Spirituality: a useful and inclusive definition

Thames at night (3)

I often hear the distinction made about being spiritual but not religious. However, spirituality is hard to define.

I came across a useful working definition of spirituality by Simon Robinson;
‘Awareness and appreciation of the other (including the self, other person, group, environment or deity)
Capacity to respond to the other
The development of significant life meaning based upon these relationships’

This kind of meaning, Robinson argues, includes ‘the development of faith and hope, both in a generic sense, life purpose and reconciliation.’

This rings true for me when I think of the many conversations with students and staff who are reflecting on their growing understanding of how they relate to the full range of their own experiences, how they relate to others, and how they are making sense of God, nature, or the cosmos (for this definition the ultimate ‘Other’ does not have to be God).

Religion, Robinson argues, involves ‘a particular, systematic practice of spirituality, with shared doctrine which focuses on the Divine’. The difference is having ‘shared doctrine’. Of course, ‘doctrine’ can be secular as well as religious.

Simon Robinson is Professor of Applied and Professional Ethics at the Leeds Metropolitan University.

Robinson, S and Katulushi, C (eds.) (2005)Values in Higher Education. Leeds: Aureus & The University of Leeds.
Robinson, S. (2008) Spirituality, ethics and care. London: JKP.
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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.

Silence and/or Solitude?

My project ‘Seeking Silence in September’ has been inspired by writers who describe their own experiences of silence.

The first inspiration is Sarah Maitland’s great ‘Book of Silence’ from 2008. It was given great attention in the UK media and with amazing sales for a hard back was immediately reprinted .

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Maitland describes how over several years, and moving house twice, she found ways to greatly increase the silence in her life.  She describes a 6 week experiment living totally alone in a remote Scottish cottage. She compared her  experience with extreme accounts of isolation and silence recorded solo sailors and mountaineers.

She also explores the different types and textures of silence found in the desert tradition of Christianity, in the silence of forests, and in the fascination of romantic poets with the awesome silence of mountains.

At the end of my first week looking for the silence spaces in my own life I remember that for Maitland silence and solitude came to mean almost the same thing. By simplifying her sound environment – living alone in a remote rural place and not using TV, radio or anything that pinged or bleeped – she created a deeper and more embracing solitude.

In the heart of the city and with a life shared with many people there are always sounds. It is not silent.No surprise. But there are a great number of deeper moments of quietness that I had not noticed before. And there is more solitude – a kind of solitude in the midst of crowds and communication.

This focused for me the difference between my inner silence – those rare moments of calm, conscious self-awareness – and the noise or silence around me.

So, if you are interested in silence – from any tradition or practice – I welcome your thoughts on the following questions.

How can we keep an inner silence with noise all around?

Can we have an inner silence and still be fully communicating?

When does being alone turn into silent solitude?

Seeking Silence in September

This month I want to listen out for the everyday silences in my life.

I want to see where I can find the silences that already exist. I am not going to be extra silent or give up talking or seeing people. It is about seeking what is already here but overlooked (or rather unheard!).Freshers Fair CrowdSeptember is a great month for me to seek ‘everyday silence’. It is not going to be a quiet month. In two weeks the Chaplaincy Centre is moving to a new site in College – so I have meetings with the project manager, the contractor, and the removers.  The university is gearing up for the new academic year and so  I will also be doing the annual rounds of ‘welcome’ talks to new students.

My life seems to have little space for silence. I live in the center of a huge city full of noise and activity. Talking and sharing are vital to me and my partner, and our children.  I have job that is about communication and conversation. So, while affirming all of these good things, can I start to notice the silence around me?

Are there any times of silence that I have not noticed before?

Is there any silence, or just moments with less noise?

What is the connection between inner personal silence and the noises or silences around me?

Does silence help with conversation and relationships?

I welcome comments about how and where you find silence in your life and what it means for you.

Posts and tweets (@awillson1) to follow.

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

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.