Second Week of Advent:

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Last week we looked at Advent as an illumination of desire. Human beings, who are creatures of desire, experience growth in self-transcendence and through the transformation of desire – what we want and how we pursue it. Eventually, we see that we do not want only what we like but we want the happiness of others. In that self-recognition we expand into the kingdom, free form the self-centred orbit of our self-made suffering. The catalyst for this transformation is to discover progressively that we are desired by a love beyond our wildest fantasies.

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Advent is a time to sense how this desire beyond the event horizon of our imagination is hurtling towards us in all the sweet majesty of its stillness. All of this is poetry until we meditate. Then it becomes ‘experience’ – but beyond all that we normally think of as experience. The early Christian thinkers who drew the ground-plan of this theology changed our anthropology in the process. The way we understand God changes the way we feel about ourselves. St Gregory Nazianzen, for example, wrote in the 4th century that in Jesus the Word of God comes to its own image in the human, ‘to unite himself to an intelligent soul.. to purify like by like’. This insight helps us imagine this core mystery of Christian faith from the inside as well as an external event.

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God forms into the human even beyond the event horizon of the cosmos. But that horizon is equally present in the deepest and brightest mystery of the human soul. Thus we can speak of the two births of the Word – in God eternally and in my time-bound soul. And it comes in three waves, in the great Beginning of all things, in Bethlehem on some unknown date and at the unpredictable end of time. The trick of our Advent this year of the Lord 2016 is to relate all this to Black Friday hysteria, to tinsel and sentimentality and to Christmas trees in public squares – or rather sharply to distinguish them.

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This coming of God into the human, from beyond and from within, is the great revolution of human intelligence. Once we have started to consider it we are never the same. It redefines power and weakness, richness and poverty, time and eternity. In other words, the Word made flesh explodes the fission bomb of the paradox of reality. It will never allow us again the cheap indulgence of dualistic answers. We have been plunged into the reality that is deeper than the atom.

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We are drawn to this almost in the same measure as we dread it. But in this advent – and our meeting with what comes towards us we discover the joy of being, the freedom to love and the supreme delight of sharing in the life of the source of our selves.

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In Amazonia there is a stretch where the two great rivers of the Amazon and Rio Negro meet. Their confluence is dramatic, the black river and the sandy-coloured river. For six kilometres they run side by side without mixing because of the differences in temperature and flow speed. But eventually they recognise each other as water and become one.

First Week of Advent 2016: We are creatures of desire

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We have been waiting for Advent for most of the year. (The Word was made flesh on March 25th, on the Feast of the Annunciation). But, like a seed silently growing in the ground day and night, its silence begins to be audible in the four weeks of Advent. If we can listen to the rising volume of the silence of the Incarnation during this season of heightened expectancy, we will be better set to celebrate Christmas as it is expects to be celebrated.

The nativity into our world of sense of the divine human and the human God is endlessly mysterious – and so it is easily lost in the yuletide razzmatazz. It reveals and conceals simultaneously. In Advent we begin to sense how God must be both very daring and very shy.

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As Advent is folded in four, let’s take the experience of waiting in that number of stages. The first is the dull awareness that there is something to wait for. This is felt rather than thought. The feeling of waiting however sharpens awareness and awakens us to our selves. It’s funny that we should first be awakened by longing, by the pain of not having what we long for and which we can’t even properly name. But Homo Sapiens is naturally discontented and ever hungry for more. Our satisfactions are wonderful but don’t last long. Fulfilling one desire soon shows us that it hasn’t concluded the sense of incompleteness that possesses our ever changeable selves. Before the froth of one wave of success hits the beach another is building up behind it. We are creatures of desire. So, we instinctively and fatally interpret each moment as painful or pleasing.

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As we see this, we mature and become better at raising the young. It makes us tender and compassionate to them. We are touched and amused at how ecstatic they are when their intense but still simple hopes are fulfilled. But it also makes us aware both of how we should help to shape their desires and of how we must keep our promises. Through this awareness created by growth we learn to be other-centred (some of the time). We see the provocative wisdom of putting the happiness of others on the same plane as our own. Children exemplify this for us. Not surprisingly then, when the wisdom of God comes in human packaging He comes as a child. We have to look after Him. Bow to Him. Tend to Him, change His nappies, comfort His crying. The gift we have been waiting for fulfils our desire to the degree that it turns our attention off ourselves.

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I have seen some very self-centred and anguished adults, tormented by the disappointments of their long waiting, transformed by a newborn child, lifted into a kind of happiness they could never achieve by fulfilling their desires.

Humanity too has been waiting, since it was first awakened by its its enslavement to desire. We have been waiting for God to burst through our images and desires projected onto our self-made gods. God takes us by surprise. He arrives as a helpless baby that we have to suckle and protect so that it can survive and grow. We parent God. But the growth that follows becomes wondrous as it was for Mary and Joseph. Our so called ‘spiritual journey’.

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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In contemplation God is born in us, how we don’t know, but at some point we feel the pangs of birth and rising wonder replaces the cycle of desire. Advent makes sense because growth means life revealing and unfolding on new levels of experience and meaning. Daily business, dealing with things, planning for contingencies, taking breaks to escape the drudgery is all one level. It is the literal level where success and failure are what they seem because they are labelled this by others. But another level manifests where all these judgements and activities also appear symbolic, reflecting another dimension of reality, expressing a new way of being, a fresh self-awareness propelling us from a tortured world of judgement and dissatisfaction into a realm filled with the wonder of the exchanging of gifts and real, not sentimental, innocence.

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The build-up to this is patience, the contemplative art of waiting. We have lost this art of practical wisdom in the modern world but meditation restores it. A contemplative Advent will re-enchant Christmas for us, sparing us from the tedium of its crude consumerism.

We become patiently aware of what we waiting for as it hurtles towards us through the interstellar spaces, homed in on us, eager for us, desiring us, transforming what and how we desire as we become more acutely aware of it.

