Numbing out

I am becoming aware of how much vulnerability scares me. I can’t avoid it, but I go to great lengths to avoid feeling vulnerable. My life is so quiet. Much of the time I watch television, or just go through the same websites, over and over again, in case there is anything new.

It is hard to be positive about this, and my blog started with a pledge to be positive, and an overoptimistic first sentence. So I will sing in praise of numbing out: it keeps me safe from my vulnerability, and gives me the space to explore that vulnerability as far as I can bear.

Numbing out passes the time in my days after I have done whatever I can do with them- a little housework, a blog post, some reading, and occasionally a glancing encounter with reality. It keeps me amused. Almost every day I have a time when I can share, deeply, with wise spiritual people over Zoom. I like my life. It gives me all the challenge and experience I want. Perhaps I may want more later, and perhaps not.

I think I am clearer, now. Before, I would have said I watch television, and what a waste of time that is. Now, I would say I am numbing out, and that is self-protecting. I am nurturing myself as best I can. Numbing out, though easy to deride or despise, especially for me, is good for me.

In 2012 I did a ritual, and found I was firmly in Winter. Winter is the place where it seems the world sleeps, but seeds are germinating under the soil. Soon new shoots may grow. It is a place to be, if I can have faith the seeds really are germinating.

On Saturday night (theirs) and Sunday morning (mine, 12.30am) I read three poems about Love to American Quakers, and someone wrote in the chat, “my heart has never been touched in that way. beautiful”. I have told people this. I said I was boasting, and one said, no, you are sharing your joy.

I have no idea how good those poems are, and how I read them had some part of it. And, I know I am beautiful, and worth looking after. I have not always known that.

On Monday 21st I worshipped with Pendle Hill, and had a glimpse of the depth of my anxiety, confusion and sadness. It felt like a revelation. This is as much as I can bear, and I can bear more than before. After, sharing joys and sorrows, I shared that I have a joy I cannot articulate. Later, I thought that I am growing and healing.

On Monday evening we agreed how hard it is to warm oneself with one’s own love.

My hope, now, is that it is Spring, and to symbolise that I am wearing my daffodil earrings. It may be as illusory as the idea of pupating. But I know life develops, in the tuber under the soil. I have taken one more brick from the towering edifice of my self-hatred and contempt, and carried it towards the fragile construction of my self-respect.

Practicing stillness

I am not the person I thought I was. I get to know myself. I am not the thoughts in my conscious mind. I make decisions then work out rationalisations after, designed to show I am a rational, good-hearted person.

I suffer internal conflict. St Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

I am a mystery to my conscious self.

So I practice silent contemplation, with Quakers, seeking to bring the unconscious into consciousness.

I also do walking meditations. When my mind starts wandering I use the mantra, “I am here. This is. I am.” I am a being in the world, and I focus my senses on my immediate surroundings. I see their beauty and strangeness. I escape the repetitive thoughts. There is something else underneath those thoughts, something I do not consciously know, something it is worth getting to know, something so important Quakers call it the Light, the Seed, or That of God.

In a Quaker meeting, when I was filled with anger and fear over what I had just read on facebook, it seemed that there was the I plunged into that trivial conflict with all the emotions it raised, and there was a greater I, holding it, observing it, not drawn into those feelings.

In the Quaker meeting on Sunday, I sought to be that greater I, and it was more difficult. My neighbour considers that a flat is a good place to practice a drum kit. There are my Friends, visible on the screen. There are various other thoughts and feelings.

There is my attention: can I hold these things in my attention at the same time, without being wholly involved in one of them (probably that insistent drumming and my resentment of it).

The problem with wanting to change is that my preconceptions of what change will look like get in the way. Just as a five year old cannot know what it is like to be six, so I do not know how I will be next year.

(perhaps I am a fool, and you all, mature human beings, have no need of such practices.)

There is the moment when I know all of me comes together and I speak from my integrity. Gabrielle Roth talked of a moment when she is being danced- the movement comes from something spontaneous, unconscious, liberating- powerful.

I want that unconscious self to become conscious, to unite my whole self. The tool I use to develop this skill is Quaker worship.

Meeting for Stillness

Does the term “Meeting for Worship” put off people who are “Spiritual, but not religious”? Jan Arriens in The Friend suggested “Meeting for Stillness”, and Peter Jarman dismissed worship as “what happens in other churches”.

As an Anglican I believed in God the Eternal Father, Whom I worshipped. Just before I came to Quakers I found Matthew Fox’s explanation of Panentheism, God suffusing all that is, and later William Blake’s statement “Everything that is, is holy”. Rather than worshipping, I was communing- with the Mystery, with that which is greater than myself.

I took a combative line as a Christian against the non-theists: it’s a Meeting for Worship, we must be worshipping something, and was referred to Old English: weorþscipe, meaning worth or dignity: noun, not verb. But I still think Quakers have always used the term as a transitive verb. We worship God. What of those who reject God, as refugees from the Churches, or consider God a superstition? Meeting as a spiritual practice has value, and does not depend on belief.

Some might come to us having meditated, as a Buddhist or even non-religious practice. We tell them our meeting for worship is not meditation, as it is something we do together. Well, Buddhists meditate together, but in Meeting someone may feel moved to speak in love for the others gathered there, and for the World.

Jan referred to David L. Saunders’ article saying stillness is so much more than silence, which is merely the absence of speech or noise: it is about Presence. Be still and cool in thy own mind. In stillness, Saunders says, we seek the place of being, encounter, power.

There is no silence outside an anechoic chamber. Friends can worship at a noisy demonstration. There will always be distraction: I try not to be distracted, and sometimes the distraction inspires me.

Stillness is also a deceptively simple concept, the absence of motion. I sit in stillness for what happens in stillness to my perceptions, of my surroundings, the others with me now, and my accumulated experience of life in the world.

In a “Meeting for Worship” I still think you must be worshipping something. I turn outward to the mystery of all that is outwith myself, and inward to what is within me but beyond my ordinary conscious experience. What do I worship? If forced to put it in a simple phrase, I would say the “Mystery of being”, but the phrase does not satisfy me. I want a phrase which is immediately understandable- like, “Meeting for Stillness”- but which leads the enquirer attender or member into new depths. If I said I worshipped God, I would mislead some, and deter others. I am not a theist.

I do not like the word “Meeting for Worship”. I thought of “Meeting for Contemplation”. Meeting needs our concentrated attention, and diligent practice.

Another alternative is simply “Meeting”. At the moment it is shorthand- we go to Meeting, we say. It could be the whole term. Meeting what? Each other, or- something else, perhaps.

I thought of “Holy Meeting” or “Sacred Meeting”- a time set apart from worldly concerns- but these words remind me of the Christianity which at least since Constantine has been used to oppress people and maintain worldly control, and I support the seeker’s rebellion against that.

Meeting. Or, Meeting for Stillness. A practice of Love which helps human beings reach our full potential as individuals in community.

Quakers in Britain have a similar issue having rejected the word “Overseer”, meaning, roughly, pastoral carer, but not agreed on a single preferable term yet. We should check the terms we use periodically: might they mislead, or put off, someone who might otherwise join us? Are they accurate descriptions of the things they refer to?

Meeting for Humanists

What is the Presence in the Midst, if you are a materialist? I am persuaded against dualism. There is no need and no place for a “mind”, leave alone a “soul”, separate from the neurons and dendrites, and physical changes in dementia going along with the breakdown of that mind offer support for this view. The complexity of the brain is sufficient to generate consciousness, and what I see of the conscious “I” in the machine does not seem particularly impressive, for it is fragmentary, distracted, often deluded or deluding, following rather than controlling unconscious impulses. Ah. What is the first “I” in that sentence, seeing the conscious I? Truth and understanding is possible, but difficult. “I”, dissatisfied with earlier understanding and meaning, make them more complex, and hold them in unconscious.

Here I am working to its conclusion my materialism, in encounter with the Quaker Meeting. I am a sceptical mystic. I have other partial understandings, and even use the word “God” to describe some experiences; but metaphorical use confuses people. They think you mean their understanding of God, whatever that is. Perhaps I should stop using the word “God”, from a commitment to Truth.

This does not mean that there is no value in Meeting, even that there is no Presence. We might have a communal sense, or I might sense things from other people, from observing their body language, their expressions, their sighs, even their smell. There is a lot of information in a Meeting room, which primates pick up from other primates, mostly unconsciously.

Your understanding of meeting will affect your observation of it. What you notice helps build that understanding, which influences what you notice, for we are pattern-forming animals. If I think “X is like Y” this both helps and hinders understanding X. It has been in the context of religious understanding, yet enough people have observed something worthwhile in the Quaker meeting, often against external mockery or persecution, and have written about it. “Our experience in the world draws us back to Meeting for Worship”. We value it. These observations, by people I admire, chime with my own observations, such as my first delighted wonder at Ministry addressing different aspects of a matter, all speaking to a Friend particularly concerned with that matter at that moment, or ministry which spoke to my own needs, or the experience of giving ministry myself.

And the silence, where I am moved and moulded for Good. That may be a religious belief; my inner sceptic could challenge my understanding, saying I have insufficient evidence for certainty; yet I am clear enough. Even if I cannot state faith in words, my actions show it: I value meeting and keep coming. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Is there a presence among us?

On Sunday we heard When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from, and one whose ministry I value spoke of hostile and negating words, attacking his right to exist. I was sitting with hostile words, part of a series of problems which brought me to tears in meeting. After, one said she had sensed “a lot of hurt” in the room when she came in.

We were humans together, and the words spoken brought us closer together, and helped us see the speakers more clearly. After, the togetherness over coffee lasted much longer than usual, which I find a sign of a meeting for closeness. I need this closeness. There is love in the meeting, spoken and unspoken, and if it is only the firing of neurons and dendrites those brains are fearfully and wonderfully made.