I have been staying at Clowance Estate in Cornwall, where there has been a mansion house since 1380. Some of the original features are still there like a silt trap.
This silt trap is a small pond into which a stream runs via a control gate and a control exit. The control gate is used to determine how strong a flow of water from the stream comes into the pond. Most of the particles coming into the pond, soil, sand and silt, settle in the silt trap.
That means much cleaner water flows out of the pond – in this case to stew ponds where fish for the kitchen table were reared. In the photo below you can see the stream, the control gate and the silt trap pond.
Seeing this in operation gave me an analogy for the way our minds can work. Attention is like a control gate which works with the stream of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that are constantly flowing. Through mindful awareness practices we can find and enhance the pool of open awareness into which this stream can flow, where we can learn to let the thought particles settle, just as in a silt trap.
I think the thing that struck me, is that these capacities we have are natural, but can be enhanced with practice. The silt trap enables cleaner water to flow to the stew ponds where fish can be reared. But in the same way in our minds we can filter out the reactive thoughts and in the cleaner stream within our mind cultivate wise responses and creative thought-fish.
Here you can see the cleaner water flowing from the silt trap into the stew ponds. In the case of our minds we also can find we access stew ponds, a wiser and more creative ‘stew’ of mindful responses, rather than fearful, automatic reactions.
The other thing I like with this analogy is that it recognises that the stream is always flowing, and also at times the flow of the stream will be higher in winter and spring, with more particles that need filtering, because of increased rain fall.
When we are stressed there is a higher level of rainfall in our minds and bodies, with an increase in the number and speed of reactive thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Instead of being a victim of these we can learn to witness them, and allow them to settle in the pond of open awareness that works like a silt trap in our minds. This allows us to access the more creative ‘stew’ ponds that also exist in our awareness and minds.
Our capacity for attention is sometimes spoken of as a torch. But what can this torch do, and who or what controls it? Let’s assume it is on all the time whether we know it or not.
The best short summary of what attention is and does is by Professor Paul Gilbert in his book Mindful Compassion, co-authored by Choden. (Paul Gilbert & Choden, Mindful Compassion (London: Robinson, 2013)
The first point they make is that attention, like a torch, can be moved, it is not fixed. I can move it intentionally to focus on my big toe but it can ‘also be taken over unintentionally by the threat and drive systems.’ (p.191) The threat and drive systems are two of our three main internal systems. So they can shine the torch where they want. In the drive and resource-seeking system we are ‘wanting, pursuing, achieving, consuming.’(p.56) In the threat-focused system (fight and flight) we are ‘threat-focused, protection and safety-seeking.’ (p.56)
So it can be moved intentionally and it can be taken over, this torch of attention.
The second ‘m’ to remember for attention is that it can magnify, ‘Attention acts like a zoom lens making some things bigger in our minds and blocking out other thoughts and feelings.’ (p.191) I can zoom in on my big toe and my torch of attention magnifies it so that it is the focus of my attention. I also have another process of open awareness that can run alongside this focused attention but that is another story.
The third ‘m’ to remember for attention is its ability to focus on our memories. What that means is that ‘Attention can have very powerful physiological effects: bringing to mind happy memories can arouse pleasant feelings and sensations, whilst dwelling on unhappy things can arouse unpleasant feelings and sensations.’(p.191) This can be done intentionally or automatically, unintentionally, out of our awareness.
Our attention can be ‘captured by our emotions without us even realising it.’(p.191)
Mindfulness practices help us to train our minds so that we can intentionally work with the torch of attention. We can notice when our attention has unintentionally switched to negative ruminative patterns. We notice those patterns and let them go. We do not avoid them or fuse with them.
Attention – it is a very important torch!
(Wendy Reed photo)
Like the duck we need to stay at the rim of our thoughts, where we can observe them. It is too easy to be sucked into the whirlpool of our thoughts, believing them to an accurate readout of reality rather than passing events.
It takes attention and awareness to stay on the rim of our thoughts, observing them gently and compassionately. The natural pull of their gravity takes us towards the whirlpool where we lose perspective.
On the rim of my thoughts I am aware, through my senses, of what is around me. I can find inner freedom and peace, the whirlpool is not all there is.
the duck on the rim
of the circle of water
is me and my thoughts
In the stillness and silence of Easter Saturday the green blade is rising, the moments that approach the resurrection are increasingly charged until God emerges in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazereth.
It seems that silence and stillness lead to charged moments at other times as well. Christina Feldman who teaches mindfulness says that people ‘practising Buddhist mindfulness are seeing liberation in bite-size pieces.’ (quoted in ‘Mindfulness in Schools’ a dissertation by Richard Burnett, p. 23).
