The weirdos inside me

“It’s lovely to be sharing space with you again,” says L, and I am confused.

-He’s just saying that to manage me.
-How lovely of him to say that.

Your thoughts are headfuck FM, the endless talk radio, anger and delusion. Be the wise, kind adult watching your thoughts. Actually, it does not feel like headfuck. The thoughts are me, now. I am feeling my feelings, even in my body, wise and kind enough. I feel anger at M, and want J to acknowledge it is right, and it is too hard to get him to. Then she joins the zoom, and I am absorbed in her. I study her background, judging. I go to the gallery to see if anyone is reacting to her. In a small group would I tell her I hate her?

Someone says you look so calm and present, and inside it is a cacophony. J says if someone winds you up that is good data. Someone talks of letting go of someone close, and I want to let go of M.

Everyone has an inner critic and slave driver. Mine says, You can’t say that, when I speak from the heart, and “Harder, faster, harder, faster”. It tells me I know what I need to do: keep the house clean and tidy, apply for jobs, write for publication. It says, Come on, get up. It does not feel my anxiety, but then, I don’t either, usually.

Then what it says and what some “I” separate from it says merge. I am so alone! Zoom is not enough, I can’t bear it. I am afraid. I must control every aspect of my environment- for safety. I want to be safe. Help me I want to be safe. The monster will get me. This is horrible, I can’t bear it.

Sometimes I speak from the heart, and in two conversations with Quakers last week I felt the need to speak to correct the way of this conversation. Get that word in and speak the truth everyone should acknowledge. Then conversation becomes a conflict, I do not hear others, and speak from less than myself.

My desires are in conflict. I want to hide away, and I want to be seen. I want to say, “Everything is alright,” and I do not believe it. I am scared, anxious, watchful, anticipating the future: what if I am in a group with M? What if I am not?

J says once you know what the inner critic says, you can argue against the limiting beliefs, but you need to make them conscious first. I share on the dialogue of the critic and protector. I would have, anyway, but make it about M by referring to not hitting myself with a riding crop and saying sometimes “You can’t say that” is what I need to hear. Later I notice she is gone and wonder if I drove her away. She accused me of being fixated on her. Well, possibly, but it is a problem I am trying to get over. “Lovely, vulnerable share,” say people.

Sometimes I need to hear “Harder, faster, harder, faster” and the inner critic says it reflexively, all the time, so is no more use than a stopped clock. And, I have a hack: if I just give up and do nothing, it stops nagging. I needed it to survive, and now it just hurts me.

I don’t know. I want to hide away. I want to be seen. Or, I do know, I want to be seen, but don’t know how. I am hiding away. It is what I do. And, I talk on zoom. Right now, I am in a prison of my own creation, which I created in order to survive, and it is killing me. I will listen to these people, to hear what they have to say.

That slave driver/inner critic helped me avoid pain and strong emotion I was incapable of handling- rejection, abandonment, and disappointment. Children nurtured, heard and seen don’t need to do that. Hold it like a baby. Rock and console it. Eventually you feel it relax and go to sleep.

In dialogue with it, writing with the non-dominant hand, it may have revealed puzzlement. It knows its ways are not working for me. It wants to feel safe, to be hugged, not to feel alone. It tells me it thought I was a threat. Now it considers me too trusting, needing balanced by threat-perception. It wants to stop fighting, come together and be one with me.

M grows desire like a tender plant, and it gives her power. I need to hate her to free myself. Then I might let my hatred go and wish her well. I tried telling J I wanted him to see me as her victim, and he said I am not. She had a right to act as she did.

She said, “I feel free to love”. I thought that a manipulative lie, but what if she were telling the truth?

In four days since, I have built something of worth on that thought. Other people see things vastly differently from me. I believe there is something so wonderful in each human that calling it “the inner light” or even “That of God” is not hyperbole. But as an atheist materialist, I believe my inner God is a manifestation of my own neurons. Therefore it is not all powerful or all seeing by itself. To be powerful it needs united with God in others. I need to listen to others of widely different perspectives and views to mine, and find the truth in what they say.

In the midst of my powerlessness and lack of perfection, I still find some pleasure.

Yearly Meeting 2022

What do love and justice require of us? Our theme was Faith, Community, Action, so we considered what we might do. Preparing, we heard of problematic Quaker history.