Emily Dickinson wondered:

How News must feel when travelling
If News have any Heart
Alighting at the Dwelling
‘Twill enter like a Dart

We are humble creatures of desire. So, we merely repeat the cycle of pain and pleasure until we understand that we are also desired. What we truly long for, the love that creates us, has already targeted us. That is why we long for it. It is what we long for because God longs for us.

After the Election

children_01The immediate post-election comments by the President, the President-elect and the defeated candidate were more gracious and civilised than anything during the campaign over the past eighteen months. This campaign reflected such an obscene breakdown of civility that it was hard to believe it was happening. It seemed surreal – worse and more frightening than the hypocrisy and evasiveness we have sadly come to associate with much of the political class. It has done lasting damage to a civilised approach to politics anywhere, even in a world where we see ethnic cleansing, the bombing of hospitals, the uncontested invasion of sovereign states, the callous closing of borders to refugees.

The US election highlighted what is happening politically in many other places: the polarising of global and national identities. Nationalism is a mounting force that rejects the challenges of the newborn sense of global citizenship. As history shows, nationalism begins with the euphoria of false hope and ends in mutual destruction.

Is there a contemplative response to this? There is. But it is not sectarian or ideological. The contemplative response is conscious of the common ground. It builds communities of faith in this ground among people of widely different beliefs.

This collective vision of the human community can only happen politically in the most civilised societies.  But it happens between friends and groups of friends who quietly restore an uncivilised society to humane values. Their experience of the truthfulness of silence helps them trust each other with their differences. Those differences can be respected without violence or divisiveness.

Societies lacking the root system of such contemplative networks, nourished by silence, must face an erosion of civilised values because contemplation is the foundation of civilisation.

I recently spent time in Venezuela, a society in severe distress. But I was inspired to see that our community there is even more deeply and compassionately committed to the practice and teaching of meditation, particularly to the young. It is also creating civilised forums for open dialogue. They prove that a contemplative response to crisis does really exist. The World Community is privileged to have such members.

I feel sure that the WCCM USA will respond in the same way to their post-election situation where such deep divisions and turbulence have been exposed. You will be an example to others of the real American dream, which is the greatness you show in resolving difference.

I am not preaching to you but reminding you of what, as contemplatives in the world, you know already. As a fellow-meditator I know you do not see meditation merely as a refuge. We see it rather as a way of facing the painful facts of our world with faith, hope and love, thereby making the world more civilised – simply by the way you live and tell the truth. We are never more truthful than in the silence of meditation which affects all our ways of communication and action.

This involves curbing our feelings of triumph or defeat with the emotional perspective that meditation brings. It involves trying to see reality through the eyes of others even when their view seems to contradict ours, the essence of redemptive dialogue. It brings hope where there is fear. Good, not cruel, humour where there is hatred.  Truth where there is dissimulation.

It involves loving our enemies even when we feel like humiliating or deleting them, patronising them, giving them false signs of peace, taking revenge for their past deeds or punishing them. We turn the other cheek at first interiorly, not as an excuse not to fight for truth but to ensure that, when we do fight for it, we do so without violence or hatred.

To love means to pay attention. If our meditation only makes us mindful but doesn’t enable us to pay other-centred, loving attention to those we would prefer to ignore, what does meditation mean? It is wondrous how naturally our actions towards others are regulated simply by paying attention to them. Such attention begins as pure prayer, which dismantles the thick filters of prejudice and caricature that obscure the real identity of others.

What can contemplatives, who are defined firstly by their commitment to being, actually do? They can meditate and be more than ever faithful to balancing each day on the twin pillars of silence, stillness and radical simplicity. They can meditate together in weekly groups and begin new groups especially where the wounds of division are most open.

You can also plan to come next August to the John Main Seminar in Houston where a world authority on the Christian mystical tradition will be leading us into a deeper relationship with one of our most precious sources of wisdom in a chaotic world. We need to know in what a powerful tradition we meditate.

This is our contemplative approach. Although it is not a political force, it does help to dissolve the violence of political polemics at root. I can also assure you – and it is reassuring I think to know this when we so often despair of our leaders – that in our community, and beyond, there are eminent leaders who build their lives on daily meditation. They are not power-hungry individuals but genuinely driven to use their influence and talents to make a more humane  and civilised world.

Leaders or led, in a contemplative community all are equal because all see each other in the greater oneness. We all need each other and we need to share our needs. This is the meaning of the new global consciousness. We all give support to each other especially to those who are least supported. We all walk on the common ground that, to the eyes of faith, is the consciousness where I see you in myself and myself in you.

Never before in America or elsewhere, have we needed this contemplative mind more urgently. It is not in the end about politics and elections. But it  will define the kind of politics that shape the world we make for ourselves and leave to our children.

Queen Mary’s lifeboat

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This dilapidated lifeboat on the Queen Mary reminded me of the tragic shortage of lifeboats on the Titanic that led to the loss of 1517 lives. In that disaster there were as many lives lost in the third class as in the first and second class put together. Wealth is an advantage when your ship is sinking as when you are getting bail in court. I wondered how soon those getting a place in a lifeboat would complain because, like this one, it wasn’t painted properly or comfortable enough.

The Titanic was launched with enormous hubris – ‘unsinkable’ they called it as it left for its maiden voyage. The Queen Mary was proud of herself, too, but in a more modest and less provocative way, During the war she served as a troop carrier. Eventually she ended in padded retirement as a hotel and tourist sight in California.

I also liked the conjunction in this photo of cloud and solid, of soaring skyscraper and a flaking life-saving boat. Reality combines both.

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Be Still and Know that I am God (Ps 46:10)

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This single verse from the Book of Psalms has inspired many contemplatives among the families of the biblical tradition. There is a well-known chant in Christian circles that begins with the whole verse and progressively shortens to the single word Be. It recalls the ‘still small voice’ or the ‘gentle breeze’ in the story of Elijah hiding in the desert and eventually finding God in stillness and silence rather than in storm and drama (1 Kings 19:12). This verse of Psalm 46 reveals the silent, often overlooked, dimension of contemplation at the heart of all religious traditions. Elijah hears, or experiences, an all-important question from God after the storm, fire and earthquake: What are you doing here? The key to the Be Still verse however is not in a question. God usually teaches by confronting us with questions rather than by giving answers. We prefer answers because they are easier and give us the feeling of being right. The meaning of this psalm verse, however, is in its own context.

