Quaker Worship and Meditation

“Those who are familiar with meditation, often from the popularisation of Buddhist meditation methods, but not with Quaker worship practices, often get the idea that they are very similar. I have read accounts of Quakers who first came to a Quaker meeting because they had been enjoying Buddhist meditation, but moved to an area with no sangha or meditation group, and were advised that what Quakers did was like meditation. There are, obviously, some superficial similarities – a whole bunch of people sitting in silence being the obvious one – and even some comparability of the inward practice, but there are fundamental differences that clearly separate the two experiences and practices. […]

Meditation is a term used for a range of practices, often originating in spiritual disciplines. It usually refers to a state of combined focus and calm clarity, often implying a sense of detachment. […] Common techniques include the use of mantras, silent or spoken. These repeated words or phrases serve to help focus the mind on the matter at hand. Guided visualisation may be used, either with the coaching of a tutor of some sort, or an audio recording, or a visualisation that one has learned through practice. One might also focus on some element of [one’s] own physical processes, like breathing, or on some external object such as a candle, or even a stone. The focus might even be on some abstract idea. In this silence and stillness, a different state of consciousness is achieved, which might enable any number of things. Benefits attributed to the meditative state range from simply promoting serenity or virtuous mental features such as non-attachment, to the achievement of deep metaphysical insights, yet also internal and immediate psychological impacts such as coping with a stressful or traumatic situation, or potentially practical intellectual results around problem-solving. […]

In Quaker silent worship, we engage in what is often referred to as expectant waiting. […] I have trouble with the word “expectant” in this term; I do not expect to receive anything from the Divine, but I am open, I am waiting, I am hopeful. In as much as we change our state of mind, it is for the purpose of being open to the Spirit (however we might conceive of it and whatever we might call it). There is perhaps a connection here to the aim of [meditation], especially if we are open to non-theistic understandings of the process. What we hope to gain from the Spirit, often expressed through spoken ministry, is new realisation and insight. We do not expect it to manifest in the same way as the Zen Buddhist might hope to obtain through [meditation], but there is a clear relationship of concept.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a form of meditation (or meditation-related practice, depending on the specific details of practice) which seeks largely to operate upon and within one’s own mind. It is about being present in the moment, and about fully experiencing whatever one is experiencing. Sometimes, it’s about honestly appreciating, understanding and accepting your own thoughts and feelings. It can be used therapeutically in a range of situations, helping people to understand their own thought processes and reactions, or to distract from intrusive thoughts or break negative thought patterns. […] In Quaker worship, we do not generally encourage an inward focus in this way, but we do encourage people to be fully present. I know some Friends who use mindfulness techniques to centre in Meeting for Worship. I would generally maintain, however, that in focussing to be open to the Inner Light, our focus is both inward and outward, at the same time.

While the process of centering in meditation and in Quaker worship may bear similarities – such as stillness, presence-in-the-moment, and for some even the use of mantras or repeated simple prayer – what we do once we are centered is different. We might make use of a state of altered consciousness, it may be beneficial, but I would contend that one can be present and engaged in worship without such a state. The Light finds ways to reach us in almost any state. In much of meditation, the goal of meditation is primarily that state, and then it might be used to attain some other goal, perhaps one that cannot be attained any other way. In worship, our goal is to be open to the Spirit, and any state we use is merely a means to an end.”

— Sam Barnett-Cormack, 2019
Quaker Worship and Meditation

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How do you hear the still, small voice?

Generally, thankfully, I move from nanosecond to nanosecond without a stop in my mind. However, there are still plenty of moments where I am unsure exactly what love and truth (i.e. God) are asking me to do or say. Therefore, I am happy to pause.

In that pause (which may be a few more nanoseconds, or may be something which sits with me for years), I wait patiently for a clear sense of "being right." Or at least, "being right, right now" — I'm also aware that things / thoughts / feelings / knowledge / insights can change!

How do I know? Head (reasoning), heart (feeling) and gut (mystery) feel aligned / right / good / at peace.

David T., Bassendean, Western Australia, Australia
These days I am experiencing a new-to-me kind of expectant waiting. Rather than deep centering in Meeting or Church, it is taking just a few moments when engaging with another person to try to listen to what the Lord has in mind for this encounter, how I can be present, or more importantly, how Christ can be present through me in this encounter; and how I can listen to voice of Christ through the other. I am not always successful or present in this, but am working on it.

(Substitute your own word for "Christ" and "Lord" if needed.)

Joe S., Portland, OR, USA

How does your body help you connect to spirit?

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