Quakers in Lancaster owned slave plantations in the Caribbean as late as 1796, and transported at least 3916 slaves. Research continues, and the number may be greater. Profits from slavery enriched Quakers who donated to the Society. Our capital is tainted.

A Friend ministered that other area meetings should research their own records, to see if other traders or holders of slaves were Quakers. We would not have minuted in 1761 that such people who would not be dissuaded should be disowned, if they were not amongst us. Janet Scott, of the Quaker Committee on Christian and Interfaith Relations, pointed out that other churches are doing their own work on finding their profits from slavery, and considering reparations, and we should learn from them, not start from scratch.

The British Empire remains a system of oppression. There are fourteen British Overseas Territories, remnants of that empire. They include the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, among the top ten tax havens in the world. I am part of systems of oppression when I buy food or clothes. Benjamin Lay avoided that by growing his own cotton.

We are proud of the work of Quakers against the slave trade, and of the achievements and writings of William Penn, who owned slaves. Penn, and our Society, did great good and great evil. I too do good and evil.

We automatically do wrong, but slowly come to notice it. For example when we welcomed Friends from other yearly meetings, a Friend said she came from what was “originally” the Welsh tract of Pennsylvania, where Welsh Quakers made their home. Later, she asked for her apology to be read out, saying she had been white supremacist. Originally, the land was the home of the Lenape people. The clerk apologised for not checking the pronunciation of Lenape- Wikipedia says it’s /ləˈnɑːpi/.

The draft epistle said, “we need to get outside our comfort zones and feel the pain of those less privileged”, as if we are the privileged people, and the less privileged among us are not part of us. Someone noticed, and that was deleted. Increasingly we challenge each other.

We are not all of one mind. A Friend ministered online that he had read replacing the word “overseer” was “decolonising” our language, because of the association with slave plantations, but elder and overseer are the correct translations of presbuteros and episkopos, and are part of our Gospel Order. I believe the testimony to equality requires us to work to counter the privilege in our thought, word and deed, and see the beauty in his view. Another stood repeatedly to speak of God’s grace, and was not called. When he stood to ask to add the phrase to the minute, it was not added as it had not been heard in ministry.

I was delighted that several people told me how they liked what I write in The Friend. A typical comment is, “Well-written and to the point”. I am tempted to name those whose names Friends will know. I stood to correct minute 17, with the additional word which met the meaning of the ministry. We are broken open by the Spirit. Several Friends thanked me. Too full of myself, I stood to alter minute 22. I wanted two questions at the end of the minute changed to statements. I prosed on about indicative and interrogative moods. It was changed, but I think not improved.

I counted three paid poets in the meeting. There may be more. From ministry, a phrase was added to the epistle: a Friend wanted to be “planting flowers as well as pulling up weeds,” an image I loved as soon as I heard it. Our words in ministry and minutes matter, because they encourage us, form us, and from them come our actions.

We are all complex people, being steadily purified by the Spirit of grace. We might like an achievable, comprehensible solution to hurry the process along, but it happens in God’s good time. I would feel so much more comfortable if I thought I was perfect, but my Friends and experiences slowly fit me for Heaven. I do good, as well as harm. I celebrate the beauty of my Friends and our Society.

The picture is of a pig farm, from the Taiwan Presidential Office.

Entering the Now

When I think about it, I enter the Now. Nonduality accesses consciousness. These words are the best approximations I can manage.

People say in this state they feel joy. It depends. If I am by the river, and lay down my useless burden of rumination, and use a mantra such as “I am here. This is. I am”, I will notice the uncountable tones and shades of green, the birds, perhaps some wild flowers, the path and the grass, and am likely to feel joy. Sometimes I feel terrible misery.

I share because it is good to have these things recognised. A man asked how I was, and I replied, “In Heaven and Hell at once”. He said, “Yes, it can be like that for people who feel deeply,” and I felt affirmed. Even if no-one responds, here, at least I am shouting into the void with the possibility that if I were wrong I would be contradicted. And putting things into words often clarifies them for me.

I am still working on negative and positive thinking. It is never good to deny uncomfortable reality in the name of positivity. And, I do not like how my life has turned out: all these difficulties while I ploughed grimly on. We all have our crosses to bear, and it is good to count our blessings. Perhaps it is as simple as that.

