Saturday, 28 May 2016

Zen a religion? part 3: help from John Crook and TSE

Here writes the late John Crook, of the Western Chan Fellowship, and of Maenllwyd retreat centre:

"to go beyond words and experience the living moment non-discursively with a clarity of apprehensive immediacy in which the subject - object dichotomy may dissolve. 

Such experiences may be accompanied by moments of profound inner stillness, a rising sense of physical and mental bliss, and an awareness seemingly unlimited by previous imputations of self-regarding thought."

OK so that's writing about what could be called a Zen state of being, an enlightened or awakened state of mind, to use two almost useless decriptions. Some might be put off by John Crook's abstract language, but I think it's actually very helpful. "the living moment non-discursively" i.e. presentmomentness, in my crude shorthand, released from verbal concepts. 

"Subject-object dichotomy may dissolve," i.e. usually I (you too) live feeling there is me, and there is the world about me, a subject and an object. In the Zen state, there is a feeling of profound unity with - everything. This state of unity is the subject of writings by "religious" people e.g. Christian mystics, and TS Eliot:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
                                 "Burnt Norton," The Four Quartets

Writers often use paradox to suggest the break-out from dualistic thinking they are trying to get across; Zen is famously full of paradox, e.g. koans that make no logical sense - which is exactly their value.

"Spiritual" is so over-used that it's not very helpful, but some people might call such perceptions as Crook's and Eliot's "spiritual" rather than necessarily "religious." To approach this state of being, you don't have to belong to any church; you don't have to believe in supernatural beings or a life after death to understand, to accept this reality.

Or of course you could simply stop worrying about such dichotomies, such dualistic thinking - religious/nonreligious, enough already, let's just get on with it!

This extraordinarily acute awareness may be associated with feelings of profound gratitude, openness to others and compassion. Only a few experience this state in depth, but many discover a radically quietened mind in which self-acceptance leads to a loss of personal anguish, together with the emergence of a new view of life in which openness and optimism are characteristic. There is in particular a remarkable feeling of having shed a burden, and a consequent feeling of freed energy.

And here's John Crook, who set up Maenllwyd retreat centre many years ago, writing about certain kinds of retreat:    

  The prime initial feature of a successful retreat is simply self acceptance: the retreatant has discovered that being alive as ‘me’ is not so dreadful after all, that there can be mysterious joy in forgetting oneself, letting go into simple bare awareness of the present - whatever it is. We call this ‘self at ease’ and it is an opening to ‘clarity’. Deeper levels of this experience give rise to a sense of oneness with the world or cosmos in which the machinations of self are temporarily forgotten.

Forgetting the machinations of the self for a bit sounds like a good idea to me, probably worth the rigour of a few day's silence.

Friday, 27 May 2016

pier end

On our little pier this morning, they'd left the gate open to the ramp that goes down to the jetty. It's usually locked. I was the only person on the pier. Down I went for a new view of the pier itself.

It was a calm, sunlit, very clear morning, the sort of morning that sometimes gets called "magical." I can see why, but it's not magic, it's greater than that - a chance to feel the complete nowness of it all. Clarity in the world around, clarity inside the mind. No need for exaggerations, or even for adjectives and superlatives. Though it must be said, it was a pretty superlative day!

 I was alerted to it all by a heron coming in to land back at the water's edge - the slow, determined wingbeats low over the water, the little turn and uplift, then a drop onto long legs. I watched him closely, until the heron, the morning (water, hills, sea-smells, buildings, distant workaday noises) and this organism writing to you now felt - identical. The same thing/s.

I grabbed the chance to get close to the water - not the edge of the waves for once, instead I was close to the flowing, ever-changing ripples and swirls.
 All matter changes, flows - the tide, me, even the distant mountains - and all matter is also now.

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable."

Or - you can't put your foot in the same tideflow twice.

A memory is a present event, the future is a present event, in my mind. The present is the only place I am, and yet it is instantly gone, as soon as it arrives. So where am I?

I am on the end of the pier, in the now, with the heron. That's all I can say, and it won't really do. You can't describe the non-verbal state of mind through words, because it's a state of being. You can teeter round the edge of it with words, but that's trying and of necessity failing to describe a Zen state, it isn't being in it.

