Not one but two Buddhist colleagues?

DSC_1533 Zafus - Buddhist meditation cushions, black with white labels saying chaplaincy

Here is an article I have written for  ‘Kalyana Mitra – Caring for others through Spiritual Friendship’,  the newsletter of The Buddhist Chaplaincy Support Group.

The Church of England Chaplain at Imperial College, Andrew Willson, talks about Higher Education Chaplaincy and working with two Buddhist colleagues.
In the Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre at Imperial we have four key areas to our work. The first is the multi-faith approach – using the Centre as a place where students of different faiths can practice their religion.
The second area is pastoral care. Sometimes this relates to a person’s religious life, but often it does not. The third area is interfaith – promoting better understanding and co-operation between people from different religious groups. The fourth area is offering opportunities to reflect on meanings and values arising from studies or work. For example, supporting medical ethics teaching, facilitating staff and students to share together their motivations and inspiration as civil engineers, or reflecting with animal care technicians about the stresses of their work in bio-medical research. In reality these four key areas all overlap!
For me, working with chaplains from religions different to my own has been the best way to do chaplaincy in education. Collaborative work between Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Christian and Muslim colleagues demonstrates our commitment to interfaith co-operation and dialogue in our own lives.
For the last 6 years at Imperial we have used our budget to employ part-time chaplains who have a generic role serving anyone who comes to the Chaplaincy, as well as those from their own faith tradition. We have had Hindu and Lutheran chaplains, who have supported Chaplaincy in the four key areas. A year ago we invited Karuna Priya, our volunteer Buddhist Chaplain, take on a paid role as a generic chaplain in this way, as well as continuing to support the Buddhist communities at Imperial.
Sixteen months ago Hogetsu Baerndal came from ‘Kalyana Mitra’ for a voluntary placement to learn about HE Chaplaincy. My Lutheran colleague, Rikke Juul, and I were already running a non-religious mindfulness group. When she returned to Denmark we were able to employ Hogetsu for one day a week to lead our mindfulness work. As a trained Zen Mindfulness teacher, Hogetsu strengthened our mindfulness programme. Given the great interest in mindfulness in Higher Education we are in a good position. Together we offer a mindfulness programme that includes introductory sessions, workshops, and a weekly group. We also offer Buddhist and Christian meditation. I sense that staff and students like seeing people from different religions working together. It demonstrates that both sides respect each other, and that creates a safe, respectful space for others to enter.
Working closely with my Buddhist colleagues has energised my own Christian meditation practice. It has sent me back to the sources of my own contemplative tradition, especially to read those Christians who have a deep understanding of Buddhism, like Thomas Merton, Anthony De Mello, and James Finlay. Buddhism has helped me see the integration of mind, body and spirit that is deep in the tradition of Christian prayer and meditation. And that only deepens my understanding of Jesus and his teaching.


Multi… and Inter…Faith (Our new home at No 11)



It’s taken a while, but here are some photos of the Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre in our grand new home – 11 Princes Gardens.

In September we moved into five rooms on the ground floor ( just in case the photo suggests we occupy all five floors!)

It is great to have one place to offer hospitality to  a multi-plicity of groups from different faith and world views. It is also good to see signs of inter – faith collaboration and working together. Such as, the student led ‘Seeker’s Corner’, a  weekly interfaith discussion group.

It is proving very popular with student groups, for prayer, meditation, talks, music, discussions and social events.

We are delighted to be welcoming  Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh student groups. We are especially pleased that the Community Action Group are using the kitchen to prepare for  their Sunday Soup Run working with local people who are homeless.

It was also good to welcome the Erasmus Society – supporting European exchange students – for a large social gathering.

And with our Meditation and Prayer Room, and the beautiful Garden Room, we now have great spaces for our  meditation groups – Buddhist, secular Mindfulness, and Christian.






‘Into a future unknown’ the Conference of European University Chaplains

Here is my first post about last week’s great conference in Sigtuna, Sweden.

This is just a quick overview of key note speakers. I want to come back to some of these themes in more detail in future posts. But this will give you a sense of what European university chaplains were thinking about.

Image of woman giving at talk - behind her is a projected image of a masked member of the English Defence League burning verses from the Koran.

This image is from the impressive presentation by Lisa Bjurwald, a Swedish journalist, who investigates European racist groups and extreme right wing parties. Highly relevant to UK news this week which was discussing the activities of the English Defence League seen here.

Mattias Gardell is a professor at Uppsala specialising in religious extremism and religious racism and was an expert witness at the trial of Anders Behring Brevik. Gardell looked at the connections between attacks on women’s rights and attacks on Islam.

Ulrika Svalfors, also from Uppsala University, argued for a practice of spiritual leadership that could value diversity rather than retreating into religious conservatism. I enjoyed her review of feminist and ‘indecent theology’.

Jesper Svartvik –  professor of Jewish-Christian relations and Biblical studies in Lund and Jerusalem –  addressed the need for Churches to respond positively to same-sex marriage. He argued that the Biblical texts often quoted by Christians opposed to same-sex marriage refer instead to abuse of hospitality or sexual violence. Other key terms in the debate are either obscure in meaning or do not correspond with our current understandings of sexuality.

Alongside these serious talks about the ‘future unknown’ in Europe there were many workshops on spirituality, education as transformation, and different ways to do chaplaincy. We also meet the Archbishop of Uppsala, attended a Rainbow Gospel Mass, went on a pilgrimage walk, did the usual sharing of food and drink from our own cultures, had a Swedish Midsummer party and, of course, the Abba-Sing-A-Long-Night (with fermented pickled herrings for that essential Swedish Marmite moment). open tin of Swedish fermented herrings, lovely!

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

Farewell my friends:part 1

 This week we held a leaving party for my Catholic colleague, Miguel Desjardins. We have worked together for the last two years and it has been a pleasure. He has introduced me to his religious community, the Chemin Neuf. It was with them that I spent a week on a silent retreat back in May – see earlier post.

I am grateful for many things but especially through Miguel of getting to know a community that crosses many of the boundaries of the different Christian traditions – Catholic and genuinely open to other Christians; Ignatian and so deeply centred in The Word in ways that surprise those who live in the Protestant traditions; sacramental and just a little charismatic; inspired by historic  monastic tradition and offering a community for clergy, professed religious sisters and brothers, single women and men, and married couples.

So, for all the easy co-ooperation, for sharing in the weeks of guided prayer, the talks and presentations, the services for the week of prayer for Christian Unity – and for the taste of Burgundy wines –  many thanks.

Best wishes for parish life in Paris!

Can I come and have a chat? : conversations people want to have with the Chaplain

Here is an article that I wrote this term for Felix, the student weekly newspaper at Imperial. It is longer than the usual post but aims to give an introduction to Chaplaincy for those new to the University. Conversation is a good theme for understanding what a Chaplain does.

‘Chaplaincy is really about conversation’ is the way a student once put it. Chaplaincy is a faith based welfare service for students. We seek to provide hospitality, support, reflection and dialogue around belief, religion, faith and spirituality. What that actually means is different types of ‘conversations’

Some conversations are quite straightforward. These are responses to clear religious needs ‘I have just moved flat where is my nearest mosque/temple/church?’ or ‘I would like to find out more about my religion can I meet with the Faith Advisor?’ or ‘Are there prayer rooms I can use?’

To reflect the diversity of religious views held by members of Imperial the Chaplaincy has a team of Chaplains and Faith Advisors for a variety of world faiths, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. The Chaplaincy Centre has space for meetings and worship. We have quiet places in Beit Quad and Princes Gardens for meditation or prayer.


For those who want to explore a particular faith practice Chaplaincy provides opportunities for meditation from Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions.

Chaplaincy can also help with ‘conversations about meaning’. In an international academic community like Imperial there is a massive range of beliefs about the ‘big questions of life’. These include, among others, ‘Why we are here? What constitutes a person? Where do we find meaning? Do meanings have a lasting value? Why do bad things happen? and Is there a God/god? And if there is what does that mean?’

These questions are not just intellectual questions. Some of these questions relate to how we see and treat others. These influence our relationships, our professional ethics and our politics. The questions of purpose may influence how we see our work and career choices. And these apparently intellectual questions can have emotional dimensions about trust, hope, fear and desire.

The Chaplains have time for very open reflective conversations that allow us to do our thinking out loud. These conversations are confidential and respectful of the person’s worldview. Sometimes highly creative conversations occur because of great differences in religious and philosophical outlook. Rooted in our own traditions we offer space for open reflective conversation to anyone who wants to use it.

Increasingly Chaplaincy is involved in conversations between people from different religious traditions. This is about learning firsthand about other people’s beliefs and practice. It is also about becoming skilled at handling divergent and conflicting views. This kind of conversation is now trying to create new and positive engagement between religious and humanist perspectives. (See Rory Fenton’s Guardian Online Comment).

The other emerging conversation of our time is with those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. With students at the RCA we now have a non-religious meditation time. This uses simple methods of self awareness that allows people from different backgrounds to share silence and stillness (and is open to Imperial students).

Good conversation is one that can bring change and growth to both conversation partners. Conversations with students and colleagues from different religious and secular perspectives have shown me that my own faith is not about intellectual certainty but about deeper relationships of trust.

In the Chaplaincy we are open for conversation. So if you want to talk about Nietzsche and the death of God, or you want to try Indian cooking with our Hindu Chaplain, or walk a labyrinth, or try interfaith discussion, or talk about medical or engineering ethics, or sing carols, or talk about your anatomy classes, or if you have a really weird dream and want to change career, or to find new ways to pray, or talk about someone who has died, or if you want to find out about the religion of the person you have just fallen in love with, or…as I say, we are open to conversation.

For more information about Chaplaincy conversations and experiments in religion, spirituality and faith see