I have been hot from the world in Meeting with a bit of facebook nastiness winding me up, and I have felt that I am larger than this befuddlement. So I allowed it to rant as it needed, and felt that I was a calm presence holding and permitting it.

And there is the voice of my inner light speaking the truth. There I am, video-calling with my Friend. I want to say something, and cannot get it out without upset- my voice breaks near tears- then I settle into being the Light. The pitch of my voice goes up, and the inner critic is angrily denouncing me- that’s weak, put on, unreal, etc, etc- but I can say what I needed to say calmly without tears. I call this

the voice of my inner light speaking the truth.

As I grow to accept it, the misery may become less. In Pendle Hill worship I pick on this mantra/affirmation to repeat:

I am who I am.
It is as it is.
It is all right.

That self feels unbearably soft. Release the judgment, and I might release the agony. I am still exploring. Am I improving? Integrating is a better word.

Calling this a particular mental state, different from other mental states I often or habitually inhabit, has value to me. It feels different, just as practising a more erect posture feels different. I am conscious of it, as my muscles or mental pathways adjust to the unfamiliar way of being. Some time ago, it was magical and extremely rare. Now, it is more common. Speaking from it still requires a conscious adjustment, while I pass through discomfort.

I am in conscious incompetence. It behoves me to analyse, to notice, to adjust. And there is innate wisdom, so that letting go has value too. I need to value myself before I can complete this task, so I repeat,

I am a human being.
I have value.
I am a human being.
I have value.
All shall be well.
All shall be well.
All manner of thing shall be well.

---

I am a human being, or, perhaps, I am a living creature. So, whatever else I get from someone, I should oppose their cruelty to me at least as much as I would oppose their cruelty to, say, a cat.

This self feels unbearably soft, and yet, more real, more authentic, than the male mask. I suppose I am performing a teenage task: creating an adult persona for myself. I spent an hour on the phone with Jane from the Samaritans, on my various difficulties, my current rumination, and this decision, and feel affirmed.

I have presented to the world in shards of my male personality, though I know they do not fit, and often then cried and gone into the authentic self, speaking with a softer tone, telling the truth from my heart. Now I want to speak from that soft self all the time. I have heard the inner critic. I know the soft self is the real self. This may mean that I may keep some privacy: someone on Zoom admired my thick head of hair, and I surprised myself by not revealing it is a wig. Instead, I just smiled.

Sitting with the mystery

Human beings are unknowable, even to ourselves.

In Meeting, I sit with my hurt, fear and lack of control as in a twelve-step programme. Some say that being present in the Now creates a feeling of joy, and sometimes it does for me. At other times, the pain is as much as I can bear, but shutting it out I blind myself. Suddenly perceiving the depth and complexity of feeling is like a symphony with too many instruments. I might surf it, if only I resist the temptation to understand it. But understanding has been the way I have sought safety for so long.

I take refuge in writing. Almost until I would have been too late for meeting, I was playing on the Guardian comment threads. I put a brilliant argument that people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, and the external genitalia of women, are called “women” by a social convention. There is no simple definition of “woman” that includes CAIS women but not trans women, and no moral reason to define the word that way. That comment disappeared when a comment up-thread, “Keir Starmer should dial back the woke nonsense”, was removed by a moderator. I wrote another comment and got a “Guardian Pick” which got hundreds of up-votes. I care about this stuff, so I give you the details.

Last week, I learned Richard Dawkins will be speaking at Greenbelt, and I started thinking about what I would say if I got the microphone from the floor during his session. A paragraph has repeated in my mind as I test variations. I judge myself: I should not be thinking about this so much.

Living in the present moment, or sitting in Meeting, should I not be thinking? Well, if I were jamming a twelve bar blues, I might be better to count the bars until I felt them. Thinking has its place. I do not want to shut down any part of myself.

I started this blog post a week ago, and it was all about her. We exchanged several texts a day for months and had hours of video calls, and she was going to come to my house- and then at the end of March she withdrew, and I was wondering, why? I thought she ceased contact because she had coldly and calculatingly sought to subjugate me, and when I baulked, she withdrew. So I shamed her publicly. Afterwards, I wondered if she had been scared of me. From an earlier draft:

So many people have feared violence from me. There’s the normalised phobia of “biological men”, and there have been claims I might personally be violent. I have so much anger in me, all directed inwards. I let it go, slowly. My violent acts have been self-destructive rather than aimed at others, and I have several times been the victim of violence I could not resist. That others might fear me is a threat to my safety, and it distances me from other people.

