Zen Christianity – Zazen & Centering prayer

For the first in this series of posts which will begin to explain what I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’ – I want to start by looking at the practice of Zazen which sits at the heart of Zen. It is this practice which gives Zen its very identity, and sets it apart from other sects or schools of Buddhism.

It is this practice which means that Zen is not actually a religion, nor even a way confined to a particular religious group.Zazen literally means ‘seated meditation’ and refers to the core of the Zen way, the primacy of stillness meditation. Of course different Zen schools vary in their ways of teaching Zazen, but at its most basic, most fundamental, the practice is of sitting still and disengaging with conscious thought.

Meditation is a discipline common to a variety of religious traditions, and you will find practitioners of various kinds of meditation in all of the Abrahamic traditions, as well as the various streams running out of Hinduism and many others besides.

Fr Thomas Keating

In relatively recent years the Zazen practice has been well incorporated in to Christianity by means of the Centering Prayer movement, developed by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating and others.

But while the popularity of Zazen may have spurred on the Centering Prayer movement, the practice itself is developed out of Medieval Christian practice as outlined in the spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. Indeed it is apparently true that Centering prayer was originally called ‘Contemplative Prayer according to the Cloud of Unknowing’ – not quite as catchy.

Put simply and in practical terms, Centering Prayer is a form of meditation which uses a ‘sacred word’ to still the mind. The word is repeated partly in order to simply help the mind keep from engaging in thought. If it is not needed, the word is put aside, but when thoughts begin to encroach again, the word is repeated again until it is no longer needed. I am not aware of many people who have no need of a word.

The difference then, between this and other forms of meditation is simple, a mantra or other form of concentrating meditation seeks to fill the mind, to exclude thoughts by focusing on one particular idea. A similar practice is used for those beginning or learning Zazen.

Centering Prayer is Zen like in its aim of stilling the mind, of disengaging with thoughts altogether, the focus is simply upon gently repeating the word.

When thoughts come, as they continue to do, you simply do not engage. No matter how worthy the thought, your meditation time is not the time for that thought, it is time for meditation.

There are a number of ways that we engage with thoughts, and they basically fall into three categories. You can retain thoughts. Alternatively you can resist thoughts. And very often you can resent thoughts. All of these happen very naturally – but with Centering Prayer the idea is to do none of them.

Retain no thought – so don’t enter in to it. Resist no thought, do not try and rid your mind of anything which enters it, and resent no thought, don’t bother wasting your time getting cross about a thought which has entered your head unbidden.

By simply repeating a sacred word, you have the opportunity to do none of these things.

So much for the fundamental practice, but what is the point of this kind of meditation?

With Zazen one is essentially aiming to achieve a realisation of a greater reality, which exists beyond thought. With Centering Prayer the same is basically true – the difference is primarily how as individual practitioners we understand that reality.

For my own practice, I take as a starting point the idea that there is an ultimate ‘divine reality’ underlying all things, which is most essentially Love. I appreciate this is not a given, but it is an element of faith on my part. I believe it wholeheartedly (and sometimes doubt it almost as sincerely) and it is that which  serves as a foundation for my understanding of the universe and the human condition. I further believe or understand that this divine reality, this ultimate love, which we may know as God, is there to be engaged with. It is there to be loved, and to love. But I acknowledge that as soon as I begin to use words, images or concepts,then my expression of love, and my understanding of God is immediately limited. That is not to say a limited engagement is not to be wished for, but I would rather see it as a way marker than a destination.

Chapter three of The Cloud of Unknowing begins like this: “This is what you are to do. Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.” It goes on to explain the method of using one word, or one syllable to express this love. This explains the basis of Centering prayer: to express love for, and live in the love of, God without limiting that by imposing words upon it.

Meister Eckhart taught that ‘God is a word, a word unspoken’. By this he meant that while God is ultimately or eventually knowable – God cannot be known fully by any word or concept which we can yet humanly articulate.