Back to the water, then.

I turned and walked up the ramp. I'd been alone on the pier, but now a steadily increasing number of people were walking about. Contrary to my feelings of defensive privacy and anxiety about rubbish and noise in a previous post (the Secret Valley walk), I found myself pleased to see these people wandering around in the slightly aimless and relaxed way you should wander when you're on holiday. I found myself feeling thus, I wasn't trying to be nice. They were welcome by the water, and I hope it spoke to them. I find it usually does.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Is Zen a religion part 2

I reckon this could be quite an important question for some meditators. People who don't think there are any supernatural beings, no metaphysical reality beyond or above this life in front of their noses, i.e. no gods or spirits - such people might want to find what Zen has to offer them, if it is not a religion in the Western Judeo-Christian sense. If it is, then they may be put off. 

 If they are mindfulness meditators, Buddhism is where the practice, in essence, came from. And some mindfulness teachers and writer will drop Buddhism into the conversation quite naturally at times - because they are Buddhists. (Other mindfulness teachers are not, of course - it's not compulsory!)

In the earlier post I was looking at the way Buddhism, even Zen in its traditional context, can look like a religion, even though Buddha claimed no supernatural status.

Oddly enough, one of the most helpful comments on the reality of Zen I found came from a man who very much did believe in God, spirits etc - Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and religious philosopher.

[Merton is commenting on the story of a great Chinese Zen master who was asked if he had inherited the true and enlightened spirit of a previous patriarch; he said he hadn't, because he did not understand Buddhism. That's perhaps a bit like a Pope saying he didn't understand Christianity.]

"If he (Hui Neng) had laid claim to an authoritative teaching that made this enlightenment understandable to those who did not possess it, then he would have been teaching something else, that is to say a doctrine about enlightenment. He would be disseminating the message of his own understanding of Zen, and in that case he would not be awakening others to Zen in themselves but imposing on them the imprint of his own understanding and teaching. Zen does not tolerate this kind of thing..."

So the job of a Zen master seems to be to awaken a deep understanding in the being of  another, not to try to describe it.

Merton goes on "the language used by Zen is therefore in some sense an antilanguage, and the "logic" of Zen is a radical reversal of philosophical logic...Zen uses language against itself to blast out our preconceptions," to let us escape from the way we see things and facts as verifications of the words we make up in our minds. We forget, says Merton, to see things, we substitute verbal concepts for the thing itself. Zen seeks to break through this into something that is always there, indescribable in ordinary verbal terms.

                                              (Thanks, Tommy lad, I found that helpful.)

So Zen is a state of being, a way of living in reality. Hence all those apparently tiresome riddles, its obsession with paradox, its insistence on meditation and not talk. It's not, in essence, a doctrine at all. It can show you techniques and procedures (how to meditate) but it can't tell you about enlightenment.

Zen may venerate Buddha, and in the East it may deal in monks and monasteries; we can, in the West, turn into a religion, or at least we can make it appear religiose, a cult, something only for the select and wise few.

Or we can find appropriate ways to seek to awaken and enter the Zen state of being, a consciousness that doesn't depend on gods, that won't be described in philosophical terms.

As Thich Nhat Hahn said, "Zen is life; it does not imitate."

And this from John Crook, of Maenllwyd:

"No guru, no church, no dependency.

Beyond the farmyard the wind in the trees.

The fool by the signless signpost

Stands pointing out the way."

But don't forget to enjoy this life:

by Billy Collins

So much gloom and doubt in our poetry—
flowers wilting on the table,
the self regarding itself in a watery mirror.
Dead leaves cover the ground,
the wind moans in the chimney,
and the tendrils of the yew tree inch toward the coffin.
I wonder what the ancient Chinese poets
would make of all this,
these shadows and empty cupboards?
Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,
Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,

This is a snobbish, selfish sort of post, isn't it?

On a walking meditation, I took the path I think of as the Secret Valley. It follows a stream through woodland. It's a lovely green tunnel, and at one point the stream runs through an ash tree, right through the base of the trunk.

