Monday, December 20, 2010

Living in the Moment (No, Really!)

I have just a couple of weeks left with Zen Buddhism, which means I have to start drawing a conclusion or two. Having nearly finished my time now with the Quakers and with Boundless Way, I am just beginning to realize the massive extent to which I have to skate across the surface of each tradition I am taking up. But I am forcing myself to stick to the premise I set for myself last summer—short periods of immersion in each tradition—in order to allow me to survey a wider range of religious beliefs and experiences.

This week I want to focus on two lessons I have taken from my time with Zen Buddhism, the first of which comes in the form of a cliché that you hear people repeat all of the time: living in the moment.

Today is Monday, December 20th. In four days it will be Christmas Eve, which initiates a great few weeks for me: mass and then dinner with friends on Christmas eve, Christmas day with the family, then a trip to Disney world, a visit with my father, and then a couple of weeks remaining in winter break for me to write and get ready for the semester.

But there are four days until that wonderful sequence of events begins, and for all I know it won’t be nearly as wonderful as I hope: someone will get sick, our plane will get grounded in a snowstorm, it will be raining in Florida, and so on. So I have only now begun to understand—while I won’t begrudge myself the pleasures of anticipation—that waiting for the future means ignoring the present. I have the gift of four full days to savor between now and Christmas Eve, and every one of those days holds the promise of as much joy and meaning as any day I might spend in my glorious few upcoming weeks.

But everyone knows that, right? Live in the moment; don’t while away your days wishing for tomorrow, when you have today here to enjoy it. I would have said that before I began sitting with Boundless Way, and I doubt anyone reading this would disagree.

So the second thing that I have learned over the past couple of months has been the wide gulf between speaking that sentiment and living it. Instructing yourself to “live in the moment,” without making any effort to understand what that means , or to practice doing it, can be a hollow exercise—as it would have been for me just a few months ago.

Sitting in meditation practice has taught me the techniques that help actually put this philosophy into practice (and which are described more fully in recent posts): sitting quietly, back straightened, concentrating on your breathing, and clearing your mind of everything but what you notice around you. I find that I get better at all of these techniques with each day of practice, and that they all help me live more fully in the moment.

If I am driving along in the car and I find myself wandering into worry about the future, I turn my attention to my breath and those unpleasant thoughts just drift away. If I find my attention wandering away from the present moment, I look around me and see what I notice: this warm café in which I am sitting, the hot chocolate on my table, the snowflakes and people drifting by outside, the medley of conversations around me. In every one of these things I can see reason for gratitude. In every one of them I can experience the present.

Of course none of us could survive without thinking about the future from time to time, or reflecting on the past. I still probably live more in those places than I do in the moment. But, at the very least, I have learned from the Buddhists to make an effort to make every day sacred.

Each day, like each moment, offers the potential for peace and joy—as long as we learn how to live in it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Buddhist (and Christian) Family Values

One of the most interesting and defining moments in the biography of the Buddha comes when he decides to leave his father's palace and head out in search of a remedy for human suffering. When he embarks upon his quest, the Buddha is turning his back on the pleasures of earthly life—-but he also leaves behind a wife and newly born son.

“Before leaving home,” writes Karen Armstrong in her biography Buddha, “he crept upstairs to take one last look at his sleeping wife and their baby, but could not bring himself to say goodbye. Then he stole out of the palace . . .”

Huston Smith and Philip Novak describe it like this: “Making his way in the post-midnight hours to where his wife and son were locked in sleep, he bade them both a silent good-bye, and then ordered the gatekeeper to bridle his great white horse.”

In both descriptions, note that the Buddha leaves his wife and son without explanation, without goodbye. It's not too difficult to imagine why, of course. Leaving behind your infant child in the hopes of searching for a remedy for all human suffering seems like it might be a difficult conversation to have with your wife on a Tuesday at midnight.

Of course the story ends well—-for Buddha. He achieves enlightenment. In the wake of that achievement, though, he has left behind a fatherless son and a bewildered spouse.

But before throwing stones at the Buddha, remember that Jesus—-despite what Republicans might suggest to us about “Christian family values”--also preached the gospel of renouncing your family to seek spiritual fulfillment.

“In truth I tell you,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, “there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—-and persecutions too—-now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.”

Or how about this one from the Gospel of Luke:

“His mother and brothers came looking for him, but they could not get to him because of the crowd. He was told, 'Your mother and brothers are standing outside and want to see you.' But he said in answer, 'My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.'”

These are the moments and words in the life of our great spiritual sages that we try to pretend don't exist. I would love to hear the folks who expound upon the importance of family values, and count themselves as followers of Christ or Buddha, explain what they mean. I would love to know how to reconcile them with my intuitive sense that leaving behind my wife and five children, or turning my back on parents and siblings, in order to seek enlightenment would be a morally reprehensible action.

So what do we do with these actions and words? Do we try to explain them away as parables, or as symbols? Do we ignore them and do as best we can with all of the other commands that we are willing to follow?

Or are they hard and strange enough to make us want to chuck the whole enterprise?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Life of Buddha




Family obligations made me miss last week's session at Boundless Way, but I tried to makeup for it by digging more deeply into my research on Buddhism and its founder. I finished Karen Armstrong's terrific biography of Buddha, and have been making my way through Huston Smith and Philip Novak's Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. A Buddhist day of commemoration is coming up this week, so in preparation for that, I thought I would share a bit of history and some thoughts on the historical figure of the Buddha.

The word “Buddha” is just like the word “Christ”--a title that has been transformed into what most people consider a personal name. The word “Christ” actually means “the annointed one,” which is the honorific title that Jesus's early followers gave to him. Joseph and Mary were not addressed as Mr. and Mrs. Christ. Jesus would have been referred to as Jesus of Nazareth if you were meeting him at the wedding at Cana, as in:

“Who's that guy doing the chicken dance?”

“That's Jesus of Nazareth.”

Similarly, the word “buddha” actually means “the awakened one,” and also was a descriptive title that the one we know as “Buddha” gave to himself. The given name of this historical figure was Siddhatta Gotama, and he was an aristocrat who lived in the 5th century BC in an area that now lies around the border of India and Nepal. Most of the facts we have about his life come down from a wide range of historical and mythical accounts, none of which were written down until hundreds of years after his death.

A couple of quick highlights: Gotama was born to privilege and wealth, and destined for earthly and political power. His father wanted to shelter him from all pain and suffering, and so kept him secluded and distracted with earthly pleasures as much as possible. While in the early prime of his manhood, though, he encountered a series of jarring sights—a sick and elderly man, a corpse, an ascetic monk—and was so disturbed by his sudden awareness of suffering in the world that he left his wife and newly born son and went out to wander in search of a remedy.

He studied under gurus, practiced extreme forms of asceticism, and performed yoga and meditation until finally he felt he had begun to discern the way. As he neared what we might consider his final insight or revelation, he sat beneath a Bodhi tree (pictured above) and vowed not to rise again until he had achieved enlightenment. The day upon which he reached enlightenment and attained Nirvana—a complicated concept that I won't take up here—is one that will be commemorated this week, on December 8th. As one of the teachers at Boundless Way put it jokingly a couple of weeks ago, you can think about this date like Buddhist Christmas.

So while you are hanging tinsel and Buddha ornaments off your Bodhi tree, I'll offer one subject for reflection—one of the aspects of Buddhism that I find both frustrating and attractive.

After Buddha attained enlightenment, and began to teach others how they too might achieve it, many followers asked him questions about how he saw the structure and meaning of the universe and our lives: Who made the world? What happened to us when we died? What Gods should we worship?

