Rainforest Mind: Zen and Christianity: An Interview with Rev Ian Spencer

Rainforest Mind: Zen and Christianity: An Interview with Rev Ian Spencer

00:00 / 42:11
Rev Ian Spencer (front row, 2nd from left) in his Zen robes at Amida Mandala

Today I enjoyed spending some of the morning with Rev Ian Spencer. Ian is an Anglican priest and runs a retreat centre not far from here. He’s very involved in interfaith work and is also a Zen Buddhist. He seemed like the perfect person to speak to about Buddhism and Christianity.

In this conversation I ask him what Zen Buddhism offers his Christian practice, how he makes sense of ‘The only way to the Father is through me’ and we get to the mystical heart of each tradition.

We cover topics like intimacy, holiness, relative and absolute truth.

Ian mentions books by James Finley and Thomas Merton.

Rainforest Mind: Places of Worship? What’s the point?

Rainforest Mind: Places of Worship? What’s the point?

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After listening to episode three: wildness, someone asked me, “If the jewelled forest in the Buddhist teaching is a call back to a real wild forest, why build temples?”

I take that question as my springboard this week, thinking about how both wildness and temples have supported my spiritual practice and drifting off into other interesting and not completely unrelated areas.

Hope you enjoy listening. Do drop me an email or comment below.

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Rainforest Mind: Wildness

Rainforest Mind: Wildness

00:00 / 23:41

The importance of wildness, why wildness is fundamental, and trusting the process.

I talk about getting out into the natural world, and touch on the process that led to the creation of the Amida Mandala Temple.

In this episode I refer to Isabella Tree’s Wilding, and Nick Totton’s Wild Therapy.

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Rainforest Mind: Needs, Gratitude and Grace

Rainforest Mind: Needs, Gratitude and Grace

00:00 / 18:15

In this episode I recount discovering a deep need (that’s probably impossible to meet),  what helps me work through such needs, and how I can land in a place of feeling deeply satisfied.

The Buddhafield talk is below, as is the talk from Sarah Boak that I mention.

Kaspa’s talk from Buddhafield Festival:

Sarah Boak’s talk:

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Rainforest Mind: Buddhism and Christianity

Rainforest Mind: Buddhism and Christianity

00:00 / 16:09

This week I’m talking about Christianity and Buddhism, inspired by a recent (good) experience in a church, and Justin Whitaker’s blog post: The three Jewels of Buddhism and Multi-faith Affiliations

I also draw on Paul F. Knitter’s book Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian and David Steindl-Rast’s Deeper Than Words.

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Letting go, unravelling and something new

There is a time and a place for most things.

When I started teaching mindfulness classes when we moved to Malvern I was excited to offer them, and I’ve always enjoyed the energy of the groups.

Back in late spring/early summer I took a break from teaching. At the time I imagined this would be a short break but I noticed a reluctance to programme in any more courses, so I gave myself a longer break.

Now – at the end of summer – that reluctance remains.

In his book on vocation, Let Your Life Speak, Parker J. Palmer describes speaking to a Quaker elder about vocation and calling. When is my calling going to appear, He wonders. He talks about how long he’s waited and yet how nothing is calling him forward. The elder tells him that she was born into a Quaker family, and now decades later she has still never heard her calling. Then she pauses for a moment and says that what she has experienced is paths closing off behind her, and that she takes this to be God’s way of showing her the way.

Teaching mindfulness meditation is a path that is closing behind me.

Personally meditation has been a great support, but it’s not my own core practice. My core practice is nembutsu – reciting the name of the Buddha and trusting in the light of unconditional love.

I’m not sure what I might do in that Tuesday evening space yet. I’m not sure if mindfulness will appear in a different form in the future. I am sure that teaching classes in the way that I used to feels like stepping back into an old version of myself.

Earlier this year Brenè Brown wrote about mid-life crisis as an unravelling. She described the process as a letting go of what no longer serves. I don’t think I’m having a mid-life crisis, but I do like the idea of a healthy unravelling, and of letting go of what no longer serves. Letting go of the classes is a part of that.

I hope you can take this as an invitation to let go of what isn’t serving you at the moment, and an invitation to find your own way forwards into something fresh, and supportive.

I’m still offering mindfulness one to ones, working individually with people either with mindfulness or therapeutically gives me a lot of pleasure and satisfaction. When I’m working from that pleasure, satisfaction, and inspiration, the people I’m working with get a much better experience.

I don’t know exactly what the new shape of my life looks like yet. I love running services at the temple, I love putting energy into my new podcast, and I’m looking forward to more closely integrating body-work and ecology with my therapeutic work.

