Tom Beaudoin: speaking a second religious or secular langauge.

thomas-beaudoinAs a team of Buddhist and Christian chaplains at Imperial we were really excited to hear Tom Beaudoin’s key-note talk at the Conference of European University  Chaplains  in the Netherlands last year.

Tom is Associate Professor of Religion at Fordham University. In his talk he was looking at life in a globalized world. He argued that there would be great advantages if we were all to learn to speak a second religious or secular  language.

Language, as a metaphor for our worldview, suggests that we all have a religious or secular ‘first language’ for talking about how we see the world and what we believe, for example Christianity, Islam, Buddhism  or atheism, humanism, agnosticism.

To learn a second ‘religious language’ does not mean  giving up our first language, our ‘mother tongue’. In a world were we are constantly meeting people whose world view is very different from our own it is good to be able speak even a little of another language.

So, while Christianity is my first language, I can ‘speak’ a little Buddhism. I have learned this second language from working with colleagues, sharing silent meditation together and hearing about their traditions. I am not fluent and I am not a native speaker.  But I know enough to be a good ‘house guest’ and (I hope!) to travel courteously  with my second language. This way I learn more, and see a little from the Buddhist perspective.

The other gift of learning a new language is returning to our first language with new eyes, and a better ear for the language itself. I now have a better understanding of my mother tongue for having started learning a second language!

Pieta from Product Design on Good Friday

Here is something for your visual meditation this Good Friday. It is a short film by Emilie Voirin, who graduated last year from the Product Design Course at the Royal College of Art.

Play link to ‘Pieta’ on Vimeo.

I really like the questions about religious practice and art that Emilie asks as a product designer – they were great conversations.

For the majority of us thankfully, holding the body of a dead adult child is not an experience we are likely to have. Yet religious practice does set aside days of the year as invitations to contemplate subjects we might prefer to ignore. And there are many places where, tragically, the Pieta experience happens to many.

Today is Good Friday – the day of the year when Christians remember Jesus’ death and this scene of his body being held by Mary his mother. So time to ponder both art and life.

These are Emilie’s own words on the project;

“I have deconstructed the gesture of the famous Pieta, which depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, and created tools to reproduce it as a filmed performance. In this way I want to reinvigorate traditional religious art by re-contextualizing its production, conveying the power of religious codes and their interpretation through the language of objects.”

 

 

Knowing the ways of silence

A conversation at the European Chaplains’ Conference sent me back to reading RS Thomas the Welsh poet and Anglican priest. Here is one of his poems that caught my eye during this month of seeking silence in daily life.

(The blog program wont let me use tabs and spacings to give the original line layout – which has some unusual gaps – hints at silence maybe?)

The Presence by RS Thomas

I pray and incur
silence.Some take that silence
for refusal.
I feel the power
that,invisible,catches me
by the sleeve,nudging
towards the long shelf
that has the book on it I will take down
and read and find the antidote
to an ailment.

I know its ways with me ;
how it enters my life,
is present rather
before I perceive it, sunlight quivering
on a bare wall.
Is it consciousness trying
to get through ?
Am I under
regard ?
It takes me seconds
to focus, by which time
it has shifted its gaze,
looking a little to one
side, as though I were not here.

It has the universe
to be abroad in.
There is nothing I can do
but fill myself with my own
silence, hoping it will approach
like a wild creature to drink
there, or perhaps like Narcissus
to linger a moment over its transparent face.

DSC_0350(3)

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’.

Holy Week with the Medics

Charing Cross 2It has been an unusual Holy Week. The option for 4th year medical students on ‘Death, Autopsy and Law’ has given me two great days of reflection during the week Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life.

On Monday I acted as an extra small group facilitator for a session on ‘Personhood and Suffering’ led by Prof Tom Sensky. The session invited reflection on the overlooked question of ‘what or rather who is a person?’ There were various exercises in which students considered the important people and aspects of their own lives and identity. They were then asked to choose the two most important ones. It was an experience of imagining ‘loss’. Obviously, it was hard to choose – ‘boyfriend or parents? Which parent? Which sibling? What about my love of doing…?’ This was preparation for considering the aspects of the self that are ‘lost’ during illness.

