Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Breathing Meditation

What is meditation?

This is about setting time aside to be calm and at peace. It is very different from most other types of prayer in that it is not about talking to God, or even listening to God, but simply being there. The aim is simply to sit there, trying to free your mind from thinking about anything in particular. You are not trying to achieve anything, or say anything, or do anything: you are just taking time to be.

In the Christian tradition, this tends to be called Contemplative Prayer rather than Meditation, but the technique or discipline is very similar. In Christian contemplation, the underlying assumption is that when you spend time just being, you are being with God. You don’t even have to busy yourself thinking good thoughts about God: just be, and let yourself become aware of yourself in God’s presence.

Meditative techniques

When you try it, you may well find that it is surprisingly hard to simply sit still in silence, even for a few minutes. Because people tend to find this very difficult, various different practices have developed to help you focus. The two main ones are concentrating on your breathing, and repeating the same word or phrase over and over - usually either in silence, or just under your breath. These are well known techniques in virtually every spiritual tradition. They are often combined, so that you say a word, or part of a phrase, on the in breath, and repeat it, or say the other part of the phrase, on the out breath.

The actual word or phrase (known as a ‘mantra’ in some spiritual traditions) isn’t important. It is simply there to help you meditate, rather than saying it being the point of the exercise (and it certainly doesn’t have any sort of magical power). The most common phrase used in the Christian tradition is a very old, short prayer known as the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, A Sinner’. Other people use a favourite bible verse, or simply the word ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’. Don’t worry about choosing the ‘right’ word. For now, I suggest that you use the Jesus Prayer if you want to use words.

Some people also find visualisation helpful. You can begin your meditation by imagining going into a secluded, beautiful place - somewhere where you are alone and safe, and can leave whenever you want. Imagine yourself walking across a threshold into that place: going through a gateway or door, or down some steps, and then sitting there. For example, you could imagine walking down some steps into a sunken garden, or through a gate into a meadow, or along a path through sand dunes to a beach.

Physically, concentrating on your breathing calms you down and makes you more aware of your own body. Mentally, it helps you to free your mind from distractions, and it gives you something to focus on while you deliberately choose to take time out of your busy life to spend that time on prayer or meditation. Spiritually, taking time to just be with God helps us to focus on who we really are in relation to God, and helps counter-act the tendency for us to want to ‘get really good’ at prayer. It helps us to become aware of our true selves, with all the things that we do and say to try to give a good impression to other people stripped away. It also gives us space to listen to God, and to receive any image or suggestion that God may be trying to give us but that we are normally too busy to hear: but don’t let ‘trying to hear God’ become the point of the exercise! The aim is simply to be: don’t expect any particular results.

The Experiment

First, find somewhere where you can be comfortable, still and undisturbed. Most people sit, but find a position that is most comfortable for you: what matters is that you can stay there for the time you have set aside.

Now set an alarm on your phone etc., to set the amount of time you are going to set aside. I suggest that you start with 10 minutes - you may want to build up to 20 minutes or half an hour over time.

Then shut your eyes, and begin to concentrate on your breathing. Be aware of each breath in - and out. If you are saying the Jesus Prayer, say a phrase on each breath, in and out. You will probably find that your breathing begins to slow down.

After a while, become conscious of your body: of the weight of your limbs, how it feels to be sitting. You might find that you begin to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. You might also find yourself disturbed by noises from outside your room. Just notice what you are feeling or hearing. Notice it kindly, don’t tell yourself off for being distracted by it. Mentally acknowledge what is there, then focus on your breathing again.

It is completely normal to find that all sorts of thoughts and worries come rushing in - from big important things that you must remember to do, to all sorts of trivialities. It is also normal to find that you suddenly realise your mind has wandered. Again, don’t worry. When you notice a thought, a worry, or a feeling, or realise that your mind has wandered, just notice it kindly, and then consciously return your focus to your breathing. It is when you are distracted like this that repeating something like the Jesus Prayer can be particularly helpful, as it gives you somethign to focus on when you need to bring your attention back.

Doing this may well feel really weird. We are very rarely still, silent, and have nothing to keep our minds occupied. So when we do, it can feel very uncomfortable. Even those who make a habit of doing this for half an hour or more a day find it difficult at times. You may find yourself getting very annoyed. Just accept any weirdness and discomfort, notice it, and keep concentrating on your breathing.