It is worth pondering or, as the desert monks said of scripture ‘chewing over’. We can then discover why it links stillness with knowledge. This is surprising to the left hemisphere part of us because knowledge seems something we need to pursue and acquire and then use. You won’t pass an exam by sleeping with the text book under your pillow. Study or intentional activity – doing something in order to get a result – is how we usually get conscious knowledge. In this sense knowledge is power. If we have more of it than others we are stronger and we should also earn more with it.

If, however, the right hemisphere is not suppressed or ridiculed, as it often is, we will see that there is more than one kind of knowledge. There is also knowledge that comes from unknowing. It is different from the knowledge that we have to pursue, acquire and apply. There is also the non-dual knowledge that rises quietly in pure stillness. It comes precisely when we are not pursuing it, watching it or trying to quantify it.

Coming to this stillness sounds easy. But it is not like taking a weekend at a spa or having down time for an evening with NetFlix. It is certainly important to learn how to relax, especially because we suffer so much today from the complications of stress. Relaxation is a good by-product of the work of stillness – for which the rich Greek word is hesychia. Rest, quiet and silence also describe it. But relaxation, even when necessary for health, is not the first goal of contemplative stillness.

The context of this verse is war, violence and conflict:  

He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariots with fire.

The stillness invoked here is the power that arrests and overcomes violence. It breaks the instruments of war and destroys the weapons of destruction. The contemplative, armed with the knowledge of God that comes from true, full stillness is mightier than the intoxicated forces of war. Peace is not an escape from conflict or a denial of it. It is the energy that reconciles those in conflict. It is a ‘peace that transcends all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7).

The knowledge of God is not merely our knowledge of God – always limited by our egocentricity – but primarily God’s knowledge of us. This is always whole and opens new beginnings for us when we have messed things up.

Health, Spirituality and Culture

Los Angeles  County Department of Mental Health
15th Annual Mental Health & Spirituality Conference
Los Angeles, CA, 26th May 2016

The day is coming when the world will go mad. Then people will meet a sane person and will point to him and say ‘ he is mad, he is not like us. (from the Apothegmata of the Desert Fathers)

 

 

“Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self healing:
The utter self-revealing,
Double take of feeling.”
(from Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney)

 

Health, Spirituality and Culture

Our concern here today is the spiritual dimension of mental healthcare. This raises many questions. What is mental health? What does ‘spiritual’ mean? Is it relevant to connect them? To clarify my position I would say mental health is the condition in which we can accept the realities of life, integrate positive and negative experiences and discover the wonder of human being and the joys of love and of self-transcendence as the portal to ultimate meaning. Spiritual means the integrity and ultimately unlimited wholeness of human being that harmonises all its dimensions, emotional, physical, intellectual. It points always hopefully to the ‘something more’ that characterises human self-discovery.  The connection between them is not only relevant to our contemporary experience of diminishing mental health. It is unavoidable.

The understanding of health and of spirituality are of course culturally conditioned. Culture is intended to bring us together creatively to explore our diversity while reinforcing our unity and revealing the ultimately mysterious common ground on which we all stand – a ground that is still but not static and is moving us, all together, towards a common goal whose reality we can experience even now. But cultures can go wrong and become sick themselves. When this happens their understanding of health and spirituality needs to be challenged.

‘The day is coming when the world will go mad. Then people will meet a sane person and will point to him and say ‘ he is mad, he is not like us.’”(Apothegmata of the Desert Fathers)

Watching the news each day covering the runup to the primaries on the US Presidential  elections I wonder with many whether this day has not now come.

Symptoms

Perhaps the most prevalent and disturbing symptom of our cultural sickness of soul is loneliness and the sense of alienation from meaning. The phenomenon of loneliness and its relation to the terror of meaninglessness confronts every part of our developed world and all parts of our affluent societies, the haves and the have-nots, celebrities and the nameless, the powerful and the dependent. Today our culture distances us from others.  As our collective attention span shrinks and approaches that of a goldfish the degree of existential alienation intensifies and the point at which we will not even be aware of what we have lost in terms of basic human interaction rushes towards us.  An overwhelming characteristic of our modern culture is loneliness even while it purports to bring us closer together through social media and entertainment and the great false friend of  brand loyalty.

Loneliness produces the experience of hunger – for what we may not be quite sure but we attempt to satisfy it more and more desperately. Loneliness is a hunger. It gnaws at our entrails, obsesses us, tyrannises us and eventually drives us out of our minds. This leads to an ever more crazy chaos of activity and distraction. We invent amazing resources like the internet and immediately they spawn the bastardised versions of itself – second life, pornography, racist and hate-mongering sites – which exacerbate the pain and confusion of loneliness. We develop television that has the power to bring socially unifying influences and ideas into our private spaces and we use it for commercial profit, dumbing down the intelligence, replacing public discourse, for which it has such potential, with propaganda and brand advertising. We inherit huge collective wealth that make our lives easier to live and longer and set us free from the dangers and inconveniences of our forebears – our public services like roads and clean water supply, educational opportunities, travel and cultural exchange, global banking – and we squander them like spoiled children who never had to work for a living and create an economy of debt on the shaky foundations of shameful inequalities.

“The world has gone mad.”

Madness is not difficult to recognise. It is irrational, self-fixated, narcissistic, lacking in compassion, destructive and ultimately self-negating. But what is sanity? Etymologically it means ‘health’. A healthy mind in a healthy body. But what happens to medicine and the healing arts when the very understanding of health has become sick? When health and the body itself has become ‘medicalised’? When the body has become medicalised, healthcare becomes a projection of our social economy driven by profit-motives, shamed by vastly unequal accessibility. The essential element of the personal relationship between patient and healer has been subordinated or distorted by the intrusion of expensive and dehumanising technology? The vocation of the healer has become commercialised.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- which the National Institute of Health condemns as subjective and misleading  – is widely accepted the infallible basis of the professional and insurance machinery of mental healthcare. (Homosexuality was removed from its list of mental illnesses as recently as 1973).