Thanks to everyone that has taken part in classes in the past, and I do hope our paths will cross again sometime.


What about desire?

I’ve just returned from a weekend of silent walking on the Malvern Hills. We walked nine miles south, and camped overnight, and nine miles back the next day. It was in the middle of the heat wave. Walking up to the top of Black Hill, where there is no shade, in the hottest part of the day, was a struggle – but the views at the top were breath-taking. Somehow the hard work and my aching legs made the view even more beautiful than usual, and the cool wind at the top was a real treat.

On a cold day I’d have complained about the cool wind at the top, but in that moment it was perfect. This is often the nature of desire – we long for something to move us out of an uncomfortable situation. Usually after a while the new situation becomes uncomfortable, and we long for something else. How many people have said it’s too hot, that were complaining about the cold a few months ago?

Our desires are inevitably frustrated: we long for a chocolate cake, eat too much and then feel ill, we can’t wait to go on holiday and when we get there we just want to come home again, and we always complain about the weather.

One way out of this is to simply stop wanting things. That sounds like a pretty boring life, and it sounds like an impossible path to walk. It’s far better to get to know what we want, and how our desire works, and take it from there.

If desire is always taking us towards something different from the present moment, sometimes it’s appropriate to look for something to appreciate in the present moment , and sometimes it’s appropriate to ride the wave of desire, knowing that it is not leading you to a place of eternal happiness, but a place that you will want to move from at some point. Maybe I’ll go downstairs and enjoy having a snack. I know that if all I do is eat snacks, I’ll soon be sick of it, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy the first one.

Getting to know our habit patterns around desire and frustration means that we can also take life a little more light-heartedly. Knowing that desire is a wave that always wants to move forward means we can take its cry of “This one thing will make you happy” with a pinch of salt. We can enjoy where it’s leading us, without being taken in by its impossible promise.

There’s a place for discernment too, of course. Some desires are bound to lead to trouble, some are neutral and some lead to positive, pleasurable places. Learning to say ‘no’ sometimes, is just as important as learning to say ‘yes’. I’m reminded of Achaan Chah saying if the student strays too far to the left, you tell them to go right, and if they stray too far to the right, you tell them to go left. We can say the same about desire. Sometimes it needs keeping an eye on, and sometimes it’s taking us to exactly the right place.

Sometimes self-denial is good full-stop. There are some things that are simply unhelpful to indulge in at all. Sometimes just a period of self-denial is helpful. There’s nothing better than a meal after a fast day, and the lemonade ice-lolly I bought from the ice-cream van, half way through the walk home on a hot, hot Sunday, was the best I’ve ever tasted.

This first appeared in All About Malvern



When things are out of control

Remember when it snowed in February? The temperature dived below zero. On  the Wednesday evening of the cold weather the temperature inside the temple started to fall as well. Minutes before our public service I noticed the boiler had cut out. The condensate pip was frozen solid. Whilst Satya led the service, I spent the evening trying to thaw out pipe.

My footsteps crunched on the frozen snow. The cold wind whipped up snow powder from drifts into the air around me. The hot water I was using to thaw the pipe created clouds and clouds of water vapour.

Ten kettles of hot water later and the pipe was as frozen as it was before I had started. I made sure our residents had electric heaters in their rooms, and gave up for the night.

The next day the plumber helped me unplug the pipe from the boiler, we drained the condensation into a bucket in the boiler room, and the heating came back.

Two of our neighbours were without running water.

One of our outside wastepipes froze and a toilet overflowed.

When the snow began to melt it found its way through the roof above our guest bathroom, dripped onto the floor, and water filled the light fitting.

There is so much that we are not in control of.

A few days later when everything had thawed out, the overflows had been mopped up, and we were all warm again, I felt my body relaxing. I hadn’t even known I was holding tension through the week.

What supports us to feel settled and stable in the midst of chaos?

One thing we can do is be clear about what we are actually in control of. Sometimes in times like this I ask myself, “What can I control, what can I influence, and what is completely outside of my control?” Being clear about what I can do often allows me to let go of worrying about the rest.

Sometimes that isn’t enough and the worry remains. Sometimes we see how little we are in control of and that in itself feels unsettling. What then?

Count your blessings. It’s a cliché, but it really is a powerful antidote to worry and stressful situations. This isn’t about ignoring what’s troubling you, but is about also connecting with what is supportive and good and wholesome.

I remember my friends. I remember the bounty of the natural world that sustains me. I remember Christine who left her house to our Trust in her will, which allowed us to buy this temple building.

We can go further than remembering our blessings and take action to reconnect with them. Talk to our friends, go out in to the natural world or the places that support us.