Buddha steadfastly refused to answer these kinds of questions. As Armstrong puts it, “these matters might be interesting but they would not give a disciple enlightenment.” Buddha told a parable in which he explained why focusing on such matters was a futile and distracting pursuit:

“It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural or lowest caste.”

For the Buddha, we should put our focus on finding distance from the relentless demands of the self, which would enable us to learn to live happily in a world of sorrow and decay. Buddhism is an eminently practical belief system in some ways, with a constant focus on the practice of training your mind and body to turn themselves towards right thinking and action.

In some ways I find this to be a wise perspective. Nothing leads to useless anxiety more than worrying about things which are out of your control—as the structure of the universe will be for most of us. And I have little doubt that the more we can tame the wild desires of our egos, the more we are able to find satisfaction and pleasure in our everyday lives.

At the same time, I have always enjoyed speculating about the big questions we can ask about the world, and talking about these questions with others. The very existence of this blog, and my book project, stem from my ongoing interest in those larger questions. I also am not convinced that we should divorce our everyday actions and beliefs from larger convictions about our lives and the universe.

But I have a few more weeks with the Buddha, so I will continue to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, and continue with my reading and daily meditations. Thoughts on all of this, as always, are welcome below.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Noticing

When I was a senior in college I took a course in which we read some essays by the experimental composer John Cage. Of course Cage is most famous for 4'33'', in which the musician or musicians on stage sit in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds (you can watch a video of it here).

This piece seems like the kind of artistic trickery that people like to complain about in modern art, but I thought that one of the theories behind the piece was fascinating. While the musicians on stage might sit in silence, the “music” of the piece would come from all the incidental noises that are always happening in a concert hall: programs rustling, bodies shifting in seats, people coughing, and so on. One of Cage's interests was the introduction of chance and accident into music, and this piece represents the ultimate example of that idea.

I remember, after reading Cage's theories, that occasionally I would find myself at a college party, stuck in a boring conversation, and my mind would drift upwards until I found myself listening to the noises of the party as a whole—music in the background, people talking, bottles clinking, doors opening and shutting—as if it were some kind of Cage-ian symphony. Occasionally now I will still find myself doing this when I am in the midst of a large crowd.

All of this comes as a prelude to correcting my previous posts on the practice and aims of meditation. Part of that correction came from Melissa Myozen Blacker, one of the leaders of the Boundless Way Zen group; part of it came from a documentary I watched on the life of Buddha, as well as reading Karen Armstrong's biography of him.

I suggested previously that the practice of focusing on the breath, and the goal of meditation as a whole, was to empty the mind. As Melissa pointed out to me in an e-mail, though, emptying the mind really only comes when we are sleeping (and sometimes not even then!) or in a trance state. It suggests that Buddhists seek to escape all thought.

What Buddhists seek instead, as I have come to learn, is “mindfulness.”

As it happens, the talk at this past Monday's Boundless Way Zen session, which was given by David Rynick, helped clarify this for me. David explained that his own Zen teacher had recently told him of a new technique he used in helping people learn about meditation. It was a game called “I notice,” and it simply consisted of noticing and articulating what was happening inside and around you while you were meditating.

So, for example: “I notice that my shoulder is sore . . . I notice that it's warm in this room . . . I notice a car just drove by outside.” As we spend more and more time being mindful of our experiences in the present moment, we should find that the habit of noticing allows us to gain some emotional distance from our thoughts. We think them; but we notice that, like all things in the world, they are transitory. They come and go, and lose some of the power they have to cause us distress or anxiety.

In some ways this habit of noticing may seem the exact opposite of trying to empty one's mind—and perhaps it is. But the result is quite similar: noticing puts your mind in the present, and not in the past or future, which are our main sources of anxiety and worry.

We spend so much of our time fretting about the future, near and distant, or worrying about the effects of our past actions, or the ways in which they will flower into the future. But we live only in the present, and so if we can turn our minds to the present, according to the Buddha, we will find there our best source of happiness and fulfillment. Even when we find suffering and pain in our thoughts, we are better off noticing it, acknowledging it, and then letting it pass on.

Thanks to Melissa and David for clarifying this for me—and I still probably don't have it quite right. Stay tuned for further corrections.

But this has been one of the great pleasures of this book project for me, and has consistently been the greatest source of pleasure in my life—I am always finding something new to learn, or some correction to what I thought I already knew.

Another great source of information on Buddhism was a documentary I watched last night by Werner Herzog called The Wheel of Time. I'm still processing this fantastic film, and will write more about it next week. Until then, at the very least I can highly recommend it!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Still Breathing

Back from another session this evening with the Boundless Way Zen group, and—two weeks after my last blog entry—I am still thinking about breathing and meditation. This week I want to reflect a little bit on the relationship between the practice of conscious breathing and meditation and the more general practices of spirituality and religion.

One of the first pieces of advice you will get about conscious breathing, when you join a meditation group or do some research on your own, is not to worry about the fact that your mind will wander. Focusing on each breath—consciously following the air into your lungs, and then back out again—is designed to help you empty your mind of thought during meditation. That's the design; in reality, as every practitioner knows, your mind wanders.

“Minds think thoughts,” one of the leaders said at the practice session two weeks ago. “That's their job.”

So when you are sitting down and quietly attempting to focus your mind on your breathing, in an effort to empty it of all other thoughts, the first thing you should notice—and it will be reinforced at every future session—is how miserably you are failing. Threads of whatever you were thinking or doing just before you sat down will still be floating around in your head; you'll start to wonder what's for lunch or dinner; if you're in a group session, you'll hear the stomach growling of the person next to you and wonder if they're doing better at this than you are.

All of this might make meditation seem like an impossible task to a beginner. And it might lead to a meditation session in which you simply become more and more frustrated with yourself for your inability to concentrate. Before long, you'll find that you are primarily thinking about what a waste of time meditation has turned out to be.

Experienced meditators, and practitioners of conscious breathing, know all of this. So they encourage new practitioners not to worry about a wandering mind. When your mind wanders away, they will say, just watch it go, and then gently try to call it back to your breathing. This might happen a thousand times over the course of a meditation session. Meditation begins; mind wanders; mind comes back to breathing; mind wanders; mind comes back to breathing . . .

In the end, what you eventually come to realize is that you're almost never—perhaps never at all—going to wind up with sixty or thirty or even ten minutes of complete emptiness of mind, of utter concentration on your breath. You will find you get better and better at it, and that every second spent on your breath pushes away a little bit of anxiety and fear and worry; but you will also find that you'll never stop failing to achieve what you have set out to do.

And, in that respect, meditation and breathing seem to me to offer a good model for how to think about practicing spirituality and religion.

Living spiritually, and faithfully adhering to all of the practices and beliefs of a religious tradition, is hard work. I don't know about everyone else, but I can assure you I'm always failing. I'm never as good of a person as I would like to be; I always find some doctrine or other to disagree with; I'm always finding a good excuse to skip this service or that obligation. For all of those reasons, religion has been as much of a source of frustration in my life as it has been one of comfort and peace.

But I'm starting to believe that maybe I could learn something about religion from what the Zen Buddhists have taught me about breathing—that instead of berating myself for my failings, I need to accept them as inevitable, let them go, and gently call myself back to practice.

