Saturday, 6 January 2018

What We Do In Silence

Mountains and forest seen across a lake.
From the outside, what happens in a Quaker Meeting for Worship is fairly simple, if unrevealing. We sit in silence, and at some point, someone may be moved to stand and speak. But there's a lot more to it than that.
As we sit in our “expectant waiting”, we are not generally entirely passive – not least because absolute passivity is not something that comes easily to people. For centuries, faith communities have developed strategies to help people learn various forms of passivity, leading their way towards it through prayers, mantras and meditation. Not only that, but not all Friends find the best way to make that contact with the Divine is through passivity at all.
In this post, I will be exploring what it is we do in the silence of worship – different ways we bring ourselves to the right state of mind, what that state of mind might be (different for different Friends), and what we do once we have reached it. That is a chronological order, and it might seem appropriate to explore things that way, but I find it most helpful to consider the state of mind first, before looking at how we reach it.
I've previously written about the inward silence, which is my term for part of the state of mind that should be present in worship. I've also shared written ministry that describes worship as “active passivity”. And, of course, there's the traditional term “expectant waiting”, which I have a bit of a quibble with in terms of the “expectant” bit, but it's an important point of distinction between what we do in silent worship, and other traditional silent spiritual practices. It's a very hard thing to put into words, but I'm going to try to unpack this a bit.
For some Friends, the inward silence is exactly what it sounds like – stilling one's mind so that things are quiet inside your head. This is, arguably, leaving a blank canvas for the messages of the Divine. For others, that stillness is either impossible to find, or counterproductive. If it were just that some found it impossible to find, I might say “ah, you just think it is impossible, keep trying”; however, not only is that judgemental, but it is also set in question by the fact that some people can reach a high degree of inner stillness, as in some forms of meditation, but find that such a stillness silences not only their own thoughts, but also the movement of the Spirit.
For such people, and this includes me, the inward silence leaves thoughts active, but still unmistakeably different from any usual state of mind. I can only speak in much detail for myself. It is like the difference between paddling a ship, in possibly unsteady waters, and letting the boat float where the currents take it – be they calm or volatile. My intellect is not disconnected, but I am not directing it myself. My thoughts go where the currents take me, and the Spirit may direct those currents, from time to time. I am certainly aware of the gathered Light of those I worship with, while in that state.
If the silence is not really silent, and stillness not entirely still, what is it? What is quieted or stilled, if not our actual thoughts? What I would characterise as the common element of these states of mind is a silencing of the will, and stilling of conscious direction. The Friend whose mind is more silent and still keeps it that way by relaxation and detachment, not by ongoing force of will; if they tried to maintain the stillness by force, it would not be easy for the Spirit to find purchase. The Friend whose mind is more active does not direct that action, but lets it flow where it will. Both are waiting, to see what, if anything, will happen, and I suppose that this waiting might be called “expectant”, in that we have an expectation that something may happen – though I prefer to think of it as reasonable hope, rather than expectation.
In this state, it is also common to feel some sort of presence. For some, they feel that they are in contact with a specific divinity of which they feel that they know the identity. Others feel it as a numinous, undefinable presence beyond, yet among those worshipping. Myself, as I have said, I feel that I am aware of the gathered, interconnected Light of those present, as I have described in previous written ministry regarding the Light and worship. Some I have spoken to see it similarly, but go further to see that as part of an interconnected web of all life. I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of variation as regards that sensation, but it is an important – if not universally present – part of the sensation and state of deep Quaker worship.
How then, do we get to this state, whatever form it takes for us? This is often referred to as “centring down”, and the ways of doing so are even more varied, if that is possible, than the precise natures of the state we find ourselves in – though they are not partitioned to match a single end state each. Some use meditation techniques, and they might end up in a “silent” state, or a “floating” one; likewise, simply allowing your thoughts to drift might leave you floating, or you might drift into silence. However, those two vague descriptions do little for those who are struggling with finding their way into the inward silence. So, I will present some “recipes”, based on my own experience and my conversations with other Friends. I'd love to hear about your own little patterns or recipes for attaining that state of deep Quaker worship – the comments section below is, as always, available for your commentary.