If you are using the Jesus Prayer, you may want to drop parts of it as you go, so that it gets shorter. In the end, you may be left with only one or two words, just repeating those on the in and out breaths.

Keep at it until your alarm sounds. If you visualised going somewhere, now visualise leaving it: walking back out through that threshold, knowing you can return whenever you want. If you were using the Jesus Prayer, say it one last time and then say ‘Amen’, out loud.

Monday, 28 July 2014

ACTS 4: Supplication (aSking): Prayer tree.

Supplication (also known as Asking, or Intercession) is the final element of the ACTS four-part balanced diet of prayer. This is probably the kind of prayer that you are most familiar with. For many people, praying mainly means asking God to do things, to look after people, and to intervene in situations.

In most church services, there is a time of Intercessory Prayer when the concerns of the congregation are lifted up to God. Typically these include prayers for the church, the world, the suffering, and those who have died or are dying and their families. These prayers are often referred to simply as ‘The Prayers’, when they are in fact just one of the many kinds of prayer that are used in the service.

Is it OK to ask God for things?

Sometimes, this kind of praying is criticised or looked down on, as if it was just about sending a wish list to a kind of cosmic Father Christmas. But although just asking God for things would be a very limited kind of praying, asking God is something that Jesus told people to do. For example, one of the parables (stories with a message) that Jesus told was the parable of the persistent widow:

‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about people. And there was a widow in the town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary’. For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so the she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming’! And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to God day and night?’ (Luke 18:2-7).

Jesus also included the line ‘give us today our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer he taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray.

So, far from being embarrased to ask God for the things we need and desire, we should make sure we regularly include an element of asking in our prayers.

As with thanksgiving, asking God to help means a lot more than just what it seems on the surface. In no particular order:

  • It means admitting that we can’t achieve everything we want to happen by ourselves. Very often there are situations around the world, and closer to home, that make us feel helpless. We feel powerless to make a difference, and yet we feel very strongly that something must be done. In asking God’s help, we are acknowledging the limits of our own influence.

  • We are also, though, opening ourselves up to the possibility that we may have to do something to be part of the solution. In asking God to help in a situation, it is always worth listening for a while after asking, in case you hear something that you can do. In this kind of prayer we consciously volunteer ourselves as God’s assistants or co-workers in bringing about change.

  • Supplication is also a confession of faith in God. By asking God to intervene in a situation, we are saying we believe that God has the power to do so. This doesn’t mean we expect miracles to happen every time we pray, but it does mean we are opening our minds to the possibility of God’s transforming power making a difference in the world. Regularly asking for God’s help cultivates an attitude of hopeful expectancy in us.

What should we ask for?

The short answer is, anything that is on your mind! The Bible is full of examples of people asking for what they most want, from good things like food, water, and justice, to bad things like revenge.

Basically, the rule of thumb is to be honest. Tell God what you are really feeling, what you are desparate about, what you want more than anything in the world. The Christian belief is that God knows what you are thinking anyway, of course, so you might as well be honest! God isn’t going to think any better of you for trying to hide your true feelings and desires.

The Experiment: A Prayer Tree

Gather some twigs, and put them in a vase or empty jam jar; or you could use a fairly substantial potted plant for this, or even a jewellery tree.

Now get some little notes to hang on the twigs. The easiest thing is to use gift tags with a hanging loop of thread already attached. Or just use pieces of paper, either plain or cut out to look like leaves. Use a hole punch or a sharp pencil to make a hole in each one, and a loop of thread, wool or gift ribbon so it can be hung on the tree.

Write each person or situation that you want to ask God’s help for on one of the tags, and hang it on the tree, consciously giving that person or situation to God and handing over your worry about it to God as you do so.

Then place the tree somewhere in your room. You might want to sit and pray through each of the tags each day, or once a week, and you can add new ones whenever you like. When one no longer needs praying for, you can remove it from the tree. You might want to keep any prayers that you feel have been answered in a box: if you keep adding to the tree regularly, then this box could become a lovely record of answered prayers.

Monday, 21 July 2014

ACTS 3: Thanksgiving. Making a Jar of Thanksgiving!

Why say thank you to God?

Do you remember being given things when you were a child? Being given birthday and Christmas presents by family and friends? Being given a share in someone else’s sweets, or someone else’s game, at school? If so, you can probably also remember parents or teachers hissing ‘say thank you!’ to you! Saying plese and thank you - ‘minding your Ps and Qs’ - is a basic element of the politeness that is dinned into us as children.