 Most of my walking meditation had been on the lane leading to the entrance to the valley path; I had slightly miscalculated the time I had available, so I had to press on, above the bank of the stream, then across it and back again, a twisty, only slightly muddy path, full of fresh green leaves, and birdsong. It descended gently, until quite suddenly:
there's the sea. The path is a dead end, up above a rocky shore. 

Time to hear what the wind and the waves had to tell me. (Sorry about the wind in the mic.) Time for a little presentmomentness.

 So I was pleased to be alone, to have the entire little valley to myself, to have no-one else looking out over the sea.

Of course I'd like other people who can truly appreciate the place to visit it. But I've found too many beauty spots littered by people who, having found a lovely viewpoint, decide to defile it with their cans and wrappers. This walk had been pristine. I want it to stay like that, so if you're a selfish litterer, a thoughtlessly noisy person, a jet-skier able with one machine to ruin the peace and quiet for everyone within earshot - then I want you to stay away.

Leave the place to the waves, the wind, the sea pinks and the cries of the oyster-catchers.

I turned back feeling guilty at such selfish feelings; countryside for all? OK - but all need to know how to value it for itself.

On the way back, I checked in with the stream running through the ash tree.
The stream said I was right, it was OK to feel protective. Everything changes, all the time. The ash tree  probably won't be there in 15 years, and I may not, either. But changing the place with rubbish and noise isn't a change I want to tolerate.

So I'm afraid Mr. Smug here isn't going to tell you where it is. I'll show you, if you swear to respect the place and be with it, rather than trying to impose yourself on it.

See, I told you this was a selfish, possibly even a snobbish, post.

Too bad.


Monday, 23 May 2016

what the clouds said

This title could open the gates to a big rush of whimsy. Remember "I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it's cloud's illusions I recall..." 

These clouds last evening weren't objects of such verbal games.

 I hadn't meditated, by the early evening. You know, if you are a meditator, how it goes. You tell yourself it's much more productive to meditate every morning, even if it's for less than 30 or 40 minutes. But somehow, you don't. 

"I'll just do these few pressing little tasks first, and then.." And then it's tea-time.

So I went for a walk along the top lane. Usual thoughts - what a beautiful evening (it was) aren't we lucky to live around here (yes we are)....Then without really trying, I was there. 

All I had to do was put my attention with my feet, and walk fairly slowly. The lane stretched ahead, but it seemed like a new lane. Maybe not new, and not the same old. Just...THIS lane NOW. Something like that.

And above the lane, and field, and the hedges, and the hills - the clouds.

 These unique, always changing, never still, little clouds. Not altostratocumulusnimbus let's label and analyse them, not let's use them as symbols of illusions as in Joni Mitchell's song, not let's compare them with yesterday's clouds, or clouds somewhere else.

Just these entirely present clouds. Here and now.

Is Zen a religion? If so or not so, so... what?

There will be a point to this, I hope, about mindfulness and Zen. So bear with me, or alternatively, not....

Is Zen a religion? This might matter more than it seems. 

Let's not get bogged down in definitions, but I'd like to consider this: Zen came out of a traceable lineage in Buddhism. Buddhists tend to point out that Buddhism isn't a religion, i.e. Gautama Buddha didn't think he was a supernatural being, any more than anyone else was. Zen could be seen as the least religion-like branch of Buddhism.

However, Gautama's was an age (6th century BCE) in which his people very broadly believed in reincarnation, and therefore in a metaphysical reality beyond our observable and measurable lives. I mean, something/someone has to move from a dying person to the next object of reincarnation if the system is going to work, and it can't be the sort of being you could meet in the frozen food aisle in Tesco's... (if you think, by the way, that you have met such a being in Tesco's, maybe seek help?)

But despite this supernatural component to Buddhism, derived of course from his Hindu background, Buddha wasn't a god in the usual way we use the word; he didn't rise from the dead, ascend to heaven etc. He didn't see himself as a supernatural being, or preach to people from such a standpoint. So Buddhism isn't a religion in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic sense - though at times it sure looks like one and perhaps gets used like one.

(OK, Buddhists may say, they aren't worshipping a god here, they are merely venerating historical enlightened people. But they do ask sometimes for what a Christian might call intercession. H'mmm...)