The Brain

Iain McGilchrist’s acclaimed ‘The Master and Its Emissary” summarises – with no soft reference to ‘spirituality’ – the research into the functionalities of the brain’s two hemispheres over the past twenty years. We can now understand better ‘how the world has gone mad’ as the monks of the fourth century predicted. While both hemispheres of the brain work together in all functions “there is a world of difference between them.”

The left hemisphere specialises in familiar experience and constructs models of reality which allow it to control and predict the world it pays attention to. However the right hemisphere – far from being the flaky part which the left hemisphere regards it as being, concerned with meditation, massage, music  and  messages from beyond – is actually the more directly and intimately in touch with the flow of events. It is present to reality in a way the left hemisphere cannot be.

Something serious has gone wrong when the balance of our attention has swung so decisively to the left hemisphere. This favours management consultants and ten-year strategists but the contemplative dimension of reality has been lost. Indeed reality has been traded for a model of reality.

As the philosopher William James understood – as one of the founders of modern psychology and author of “The varieties of Religious Experience” –  reality is where we place our attention. And we make the world we live in through the kind of attention we give to it. The two hemispheres work together but have very distinct and different kinds of attention. We lose the balance – as Martha, the patron saint of modern stress, in the story from St Luke’s gospel  illustrates – at our peril.

Abstraction and embodiment

The WHO defined health as

a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity

At first sight this sounds wonderful. In the same way the expression ‘God helps those who help themselves’ sounds  – at least to 70% of Americans – to be a biblical verse. In fact, when you unpack it, it tends to be dangerously unbiblical. The WHO definition is also dangerous because it is aspirational not descriptive. It is what we fantasise health might be like in a world without suffering and death and in which all our desires could be satisfied and all our potential realised. Who has ever except for short periods of time been healthy according to this definition?

Life is simply not like that. Part of the role of medicine is to alleviate suffering and whenever possible to cure. This aspect of medicine however has to be contextualised and related to other aspects of compassionate healthcare. If curing becomes the only goal we will end up killing patients with the tools we are using to make them ‘healthy’ – as we are doing by the hundreds of thousands.

Cure when you can but not at the expense of life itself. At some point in medical care the primary goal must shift from cure to healing. Curing is at best temporary. It focuses on symptoms.  Healing is essential and integral. It involves the whole person in an enlightened act of accepting reality and of living by the insights of wisdom. When the end is nigh the person facing the inevitability of dying can be helped, with their family and loved ones fully involved, to die healed.

Meaning

Meaning is the key factor in ‘quality of life’, especially in the last stages of life when time is short and priorities are dramatically highlighted. Meaning is connection and so meaning is part of the healing of loneliness. Connectedness with others and the ultimate mystery of life cannot happen without experiencing connection with one’s true self – the self-knowledge that all the spiritual wisdoms speak of. The desert fathers said that self-knowledge is a more important achievement than the ability to work miracles.

Those who have accepted and face the last stage of their life have a powerful lesson for us about what mental health means. When their physical pain is taken care of and when their sense of connection with others and themselves has been restored, when they experience meaning as connection, the great majority of the terminally ill will say that they have never enjoyed a better quality of life. What further evidence does one need that happiness and meaning do not depend upon external forces or the satisfaction of desires?

Meditation

All this, very unlike the abstracted WHO definition of health as the absence of suffering and death, is real and embodied. Contemplative practice has, as one of its first effects, the gift of making us feel and think in a more embodied way. It brings body and mind together in a harmony which is healthy and promotes healthy, balanced living.

Another story from the desert tradition of early monasticism has a message for us today. St Antony of the desert, the archetypal monk, renounced the world at a  young age. As his fame grew he withdrew deeper into solitude. Eventually, at the Jungian middle age of thirty-five, he walled himself up in a fort, asking his friends to provide him with bread and water. After twenty years they thought enough was enough and broke down the walls expecting to find him either dead or deranged. Instead he came towards them glowing with physical and mental health. His complexion was beautiful and he was neither too fat nor too thin. His only defect was that his teeth had been worn down by eating dry bread. Mentally he was clear and rational. He greeted them courteously and spoke calmly. For the rest of his long life he devoted himself to the healing of the sick, the comforting of the sorrowful and the reconciliation of the divided. What a wonderful parable of the personal and social benefits of contemplative practice.

Meditation is the most simple, universal and accessible form of contemplative practice. It is also available at no cost. The danger, having said that, is to reduce meditation to an instrument, which means it will easily become a product (with a price-tag) in a competitive market. A recent article in the British medical journal, The Lancet questions the de-contextualising of meditation from its wisdom tradition – the goals of wisdom and compassion – and reducing it to  immediate and more self-centred objectives. It also asks what, of real value in this field, can be extracted and measured.

People often speak today about ‘using meditation’ as a means to get this or get that. Now I hope I am not fanatical about this. Having taught meditation to MBA students I am quite prepared to see that one may start meditating for narrow and ego-centric motives and then discover that the new and indefinable experience it leads one to will change those motives radically – even as it may fulfil them. Nevertheless, the way in which meditation is taught does matter. It can be decisive in helping people to discover for themselves what the experience itself means.

There is experience and there is the meaning of the experience. A former US marine who I taught in an MBA class and who told me he did not have ‘ a religious bone in my body’ had nonetheless the discipline and motivation to meditate twice a day for the length of the course. It led him into an experience that he recognised as new, distinctive and desirable to continue. His wife told him he was easier to live with. He became more aware of his environment as he walked to the school each morning. His relationships with fellow students and colleagues improved noticeably. I asked him what he felt was the meaning of this experience and he looked at me blankly. I think he had never before seriously considered meaning in his life. After a wonderful two minutes of silence he said he didn’t know how to answer but that it was an interesting question and he would think about it.

Self-knowledge is the key to mental health. As it is also to spiritual growth. No spirituality that does not open a narrow path but an endless one into self-knowledge cannot be taken seriously for very long. Self-knowledge of this experiential and ineffable kind cannot be given or delivered or bought. It must be found, like treasure in a field or a pearl of great price.

