Sunday, 29 November 2015

Words out of and into silences - Swarthmoor 5

I liked the relative wordiness of the Quakers at Swarthmoor, the readings they pointed us to, the speech out of silence. I think my meditation was enriched by contemplations springing from those activities - though contemplation is a very different state of mind and being than meditation, of course. 

On a mindfulness retreat you are very likely to have poems read before or after meditation that may help you into a meditation-friendly state, or they may illuminate an intention for a meditation - such as compassion, "loving-kindness." But mindfulness gatherings are perhaps less wordy.

It's not that one is better than the other, it's rather that, for me, reading stuff about being in communion with profundity, with now, with... it's deeply rewarding, and complements the hours of silent sitting meditation, zazen. It gives the meditating a context, it fuels it -  perhaps not so much during meditation, it's rather when I'm not meditating that such reading  helps me to sustain and revisit what I find when I am meditating.

I think what I'm trying to say is that reading and contemplation enrich meditation, that mindfulness also uses words, but that the Quakers at Swarthmoor used words more, and that seems to have set a new balance for me.

So we need the silence Rumi advises, and we need to feed and mulch the silence with good words.

If you've struggled through this fumbling post, you deserve a poem or two. Here's a poem that would, I think, bear more than one visit for Quakers and Buddhists, since it's about the wordless transmission of an inner light, the shared self that bypasses social context. It's about what we might expect in a poem, and what we actually find in this poem, by Mary Oliver: 


In Singapore, in the airport,
A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together,
and neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as hubcaps,
with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
fly down to the river.

This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.

If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.

Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Communion with the spirit - what spirit? Swarthmoor 4

There may not be much to be gained from banging away rationally and conceptually at some of these terms, but let's have a try (again...)

If a Quaker says she is waiting for the Spirit to move her to speak, to find some ministry for the Meeting, I take that to have some relationship to a sense of God, of a power beyond human dimensions. Possibly but not necessarily to a supernatural entity. 

Her own feeling may simply be of something greater than we can know, of something within each of us, of...well, perhaps it's better left as a general term covering an intense communication with, er...

OED:  "Spiritual: having a relationship based on a profound level of mental or emotional communion." Whatever the relationship might be, and with whoever or whatever the communion might take place, I can run with that. 

If a Benedictine monk talks about his spiritual path, he'll mean something very different to what my Buddhist friend may mean when she talks about her spiritual path. But both of them seek some profound significance, something beyond the usual intellectual and emotional framework of our lives.

Spirit: (OED) "the non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul." I can't see that there is a non-physical part of a person, in the sense of a supernatural entity, and the word "soul" is the problem here, because for me it relates back to the fairly traditional and conventional Christianity of my school days. But there may be a universal common self, the Light within us that we all have, a self below and beyond the ego.

When Gautama Buddha was close to death, he didn't tell his followers to believe in him and he would lead them to the Father, so they would be saved. He simply said that each of them had to light his own lamp. 

That individual light may relate to a "spiritual path" that could chime with Quakers and Buddhists.

But the Tao Te Ching reminds us right at the start that

"A way that can be walked
is not The Way
A name that can be named
is not The Name.

Tao is both Named and Nameless."

To reach a profound sense of communion beyond the ego, we have to break through the frame of either/or, of comparisons and polarities, of conceptual analyses. I think that's valid whatever your "spiritual path." There's only so much we can do with ordinary speech and writing. The rest, the other,  may involve being in silence for a while.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Different silences - Swarthmoor 3

You can't really meditate during a Quaker silent meeting, for one obvious reason - at any point, usually well into it, someone may stand up, break the silence and start speaking, as in the above (not taken at Swarthmoor.) 

They may well be saying things you want to listen to and consider; you wouldn't want to treat what is said merely as sounds, ignoring the meaning of the words because they might lead you away from the present moment.

As I understand it, Quakers are waiting for some communion with the Spirit - holy as in up there, or holy as within oneself. Meditators may be waiting, not for anything, just waiting on the irreducible, momentary present, which vanishes as it arrives. But they are almost certainly not waiting for speech.

(Later for "the spirit")

I was glad at some of the heartfelt and rewarding things that were sometimes said during the silent meeting, and I spoke myself. There is a certain pressure and presence in the silence (all those benevolent people) which makes it significant and powerful when it is broken.  

So for a newcomer attending a silent gathering, it's probably best not to grumble about the weather or the traffic...these words really matter, and they tend to be pulled up from deep within. No wonder they all started trembling (quaking) when they got going in the 1660s!

I like the Quaker idea of ministry. Not, of course, by a Minister, but in the sense that when the spirit moves us  we are able to minister to each other - in the broader sense: "To attend to the needs of someone" (OED.) 

