The Science of Meditation

Yes, I’m cheating. I am looking back over 10 years to my practical description of meditation. But I have found it valuable to remind myself of what I said at that time. And certainly we had some excellent and practical responses.


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My column this week could, for some of you, be one of the most useful things you have read for a long time. Not for all of you, inevitably, because some will know about it already, and others will – for a variety of reasons do nothing about it. I am going to write about the scientific basis of meditation and what it can do for those who choose to take it to heart.

For most of us, meditation suggests mystical Christian prayer, or Buddhist contemplation, or – for the right generation – the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But, for the moment, put all that aside. Think instead of spending some 20 minutes in deep relaxation. And by deep, I mean very deep indeed. The effect will be a great calming of the spirit and tranquillity, a lowering of blood pressure, and, should you suffer from it, a marked relief of depression.

Deep relaxation is a skill. It is in theory accessible to everybody but it takes about a week of regular practice to acquire the rudiments. The skill then continues to deepen until you can call it to your aid instantaneously. As a trivial example, were you to feel my muscles in the dentist’s chair, you would find them completely relaxed, and my capacity for pain reduced to a minimum.

First, an exercise. Clench your fist as tight as you can – so tightly that it shakes with the pressure, Then relax it slowly, attending the growing feeling of relaxation. At the end you will find your fingers to be floppy but – more importantly – you have learned what relaxation feels like. Got the basic idea?

Now lie, or sit down comfortably, and relax every muscle in your body. Follow a sequence: hands, arms, shoulders, neck, face, chest, stomach, buttocks, legs and feet. Clench each muscle and then feel it slowly relax. Occasionally check back to see if earlier muscles have tightened. You will not find it easy and only practice will help you into a state you may never have experienced before A fully relaxed state uses so little energy that breathing becomes lighter and almost seems to cease.

Lie there, relaxed – perhaps listening to some tranquil music – for about 20 minutes. And then bring yourself to – but slowly; and get back to the trials of real life.

What is happening inside your brain? Theta waves associated with deep relaxation increase, and so do alpha waves, which tend to increase when the brain withdraws from intentional or challenging tasks. Beta waves which are needed for such tasks are few, and so are delta waves. Delta waves are associated with sleep – which is a quite different state from deep relaxation. But you don’t need to remember any of that. I put it in just to show that deep relaxation is a measurable state of the brain, induced from the relaxation of the body. You need to be neither holy nor clever to learn how to use it.

My original exploration of the subject started many years ago because the evidence showed that two separated periods of 20 minutes deep relaxation had a measurable and continuing effect on blood pressure. That investment of daily time has yielded high returns in so many ways.

Further practice develops further uses. I can now use “triggers”. I am able to deepen my relaxation throughout my body in the midst of ordinary life, simply by relaxing a hand. The number of occasions when this has checked an irritable remark or an imprudent decision is countless – although my wife would tell you that I still have some way to go. This brief, instant relaxation is also useful for, say, a mother of young children for whom five quiet minutes is a luxury.

Deep relaxation puts the brain into a highly suggestible state. And it becomes possible to use it for self-hypnotism – by definition this is conscious and controlled. It can be a valuable way of changing an unsatisfactory attitude of mind simply through autosuggestion. Don’t expect sudden conversion: this is not magic but just an effective way of moving the mind into constructive directions.

Now that I have demystified this neurological phenomenon, let me replace some of the mystery. I suggested that one might use music as a background. This helps to clear the mind and checks thought processes so that intellectual focus is curbed. But many people prefer to use a mantra – recited throughout the process. Many will know the Tibetan Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum. No exact translation exists, but it relates to the virtues of withdrawing from self-centeredness.

I prefer one which is more overtly Christian. Maranatha (“Our Lord has come”) is popular; but I favour Julian of Norwich’s “All manner of thyng shall be wele”. It encompasses the idea of Christian peace and confidence. But it’s a personal choice.

More recently I have started to train myself to a further stage where I eschew mantras and simply place myself in the presence of God. I regard thought of divine attributes as a distraction since any human understanding diminishes rather than embellishes. Nor, of course, does any prayer of petition apply, since the only relevant reaction is open-ended wonder. I am not very good at this yet, but, as I have suggested, much practice is required at every stage.

My description of deep relaxation (and its use in prayer) has been short and personal. The professional audiotape I published several years ago was widely used, but is no longer available. However, secular accounts of deep relaxation are available in good bookshops for further study. I look forward to comments on http://www.secondsightblog.com from your experience – especially with regard to its use in prayer.

