Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Christmas story

When I was a child we used to put up a Christmas tree every year. For reasons of space it wasn't in the same room as the television. From time to time, when my siblings were watching tv or out doing other things, I would take the opportunity to just sit on my own in the room with the tree. There would be no light except for the fairy lights on the tree, and I wasn't reading or listening to music or having a conversation. I'd just sit in the peace and quiet and sort of soak up the Christmas atmosphere.

Most people would think it weird if a child wants to be alone. They would suspect something is wrong. But the truth is I enjoyed these moments (and they were just moments: I didn't spend most of my time avoiding other people). I didn't know anything about meditation, and no-one told me this was something one should do. It just sort of happened naturally.

Years later I studied meditation and spent a long time on retreats and attending the Buddhist dojo. I read all kinds of philosophy, heard many dharma talks, and spent a lot of time on a cushion. And I honestly think I haven't learnt a thing that I didn't already know as a young kid, hanging out by myself with a Christmas tree. It was all just the continuation of that simple childhood instinct, which I followed without even knowing of the word "meditation".

Meditation is nothing more than being still and quiet, with nothing to do, in a place where there is little noise or outward distraction. We can learn many techniques and philosophies and rituals, and these things have their value, but in the end meditation is simple and natural. So simple a child can do it with no instruction. So natural that a child will do it, without being told to. If we forget that, we get into trouble.

Here is the thing: most of us, when we meditate, want something. We want peace, or healing, or a sense of fulfillment, or self-realisation. That's okay, it's fine to want things. But, as I child, I had no idea that being still and quiet and alone was for anything. I had no expectation that it would achieve anything. I just did it, from time to time, because it was fun.

These days I know that meditation can bring peace, healing, fulfillment and realisation. But I try to forget that I know that, and just sit for no reason. Before, eventually, getting up and returning to the fun and games that is the rest of life.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Stillness, silence, inwardness

Meditation is something natural and easy. It's the basic way of being that we all return to when we aren't trying to get somewhere else. People define it in many different ways, and they offer many techniques for meditation. Sometimes this is helpful - we all have to start somewhere. Sometimes, we're in danger of making simple things complicated. If I have to describe meditation, I would offer three suggestions: meditation is about stillness, silence and inwardness.

Stillness means just, be still. Don't hold yourself rigid, and don't persist unmovingly through discomfort and pain. But do stop fidgeting. Stop fiddling and tinkering. Stillness is both physical and psychological. Psychological stillness means not chasing after anything, not running away from anything.

Silence means, get away from noise. Turn off your phone, your radio or television. There is always some noise around us, but you don't have to listen in. Keep the scope of your attention open, and let the different sounds come and go. There is an inner silence as well, which is about the noises inside your mind. The mind has no "off" switch, but again the important thing is just not to focus on the mind. Let thoughts come and go, like the sound of passing cars.

Inwardness means being open to what you notice inside your body. Usually we turn our focus outwards, towards other people and things around us - towards the past or the future. But we have an inner life as well, our emotions and feelings in this present moment. Whatever is moving attracts your attention; when you sit somewhere still and quiet, the movement within your psyche attracts your attention. Let this happen; it doesn't require any effort.

This is all. Stillness, silence and inwardness. What does it show you?

Thursday, 27 October 2016

All souls

These past few weeks, despite the bright sunshine, there is a definite coolness to the air. The leaves are turning colour, falling. The evenings are growing dark. It's a time when nature dies back. As opposed to springtime, when nature springs into life. The rising up of things is life. The falling back is death. This is how we know we know the world.

The Feast of All Souls is next week, perhaps eclipsed somewhat by the Halloween parties. It's a time for fun, but also a time to remember about lost loved ones, and death in general. Death tells us what it means to be alive. Living tells us what it is to be dead.  The border between living and dying is porous, at least at this time of year.

Usually when we remember a person's life, we remember stories. And when you think of your own life, you probably also think of it as a story. You know how the story starts, and you wonder how it's going to end. When the story ends, that is death. We repeat the stories of our ancestors as a way of keeping them alive.

