Tag Archives: Meditatio Centre

Meditatio House: Stay Awake (and Do What is Appropriate) (Part 1)

Recently the community at Meditatio House was privileged to have Robert Kennedy (Zen master and Jesuit priest) with us for lunch. He was to present a workshop at our Meditatio Centre that evening.

Robert Kennedy teaches and practices Zen meditation at Morning Star Zendo in New Jersey.

It was wonderful to spend time with Fr. (and Roshi) Kennedy during the informal time of lunch. Those present had the opportunity to share and ask questions about Zen, Christianity, and meditation.

During this exchange Fr. Kennedy said what he cautiously considered to be the essence of Zen. He described this essence as: “Stay awake, and do what is appropriate.”

Stay awake…

Zen, like all great spiritual traditions, invites us to be in the present moment. Ultimately, the past is memory and the future is fantasy. A human alive to the now is a human fully being and ready to express this being now.

To be awake is the essential work of being present to each moment as it comes, to experience the moment with our senses alive in the moment. Even describing the present as ‘each moment’ is to kind of ‘hem it in’ with a past and a future on either side. Being awake is being awake now with notions of ‘past’ and ‘future’ forgotten.

How do we stay awake? We practice in our lives that which anchors sense and experience now. One such way is the practice of Zen meditation.

That evening Fr. Kennedy guided us through a session of Zen meditation. He asked us to use the Zen mantra mu (pronounced ‘moo’ with lips slackened). We said aloud and together this mantra for about five minutes, exclaiming it from deep in the gut as we exhaled. It is in the gut, just below the belly button, where the Zen meditator experiences their centre. After this opening five minutes we repeated mu softly and to ourselves in union with our breathing.

We were asked to keep our eyes open rather than have them closed. Fr. Kennedy invited us to fix our eyes on one point in front of us. He suggested between the shoulder blades of the person in front of us. He asked that we focus on this point and look nowhere else. For the Zen meditator keeping the eyes open and fixed is an aid to staying alert in the now.

As we meditated Fr. Kennedy taught us. This is the way a Zen master can choose to teach – as the student meditates. The teaching serves the now, is in the now. In the practice of being now, the student is taught about the now in both word and experience.

The practice of Christian meditation differs in some aspects to Zen meditation. Some aspects stood out for me after experiencing Fr. Kennedy’s brief introduction to Zen meditation. Rather than saying aloud our mantra, the Christian meditator repeats the mantra internally. Also, our eyes are closed rather than being open with gaze fixed. Finally, any teaching with words is done before and/or after a session of Christian meditation, not during.

What struck me in the (brief and introductory) experience of Zen meditation we had with Fr. Kennedy was the absence of an emphasis on silence. Mu was said aloud, and then whispered; Fr. Kennedy taught while the meditation was happening; the eyes remained open. In the emphasis on the now that Zen teaches, silence seemed to take a back seat.

Within the practice of Christian meditation there seems to be a reversal of this emphasis: the now seems to take a back seat to a coming to stillness and then a moving into silence. The mantra, sounded interiorly and with eyes closed, draws attention into stillness and then into the mystery of silence. Closed eyes assist this journey into silence.

A question arising from this very basic and incomplete comparison of the way in which these two meditation traditions approach meditation is: are silence and the now somehow mutually exclusive? Another way of asking this question is to ask: it possible to view silence and the now as somehow complimentary?

It is possible for Christian and the Zen meditators to answer this question from their own experience of meditation. Being a Christian and a meditator, how can I answer the above question in the light of my own experience?

A fruit of the work of giving attention to the mantra (along with a growth in silence) is consciousness becoming grounded more and more now. The Christian meditator, over time, experiences the past and the future fall away. Indeed, a self-conscious awareness of the present also falls away – self consciousness (or ego) can get in the way of being now.

As this happens we discover, thanks to this non-reflective experience, that silence and the now are part of the same experience. There can be no experience of silence without being now; there can be no experience of being now without silence. Now is silence; silence is now. It could be argued that this insight from experience can be the insight of any meditator from any tradition.

It is assumed that as the Zen meditator continues in their practice, becoming more experienced and more grounded in the now, that there is less reason for the Zen master to teach with words. With eyes open and fixed, and with mu gently said, the Zen meditator falls into the silent now, the now of silence.

In this silent now any meditator from any well-founded tradition of meditation can come to be in the oneness within and beyond all things.

In Christian meditation, as we go beyond any notions of now and silence, we experience the no-where of the Divine Life. In this no-where we discover ourselves in the prayer of the risen Jesus. The light of Christ then shines more brightly in the practicalities of our Christian and human lives.