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Yes, the Jesuits again

It’s Christmas — so lets have a bit of leisure. This week I am repeating a poem I wrote in 2013 when the Jesuits left the parish after many years. It was a sad occasion — although I have an excellent parish priest. But he’s not a J.

At the least you’ll remember the names and order of all the Councils in the Catholic Church.

The Song of the Jesuit Provincial

I am the very model of a Jesuit provincial,

I’ve information secular, doctrinal and canonical.

I know the name of every pope, and councils quite historical

Jerusalem to Ephesus in order categorical.

Constantinople, Chalcedon and, of course, Vienne,

Nicaea, Constance and the rest are well within my ken.

And counting up, from one to five, the councils of the Lateran

But glad to see that Trent gives way to first and second Vatican.

I love the Latin liturgy and I greet with great elation

The finely honed obscurity of recent trans-a-lation.

In short, in matters secular, doctrinal and canonical

I am the very model of a Jesuit provincial.

And now we see a Jesuit receive the crown pontifical

He’ll know from Heythrop studies that the bible’s mainly mythical

And the story of creation must accept a new solution

Since the prophet Darwin demonstrated evolution.

You’ll know that moral doctrine will be volatile for me,

For nothing merely probable is known with certainty.

Please don’t think I waste my time on any matters mystical,

I will solve your moral problems with my methods casuistical.

 My doctorate in Canon Law shows for all to see

How everything’s permitted, when interpreted by me.

In short, in matters secular, doctrinal and canonical I am the very model of a Jesuit provincial.

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Mother murderers?

The last execution in the UK took place in August 1964. The following year, Parliament passed a law suspending the death penalty across Great Britain (this did not extend to Northern Ireland) for all crimes except high treason, “piracy with violence”, arson in royal dockyards, and espionage. It was only with the Human Rights Act coming into force in 1998 that the death penalty was banned under UK law in all circumstances.

The UK is a member state of the Council of Europe which drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. The Council of Europe has made abolition of the death penalty a prerequisite of membership. As a result, nobody has been executed in any of the Council of Europe’s member states since 1997.

We are, I think, happy that we, and the rest of Europe, have banned the death penalty: finally in the Human Rights Act in 1998. Now, it would appear, it is only human beings in the womb who are liable to the death penalty. Their crime? Being a nuisance to the interests of the owner of the womb. Pretty tough stuff, I think.

Of course many would say that the entity in the womb cannot, initially, be regarded as a human being. But the truth of the matter is that we all change and grow throughout our lifetimes through the development of our bodies and brains. Indeed, the very acting of writing these words is changing me — through changes in my brain. It’s still me! And it started 86 years and three months ago, at the moment of my conception. Was I conscious of myself at that time? I suspect not. But then I do not regard older humans who, for whatever reason, happen to be unconscious, that they are, at that point, not human beings, and so can be despatched at my will. And the child in the womb is my neighbour.

Yes, I am sympathetic towards women who are pregnant when they do not wish to be. But I do not believe that they are entitled to take their baby’s life as a price for their convenience. Why should babies be excecuted while murderers are not?

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Pinchmetight

“Adam and Eve and Pinchmetight went down to the river to bathe. Adam and Eve were drowned, who do you think was saved?”

We all know the rhyme, but I was interested in the treatment of Adam and Eve in Radio Replies.*

This presents a literal story as it is described in the Bible. It answers questions about how the human race started and bred — notwithstanding only having a single couple as the source.

Of course, some other long-term religions start of with a story as literal belief, but do you take Adam and Eve as simply an illustration of the fundaments of Judaism, and eventually Christianity? Or, do you believe that the biblical story is history?

With or without Adam and Eve, we accept that we are created by God, and that we have an inherent tendency to evil choices. But we know that other Homo species with various characteristics and systems preceded us. The remains of some early species appear to have some sort of value systems. However, our human moral system cannot, I think, be fully explained by material genetic elements.

x x x

*Radio Replies came in three volumes, 1940. It was a splendid description of Catholic teaching, presented in questions and answers. I understand that a special briefer version is available via Amazon, but I happen to have the originals. It was invaluable when, as a young man, I spoke to the passing crowd in Leicester Square and Hyde Park, teaching the nature of Catholicism. I keep it in the loo as a convenience

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Is religion no more than genes?

Who is reading this? I am confident that you are a human being, and that means that you are rational. And I also know that you can distinguish right and wrong in your decisions through ‘love of self and love of neighbour’.

How come?