It is controversial among some Friends, but one technique that I sometimes find I have to use myself, and that I know other Friends find useful – either on occasion or regularly – is reading. The choice of text is important, but it's hard to give pointers, as which texts work well will vary between people based on inclination. It should not be something too engrossing – you should find it easy to put down when your mind is running in to the right state. It should be something that stimulates your thoughts in a spiritual or religious way. It should be something that doesn't excite you. Holy books or Quaker faith & practice are popular, and I've seen several Friends reading The Friend in Meeting for Worship, so I assume they are using it to centre down. Personally, I've also read books on spirituality more generally, the occasional history, and even some novels have been suitable for this use, for me. However, be aware that some Friends disapprove of this technique, or disapprove of doing it with anything but obviously religious books. You may meet some distrust if you read using an e-reader or similar, simply because people can't tell what you are reading. If you choose to centre down by reading, remember that you're doing it to centre down – you should expect to be reading for a few minutes, ten is a reasonable time, it should only be noticeably longer when you're having a real hard time centring down.
A technique that seems to me to be growing in popularity among Friends, possibly because of its growing popularity in general, is mindfulness. The essential principle of mindfulness is being fully present and aware, in the present moment, of whatever you are focussing on. Mindfulness can be practised in your daily life, where you can eat mindfully – paying close attention to the present moment and every sensation of the food, flavour, scent, texture – or even wash dishes mindfully. An effective way to centre down for some people is mindful breathing, but you can also mindfully respond to a visual cue, such as parquetry on the floor, a view from the windows, or flowers on the centre table (if your Meeting has flowers). The trick is to focus, ideally dispassionately, on current sensations, and thus take your mind away from concerns outside the room, away from worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. Mindfulness is not a technique that you can just jump into without practice, though. Explaining how to do it is beyond the scope of this post, and I'm not sure I'd be qualified to do it even in a post dedicated to the subject; if you'd like to try this, I recommend that you find someone, or some resource, to help you get into the practice.
Some people apply a sort of direct mental discipline. This has some similarities to mindfulness, but is reached in a different way; it might, perhaps, be considered a sort of mindfulness of thought, rather than of sensation. Settling in to the silence, stop directing your thoughts, and let things arise. Run through each thought, letting it run to its end, and then set it aside. If it loops, and you can't resolve it, set it aside. Gradually, thoughts slow, and your thoughts begin to flow more and more in line with the process of worship.
Another technique some use is the repetition of mantras. It can be related to mindfulness, but not every use of it would really be the same. Obviously, a spoken mantra would be disruptive to the meeting, but silent repetition of a mantra can still and focus thoughts. Like mindfulness, it stops your mind roving over past and future, and keeps it here and now. A mantra can be almost anything, but it works best if it has some spiritual or religious significance to you. For Christian Friends, this could be a set spoken prayer, such as the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary or the Magnificat, repeated silently. Really, it can be almost anything – the mantra of Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would suit some people, I'm sure. Indeed, I've heard liberal Quakers liken their understanding of the Divine to the Force, minus the space wizard powers, so “I am one with the Force; the Force is with me” seems quite reasonable. It should be easy to remember; most mantras are short, but set prayers tend to be longer. More than a few words, but not a long text. It should take concentration, but be familiar enough that it doesn't require mental “reaching”. It should be something that focusses your mind in an appropriate place for worship – whether for you that is God, the natural world, or your common humanity, or any of numerous other things.
With practice, or perhaps a certain degree of natural affinity, it becomes easier to drop into the right mental state for worship with less and less active discipline. This doesn't mean that there is no discipline, simply that it becomes more natural and less conscious.
There are certainly many other strategies that people use, and I'd love to hear about them. These techniques are ones that I am more familiar with, however, so that's what I'm comfortable trying to explain. There is one more point to cover, however, in terms of what I set out to do in this post: what happens once we reach that state of mind, that worshipful frame, that inward silence.
This is the hardest thing to put into words, and it almost requires one to wax poetic. It might not happen to everyone every time they participate in Meeting for Worship, but when it all works out you can end up with some amazing perceptions and sensations. A sense of interconnectedness with your fellow worshippers, or even with all creation. A feeling of presence, of awareness of the Divine. A sense of a Power covering the meeting. A feeling of deep perception, without necessarily being able to comprehend what it is your are perceiving.
Sometimes that sense is clearer than others. I suspect that many people in Meeting for Worship feel it dimly more often than fully, and may not be quite aware that it is the same thing. With practice, you can also sometimes capture that feeling away from meeting. I feel lucky that I've been able to reach for it in many situations in my life, a source of strength, calm and inspiration. It is, I feel, from that feeling and perception that ministry then flows. From that deep sense, we feel the start of something, the inkling of an idea, that can blossom into spoken ministry – or ministry expressed in movement or music, or writing, or art.
The true “secret” of Quaker worship is not silence. It's what we do with it.
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