School of Contemplation

BioSpiritual Focusing

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

Biospiritual focusing is a practice that has some similarities to the Welcoming Prayer in that it encourages noticing and embracing emotions and bodily sensations. An element that Biospiritual Focusing adds, however, and which not all body-centred practices emphasize, is focusing on emotions or sensations in the body not only to let them be, and in order to “be with them” compassionately – which are also very important elements! – but also, through that compassionate presence, to listen to the unheard story that the body is trying to tell us. It could therefore be called a WISDOM body practice, as it seeks to listen to and learn from what we feel or sense, which can then lead to greater INTEGRATION within us as we listen to that unheard story.

Focusing as a therapeutic practice originated from the research and insight of Dr. Eugene Gendlin in the 60s, who, in collaboration with Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago, was interested in why some people benefit from psychotherapy and some do not.  He found that he and his students could predict from the first sessions which clients would experience success (change, breakthrough etc.) in the end, based not on the therapist but on the behaviour of the clients themselves. So what exactly were the “successful” clients doing? They paused more often. They might stop in the middle of a sentence to sense what they had said or to sit with some uncertainty. They seemed willing to deal with unclear aspects of their experience. They were listening to or sensing some totality of their inner experience that was vague and difficult to describe, and allowing more insight and clarity about it to emerge. These ideas led to a therapeutic technique called Focusing in which the therapist helped the client “focus” on a vague sensation they became aware of, giving it attention and respect, and as they did allowing the inner experience to become clearer and a space to open up for new insights and unexpected possibilities. In the end the “felt sense” of the situation often changed and that change felt good. The shift in their bodily-felt experience often led to changes in behavior that were sustainable.

Then, in the early 1970’s, Dr. Peter A. Campbell and Dr. Edwin M. McMahon – who were Jesuit priests and psychologists of religion – began to explore the link between Focusing and spirituality. Body meaning or knowing, they felt, comes as a spontaneous gift or surprise. It is not a by-product of logic and reason and cannot be predicted or controlled. They felt there was a transcendent or “graced” quality to meaning in the body. So Drs. McMahon and Campbell worked with Gendlin to widen Focusing to emphasize this gift dimension, linking the mind-knowing of our information-based culture with spirit-based wisdom, and this is how BioSpiritual Focusing was born.

The metaphor of a phone ringing can be a helpful one here to understand Biospiritual Focusing (BSF). When the phone rings it is not ringing to disturb me, but rather because there is someone on the other end with a message for me. Feelings, emotions, and physical sensations are like the phone ringing; they can feel like disturbances that make us feel bad or “too much,” or disrupt our efficiency and comfort in life! But they are there for a reason and they tell a story – perhaps a pretty immediate story of, say, tension stored in the shoulders from driving for a day, but also maybe an older story with chains of felt meaning that can unfold if we will listen, like intense anxiety that gets triggered by a particular circumstance. When the telephone rings, you don’t necessarily know yet who or what is on the other end of the line; you still have to lift the receiver (or, these days, press the little green button!) to discover that. This illustrates the importance in BSF of being able to notice and focus on VAGUE sensations as well as ones that are more easily recognized and identified. Just because I don’t know what this sensation is about, doesn’t mean there’s no point being with it; in fact, we could even say that those vague feelings or sensations are the most important to listen to, as they represent the tip of an iceberg that we haven’t yet seen the rest of. But that tip is a doorway or a pathway inward if we will follow it, by moving INTO and THROUGH our feelings, emotions and physical sensations rather than away from them, until we become aware of a deeper “felt sense” of something.

In the process of BSF, creating an inner atmosphere of compassion is vital – giving loving, caring attention to parts of ourselves with a “felt sense” of “something more.” Through this practice we experience first-hand the truth that ignoring or judging always hardens and tightens things inside us (although these are go-to responses for most of us!), whereas compassion towards ourselves and “all our parts” softens and loosens things, allowing a felt shift, change, and evolution to occur. A phrase that is often used to describe this posture and reality in BSF is “Notice and Nurture.” As we notice and nurture something, we are learning to speak/ understand the language of the body, when we are mostly so fluent only in the language of our rational minds, allowing communication and meaning to unfold in new or different ways. Can we describe a physical sensation, for example, in terms of shape, texture, colour and so on? Do symbols or images come to mind from we know not where? Perhaps a memory will spring up, or words that resonate somehow with what we are sensing. All of these are examples of how meaning can unfold when noticing and nurturing a sensation in the body and letting its story be told.

In the practice of BSF, whether alone or often with the compassionate support of a companion, there is often a sense of grace, of being led somewhere by Love that is good, that is healing, that is more truly, deeply, wholly “me.” Another surprising gift of the practice can be a growing sense of my connection to oneself, to Love /God, to the Bigger Whole, as a different relationship is developed with the body, what it is and what it knows.

BSF Check in card
brother and sister feeding birds

Loving Kindness

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

One of the simplest and most helpful forms of meditation that many have learned from Tibetan Buddhism is the practice of metta or “loving kindness meditation.” In this type of meditation, one practices a slow, mindful recitation (inward or spoken) of traditional wishes or intentions of goodwill toward self and others. One example of such statements (from Jack Kornfield) is:

May you be filled with lovingkindness.

May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.

May you be well in body and mind.

May you be at ease and happy.

Traditionally, one starts with expressing these intentions toward oneself (May I…), and then moving on toward those very easy to love, then toward people one is grateful for or someone more neutral, then toward those challenging to love (“enemies”) and finally for “all beings.”

It’s good to remember that the practice is about the direction of intentions, and there is no need to assess whether one is developing warm feelings nor should one be disturbed or distracted by any contrary thoughts or feelings that arise during the meditation. Such thoughts are simply accepted and attention is turned back to the phrases and intentions.

Here is an example of a guided meditation that we used:

Audio: Lovingkindness Meditation

We ended our time by taking note of the many research studies that have been done demonstrating the beneficial effects of this practice. You can see a summary of many of these studies here.

silhouette of man walking

Breathing in the Hard Stuff

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

As we explore deepening in our understanding of contemplative practices, we turn to the East to see what we might learn from tonglen meditation (and particularly from Pema Chodron’s, Start Where You Are). While it has some similarities to the “welcoming prayer” that we have given a fair amount of attention to, this practice has some unique emphases that seem important.

Nearly everyone who has dabbled in contemplation has at some point practiced a breathing exercise in which you “breathe in peace (or love or stillness)” and “breathe out anxiety (or whatever might have been troubling one).” This seems natural and intuitive.

Tonglen invites us to a more counter-intuitive practice in which “the poison is the medicine,” where the “logic of ego” is reversed. In this practice one intentionally “breathes in” that which is painful in the midst of one’s experience. (Of course, it does not masochistically seek for pain to breathe in, but invites attention to present suffering.) One breathes this in knowing that it will be received with gentleness and self-compassion.

This transformation of how the pain is received by one’s soft heart allows one to breathe out peace and gentleness to others. So one breathes in pain and breathes out peace. But the key is that the pain is not absorbed like a sponge but transformed into peace and gentleness.

By facing and accepting the pain in this way, we are softened and connected to the pain of others. For me this is the genius of tonglen meditation: our becoming gently present to our own pain prepares us to be more empathically available to the pain of others. Here are the four steps recommended by Pema Chodron (but mostly in my own words):

  1. “Flashing Spaciousness” (Connecting with self-compassion, awakened heart, tenderness, softness)
  2. Work with texture – as you breathe in, feel the metaphors of your own pain – do you feel it as darkness, heaviness, roughness, heat? The opposite is how it is received internally by your awakened, spacious heart (light, cool). Develop a rhythm in which you feel the heavy and dark as you breathe in; the light and cool as you breathe out (or your own metaphors).
  3. Breathe in the pain of another person, another specific “heartfelt” situation, feel it compassionately, empathically and breathe that compassion out “to the other.”
  4. Breathe in awareness of the many who feel a similar pain (to your own or the specific person in #3) and extend the wish of loving kindness/compassion to all. (It’s not an empty and shallow exercise, because it comes out of your felt pain and softness.)


burro with saddle

Contemplating with a Wise Fool

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

In the Sufi tradition, Mullah (teacher) Nasruddin was a 13th century master who liked to teach through parables with a character named for himself who was prone to doing, apparently, foolish things. He believed that humour opened up contemplatives ways to see oneself and one’s actions and assumptions from a new point of view.

With the help of Anthony de Mello’s book, Song of the Bird, we looked at some of these Nasruddin tales and we laughed even more than usual. (We are not the most somber contemplatives…)

Here is one example:

Everyone became alarmed when they saw Mullah Nasruddin, astride his ass, charging through the streets of the village.