Human beings don't live perfect spiritual lives; we are selfish and bodily bound—that's our nature. But instead of using our failure to live up to some spiritual or religious ideal as an excuse to chuck the whole enterprise, we should be assured of the value of even those few moments when we manage to elevate ourselves to something better—that one time when you felt something stir in you during a religious service; or when you acted out of generous love for another; or when you felt suddenly and inexplicably blessed and grateful for something you previously took for granted.

And after such moments of spiritual wholeness or goodness, when we fail again—as we are bound to do—we could do worse than following the example of experienced practitioners of meditation.

Keep breathing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Learning to Breathe




On Friday afternoons I drive for an hour down to Providence, Rhode Island to take tin whistle lessons, and learn more about Irish music, from a woman who is a student at Providence College. She has been playing Irish flute and tin whistle for many years, and plays both in her own band and in festivals and competitions around the area.

A couple of weeks ago we were talking about something related to breathing techniques and the tin whistle, and she paused and said:

“Has anyone ever taught you how to breathe?”

We both kind of paused and then laughed, since of course it sounded like a silly question. I wanted to respond: “I've been doing my own breathing for about forty years now, and I seem to be doing fine.” But I didn't. She went on to explain the difference between breathing from the diaphragm and breathing from the chest, which makes a difference in the pitch of the whistle.

But her question has been on my mind lately, especially after my second session last evening with the Boundless Way Zen Buddhism group (temple grounds pictured above left). Once again we met at Worcester's First Unitarian Church, where the Boundless Way group holds a beginner-friendly Zen practice session on Monday nights.

Since my session last week, when I first received the instruction to help the meditation process by focusing on my breathing, I have been trying to pay more attention to my breathing. The teacher last week told us not to worry so much about where our breath came from—chest or diaphragm—or whether it was deep or shallow or anything else.

“Just follow it,” he said, by which he meant just to pay attention to the air coming and going out. Focus your thoughts on the process of your breath.

This Monday evening, when I sat down, I felt the rewards of my practice during the week. It seemed natural for me to sit there in silence and, as this week's teacher put it, “make a commitment to following your breath.” As I have been learning to follow this practice, I have begun to realize what a powerful and brilliant technique it is to empty and calm your mind.

It's almost impossible to say to yourself, “Stop thinking about X!” and then to actually stop thinking about it. If you've ever felt anxiety or panic, you know this from experience: you want to try to stop your mind, and you keep telling yourself to stop, but your mind doesn't listen. Your very inability to stop your thoughts only makes you more anxious and panicky, creating a vicious cycle that's difficult to escape.

Focusing on your breathing, by contrast, gives your mind something else to do; instead of telling your mind to stop, you're telling it to turn its attention to something else. And of course you are ALWAYS breathing, so you can focus on your breathing for as little or long as you like. I have been finding more and more that in any situation in which I used to feel nervous, anxious, or any other negative emotion, I can just start paying attention to my breathing and almost immediately I find myself relaxing.

Over the past few months, after a health scare in May, I have been struggling to try and comfort some latent feelings of anxiety over the incident and its aftereffects. Whenever I was not concentrating on a specific task, my mind would wander into worry and anxiety over the future, my health, and more. Over the past couple of weeks, though, as I have been working to pay attention to my breathing, I have noticed that whenever my mind begins to wander away from a task, I turn it to my breathing. Almost immediately, I begin to feel those anxieties—and just about every other anxiety I have—melt away.

It seems too good and easy to be true to me at this point. But of course it hasn't been easy. I started meditating back during the summer, and then spent two months sitting in silence with the Quakers. And I have spent several weeks now working to try and pay attention to my breathing. I am just beginning to see the positive effects after all of that time.

From what I have seen and learned in my Buddhist session thus far, I find myself again in a spiritual tradition—much like the Quakers—which puts its emphasis more on spiritual discipline and practice than on adherence to formal creeds. Although both Zen sessions I have attended have included a brief talk, the talk this week essentially suggested that the talks were useless unless they were helping you do what you were already supposed to be doing: focusing on your breath.

I have been doing some reading in the Buddhist tradition, and trying to learn more about how this emphasis on the breath translates into broader spiritual practices, and on how we should live as ethical beings in the world. I will begin to describe what I have found thus far in next week's blog.

I would certainly welcome comments, though, from anyone who may know more than I do—and from anyone who has spent time, as I have in these past few weeks, learning how to breathe.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Zen Buddhism for a Beginner

My final blog on the Quakers included my complaint that the hour of silence—in which I found much of value—sometimes seemed difficult to me logistically because of the lack of worship rituals which could have helped to initiate the worshipper into a sacred time and space, mark important moments in the service, and bring it to a close.

My first session of Zen practice, which was sponsored by the Worcester Zen Center/Boundless Way Temple (but held at Worcester's First Unitarian Church) seemed as if it were designed to address precisely this issue.

I showed up for the Monday night 5:30 pm service early enough that one of the teachers came and gave me some basic instructions for how to “practice” (which is the term they use for meditation). He demonstrated the correct sitting position to me, the right way to hold my hands, and where to train my eyes. The room began to fill up as we talked, and eventually around two dozen people were sitting in two rows of chairs, facing one another, in a large, carpeted multi-purpose room.

The ceremony began very informally, as our teacher explained how we would begin. Booklets on our chairs contained a number of written chants. We began with one of those chants. The cadence was jarring to me at first—each word is drawn out slowly, and the final syllable of each line has a particular tone to it, so when you chant the phrases in order, they form a kind of musical expression. I still hadn't quite picked up the cadence by the time we finished. Then we recited a longer poem/song, and finished with a chance to speak the names of anyone to whom we wished to dedicate the service.

And then silence.

It definitely felt as if it was a silence that we had prepared for and earned, one that had been marked off as a period of solemnity. In that sense it seemed to me like an effective antidote to the problems I had with the Quaker service.

After twenty-five minutes, a woman rang a bell and we all stood up and followed her into a large room next door. She walked us around this room, in silence, three times, and then we returned to our seats.

It was during this part of the service that the unfamiliarity of the rituals began to strike me as both slightly awkward and slightly comic. Glancing around the room as we walked, I couldn't help but imagine myself coming in some side door and seeing a bunch of people walking around in circles in their socks, staring at the floor, and following a women with a bell. I think I would have laughed at the prospect of encountering a bunch of people who reminded me of the guy who gets his dog stoned in the movie Dude, Where's My Car?

But after we returned and I sat back down, we had another period of silence which began with a short talk by one of our teachers. His words were soothing, conducive to meditation, and struck me as quite relevant to some of the thinking I have been doing on this spiritual journey thus far. So the final minutes of silence passed easily and quickly.

When time was up, we recited three times each what my guidebook tells me are “The Four Bodhisattva Vows.” Again, we chanted them slowly, with a rhythm and cadence that I had mastered by the end.

Afterwards, just like the Quakers, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. And, just like the Quakers, there was a potluck supper downstairs. I had a child to pick up, so I scooted out without the potluck, but not before speaking briefly with the two teachers and letting them know that I would be hanging around for the next couple of months.

My first encounter with Zen Buddhism no doubt would have been much stranger if I had not already been doing silence and meditation on my own, and with the Quakers. Because I have been doing those things, it was familiar enough to me that I felt like I could jump right in and begin practicing.

Fortunately, though, I found plenty of it strange and unfamiliar—more than enough to draw me back next week, and to inspire me to learn more what we are “practicing” for.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Commercial Interruption #2



I am swamped this week with two tasks, neither of which will allow me to give the full attention I need to a spiritual blog entry: grading papers, and preparing for our CD release party on Friday.