But strangely enough, having learnt to be polite can be a problem when it comes to praying! Because we don’t say thank you to God for quite the same reasons as we thank other people. So if you have been used to thinking of saying thank you as simply being polite, that can get in the way of prayers of thanksgiving. So it is worth taking a step back, and asking why thanksgiving is included in this ‘ACTS’ idea of a balanced diet of prayer.

First of all, it is worth repeating: we don’t say thank you to God just to be polite, or to make God feel better! We say thank you to God mainly because of what that does to us. Saying thank you means that we doing two important things:

  • We are choosing to look at the good things in our lives with gratitude, not just focus on things that aren’t right; and
  • We are acknowledging that everything we have comes from God.

Let’s look at what each of those means in a bit more detail.

First, we are choosing to concentrate on the good. There is an old saying, ‘Count your blessings’, and it is generally true that if we focus on the good things in life rather than the bad, we are likely to be much happier. We all know people who can find something to moan about in every situation, and they are not usually very pleasant to be around! Focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the bad things in life - after all, sometimes things are seriously wrong and need to be challenged. But even in some of the worst situations there are likely to be good things that we can give thanks to God for.

Secondly, when we thank God for all the good things we have received, we are acknowledging that everything comes from God. This means at least two things. First, it means we are recognising God as the Creator, the basic source of everything, from the Big Bang onward. So thanking God is a statement of faith. Secondly, it means recognising that all the good things we have are not ours by right, but are gifts. Even the things that we ourselves have achieved or have earned, we are only able to do because of the gifts of character, talent and aptitude that we are born with, and because of the circumstances in which we are born. How much would we be able to achieve if we had been born several hundred years ago, not had an education, had parents who were unable or unwilling to look after us, or if we had been born into extreme poverty, or had caught a serious illness and died early in life? So thanking God means both recognising ourselves as gifted people, and cultivating a sense of humility. In thanking God for our gifts we gradually come to see ourselves both as someone that God loves and showers with gifts, but also as no more special or loved by God than anyone else!

The Problems

Because it means all this, saying thank you to God is an important part of the Christian tradition of prayer. But it can often become quite repetitive and boring. People often find that when it comes to saying thank you, their mind goes blank! Or we repeat ourselves, saying thank you to God for the same, obvious things every time we pray - maybe family, friends, good weather, good marks at school, and so on.

Sometimes, too, people find that they tangle themselves in knots wondering whether they should thank God for something - from good weather to a cure for an illness - because if God sent that, does that mean God also decided not to do the same for other people? In a world where people die from illnesses and natural disasters every day, it can be hard to be sure whether God is directly intervening as a result of our prayers, or whether that is something we should expect. We’ll look at this problem in more detail in the next experiment (Supplication, or Asking). Foor now, the important thing to remember is that the purpose of giving thanks is mainly about us cultivating a thankful and appropriately humble attitude to life.

The Experiment

To help focus your prayers of thanksgiving, try making a Jar of Thankfulness. There are two ways you could do this, depending on what materials you have available.

1. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to use paper, and some kind of pot: an empty, clean jam jar with the label removed works well. (If you do use a jar, this works particularly well if you use coloured paper, as you will be able to see the colour through the glass sides). Cut the paper into strips or patches (about the size of a book of stamps works well). On each one, write something that you are thankful for, and add them to the jar. Keep a spare supply of pieces of paper next to the jar, and whenever you think of something new to say thanks for, add it to the jar.

2. If you would like to make this more personal and more involved, and can get hold of some air-drying clay, first make a clay jar or pot. Then also make a series of tokens, or coins, each one representing something that you are thankful for. You could either make each token in the shape of something that represents that gift, or you could make them all coin-shaped and scratch words onto them with a sharp pencil or cocktail stick. When they have all dried (this usually takes 1-2 days), put the tokens into the jar. Make a selection of spare, blank tokens too, to keep next to the jar for adding new things later: you will be able to write on these with a felt tip pen or marker when they are dry.

Once you have your Jar of Thankfulness, keep it somewhere safe where you will see it regularly - perhaps on your windowsill, bedside table, or in a prayer corner with any other prayer items that you have made. When you sit down to pray, take a handful of the contents out and say thank you for those, adding any new ones that you have thought of that day to the jar. Doing this will mean you keep some variety in your prayers, and also slowly build up more and more things to be thankful for.