The Basics of Practice 4: Just watch

Mindfulness is cultivated by assuming the stance of an impartial witness to your own experience. To do this requires that you become aware of the constant stream of judging and reacting to inner and outer experience and learn to step back from it.

When we begin practicing paying attention to the activity of our own mind, it is common to discover that we are constantly generating judgments about our experience.

Jon Kabat Zinn

Remembering our own goodness

st francis san damiano
The greatest thing you can do for another is not  share your riches,
but reveal to them their own.   Benjamin Disraeli
Today is the feast of Saint Francis, from Assisi in Umbria, a peaceful and beautiful place I have visited many times over the years, and where I took this photo on Easter Sunday morning after the dawn liturgy. Francis was a man deeply in touch with the beauty and wisdom of creation, and he demonstrated a great capacity for being with his experience, and honouring every element – the moon and the stars, the earth and water – go so far as to call each one his brother or sister.  As this lovely poem recounts, he showed a fundamental respect for all creatures. We often can find this easier than respecting and honouring our own selves. But meditation is essentially this – being gently present with, without judgment, honouring our experience – dropping into what Jon Kabat Zinn calls the “Being Mode”, where we can taste our original goodness. In that place we do not have add anything in order to be complete. And “mindfulness” is related to the verb “to remember”, remembering to be present, but also remembering the space that resides beneath the clutter of thoughts and worries. Doing this gives us a break from the busy, frequently judgmental,  doing and thinking mode, which often leans towards wanting more.
The bud stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   
as Saint Francis put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   
began remembering all down her thick length,   
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Galway Kinnell, Saint Francis and the Sow

Balancing different aspects

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When I was young I went on holidays to my uncle’s farm in the West of Ireland and this day, which was a holiday, was seen as  marking the change from the Summer season to Autumn. My aunt would say that the days started getting shorter once this day was over.  Maybe so,  here in this part of Western Europe.  However, there is a different awareness in mainland Europe  –  in countries such as Italy – where this day ,  Fer Agosto , is the central day of the Summer Holidays, characterized by warm weather and family meals.  This is an ancient day of celebration, stretching back to the Roman feriae Augusti  (August break) when horse races were organized, as they are still in the famous Paleo in Siena.  It marked the high point of the Summer heat, realizing a human need for a break before the important work of the harvest began,

The religious calendar often piggy-backed on these human rhythms and celebrations and August 15th is no exception, celebrated by Catholics as the Assumption of Mary,  the mother of Jesus, believing that Mary was taken directly, bodily,  into heaven.   I am not too interested in understanding the theological mystery of this day or looking at things from the viewpoint of what may or may not happen at the end of time. I am more interested in the fact that Carl Jung stated that establishing this feastday was the most important religious event since the Reformation in the 16th Century. He felt it finally gave due recognition to the feminine aspect of the person, emphasizing the role of the anima alongside the animus.

Jung said that this was “the profoundest problem afflicting the human psyche: an imbalance which favored masculine principles and archetypes over the feminine ones”It is an imbalance which seems to have been recognized in all religions and wisdom traditions, as we find representations of female figures from the Virgin Mary in Catholicism and Orthodoxy  to Quan Yin in BuddhismHowever, what  Jung is drawing our attention to, is the need to acknowledge these aspects not just outside us, in our religious figures, but also within ourselves and within society, a task which clearly has a long way to go. 

It is clear that Western Society is built on an over-emphasis of traits and activities that are considered masculine –  logical thinking, analysis, action, and has neglected its feminine,  more contemplative side (while ironically at the same time, having an objectified,  sexualized version of romantic love). So Jung prompts us to reflect on the need to balance aspects within ourself and within society, embrace the energies and understandings that come from both male and female principles.  In simplistic terms this may alert us to the need to hold both logic and creativity, decisiveness and compassion, inner work and outer ambition. He goes on to say that this can fulfil “that yearning for peace which stirs deep down in the soul, and for a resolution of the threatening tension between opposites. Everyone shares this tension and everyone experiences it in his individual form of unrest”. 

