Thursday, 3 January 2019

Quaker Worship and Meditation

A man sits cross-legged, arms out in a stereotypical "meditation" post, on a stone path under a hemicylindrical trellis over which pink flowers or leaves have been trained.
Those who are familiar with meditation, often from the popularisation of Buddhist meditation methods, but not with Quaker worship practices, often get the idea that they are very similar. I have read accounts of Quakers who first came to a Quaker meeting because they had been enjoying Buddhist meditation, but moved to an area with no sangha or meditation group, and were advised that what Quakers did was like meditation. There are, obviously, some superficial similarities – a whole bunch of people sitting in silence being the obvious one – and even some comparability of the inward practice, but there are fundamental differences that clearly separate the two experiences and practices. In this post, I'll be exploring the points of similarity and difference, and exploring the virtue of Friends maintaining both practices.
Meditation is a term used for a range of practices, often originating in spiritual disciplines. It usually refers to a state of combined focus and calm clarity, often implying a sense of detachment. Meditation practices derived from Buddhism are often the most well-known, including mindfulness meditations and traditional visualisation methods. Another form emanating from South Asian tradition, though not Buddhist, that many will have heard of is transcendental meditation, developed and popularised in the 1950s. There are also Christian meditation traditions, and very long-standing Jewish meditations, and indeed forms of meditation are known in many world religions. I am an expert in none of them, I hasten to make clear; I have some experience of a few, and have also done documentary research in support of this analysis. One thing that is clear is that there is a wide range of understanding of meditation, even within a single discipline or group of disciplines. A single “school” of Buddhism, for instance, such as Zen, may be divided into several schools which have different understandings of key features that are considered distinctive of the overarching school.
What meditation tends to have in common is a state of relative silence and stillness, which I feel is likely responsible for much of the perceived similarity with Quaker silent worship. Common techniques include the use of mantras, silent or spoken. These repeated words or phrases serve to help focus the mind on the matter at hand. Guided visualisation may be used, either with the coaching of a tutor of some sort, or an audio recording, or a visualisation that one has learned through practice. One might also focus on some element of your own physical processes, like breathing, or on some external object such as a candle, or even a stone. The focus might even be on some abstract idea. In this silence and stillness, a different state of consciousness is achieved, which might enable any number of things. Benefits attributed to the meditative state range from simply promoting serenity or virtuous mental features such as non-attachment, to the achievement of deep metaphysical insights, yet also internal and immediate psychological impacts such as coping with a stressful or traumatic situation, or potentially practical intellectual results around problem-solving.
In the case of zazen, a form of meditation in Zen Buddhism, there is a strong emphasis on this mental focus (which is at the same time non-focus) being used to shortcut the intellectual process and obtain realisation and insight “beyond thought”; while other schools of meditation may not be so explicit in this matter, it is a reasonably common approach that one does not bring analytical thought to bear. Indeed, in some schools of Zen Buddhism, zazen is not considered meditation; it is simply sitting, having the whole of the body and mind engaged in simply that act. In other schools, the objective is to use that state of “just sitting” to create a non-reasoning state of thought with which to consider koans, stories or riddles that one cannot comprehend fully through intellectual reasoning.
The founder of Sōtō Zen, master Dogen, particularly characterised zazen as “[casting] aside all involvements and [ceasing] all affairs”, of ceasing all active thought. A widely-quoted description attributed to Dogen may strike a particular chord with Friends:
Put aside the intellectual habit of chasing words and phrases, and learn to take the backward step that shines the light inward.” (Emphasis added)
Whatever might be meant by shining this light, this description describes a particular approach to achieving it, the ceasing of rational or active thought. This parallels a story Friends often repeat, concerning the prominent American Friend, and a founder of a precursor of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Rufus Jones. It concerns an occasion in which Jones rose to minister in Meeting for Worship, prefacing his ministry in a manner many Friends will find familiar – that he had been thinking about something, and wanted to share his thoughts. Now, we might allow that wanting to share thoughts is through the action of the Spirit, and even that the thoughts were, though such a preface always makes me wonder the degree to which the ministry might have been prepared, intentional on the part of the Friend giving it. In any case, after the meeting had concluded, an elderly Friend, reported to be British, is said to have told Jones, “during Meeting for Worship, thee should not have been thinking”. Now, I see reasons to doubt the accuracy of the report (not least that British Friends had largely abandoned the practice of using the t-form second person pronouns by the time this might have happened, and when they did they tended to use them in a manner consistent with correct early modern English grammar – it would have most likely been “thou should not have been thinking”), but much like the story of Penn's sword, it is still useful. Indeed, it derives its meaning not from its actual occurrence, but from the fact Friends continue to retell it. The parallels with zazen are clear; Friends who repeat this in agreement hold that the state of mind needed for Meeting for Worship is one of non-thought, of simply letting things happen inwardly as well as outwardly.