I think the former marine student was confronted with an embodiment moment when I posed that question of meaning. Who knows how long it will take for the answer to form? But the very process of its formation is an experience of mental health and well-being. Abstraction, virtual reality, FaceBook friendships, credit card debt living, sawing off the environmental branch we are sitting on are all contributors to the madness we have begun to take for granted, even as normal. The remedy for this is a strong dose of pure reality. This does not come from pharmaceutical research or as medication but as personal, embodied practice, supported by others who understand it and are also learning it. Ideally this must begin where the problem of abstraction, fantasy-living and personal alienation and loneliness begins, in childhood.

Education for mental health

Children can meditate and like to. When it is introduced to them in the solidarity of the learning experience of the classroom, the benefits are quickly visible. Seventy percent of children thus initiated report choosing to meditate at other times on their own. The problem is not getting children to meditate but in getting the teachers and school systems to make it possible for them to meditate.

This may be surprising but it is also also a source of great hope. Most psychological imbalance and mental illness later in life has its first symptoms before the age of twelve. The more embedded the illness has become the more difficult and prolonged and uncertain is the treatment and the healing process. As we are in what many call an epidemic of mental illness, especially depression and addiction, it makes sense to have the first intervention happen as early as possible. Teaching meditation is a pure and simple intervention. It helps to deal with the problems before they become too embedded and intractably part of the character. The disembodiment of children as a result of our cultural madness is symptomatic in self-harming and eating disorders and suicide. It is not enough to treat the symptoms once they have begun to wreck young lives. There needs to be a confident and sane cultural interpretation that can recognise the cause of these patterns. There also needs to be a confident and clear early intervention, teaching meditation in the classroom (and at home) as early as possible. It is as natural as immunising children for smallpox or TB. This is cultural immunisation in a world that is suffering an epidemic.

Children are ideal candidates for meditation and respond to it so spontaneously.

Perhaps this is because they are also so embodied. They do not cerebralise meditation as people do later in life. Of course the abstraction process now begins early in childhood with the intrusion of addictive over-stimulating influences of technology. I don’t think children find meditation ‘easy’ and I guess that their over-activated imaginations present obstacles to them, as to their parents, in reaching a state of equanimity and joyful peace. But being still more simple than us, they can intuitively understand the benefits. One does not hear of children ‘struggling’ with meditation or finding the time for it in their busy lives. They do it happily, simply because it makes them feel healthier – in body and mind.

Wounded healers

Children should be the first priority in a spiritual approach to advancing mental health in the middle of an epidemic of mental illness. They are most easily introduced to the ‘self-healing’ that Seamus Heaney speaks about:

Call the miracle self healing

But their elders who unwittingly pass on the virus to them by their values and life-style present more complex challenges. Medication is at times necessary, useful and even essential. But it can also be prescribed irresponsibly and create more problems than it cures. The ‘discoverer’ of ADD has recently protested about how his work has been hijacked for profit by the pharmaceutical industry. Behind all this is the complex status of the medical economy, the desperate demands of patients ‘to give me something’, the culture of the quick fix from outside and the instrumentalisation of medical care.

The core issue here, however, is the mental health of the care-giver. What happens if those caring for the mentally ill themselves become seriously unbalance? For C.G. Jung the key element in the therapeutic relationship is the self-knowledge of the therapist. This enables her to handle projection and equips her with the wisdom and educated intuition to know when to act and when to wait. And how to do both.

If we are talking of a spiritually-enabled approach to mental healthcare we must also speak about the spirituality of the therapist. One cannot give what one doesn’t have. On planes the safety announcement often reminds passengers to put the oxygen mask on themselves first and then on the child or needy person next to them. It may seem selfish but it is the altruism of wisdom.

I will try to be practical about this issue. A therapist or psychiatrist dealing with the mental illness of others as a living on a stressful daily basis has to take certain precautions. This means building into their lives periods of meditation. These help to build a healthy detachment from the sufferings of others which have seeped into their own psyche. It builds the depth of self-knowledge, humility and patience from which they have to work on the living souls of their patients or clients. Establishing a personal meditation practice should be part of their years of training and this should be sustained as an element of their ongoing professional supervision.

Meditation is not, unfortunately, an instant cure. It does however activate the self-healing within the psyche and begin the process of re-connection that opens the experience of meaning and the sense of wonder that is part of self-knowledge in a healthy human mind. Meditation is not an instrument in the same way that medication or surgery is. However it has perceptible influence and it does not take long for these beneficial influence to be felt and valued. Nevertheless meditation does not solve our problems, at least as we would like them to be solved – by winning the lottery, going to see a doctor, falling in love or finding religion. If you are in debt before you meditate you will be in debt when the bell rings. But your way of understanding, coping and dealing with the problem will be profoundly changed by the time you spent laying aside your anxieties about it.

A word about Jesus: spirituality and religion

I once spent a day in dialogue with the Dalai Lama during which we each spoke respectively about what Jesus and the Buddha meant to us. I was moved by how different and yet how close we were in our attitudes to the founders of our two traditions.

I would like to address briefly this aspect of my personal experience because it is relevant, though perhaps not directly, to what I have been saying about the spiritual dimension of mental healthcare. I would also like to do so in order to confront the suspicion of religious affiliation that for many professionals, not only in healthcare, prevents them from taking advantage of the great free, human resources made available through the spiritual wisdom of these ancient religious traditions. The same suspicion that often leads to irrational prejudice and the rejection of all religious language or ideas.

For me, Christ is not defined by his ideas, his moral teaching or even by the witness of his life to the highest human truth. These aspects of the meaning of Christ – Jesus became the Christ when he became universal after the Resurrection – are certainly inspirational and necessary. But it is the person of Jesus who is Christ that is most important to me and the source of endless wonder and enrichment. Faith in Christ does not consist only in believing certain dogmatic assertions about him but about being in sustained relationship with this person who I discover to be in me, part of me, inseparable from me and at the same time totally uncontrolling, intervening perhaps but not interfering. He does not demand exclusivity, only mutual uniqueness, the basis of any full and fulfilling relationship. Being a disciple of such a teacher is a worthy way of living and making meaning of life. It has helped me to see the many facets of truth flashing around us continually from every source.

