Cut the static

Cut the static

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Peace of mind is the in-demand stock-in-trade for ministers, priests and spiritual gurus. In the Christian tradition personal peace of mind is an aim of the services and sacraments. In addition, many people seek personal assistance to achieve inner peace. This is where counselling and confession comes in. Small groups of various kinds also aim at helping participants to achieve a quiet, peaceful mind. Beyond the Christian realm there are hundreds of enterprises, conferences, groups, books, tapes, on-line courses, videos all of which offer a pathway to peace of mind. Clearly the promise of ‘peace of mind’ sells.

During my lifetime in the church I have seen many approaches to obtaining peace of mind come and go. I have personally sampled a slew of them – counselling, psychotherapy, group processes and weekend retreats.

When I attended the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1967 the ‘Human Potential Movement’ was the big thing. This approach to inner healing and peace of mind arose out the counter culture rebellion of the 60’s. Basically it opposed organized religion and mainstream psychology. Partly to escape life in a hellish student dorm I signed up for a weekend, live-in course. I certainly needed some peace.

I began to feel a little uneasy at the registration desk. We all had to hand in our watches. The explanation given was that on this weekend we would escape the tyranny of time – our workshops, sharing sessions, our eating and sleeping would not be governed by the clock.

The 20 or so participants gathered in a large room, lit only by candles. Pan flute mood music was playing. There were no chairs, only a cushion for each of us, and in front of each cushion a candle and a large box of tissues. The box of tissues puzzled me. Then I got it. It was expected that over the weekend each one of us would share about ourselves. This sharing would not be mundane details, but our deepest fears and our shame and our secrets. No one was going home until we all did this. The box of tissues was there because it was expected that everyone of us would weep as we told our secrets. When a person wept the others in the group would gather around them in support and encourage them to tell more. Our leaders told us that as a result of this workshop we would experience of deep peace.

Personally, I just wanted to leave but I couldn’t because they had my watch.

Later I heard that other Human Potential Movement weekends were more extreme than this. Some involved going back to the moment of birth with participants taking up a fetal position and yelling birth-pang screams. Another required the group participants to throw-up and so get rid of all the internal bad stuff. Later I heard that a participant in a subsequent course of the type I attended committed suicide.

As a teenager I lived in a huge men’s hostel (I was the only teen) and going to church meetings was an escape. I had all the usual adolescent disturbances, mental and bodily, and the idea of inner peace appealed. I was influenced by a pious old man who talked a lot about the peace of God. He told me that the way to peace was through prayer and so consequently I attended a number of prayer meetings with him. Actually, I found these meetings boring, but I never let on. He told me that to experience the ‘real’ peace of God I should attend an upcoming whole-night of prayer. I didn’t make the whole night, but I did manage three hours in the prayer circle. In this time, I heard my old friend pray the same prayer three times. Later he told me the sure way to inner holiness (peace) was through fasting.

However, I had just read in the Bible that unlike the disciples of John the Baptist, the disciples of Jesus did not fast (Luke 7.33-35). This came as a relief to me, and I gave fasting a miss.

Over recent years I have become aware of just how prevalent the search for inner peace is. It goes under a number of different names, serenity, stillness, nirvana but it means the same thing. The presenting problem is a barrage of thoughts (mind chatter) that will not quit. Commonly this internal chatter actually revs up in the night at times of sleeplessness. This is what I mean by mind-chatter or mind-static.

I am in a number of different discussion groups. I have noticed that whenever the subject of ceaseless mind-chatter is raised everyone in the room is interested.

Up until recently I have been reluctant to pursue any of the myriad of antidotes to mind chatter. The reason for this is that they all to seem to exhibit similar characteristics to those I dislike about religion. Each of them gives the impression that their way is ‘right’. That is, their way of creating inner quietness is superior to the other ways. Many have their own gurus. Some require certain precise sitting positions and exercises. Candles, incense. music, chanting and diet, some or all, are part of the requirements of various ‘peace seeking” groups.

Personally, my mind is well fortified by prejudices built up over a life time. I am committed to prayer, but for me, prayer means ‘words’, ‘sentences’. Sublime prayers are to be found in books. Inner quietness, that is, prayers with no words is not part of my tradition.

A few years ago my good friend Bill, introduced me to another way of thinking through the writings of Eckhart Tolle. Tolle talks about three principles – non resitance, non attachment and non judgement. On and off, and with mixed success I adopted these principles into my own life. I realized that they were compatible to the Christian gospel and in fact were written about in the New Testament in many places.

This opened the way for me to accept Bill’s invitation to join him in 3 sessions of meditation Led by Chris Hawley. I approached these with trepidation expecting – special postures, chanting, incense and the rest. As it happened there were none of these. There was no insistence on certain dogma or talk of the superiority of certain spiritual paths.
Looking back, I realise I have come a long way from my former fixed opinions. My meditation has been a partial success. I have experienced spaces of calm in the most hectic situations. Night time wakefulness is no longer the threat it used to be. I have made a start on a journey which I intend to travel further.

With respect to my Christian faith it seems to fit perfectly. It also resonates with the in-vogue idea that we are ‘all one’, that is everything is connected. This notion so central to the Maori understanding is coming at us now from every quarter, from the Haldron Collider, David Attenborough and the scientist Brian Cox.

I have often wondered what Jesus did when he prayed to his Father. Did he recite the Lord’s prayer or quote a psalm? Both notions seem ridiculous. But, that he quietly entered into a sense of oneness with the Father and with all things, this I can believe.

I am no expert in meditation. As a distract-aholic, meditation does not come easily to me. But as imperfect as I am in my practice it has helped me. And much to my surprise it is helping me draw nearer to my understanding of God.

Stan Stewart

PS: Looking around I have found a number of helpful books, utube clips etc on the subject of making a start on mediation. However, I suggest you avoid any approach that insists this method is the ‘right’ way, the only way, or the superior way. These chalices are poisoned.

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SUNDAY SERVICE, 23rd June 2019