So here's just a quick plug for the CD release party, which will take place at Ralph's Diner here in Worcester. We will have folk duo Neptune's Car opening up for us at 8:30, followed by Scott Riciutti and a stellar group of his musical friends (including Duncan Arsenault on drums and Jeff Burch on upright bass) at 9:30.

Hat On, Drinking Wine will take the stage at 10:30 and play a first set consisting of the entire new CD, with all of our special guests: Holly Hanson and Linda Markey on guest vocals and Ed Melikian on the oud. After a short break, we will play a second set of older and newer material, along with some of our favorite covers, and we will welcome to the stage a variety of guests: Scott Riciutti will sing and play guitar; Stu Esty (aka Dr. Gonzo) will play harmonica; Tim Pitney will join us on piano. Other surprise guests may yet pop up, so stick around until the end!

I am looking forward to the evening like mad, and the chance to break out all of my instruments—piano, accordion, and tin whistle.

The cover for all three bands is $10, and with that cover you get yourself a copy of the new CD. Hand-screened Hat On, Drinking Wine t-shirts will be on sale, as well as copies of our first CD.

Come out and join us!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Summing Up the Quakers: Part 2

Spirituality seems a lot like sin to me in one important way. When you find yourself in the habit of doing something you know you shouldn't, it gets easier and easier to do the thing you know is wrong. Every time you do it, you feel a little less guilty about it, and pretty soon it hardly seems wrong anymore. This principle, of course, works in the reverse. The more you can stop yourself from doing what you know you shouldn't, the easier it gets.

To paraphrase Aristotle very loosely, we are not born “good” or “bad.” If you want to be good person, just start doing good works—every time you perform one, you are building yourself into a good person.

Likewise, if you want to be a spiritual person, you need to establish and stick to your spiritual practices, whatever they may be—praying, singing, volunteering, attending church, and so on. The more committed and regular you can be with those practices, the more spiritual you will become.

This principle definitely applied for me to the spiritual practice of Quaker worship, which consists of an hour of communal silence, broken occasionally by unrehearsed testimony from those who feel inspired. After I had been to three or four meetings, I found it easy to walk into the House, sit down, and begin to meditate. Thirty or forty minutes later I would find myself in thoroughly embedded in spiritual communion with something beyond myself. And I definitely found myself sympathetic to many Quaker ideas and ideals, which made me look forward to coming back each Sunday.

This past Sunday, though, was my first visit to the Quaker house after a two-week hiatus, and that lapse in practice made it just about impossible for me to get back into the Quaker spiritual groove. I sat in the room with fifteen or so others and did my best to pray in ever means and manner I could think of. One person gave a testimony, describing a recent talk he had attended which had spiritual implications, but other than that it was sixty minutes of silence—and, for me, sixty minutes of fidgeting and distraction. I felt no deep connection to myself or anything beyond me.

That's my fault, of course—I had lapsed in my practice, and I am mentally preparing for my next spiritual tradition, so neither my head or my heart were as committed to it as I should have been. But the experience highlighted for me what ultimately left me wanting about the Quakers, and what will make it unlikely for me to return to them when I finish this year of spiritual searching.

Initially I found myself appreciative of the Quaker rejection of ritual and ceremony and hierarchy. Since the Quakers believe that God is within each one of us, they see all of the formal elements of religion—priests, churches, ceremonies, worship rituals, songs—as superfluous. If God has something to say to me, according to the Quakers, or if I have something to say to God, we'll communicate directly. All of this seemed to me like a welcome change from the Catholic worship ceremony, which sometimes feels like an acrobatic act in which you are constantly being directed to sit, stand, kneel, shake hands, come up front, go back to your seat, sing now, be quiet now, and so on.

But I have begun to realize, in the absence of such formal rituals, how they can be helpful in preparing us for worship and marking its transitions. Beginning a worship service with a song, for example, provides a way to focus your attention from the outset; the music guides your mind to an ordered place, and the lyrics sound spiritual themes. When the three minutes of the opening hymn are up, you are standing and ready to begin, with your mind and heart on the hour in front of you. Your eye can look just about everywhere around you and see signs and symbols of your religion. The song at the end of the service provides a similar function—it helps transition us out of worship back into the world.

When you walk into a Quaker service, by contrast, you walk into a bare, empty room, and sit down in a padded folding chair. You can't help but wonder what everyone else is thinking about, or whether anyone else might talk, or what everyone brought for potluck. Even on my best days of Quaker worship, it took a good fifteen or twenty minutes of start-up time before I really began to feel like I was getting somewhere spiritually. And once I found myself really deeply engaged, all of the sudden I would hear people rustling around and it was over. I had a terrible time smiling and shaking hands with everyone a minute after I had been sitting in deep meditation—it was a weirdly disorienting sensation, and I would sometimes feel irritated at everyone for interrupting me just when I felt I was getting somewhere.

So, in the end, what drew me to the Quakers is ultimately what turned me off. Communal worship, at least for me, needs to provide me with a little more help and guidance than I received from the Quakers. I certainly learned from the Quakers the value of silence, and the importance of spending time in quiet prayer, but I also learned that one can perhaps get too much of a good thing.

I am terrible at saying goodbyes, and the conclusion of my time with the Quakers proved no exception to this rule. This past Sunday's service concluded with the usual meet-and-greet, followed by a potluck lunch. When we had all introduced ourselves to one another, and the time came to stand and re-arrange the chairs for the meal, I slipped quietly out of the room. I returned the library books I had borrowed to the shelves in the reading room, and then I walked out without a word to anyone, back down Pleasant Street to home.

Next Monday evening I will begin phase two of my spiritual journey, just a few blocks down the street from the Quaker House, when I sit in for my first session with Boundless Way, one of Worcester's Zen Bhuddist communities.

I'll look forward to telling you all about it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Summing Up the Quakers: Part 1


I missed Quaker Quest again this past Sunday, and will be walking in the Worcester PKD Walk this Sunday, so it looks like I will miss all three Sundays of Quaker Quest. If you are interested in learning more about the Quakers, you can catch the last edition of Quaker Quest this Sunday from 2:00-4:00 at the meeting house on Pleasant St. Despite what you see in the logo, you won't have to wear Quaker clothes or dance to your iPod.



I hope to make it to one final Quaker Sunday worship meeting, but then I will be moving on to the practice of Zen Bhuddism—-the worship center for which is about two blocks down Pleasant St. from the Quaker house. So as I begin to conclude this first part of my spiritual journey, I thought I would write today about what I found compelling in the Quakers, and then next week about those elements to which I felt less connected.

What I know for certain I can take from the Quakers are two important values: the importance of community worship, and the connection between belief and action.

One of my Quaker books contains a great quote about the Quakers and community worship:

“Some adventurous souls attach themselves to the Society of Friends because they are attracted by the silence. They conclude that Quaker worship is simply an opportunity for meditation. The collective wisdom of the Society has never accepted that view, however, for its evangelical and liberal wings both insist that meeting is a collective activity, as its name ought to indicate. Much of what we do may be personal, but we come before the Lord in a body.”

Encounter with Silence: Reflections from the Quaker Tradition
John Punshon

I would certainly count myself as an adventurous soul who was attracted by the Quaker silence. I came to really appreciate the long periods of silence, which led—at least two times—to deep states of meditation in which I felt close to a God either within or outside of myself.

But of course there is no reason why I couldn't do that same thing at home (well, no reason except for my five children, anyway). What the Quakers insist upon is that such moments of connection with God are opportunities for us to guide one another spiritually, and to share our experiences with those around us who are also seeking. Even if I never felt comfortable enough to share my own experiences in the meeting, I appreciate the fact that we all have an obligation to testify to our spiritual lives before those around us, in the hopes of creating a more unified world.

