O Inward Traveller Pendle Hill Pamphlet #216 by Carol R. Murphy
The author is attempting to practice a meditation technique and writes:
Full of hope, I plunged into breath-counting and, later, contemplation of a pebble–a dear little gray pebble–only to emerge months later sadly frustrated and self-divided. My breath-counting had become so mechanical that I could count without missing a beat while my mind ran off into long chains of thought. I stared dutifully at my pebble, I noticed all its characteristics, but again took off into thoughts of geology, philosophy, and what’s for dinner. I blamed myself for indiscipline, for being a spiritual imbecile. I blamed [the person who created the meditation practice] for being too forceful, for not having enough of the “let go and let God” element in his approach. In despair I laid his book aside before I could tear myself apart any further, and abandoned meditation for the TV set to watch the 1975 World Series, which was dramatic enough even for a non-baseball-watcher with a pain in the soul like myself. But as I watched Luis Tiant winding up for a pitch, I was wondering whether the players concentrated themselves into a state of unself-conscious flow, and why God was throwing me such a curve-ball.
Later, after attempting a Zen meditative practice she writes:
However, in my own insight meditations, a multitude of thoughts still carried me away, and when I tried not to fight them but to relax to take what might come, I either became drowsy or scatterbrained. I continue the basic breath-awareness meditation (for twenty minutes twice a day), but I abandoned the expectation of an ideal tranquillity and detachment. After all, meditation is not a search for the ideal, but for the real.
She concludes by saying:
Inevitably it will be asked: what good does your inward journey do?
It is not so much a question of what good you and I can do, but what good can be done through us, often in ways we know not of. As Mary Scott says: “…Often the good that I did was not what I thought it was. Frequently, it seemed to me, the divine self does its good by stealth, slipping the right word into our conversation without our noticing. It is humbling and salutary to discover that what one’s friend or one’s patient found most valuable was the word or deed we may not even remember.” I once was told that my presence in a group was “supportive,” though all I did was sit there; if I had tried of my own will to be a support to the person in question, I would have helped but little. Sometimes just being is the best kind of doing. It is God who weaves us all together on his loom to his own pattern.
And this is the secret of field-knowing: that we are all partakers of the divine activity. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says enigmatically of a blind man that neither he nor his fathers had sinned, but that he was born blind so that the works of God might be made manifest in him. Whereupon Jesus restored his sight. In a very practical sense, Jesus was saying, “Don’t hold a metaphysical autopsy; do God’s healing work.” It reminds one of a similar parable by the Buddha of a man wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison. If he paused to speculate on the nature of the man who shot the arrow and where he got the poison, the wounded man would be dead; one must first remove the deadly arrow. We reach a deeper plane when we realize that for Buddhism the poisoned arrow from which we all suffer is our self-protective sense of ego–our thing-seeing blindness from which we have to be awakened. For the Christian, this poison, this blindness, is man’s alienation from God in the world of thing-seeing. We who are trying to awaken from that by dying to self can play our part in bringing to this poor suffering world the greatest possible gift–the eternal, living, all-encompassing works of God made manifest in the growth of Christ in each and all.
May we be able to follow in John Woolman’s footsteps: “As I lived under the Cross and simply followed the openings of Truth, my mind from day to day was more enlightened… I looked up the works of God in this visible creation, and an awfulness covered me. My heart was tender and often contrite, and a universal love to my fellow creatures increased in me. …Some glances of real beauty is perceivable in their faces who dwell in true meekness. Some tincture of true harmony in the sound of that voice to which Divine Love gives utterance, and some appearance of right order in their temper and conduct whose passions are fully regulated.”
You come too.
A Call to Friends: Faithful Living in Desperate Times by Marty Grundy
It seems unlikely that we will be able to sail smoothly through the uncharted and stormy seas ahead of us if we have no experience with boats. We need to learn how to navigate and how to trim the sails. When the wind and rain lash upon us on the open deck, it doesn’t work to search for a how-to book and begin reading. We need to have had a lot of practice, apprenticeships, and experience. To shift metaphors, the more challenging the times become, the more we need strong spiritual “muscles” in order to do the work required of us. This demands the discipline of learning and practicing. One way to strengthen those muscles is learning through regular spiritual practices. Patricia Loring’s helpful Listening Spirituality, Vol. I: Personal Spiritual Practices among Friends is an excellent place to begin if you are not already engaged in spiritual muscle-building. Another resource is Richard Foster’s book Spiritual Disciplines.
