Mindfulness at Somerville College Chapel

Venerable Dhammasami

On Sunday 21st of October, 2012, Venerable Dhammasami, Buddhist Chaplain to the University of Oxford, spoke in Somerville College Chapel on the benefits of mindfulness and meditative awareness. In the following weeks he kindly gave further instruction on mindfulness techniques to interested students. More information about Venerable Dhammasami and his tradition can be found here:  http://www.oxfordbuddhavihara.org.uk/obv_eng/index.php

Mindfulness – a Christian perspective

Shaun Lambert, is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church, and part of the New Wine leader’s network. He is the author of A Book of Sparks, A Study in Christian MindFullness, published by Instant Apostle.

On Sunday 4th November, 2012, Shaun kindly gave this address in Somerville College Chapel.

Imagine that you are not in England on a cold autumn day, but that you are in Paris on a warm spring day. You are sitting in a street cafe, with someone you love beside you, perhaps your young children playing in the square in front of you. You have a cup of coffee, glass of beer or wine to savour slowly. It is a perfect doorway into the present moment, and present moment awareness which is mindfulness.

 But you can’t enter that doorway because you are in a limited place, a place limited by anxiety, fear and stress. Your mind is elsewhere ruminating negatively about something in the past or something in the future.

 Seven years ago I was in that place and unable to enter that beautiful doorway into the present moment, and the lives of those around me, because of stress.

 Martin Laird (O.S.A.) in his beautiful book Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation says that in order to enter that doorway into the present moment, we need to be able to answer this riddle: Am I my thoughts and feelings? Are you your thoughts and feelings?

 The central insight of mindfulness, and Buddhists, Christians and psychologists can all agree on this, is that we are bigger than our thoughts and feelings; they are discrete events in our minds. We can observe our thoughts and feelings and decentre from them. We might want to say from a Christian perspective that they are part of us, but they are not us.

 This is very important because if we are totally identified with our thoughts, and see them as a direct readout of reality then we become the victim of our thoughts and not the witness of them. We react automatically to our thoughts rather than responding compassionately.

 For example in Romans 12:2, Paul tells us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…’ Our thoughts and feelings are often shaped by our culture into narcissistic, competitive, fearful or consumerist patterns. This verse enables us to witness our thoughts, enables us to decentre from them.

 Paul follows this up in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where he says, ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ This verse also enables us to disarm our thoughts, notice them, but let them go.

 Mindfulness is not about avoiding difficult reality, but about facing it head on.

 Mark’s Gospel also tells us that we don’t see clearly. At the beginning of the Gospel Jesus tells people to repent, the word metanoiete is about having a new mind.

 In Mark 4 there is a small kingdom parable which takes up the theme of the more famous ‘Seed and the Sower’ parable which it follows. It begins with the idea of bringing in a lamp, ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?’ (Mark 4:21)

 The lamp, like the seed, refers to the Word of God. Psalm 119:105 says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.’ In the one reality we all experience there is a hidden spiritual dimension. One day says Jesus what is hidden will be revealed (v.22). As biblical scholar Joel Marcus says, Jesus lifts the curtain on the End, a universe filled with light, and then closes the curtain again.

Because of the hidden nature of this spiritual reality Jesus’ constant refrain is, ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear’ (Mark 4:23). That is a clue to us that our perceiving of reality is not automatic, or necessarily right.

 Jesus underlines this in the next verse (v.24) which reads literally in the Greek, ‘See what you hear.’ The Greek word here is blepete which is used repeatedly throughout Mark’s Gospel as a word about watchfulness, and spiritual perception.

 It was contemplative practices seven years ago that enabled me to find the doorway to present moment awareness and to decentre from my afflictive thoughts and feelings. Soon after that day in Paris, whilst on sabbatical, a small book called The Jesus Prayer by Simon Barrington Ward, former Bishop of Coventry, leapt off the shelf at me.