If we look at evolution we know that the principle is clear: our characteristics are in our system, and our structure is a mixture of our parents’ structures — plus the effects of personal experience. And the mixed qualities of our systems are passed on to the next generation

But we are aware that there have been, between chimpanzees and us, the primitive archaic human beings — such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans*. They, and others, would generally be described as archaic sapiens —  above the chimpanzees but below us.

But what does that mean? Were these archaic people able to behave rationally at some level, and did they have capacity to distinguish evil and good which required them to choose the good and to avoid the evil? Will we find them in Heaven, or otherwise?

But the problem relates to us too. We assume, as Christians, that love of God and love of neighbour are essential. But an atheist might argue that we merely follow the moral rules because we have inherited the genes needed to keep society effective — and so produce the next generations. They might argue that Christianity is simply a human development which happens to assist our society to continue and grow.

I am conscious that I am capable of making rational decisions, and that I can choose the good and disdain the bad. As a full time, full life, Catholic, my religion assures me that these faculties are created by the Almighty — and have eternal outcomes. So what would I say to someone who claimed that this is simply the actions of my genes: choosing the good and distaining the bad are no more than simply aspects of evolution?

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Abuse in the Catholic Church

Today I want to think about the thoroughly unpleasant subject of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I just take a paragraph from a 2020 study: The 162-page report said, in summary, “the church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.” (A), see below; fuller, international, details are provided  by (B). And a search will bring up other reports on different countries.

Frankly, I was naive. I went through my early years as a born Catholic — including 10 years at a Jesuit school. I assumed that priests were holy men, and I admired their authority and their virtues. And there was no moment when I was tempted in the slighted sexual way. Perhaps I was simply a revolting child, but I never heard accounts of clerical sexuality from any of my schoolmates.

But I am very aware that, had I been seduced into sexuality with a priest, I would have remembered that throughout my life. It would have been a black spot on my sexual self — throughout my lengthy, and, as it happened, happy marriage.

This takes my back to the old question of married priests. Of course we have some married priests — married before they joined the Church. But how about the others? I must not over generalize, but I am aware that my marriage helped me to be a broader and fuller man. And that included my ability to recognize the values and understanding of the feminine. I am certain that, had I become a priest, I would have been a better one through what I had learnt through the life and love of a woman.

Another factor springs into my mind. Is it possible that some men who happen to be drawn towards homosexuality are attracted by the priesthood? A lack of heterosexuality might feel more comfortable if it was expressed as a call from the Almighty. But I have never found a study which examines the sexual feelings of those who have chosen roles which exclude close feminine connection. I just guess so.

If you would like to comment positively or negatively, please avoid any anecdotes which could identify any individual. The law is rightly demanding.

(A) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/10/child-sexual-abuse-in-catholic-church-swept-under-the-carpet-inquiry-finds

(B) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_sexual_abuse_cases_by_country

(C) French study: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-58801183  

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Why I am allowed to continue living?

There has been considerable discussion In the US on the question of abortion. It was triggered by  a new Texan law which prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, roughly the sixth week of pregnancy – before many women even know they’re pregnant. It makes no exemptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. It also effectively deputizes ordinary citizens regardless of where they live to enforce the law, allowing them to collect $10,000 for successfully bringing a civil suit against anyone found to “aid or abet” an illegal abortion. This law has been challenged in court but it remains in force. In defence, the Democrats are now attempting to establish a federal right to abortion. I understand that their new Bill is unlikely to be accepted.*

While our own views are unlikely to influence the US or, indeed, the UK, we need to be clear about what they are. Take ourselves back to the 1930s and WW2. I remember at that time wondering how the general German public were persuaded that the Jews were a wicked and damaging religion — which could only be controlled by the actual destruction of the Jews. Perfectly ordinary, civilised, people like me and you seemed to have accepted this view or even to argue its wickedness publicly.

But reasonable Germans found themselves in serious trouble if they publicly expressed their views. We are quite free to talk about abortion — we may be unpopular but we are not threatened by the State for our views. So let me say my views out loud.

The baby in the womb is a human person. From the point of conception it starts to develop mentally and physically, triggered by its inheritance. Naturally this development is extremely active in the womb, but it continues outside the womb and throughout life. I am in my late 80s and my brain continues to develop and modify through my experiences. One of my great pleasures is watching my great grandchildren exploring and enjoying the world — teaching their brains to develop at a high rate.

So let’s be quite clear: the abortionists are arguing that there is no objection to killing a whole group of human beings — who have no defence. Fortunately they haven’t got around to get rid of me — with a simple injection. But it’s actually more logical to snuff me out: I would no longer need to be looked after by the family, My pensions — work and State — would no longer need to be paid, my house could be sold for others to use, and my savings would go, after heavy tax to society, to the next generation. Can’t be bad!