Second, and more compelling to me, is the absolute insistence that Quaker convictions and beliefs cannot be left in the meeting house. They must be lived on a daily basis. This comes out most strongly in the Quaker testimony of peace, for which perhaps they are best known. Quakers have been conscientious objectors, ambulance drivers, doctors and nurses in all of the major world conflicts of the 20th century.

But the Quakers have been in the front lines of intervention in just about every major humanitarian crisis in the past few centuries, as well as opposing slavery in America and abroad and fighting for progressive causes like prison reform, women's rights, and humane treatment for the mentally ill. Their track record on these issues is impeccable.

Of course plenty of religions do good in the world. As my father frequently likes to remind me, the Catholic Church is the largest charitable social service provider in America.

But what I have seen in the Catholic churches I have attended has been a small handful of committed and community-minded individuals who pursue these good works and help run the church while the rest of us come and go every Sunday like tourists, stopping in for an hour out of some lingering sense of obligation.

What I saw at the Quaker House was very different. Everyone who came to the service sat for the brief business meetings afterward, and then stayed for the potluck meal. Multiple people approached me about opportunities to join the Quakers at vigils or to help serve a meal at a local shelter. These were all people who had committed to living their faith beyond their hour of Sunday worship.

I suspect this may be because the Quakers attract those who are looking for a meaningful spiritual practice than they are used to—I had conversations with several Quakers who were cast-offs from more mainstream religions. So when you come to the Quaker house, perhaps you come—as I did—because you are looking for ways to deepen your own spiritual practice, and because you hope to find new ways to live out those practices on a daily basis.

I found both of these things at the Quaker meetings, and I hope to carry them with me as I continue my journey.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Commercial Interruption

The seventh week of my sojourn with the Quakers presented two great opportunities for me to learn more, and I missed both of them. I had a school event from 10:00-2:00 pm, so I missed the morning worship meeting. But this past Sunday, and the next two Sundays, also features an afternoon event entitled Quaker Quest, which is a two-hour information session for people to learn about the Quaker faith. Click the link to learn more and to get the specific details for the next two Sundays.

Unfortunately for me, the traditional Irish group Lunasa was playing at the Worcester Hibernian Cultural Center on Sunday afternoon, and so I opted for Irish music--one of my great loves--over the Quakers. I do hope to make it next Sunday. If this blog has at all stirred your interest in the Quakers, consider taking a couple of hours on one of these next two Sundays to see whether you might have a little Quaker in you.

As I hope this blog has made clear, I find much to admire in the Quakers. They have inspired me to look very hard at my own life and spiritual beliefs, and to begin to take religion more seriously than I ever have before. Even though I will be parting company with them in a couple of weeks, to head off to explore my next spiritual tradition, I will miss them, and hope to continue practicing their form of silent worship on my own.

Check back next week for a report from Quaker Quest.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Silence

Today marked my sixth Quaker meeting; for each of the previous five weeks I have waited anxiously for someone to feel moved by the spirit of God to offer what the Quakers call “oral ministry” by sharing with us all an insight or revelation gleaned during our hour of worship.

During the course of those five weeks, while I waited in vain for someone to speak, I grew more and more accustomed to the silent hour of worship in the Quaker house—and more and more appreciative of it. Part of my reflections during the hour of silence focused on the silence itself, and upon the value it had for a spiritual life.

I have noticed that my first thirty minutes of sitting in silence in the Quaker house are usually spent struggling to remove distracting thoughts. I try not to focus on anything in particular during the hour, in order to be open to whatever messages I might receive from the spiritual realm, but that lack of focus makes it easier for all kinds of irrelevant thoughts to flit in and out of my head.

After thirty minutes of silence, though, with my eyes closed and no distractions, I do find that I enter a state of quietness and concentration unlike any other that I experience during the week. In that state I find my thoughts turning towards people I know that need prayers, or towards religious convictions that I have held or considered, or towards the bigger questions we can ask ourselves about what it means to be a human being.

As I descend into that state of spiritual concentration, tensions in my body seem to release, and I find myself in a deep state of calm and relaxation, an immensely pleasurable and contented feeling. It is only after I have reached this state that I feel open to communicating with God, or that I feel that my thoughts may come from some inspired place beyond me.

And this has begun to make good sense to me. I have never had a really rich prayer life, and I am only now beginning to understand why. Perhaps others can offer up prayers in the middle of a busy day and feel themselves connected to God, but I can see now in retrospect that such prayers never felt like much more to me than lip service.

What kind of connection can I find with God if I am trying to establish it while I am driving, drinking coffee, and listening to the radio? Should I expect God to be grateful for a little corner of my mind when I am washing dishes and thinking about class tomorrow?

So the Quaker practice of silent worship has come to seem to me like an ideal way of preparing one's mind to communicate with whatever God you might believe in. It makes good sense to me that our minds need cleaning our and purifying before we can really open them up to a God.

These reflections have evolved over my five weeks of silence, and today I was happily anticipating the hour of silent worship that I have come to savor in the Quaker meeting. Hence I was quite astonished when, around ten minutes into today's meeting, someone began speaking.

My first thought was that maybe some new guy had come in and didn't understand how things work around here. But then I opened up my eyes and saw that it was one of the meeting regulars, and I realized that he was offering a testimony. The new lover of silent worship in me immediately gave way to the writer and student of Quakerism, and I listened with great anticipation for my first testimony. According to Quaker beliefs, this was the voice of God that I was hearing.

After all that buildup, do I even really need to say how disappointing it was?

I don't want to criticize what other people may believe that God is saying to them, and no doubt I had set the bar pretty high in terms of what I expected from my first testimony, so I will not articulate specifically what this person said. I will just note that it kind of reminded me of the type of slice-of-life observation that you might hear from a late-night TV comic. Interesting, but not quite what I expected from the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe.

I was hopeful that the first testimony might lead to a flood of others, but the remainder of the meeting progressed in its usual silent mode. During the last ten minutes I felt a particularly deep spiritual connection to something beyond me, and when the end of the meeting was called the transition back to the reality of sitting in a room with a bunch of other people was a tough one to make.

In the end, I suppose I have to remember that the Quaker religion, like every other religion, consists of imperfect human beings seeking divine perfection. I have found much of value in the Quaker service and the literature of its believers, so for these final few weeks I have with them I will do my best to absorb what seems most valuable to me in their spiritual practice—which may be, first and foremost, the silence I have come to love.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Keeping Vigil



A word from the Quaker past which is still in current use in the Society today is “concern.” It means that a Friend, or group of Friends, feel a deep sense of religious compulsion, more powerful than a strong inclination, to carry out some action. Quakers are convinced that to be valid a religious outlook must always seek ways in which it can be translated into practice.

Introducing Quakers
George H. Gorman

Shortly after September 11, 2001, a small group of peace activists began standing at the corner of Highland St. and Major Taylor Blvd. in Worcester, Massachusetts every Tuesday afternoon from 3:30-5:00 pm. They selected the spot both because of its high visibility during that time of day and because it puts them in front of a World War I memorial. Some days there are a dozen or more keeping vigil; some days there may be just one or two. But they are there, every week, expressing their concern for America's ongoing war in the Middle East.