Interestingly (to me anyway) Zen developed out of the kind of Buddhism in these photos, the Mahayana, as opposed to the rather more austere Theravada Buddism of Thailand, Burma etc. These shots are of the huge Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing.

 When Buddhism came to China from India/Nepal, a school of thought developed called Ch'an, which was influenced by Taoism. Then Japan absorbed Cha'n Buddhism and Zen developed.

That's the end of my weak attempt at a history lesson. 

Zen perhaps more than any other form of Buddhism doesn't look to me like a religion, despite having monks and temples. The stories and meditative exercises I've come across make no mention of gods, miracles, prophets of a god.

Of course, a Zen monastery looks like - well, a monastery, which most of us would call a religious institution:

amd the monks look like....
er, monks....

So, assuming you don't want to rush off to Japan, shave your head and join a monastery/nunnery, what's in it for us run-of-the-mill Western meditators? Here speaks one who may help us:

"Zen does not yet exist in the West as a living tradition. Many monks are teaching the practice of Zen there, but this practice remains oriental; foreign to western culture. The fact is that Zen has not yet been able to find roots in this soil. Cultural, economic and psychological conditions are different. One cannot become a practitioner of Zen by imitating the way of eating, sitting or dressing of the Chinese or Japanese practitioners. Zen is life; Zen does not imitate. If Zen one day becomes a reality in the West, it will acquire a Western form, considerably different from Oriental Zen."                                              Thich Nhat Hahn

 "Zen is life; Zen does not imitate." I'll carry that thought forward to my next post on this subject. Please do try to contain your eager impatience....

Monday, 16 May 2016

Silence, or quiet?

A useful prompt from Messrs. Laurel and Hardy. We usually mean "not talking" when we talk about silence. Keeping quiet.

I can imagine few more terrifying things than total, absolute, zero-sounds silence. On earth, we can make rooms so effectively sound-dampened and insulated that if you go into one and don't talk, it's pretty close to absolute silence. An anechoic chamber.

 People really don't enjoy being in them. The record endurance in there is, apparently, 45 minutes. Total absolute zero silence I guess you'd get in space, because without atmosphere you can't have the vibrations we call sound. (I'm now going to doggy-paddle hastily back into my depth in the physics swimming-pool...)

So a silent retreat, a silent meditation, is simply a time during which we don't speak, and we seek therefore not to listen to words. On retreats, we are usually encouraged not to read much either. The final touch is to avoid extensive eye contact. Nothing wrong perhaps (views vary) with a quick friendly smile when passing someone in the corridor, but  too much direct gaze can break the...whatever it is that's going on in your head.

Is it scary, lonely, oppressive, to keep quiet for a day or two? I don't find it so, particularly if you are with a group of like-minded people similarly intent on it. It certainly has a gentle but powerful cumulative effect over a few days. The quiet can be broken - a "how's it going, anything to tell us?" discussion or a one-to-one chat half-way through I found very valuable. 

So it's not silence. Hearing natural sounds can be a great help, for example. I don't recollect anyone saying "curse that blackbird, singing away, he's broken the silence!" It's simply not talking, and not listening to much other than guidance at the start of or during a meditation. 

The effect is powerful but difficult to describe, other than it helps you to feel you are in the present moment. When I come out of silence, I often don't want to talk much for a bit, to ease myself gently back into the richness of verbal discourse (and its frequent and sometimes enjoyable banality, of course.)

Similarly, in ceremonies funereal or matrimonial, people sometimes shy away from the idea of a minute or two's silence; yet communal silence, when all present are thinking of the same person or people, can be very powerful, joining up those present at a different level, in a different way from speech. 

We shy away from silence, I think, because we are surronded by, conditioned by and perhaps addicted to verbal input. How often have you, sitting alone to eat, reached out for something, anything, to read? Just this morning I reached unthinkingly for the cereal packet. I mean, who cares about riboflavin anyway? I thought I needed words. How about just eating, and being with that?

Then there's the mobile phone. I'll just pop it beside me on the table because...I don't know why because. It is comforting. I exist. Someone is getting in touch, so I must mean something out there in the cosmos.

