A guest post from John Senior (mid-Wales Area Meeting):
Finding Inner Stillness – Spirituality without Supernaturalism
John Senior June 2019
On a sunny Thursday in late May, nine Friends gathered at remote and tranquil Dolobran Meeting House in mid-Wales for a day of ‘Finding Inner Stillness – an Experiential Exploration following leads given in Advices & Queries 1 & 3’.
This was the culmination of thoughts I first expressed in a short article ‘Words killeth’ published in the Friend, 8th June 2018, and subsequently developed into a 20 minute talk ‘Quaker spiritual practice – Advice and Queries 1 and 3 shorn of supernaturalism’ given at the NFN Conference in March this year. I had become frustrated that all the discussion about the meaning of words used in Quaker Faith and Practice had become a distraction from our mystical experiential roots. There are however, in Advices and Queries at the very beginning of Quaker Faith and Practice, four clear pointers:
‘All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness…
…even amid the activities of daily life’. (A&Q3)
‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. (A&Q 1)
‘Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God’. (A&Q 3)
Sadly, nowhere in Faith and Practice is there guidance on putting these four instructions into practice.
The response to my article was not encouraging – just a pedantic observation that ‘Words killeth’ is bad English: it should be ‘Words kill’ or ‘The word killeth’.
Undaunted, I set about the task of uncovering practices behind these four instructions, starting by rewriting them shorn of their unhelpful veil of supernaturalism:
All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness…
…even amid the activities of daily life.
Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.
Hold yourself and others in the Light.
Putting these directions into practice formed the structure of the day at Dolobran.
Geoffrey Hubbard (QF&P 26.12, 1974) states that ‘…one approaches…by efforts which call for the deepest resources of one’s being…to the condition of true silence…not just of sitting still…but of a wide awake, fully aware non-thinking. The thinking me has vanished, and with it vanishes the sense of separation, of unique identity…one is conscious of being a participant in the whole of existence, not limited to the body or the moment… It is in this condition that one understands the nature of divine power, its essential identity with love, in the widest sense of that much misused word’.
We spent most of the morning trying out a range of methods for bringing the mind to stillness – methods widely used in the East, but less familiar to non-monastics in the West – to find one that worked best for each of us. First finding a good posture and relaxing any tension in the body, scanning from scalp to toe (or toe to scalp). Then observing the breath, or looking at a pebble, or chanting a mantra – a short repeated word or phrase such as Maranatha (Aramaic: Our Lord comes) – under the breath with or without meditation beads, or practising slow walking meditation taking a step forward on each breath. All are methods for focusing the mind so as to prevent wondering thoughts. Finally, once the mind had settled, watching thoughts as they arise and just letting them be: ‘Let through (into awareness), let be (without elaborating), let go’, or, perhaps more memorable, ‘Let unexpected visitors in through the open front door, let them out by the open back door, but don’t give them any biscuits!’
Of course, this is of little value unless we can maintain a degree of inner stillness ‘even amid the activities of daily life’. Although the discipline of a regular practice helps us respond to daily events in a non-judgemental manner rather than reacting on impulse, we need to be on the alert for loss of equanimity. Reflecting on this was helped by reading two ancient stories (see http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/zen.html ). One, Taoist, compares the calm way in which an old farmer, unlike his neighbours, reacts when his horse escapes; returns with three wild horses; one of which throws the farmer’s son, breaking his leg; saving him from conscription. The other, Buddhist, compares the reactions of two monks when one helps a young woman by carrying her across a river: the other monk worries about the unseemly action of the first monk, who replies ‘I set her down on the other side, but you are still carrying her’.
Following a quiet lunch, the only distraction being a pair of redstarts feeding their young in their nest under the gable end, we took heed of the statement in A&Q 1 that ‘Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. For this we are fortunate in having the guided meditation ‘Experiment with Light’: theologian Rex Ambler’s carefully researched reconstruction, based on detailed study of early Quaker texts, of a practice referred to, for example, by James Nayler (QF&P 21.65), and in more detail in George Fox’s letter of 1658 to Lady Elizabeth Claypole, and 24 years later in William Penn’s ‘No Cross, No Crown’. The meditation is presented by Rex in the format ‘Mind the Light, Open to the Truth, Wait in the Light, Submit to the Truth’ – giving the acronym MOWS. After the 40 minute guided meditation we took advantage of the sunshine to spend half an hour alone in the garden absorbing what had arisen, and expressing it in words or drawing if inspired to do so, before gathering for a sharing session based on the guidance given in QF&P 12.21.
Experiment with Light is a deep practice, best practised in a group that meets on a regular basis: for texts and guidance, and your nearest group, see www.experiment-with-light.org.uk
To complete the final admonition to ‘Hold yourself and others in the Light’ we first wrote the names of those, including ourselves, whom we wished to hold in the Light on a small piece of paper which we folded and placed in a container – in our case a Tibetan ‘singing’ bowl. We lit a candle, and after declaring ‘We dedicate this time and space to the healing of all those who are named so that they may benefit from the Light’ we sat for half an hour in the manner of Meeting. During the sit any other names that came to mind could be mentioned. The session and the day was brought to a close by declaring ‘We wish all merits deriving now or in the future from these our practices to be distributed everywhere for the good of all’, shaking hands, and extinguishing the candle.
Thus we each found a PRACTICE for finding ‘an inner stillness’, considered our EQUANIMITY ‘even amid the activities of daily life’, engaged in EXPERIMENT WITH LIGHT to experience the ‘Light (that) shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’, and held ourselves and others in the LIGHT – giving the acronym PEEL. I hope that this will be of some assistance to all of us who are seeking to peel away outer delusions to find, and give life and expression to, the inward source of our strength – the Light within.
John Senior June 2019