The idea, as I understand it, is that out of a profound contemplative silence, people are moved to attend to the needs of those present, without knowing in advance what those needs might be, and without people in the gathering knowing what their need might be. It seems spontaneous, potentially rewarding, and democratic.

 Meditation is, of course, very different. The intense inwardness of meditation neither wants nor needs verbal expression - in fact, moving away from verbal statements, aloud or in your head, is a big part of it. To return time and again to a wordless present, most often by using the breath and anchoring the body- conceptual thoughts may arise, may be useful, but they aren't the focus. 

"Truth is a matter of direct apprehension, you can't climb a ladder of mental concepts to it," wrote Lawrence Durrell- no Zen master he, yet he does seem to have landed on a useful statement about meditation.

So however profound the silence and moving the spoken words may be, a Quaker Meeting for Worship is no place for a meditation and a Buddhist-derived meditation is no place for Quaker ministry. Yet the two paths have much to give each other; some overlap perhaps, and in any case, certainly alongside each other. 


Saturday, 21 November 2015

Sorting out some words, "God" and others - Swarthmoor 2

Acknowledging that we were from differing backgrounds and to some degree different belief systems (two of us weren't Quakers), the tutors used an excellent exercise early on. We were asked to identify terms that gave us trouble when people discuss their beliefs. "Lord," for example, is famously difficult for some feminist believers in God. We were also asked to suggest terms we felt more comfortable with when dealing with, er, well, you know - the Big Supreme Idea thing. 

 I'm well past the stage at which people talking about God troubles me, in a general way. I think I also grasp the idea that God can be a metaphor for something other than the sort of God I believed in for a while in early adolescence (that's not a sneer, just a fact.) 

But if I'm in discussions in which "God" is used a lot, it does rather push me back out of it, because behind the word still sits an anthropomorphised image like the chap above. I have no connection with him.

 Gods can be believed in as actual entities in a supernatural world, or symbols of universal forces, or...I don't know, maybe there is a god called Ganesh with an elephant's head somewhere up there, but it seems, to my efforts at rational thought, and it feels, to my emotions and intuitions, unlikely.

We discussed the concept of a Spirit, the dove descending in Christian iconography, which could never be more than a symbol to me - and that is not necessarily to devalue it. 

 We talked about prayer. That's a problematical term for me, if it means talking to God.  What God? Why doesn't he answer, when it's obviously a prayer for the general good? You'll be familiar with this feeling:

 to which believers have many answers, I know, but they tend not to work for me.

However, I felt happy with the idea of an inner light, with waiting in silence for a presence, a feeling of connection with the total isness of everything, the universe, It - a reality beyond words and concepts.

This post isn't about beliefs, mine or anyone else's, it's about belief terms.  We sorted out the ones that might get in the way of our discussions and silent explorations, and the ones that wouldn't. That was really helpful, for someone amongst believers who, by and large, shared beliefs I don't have. 

Friday, 20 November 2015

What are we retreating from on a retreat? Swarthmoor and me.

A friend of mine commented, when she heard I was going on a more-or-less silent retreat, that it was curious how the term "retreat" suggests something at the edge of our lives, whereas in fact it tends to put us at the centre of things. Nicely put.

A regular columnist in the Saturday Guardian wrote recently that going on retreat was part of a trend for people in flight from the realities of modern life. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, I'd say, if that's what you need, but for once he's writing nonsense.  A retreat I was recently part of was certainly a quiet time apart from usual preoccupations, but Quakers are well-known for their social activism, and I felt there was nothing about the retreat that was escapist.

My four-day retreat at Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston in Cumbria is already being used by this collection of processes and awarenesses known as "me" to refocus aspects of my life and to work on how I relate to others.

 So I'm going to do a number of posts on Stuff from the retreat.

Briefly, Swarthmoor is pretty much where the Quakers started. It is an historic and lovely old place, easy to reach (10 minute walk from the station) yet very peaceful.  The accommodation was excellent, and we were well cared for. 

The retreat was called "Being in Silence" and it was run by two Quakers. I'm not a Quaker, though after this all I might drop by a meeting or two and see what's on, but I do value silence, and I meditate in silence fairly frequently. Quakers are technicians of silence, experts at it - well, certainly at some aspects of it. I thought it would be worthwhile to join them, and so it was.

Total silence quickly becomes utterly terrifying, I'm sure. There was input from the two tutors. We had the wind, the birds, the rain.... occasionally we had a little music to direct or focus our thoughts,

The silence was entered and emerged from quite gradually and we had an opportunity to go for guidance and discussion with each of the two tutors once during the three quiet days.