In the early days of Christianity the mystery of Christ was expressed in metaphors of healing not legalism. He was the ‘divine physician’ of the human condition, the ‘ever-healing word’, the ‘holy charmer of the sick soul’. He was seen as a healer not as a judge. How did this healing happen? Through association with the source of wholeness itself, through the medium of a healthy person and this connection and relationship is the meaning of the spiritual. All healing is a spiritual event.

I do not of course mean to say this is the only way to understand the meaning of the spiritual dimension of mental healthcare. Buddhism and indeed every religious tradition will have its contribution to make to the attempt to express what experience makes clear: that the source of healing is within ourselves and touching this source through self-knowledge transforms the psychological mechanisms and behavioural patterns that are visible in our external lives.

The psychiatrist or therapist should obviously keep a healthy distance from religious language in their professional work. But this distance should not entail a damaging rupture with the universal sources of spiritual knowledge and wisdom.  Meditation gives us an access to this because it is part of the common ground of humanity and so becomes  a unifying wisdom within the rich diversity of spiritualities.

Being open to these sources and connections – and discerning how to invoke them – means that we will avoid teaching meditation as a merely instrumental technique, a quick-fix or a merely feel-good exercise. It means that, while respecting and defending the value of the ‘secular’, we can teach meditation more effectively – and transformatively -as a spiritual discipline.

Spirituality : Faith and Belief

Spirituality should be distinguished from religion without ignoring or breaking the helpful connection between them that exists for many people.  These find inspiration, healing and consolation in the symbols and rituals of their religious tradition. A psychiatrist once told me how he had heard a colleague at a  group therapy session ask the patients where they found the personal support and affirmation they needed in their life and for their recovery. People spoke about family, friendships and other networks. One mentioned how important their church community was. Before they could finish the therapist interrupted saying ‘ no, I’m asking where you find your main support group’, instinctively dismissing a religious community as able of being this.

The distinction between faith and belief can be helpful in preventing this kind of institutional or professional prejudice. How are they distinguished? Faith is concerned with commitment, relationship and transcendence and this leads to other-centredness and love. Belief refers not just to dogma or definitions of a creed or ideology but to the whole symbolic system that comprises the values by which we live. Belief without faith risks descending into ideological fanaticism. Faith without belief risks descending into sterile self-fixation.

In contradiction to earlier assumptions in the mental health field that religion disimproved health and well-being, modern research tends to emphasise the benefits, including increased longevity and lower suicide rate associated with religious affiliation and its corresponding spiritual practice. Religion used to be dismissed by much of the intelligentsia as a form of mental illness, – for Freud it was a collective neurosis. Indeed this easily happens when the contemplative dimension of religion is lost  – but the same happens as a result of the fanatical atheistic denial of religion.

Many would agree that it is inappropriate to ‘pray’ with one’s patients. But meditating with them – in a silence free from image and symbol –

is a quite different and less dangerous way of helping them to locate the source of their self-healing through the therapeutic relationship that is enriched by the language of silence and the work of pure attention. “Meditation dries up the roots of sin within us” (The Cloud of Unknowing). Sin, here, refers to a psycho-spiritual condition affected by embeddedly recurrent self-negating patterns of self-judgement and behaviour. It means more than a religious concept of transgressing rules or boundaries of moral behaviour.

In such a broader and more open approach to the relationship between therapy, and spirituality, well-chosen scriptural texts (from more than one tradition) can also be recommended or even used with the patient in the course of therapy. Meditation and scripture can thus nurture a re-connection (the meaning of religion – religere) of the psyche to reality and to the reality of others. A powerful way of promoting this re-connection and healing of loneliness and alienation is simply to meditate with others. It is a danger of many contemporary attitudes to the teaching of meditative practices to over-emphasise the individualistic aspect. It is true I cannot meditate for you and you cannot meditate for me but it is equally true that we can and are drawn to meditate with each other.  Meditating with others offers an immediate and reassuring experience, without the need to judge or define it, of this innate capacity for connection – hidden in this experience is the meaning of meaning as connectedness.

Meditation-Medicine. The words themselves are connected through the prefix med which connotes “care” and “attention”. This connection and the integration of spirituality with mental healthcare offers a powerful resource for the provision of mental healthcare in a society as psychologically damaged and spiritually under-nourished culture.  It can teach us how to heal the scourge of self-destructive loneliness with the experience of solitude as the discovery, recognition and, finally, the acceptance of the divine uniqueness of each human being.

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The Great Peace

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* Originally published at Meditatio Newsletter April 2016

Dearest Friends,

It was a lovely spring afternoon in London, warm with just the edge of winter left. I had not seen Calum, my young godson, for some time and took him out for lunch and a walk by the river. He brought with him the camera that his sister had passed down to him. He had become absorbed in its video function. So he was filming everything that we passed by on the street and, when we got down to the river Thames sparkling in the sunshine, he went wild with excitement. Swinging the camera in experimental manoeuvers he chased after a flock of ducks and back again to capture an endless supply of new scenes. There was nothing not interesting enough to film in the beautiful light of the day. Everything shone with the wonder of the world’s ever-surprising diversity. Life flooded through him with abundance and excitement. He was radiant and free-spirited with all the colours of life. And it was vitalizing to be playing the life-game with him.

And it was Easter. As it always is Easter. The important theology of Easter is that once it happens it never stops happening. To symbolize that liturgically the church extends the day of Easter Sunday for eight days and the season to forty. ‘Ordinary time’ which follows Pentecost can never be ordinary again. On the other hand what is extraordinary is that it does remain ordinary. We do not become astral beings. We go back to this life to live it in a new way, discovering its newness afresh continually. We remain delightfully embodied and thrillingly mortal. Death, the great threat to human happiness, takes on a wholly different meaning in the new experience of life we call Resurrection.

