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. 


No comments: