MEDITATION, SITTING AND MINDFULNESS Talk for Quakers 18-4-21
After over ten years attending and participating in Quaker Meetings for Worship and receiving a generous welcome while it is clearly known that I am inclined towards the Buddhist tradition, I feel it is time I shared with you my approach, what I have learnt about meditation and why, without becoming a Quaker, I have been joining you. Oh, and in case you are wondering, this is not a session teaching you how to meditate. I would though happily organise sessions on Zoom if any of you would like me to do that.
The Buddhist path is much closer to the Quaker path than any other form of Christianity except possibly early Celtic monasticism, still here let us stick to meditation.
The Buddha’s form of meditation, as described in the Pali scriptures of the Theravada tradition is referred to simply as anapanasati, the mindfulness of breathing, and it is different from the meditation practice of Tibetan Buddhists and Christians following the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. In both those cases the focus of a meditation is on visualising, bringing to mind a picture, an image or a scene from the gospels which you imagine yourself watching. This approach can be powerful and useful, but it is a different approach to the mindfulness of breathing.
This raises the question of pre-suppositions. Christian meditation is inclined to have as its starting point that you imagine yourself as being in the presence of God. While good for theists this is rather difficult if your starting point is to doubt if God exists. This can lead on to Christian prayer when you address God as a present person who is listening to your every thought. “Our Father who art in heaven.” This is fine again if you feel you are in such a relationship with God and have a father in heaven who is listening. It is tough if you do not and you start thinking that no-one is listening. Buddhist meditation does not involve you having to make such assumptions, so it does not seem the same as prayer as commonly practised by Christians, Jews, Muslims or Hindu’s .
Where does “meditation” start and what is it being used for if basically it does not involve holding any presuppositions or any form of belief? The answer is that it is about learning how to develop the mental skills of disciplined reflection through careful and persistent practice. That is to learn first how to sit still in a comfortable yet alert position so enabling you to focus on your breathing and your body. Once sitting you then come to see that the mind can be focussed as sharply as the eye to pay attention to what is happening to you while you are breathing, not by controlling your breath, but by watching its natural rhythm, in and out. After some time doing that you can then focus on what is happening in various parts of your body as you give yourself a body sweep. The result of this is that it can bring about an almost exhilarating experience of calm, something which can come across even more deeply if you do it with others in a group, which is one reason I keep coming to Quaker Meetings for Worship on Sundays. Otherwise I meditate for half an hour every day and look forward to each session.
I say that it can bring about an almost exhilarating experience of calm. It can also bring on in some and in all of us at times, a sense of intense irritation, anger about oneself or someone else, or stultifying boredom. That can make you want to get up, or you can experience an itch, or twitch. Should you or should you not scratch? For some such experiences or fear of having them, can put people off trying both meditation and Quaker Worship. Yes, for some it may seem near impossible but when meditation is properly taught and introduced, it certainly does becomes possible. You can then be led to experience the obvious, everything changes and you see the “bad” moods move on and you can expect a breakthrough into an experience of peacefulness.
Why peacefulness? I suggest this is because times for quiet, for doing nothing, for reflection, are a fundamental psychological need if we are to have any sense of well-being. We all need times for quiet reflection. I also suggest, along with many others, that our culture and our present enveloping dependence on the smart-phone and computers mean so many of us suffer from emotional and factual data overload. We also seek relief from boredom, pain, anger, fear, insecurity, inadequacy or failure by seeking media led distractions. This so easily results in dodging facing our feelings and taking a hard look at ourselves. This is why we can all benefit by training in and practicing meditation.
So the first step in meditation or sitting, is to sit and become calm and focussed. You then quickly become aware that it is difficult to maintain this focus and that the mind goes off into all sorts of distracted thoughts that arise unbidden. The next step is to take a mental step back from these thoughts, moods and emotions, and note what they are, and let go of them by returning to the breath or the body. This way perspective increases and obsessive thinking and craving can be broken. This of course can take time and practice.
My personal experience has been that meditation has changed my life. It does need to be taught by an experienced teacher. I found reading about it in books impossible before going through the exercises and experiences good teachers can give. Then you can start practicing yourself. When I was teaching Religious Studies in a large, demanding school I would sit for an hour every day when I came home because I knew without it I would have cracked up. I have also been on meditation retreats run by the monastic Order and by experienced lay teachers and found them helpful and inspiring.
In 2011 I heard about “mindfulness” and curious, signed up for the Oxford Mindfulness Course of 8 weekly sessions in 2012. Before it started I fell, hurting my back and confined to a wheelchair I had to be driven to Oxford for the first two sessions by my wife. There I found the teaching practically the same as I had experienced in our Buddhist monasteries. It was very well and systematically done and I found I could deal with the acute physical pain I was suffering surprisingly well and it helped my recovery. So both in dealing with physical pain and mental stress I have experienced how meditation training works and it beneficial effects.
With “mindfulness” then I have seen how meditation training can be done with no overt mention of its Buddhist roots (which can put both secular and religious people off) particularly through the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. There it has been used in a medical context to treat severe depression and even schizophrenia, also it is being used in schools, in Parliament and in management training. There are also, sadly, some commercially motivated courses around.
I have also been surprised when exploring the subject of Consciousness for an ANVIL group session how many serious academics have been trained in meditation by going on a retreat course and now use it as part of their daily practice as a background to their academic work. (Susan Blackmore Consciousness) The historian Noah Yuval Harari (Sapiens etc) sits for two hours a day. At the same time he emphasises that doing meditation is no cure-all. All religions, worldviews and philosophies and training systems he warns, can be terribly misused if separated from their moral base.