Jung seems to suggest that the unrest we experience comes when we do not get a balance between the different elements within us. It seems that becoming whole is a matter of balancing the different intelligences with us, the head, body and heart, and this can be help by a meditation practice which consciously holds the  inner and outer, the self and others.  However,  we frequently overemphasize one aspect over another. working too much at times, such as spending too much energy on the outer while neglecting relationships or leisure. Furthermore, when we do not find the balance inside we tend to project it outside.  This can often be noticed when we are moved to see in another person or in an object or career all the qualities which we think will definitely fulfil and complete us, alerting us to the fact that what we are actually glimpsing are missing aspects of ourselves, or unlived parts of our life. .

The quality of all of our relationships is a direct function of our relationship to ourselves. Since much of our relationship to ourselves  operates at an unconscious level, most of the drama and dynamics of our relationships to others and the transcendent is expressive or our own personal psychology. The best thing we can do for our relationships with others, and with the transcendent, then, is to render our relationship with ourselves more conscious.

James Hollis, The Eden Project

photo Fir0002/Flagstaffotos



Staying put


In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. it goes against the grain to stay present. The  instruction is,  Stay…stay…just stay.  So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to “stay” and settle down.

Pema Chodron, The Places that Scare you

Today the stage of the Tour de France takes place around Annecy and goes up the Col de Tamié. On last Sunday I was fortunate enough to be in that part of the world as I went to the liturgy in Cistercian Abbey of Tamie, founded in 1132. As always,  I was struck by the silence as I sat in the ancient church, as the thick walls keep out most sounds and I was conscious of a depth of stillness. I have visited the place often and I recognized the faces of the monks. They have been there, every day since I last visited, performing the same work in that isolated place, without been seen, repeating the same chants and prayers seven times a day, starting at 4 in the morning until 8 in the evening, in the depth of the cold winter and the relative warmth of the summer. And then on Monday I visited the monastery of Bolton Abbey in Kildare, a place I had not seen for over 10 years. Again, the same monks, the same liturgy, even though years have passed.  A continuity across miles and across years.

The founder of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict, placed an emphasis on this capacity to stay put.  He saw in the latin word “stabilitas” –  to be still, to stop, to persevere – a remedy for the troubles of his age, namely, insecurity, the movements of people, cultural and political upheavals. “Staying put” for Benedict meant that the person resisted the temptation to move from idea to new idea, and instead remained in the monastery where they had entered long enough to put down roots in order to grow and bear fruit. Perhaps he can teach us something today in this similar age, with the added distraction of increased communication and media. Many people today have lost their points of reference, and have little sense of community or family. Commitment is often presented as against personal growth and rituals seen as stifling or boring.

Benedict was drawing attention to a psychological fact, the need to stay put, to not run away or move when we come face to face with our internal restlessness.  He echoes the psychological wisdom found in the Desert Fathers who said frequently that the first work we had to do was to learn to stay, and quieten the mind in this manner. As Abba Moses replied simply when a visitor requested some novel, wise words “Go into your room and sit there, and your room will teach you all you need to know”. There is no substitute for learning to befriend ourselves. There is some link between calming the body’s desire for novelty and movement and calming the mind.

These words are not far from those we find in meditation teachers from a different tradition today. The basic  practice which we return to each day is taking our seat and staying there. Slowly it settles the mind. Gradually something is transformed in us and an interior peace can grow. We come face to face with our deep interior confusion, but we decide not to run away. It worked in the time of Saint Benedict and for those monks in the quiet valley of Tamie and the plains of Kildare.  It can also work for us in our restless age with its desire for novelty and 15 minutes of fame.


False friends

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The greatest trap in life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection, doubting who we truly are. Success, popularity and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions.

Henri Nouwen