The danger is, that in speaking of these mysteries of faith that revolve at the heart of Christian life we sound to others a bit out of touch with reality. And sometimes Christians can, in fact, sound like promoters of a wonderful holiday resort that they haven’t quite yet visited for themselves. In fact, if we have been touched by Resurrection, we are in touch with reality, ‘the solid reality’, as St John puts it, that ‘is Christ’.

I was recently speaking with a class of MBA students who had started to learn to meditate. Many of them said they wanted to meditate because it offered them a way of dealing with stress. The depth meaning of meditation, of life itself, had been fore-shortened by this great and now universal blockage to real life. I was struck by the depth of this problem, the prevalence of the social malaise we call stress – the anxiety and damage to health it causes, the enemy of all the joys of life, breeder of fear and anger.

Of course life is stressful. It has a visible shelf life that changes daily. Anything that is unpredictable, like life, has to deal at best with probabilities. Anything that shows us that nothing is certain until uncertainty has been fully accepted will ever be easy.

The problem is not stress itself, then, but whether we understand the stressful aspects of life from within the great peace. Or, whether we experience only stress and find that stress feeds and grows off itself. Then we are deceived – usually by mammon – into thinking that the more stressed we are the closer we are coming to the great idol of Success.

A century ago the most civilized nations of the world were in the middle of ‘The Great War’ to end all wars that resulted in thirty-eight million military and civilian casualties. Taking a short breather to re-militarise, the ensuing peace of Versailles that was typical of  ‘peace as the world gives it’, led to a new world war that cost up to eighty million lives amounting to three percent of the human family at that time.

Whether it’s the death-lust of war or the tragedy of unhappy lives blighted by the diseases of affluence, why is it we find the gift of life so hard to accept? Why does the great peace seem so elusive? Out of the new life that filled the risen Jesus with the playful love of the Holy Spirit he has breathed his peace into us. His physical respiration ceased on the cross. He breathed his last and gave up his spirit. But this plunged him irrevocably into the inner breath of God, the life-cycle that over-rides the cycles of death and rebirth. He entered the source and return-point of all that exists. From this inner breath of the eternal Easter he breathes the great peace into the human heart at the point where we are one with each other in a common humanity.

On Bere Island this year the meditators on the Holy Week retreat took time again to listen to the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The time it took was again richly repaid with a clearer understanding of time and the gift-nature of life which Easter is all about. It comes to us as a story. It is above all a story. Christian scriptures are not a string of abstract truths plucked from real life. They are a certain, amazingly intimate way of telling a story which plays out in the lives of all those listening – both in their inner lives and their outer lives. Once we have opened our heart to this story, we feel an integration and harmonizing of the inner and the outer – a new simplicity. We see in a new way the unfolding of our own lives.

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We are in conversation with God. In daily use ‘conversation’ means a chat, an exchange of ideas through words or other symbols of meaning. But this is a more modern definition, coming into use as culture began to shift away from its spiritual balance towards an excessively rational and outer-directed  perspective. From about the 16th century it came to mean only ‘talk’. ‘Conversation’, however, means literally a turning towards something with another. In other words, keeping company with, living with, playing the game of life with…

The New Testament is not a sutra. Later there did come Christian sutras, great intellectual reflections and cathedrals of the mind, which help to interpret the conversation, the telling of the story which is the heart-mind of the gospel. The gospels are simpler than abstract truths. They are strikingly direct, intimate tellings of a story that is both cosmic and personal.

We don’t read the gospels only at Easter. Throughout the year the ‘lectio’ of these texts should be part of our daily prayer-practice. But we always read them in the light of the Easter truth. Christian identity and the Christ-centeredness of our meditation depend in part on the place of this way of prayer in our spiritual lives. Meditation brings us many benefits and fruits. One of the greatest of these is that meditation teaches how to read the gospels in a way that draws our whole being into the person of Jesus, not only as an historical figure but as a personal and actual presence.

For I in you and you in me together we are one undivided person.  (From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday)

Christian thought is like a conversation that continually integrates all the reflections and contributions that have been made from ancient times until today. It is always fresh and yet its richness is always growing. We are part of it and as it changes, it changes us.

Many of us will have felt this as we read of Pope Francis’ deep and simple insights into the mystery of Christ. ‘Mercy’ is his signature phrase, especially to some church leaders who were felt to be becoming increasingly, judgmental and punitive. With wise gentleness Francis is delivering one of the periodic prophetic body blows to the institutional frame of the church that we all need to reset the church’s course. They wake us from the sleep inflicted on the hard of heart and the self-righteous. They restore us – as the same ancient homily I just quoted puts it- to the new life that fills us with the great peace, when we allow it to:

I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

As long as we listen to the story from the outside, only as observers and sceptics, we will think that the new life it speaks about is a return to the Garden of Eden. But who really wants to go back to Eden? The garden from which the Resurrection reaches into humanity and changes us is not a lost paradise but the kingdom of God. This is a special kind of place – neither here nor there, in us or among us but one that is an experience that simply and mercifully is.

So, the conversation is not talking to or thinking about but living with and keeping company with God. And so, it is at its fullest in deep silence. In silence we are not trying to look at the risen Jesus, because then, as outsiders, we will always fail to recognise him. But when we are seeing him in the same glance of love as that with which he sees us, then we recognise him as we are brought to full self-knowledge.

Resurrection shows us the way we need (and want) to follow into the conversation with silence itself. (‘Nothing is so much like God as silence’, the mystics tell us). To start this conversation is to activate the seed of contemplation planted at birth, our original act of existence. Every follower of Jesus is therefore called to be a contemplative, just as every spouse is called to tread into deeper union. The levels of silence – of tongue, body, mind and heart – are the great milestones of life and – for the meditator – this is one with the journey of our daily practice. As these levels become deeper we become simpler and more childlike. One day we even learn how to play the game of life, once  again with unlimited joy.

For the contemplative Christian prayer is not, essentially, speaking to God, or thinking about God. It is about entering into a silent conversation with God through the mind of Christ. It is not about opposing our will to God’s or negotiating a settlement over our differences of opinion about what is good for us. It is about an active, whole-hearted surrender to the will of God who knows our needs with an intimate and unique love because he is part of our humanity, sharing with all our woundedness and complexity.