There is no one-size-fits-all spiritual practice for Friends. As noted by Loring and Foster, there is a plethora of methods or disciplines that can be practiced. Probably the single most important factor is one’s intention. Am I doing this to open myself—to leave my soul ajar, as Emily Dickinson wrote—to the love and presence and guidance of That Which Is Within and Beyond Me? If that is what I yearn for, if it is my heartfelt intention, and I follow a practice diligently, it may not matter so much which particular discipline I choose. What is called for is “hard, work, self-sacrifice, a sense of balance, the humility to learn from our mistakes, courage and the heroic quality of meekness.” (Foulds, Living In the Kingdom)
Quoting from Thomas Kelly [A Testament of Devotion], a Quaker writing in the first half of the twentieth century,
“What is urged here are inward practices of the mind at deepest levels, letting it swing like the needle, to the polestar of the soul. And like the needle, the Inward Light becomes the truest guide of life, showing us new and unsuspected defects in ourselves and our fellows, showing us new and unsuspected possibilities in the power and life of good will among [humans].”
Allowing ourselves to be guided by the Inward Light does not happen easily or automatically–for us or for our spiritual ancestors. It helps to remember that in the midst of the political and social upheaval, religious questioning, and civil war of the mid-seventeenth century, plus the plague of 1665, most people who became Friends were already consciously hungry, seeking a deeper spiritual understanding and life. They described it as being worked on internally by the Holy Spirit/God, or they used some other metaphor. Then at a public meeting they heard a Quaker preach, and the words reached and connected with the witness of Seed or “that of God” already at work within them. This was often followed up with a session of private, intense, small group or one-on-one ministry. There might be no more contact with Friends until perhaps a different Friend would come through the area and clinch the convincement. Sometimes there was correspondence. However, it was always clear that new Friends, as well as more experienced ones, were to be taken to the feet of Christ and left there to learn from the Inward Teacher iself. What made those early Friends so persuasive and attractive to seekers was they had a message and a way of life–and they lived it. It was not easy or comfortable, but it brought deep community and joy.
Walk Humbly, Serve Boldly by Margery Post Abbott pp 167-169
Quieting the Mind
Relying on the Light for guidance is a dicey thing. It feels threatening to those who want simple, definable, or yes/no answers. It is not a readily reproducible experiment that always leads to the same result. I have needed practice to learn when I am following the True Guide and when I am flitting after a whim, reacting to my dislike of someone, or giving in to unrecognized anger or the desire to put myself forward as an expert. The ways I can get distracted or misled seem infinite. Sitting for an hour in expectant silence every Sunday is invaluable, as are journal writing, daily meditation, and hiking on mount Hood. The practices have shown me much about my own patterns of behavior and the impulses that push me to action or inaction.
Knowing the dimensions of my own inward state has made it more possible for me to recognize the gentle nudges on my heart that come from that Inward Teacher that is beyond my own willing, beyond my willfulness. Learning the sounds that ring in the inward ear–the taste of ear, the smell of anger, the laughter of delight–takes time and attention for some of us.
As a reminder to take time apart and to hone the skill of going deep, I offer this extended meditation on practice. In this case, I use the example of piano practice, something I took up when I was in my sixties…
I recently had a piano lesson, the third week that I had spent largely on Bach’s two-part inventions. It is a reach for me to play these at all, much less master them. Full of scales and other basic exercises, they still are lovely to play and hear even as I stumble, seeking to find the music in them. I often find myself asking, “What is the difference between exercises and music?” Externally, one sounds rote, but the other links to something inside me and lifts me. The query is in how to move from the one to the other. Underlying this is a sense of the way in which the experience and vision of our spiritual ancestors can point the way for us to find the holy Life and Power that can fill us today.
Such day-to-day exercises help me relate to prophetic ministry and to speaking of the movement of the Sprit, the music that can’t be heard by physical ears. At the piano, I notice that I extend notes in sequences Bach wrote as evenly paced and that I provide pauses in my head. Trying to find the next note and fumbling around does not evoke music, but this erratic testing is part of the way; similarly, in learning to listen, my mind might be jittery, impatient, and far from the stillness I seek, and discernment seems impossible.