Well you do, but however powerful your mobile is (I love mine, too!) it can't tell you what you mean in the cosmos. Silence and meditation are much more likely to get you There. The phone can wait, monkey-mind!

You can't phone the Tao, and if you could, you'd just get - silence. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

St Beuno's part 2

St Beuno's describes itself as an "Ignatian Spirituality Centre." Ignatian, as no doubt you know but just in case, refers to St. Ignatius Loyola, he who founded the Society of Jesus, aka The Jesuits. 

The shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation, seeking to purify Catholicism of those corrupt and worldly practices that had helped the Protestants to gain ground across Europe in the mid-16th century. Ignatius had been a soldier, and apparently his writings very much emphasize fighting evil, battling the works of Satan and so on. All very dualistic.

I don't know a lot about the Jesuits but I mention all this just to explain something of the ethos I found at St Beuno's. A "spirituality centre" sounds a little as though you might find New Age Pagans, Tibetan Buddhists, evangelical Christians, Druids, Hare Krishnas etc etc all  grooving away meditating, worshipping the sun, whatever path you're on. 

But the spirituality (increasingly woolly word, these days) is, of course, very definitely Roman Catholic. St B's used to train Catholic priests, i.e. it was a college, but now it is a retreat centre, and a specifically Catholic one. 

So what was it like to be a solo retreatant intent not on Christian prayer and Ignatian exercises, but on Buddhist-derived mindfulness mediation? 

 If you join a group of strangers on retreat who share sessions with you, it's a different experience, of course, from being solo. I found it strange to be alone and silent at mealtimes, knowing the other retreatants, also silent, were engaged in their own thing, not mine. I felt oddly self-conscious. All in my own head, of course.

Since it is a place of devout Catholic studies, it is hardly surprising that the corridors were full of literature for sale, sculptures of the Holy Family...and large crucifixes. I found a little of looking at a large sculpture of a man being tortured to death went a very long way, for me. But then good and brave though he may have been, and many truths he may have told, I don't believe Jesus died for my sins and was raised from the dead on the third day. So life-size crucifixes were a purely gruesome sight.

This isn't a grumble - how could it be? Their gaff, their rules. I expected it, and anyway, I was a guest, at a very reasonable price, of a centre that specialises in beliefs and practices that are a long way from mindfulness meditation. 

But what it does mean is that, despite the peace and quiet, and the friendly welcomes and goodbyes from the helpful office there, it's not really my kind of place.  Swarthmoor, the Quaker retreat centre in the Lake District, seemed much more neutral, plainer, lighter, somewhere I am more in tune with. Trigonos, for specifically mindfulness meditation retreats, was ideal, though I think retreats there are expensive.

What I did value greatly at St Beuno's were the gardens and grounds. In particular, there is a tiny building, the Rock Chapel, hidden by trees on a rocky outcrop. You collect the key, walk across fields, duck under the temporary farmer's electric fence (not very spiritual of him!) and walk up to this:

Inside it is lit by sunlight pouring through small stained glass windows of abstract design and lovely bright colours. It was a perfect spot for a peaceful meditation.

There was a crucifix, but mercifully, it was small and quite abstract so your squeamish reporter was untroubled by it.

There is also a labyrinth in the gardens, which I found very useful for walking meditations:

 Your feet crunch on the gravel. Less attractive than the grassy one at Swarthmoor, but somehow very conducive to some presentmomentness.

The gardens and woods were full of birdsong:
which was quite magical - beautiful and calming. Bluebells and wild garlic help a lot, too, and some wonderful beech trees.

In the distance, over the roofs of St Beuno's, I could see the A55, by way of contrast. There goes the world, about it's business - time for me to re-join it.

So I had found a place apart, a place for some meditation, for which I thank it and them; but perhaps not a place, I think, to which I'm likely to return - despite wonderful sunsets over the Clwyd valley towards the sea.