This ancient, repetitive, contemplative prayer, said with the breath goes, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ It enabled me to decentre from my anxious thoughts, and enter into the healing presence of God.

 At the same time I was studying counselling and psychotherapy at Roehampton University, and came upon mindfulness in psychology. Mindfulness as present moment awareness is a universal human capacity, and it can be arrived at through mindful awareness or meditative practices. Within modern psychology these practices have Buddhist roots, but are not religious or spiritual but entirely reality focused. They include attending to your breath, the mindful eating of a raisin, and mindful walking.

 But there are other practices that bring us into a state of mindfulness.  These include poetry. Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist did some work with the Irish Catholic scholar/philosopher/poet John O’Donohue. Daniel Siegel says that ‘poets have found a way to use words to free our minds, to clear our vision, to create mindfulness in the moment.’

 One of the elements in this is the ambiguity of the words in poetry. The riddles and parables of Jesus have the same effect on their hearers.

 Nature poets and writers have the same mindful attentiveness and awareness. Miriam Darlington in her book Otter Country: in search of the wild otter, becomes the otter as she writes: ‘In a last sliver of reflected light, something on the water distracts me. It’s moving like an animal but made out of liquid. It ripples for a moment and leaves the hint of a wake. A long mud-brown slither slowly becomes more creature than branch. I see a smooth head; the contours of a brown face with ears, whiskers and the dark holes of two nostrils flowing purposefully downstream. The barely perceptible bump of its dive and a lingering tail-tip convince me.  An otter. So strange and subtle that I could almost have imagined it.’ (pp. 73-74)

 She also mindfully notices that otters like to make their holts (dens) under ash trees…

 Present moment awareness is part of Christian mindfulness, as is decentring from our thoughts. Jesus goes on to give us another important insight in the next verses, Mark 4: 24-25.

 ‘With the measure you use it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more, whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’

 Here Jesus brings together the two main themes of chapter 4, the good soil of the attentive listener, and the insight and revelation that comes from attending to the Word.

 The more attentive you are as a listener (the measure you use), the more insight and revelation (it) you receive. Attentive listening to the Word is part of Christian mindfulness. But, as biblical scholar Joel Marcus points out, this is divine overcompensation. Like Emily Dickinson’s poem number 323:

As if I asked a common Alms,

And in my wondering hand

A Stranger pressed a kingdom

And I, bewildered stand –

We don’t control this; there are no techniques to control God and His kingdom. We can only put ourselves in the right place.

In Mark’s Gospel that is the place of silence, solitude and listening to God as mirrored for us by Jesus the contemplative.

 ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.’ (Mark 1:35)

 We are to put ourselves in the ‘unlimited place where God is,’ to use Olivier Clement’s phrase. More than that, the outrageous claim of Christianity is that we can become the unlimited place where God is. Not that we can become God, but that we can become like His Son, Christ-like.  We can be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). This is Christian MindFullness.

 Emily Dickinson’s poem continues:

As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a Morn—
And it should lift its purple Dikes,
And shatter me with Dawn!

At the end of the Gospel of Mark the women go to contemplate the empty tomb, and meet an Angel, a messenger of God. The angel enables them to see reality through the eyes of God. Contemplation says, Enzo Bianchi, founder of the Bose Community, is seeing through the eyes of God.

The new dawn of the resurrection and the reality of the empty tomb shatter the women disciples. They leave filled with numinous awe, trembling and bewildered, full of ekstasis, from which we get our word ecstasy.

They are silent. The cross and the resurrection, says Mark, is the place of the fullest insight and revelation. It is the place where our limited humanity is drawn into the unlimited love of God. This is Christian mindFullness. 



The Gideons visit Somerville College Chapel

On Sunday April 29th Somerville College Chapel hosted an alumna of the College, Helen Cowan and her husband, William Cowan, to speak about their work for Gideons International. William gave a thought provoking address about the work of the Gideons inspired by the Greek inscription on the outside of the Chapel: ‘A house of prayer for all the nations.’ William kindly offered the text of his address to be placed on this blog. It is reproduced below. In it he refers to Isaiah 56: 3-8 and Mark 11: 15-19 which were read in the service, and from which the inscription on the outside of the Chapel was originally taken.