Playing the piano has an obvious component of practice and discipline. Training helps my fingers reach the notes. When I attempt to make use of both hands together, I feel like new neurons have to form in my head to make this possible. One hand can play easily, freely, and with assurance, but when I try to match it with the other, all falls apart and I fumble again.
My analytical mind regularly scans the music, noticing repeated phrases, full-octave jumps, and other such patterns. When I memorize a piece, I no longer have to think about what note comes next, allowing the music to better emerge. Memorization means I have spent enough time with a piece to allow it to take its own shape within me and to fill my head, even when I am miles from the instrument. In the same way, my awareness of Spirit grows as I learn to focus my mind on that still point in the soul and to gently bring it back each time it wanders.
Some people have a genius for improvisation. That is not my gift. My mind and being seem to need the guidance that comes from playing what someone else wrote, first in a way similar to what they might have intended and then making it more and more my own. Thus, I have learned to speak of the inbreaking of God into my life and to help others name that experience, which is always there, always unique, and always part of one whole through time and space.
How else might I apply this playing the piano to listening for the word of God, to the Light, be it gentle or harsh, as I become more alert to noticing and responding? My initial answer seems to be that they aren’t related. My mind says that the process of composing, the creative process, is what ministry is about–listening to the deepest core of one’s being and beyond and feeling something new rising up. Yet, so often, isn’t the act of prophetic ministry an act of repeating a message that has been told again and again but repeating it in one’s own voice for one’s own time and place? So the stumbling fingers at the piano are part of it, as well as the slightly shifted beat.
Each pianist has his or her own understanding of what is loud or soft–pianissimo or forte. When I lead workshops, it takes several tries to gain any kind of fluency. Gaining the basic vocabulary and concepts was all I could work on at Multnomah Monthly Meeting or in the Way of the Spirit program. I was reaching for something more by the time I was co-leading a session at Pendle Hill, but I was still tripping over my own limitations and the strong feelings that push me around.
I seek to integrate the lessons from the past, be they the lessons of spiritual ancestors or great musicians. The Bartok lesson books titled Mikrokosmos indicate the number of seconds it should take to play a piece. When I time myself, I’m usually at half speed, even when I think I have mastered the piece. This is very discouraging. It is a sign of how much I have to learn and of how much I have to train my body to function within the demands of the music.
Some of this description makes the discipline sound rote–and very distant from the open, freeing feeling I associate with the Holy. I can feel caught in that practicing, that almost mechanical dimension of learning a skill. Obviously, I will never be a concert pianist–it is clear that they have an amazing freedom within the discipline and have gained an innate feel that I don’t have.
The yoga discipline I follow certainly teaches the value of a body that is both strong and flexible so that it may hold the movement of the energy flow and spirit in the interior spaces. Quaker discipline has always had a strand of spending extended time in contemplation–learning to clear the mind of all the ordinary musings and focusing it on biblical passages or the stories of ministers or simply emptying it and listening. Yoga practitioners urge daily practice, but Friends don’t have an explicitly physical dimension beyond old meetinghouse benches that passively provide an impetus to sit up straight, similar to the yoga expectation that allows the chi, the energy, to move freely.
Early Quakers also had disciplines that involved giving up distractions, such as not overeating or overdrinking. The time they spent in prison did all kinds of things to the body that I can’t imagine–enforced fasting, sleeping in impossible circumstances, or going for long periods without much sleep. They dealt with much that was ugly and foul and still turned their minds and hearts to God and found joy in the filth and stench and hardship. This is a very different discipline from piano or yoga practice, yet it is also very much the same.
I find I do need teachers, both for my attempts at playing the piano and in matters of the soul. One opening from my piano teacher was an invitation to expand my concept of composing and creating beauty. She encouraged me to explore the truth the composer is showing me and what is true for me in the music. That’s not so much about getting it right as it is about discovery. This echoes within me and parallels the advice I give when teaching discernment.
We each need a community around us, even just one other person, who knows something of the work of the Spirit and can listen beneath the world’s chaos that can engulf us. Such guides, including our spiritual ancestors, confirm the reality that hope and love are at work despite apparent darkness. Their way opens possibilities, board pathways that can teach us, yet we are each to listen with all our being to find the Life that is within and to learn the particular way that is ours to take.