Friday, 13 May 2016

what the A55 said - en route to St Beuno's

Having decided to take a couple of days of silence at a suitable and not-too-distant retreat centre of some kind or another,  I trained and bussed to St Asaph, then walked the 3.3 miles to St Beuno's. Certain amount of leg-pulling at home about my private pilgrimage  - you can imagine..."no, I won't have to get up at four in the morning for matins, or wear a long robe, it's not a monastery, or eat gruel at every meal..."

But although I didn't see myself as a pilgrim, it did feel quite special, a new experience, to be approaching such a place on foot.

A pleasant walk at first; idyllic moments gazing at Afon Clwyd. 

The picture is deceptive. A few yards further on, over the river, and what's this ahead?

The A55. From the footbridge over it,  the blast of noise, the pressure of the speed, is almost overwhelming.
 Well, that's quite enough of that. If you've ever been stuck on  the hard shoulder, (bad luck - so dangerous!) you'll know what I mean. I'd rather listen to that river.

But there's no point in being self-righteous about this. I might be en route to a couple of simple and tranquil days' living, I might feel virtuous because I'm walking the last bit, but I've driven at 80 mph along this road myself, many a time. And being close to this horrible racket is a useful experience - makes me remember that it really is worth trying to drive as infrequently as possible. So what the A55 says to me is "keep off me as often as you can."

It hardly seems possible that this corridor of noise and tension should co-exist with that peaceful little river. The impact on its surroundings of a fast road like this is so much more than omnipresent noise for many many yards all around. It's a huge slice of the land, slicing through whatever continuities existed previously. It's all that exhaust gas. Perhaps the only upside is that motorway verges act as longitudinal nature reserves, and corriders for species distribution. Kestrels like to hunt them.

This road doesn't even have proper motorway-type verges. It was a motorway on the cheap, dangerous and in places not well engineered. But it is an E route to and from Ireland. Everything on it is in a big hurry.

Happily, I'm not - lucky me. I plod on, alongside the noise for a little while, steadily up hill, getting hot - my backpack is quite heavy, containing as it does, in addition to the usual necessities, a couple of books and a Very Special (large) Notebook for Inscribing Great Thoughts. (It didn't exactly get over-filled...)

I pass through a very settled comfortable-looking little village, under the A55, and then I'm very pleased to be hauling myself wearily up the drive to St Beuno's.

Of which, more anon.


Tuesday, 3 May 2016

what the heartwood said

This is heartwood, from a big log I split today. We were sad to lose a grand old oak that had been leaning at 45 degrees for many a year, till the storms of January/February took it down to 20 degrees, and made it dangerous (or so my neighbour said) so it had to be cut back to the fence line. 

It smells wonderful - rich, damp and complex. The patterns in the wood are beautiful - irregular yet coherent, a living thing. Hard to believe that something so tough is the product of a plant.

"Hearts of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men" - from "Rule. Brittania," not such a popular song these days, but something sung in school when I was small. That salutes oak as a valuable raw material to build the ships that did indeed rule the waves,centuries back.

When it's seasoned and dried, it will burn well in our log stove - another very different use of the heartwood as a raw material.

But there's something else to consider, other than its usefulness to Nelson's navy and our stove.

It's a time machine, like any grown thing; it carries its unique history in its structure. It has a story to tell us that we can't really read in any detail. Stifling summers, bitter frosts, raging storms, calm autumn mornings, all grown into its structure and recorded in its patterns and shapes.

When is such wood dead? It looks, in its heartwood, as it did when the tree stood tall, I'm sure.  But it can grow no more, so I guess it is very slowly changing its state. No more feeding, no more growing,  just a slow drying out, and then, if it had been without human intereference, a wetting, a slow rot, host to countless organisms. 

But as it is now, a log to throw out some heat, and then ash. 

So let's sniff at it again, pause and look at its beautiful roughness, acknowledge its hardness and strength (it's a bugger to split, I can tell you that.) Let its past stand up and be counted in its present state. No need to rush it into the stove; it's been centuries growing, and although its time-scale is very different from mine,  for the last ten years its shared the same wind, sunshine and rain as me. Copmpanions, of a sort. A tutor to me, for sure.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Meditation gateways

Six or seven of us have formed a meditation group that meets every fortnight. I think we are quite varied in our approaches. Some of us meditate just about every morning, others less frequently. We also very in our belief bases, from Buddhist through "kind of a bit of a Buddhist," from agnostic to atheist. 