Meditatio House: Fear and the Blowfly Mind

Many of us may be familiar with the term ‘monkey mind’. Thubten Chodron, Buddhist author, teacher and Abbess, writes that the expression was used by the Buddha

to describe the agitated, easily distracted and incessantly moving behaviour of ordinary human consciousness (Taming the Monkey Mind, 1995).

We have all experienced this; the way consciousness can create, roam in, attach to, and identify with a vast array of thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions that move within us. Thubten Chodron uses a quote from the Buddha to further illustrate her monkey mind point:

Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.’ (S.II,95).

Recently, at Meditatio House, while we were meditating, I was distracted by a fly. It had earlier made its way into the meditation room and was now trying to get out. It was continually flying into the glass bay doors that allow access to the back yard. It would hit the glass and continue to fly, trying to force its way through the invisible barrier in its way. The noise was one long buzz, a buzz which would run for a few seconds until the fly needed to rest. After resting it would start again. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!


The noise reminded me of an expression which I heard a friend of mine from Australia use once to describe an agitated, active human consciousness: the blowfly mind. Australia is (in)famous for its flies – they can be big and loud and are numerous. Imagine half a dozen of the things hitting a glass window, buzzing and buzzing and buzzing. Now that is an analogy for an over-active mind, an analogy easily comparable to a tree full of chattering monkeys!

Spirituality calls these energetic movements of consciousness distractions. But what are they distracting us from, and who is doing the distracting?

Perhaps we are continuing a long-term pattern of being distracted from our own psychological woundedness. It is the ego (the energy of surface consciousness) that can draw attention away from this woundedness. Perhaps there is a well-founded belief that we need protection from these wounds, and that to ‘get on’ with life we cannot afford to waste time on hurts and the past.

We may have begun to call these wounds we are trying to avoid (with distractions) our distractions. The real distractions we may be experiencing as welcome relief.

For me, it was feelings of anxiety being covered over by the ‘welcome relief’ of TV, warped religion, and tertiary study. It was these external activities that fed the ‘necessary’ internal movement (the blowflies) that was distraction from the anxiety.

As the years passed, however, the anxiety became too prominent, too strong for my ego to contain with distraction. This anxiety (essentially a fear of the future) was being intensified, fed by a churning mind. My mind churned life as a problem to solve. I would be safer, I believed, if I could work life out before living it. I wanted to eliminate failure and rejection, or at least minimise them. There had already been too much rejection. Eventually (and with help) I came to see that I was actually living anxiety rather than living life.

These blowflies, as they draw attention to the surface, cause us to forget something else: our deeper self, that mysterious being which is our true selves in God. Ego doesn’t want attention there. More attention on this self is less attention on ego. So the blowflies keep buzzing attention away from this deep mystery of who we are.

The difficulty with this is that in order to experience the reality of the Divine Life we first must be in contact with this mysterious self. This is a foundational insight of spiritual and human life. If our attention is too caught up in ego-driven distraction, then there will be limited opportunity to experience this self, and so God. There may be experiences of awe, wonder, and love which suspend ego and distractions long enough for us to get an experiential ‘glimpse’ of something deeper; however these brief experiences are not enough to build a long term and transformative life of prayer on.

What is needed is a commitment to a prayer practice that trains attention away from distractions. We are then in a better position to experience self and from there the Divine. Engagement with a practice like this can require courage because it will gently invite us to face what we have been distracted from: our own wounds, our own interior life.

I can still remember the first time I realised that what I was feeling, creating, and desperately trying to avoid was anxiety. I was 24 years old. I had a choice: I could continue to avoid anxiety by avoiding life (and thus feed depression), or I could learn to live with the anxiety and, over time and with help, experience the roots of it and allow grace to heal.

Christian meditation is a practice that has as its essential component the training of attention away from distraction. For many of us it is a particularly courageous act to begin and continue with the mantra. The way to the experience of self and, ultimately, into God is also a way that takes many of us through suffering. This suffering, thankfully, is not a dead end, and is not without hope. What is waiting for us is the experience of new life in the deep self. This self was always there, though only known (mostly) on the edge of consciousness.

A deep, persistent longing for God to somehow ‘save me’ would draw me on. Opportunities to ‘walk through fear’ and into life allowed me to experience, bit by bit, this deeper being of my self. Soon, and with guidance, I came to see that this self was in God. My being was held in Being and, in time, I experienced this Being as Love. As anxiety faded a life of love grew. My companion on this journey was the mantra. With it grace quietly healed and with it grace uncovered from my past what I needed to experience and name. And so it continues.


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