You told me of a time you might reasonably have feared that man, and you have to be cautious in your line of work. You were under great pressure at the time.

Was it because you feared that you sought to impose complete control? I must serve you, my will subsumed in yours. I was obsessed with you, thinking of you all the time. Then I said I would not do those things, and you dropped me. I did not imagine that you feared me. I thought you had consciously, calculatingly, made me obsessed with you in order to control and negate me. That seems cruel. I would rather imagine you frightened or cautious than cruel.

This omits that after she withdrew I lashed out, attempting to shame her before fifty people. I could say, well, that was exceptional. It is not who I am really. But it was who I was in the moment that matters. I cannot say “I lost control”- there was no part of me that stopped me acting, at the time. I am one human being. If “being pushed beyond endurance” is an excuse for me, it is for others too.

I thought of asking her, but it would be ridiculous. “Were you cold and calculating, or fearful, or cautious? Was there something else?” I could not answer a question like that. What narrative has she in her mind, or would she want in mine? There is a time to create a narrative, and sometimes I just have to let the mystery be.

There is something chilling about her. She is not a nice bourgeois woman who would do nothing objectionable. Neither am I. I miss the contact, but you can’t separate bits out of a human being, missing one part but not another. Each of us is one. I see her enthusiasm, energy and intelligence- these are perceptions, not narrative- and for her I may be just another sub. I thought I would rather think of her as frightened rather than cruel, but, why? I will do her the honour of believing she can be “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

The thought crosses my mind- “I love ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’.” And I am back writing. I decide to spend the last ten minutes of Meeting with  these people, here. How are they? How is the worship? In meeting, it behoves me to foster order, reverence, harmony, and Love.

I shall spend some time this month ruminating about her- her and that man, her and her subs, her and me. Eventually I will stop, though for now I remain open to contact from her, however unlikely. The narrative I need is that I sought as best I could publicly to shame her.

I write blog posts and comments, rather than the more sustained work of publishable articles or even a book. Writing is my skill, which gives me pleasure. Confusion and desperation recede from consciousness as I do what I am good at. Then I obsessively check for views and upvotes, as a substitute for human contact.

Away with the Quakers

She leaned closer, and I noticed her eyes flicking from side to side, looking into mine. She put her arm along the back of my chair, and lightly touched the skin above my scooped neckline. Inhibited, I froze, rather than relaxing against her side, my head on her shoulder. Still, I am delighted with the flirting.

A yoga teacher asked if I would like her to correct my posture, and told me to feel the bones in my bottom on which my weight should go. My spine should curve above those bones, balanced, so there is no strain. I should pull my shoulders back and my shoulder blades inwards. Then I should pull my head back while keeping my gaze level, so that the skull balances on top of the spine. Bowing it forward, we overdevelop the trapezius muscle. Similarly, standing I should have my weight on my heels then bear it equally between heels and the balls of the feet. I have been practising this, queueing for the tills in Aldi. Pull the belly in slightly and the chest up.

I have been away with the Quakers, and seen that we are going to disappear in Britain and probably deserve to, but that our gift could liberate the world. A Friend said that it is so nice to dress simply, and be with others whose values make them dress the same way. This didn’t just irritate me because I was in a different pretty dress, and make-up, and while most women there wore trousers a few were in skirts. It’s that it produces far too narrow an understanding of who Quakers might be, and what openness to the Spirit might produce in a person. It does not make us all look alike. The spiritual discipline is living with people who are different.

We had an animator in to help with the children, and she spent some time with adults too. So I used a free app to help make a film. She provided an iPad suspended over a backing sheet, the idea, and letters cut from coloured paper, and I made the letters of the word “community” move onto the backing sheet and dance round a bit, for ten seconds at twelve frames a second. Then I had my own idea, and pulled fragments off a pine cone, which, when the film was reversed, marched towards the pine cone and reconstituted it. I heard she commented to someone about how seriously I had taken the exercise. Well, I do. When I commit to something I give it my all. People liked watching the letters dance and spin.