*https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/24/house-democrats-abortion-federal-right-vote  

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God’s mistake?

Today I want to look at God — that’s quite a subject. I want to talk about creation. The best figure I have for the total of all human beings is 116,761,402,413 (a). The current total of human beings is 7.9 billion. Of these 31% are Christians, 25% are Islamist, 15% not religious, 60% other religions. (b)

Catholic teaching is quite clear: connection to Christ through baptism is essential. I have told the story of how my wife, who had a 12 week miscarriage, struggled with great difficulty to baptise her child, and then to look forward to their meeting in Heaven. That has now happened. Of course there are particular routes: for example martyrdom or sheer inability. (c) But in the end we have to accept that much the largest proportion of created human beings have been failures. It may be that there is a form of existence for virtuous people who have not been baptised. And their secondary rate of existence in Limbo will continiue into infinity. But they remain failures.


Far be it for me to criticise the Almighty (and jolly good reasons not to) but if a new businessman had such a rate of failure I would suggest that he took another job. What do you think?

(a) https://www.prb.org/articles/how-many-people-have-ever-lived-on-earth/
(b) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_religious_popularsalvation-outside-the-catholic-church
(c) https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/is-there-really-no-salvation-outside-the-catholic-church

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The mystery of a Mystery

“Research showing that less than a third of US Catholics believe the Church’s teaching that Jesus is really present in the consecrated bread and wine caused alarm among Church leaders” opens the article The real thing in the Tablet, 14 August 21.

Given that Secondsight blog has a large number of Catholic readers it would be interesting to know how many of us have an orthodox belief in transubstantiation as set out in the full Catechism of the Catholic Church. I pinch the questions below from https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4075.htm:

Is the Body of Christ in this sacrament truly, or figuratively?
Do the substance of bread and wine remain in this sacrament after the consecration?
Is it annihilated?
Is it changed into the body and blood of Christ?
Do the accidents remain after the change?
Does the substantial form remain there?
Is this change instantaneous?
By what words it may be suitably expressed?

I am by no means a theologian — but I am a born Catholic, and continually interested in aspects of the Church’s teaching. Here is one difficulty I have:

While I accept that the host and the wine are genuinely the body and blood of Christ I cannot understand why the bread and wine do not also continue actually to be bread and wine. But, if I understand the formal teaching, this is not so. Since the sacred host will be dealt with by my interior system as bread and wine it all sounds to be a bit odd.
But that’s small beer compared to the list of other questions above. And the formal answers.

I have to say that the claim that the orthodox teaching is a simply a mystery does not satisfy me. And I am in no way surprised that many Catholics misunderstand the teaching. How about you?

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Praying for my cat

Yes, a sad story: my old cat, Nyche, has had to be put down. She has appeared from time to time on these pages so some of you will know that she, and her erstwhile brother, have been with us for many years. She has been unwell for a while and, apparently unable to eat. ‘Nothing’, the Vet said, was obviously wrong. But when I realised that she was having difficulties in walking, I knew the time had come. She spent her last day, half asleep, in my study — a favourite place for her. Thankfully, my daughter, very upset, and her husband (who knew Nyche well), took her for her last journey.

Now, she is buried at the end of the garden (like her brother) and well covered with bricks to hold off the foxes. And I find myself praying. Is that odd? We are all used to visiting the graves of our relations and friends. But a cat?

Of course we are thankful to the Almighty for our pets, but at first sight, praying for them seems odd. Yet as I look at Genesis (King James) I find: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping things, and beast of the earth : after his kind: and it was so.”

But of course we have no real idea of the afterlife — unless you can tell me. We know the purpose of Purgatory, but we don’t know what it will be like. The best view I can get is from Catherine of Genoa who apparently visited. She said that holy souls were only too happy to be in Purgatory, having at last realised their need for cleansing before they would be ready for the beatific vision.

And what about the end of the world? Do we meet our happy relations and friends? I look forward to meeting Charles de la Bedoyere — who was ADC to Napoleon at Waterloo, and was shot by a firing squad. A simple, but typical, error of his allowed the Brits to win the battle, thus starting modern Europe. His popular description at the time was “si beau et si sauvage”. No one has said that of me, worse luck! Yes, I think we should pray in thanks for all creation — and particularly those elements who are close to us. Mind you, I find it difficult to favour the ants who crawl in lines across the kitchen sink. What should I do about them?

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