The two most regular protesters are Mike True, writer and self-described “Catholic Quaker,” and Scott Shaeffer-Duffy, a Catholic Worker who has been a longtime peace and social activist in Worcester. They were joined by just one other protester last Tuesday, the three of them keeping their lonely vigil as we showed up to participate and observe.

My brother, Tony Lang, was in town on a stateside visit from his home in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he teaches International Relations at St. Andrews University. Tony loves politics of all kinds, so he was very happy to join me on my quest to see a Quaker concern in action.

The Worcester vigil is not specifically a Quaker concern, but a number of Quakers are regulars there, Mike True the most devoted of them. As most people know, the Quakers reject all violent conflict, including and especially wars of any kind. They can date this policy back to a famous declaration made by Quaker founder George Fox, who wrote a letter to the English King in the late 17th century denouncing war and weaponry. Fox's purpose was to assuage the King's fears that the Quakers were a subversive group bent on revolution. Fox's commitment to peace has remained a mainstay of Quaker principles throughout its history.

The Quakers can hardly be accused of cowardice, though. They have consistently risked life and limb to support unpopular reforms and social movements, most of which are ones that we take for granted today. They were the first religious group to officially condemn slavery in the United States; they have championed women's rights from their founding; they fought for better conditions for prisoners and the mentally ill during the centuries when those two groups wasted away in abysmal living conditions; they have been on the ground and delivering food and supplies during many of the world's great catastrophes, from the Irish potato famine to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

All of these actions stem from the Quaker conviction that religion must be lived. The hour of silent worship on Sunday mornings represents only one part of what it means to call yourself a Quaker; acting on your “concerns” is where Quakers really earn their religious stripes.

From feeding starving peasants on the west coast of 19th-century Ireland to a handful of protesters keeping vigil in downtown Worcester can seem quite a far stretch, and I will confess that my first impression of the vigil was not all that admirable. It looked to me like a lonely and fruitless endeavor. That feeling was intensified when, just after we arrived, a man with a crewcut drove by and shouted out his window at us: “War IS the answer!”

I will confess that I was hesitant to seem like part of the protest; I immediately pulled out my notebook and camera and began acting more like an observer than a participant. My brother, though, picked up a sign and stood right next to the street, jumping in with feet first. He immediately blended right in: within a few minutes he was waving at supporters who drove by and discussing just war theory with Mike and Scott.

During the thirty minutes or so that we spent there, I spoke with both Mike and Scott about what they were doing down there. What prompted them to commit themselves to this event every Tuesday? What did they hope to accomplish?

“I'm perfectly resigned to the fact that we may be accomplishing nothing,” Mike said, with a sigh. He was holding a blue sign that said “War Is Not the Answer.”

“But coming down here helps me remember what I should be doing. If I disagree with something the government is doing, I should be out here protesting it. I should probably be in jail,” he said. Then he added, in a wistful tone, “Everybody who's really honest goes to jail.”

I had to puzzle over that one a bit, but Mike's answer struck me as a pretty good justification for engaging in political actions which might seem quixotic at times—whether or not such actions change the world, they will almost always change one important part of the world: yourself.

It also reminded me of a Quaker principle I had read about in Margaret Hope Bacon's history of the Quakers: “If you take a first step in obedience to religious impulse, a step in the Light, more Light will come.” In order for any change to occur, someone has to take that first step, even if that first step simply means changing yourself.

In the meantime, as Mike and I were talking, I began to notice that the first driver who shouted at us was more of the exception than the rule. The vast majority of drivers who acknowledged us at all did so by honking their horns and waving, or making the peace sign and waving their hands out the window, or shouting messages of support.

But my understanding of the meaning and worth of the protest really crystallized when I posed my question to Scott Shaeffer-Duffy. Scott was on his way to compete in a road race, and was decked out in his jogging outfit; he was holding a sign that said “Unite Against Intolerance” and depicted a multi-colored crew of people holding hands.

“This is a vigil, not a protest,” Scott said in response to my question. “And a vigil occurs when people stay awake while others are sleeping. Most Americans don't know or care that we are at war right now. They are asleep; we are out here to wake them up. We serve as a reminder that the war is still going on. And by standing out here, we give them a chance to remember and to talk about it.”

It was after 4:00, and Tony and I had to leave. My wife had to take some of the children to soccer practice, and we were supposed to have dinner at the Boynton afterwards—back to the sleepy routines and pleasures of two middle-aged professors with careers and families.

I know we both walked away from there, though, a little bit more awake than we had been when we got out of bed that morning.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Light Shines Forth

[The fourth blog entry documenting my visits to the Quaker Meeting House, where I am beginning a year-long study of alternative spiritual traditions in the United States for a new book project.]

I walked into the Quaker Meeting House this Sunday, a gorgeous late summer day here in New England, just as folks were beginning to take their places in the meeting room. I stepped into the library and quickly swapped out the books I had read in the previous week and grabbed a few new ones from the shelves. I am double-dipping into the Quaker experience right now: attending the worship meetings in the hopes of spiritual insight, all the while approaching them from the more comfortable and familiar route—for me, anyway—of study and research.

A few young children were present today, and they squirmed in their seats as I joined the dozen worshippers seating themselves in a rough circle of chairs. The mother in front of me had a fidgety seven or eight-year old next to her, and had to continually remind him to stop whispering. After around ten minutes with the children in the meeting, the door opened up and one of the ministry leaders beckoned them to go with her out to the playground in back. Although I know that sometimes the Quakers hire babysitters to take care of the children during silent worship (since my eldest daughter has done the job), sometimes one of the ministry leaders will take on the task of playing with the children and mixing in some informal religious instruction.

Of course, with the Quakers, informal religious instruction is the only kind you can get.

When the children were gone, I settled into my chair and closed my eyes, hoping for a repeat of last week's experience, when I felt profoundly moved by a spiritual insight—even if, in the end, I failed to stand up and share it with the group. But I was hopeful that in this, my fourth visit to the Meeting House, I would at least get to see somone stand up and give a testimony.

Alas, neither hope came to fruition. I am either in the midst of the longest drought of oral testimonies in the history of the Worcester Quakers, or this is a group that much prefers its silence to its spoken ministry. I feel that I have to hear at least one oral testimony before I can finish my time with the Quakers, so I will keep trudging my way up the hill to the meeting house every Sunday until Jesus speaks to someone in that room.

But today, instead of fruitful spiritual meditation, I found my mind wandering all over the place. The topic of what I would be having for lunch occupied a pretty prominent place. I did spend time thinking about all of the people in my life that needed prayer or healing, and asked for God's blessings on all of them.

It was probably near to the end of the meeting when, realizing that my meditation was going nowhere, I squeezed my eyes shut tight and popped the big question in my head:

“Jesus? Hey! Jesus? Are you in here? Are you in me somewhere?”

Like the Quakers, Jesus kept his silence.

I rephrased the question in a more helpful way: “Jesus, how will I know if you're in here?”

This time I got a response. I don't mean that a strange voice spoke in my head. It was my own voice, but it responded very quickly, and it didn't say what I would have liked it to say—which may be the best reason for believing that it came from somewhere outside of myself. The voice said this:

“You have to believe.”

Sigh.

“OK,” I responded, “how will I know when it's true?”

The voice came right back again without hesitation.

“You'll know it's true when you believe.”

This tautological, forehead-slapping response made me feel like letting out a Charlie Brown “Arggghhhh!” and walking right out of the meeting.

Thankfully, I didn't—because the profoundly spiritual moment, it turns out, was to come after the meeting ended.

When the hour was done, the woman caring for the children brought them back into the room.