By engaging in a Centering Prayer type meditation, we draw closer to the point where we can engage with the unspoken nature of the word that is God. We set aside for a time our human understanding with all of its inadequacy, and go towards the light of love.

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Contemplation or activism?

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik has taught us quite a lot, including that meditation can be used for bad purposes.

Breivik testified that he used a combination of prayer and Bushido (Zen/Samurai) meditation to numb his mind to the fear of death, and presumably also the horror of taking life too.

His is a peculiar case, but by no means unique.

Breivik’s mistakes were manifold and terrible, but one of them was to convince himself that what was needed was action, and then to carry it out. Obviously his decision had terrible consequences.

On a smaller scale, activism always has problems. Activists are convinced that action must be taken, and then busily take it. This translates into all spheres of life, work, family, spirituality etc etc. And sometimes of course its right, the action is vital. The man who calmly watches his toddler stumble off a cliff can hardly be commended for his contemplative attitude.

But at the same time, we modern westerners have become somewhat over reliant on activism as a way of life – it is what gives us status and meaning in our culture.

We need to remember what the writer Henri Nouwen described as ‘the only necessary thing’ an attitude of spiritual contemplation. Nouwen takes his inspiration from the almost too good to be totally true story of Mary and Martha, the one sister, Mary, sits at the feet of her teacher, while the other, Martha, bustles around preparing food and washing the dishes. When Martha complains that her sister is not helping her, the guru explains that Mary has chosen to do the ‘one thing [that] is needed.’

Similarly the betrayal of Jesus is precipitated by a man whose name suggests that he might once have been a member of a knife wielding bunch of Jewish rebels, determined to drive the Romans from their land. When he felt Jesus wasn’t getting the job done, Judas Iscariot decided to tip his hand, with devastating results.

And there are many other examples of those who have chosen an activist path, over a contemplative one, to their detriment. They, we, fail to recall that the ‘only necessary thing’ is not to try and tip the hand of the divine, but to be in his presence.

As Julian of Norwich noted, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’

Answer 2 questions, and help me write 1 book

I’ve a plan – and I need your help with it.

For a while I’ve been talking about writing a book about Christian meditation, in fact I’ve already written some of it, and sent stuff off for publishers to have a look at.

But although lots of you have been interested in the idea of the book, which really comes out of some of the meditation workshops I’ve been doing over the last couple of years, and stuff prior to that too I suppose, I haven’t managed to convince any publishers to take a punt on it. I guess it is a bit of a niche publication.

So, given that I still want to produce the book, I’d like to enlist your help.

I have two potential routes to follow – 1) Publish it as an ebook – or series of mini ebooks. 2) Self publish as a ‘real book’ through crowd sourced funding.

Question 1)  Would you prefer to buy an ebook, or an ‘actual’ book?

Question 2)  If you would prefer an ‘actual’ book, would you be willing to buy your copy(ies) in advance?

Oh – you want to know more about the book? Ok – here’s a basic synopsis:

Deeper Still (working title) provides a much needed guide to a range of meditation practises found within the Christian traditions, and explains how to use different meditation techniques.

The book unpacks some of the background philosophy to these ‘types’ of meditation, and provides scripts and ideas for guided meditations, and inspiration for those who prefer something less formal.

It is a great companion for anyone interested in exploring Christian meditation, or deepening their current practise. It is based upon the idea that one size doesn’t fit all, but one size fits you.

So, if  your still interested, and your answer to question 2 is ‘yes’  I think I’d be up for attempting to get crowd funding for a publication. It would work thus: I work out the cost of producing the book, and when enough people have committed to advance purchase or donation towards the project, we get it printed up.

Either way, whether we go for a ‘real book’ or an ebook,  the fun thing about this project for me, is that I can see potential for others to have input into the creation of it – in terms of helping shape the content a bit (tell me what you want chapters on, etc etc), helping with the editing process, creating/choosing the cover image, choosing the title and so on.