As Christians of our time this kind of language may speak best to those who have already started the conversation with silence. But for many others it can still suggest an image of a ‘personal God’ which is suspect and even offensive. It is true that this image of God can be abused. Personal, in human terms, can also mean jealous, possessive and controlling. It is an image that religious people in the three sister religions of the Word, all born in the same troubled and violent part of the world, sometimes claim to be their own exclusively. Twisted out of its true meaning in the silence of the great peace, the idea of a personal God can infantalise us, become a source of oppression in the power structures of wealth and politics and even a justification for the massacre of innocents.

Yet it is still the greatest of gifts – provided we know how to share it.

A Taoist ruler once said you should rule an empire the same way you cook a little fish. (In one of the great Resurrection appearances by the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus does just this). In another Taoist wisdom story the crew of a big boat saw a small craft sailing directly into its path. They leant over the side and shouted insults to those in the boat approaching them. Then they realised the small boat was empty and fell silent.

Empty and silent like the tomb of Jesus on the Sunday morning, the new sabbath. The empty tomb is recorded in each of the gospel perspectives on the Resurrection. Finding it empty disturbed and mystified the disciples, and Mary wept. Yet emptiness is the correlative of fullness. They are opposites yet perform the same function in the grammar of meaning. The divine kenosis, or self-emptying, produced the incarnation of God in which the fullness of the godhead was able to dwell embodied. We cannot recognise the risen Jesus unless we have looked into and entered the empty tomb of our own heart. It may sound metaphysical theology but it is proven in our human psychology and in daily experience, including the daily practice of meditation, of poverty of spirit. As for the jeering sailors in the big boat (of reason) the discovery of emptiness in the small craft (the egoless self) leads us to silence.

The obvious question reputedly posed to the Buddha once – what do you get of meditation? – is best answered by ‘nothing. But I lose a lot.’

Today we need to cultivate this quality of emptiness and silence if we are to survive the impossible contradictions on which we have built our world. These contradictions torment and threaten us  – irresponsible affluence and the endless exploitation of the earth, nonstop communication and increasing loneliness, luxury and increasing anxiety. The perennial value of the wisdom of contemplation has been drowned out by a compulsion to put utilitarian or commercial values on everything whether a price-tag is relevant or not. Doing this distorts the value of everything. A young lawyer told me recently how the law firm where he worked was systematically squeezing all humanity out of the work by reducing every fifteen minutes of the day to a billable slot; he had to account even for his visits to the bathroom. At the end of such a process we will find not emptiness, which is the correlative of fullness, but nothingness and a vacuum of meaninglessness.

‘Remembrance of God certainly brings comfort to all hearts’, says the Qu’ran. The basis for the dhikr form of prayer in Islam is the interior repetition of short phrases or the Names of God. Its meaning is to remain in the mindful presence of God while performing the most ordinary actions of the day, like rising from bed or walking. In the same way, John Cassian urged the desert monks, and we their successors, to recite their formula, or mantra, while performing any kind of work or service, or on a journey, answering the calls of nature, while falling asleep and on waking up. So, rather than being an esoteric practice for a spiritual elite the prayer of the heart is intended for all as a very simple and ordinary way. It is an immediate, unmediated, way of experiencing that emptiness is the way to the fullness of God. In this incarnate spirituality of daily life, where a contemplative discipline becomes truly part of our life and connects the surface and depth levels of consciousness, we discover that learning and living are the same.

Remembering. Spiritually, this is not a nostalgic exercise. It is not even primarily about thinking of the past. It is bringing the most meaningful essence of events that first happened in the past into the present and making them present now. The theological term for this is anamnesis (‘do this in remembrance of me’). In medical vocabulary the word refers to a patient’s complete and accurate recall of his condition. Spiritually it means recapitulating our past into the present.

There is no greater fear than the fear of forgetting. In dementia, the intimate spouse of the person suffering from this dying of the brain in the one they have loved for a lifetime, watches their loved one progressively fade from reality and withdraw. A very deep act of love is necessary to stay re-membered to someone who is apparently losing even their memory of you as they become dis-membered. Perfect love alone can cast out this fear.To deal with the inevitable fading of memory – which begins as soon as memory begins to function – we need to understand the present as more than the time shown on a digital clock.

To deal with the inevitable fading of memory – which begins as soon as memory begins to function – we need to understand the present as more than the time shown on a digital clock.Easter means the experience of presence, the continuum of real presence in which we are mutually, reciprocally, present to one another and at the deepest level with God. As Jesus was present to the Father and the Father to him, he became present to us by drawing humanity into the most intimate presence of God to Himself which we try to describe as the Trinity.  In this ever-present presence, past and future meet. The fear of forgetting, of death itself, fades. The experience of life in the boundless fullness which, as children, we were able to enjoy on occasion, returns in full force.

Easter means the experience of presence, the continuum of real presence in which we are mutually, reciprocally, present to one another and at the deepest level with God. As Jesus was present to the Father and the Father to him, he became present to us by drawing humanity into the most intimate presence of God to Himself which we try to describe as the Trinity.  In this ever-present presence, past and future meet. The fear of forgetting, of death itself, fades. The experience of life in the boundless fullness which, as children, we were able to enjoy on occasion, returns in full force.

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Before Easter this year we let go of Eileen Byrne (photo), a beloved member and teacher in our UK and global community. I first met her when I was a member of the lay community at the first Christian Meditation centre in London. She was an important link with the foundation of the Montreal community and later became Director of the Centre in London. She was quintessentially English but also a citizen of the world and filled with insatiable artistic and cultural curiosity. When we were in Montreal she once drove me, still a monk in training, up to the country and a very active diocesan youth camp which I rather dreaded going to. As she drove away she shouted back to me in a loud voice: ‘Laurence, remember you are a contemplative!’ Eileen, I try…

May she rest in the great peace and may all whose paths she smoothed towards a contemplative knowledge of the risen Jesus thank God for the gift she has been to us all.

Happy Easter!

With much love

Laurence Freeman OSB