As a Christian priest it seemed a good thing that would be doctors had to imagine themselves loosing key elements of thier own identity or personhood.  They were putting themselves in the picture of loss and suffering.They did this before looking at the case studies of patients  and thier responses to serious illness.

It was also interesting to think in this way during a week when as a  Christian I am  remember ing Jesus consciously choosing to go up to Jerusalem to offer himself into the violent social mix of religion, Empire, military occupation and oppressive taxation. Jesus gives away his life (personhood) and suffers. He does this to show us the ways we human beings use violence and conflict to avoid facing our own wounds and limitations.

The next day I had arranged for the same group to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our guide took us on a tour of funeral and burial objects from different times, cultures and religions. This led to more discussion in which we considered our own approach to death and funerals.

So I spent two days with people who are looking at all aspects of death, end of life care and autopsy. It vividly reminded me that in the Christian story there is new life after Jesus’ suffering and death. And yet it also made me very aware that the risen Christ still has carries the wounds of his own death. This can not be explored through thinking – it needs a physical, bodily meditation practice.

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.

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.

Everyone’s now ‘mulit-faith’

As part of my study leave I spent two weeks in the US. I visited  university staff and chaplains in and around Boston  – at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Brandeis and Wellesley. I then went to the Gobal  Chaplains Conference at Yale, New Haven. There were 450 chaplains attending. They were mainly from Europe, North America, and Australasia. But I met chaplains from India and Uganda as well.

The conference theme was spiritual leadership in a multi-faith world. I don’t use the idea of ‘spiritual leadership’ myself but it seemed  a key self-understanding for American chaplains. What was clear is that working in multi-faith and multi-religious environments is now the norm in higher education in the western world. My  impression, from conversations with people about the workshops that they had attended, was that the US institutions invest in religious welfare way above that seen in the UK. For example, many US student services have departments of ‘Religious and Spiritual Life’ that sit along side counselling, accommodation and disability services. However, when it came to the detailed knowledge about  building  good relationships over time between people of different faiths then the UK had a great depth of experience.

So, a great many impressions and ideas about how religious people can relate to those with different world views to thier own. Yet there was not much about the next frontier – how to foster better mutual appreciation between people of religious world views and people with philosophical world views.

Religion for Atheists Part 2 : a question for Alain de Botton

First, apologies for the huge delay in posting ‘part 2’. I am now on study leave so have time for pondering and writing instead of the doing and organising which seems to take up so much of my working life.

So back to the question for Alain de Botton. I asked started with an introduction. ‘I am a Christian, an Anglican priest and I work as a  university chaplain. Some of the most interesting conversations about religion and faith are with those students, both religious and atheist, who can step outside their own tribe and build good links with people  whose views are very different from their own. But this is not an easy thing to do and not many people can do it. So when you talk positively about the dialogue between religion and atheism what resources from your own tradition are you drawing upon which help you relate to those whose views are so very different to your own?’ Well that is how I remember it after all these months!

His reply was that he drew on 17th century ideas of people meeting as citizens. That after the European wars of religion that followed the Reformation people came to see that unity could not be based upon shared religious ideas. It was the differences in religion that had led to violence and division. So the idea of being able to meet as citizens and individuals provided a new way of connecting people.

He went on to say that he was inspired by the Christian idea of hospitality to the stranger – offered to meet the needs of the other person and not subject to being in ideological agreement with the stranger.

It was a neat reply – criticising the violence and division of post-Reformation Christianity and then highlighting a positive strand in the Christian tradition. But with just a little implicit hint, I sensed, that this idea of generous hospitality could be practised rather more often than is the case. On that we can both agree.

I think Diarmud McCulloch has a different view on the history however – that it was the response of Christians to the violence of the Civil War in England that led to great tolerance of religious diversity. More research needed on this.