TKcropIt’s always sad to hear of a death. The knowledge of a life passing means the loss of a connection, and our bodies react instinctively to that. Too many people seem to go too soon, but having reached the age of 95, that at least can’t be said of Fr Thomas Keating.

Fr Thomas, a Trappist Monk, died this week, and with his death comes the end of the life of a man who profoundly influenced me and many others in our approach to the Christian life.

I don’t remember exactly where or when I first heard of Centering prayer – although I know what era of my life it was, I was living in South Wales, and was at that time developing my interest in all things contemplation and meditation.  Reading Fr Thomas’ book ‘Open Mind Open Heart’ was a release and a revelation to me at that time. I’ve also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the youtube videos in which he appeared, which have been immensely helpful to me in the development of my own meditation practise.

When I started practising Centering prayer I found it life giving and freeing – and ever since then I have encouraged others to follow the same path.

Centering prayer is the nearest tradition to a Zazen practise that I have fully engaged with, and that was something else that Fr Thomas taught me. A respectful and humble approach to wisdom and spiritual traditions which are different to my own has now been part of my life for so many years its hard to imagine being any other way, but of course it wasn’t always like this.

For me it was crucial to find pioneers like Fr Thomas leading the way in to genuine interreligious dialogue, he acted as a kind of permission giver in my own journey in to deep friendships with those of other religions. I can honestly reflect on those relationships and recognise immense treasures that have come from them, they have challenged, stimulated and encouraged me in ways I could never have expected otherwise.

So while I feel a sense of sadness at the passing of this wonderful man, who I never had the chance to meet, I have a much greater sense of gratitude, both for his life, and for his many gifts.

Sociologists and theologians have much to say about the idea of gift, because gifts are transactions, we give in the expectation of receiving something in return. So we approach life in this way, we expect to have to earn good things, we struggle with the idea of accepting something entirely un-earned. Fr Thomas recognised this challenge in terms of our approach to spirituality: “The gift of God is absolutely gratuitous. It’s not something you earn. It’s something that’s there. It’s something you just have to accept. This is the gift that has been given. There’s no place to go to get it. There’s no place you can go to avoid it. It just is. It’s part of our very existence. And so the purpose of all the great religions is to bring us into this relationship with reality that is so intimate that no words can possibly describe it.”

I am running a meditation retreat in a fortnight, Centering prayer will be the key approach and technique for that time, and on that weekend of remembrance, we will find a way of remembering Fr Thomas.

Fr Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. 1923 – 2018

Rest in peace, rise in glory.

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In my daily meditations today, I wrote about generosity, and the need to take a regular still point, in order to become aware of our levels of love and compassion. At times we fail to do this, and it leaves us open to drifting through life without cultivating the virtues of love, kindness, peace and good will toward others.

So how do you do this, practically? What does this look like?

One way is through a version of a Jesuit spiritual practice known as the Examen. If you want to know more about the Examen, read up about Ignatius of Loyola, and you will see it is part of his much wider teaching on spiritual practices. He was quite the lad for that sort of stuff.

The morning Examen I set out below is modified, for two reasons: a) I want something that people who do not self identify as Christian/religious/whatever can engage with. b) The purpose of this particular exercise is to become more aware of our attitudes and dispositions, and by becoming aware, to change them for the better.

So here’s my five step Examen:

1) Be grateful.

“What am I grateful for today? What things, people, events, or circumstances can I be grateful for?” Even in the most dire of circumstances, there should be a crack of light that you can be grateful for. Even if it’s just: I’m not dead yet. For most of us though, there are many more things than that, for which we can be thankful.

2) Accept your failings.

Gently reviewing the day gone past, and being really honest with yourself, recognise, and accept your failings. This doesn’t mean beating yourself up, or wallowing in self condemnation, it’s an honest, unflinching, recognition of where we’ve gone wrong.

3) Acknowledge your successes.

Reviewing the day again, consider where you did well, where your attitude was positive, where you were loving and kind. It’s not about bigging yourself up, or thinking about how great your life is. Its about sensing where your attitude was positive, and recognising what led you to put others first.

4) Forgive and be forgiven.

If the review of your day has brought to mind times when people have hurt or upset you, try to forgive them. Recognise that often our hurt springs from how we feel about ourselves as much as anything else, feeling compassion for others is the beginning of the forgiveness process.

Compassion needs to extend to yourself, and you need to accept that you also need forgiveness. There are three ways of looking at this, for those who have a belief in God, they may seek forgiveness from the divine. For those without that belief, they need to forgive themselves. For everyone, there may be a need to gain forgiveness from someone you hurt. This is the change point, the place where we say we’re going to live differently. In the Christian tradition, this is linked to a process called repentance, which effectively means to turn back, to change your ways.

5) Prepare.

Having gone through the first four steps, you’re in a better place to prepare for the day ahead. Spend a few moments considering what you have ahead of you, and who. Recognise where your weaknesses may come under stress, accept them, and make it your intention to address whatever comes your way with an attitude of love, generosity, and humility.

On a daily basis, this needn’t be a lengthy process, but particularly in combination with silent meditation, this is a really helpful and healthy regular practice to develop.

If you want to receive my free daily weekday meditations, sign up here.

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Would you like to come on a retreat with me? I’m looking for expressions of interest for a short residential retreat in the North of England in the latter half of 2018. The kind of numbers and types of people I get will determine the finer details.

What would it involve?

There are two options – let me know which you’re interested in.