Think about what already supports and nourishes you, be grateful for those and ask how you can root yourself more deeply in those places, relationships and experiences.

When we feel connected in this way, we are much less likely to be overwhelmed with stress, and much more likely to feel resourced and able to deal with what life throws at us.


This post first appeared as an article in All About Malvern

Great Gratitude – Great Peace

A few days ago my thoughts were wondering all over the place. I was remembering things to do, making lists and composing emails. I was in the middle of walking meditation, where the aim is to remain grounded in the present moment, and instead my mind was jumping wildly from one thought to another.

In walking meditation I sometimes use the sense of touch to bring me back into the present moment. Becoming aware of my feet on the floor grounds me again. On that day of busy thoughts it wasn’t the psychical sensation that lifted me out of my freneticism but a sudden awareness of everything I had received.

The carpet my feet were padding into was donated. The floorboards beneath are two hundred years old, like the building. The hands that created the building are long gone but I am still reaping the benefit of their work.  The sun was shining through the tall Georgian windows; I had nothing to do with creating the sun, and yet there it was sustaining me, and the whole world.

Two words came to mind, “just this”. Everything I needed was already there. Everything I needed to be at peace was already there.

When our minds are busy, or we feel disturbed, upset or anxious, we are often focussing on the one thing that has worked its way under our skin, and have forgotten about everything that we already have. Or we are comparing our lives to someone else’s (they always look happy on Facebook), and lose sight of what we have received and are receiving.

Directing our attention back to what we have been given and what already supports us is a great antidote to this, and a great way of finding a little peace. Thinking about what we receive connects us to the whole of the present moment. Instead of only seeing the crack in the windscreen, we remember to see the beautiful view as well. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t repair the crack, but it can change how we feel and make things easier.

We sometimes use discontent as a motivator. I don’t like this, so I’ll change it. I want to be thinner, or fitter, or earn more money, or whatever, and then we plough energy into accomplishing that goal.

For me the motivation that comes from dissatisfaction is unstainable. I put some energy into the project, and then I feel a little better, and the discontent goes and so the motivation goes, and the project flounders.

When I act from a place of celebrating what I have already the energy continues. There is always something to be thankful for. This morning I made the bed, or, I made it into my office, or I cleared my inbox. Reminding myself of the little victories brings an energy that can carry me into the next thing on my to-do list.

Writing a list of what we have received in the last week, or in the last 24 hours, is a great way of keying ourselves into this kind of awareness. Research has shown that it’s better to spend a longer time writing once a week, than writing a short list each day. Why is this? I think because writing a short list we can become complacent and list the same things over and over again. Writing a longer list encourages us to really interrogate our position. The list of what we have already received is endless.

Try it out for yourselves: think of what you have already received, and see how it makes you feel.

Or join my next mindfulness course and begin practising mindfulness and gratitude as part of a group.

This post originally appeared in All About Malvern magazine

Great Mindfulness – Great Gratitude

By five o clock it was already dark. Snow was gently falling. I couldn’t tell if it was settling or not. I looked out at the night, through my own reflection, and wondered if everyone would make the class I was teaching that evening.

They all turned up, and we spent an hour together. We practiced some breathing meditation, and I talked about the power of rooting our practice in gratitude. A couple of weeks earlier I’d been doing some walking meditation and my mind was all over the place. When I brought my focus back to my feet contacting the ground, a great swell of gratitude appeared: this carpet was a gift, these floorboards were laid two hundred years ago, I am already supported. Two words came to mind, over and over again: just this, just this, just this.

Last night was the second session. Having told that story last week I began by leading some walking practice. We gave our attention to the floor, and our surroundings, and rooted ourselves in a sense of being supported.

I wanted to make this experience even more explicit. I invited people to pair up and share things that they had received in the last twenty four hours, each person naming one and then the other. I encouraged people to go beyond what they already knew. How many hands and natural processes created the meal you ate earlier? What allows you to be here in this moment? When we really investigate what supports us the list is endless.

A few years ago there was a university study on the effects of making gratitude lists, (I can’t remember the exact study I’m afraid) as expected those making lists reported a better sense of wellbeing. They also discovered that it was better to write for a longer amount of time once a week, than for a short amount of time each day. I guess this is because the longer time encourages us to go beyond what we know – connecting us with the deep web of causes and conditions that support us.

If our practice is grounded in gratitude, it is easier to weather the ups and downs of life, and easier to pay attention – without judgment – to more difficult things. They are held in a greater context.

When I think of practicing with gratitude, I often think of the poem Love by Milosz:


Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Czeslaw Milosz