Sleep specialists recommend that short naps of no more than 15 minutes can have a beneficial effect on our energy levels and alertness. Any longer than that sees us getting into a deeper level of sleep which makes it harder to wake up without feeling drowsy.

But I would like to propose a different, or perhaps complementary practice. Why not spend 15 minutes each day being awake? I mean really awake. The practice of zazen, of seated meditation, is not an exercise in relaxation as such, and is certainly not some kind of dream-like state. It is simply the practice of being awake, of being alert to the world around us, of being receptive to everything without devouring it, of open-eyed stillness in the face of whatever is around us. It is not the shutting-off of thoughts and not a retreat from the world but a simple exercise of attention. As such, it is, at the very least, a way of expressing our capacity for wakefulness and a way of strengthening that capacity.

The term wakefulness has synonyms in the religious vocabulary of Christianity and Buddhism, and probably others too. In Christianity, the desert tradition gave us nepsis – watchfulness or sobriety – and in Buddhism, the experience of enlightenment is an experience of awakening. In fact, in the latter, I think that Soto Zen would prefer to speak of being-awake so as not to suggest a movement from one state to another – enlightenment is not a goal to attain but a present reality to express. In Christian experience, watchfulness is also a constant invitation – ‘today, if only you would hear his voice…’ – and the vivid words of Compline come to mind:

Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in the faith.

We needn’t get too into the question of ‘external’ diabolical threats to see the wisdom of these words. The fact is that we are vulnerable when we are not awake and our lack of watchfulness closes us off from others.

So don’t give up the siestas, but do think about having a time to be fully awake each day!

Christian Mindfulness

Love of wisdom means always to be watchfully attentive in small, even the smallest actions. Such a person gains the treasure of great peace; he is unsleeping so that nothing adverse may befall him, and cuts off its causes beforehand; he suffers a little in small things, thus averting great suffering.

Dobrotolubiye page

These words, quoted from St Isaac, are in the edited Russian version of the Philokalia, the Dobrotolubiye. It was compiled in the 18th century by St Paissy Velichkovsky and translated into Russian by St Theophan the Recluse in the 19th. These words occur in a section of the ‘Directions to Hesychasts’ by the monks Callistus and Ignatius, from 14th century Constantinople, just after the Hesychast cause was so powerfully championed by St Gregory Palamas. I give these bits of background simply to make the point that this rich tradition of spirituality has a long pedigree, even if it was little known in the West until the 20th century. Indeed, the English translation from which I’ve quoted by Kadloubovsky and Palmer from 1951 did much to bring this fine tradition to the attention of the English speaking world. But to the substance!

Full of Grace and Truth: St. Paisius Velichkovsky the Righteous

Hesychasm, of course, means stillness and stillness means an inner as well as an outer disposition. Attentiveness, watchfulness, wakefulness, sobriety are all synonyms for what we now know as ‘mindfulness’ and it’s important for Christians to know that we have our own deep sources for this practice. The acquisition of inner peace is a wonderful thing in itself and needs no justification, but it is also both a sign of the indwelling Spirit of God and a preparation for a fuller apprehension of divine beauty: ‘What is more joyful than the thought of the splendour of God?’ ask Callistus and Ignatius.

Attention to small things allows for a fuller awareness of the arising of thoughts in our minds so that they may be ‘cut off’ as they arise. This is core teaching in the desert tradition of Christian monasticism and has very close similarities with some Buddhist teachings. These ‘thoughts’ – logismoi – are the first stirrings that lead to anger, anxiety, distraction or greed, all the poisons that threaten our inner peace. That inner peace does not need to be created – it is our natural state – but it can easily be disturbed by these thoughts when they spiral out of control. But how do we first spot their arising and how do we then cut them off?

The practice of giving our full attention to small things is cultivated through patient effort in concentrating on the thing we are doing and by setting aside times of quiet prayer or meditation where we focus on a single point – usually a word or short phrase and/or our breathing. In hesychast prayer, this is not simply a mind-body exercise (though it is also that) but a loving attention towards the God who is the source of all life. In this way, our attention is not on our own immediate concerns but on that which is ultimate, and yet is also more intimate than we could imagine. This cultivation of attentiveness allows us to be more alert to the arising thoughts. Cutting them off simply means refusing to entertain them or allow them to develop. It may also mean replacing those thoughts with an appropriate word or phrase to counter its intent – ‘peace’, ‘love’, ‘mercy’. Evagrius of Pontus developed a whole range of such counter-words in his AntirrhetikosBut the main tool in this practice is ‘attention’ itself, something like a spiritual muscle that we can train through repeated and simple actions. For many, the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer is the greatest tool we have in this journey towards a restoration of the inner peace that is our divinely created nature.