“We've taught the children a song today,” she said, “but they only know the words, not the tune. So we were hoping that we could all learn the tune together.”

She turned to the two oldest girls and gave them a nudge.

“Go on,” she said, “ask her.”

The two girls approached an elderly woman who was sitting with her head bowed and her hands folded on her lap. This woman has been at the last few meetings I have attended; she was thin and frail, very stooped, and moved slowly and painfully with the help of a walker. During the hour of silence her head inclined so deeply towards her lap that she almost folded in upon her self. She had to be at least eighty years old, if not older.

The girls looked at each other shyly, and then one of them spoke to her.

“Would you play the song for us on the piano?”

The elderly woman looked confused at first, and sought confirmation from the children's leader, who nodded and smiled. Then the woman stood up, grabbed her walker, and approached the piano that sits in the corner of the room. I had been wondering what it was doing there, since the Quakers have no singing or music in their worship. The children's leader took a hymn book and placed it on the piano, opening it to the page of the tune the children had learned.

The elderly woman adjusted her glasses and peered closely at the hymnal, and I thought perhaps she was going to say that she couldn't see.

“Even if you just play the top melody line,” someone said, “we can sing along.”

And without another word the woman put both hands on the piano and began to play. I could see the notes from where I was sitting, and her hands, and she played it perfectly, in tune and in time. She shook her head angrily at the end, at some mistake she heard but I didn't, and then immediately started again. Halfway through this second time, the children began to sing. She finished the song and then immediately started up a third time; this time the entire congration, led by the children and their caretaker, sang through it perfectly.

I wish I could remember the lyrics now—they had something to do with God and his light shining forth in all of us, pretty standard Quaker stuff.

But what really struck me was not the meaning of the lyrics, or the quality of the woman's playing, or the way the congragation joined together in this touching moment. What I found most moving was the gesture to call the light forth from this elderly woman, to give her a meaningful place in the worship ceremony, and to demonstrate that the light in which the Quakers believe can shine forth from even the most unsuspecting places.


Next Week: My brother, an International Relations professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland, is here visiting me for the next few days. When he heard about my plans to join the Quakers some Tuesday at their afternoon war protest, he couldn't have been more excited. So he and I will join the protesters down by at the corner of Highland and Commonwealth Ave. this Tuesday, and hopefully have a chance to learn more about their commitment to peace and their belief in the power of political protest.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Small Voice Inside

God reveals Life, Truth, and Love to every human being of every race and religion, directly, without the requirement of an intermediary such as church, priest, or sacred book.


Howard Brinton

“Friends and the Spiritual Message”

Quaker Press


After twenty or thirty minutes of distracted meditation in this Sunday's Quaker meeting, my mind and body unexpectedly lit up. At the moment that the hour turned for me, I happened to be thinking about golf. Much as I would love to read this sequence of events as Jesus instructing me to take up my golf clubs and play, I am going to assume that I had just been sitting there long enough, doing my best to ignore distracting thoughts of golf and food and music, to allow me to sink into a deeper state of meditation.


I have achieved this deeper state a few times on my own, during meditation sessions which pushed into the thirty minute range. It may simply be a function of what happens to your mind when you sit quietly concentrating for an extended length of time.


Or it may be, as the Quakers would assert, the inner light of God beginning to manifest itself in you.


For me it comes as a physical sensation which seems to pulse through every every limb and muscle. You know that feeling you get when you spend a few hours plunging into waves in the ocean, and then you go home and sit on the back deck of your vacation home and have a few drinks? Your body feels simultaneously relaxed and alive—an intensely pleasant sensation, one that could lead equally to blissful sleep or to deciding to jump up and head for an evening out.


As my body relaxed into this state in today's meeting, I tried to open my mind to listen to whatever message might be in store for me. No voice thundered in my head; I heard nothing but what sounded to me like my own thoughts. And yet, very gradually, I heard those thoughts telling me something that seemed new—or at least something that, if I have perhaps heard before, startled me with the simplicity of its insight.


I pondered on this thought for a while, and rode pleasantly on the blissful physical sensation that accompanied it. The impression grew stronger in me that this insight was indeed coming from somewhere beyond myself; that perhaps I was finally hearing the God within me. The thought flitted through my head that perhaps this was the kind of insight that led people to stand up and give testimony.


When I heard the clerk of the meeting stand up, I opened my eyes, thinking that the meeting had come to a close. I was still so deeply engaged in my own reflections that the first words he spoke sounded like complete gibberish to me, and for a moment I wondered whether he was speaking in tongues.


But then his words became clear, and I sparked up at the thought that I was about to witness my first Quaker testimony. At last I would get the chance to hear what the voice of God sounded like as it emerged from the mouth of a fellow worshipper.


“There's an old joke,” the clerk said, with his hands folded and his eyes to the ground, “that says 'Lord, let me be chaste, but not just yet.' I have the feeling that some in this room are thinking the same thing about testimony right now: 'Lord, let me speak in a meeting, but not quite yet.'”


I looked at him in astonishment; was it possible he was speaking to me? If he was, he betrayed no sign of it. His eyes remained firmly fixed on the ground.


“For the last ten minutes of the meeting,” he said, “I invite you to share any thoughts you have had during our session today, so that our worship may bear much fruit. I feel that some here are ready to speak today.”


Then he paused, and shrugged slightly.


“Or,” he said, in true Quaker fashion, “perhaps not.”


And he sat down.


So this was it. I had been sitting for three weeks now, waiting to hear someone's testimony, to know what it sounded like to hear the voice of God, and of course that was not how it was going to work. I was being called upon, as if the clerk could read my mind, to share the insight I had gleaned during the meeting.


The physical sensations in my body intensified. Perhaps this was God's way of steeling me up for the testimony; or perhaps, as I like to think now in retrospect, it was simply a rush of adrenaline as I prepared myself to stand. I shuffled my feet; I rehearsed in my mind exactly what I was going to say:


“A little while ago I started thinking about all of the people in my life who need healing right now. And as I went through the list in my head, I realized that—in every case—there was something I could do to help promote the healing they needed. And it occurred to me that perhaps this is what you all mean by the idea that God exists in each one of us. That we shouldn't expect miracles to come from the sky; that God does his work through each one of us. That when we act in kindness and love to one another, we are cultivating and revealing the God within. And if that's what you mean, then I'm grateful to have learned that from you.”


I looked around, seeing if anyone else was preparing to stand. A man across the room was staring at me; I looked away from him and met the eyes of a woman a few seats away. I closed my eyes and prepared to stand.


But doubts now clamored for my attention. Was there a specific form into which you were supposed to put your testimony? Should I introduce myself first? Did I need to explain that I was not really a Quaker, but that I was just visiting? Should I mention that I was writing a book about my spiritual experiences this year?


More importantly, I began to wonder whether I really had anything insightful to offer. Were my thoughts anything more than basic greeting-card inspiration?


The minutes ticked away, and my doubts outweighed my inspiration. I never stood, and nobody else did either. The clerk eventually reached out to shake hands with his neighbor, signaling the end of the meeting. I shook a hand or two, and then remained seated, confused and uncertain, as we went around the circle, introducing ourselves and listening to announcements.


Walking out of the meeting house, I had the heartsick realization that I had betrayed the very insight I hoped to share. I had come to meetings for three weeks now and been waiting eagerly for God to speak through some inspired person in the room, to break the silence with divine guidance, to demonstrate for me workings of the small voice of God inside.