We had the customary Quaker silent meeting, in which people sit in silence and wait; when/if the spirit moves them (interpret "spirit" as you will) they speak. There were sessions with tutor input and/or written stimulus material, followed by silent time.  Before and after the silent days there was discussion.

We were urged not to read anything lengthy or distracting, but there were plenty of interesting books and pamphlets to use, and thought-provoking materials from the tutors; we also had a session or two using visual stimulus - a lot of very varied postcards. We were introduced to a walking mindfulness meditation, and they have a labyrinth in their delightful garden.

We met much of the time in a very pleasant conference room.

 Since I like meditating with others, it was good to drop by the room during unstructured time, and find a few people there I could join, sitting in silence. Meditating? Praying? Contemplating? I didn't know, of course, but it was companionable. 

We did some writing - journaling is the jargon term, I learned. I hadn't expected that, and too much of it would, I feel, disrupt a pattern of silent meditations, but I found myself writing quite a lot; I enjoyed it, and it was useful. It seems the Quakers - these ones, at least - value individual creativity and self-expression.

We had a couple of hours each afternoon to walk, think, write, as we wished, but not to talk. The Quakers are hardly spiritual fascists, so the silence rule didn't feel severe or punitive in any sense.

I went because I wanted a period of silence with plenty of meditation, and I was curious to see if there were overlaps, comparisons and contrasts to be made in the quality and uses of silence coming from Quaker and Buddhist/mindfulness traditions. I think a Quaker might say I was seeking the Light, the Spirit. And that's what I'll write about next.

The weather was rough - wild and splendid. That helped.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

It appears I'm 70

"It appears," not because I refuse to accept it, but because the whole idea of "being" 70 seems indistinct, somehow. It's a bit like the way people talk about "the 1960s" or "the 1970s." As if a decade was homogenous, consistent, had a reliable bundle of meanings shared by all. For example, the 1970s are often described as a chaotic and frequently depressing time. Well, that depends what you were doing, I guess. Our children were born in the 1970s; life was hard work but, over all, pretty wonderful.

So being 70 is a unique state for each individual - I trust no generalisations. 70 is an abstraction. I feel pretty much as I did three weeks ago. Nothing much has changed. 

But it is changing, of course. We're sliding from autumn into winter this week. I'm moving into old age proper. Please don't call me a senior citizen, or an older person. I'm an old man, and I'm pretty pleased about that. Too many of my contemporaries will never be old men or women.

As an abstraction, 70 is quite useful. It is helping me concentrate on how I want to live for the rest of my life - which might be for five minutes, six months, seven years, who knows? It is helping me distinguish between the things that are worth pursuing, and the things I need to let go of. 

I shan't climb Annapurna, or even the very high passes around it, but I can still give Moel Siabod or the Old Man of Coniston a go from time to time.This isn't just a matter of fitness and bodily strength - it's also about how I think it best to spend my time and energies. And money, of course.

Carpe diem; usually translated from Horace as "sieze the day," but apparently it's closer to "pluck the day" (like fruit) "whilst it is ripe, don't trust the future."

It's my old theme of living in the moment, as opposed to living for the moment. The latter can suggest a frantic and ultimately self-defeating hedonism (at least, I'm told it's self-defeating...) whereas living in the moment, for at least part of the time, is a great help with getting older and coming to terms with mortality.

That is what the water tells me, even on a very ordinary grey day, if I give it half a chance, as it goes about its business of uncountably complex interactions of form, matter and energy - as it is, changing ceaselessly, itself in every moment, entirely present.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Sad music is good for us

I've just had one of those jaw-dropping "of course" moments.
"Sad Music," one of the "The Why Factor" little 15-minute BBC Radio 4 programmes, explains a little of how people create sad musical structures, and demonstrates by analysing the Top 50 in the USA since 1965 that it seems to be getting more popular (songs in minor vs major keys.)

It then asks "Why?" Don't we want to be cheered up?

A neuro something-or-other-very-clever explained that when we are sad, if we are sad enough, we release a hormone into the blood stream that is the same as the hormone released by breast-feeding women. Prolactose, I think it was called.

It comforts us. It doesn't cheer us up, it simply works as a comfort blanket.

So sad music isn't usually depressing, it is comforting, even if it makes us cry. We need it sometimes.

He also said that when we are truly sad (not depressed) we are at our most realistic in our view of the world, and of ourselves.

More good, sad music at funerals, please. Barber's Adagio is going to be a lot more use in grieving than, with respect, Neil Diamond or Status Quo. Those may have been "his favourites," but that won't help the mourners. But James Taylor's "Riding on a Railroad." Or "Slip Sliding Away" by Paul Simon, or "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Pärt or...(huge list.)

Or Threnody, of course, for live a capella voices. 

Here's the programme: