Silence in September: looking back

Today I had an unexpected gift of a free hour in the delightful RCA cafe down at the Battersea campus. A chance to finish my ‘Silence in September Blog Project’.DSC_0510(2)

Looking back over the month, the first ten days of Silence in September was like being on a retreat in daily life. Silence allows a greater personal awareness and an intention to actions. Together this gives ordinary everyday actions, like washing up or walking down the street, a particular quality. I might call it being ‘present to oneself’.

Then, as expected, the family party and weekend guests changed the routines of daily life for over a week. So the third week was an experience of ‘restarting my prayer and meditation life’. The silence was there as an invitation – not as something I had created myself.

Then the move of the Chaplaincy Centre to new premises, followed by the start of term, demanded a complete shift into action and doing mode. There was packing, unpacking, and a long list of practical issues to do with our new building. We were working to get the new Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre open to  welcome groups and individuals. At the same time doing all the start of year welcome events.

Amidst all this activity silence returned in a new form. It came from my new colleagues Karuna and Hogetsu. Both follow Buddhist meditation practices. From our different meditation (for me prayer) traditions we have a meeting place in silence. So began the habit of using ten minute silences during our working day. So, for me as a Christian, it feels like the monastic pattern of silence at the start of the day, at lunchtime and at the end of the working day. The daily tasks and irregular working patterns constantly disrupt the pattern – but that is OK, the silence is always there, always an invitation, always a gift. Silence is for life, not just September.

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Christian Spirituality and Mindfullness

For a  year I shared the the weekly silence at the Royal College of Art with Aloka my Buddhist colleague. This was back in 2010-11. Since then I have been struck by the connections and differences between mindfulness and Christian meditation.

From the moment I first encountered mindfulness meditation practice I had a strong sense that  ‘this is familiar, I know this!’

Something similar to Mindfulness to be found in the ‘Centering Prayer’ of  John Main and the ‘World Community for Christian Meditation’Copy of DSCN4275 of Laurence Freeman. Both of these teachers were building on their monastic patterns of prayer. And there is also something in mindfulness of what Christians have called the ‘practice of the presence of God’ or sometimes ‘the practice of the present moment’.

Another connection is around ‘self-acceptance’. In Mindfulness we know that our minds will wander. The leader of the meditation often says that when we realise that our mind has wandered we could ‘simply and gently without any self -judgement return our attention back to observing our  breathing’. This learning of self-acceptance is also part of the Christian tradition of Ignatius and his daily review.

So, there is a long tradition in Christian meditative prayer that knowing oneself is a place of encounter with God – God meets us where we actually are. Clearly the belief frameworks that go with Mindfulness or Christian meditation are different. Yet, some of the actually experiences are very similar.

The other connection I can see is with Anthony De Mello’s  ‘Awareness’  – a book that came out in 1990. De Mello was a  Christian and a Jesuit priest from India who was very familiar with Hinduism and Buddhism. He was also a psychotherapist.

And now  my Buddhist and Hindu colleagues – Karuna and Sachi- tell me that Mindfulness and Awareness are both acceptable translations of the Sanskrit word ‘smriti’.

Which leads me to the Christian tradition of the ‘Prayer of the heart’ – which is certainly an invitation to move attention or ‘awareness’ from the mind into the body. But more on this, and Henri Nouwen’s writing about it, another time.

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

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.

Exploring new ways to meditate: a week of guided prayer

Prayer and meditation is a key element of life in the Chaplaincy. Each week we have five different Christian groups meeting in the Centre. The prayer room is also used by students from the Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu, and Muslim Societies for group or individual prayer.

For Christian students we have just held a week of guided prayer. This is run ecumenically with my Catholic Chaplaincy colleagues from the Chemin-neuf and prayer guides who are lay members of Anglican churches.

Nineteen students signed up as pilgrims  and a few others joined as we went along. The pilgrims meet for 30 minutes each day with a prayer guide. The guide listens to the pilgrim and suggests ways to meditate or pray from a wide range of resources. The key elements are finding a way to pray that fits into daily life, that integrates with our individual needs and preferences.

The Christian faith has vaste, and not very  widely known,  resources for meditation and contemplative prayer. What I especially like is that meditative or contemplative  prayer can take our actually lived experiences seriously. Many people on the week seemed to find ways to read Scripture meditatively. This allows us to be questioned by the texts and to be open to the images and feelings of the passage. This is important because so many expressions of Christianity remain  just  ‘in the head’ – people doing rational thinking about religious ideas. At least in this way of meditation there is space for our emotions, our dreams and desires, our bodies as well as our minds. More posts on slow meditative reading, silence, stillness and Ignatian prayer to come I think.

Sound of silence

Silent MetronomesSilent RCA began back in 2009 and grew out conversations with several students from different world views about the place of silence in our lives. One of these conversations about silence was with Josphine Winther from Jewellery. 

 Together we started to meet for 15 minutes of silence each week inviting others to join us. She has recently sent me a link to her work on silence  including her piece from the RCA Show 2010.

Initially Josephine explored the idea of having a sound proof room in the show to give people a taste of silence. However, the slowed down and silent metronomes lured visitors into a deep attentive listening and a special kind of silence in noisy chaos of the Show. We found ourselves leaning in towards the metronomes listening for and waiting for the metronomes to tick. But of course they never did and we keep on listening. Silence and stillness in the midst all the noise and activity of a busy gallery.

 Here’s a video of the the Silent Metronomes on her website.