Another particularly interesting case is Robert Wright whose book on the science and philosophy of meditation he provocatively entitles WHY BUDDHISM IS TRUE. At Princeton he has specialised in evolutionary psychology. This approach relates human behaviour to the dictates of natural selection, which he sees giving us both a distorted view of reality and an inbuilt sense of dissatisfaction, something the Buddha identified as dukkha. Attending an Insight Meditation retreat in the US he then studied Buddhist teaching and meditation practice reaching an expert level and he asserts it can be life transforming and that it has been for him. Most recently on reading The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac – the chief organisers of the Paris Climate accords and now working on COP26 – I found they are very open about their personal use of Buddhist meditation and commend environment activists to sort out who they think they are, what they stand for and how to reflect in order to face the tough times they see lie ahead for us.
So, am I a better person as a result of my meditation? Am I “enlightened” after doing this since I “Turned for Refuge” in 1985? That I cannot judge, but personally I am just so grateful that I have come across it. I think it helps me know myself better, avoid thoughts and behaviour that leads to suffering for myself and others, and I hope makes me a bit more reflective, sensitive, empathetic and even open-minded. Without it I could have made quite a mess of things.
In terms of my philosophical assumptions I basically remain as I was when I found myself unable to continue as a Christian. This is because as I see it we live in a mathematically consistent cosmos which remains mysterious enough for scientists without introducing unbelievable and unverifiable elements to describe what we do not yet understand. This makes me a Humanist veering between atheism and agnosticism who can see no justification for belief in miracles or the supernatural. I also find Gautama’s basic teachings about the way things are and the self-training rules he commends and the moral approach that goes with it, (another area of agreement with Quakers) makes for a practical guide to living a better and happier life. His teaching also has much to say about how we should treat this whole living world we are in such danger of destroying.
To conclude I do not expect any Quaker to change how you worship. More broadly though, Quakers, like Buddhists, recognise the value of individual and corporate silence, something many Christians now seem to find difficult. Can Christian prayer and this meditation practice work together? I think they can if they are not confused. I see nothing about meditation that contradicts Christianity and I know there are many Christians who have found training in Mindfulness can also strengthen their Christian practice. This is true for Mark Williams, professor of psychiatry who launched the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. To my surprise I found he is also an Anglican priest and now a canon of Christ Church.
Mindfulness, The Path to the Deathless. Ajahn Sumedho. 1985. (Started me. Life changing.) Amaravati Publications. For Main Theravada Monastery visit www.Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. Talks and videos. Ajahn Sumedho, founding abbot, Ajahn Amaro present abbot.
Finding the Missing Peace. A Primer of Buddhist Meditation. Ajahn Amaro 2012. Amaravati Publications
Wherever You Go, There You Are. Jon Kabat Zin. Top American Physician. Launched “non-Buddhist” Mindfulness training in a medical context. University of Massachusetts.
Why Buddhism is True. Robert Wright. University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.
Mindfulness, Exploring Peace in a Frantic World. Mark Williams and Danny Penman. 2011. Basic text for the Oxford Mindfulness Course.
Local University trained Mindfulness teachers. Eva and Dan Lupton, tel 01373 464564 5 Riverside Terrace, Willow Vale, FromeBA11 1BQ email@example.com
Hartridge Buddhist Monastery. Upottery, Devon. Currently closed to vistors. Visit website.
ATTENDING THE OXFORD MINDFULNESS COURSE
For eight weeks, ending on the 29th of June 2012, I and 24 others attended the basic Mindfulness course at the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre.
Held in this rathery splendid building on the Warnford Hospital Campus in Oxford, the course has been meticulously well lead by Marie Johannson and Jill Johnson and has been a powerful experience.
Having signed up months before it came as a great surprise when two weeks before the course started I pulled a muscle in my back with a trivial movement and within days was unable to walk and in constant and pretty relentless pain. I attended the first two sessions arriving in a wheel chair driven to Oxford by Elizabeth. B the end of the course as a result of help from a remedial gymnast I was recovering and a year and a half later I have totally regained mobility and have no pain. No experience however could have better prepared me for Mindfulness training than having at the same time having to deal with my back. What did I learn?
Basically, Mindfulness as promoted by Jon Cabot Zin in the US and Prof Mark Williams here at Oxford is the application of basic Buddhist Insight Meditation for the enhancement of ordinary living, business applications and management, in schools and in the case of both Zin and Williams, the treatment of patients suffering from chronic stress, depression and anxiety and others having to deal with relentless chronic pain.
What did I learn? No is does not take away the immediate experience of pain, but it helps you focus on the actual as opposed to the remembered or anticipated pain and it engenders a calmer and more focused approach to it.
What then is the essence of mindfulness? It is the development of both a skill and and a perspective, the skill first to focus on the breath and the body as a way of disengaging from relentless chain of thoughts and emotions that course through us, and become a detached yet amicable observer of them, increasingly skilled in letting them go and returning to a basic and fundamental awareness of body, breath and mental and emotional life.
This has been done since the days of the Buddha, but where the mindfulness approach differs is that it links meditation practice to neuro-science and psychological research. Here the evidence is that disciplined daily formal meditation practice has a measurable effect on the brain and a wide-ranging series of effects on thinking, emotions and behaviour.
Since being on the course I have heard Mark Williams and John Peacock speak to the London Insight Society (Buddhist meditation promoters) and have been on a follow-up one day course in Oxford on teaching Mindfulness in non-clinical sessions (Clinically it is now being successfully introduced into the NHS)