I played ball with a little girl, who was just learning to catch one, in the sunshine. The bits I find most memorable in the weekend, two days later, were about play. Saturday evening, we entertained ourselves. I read my sonnets, and a man asked for copies. Did I do dramatic readings elsewhere?

I cycled 28 miles there with Google maps. I should have looked at the route beforehand. I kept making mistakes, as the phone perceived me as a few feet off to the side of the path. When I returned, it was almost all off road through woods, but going I went on some nasty road. At the end, the app sent me through a research station, which had a gate blocking the way.

A man told me I could not get through, and told me I had to go back round several miles to get on the road. I just stared stupidly at him. Eventually he told me he knew the combination, and drove ahead of me to let me through. I was tired. So anticipating going back, I was worried.

On Sunday morning, in free discussion, I addressed the group: we sit in a circle, we speak when moved, we do what we are called to. That’s it. Anything more comes from the evil one. Then in worship I wanted to say anything to reassure and encourage these people, but I had already spoken. But, this is what I want to say to Quakers:

Speak when moved. Don’t speak when not moved.
Act when led. Don’t act when not led.

We sit in silence for an hour a week, and talk incessantly the rest of the time. Much of that talk is mere intellectualising. I believe we act for other motivations than being led: we want to appear good to ourselves, or it seems like a good idea. Only in leadings is there life. And, we are good enough already, filled with the love of God. If we act from the Love in us, it is enough.

When the yoga teacher told me to bring my chest out, saying I am filled with feeling, I started to wail. The pain and uncertainty is too much for me. A lovely woman came over to console me. All morning, I had managed to hold my pain and sadness without particularly expressing it.

As a complete contrast to John William Godward, here is Walter Sickert.

A Quaker testimony to community

The American term SPICES lists six testimonies: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship. Four overlap with the list in Quaker Faith and Practice: Truth, Equality, Simplicity, Peace. The BYM website adds Justice, and many Quakers speak of a testimony to sustainability. Sustainability proceeds naturally from living from the Spirit in the love of God.

Rather than Truth, SPICES names Integrity. A mnemonic is useful as far as it goes. Truth goes beyond what we speak, to how we are in the world, being our true selves without pretence or self-delusion. That is, integrity. Even Quakers evade unpalatable truths, or we would not need counselled against that. Illusion seems comforting when reality is too hard to face. Truth is also about how we see the world, as far as possible as it is, which requires commitment and may require Love.

British Quakers have a testimony to Community though we do not name it. We practice Quaker spirituality, worship and life as part of a Quaker community. Those who do the work paid ministers do in other churches, and the work of organising, do it for a limited time. Many of us serve the wider community, building community, bringing people together, meeting need.

Leadership is a service. Decisions have to be taken, and it makes sense to delegate some to specific people. Sometimes leadership is a gift, absolving others of the need to make a decision, if not of responsibility. Anyone can offer leadership, by making a suggestion. Others will follow if they agree to.

We are a society of people with equal value but differing gifts.

We make decisions together, seeking God’s loving purposes. We seek to do what is right. Ideally, our business is conducted in a spirit of worship, and anything spoken is inspired ministry, though people can disagree. Sometimes, someone will propose a new approach and there is a feeling of the meeting coming together behind that.

Part of the discipline and practice of Quakerism is being in the meeting community, where there are the usual conflicts and stresses. Someone told me of feeling their local meeting was cliquey, so they stopped going. We can appear homogenous, almost as if people were not expressing their full variety, and those who could not fit simply left, or never came. Diversity of belief is welcomed, but other ways of being diverse may make people uncomfortable.

At our worst, we imagine that we are Peaceful so deny conflict until it explodes. The advice is to “make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome”.

Wholly Zoom meetings avoid much of the tension. We can have the discipline of sitting in silence, and I like to mutter to myself, sometimes, words, mantras or longer thoughts, while muted. I can switch my camera off, arrive late or leave early. There is no need to walk into a building where you know no-one. The spiritual practice of sitting in silence with others becomes open to far more people. And, we might know each other less well.

So Britain YM would benefit from specifically declaring we have a testimony to community, as it is so important to our religious life together.

My sexuality

I do not know my own desires, but I have been finding out some things.