I can hear now, clear as a bell, what any Quaker might have told me afterwards: that all the time I was waiting, there was indeed an inspired person in the room—but he sat there silent and afraid, ignoring the small voice of God inside.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Living the Faith

Living the Faith

Today I attended my second meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, at the meeting house on Pleasant Ave. in Worcester. This week was a much fuller session, with around 20 people in attendance, ranging in age from 80+ down to an infant. The children left after the first few minutes, and then it was exactly like last week: one hour of complete silence.

I was certain that today, in such a larger meeting, I would get to hear someone stand up and give a testimony, but no such luck. I have the slightly paranoid feeling that perhaps the Quakers are just tolerating my presence in sullen silence, and that as soon as I stop coming to the meetings, they'll return to their normal weekly practice of guzzling small beer, wearing old-fashioned hats, and testifying like crazy.

Actually, though, everyone at the meeting house was incredibly friendly. I wasn't in the door for more than thirty seconds by the time three people had introduced themselves to me. One of them explained that, after last week's meeting down in Providence, she thought the attendance would still be lower than usual today.

“Everybody's had their fill of Quakerism, huh?” I said.

“That's right!” she said, with a laugh, “We're all Quaked out!"

I had a chance to sort through a lot of the literature they had out in the side room today, and noticed for the first time a library of books on Quakerism and religion in general. I picked up a dozen little booklets on everything from Quaker attitudes towards marriage (the pamphlet included vows to be read at both heterosexual and homosexual marriages), violence (they're against it), and other religions (they are all for them).

Reading through everything afterward, I was really struck by the way in which Quakers reject almost every form of authority when it comes to religion. Not only do they reject the use of priests or bishops or even church leaders—they don't even accept the ultimate authority of the Bible, although they consider themselves a Christian religion. The Bible, according to their literature, is a testament to God's revelation through history—and since God's revelation throughout history is an ongoing process, no single statement or document should be treated as final and authoritative. The most fundamental principle of Quakerism is the idea that God lives within each one of us, and hence every one of us has the potential to receive a revelation as true and binding as those received by the scripture writers, saints, popes, and so on.

As someone who has chafed against every form of authority I have ever encountered, I find the Quakers kindred spirits in this regard. I also have never been much for the pomp and circumstance of religion, or for spending lots of money on buildings and religious finery, so the simplicity of the meeting house—an empty room with chairs in a circle—has a tremendous appeal to me.

I suspect that the aversion to authority creates some strange administrative moments in the meeting house, though. After our hour of worship, a member of the Buildings and Grounds Committee stated the committee's recommendation that some bushes in front of the house be cut down prior to the house being painted. He asked for approval from the meeting. Nobody spoke. He looked to the clerk, who didn't seem too sure what to say. Finally, someone shot his hand up in the air and said: “Approved!”

I couldn't tell whether this statement came from reading some spiritual decision barometer that I didn't have access to, or whether it was simply the affirmation of the most decisive person in the room. In either case, it ended the discussion. The bushes were goners.

I'll finish this Sunday's blog with one final note that really struck a chord with me as well. Several people talked about the plans for the meeting house being painted, and reviewed with us all the different quotes they had, which ranged pretty widely in price. They explained their decision for the quote they accepted, and that explanation included the following information: a group of them had gone over the quote, the number of workers who would be painting, and the cost of supplies, and calculated what the hourly wage of the workers would be. Only after they had satisfied themselves that the wage was fair were they willing to accept the quote. They also made sure the company had worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, and so on.

“And,” added a woman, “they are a family company and seemed to be people who lived simply, so we thought they were right for the job.”

I couldn't help think to myself, as I was listening to this conversation, how many churches would have reviewed the numbers like that, and made sure their painters were getting a fair wage, before hiring them? How many of us would have done that?

How many of us should?

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If you're here in Worcester, you know that the Quakers stand down at the corner of Highland and Lincoln street every Tuesday from 3:00-4:30, protesting the US's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of protesters range from two or three to up to a dozen. This protest has always struck me as a strange and quixotic quest, given the limited nature of the US engagement they are protesting, and the tiny number of protesters. But they are out there every Tuesday, no matter the weather. A fundamental principle of Quakerism is living the faith. If you believe in ending violence, you find ways to live out that belief.

I will join them at their protest next week to see for myself the Quakers living their beliefs, and talk to them in more depth about what they believe and why.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What Do I Do with My Mind?

I am embarking on a new nonfiction book project this year, and I hope to provide updates and occasional reflections on it here. I conceived of this project six or seven years ago, and pitched it to my then-agent as a follow-up to my first memoir, Learning Sickness: A Year with Crohn's Disease. She was pretty skeptical about the sale-ability of the idea, so I took her advice and shelved it. I was younger then and more desperate to get my books into the hands of the public. Now that I have published a few books, I'm going to write what I want to write.

The book will be a participant-observer account of a handful of spiritual traditions and religious practices, in the wake of my 40th birthday and growing disaffection with the Catholic church in which I was raised. I am taking it slow, so I haven't yet decided which traditions I will focus on. I will update here as I go, and as I make decisions, and I welcome suggestions from readers. I do hope to focus on traditions that are somewhat out of the mainstream of contemporary American society, to try and dig down and find out what turns people towards religious ideas and practices that are outside of the typical American avenues for worship or spirituality, and which perhaps require deeper levels of commitment than an hour of Sunday mass. I do intend to travel to some sacred places as a part of the project--I'm hoping to learn of unusual religions located in the Bahamas.

But I'm starting closer to home. I began today by attending the Sunday worship of the Quakers, otherwise known as the Society of Friends. The worship house is located just a few long blocks from my house; I have driven, walked, or biked by it a thousand times, and never set foot in until today. I was inspired to begin with them because I have been reading The Great Hunger, an account of the Irish potato famine of 1845-49, and learned from it that the Quakers were one of the few organizations that stepped in and provided real help to the starving peasants in the west of Ireland during the famine years--doing as much, if not more, to save people from starvation than the British government did. Reading about their work during the famine made me want to find out more about this religious tradition.

In case you don't know--and I didn't--a Quaker service consists of everyone sitting for an hour in chairs in a circle, in silence, and listening for God's voice within them. No priest, no books, no music, no spoken prayers. Nothing. IF someone hears God speak to them, and IF he or she feels inspired, they can stand up and state their "testimony" for all to hear. Then it's back to silence. If God happens to be busy that day mowing the lawn or something, and doesn't speak to anyone, then the meeting consists of an hour of complete silence--which is what happened on the day I went.

As it happened, I showed up for a Quaker service on the day when most local Quakers were at some regional meeting in Rhode Island, apparently having a meeting in which they talked to one another instead of sitting in silence, discussing Quakerism and all things Quaker. So there were just five of us there at the meeting house--three regulars and two newbies, myself included.

For someone raised on the Catholic mass, where the sitting and standing and praying and singing portions of the program are pretty continuous, this format is quite a departure. It must have been for the other newbie, who asked the person who greeted us how the service worked. The leader replied that we would sit in silence for an hour, to which this man then responded:

"But what do I do with my mind . . . while we're sitting here? What do I do with my mind?"

And that seemed to me like as good a question as any to help launch a year of living spiritually--what do I do with a mind that always seems to be roaming in search of something new, and that has never seemed to me capable of finding rest in this world alone.

What do I do with my mind?

I'll be back at the Quakers next week, to see a fuller worship session in progress, so I'll write more about the Quakers next week--and perhaps about some of my sensations and impressions during my hour of silence, which ranged from trying to ignore the growling stomach of someone in the room to some more profound meditative--and perhaps even transcendent--moments.