“Where are you off to, Mullah?” they asked.

“I’m searching for my ass,” said the mullah as he whizzed by.

Alone or together, this kind of funny parable can open up new space in our contemplation.


book cover

Further Up and Further In

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

For the first time, we are entering the third term in our cycle for the School of Contemplation. The theme for this term is “Further Up and Further In” – and we want to use this time to enter more deeply in our understanding and practice of contemplation. To start us off, we did a lectio divina exercise focusing on the “Prayer of St. Brendan”:

Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,
and somehow, make my obedience count for You.

This seemed a suitable encouragement to send us off on a trek to new places. Some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this term include:

  • How do we deepen in our understanding and practice of discernment as we seek the best intuitive and spiritual practical wisdom in our lives?
  • How do we understand “non-dualistic thinking” and what are its implications?
  • How do concepts and practices from Eastern Orthodoxy or Eastern religions help us gain a deeper appreciation for the potential in more familiar contemplative practices?
  • How do we get better at paying attention to our bodies and get more intentional about making them a part of our spiritual practices?
  • How do community rhythms/practices/liturgies take us to places beyond what is possible as individuals?

Come join us!

knocker on door


By Languages of Contemplation, School of Contemplation No Comments

We often practice “centering prayer” as part of the School of Contemplation. At the heart of this practice is the language of “consent.” Since this concept is so central and stands for so much, it often takes a while to deepen in understanding of what it means. Consent has to do with making oneself available to the experience of being loved and accepted by God.

The chart below describes some of the aspects of this consent; one might see how consent refers to a response or stance that is both “simple” and yet very full. In the practice of centering prayer, one’s chosen word (or short phrase) is meant to symbolize or represent this consent. Yet, it certainly does not mean “thinking about” any of these concepts below. Such reflection may be important but not as part of the contemplation per se. Contemplation is about the act, intention or experience of consent, not the reflection on or analysis of what that consent means.

Here is a chart that reflects some of the potential meanings of consent. Today we did an activity in which thought about each line and asked ourselves how easily we could say “yes.”

Note: This chart is divided in two to provide accessibility to those who thrive on more traditional God-centred language (on the left) and to those who for various reasons find traditional language for God distracting or unhelpful (on the right).

I permit, accept, receive the gift/Presence of Divine Love

I acknowledge that the Universe/Reality has brought about my being and accepts me
I accept/join the activity/work of God in and around me. I accept that God’s intentions for me are good. I accept what is, this moment (though I may work for change)
The Reign/Reality of God (kingdom) is within/among us. I enter into participation. I acknowledge and enter into the connectedness of all things.
I consent to trust God for what lies beyond my control. I am detached from the results of my actions. I accept both the invitation to agency and the dependence in my life. I accept that much of life is beyond my control. I am detached from the results of my actions. I accept both the invitation to agency and the dependence in my life.
I accept feeling what I feel and knowing what I know. (God is not aligned with dishonesty, denial or repression.) I accept feeling what I feel and knowing what I know.
I accept the grace of God’s forgiveness that welcomes me with all my mistakes and weaknesses – I may have to face the consequences of my actions, but God’s love also welcomes me I accept myself in spite of my mistakes and weaknesses (my acceptance is not based on my performance or achievement – though I also accept the consequences of my actions)
bench by lake

Nature Contemplation

By Languages of Contemplation, School of Contemplation No Comments

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. Rom. 1:20

Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. – Rumi

This week, Donna Dunsmore led us on a contemplative walk. Before we left, she shared these thoughts:

• Over the centuries Christian monastic practice in both the East and West has accorded contemplation of nature an important role in spiritual growth.
• monastic tradition has stressed natural contemplation as the second important aspect of growth that prepares us to encounter God “face to face” without images or thoughts
• creation provides us many opportunities for noticing, and appreciating. When we start noticing, we often find things that lead us to ponder and wonder. It also can lead us into deeper experiences of God himself, those times when we sense a deep presence, peace or unity with all things Getting outside provides God the chance to reach us.

And prayed this prayer (from Celtic Daily Prayer – p. 169):

Lord, You alone know
What my soul truly desires
And you alone
Can satisfy those desires

Then we were sent off with these instructions:

As you walk to your spot, focus on gratitude.