Deeply repressed in my twenties, so ashamed of cross-dressing that I had aversion therapy, not knowing my own feelings, I wanted a girlfriend like a repressed gay man might- to make me normal, to make me appear normal. I believe a woman fell in love with me at University, saw the gentle soul below the layers of terror and arrogance, and took years to recover. I did not see it.

I thought of calling this “Towards a theory of my sexuality,” though I feel, as well as analysing. The working theory until this week was that my sexuality was like my father’s. He liked strong, controlling women, first my mother, then M. We had one honest conversation about this. I get the impression that some people think this is just kink, possibly kink in denial. (People I have talked to recently have referred to “kink” rather than “BDSM”.) I think it is different. My mother never even wore a high heeled boot. I like to be controlled, and being controlled has hurt me. And I want to open up like a flower.

U would have controlled me for her own purposes, just because she could. I did not see it, and F did: she told me of a man who had been gloriously dominant, and she had just accommodated to him. Now she had a man who appreciated her nature and helped her be herself.

I craved seeing D. I asked for a video call, and when I saw her, all my oxytocin went off. In that moment I felt my deep emotional need for connection. I had not realised its strength.

I talked about this with my friend who does twelve-steps. We agreed that humans kid ourselves all the time. The alcoholic will take just one drink, he thinks. She does not want me hurt, and said I should sever all contact. I picked another friend to talk to because they have poly relationships, not knowing they are into kink. I thought poly would teach them to be conscious about feelings, needs and illusions. They said, “You know I’m not going to judge you, right?” Of course, that’s why I picked you. I still could not speak clearly, just sat silent or said disconnected words, until they loved me back to coherence.

I still surprised them. “I think of mine as male sexuality,” I said. “Oh! OK,” they said. Well, like my father’s. I want to understand, so no concept is off limits- imagining that I am a man, a woman, or nonbinary helps me understand different things about myself. Though I don’t like it when others pigeon hole me. More than one has said, “Oh, I don’t think of you as man or woman, I think of you as Clare”. I resist “nonbinary”, because of my starkly binary transition.

I need an emotional connection, I said. “The word for that is ‘demisexual’,” they said, and I felt resistance. I feel it, it is real now, and I will not shut myself off from future experience by classifying My Precise Orientation too early.

Then Michelle Goldberg in the NYT hits me between the eyes. “Women are still embarrassed by their desires, particularly when they are emotional.” Women might put their partner’s needs above their own. One felt embarrassed wanting to stop her partner choking her during sex, even though she did not like it.

This brought me to tears. “I want to be a man,” I wept. It would make life so much easier! But I am not. I am a woman. I want to be hurt! Not in a masochistic sense, but because I want to open up to all experience, and it is only through being open to being hurt that I might find what I desire.

The dance and the game

As she looked at me, I felt my softness being valued. In her regard, my delicate flower stood tall. She said it was beautiful to look at me. I have to accept my sadness completely, in order to appreciate my delight. We are present to each other.

This is how I want to be, and I enjoy it, then analyse it. What am I doing, now? I take off my masks. I speak from the Real Me. Or, I show my vulnerable, feminine self. Three ways of seeing it each casting light from a different direction, each illuminating parts other images leave in shadow, none complete. The mask seems welded on, and to be seen without it is liberation, my only desire.

Burnt Norton: In the still point of the turning world, there is only the dance. There is who I am and what I do in the moment, and how I imagine it looks or want it to appear falls away. In almost all my actions there is care for appearances, more to myself than to others, and self-consciousness, and here I might flow naturally, unconstrained.

Nirvana is nonbeing. There is no I. There is only the dance. Possibly I should only do this with a lover (not with her) or possibly it could expand to all of life. This is paradise everyone old has dreamed of all their lives: the deep blue air that shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless, behind high windows Larkin could only look through, hoping that couple of kids were free to fly, like birds.

As a potential partner I have a great deal of beauty but fear I have little use. My earning potential is minimum wage at best. So I unfankle all the mess, the masks and pretence, the desire for appearance rather than reality, the impossible falsehoods. “I” is the whole animal process dancing with the world, changing it as I am changed, and “I” is the illusion that blocks the flow, the demands not to feel that were branded in me.