Resurrection and Enlightenment

What Vision Do We Have for the Deep Sea? | Science | News

There is a Zen koan that is not to be found in any of the classic collections but first came to my attention through Bill Johnston’s writing on it. It goes like this:

In the Sea of Ise, ten thousand feet down, lies a Stone.
I wish to pick up that stone without wetting my hands.
On the stone a name is inscribed. What is the name? On one side of the name it reads, “Cannot get wet.” On the other side of the name it reads, “Cannot get dry.”

The koan is found in the collection of Miscellaneous Koans used by the Sanbo Kyodan lineage and you can find a version of it in Sr Elaine McIness’s book, The Flowing Bridge (p.72) and a lovely interpretation of it in Ruben Habito’s Living Zen, Loving God (p.107). Johnston’s reference to it is in Letters to Contemplatives (p.72).

This koan speaks to me in Eastertide as an expression of the risen life of the one who has descended to the depths. As Christ descended to the deepest darkness and yet was not defeated by death (‘cannot get wet’), and ascended to risen life of wounded, compassionate presence filling all things (‘cannot get dry’), so the one who dies with him is raised with him. What one dies to is a limited self; what one is raised to is an empty-fullness. As the wound-bearing Christ showed, this risen life is not something disembodied and yet it is boundless. It is of great comfort to know the boundlessness of compassion in a time of isolation.

The resurrection is not comprehensible in biological terms, but it is ‘graspable’ in spiritual practice. The ‘descent’ is known to any who enter stillness without thought or theory, and the rising is known by any who are awakened to a compassionate life free from clinging (noli me tangere). Of course, these two movements are not straightforwardly chronological but form a constant and single flow. We enter into that flow in contemplation and we live it in every moment.

A Word from the Hermitage

‘All monks, as is well known, are unmarried, and hermits more unmarried than the rest of them … One might say that I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is only heard in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.’

Image result for merton day of a stranger

So wrote Thomas Merton in his ‘Day of a Stranger’, which was a short piece he wrote in response to a question about what his day was like in his hermitage in the woods above the Abbey of Gethsemani. I’ve drawn much inspiration from this passage over the years and today one phrase stood out for me for the first time: ‘the sweet dark warmth of the whole world‘. He sees the whole world in the little patch of forest that is his home and he finds the centre of that world in a still point of pure nothingness. Every place, every person, is a microcosm and an instance of the whole. And at the heart of each microcosm is that point of utter simplicity. It is the same point in each of us – we are connected by that vast, spacious sea of silence which Merton describes as the centre of all other loves. Love is the space we create to receive the other.

As we find ourselves forced to make a physical space between ourselves and others, we might find a way to nurture that inner space which connects us. Alone in our homes in this time of ‘social distancing’, we are no less present to the whole world, and it to us. And I don’t mean the ‘running commentary’ of global 24 hour news but the much deeper-running current of stillness that is our true point of contact with all that is.

‘What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.’


Not Set Apart

The call of the Christian in today’s world is the call to contemplation. The call to contemplation is not a call to passivity or withdrawal, quite the opposite. The call to contemplation is a call to attend.

When Thomas Merton was approaching the beginning of his permanent move to the hermitage in the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey where he would spend the last short years of his life, he wrote the following words:

The ‘work of the cell’ is attention. What this means is not only attention to inner grace but to external reality and to one’s self as a completely integrated part of that reality. Hence, this implies also a forgetfulness of oneself as totally apart from outer objects, standing back from outer objects; it demands an integration of one’s own life in the stream of natural and human and cultural life of the moment. [A Vow of Conversation, June 8 1965]

Merton Hermitage

The call of the Christian in today’s world, then, is a call to integrate all of life in the life of faith. Indeed, I would go further: it is to see that there is no kind of separation at all between the life of faith and the life of the world. Merton’s words here show something of his debt to Zen Buddhism in his insistence that there is no distance between self and what, illusorily, we imagine to be ‘outer’. I think he took the rest of his life (and beyond) to work out the full implications of his own words and I am not convinced that most Christians today have yet fully joined in sharing his insight.

If we had, we would not persist with our exceptionalist views of our own religion; we would not continue in the folly of seeing questions of justice as an add-on to questions of faith; we would not continue to justify our refusal to see the equality of all people; we would not continue to talk about ‘the world’ as if it were something other. And if we did begin to live in tune with this insight that there is a complete integration of all things in Christ, we would cherish every work of art as a sacrament, every living creature as a sister, every human person an incarnation of divine life, every breath from every mouth as an act of praise to Life.

We don’t gain this insight from the intellectual work of theology but from the ascetical practice of giving attention. It is as if we should see on every street corner a deacon proclaiming the invitation of Orthodox Liturgy – ‘Wisdom! Let us attend!’