Partly, that last statement is guesswork- we don't discuss beliefs directly because it isn't directly relevant to the practical and deeply rewarding business of meditating together at regular intervals. If it became relevant we'd discuss it, I'm confident of that.

Our basic methodology comes from the classic mindfulness based stress reduction course (MBSR) developed out of the work of John Kabat Zinn and others.

(this above isn't us, btw; our average age is, erm..  a bit higher than this lot's - but there's a nice informal look to this group that is like how we go on)

Lately we have been interested in the potential of words and music to act as gateways to a meditation. Usually, we meditate in silence and only occasionally have a guided meditation. The idea of a verbal or musical gateway is simply to lead in to whatever sort of meditation each of us might then want to carry on with.

On an MBSR retreat or silent day a poem is often read out to the meditators just before a session. Something one of us learned on a Quaker-run retreat is a different use of words, a little further away from the usual MBSR practice, I think.

The ancient Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina involves four stages: read, meditate, pray, contemplate. It does not seek to analyse Christian scriptures but rather sees the words as divine, as powerful in and of themselves. Through the word of God you can exist in a closer relationship to God. (Any devout Catholics out there will have to forgive me if that's a pretty crude summary. They may also have to forgive me truncating and de-Christianising their methodology. Blame the Quakers, they led us to this!)

What we sought to do the other day is derived from that practice, insofar as we were encouraged to read through a number of passages, prose and poetry, until a short sequence of words "spoke" to each of us. In other words, it drew our minds to it, rather than us fussing ourselves up to look for meaning. Let the words find us, perhaps.

We were encouraged not to analyse or judge, but simply and for as long as felt right, to let our minds be with the phrases each of us chose- then to move into a meditation. 

To help us not to judge, to leave the ego out of it as far as possible, the passages were not credited to their authors. We didn't want "Oh no wonder that isn't for me, I've never liked late Romantic poetry," or vice versa, we wanted a kind of mutual attraction to develop between our minds and the words, wherever they came from. Just the words, and not too many of them. Excerpts from excerpts. Words as agents in the service of silent meditation, no more.

Each of us in different ways seemed to find this useful, and interestingly different from our usual practice, because each of us chose the excerpt that suited that individual, rather than all listening to the same poem, and because we did so in silence before moving into silence. (Different, not necessarily better, nb)

So this gateway idea seemed to work well, and we may use it some more. 

Here are a few of the passages we considered, also anonymised in case you fancy the idea.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Like a pebble
that rolls downhill
I arrive at today
My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by
 what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance –
and changes us, if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave ...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
All my larder
“best before”
To travel like a bird, lightly to view
Deserts where stone gods founder in the sand,
Ocean embraced in a white sleep with land;
To escape time, always to start anew.
To settle like a bird, make one devoted
Gesture of permanence upon the spray
Of shaken stars and autumns: in a bay
Beyond the crestfallen surges to have floated.
Each is our wish. Alas, the bird flies blind,
Hooded by a dark sense of destination:
Her weight on the glass calm leaves no impression,
Her home is soon a basketful of wind.
Travellers, we are fabric of the road we go;
We settle, but like feathers on time's flow.
on my empty diary
The pivot of Tao passes through the centre
where all affirmations and denials converge.
He who grasps the pivot is at the still-point
from which all movements and oppositions
can be seen in their right relationship...
Abandoning all thought of imposing a limit or taking sides,  he rests in direct intuition.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.

Three crows in a bare tree
proclaim the meaning of life
                            as usual

  The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

  Always we hope
someone else has the answer,
some other place will be better,
some other time it will all turn out.

This is it.
No-one else has the answer.
No other place will be better,
and it has already turned out.

At the centre of your being
you have the answer;
you know who you are
and you know what you want.

There is no need
to run outside
for better seeing,
nor peer from a window.

Rather abide at the centre of your being;
for the more you leave it, the less you learn.
Search your heart
and see:
the way to do
is to be.

But nb eventually you need to let go of the words and meditate, in case this happens:

which it might if you start analysing and criticising the passages.