“A house of prayer for all nations” is the inscription in Greek over the entrance to this chapel. As we heard from having the two passages read to us, the words are those of God through his prophet Isaiah, with reference to the temple in Jerusalem; Jesus quotes them when in the courts of that temple, during the climactic visit of his ministry, having come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival – “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nation?” It is a jewel of a saying and I propose to consider three facets of its teaching – that God is personal; that God is universal; and that God has acted – and to consider how the truths taught govern and motivate what Gideons do.

From these verses we can be in no doubt that Jesus regarded the temple as God’s house. He quoted, “Is it not written, My house……”, God being the speaker. There were many temples in the ancient world, but only this one was God’s house. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, the temple in Jerusalem contained no physical representation of the deity to be worshipped.

The temple was God’s house not that He needed it, but in the sense that it was where He could be sought and prayed to. When King Solomon had built the first temple he said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built?” The temple of Jesus’ time was the third temple in Jerusalem – Solomon’s having been destroyed by the Babylonians  in the early 6th century BC; the returnees from exile having built a second in the late 6th century; and this one had been begun by Herod the Great, a cruel tyrant. But nonetheless for the time being the temple in Jerusalem was the place that God had appointed where men and women should pray: “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”

The designation of the temple as “my house” reminds us of the name by which God had revealed Himself to Moses: “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”. God is personal; he is self-existent; He is everlasting. Some think of God as a force. But God is personal: He speaks, He calls, He hears. Others think that God is personal in the sense of being a matter of opinion, something subjective, for private speculation and contemplation. But the temple was God’s house. He set the terms for drawing near. This verse tells us that God is personal in a sovereign, unchanging sense and that He is knowable.

Gideons are convinced that God is personal and that He has ordained the Scriptures read and understood as the means by which to know Him.

Our verse declares that: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”. It thereby teaches us that God is universal in that He desires all peoples to pray to Him. In the original prophecy of Isaiah the point was that believing Gentiles were to be equally acceptable with the children of Israel. When Solomon prayed to God, after the construction of the first temple, he had as a priority in his thinking the stranger, the foreigner, who would pray towards the temple, to the God of Israel. That concern for the Gentiles drawing near to God was reflected in the layout of the temple, in that the outer part was the court of the Gentiles. It seems that this area, where all nationalities should have been able to approach God, was being obstructed and corrupted by dishonest traders. In 70AD, the Romans destroyed the temple. Two chapters later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that there shall not be left one stone of the temple upon another, that shall not be thrown down. The gospels indicate that Jesus understood Himself to take the place of the temple, fulfilling the sacrificial terms on which unholy worshippers could approach the holy God; and later in the New Testament Christ’s church is spoken of as God’s temple or dwelling place. For now, the point is that God’s house is for all nations.

Some are inclined to think that the God of the Bible is only for certain people groups, or certain countries. God’s intention stated here, was and is that all nations should call on and pray to Him –city-dwellers and rural populations; hill-dwellers and those on the plains; communities whatever their level of development.

The Gideons are persuaded that God is universal, desiring all nations to pray to and worship Him, and so we seek to disseminate the Bible all around the world.

Finally in this passage we see that God has acted. Jesus got rid of the traders and traffic in the temple courts – driving out those who sold and bought there. What Jesus did was not intemperate; it was deliberate and considered for He had looked round the temple the day before.

Much of what was going on in the temple courts was for religious purposes; to allow worshippers to change their own currency into coinage that was acceptable in the temple; to provide them with doves for sacrifice. But the effect – and what aroused Jesus’ righteous indignation – was to get in the way of Gentiles and Jews drawing near to God.

“By what authority do you do these things?” asked Jerusalem’s chief priests and elders at the end of this chapter. Jesus declined to answer them, but for the reader of the gospel the answer – that Jesus acted with God’s authority – is clear enough.