Mind-blown, I went to the Quaker group. With adolescent certainty I told them where they were going wrong. There is the dance, and then there is the game, which has rules. The business meeting is on the second Sunday of the month, and members should send agenda items to the clerk by the first Sunday so that the agenda may be circulated in good time.

But—but—

The DANCE!!!

If only I could put it into words. But those words would become dust as soon as they were spoken, not even a finger pointing at the moon. Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

If only we could trust the wisdom we know. If only we could sit in silent worship in the business meeting. You only speak once, so you gather what you must say. You seek the good of all, and not appearances. You listen to Friends, and see their unmasked beauty. It is not a committee meeting where we talk over each other.

Nirvana is possible, and ungraspable. I fall away from it into habit. The words cast light and shadows. And I dismiss the rules, for they only permit a game, which is less than the dance. But there is wisdom which might let us dance freely. And I delight in my adolescence: I have been stunted, welded in, and adolescence is growth and life.

Loving my fear

Fear dominates, pervades, defines, controls my life.
I fear my fear.
I am as conscious of my fear, usually, as a fish is of water, and even perhaps unconscious of the currents in it.
I want to deny my fear. I want to escape it, and create a life where I do not feel it. So I have my life as it is now.
I do not fear what others fear. I have no fear of speaking in public, very personally.
I felt fear of cycling on wet ice yet went the Oundle run the second time.
I will prosper if I know my fear, am not dominated by it, heed its warnings.

I fear myself. I fear my own responses to how I react rather than others’ observed responses and my realistic expectations of them. It is the internal structure of illusion, inherited from my mother’s fear.

To say “I should listen to my fear” creates a false I, separate from my fear, which is less than whole I. But there are blocks in the flow of fear, and whole I has ways of evading consciousness of it. Yet fear dominates my life: I am practically agoraphobic.

I have just started reading Iain McGilchrist’s phenomenal “The Matter with Things”, on how the right brain and left brain produce different ways of acting in and perceiving the world. There is an unconscious mechanism which decides which hemisphere processes a particular stimulus or response, and still I will stick to trying to conceptualise one Whole I, an individual human being, for now.

I rarely feel instant fear, as my life goes now, and I did this morning, cycling downhill towards a bend on a wet road, when I braked to get round the bend and found the bicycle drifting towards the side of the road. I stopped, after, to compose myself. With just the chance of ice, and wet roads, I can be going too fast for safety. But that is a rare experience. That physical threat feels different from fear of other human beings.

My fear is like my shame, an overexposed photograph. Fearing everything, I do not know where I might fear less, and where bad experiences might reinforce my fear so that I trust even less.

My fear comes from my family’s, keeping ourselves to ourselves, and is the source of first my desire to be normal and conventional and not stand out, and then my retreat to my living room. Fear has created my desires, and I have achieved my desire. The competing desires to be seen, to achieve, to do good or produce value, have not found a way forward that the fear has not prevented.

Often, though not always, I judge myself far more harshly than others judge me. I am judging myself less. Fear is part of the complex, tangled web of feeling and response which I judged. The judgment paralysed me. Therefore- I must love my fear, as I must love all of me, for the good of the world.

What do I fear, and why? Beyond- humans! Everything! The World! I don’t know. So that is a question it would behove me to address.

And accept. This is what I fear. I have judged it, and made it more intractable. I will not attack it as irrational or counter-productive or wicked. Only contemplating it with Love will help.

Quakers and belief

What does it mean to believe?

I believe the Earth goes round the Sun. I believe in Milanković cycles, regular changes in the Earth’s orbit which affect its climate. Such rational, scientific belief involves trust in my community, in scientists who calculate such things in ways I do not know. It can be wrong, as Newton was wrong about gravity. Trying to distort religious belief to be like scientific belief leads people astray: the Flood did not cause the Grand Canyon.

I do not believe in Astrology, but observe that a magazine astrology column can give a little pleasure or something to think about. An empathetic practitioner, with a vast range of ideas related to planets, signs and sesquiquadrates, could see what spoke to their client and possibly give insight into character.

I believe in Hamlet, though the play is not historical: it portrays lifelike humans.

I have moral beliefs, which I have learned through instruction, example, experience, study and discussion. This year I intend to keep my promises better, having disliked breaking an undertaking. I also intend to promise, or not, more thoughtfully.