  1. Meditation retreat, with teaching sessions, one to one discussion sessions, and three different silent meditation practices. This is for anyone, perhaps particularly those who want to develop a regular meditation practice of their own. Or know they need to find some silence in their lives. As well as the serious stuff, there will also be laughter, that’s more or less a given.
  2. Deconstruction retreat, with talks and group discussions, as well as time for reflection and one to one discussions, all on the theme of positive deconstruction. This is for people who know that the faith or religion they’ve been clinging to needs to change, or perhaps just needs to die. Either way, it needs to be done in a good way. Also laughter – it’s all the more vital when this kind of stuff is on the table.

I like to do things in the outdoors, so all things being equal, any retreat will involve some time outside, obviously any access requirements will be taken into account in the planning.

An expression of interest isn’t the same thing as a commitment, and there are lots of reasons why it might not work for you (money, dates, time off work, you suddenly deciding that you hate me etc.) But if you want to explore this, go here. This is a time limited thing, for obvious reasons.

appleAn apple a day may keep the doctor away, but following these six simple practises will help ensure you live a life that is healthy and fulfilled.

Lives lived in a hurry, without enough time to stop and think, are chaotic and difficult. But there are a few things we can all do, which generally make life better.

Even just doing one of these things will begin to help, doing all of them may be transformative.

Gratitude

If there is one practise which can change your outlook on life, it is gratitude. When we look for the good in things, and take time to be grateful for the things which have gone well, we open ourselves up to a flow of positivity. The word gratitude comes from a Latin root which also leads into the idea of grace. To be grateful, to be full of grace, is to know the divine flow in your life.

Ignatius of Loyola taught his followers to practise gratitude consciously: to do this, be deliberate about your gratitude. Early in the morning, or late at night, take a few minutes to reflect on what you are grateful for in life, or in the day you’ve just had. It’s a transformative practise. (Click to tweet).

Singing

Singing: it’s the simplest thing. Do it in the bathroom, in the woods, in the car, perhaps not on the train… Although if you’re sure the carriage is empty, then by all means. By improving your oxygen intake, singing means that you physically send more oxygenated blood to the brain, and this can have positive impacts on your alertness and concentration, and it helps with your memory too. To really get that good stuff, you want to bellow it out, don’t be shy, spread the joy. Unless you’re on the train.

Singing releases endorphins and can spread a feeling of pleasure around the body. It also takes your mind of other things, and relaxes you, which in turn decreases cortisol levels.

Silence

Singing is good for you, but so is silence. Especially deliberate silence. There’s a good reason that all the great spiritual traditions have tended to include patterns of silence in their practises. Times of silence and stillness are so important for us, and yet we tend to neglect them. Lengthy periods of silence help our brains develop, while even short periods of silence have been shown to lower blood pressure. Silence also helps to ground us, taking us away from the noise that our ego enjoys. Simply: silence helps us to fully realise our humanity, and gain perspective.

Types of meditation are good ways of spending time in silence, but then so is going for a long walk in the countryside, whatever works, just do it.

Forgiveness

There is no substitute for forgiveness. To refuse to forgive is to build up bitterness, and doing that is mentally, physically and emotionally toxic. Forgiving doesn’t need to mean ignoring, or ‘wiping the slate clean’, it’s about how we deal with what others have done. (Click to tweet). Of all these things, it’s the hardest, but it’s the single most important.

Taking time to do a simple mental ‘audit’ will show you who need to forgive, don’t expect too much of yourself, some things are very hard to let go of, but don’t have no go areas either. If you can bring yourself to forgive, then do so. Time with a coach, counsellor, soul friend, or mentor may help you with this.

Vegetables

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Said food author Michael Pollan. He means eat real food, things you cook from scratch, and in the main, eat vegetables. Humans have traditionally relied on vegetables as the majority of their diet, with meat and rich foods as a luxury, we grew strong on those diets. Contemporary ‘western’ diets, for all their delicious luxury, cause diseases. Just introducing a few more vegetables in to your life will help: the fibre, the macronutrients, it’s all good.

Vegetables are good cooked, they’re even better raw. Raw vegetables that you buy are good, but the ones you grow are the best.

Routine

It might seem boring, but routine is a very effective antidote to the poison of chaos. A chaotic life is stressful and leads to the development of all sorts of bad habits, whereas a routine helps simplify and structure your day to day life, making it easier to make good and healthy choices. Morning and evening routines are the best ones to get established, and if you can start the day on your own terms, rather than constantly rushing to catch up with yourself, you will find the rest of the day more manageable too.

Set a get up time, and stick to it, everything stems from there. To establish a bed time, work backwards in 90 minute slots, to allow for natural sleep cycles. If you are someone who can get up early, then good for you, it will allow you time to develop some healthy practises. But if you’re not an early bird, then save yourself some stress by establishing a good night time routine which involves preparing the things you need for the next day before you go to sleep.

Make my daily meditation a part of your daily routine, by signing up here. It’s free, and it arrives at 7 AM every weekday.

There has ball_lost6een a lot of positive feedback from the Lent reflections I’ve written, and I’ve enjoyed doing them too. To such an extent in fact that I’m now in the the throes of setting up a new project, a daily email sent out Monday – Friday with a reflection or meditation to start your day. If you’ve not spotted the Lent Reflections, and would like to join in, you can still do so. Obviously we’re a few days into Lent already, so you’ve missed a few. But not too many.

You can subscribe to the Weekday Meditations list here, Lent meditations subscribers will NOT be automatically added to that list. If you want to get in on the Lent action, see the previous post to this one.