By taking this action, Jesus aggravated the hostility of the religious authorities which would lead them to plot His death on a Roman cross. Such was His zeal that men and women should come to God in prayer and worship, that Jesus endured persecution and death.

Do you think or assume that God is indifferent to or inactive towards humanity? Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem is a taste of God’s radical action in sending Jesus the Messiah – to bring to pass the vision of Isaiah 56 that God should make the nations “joyful in [His] house of prayer”.

For Gideons, because God has acted, now is a time for us to act by making Scriptures available far and wide, because they tell of what God has done.

Somerville College Chapel Re-opens

On Sunday 15th January, Somerville College Chapel had its first service since the completion of its sixth-month refurbishment. In a special service featuring readings from a variety of religious traditions, Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths, spoke on the role of a chapel in college life and the uniqueness of Somerville College Chapel as a ‘House of Prayer for all Peoples.’ The text of his address is given below.

Marcus also pointed out the similarities of the Chapel with the United Nations Meditation Room in New York, referring to the simple symbolism of the two interiors (in particular reference to the Chapel’s central focal point, the communion table), and the function of the Chapel and Meditation Room as places of quiet set aside for prayer, meditation and reflection for those of all religions, and those or none (more information about the UN Meditation Room can be found at http://www.un.org/depts/dhl/dag/meditationroom.htm)

Somerville College Choir gave a blistering performance, including the introit linked below.

Anton Bruckner: Locus iste (WAB 23), Somerville College Choir, January 15th 2012

Rev. Marcus Braybrooke kindly supplied the following text of his address:

Address given by Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths 

I am very honoured by and grateful for the kind invitation to preach at this special service tonight. 

‘Where shall Wisdom be found? And where is the place of Understanding?’ (Job 28, 12).

This is the question Job asked himself as he pondered his own suffering and the apparent injustice in the world. In the very centre of the ancient Spanish University of Valencia another text is quoted which gives an answer to Job’s question Omnis Sapientia A Domino Deo Est –  ‘All Wisdom comes from the Lord’ -(Ecclesiasticus 1, 1). College chapels are a reminder that universities are not just about the search for knowledge and qualifications but also about the pursuit of Wisdom. And this is the message of some of the readings we have heard tonight.

In the Hindu scriptures there is the story of a young man called Svetaketu. Svetaketu went to school at the age of 12 and studied all the Vedas – the Hindu scriptures. When he returned home at the age of 24, he was proud, conceited, thinking himself well-schooled. ( I am not, of course, suggesting that anyone here is proud or conceited, although you are all well schooled)   Anyhow, when Svetaketu got home his father enquired “Svetaketu, since you are proud and conceited, dear boy, and consider yourself learned, did you ask for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, perceive what cannot be perceived, know what cannot be known?”Svetaketu was flummoxed. ‘What instruction is that?’ Gradually, his father leads him to that ‘which is the root of all’ – the mysterious claim that ‘It is the self and Thou art that.’ Atman is Brahman. If we go deep enough into ourselves we discover a oneness with the Source of Life – with all that is.

Of course, people whose lives have been changed by that mystical discovery speak of this awareness in different ways Jesus told Nicodemus, a Jewish scholar who came to him by night, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Only rebirth in the Spirit gives true knowledge.

Over the centuries most religions have encouraged scholarship and established great centres of learning. One of the teachers of the great at the University of Paris was Albert Magnus or Albert the Great.  – one of his pupils was the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas It was said of  Albert Magnus that he knew everything that there was to be known in the world. If that was possible in the thirteenth century, even the Brain of Britain could not claim this. It is now difficult even to read all the books on one’s specialised subject. The sheer amount of knowledge in every subject means that today our studies become ever more specialised. A friend said to a Scottish professor, who had devoted fifteen years to the study of a particular species of fish, ‘You must know all there is to know about that sort of fish.’ No, he protested, there was still much to find out. As Francis Bacon said, ‘All things disappear into mystery.’