Terence Handley MacMath in her article in the Church Times recently writes about her experience of attending a secular mindfulness-based stress-reduction course (MBSR), and says ‘for many it became a revelation of what I would call a spiritual way of life.’ (Church Times, 22nd March 2013, p. 17)
I heard someone else say recently that meditation had led to deeper insights about reality.
In silence and stillness different insights emerge as we practice attention and awareness. Human attention and awareness are gifts from God. Meister Eckhart says this about gifts, ‘God never gives, nor did He ever give a gift, merely that man might have it and be content with it. No, all gifts which He ever gave in heaven or on earth, He gave with one sole purpose – to make one single gift: Himself.’ (quoted in The Silent Cry, Dorothee Soelle, p. 21) As Dorothee Soelle points out all gifts that are given point back to the Giver (p.21).
The gifts of attention and awareness point back to their Giver. This particular time, that stretches from Good Friday to Easter Sunday is a time to pay particular attention. It is the time that can stretch our awareness infinitely.
The rhythm of alternate
Mindfulness/MindFullness can be set at the centre of an alternate rhythm of life. It has an important community aspect within Christianity. It has to do with an aware and attentive rhythm of life that is alternate, that is other-focused.
When our lives are out of rhythm we suffer. If the rhythm of waking and sleeping is off-balance life becomes about mere survival. If in a marriage the rhythm of intimacy, affection and sex is imbalanced or missing then we experience emotional pain and depression. If we do not eat regularly, or we overeat or eat the wrong things we will experience ill-health as well as emotional roller-coaster rides.
But having a rhythm of life is more than just a life-work-home balance. Rhythm is built into the created order – whether it is the rising of the sun or the setting of it. Our bodies run to rhythms from the obvious heart beat, to less obvious beats.
But the rhythm of life we are seeking to establish seeks to do something else – it is a counter-cultural response to the cultural trends of our day – consumerism, individualism and narcissism. These trends make us too busy.
The wisdom about rhythms of life is to be found in the monastic movements both new and old. These rhythms used to be called rules – in the sense that they help us measure what is right and wrong.
How important is a rhythm of life? It is as important as breathing. If we do not live consistently within a spiritual rhythm of life we shall die of spiritual asthma.
There are a number of key scriptures that inform our rhythm, and should inform the discipleship of any Christian. Romans 12:2 tells us that our transformed mind becomes the rule(r) that establishes and tests the rhythm of life for us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…’
What are we to be transformed into? We find the answer in 2 Corinthians 3:18, ‘And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness…’ We are looking to create an inner sanctuary that we can carry around with us into all of life. The most famous Rule is that of St Benedict. In his Rule Benedict explains how to live ‘a Christ-centred life with others.’
What makes up a rhythm of life and enables us to pay attention to the priorities of Christian faith and develop the awareness that can test what God’s will is for our lives? I have been looking at different communities to see how they live together; including Taize in France, the Bose community in Italy, The Moot in London, and the mayBe community. This is to try and answer the question, can a congregation be a real community?
Over the last few months we have explored The Moot’s structure to their rhythm of life beginning with spiritual postures – that develop the awareness of God’s presence in our lives. This begins with the idea of spiritual postures. This has been influenced by a brilliant book Faith Postures: Cultivating Christian Mindfulness by Holly Sprink. To The Moot this asks how we are in the present moment, in other words our way of being, not just doing.
An obvious posture is the one that sees the glass half-empty or half-full. The foundational posture is that of faith rather than fear. 2012 has been a year of fear in many ways and we need to daily re-align ourselves with a position of faith not fear.
A posture of faith and not fear needs to make vows, have values that guide the rhythm of life. We believe in a relational God who is presence, and so we are called to be present to each other. So presence to God, to each other, and to the world is a key value that we can vow to maintain.
One of the ways we can be present together is through hospitality. It needs an intentional rhythm. Another way we can be present together is through service.
As we work on a rhythm of alternate we are seeking something elusive, perhaps something we don’t believe in. This is what Abbot Christopher Jamison calls inner freedom, ‘Sometimes the way people speak about the human heart implies that in this interior world there is no freedom, that it is a fixed world that cannot be changed.’
There is freedom and we can find it.
The Moot’s address
Holly Sprink’s book
Jesus was a riddler. And wrestling with riddles sparks new neural pathways in our neuroplastic brains. I dare you to wrestle with this one.
What does Jesus mean when he says this in Mark 4:21-24?
‘He said to them, ‘Do you bring a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
‘Consider carefully [see] what you hear,’ he continued. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’
In the context of Mark 4 which is about the seed and the sower, with the seed being the Word of God, the lamp is also the Word of God. The echo is of Psalm 119:105, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.’ But what is being measured? And what will be received? The clue is in what the good soil represents in the parable of the seed and the sower. And the answer is worth waiting for. The answer makes Jesus a major contemporary player in a key cultural phenomenon.