But I wonder, is life really a story? Or is the story something extra, the mind's attempt to make sense of events? When I sit in silent meditation the mind grows quiet and the storying stops. There is just this breath, this body, this carpet, this room. This present moment doesn't need a story. It just is. And there is life. The ending of story is not the end of life.

In quiet meditation, phenomena arise in awareness. A breath arises: this is life. A thought arises: this is also life. A sensation in my knee arises: this is life. Not "my life", not anyone's life, just life.

And also, each phenomenon passes away. Each breath finishes: this is death. Each though ends: this is death. The sensation in my knee changes, goes away: this is death. Not "my death", not anyone's death, just death.

So to meditate means to hang out with living and dying. Not my living and dying, not anyone's living and dying; just the living and dying of all things. The border between living and dying is porous: where can you find a dividing line in this constant living-and-dying? Even in the springtime, something is passing. And even in the autumn, there is life.

Have a happy Halloween, and enjoy the long weekend!

Wednesday, 28 September 2016


What do you experience when you "practice mindfulness"? When you "try" to be "more aware"? I don't mean, what kind of sense objects appear to your senses; but rather, what is the mood of body-mind experienced in the act of "being mindful"?

Some people describes being mindful as a relaxing state. They speak of feeling "at one" with everything around them, without anxiety or worry. An absence of ego or self.

Others speak about mindfulness in a way that betrays a hint of effortful caution. They describe "catching" their thoughts in awareness, in order not to be "swept away" by thinking. Is there a sense here that our own thoughts are a threat to be guarded against? Is mindfulness a state of alertness or relaxation?

I don't suggest that any of this is wrong. I don't suggest that it's right. In relaxation, there is awareness. In alertness, there is awareness. And in curiosity, there is awareness. Curiosity is not often mentioned in meditation teachings, but it's a very useful game to play with our experience of awareness.

When thoughts arise, curiosity doesn't stop them arising. It doesn't try to catch them. It's just curious about what they say, about the feeling-tone which they bring to the body.

And when there is anxiety, or guarded watchfulness, curiosity doesn't see anxiety or caution as a problem. It just sees the body-mind trying to cope with the present moment as best it can. Curiosity has no better ideas on how to cope. It's just curious about what this moment of coping feels like.

And when there is relaxation, curiosity is curious about what relaxing feels like.

Curiosity has no agenda, it doesn't form judgments. It doesn't have opinions. It isn't the answer to anything. It doesn't prefer relaxing to coping.

Curiosity involves no effort, no trying to "be curious". Rather, when you set aside your own agenda for a few moments, you might find curiosity starts to arise spontaneously.

Curiosity is playful. It has no timetable, and you don't win anything. You play with it for a while and then put it away again, knowing you can go back to it. And you just get to see how that is.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

News - no meditation on 19 September.

There will be no meditation on next week (Monday 19 September) - back again on Monday 26 at 8pm.
Thomas Traherne (1636-1674)

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Listening within

A lot of time in meditation is spent listening to our emotions. Emotions manifest as sensations in the body (muscular tension, restless movement, patterns of breathing) and as thoughts in the mind (usually simple, repetitive thoughts).

When listening to emotions, it's not so important to believe or argue with the verbal story our emotions are telling us. We can just be open to what we feel in our bodies.

Much of the time we try to manipulate the world around us in order to manage our emotions. We only want to have pleasant emotions and avoid the unpleasant ones. But in this listening, we don't have preferences. Whatever arises is listened to.

Another approach with emotions is to try and use them, as if they were tools. So people might try to use anger to effect change in the world, or use love to win the affection of others. Just as we exhaust the natural resources of the planet to feed our insatiable appetite for consumption, we treat our own emotions as a resource to be used for our own benefit, without thinking of where all this energy comes from.

But what if emotions aren't tools? What if they have their own story to tell us? What if we stop trying to use our emotions, and stop trying to prevent them, and just listen to what they have to say?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

An invitation

A small group of friends meets every Monday evening in Ranelagh to practice silent sitting and walking meditation. If you wish to join us, the invitation is open.

The outer form of our practice is drawn from Buddhist tradition, but we don't practice a religion. We share an interest in taking time to rest, to do nothing, to simply be.

If you've never meditated before, full instruction is available.

More information is available on this website, or you can come along and find out more in person.