Yet the fragmentation of knowledge has its dangers. We do not see the bigger picture and we may pursue a field of research without reflecting on the ethical implications of our work. Too easily with all the demands of exams and the search for a good job, the immediate task of finishing an essay or assignment or checking the footnotes for a thesis absorb our time and energy. I always try to keep my study door open because I read of a College where all the professors kept their door shut, except one African professor, who kept his open because ‘people are always more important than footnotes.’

So we need to remember that our particular disciplines contribute to a greater whole and that is one of the values of college life. The word University is related to the word universe – it suggests a wholeness and the relevance of our work to human need – to which our studies, however many degrees we get, are a tiny contribution.

Three key buildings in a College are the Library, the Dining Hall and the Chapel. The Library stands for the specialist knowledge and research required by our particular discipline. The Dining Hall should be a place of conversation – sometimes assisted by suitable lubrication. By living together in a college and eating together and talking together, our specialist concerns are challenged by and contribute to a wider picture of life. The third key building is the chapel, as was recognised by those who in the nineteen thirties took the initiative in providing a chapel for this college. However much knowledge and information we find on the web – or in the Bodleian – there is a Wisdom to which the Chapel is a pointer or, in the Buddhist phrase, ‘a fingertip.’ To this search for Wisdom, and to worship, poetry, music and discussion contribute as well as the word.

Western civilization to which we are heirs has, of course, been shaped by Christianity In their pursuit of wisdom, wise men and women here have been led by the star to the babe at Bethlehem – the Word Made Flesh. But the Light that shines in all its fullness in Christ, is the light that lightens every person who comes into the world. This means that we can learn from what those of other faiths have discovered of the Light, just as we share our discoveries with them. God is always greater than our highest thoughts and insights and together we learn more of that ‘Light which is the life of the world.

As we journey towards that light, our lives are transformed and enriched. Let me share two experiences of my student days. I was brought up in a Christian home and at Cambridge (dare I mention it?) I tried to be a good Christian. The problem was in that word ‘tried.’ I thought this was something I had to achieve and to the rugby playing hard drinking set I must have seemed unbearably pious. I was set free from the chains of religion as I listened to a sermon that proclaimed the all forgiving, all-accepting love of God shown in the willingness of Jesus to die for me on the cross. I was loved as I was and I knew than that nothing in heaven or earth could separate me from that love.

But after University, I spent a year as a student at Madras Christian College, learning a little about the religions of India and their witness to the Light  but it was another experience more practical experience which has had a lasting effect on me Some of the students used to help at a clinic for people suffering from Leprosy. The first time I went in the mid-day sun beloved of mad dogs and Englishmen – my prejudices about touching someone with that disease were dispelled by the smiling faces of the children. God’s image is to be seen in every person. But equally moving was to go to the clinic with another Christian who was from Sri Lanka and a student who was a Muslim. The doctor was a devout Hindu. We were joined together in service of the poor.

This, I believe, is the calling of all people of faith, to work for peace, to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to speak for prisoners of conscience to protect the environment. Increasingly this is happening, but there is still much to do to overcome centuries of prejudice and ignorance.

I hope the chapel stands here not just to ask you where is Wisdom to be found but to ask you why you are studying what you are studying. Reflect on the challenge of Gandhi’s ‘Talisman.’ ‘Think of the poorest person you have ever seen’ and then ask yourself, ‘will what I am doing be of use to him or her?’

Listen to these words of an Asian Christian theologian. ‘The moment of truth for humanity seems to have arrived. We seem destined for destruction at our own hands. But behold, miracle of miracles, out of the cracks a light shines. As we advance timidly towards that light, we discover many, many others moving towards it from different directions… We the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressors, the theists and the atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus must get to that light for it is the light of love and life, the light of hope and the future … We have no alternative but to move on with God to that vision of a world of compassion and communion of love

Is that the vision which inspires you and will shape your life?