The crowd sourced funding thing has worked well for numerous well known musicians, who have released albums by raising the funds in the same way. There are lots of crowd funding sites which allow you to do this with relevant security in place.

So, please let others know if you think they’d be interested, and hit me up with comments, FB comments, tweets, DM’s, email, or whatever suits you – to let me know your opinion.

And yes, thanks for asking – my other book is still available in paper and electronic format, from places like Amazon and Eden, you can read a little bit more about it here .

The three R’s of stillness meditation

I’ve a bit of a stressful day ahead of me, so trying to meditate this morning was difficult – thoughts kept coming to my mind. This is not an uncommon experience for anyone who tries to meditate, at least, not if they are like me.

That’s why its important to learn the three R’s of stillness meditation.

Resist no thought

Retain no thought

Resent no thought

To resist a thought, is to engage in a new layer of thought, rather what you need to do is return to your word or phrase – if you are using a word or phrase, or else just gently choose to ignore it. Allow yourself to flow round the thought, rather than try to wrestle it to the ground.

Equally important, is not retaining a thought. When you meditate, all kinds of marvelous ideas come to mind, ways of solving problems, spiritual insights, etc etc. Often these turn out to be not so marvelous as you first thought, but in any case, the good ones will come back to you. The important thing while meditating is not to hold on to these kind of thoughts, no matter how good they may seem.

And finally resent no thought – I know how easy it is to get fed up with ones own inability to meditate with clarity, but to build up resentment towards the fleet of thoughts which come sailing in is to cause yourself further difficulty. Choose to accept your weakness, rather than resent it, then choose not to hold on to any of the feelings which arise – after all, what they are is another form of thought.

 

meditation – made easy

It’s a snappy title, but in fact you don’t need to make meditation easy. It already is easy.

I sometimes run classes and workshops on different forms of meditation and one of the things I always try to get across, is that the most important thing about meditating is just doing it.

Just sitting down, being still, in an attitude of being there to meditate, that is the key thing.

It’s not the ‘results’ such as they are – not the lowering of blood pressure, ecstatic spiritual experiences, or stress busting, but the attitude that is important.

Meditation, when you boil it down, is a very simple process.

I teach three different types or ‘forms’ of meditation, a visual form, a form of ‘sacred reading’ and a repeated phrase form.  The reason I teach this range is that I find different people respond differently to each one.

Some very visual people react very strongly to a visualisation exercise, and for them it is a very natural process. They can readily engage the ‘visual muscles’ in their brain, and enter into an exercise which uses the imagination very easily.

Others really respond to a meditative reading – some traditions call this ‘Lectio Divina’ – and it is primarily practised using a Bible text, although it doesn’t need to be.

Still others, me included, find the most natural process to be a repeated phrase form of meditation. To me, this is the process which comes most naturally, and most easily allows me to sit in meditative stillness for some time.

But besides these three, all of which are found in different forms in the Christian traditions, there are many other ways of meditating. I often say that ‘there is no ‘one size fits all, but one size fits you’.

The key, in my opinion, is (initially at least) to find a way of meditating which suits your personality. I would expect as someone progresses in meditation, that they may gravitate to ever more still and silent kinds of meditation. But in the first place, I think there is a lot to be gained from just sitting still and learning to meditate in a way which suits you.

Meditation needn’t be difficult – begin at a place which works with, rather than against your brain, and learn to adopt the habits of a meditator, taking the time to sit and be still really is the most important part of the whole process.

The need for silence

“If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent Him to us as He is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness. Since nothing that can be heard is God, to find Him we must enter into silence.

“Since God cannot be imagined, anything our imagination tells us about Him is ultimately a lie and therefore we cannot know Him as He really is unless we pass beyond everything that can be imagined and enter into an obscurity without images and without the likeness of any living thing.”

Thomas Merton; Seeds of Contemplation (Burns and Oates, 1957) p 44.