( 2 options)

  1. Find one focus (rock, petal, leaf, tree bark…) and experience it with your senses
  2. Sit or stand in one spot and allow yourself to be part of creation around you (let your senses take it in)

 For either 1 or 2:

Breathe deeply

Take in the experience with more than one sense

Allow the experience to enter your being

Trust that God is touching you in creation and that you are being filled

Flexio Divina, Natura Divina & Visio Divina

By Contemplative Rhythms and Improvisations, School of Contemplation No Comments

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at innovations on the practice of Lectio Divina. This began with Rachael reminding us of the place of lectio as part of the four-fold contemplative pattern: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. In this pattern, lectio is the particular time for receiving a “word from God” from some source. Literally, it refers to “reading” but it could refer not only to written text but to input from a wide variety of sources, which we explored with some of our innovations.

So we practiced “flexio divina” by reminding each other that we can practice this type of reading not only with Scripture but with other helpful passages of prose or poetry. The following week, we were even more innovative and went outdoors. There we walked in the early spring and experimented with “natura divina,” reading what we might learn from the book of nature. Finally, we took another turn at “visio divina. 

Whichever form our “reading” takes, it’s an invitation to be more intentional about paying attention, keeping our eyes and ears open to living with more awareness and Presence. Then, the invitation, as always is to take it deeper through the stages of meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. 

choir loft in Florence Cathedral

Improvising on Taize – Humming

By Contemplative Rhythms and Improvisations, School of Contemplation No Comments

Last week, Rachael refreshed our memories about Taize and their emphasis on singing chants together. She shared this quote:

“At Taizé,” wrote Olivier Clement, “people from different and sometimes opposing denominations, cultures, races, and languages pray and work together. Yes, it is really possible; Christ destroys every separating wall.” Regarding the attraction of the young, Olivier Clement explained the “Taizé phenomenon”, saying: “Young people today are tired of talk and tired of scoffing: they want authenticity. It is no use talking to them about communion if we cannot show them a place where communion is being worked out – ‘come and see.’ At such a place people are welcomed as they are without being judged; no one is asked for their doctrinal passport; but nevertheless no secret is made of the fact that everyone is gathered around Christ, and that with him – ‘I am the way’, he said – a way forward begins for those who want it.” (p. 12)

– From a message from Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, to the community in 2010, on the 5thanniversary of Brother Roger’s death.

This week we sang some Taize chants again. This time we talked about the bodily value of singing, of letting our vocal chords vibrate along with the music of others – a harmonious consent.

We talked about Cynthia Bourgeault’s reminder of three key facets that are brought together through singing or chanting: 1) Breathing, 2) Vibrations, and 3) Intentionality. When monks chant the Psalms or young people gather to sing Taize verses, these three come together and facilitate contemplation. I shared the story of the “monks” (i.e. actors) in Of Gods and Men who bonded as they never had before on set because of the hours they spent chanting together during filming and rehearsals. And a second story was told about monks who, when ordered by their superior to stop chanting in their monastery became sick until they were encouraged to sing again.

Other traditions have similarly placed an emphasis on the contemplative potency of entering into sound. Hindus, for example, chant “Om” as the “word of God.” And scientists have confirmed the biological value of such chanting and humming, possibly because the vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords and helps to create a relaxation response.

So we hummed and chanted along with Taize songs like this one.

Try humming along!

hand holding stone at Montserrat

Focusing Prayer – Improvising on Welcoming Prayer

By Contemplative Rhythms and Improvisations, School of Contemplation No Comments

In previous weeks, we explored “welcoming prayer” in depth, including the way in which it can deepen our attention on what is happening in our bodies and senses. This week, Rachael introduced us to “focusing prayer,” which gives a similar attention on one’s senses.

Focusing prayer is a practice that learned from Eugene Gendlin’s research on the importance of “focusing” attention and respect on what is happening in the body of therapy clients during sessions. His research noted that therapeutic gains were more significant and persistent when clients noticed a “felt shift” in their bodies.

Catholic priests and psychologists,  Peter Campbell and Edwin McMahon, adapted some of these ideas and integrated this focus on the “wisdom of the body” with Ignatian prayer. Connecting imaginatively with the felt sense in the body, those praying in this way would deepen their awareness and acceptance of what their body was aware of before their analytic minds could grasp it. The result is a blend of something like the Examen with a body-oriented welcoming prayer.

Check out this handout for the steps of the process:

Download (PDF, 172KB)

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