What does it mean to learn, and what do I need to know? As a member of a social species I need to know how to interact with other people, and how to be a member of the society that meets my needs. Much of that knowledge may be innate: babies recognise the patterns of a face. I understand others because we have things in common: I feel joy in service, and observe others do so too.

I learn through art. I contemplate images, my feelings resonating with them, so come to understand situations I have not experienced.

I learn the tradition of Christianity by reading and listening, then hone my understanding by talking about it. There is a rigid creed with nothing between Jesus’ birth and his passion, and gospels giving differing accounts of his life and afterlife. Jesus tells fictional parables, some disturbingly amoral, such as the Unjust Steward. I contemplate the mad Gadarene (or Gerasene), clothed and in his right mind after an encounter with Jesus, which may also be fictional. I find value in the Bible, Christian tradition and Christian writings, for learning how to live.

Then I learn spirituality by sitting in Quaker stillness for an hour most weeks over twenty years. I encounter unconscious processes and unravel the inner conflicts created by old trauma. I experience being given spoken ministry, and also speaking when I might have been wiser to stay seated. I know love for these people, sitting with me. I believe that meeting for worship and the business method have value. Quakers report doing different things during meeting: behind the still faces, a person might be praying, or counting breaths, or hearing God within them speak.

It is not true to say that you can believe anything and be a Quaker, even a Quaker in Britain Yearly Meeting. I believe meeting for worship has value, and that there is a wide range of appropriate things to do in the hour. Others have narrower understandings- “Thee should not have been thinking”.

Then Quakers have different metaphysical understandings of what underpins our experiences, In the Letter to the Governor of Barbados George Fox describes fairly conventional Protestant beliefs, including that Christ’s death was the propitiation for the sins of the world. We are rooted in Christianity, and many British Quakers have a radical Christian understanding of “that of God” in us. It is the Holy Spirit, which other Christians believe comes into us in Baptism and Confirmation, and we believe needs no ritual, because it is in everyone.

I might try to put into words my spiritual experience, for example, all my senses come alive, I see “Heaven in a wild flower”, usually there is a feeling of Joy with this experience, I am in the present moment not ruminating of past or future. That comes from my own experience. It feels distinct, now, from how I am at different times. My experience is evidence for my account of it, but not evidence for the metaphysical belief in God or Spirit. To say that Spirit causes such experiences goes beyond the experience itself. The experience feels like a blessing, but I could not say that Something blessed me.

I don’t believe in an Eternal Creator. I believe I am an evolved animal in a material universe, and there is no separate spiritual reality beyond baryonic matter. But the word “God” signifying particular experiences which I see in others or I share has value and meaning to me.

I would hope Quaker metaphysical beliefs would enhance our community and our practice of worship. We have a shared practice and way of life, not a shared belief system. Possibly the only belief required of someone joining us for the first time is that our practice may benefit them. Rather than asking what they believe, I would ask whether they are oriented towards growing in love in the community.

Might we have to expel someone for their belief? Only if we discerned that the belief was harming the community unbearably, perhaps because it was dogmatically held, and the person thought others should agree. We do not expel a Friend lightly.

My commitment to the community and the worship ranks, for me, above my atheist materialist beliefs. Therefore I hope that even if the Christian revelation of the Eternal Creator is true, I will not harm the worshipping community with my beliefs.

If Quakers honestly attempt to conform their beliefs to their experience, and are open to changing them, I hope those attracted to our spiritual practices will not believe anything that the community would discern to be harmful. Spiritual experience is beyond words, so I cannot produce a description in words precisely fitting my own experiences, though it is worthwhile trying to. When I do, I find similarities to others’ experiences.

We have some shared moral beliefs. We are pacifist. But we have a variety of understandings of that, and some Quakers joined the armed forces in the second world war. We have not yet reached agreement on assisted dying, and perhaps do not need to. Our moral beliefs change: when some Quakers owned and traded slaves, others began to say this was wrong.

In Meeting, I was contemplating Thomas Cranmer’s “Prayer of Humble Access”, which I said routinely as a child. It gained new meaning for me. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” alludes to Matthew 15:21-28. Then we ask to eat Christ’s flesh so that it will make us clean, “and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us”. That mix of unworthiness and access, humility and gratitude for the blessing I find in Meeting spoke to me. I grow in understanding, whatever I believe, or however I put it in words.