures to get jobs, repaying their student debts, starting a career in a time of austerity, and coping with the anxiety and hopes of parents.

I felt honoured  as a  Christian to sit  in the presence of a great itinerant spiritual teacher. Especially then during the next week when I listened again to all the Easter stories of Jesus the wandering  teacher going up to Jerusalem with his disciples.

Interfaith encounters can take us deeper into another person’s faith and at the same time deeper into our own – in surprising ways.

Here is a link to Radhanath’s website

Mindfulness Meditation

DSCN4267 Our Mindfulness Meditation has really taken off this year. A group of students from Imperial and the RCA have met each week since October. We have been slowly working through the exercises in the book ‘Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

The book applies the research of psychologists and psychiatrists at the Oxford Mindfulness Center. With a  science evidence base behind it Mindfulness is something that I can use in this scientific college. It also helps that Mark Williams research is linked to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The key feature of  Mindfulness is switching our attention away from thinking and into our senses and body. This is another good thing to be doing in a place that rates mental activity very highly! It is not that thinking is bad for us. Rather that there is more to us than just mental activity. the meditations help us to note all our other sensory experiences – or data. This allows us to move our attention away from unceasing mental activity  to notice the sounds, smells, sights, and sheer physicality of life.

I am going to write more about Mindfulness. It has been great at bringing together people from both religious and philosophical world views. And it has been a fascinating process for me as Christian. Since my own student days I have been drawn to silence, meditation and the contemplative tradition.  But for now there is more information at http://oxfordmindfulness.org/about-mindfulness/

If you are a member of Imperial, RCA or RCM see here for details of sessions.

Welcome to the Kumbh!

I am enjoying the posts from India from Gopal Patel. He is at the Kumbh Mela. It is the once every 12 years Hindu festival that takes place on the banks of the Ganges.http://blog.bhumiproject.org/

Kumbh Mela India

Gopal is Project Manager of the Bhumi Project. He works with partners in India to find ways to make Hindu pilgrimage sites more environmentally friendly. This reduces environmental degradation around the sites.The sites also act as places of education for visitors about environmental issues.

The Bhumi Project is the Hindu element of a world-wide multi-faith movement looking at the greening of pilgrimage sites.

when church could become ‘a life-giving vision’

Rowan_Williams - retired Archbishop of Canterbury

I liked the quote from Rowan Williams in his New Year message on the eve of his retirement as Archbishop of Canterbury.

He said religion ‘isn’t a social problem or an old fashioned embarrassment: it’s a wellspring of energy, and a source of life-giving vision for how people should be regarded and treated. ’

But when I looked up the quote I realised that he was talking specifically about social projects run by Churches. He was not talking about religion or the Church generally. I was pleased by this. When I trained for ministry I was shaped by what is now called Community Ministry – the local church engaging with local residents  about shared issues.

So Rowan Williams is making a positive claim about specific parts of the Churches work- that of service to others.  Recent events – the failure to vote for women bishops and the limited (and surely impractical) step to allow celibate priests in civil partnerships to be bishops- have shown that the Church of England is not seen by many as ‘a life giving vision for how people should be regarded and treated’.

To  be seen in this way it will need to accept unconditionally within its structures both women and those who are gay.

In the meantime I am glad when local Churches, especially together with partners with different religious and secular beliefs, can show how people should be valued and treated – the Food Co-ops now springing up for those looking for their next family meal, the visiting schemes for the ill or housebound, the car share journeys to distant hospitals, initiatives to give vision to young people, and all those quiet AA meetings that happen invisibly everywhere…

Inspite of the social/sexual/gender embarrasment of the Church there is a vision of human flourishing to be glimpsed – just.

Off to the Bhumi Project : farewell my friends, part 2

One of my other colleagues left this summer. Gopal Das worked for the Chaplaincy for the last two years as one of our student Chaplains. Gopal made a great contribution to Chaplaincy communications – re-designing our website and our other digital and printed publicity. He developed our network to stay in touch with staff and students across three Colleges. Above all he turned Chaplaincy towards the Dharmic religions in a way we had never achieved before. So we had Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist groups regularly meeting in the Chaplaincy mainly as a result of Gopal’s work.

I wrote recently about Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Triangle for developing good relationships between people of different religions. So he says that knowing a person of a different religion increases knowledge which increases a positive attitude to their religion.Which, of course, makes possible deeper level conversations with other people of that religion which then sets off another positive trip around the triangle. Working with Gopal helped me complete many circuits of the interfaith triangle. As a Christian I learnt a great deal about Hinduism and especially Krishna Consciousness – I am so grateful for the personal contact and being able to work as part of a team.

Gopal is working for the Bhumi Project connected to the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He is now in India working with others to model good care of the environment at major Hindu Pilgrimage sites and to spread the environmental message back into Hindu communities around the world. There is more info about this at   http://blog.bhumiproject.org/   and you can follow him on Twitter  http://twitter.com/BhumiGopalPatel