In Quaker silent worship, we engage in what is often referred to as expectant waiting. As I have previously noted, I have trouble with the word “expectant” in this term; I do not expect to receive anything from the Divine, but I am open, I am waiting, I am hopeful. In as much as we change our state of mind, it is for the purpose of being open to the Spirit (however we might conceive of it and whatever we might call it). There is perhaps a connection here to the aim of zazen, especially if we are open to non-theistic understandings of the process. What we hope to gain from the Spirit, often expressed through spoken ministry, is new realisation and insight. We do not expect it to manifest in the same way as the Zen Buddhist might hope to obtain through zazen, but there is a clear relationship of concept.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a form of meditation (or meditation-related practice, depending on the specific details of practice) which seeks largely to operate upon and within one's own mind. It is about being present in the moment, and about fully experiencing whatever one is experiencing. Sometimes, it's about honestly appreciating, understanding and accepting your own thoughts and feelings. It can be used therapeutically in a range of situations, helping people to understand their own thought processes and reactions, or to distract from intrusive thoughts or break negative thought patterns. It can even be used to help with pain, though you can end up with unfortunate consequences if you use some mindfulness exercises used in mental health contexts with people who also suffer from chronic pain (“focus on body part, try to feel all the sensations coming from, the texture of what it's touching, etc etc”; “it hurts”; “okay, what about other body part?”; “it hurts too”). In Quaker worship, we do not generally encourage an inward focus in this way, but we do encourage people to be fully present. I know some Friends who use mindfulness techniques to centre in Meeting for Worship. I would generally maintain, however, that in focussing to be open to the Inner Light, our focus is both inward and outward, at the same time.
So, while the process of centring in meditation and in Quaker worship may bear similarities – such as stillness, presence-in-the-moment, and for some even the use of mantras or repeated simple prayer – what we do once we are centred is different. We might make use of a state of altered consciousness, it may be beneficial, but I would contend that one can be present and engaged in worship without such a state. The Light finds ways to reach us in almost any state. In much of meditation, the goal of meditation is primarily that state, and then it might be used to attain some other goal, perhaps one that cannot be attained any other way. In worship, our goal is to be open to the Spirit, and any state we use is merely a means to an end.
What we seek is greater awareness of the Light, openness to the movement of the Divine. Whether you believe that the Divine is or is not capable of imposing itself upon us against our will, we know from experience that the Spirit moves in us more when we invite it, when we learn to heed a “still, small voice”. Worship is our tool to do this, and in so doing to allow ourselves to put our lives in the ordering of the Spirit. It is our primary tool, our distinctly Quaker tool, but most importantly, it is not our only tool. We are often advised to set aside time for personal silence and reflection, or for consideration of scripture or other inspired or inspiring texts. These are all tools as well.
Meditation, of one form or another, might then be a tool as well. It is a tool that we can use in addition to Meetings for Worship, and it is a tool we can use in Meeting for Worship. It can help us to be open to the Light, and to receive the ministry of others in deep communion with the Spirit. From my own experience, though, it cannot do this alone, and it is far from essential. There is something to Meeting for Worship that goes beyond any personal or inward practice. It is, fundamentally, a collective activity. We meet together because we believe, with whatever rationale (or even no rationale), that by doing so we join together in our openness to the Light, and in so doing enhance that openness.
I would encourage any Friend with an interest in doing so to learn and practice some form of meditation. I have found it very helpful, and I think there are reasons to believe that it can enhance our contact with the Divine. It can even be appropriate to use these techniques in Meeting for Worship, but only as a tool. Only as a means to an end. Never lose sight of what that end is, however you might describe it.
If someone comes to our Meetings for Worship just to meditate, well, they are welcome to do so. “All are welcome”, we so often say, though it's generally not literally true. Some people come just to “enjoy the silence”, and they, too, are welcome. Neither of these people is intending to actually participate in our worship, but still they enrich it, because their being is added to the collective lens through which we invite the Light. And perhaps, just perhaps, from time to time, they will truly participate without realising it. It may be just for a moment, and they gain an insight for which they cannot trace an origin. It may lead to them standing, a surprise to them as much as to anyone else, and giving ministry they never expected. It may lead to amazing, life-changing insights. If it does, that's wonderful, and if not, then it doesn't matter.
We all walk our own path. That metaphor obscures the truth of the spiritual journey, however, because we can walk together, even though we are on different paths. Fellowship, or even simple company, does not require total accord. Learn what you can, and enjoy the company.
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