The coming together (“confluence”) of Friends in silent worship is a rare and precious human experience. Even if other creatures have their equivalent merging with the Divine, Quaker worship is a distinctly human thing to do. It draws upon capabilities inherent in our human bodies, including built-in social senses usually active in family relationships and tribal rituals (like supporting your team in a ball game).
The junction of the human body and mind is in the brain. It is the mind that decides to come to worship on First Day, and to engage in the discipline of setting aside everyday thoughts and being open to the urgings of the Spirit. Neuroscientists have studied solitary meditation and found evidence of reduced activity in the “default mode network” during meditation. This network reinforces a sense of self, and reduced activity in this network corresponds to lowering the barrier between the self and the All. It is reasonable to assume that Quakers can reduce this barrier, and that doing it as a group instead of alone is helpful. However, this will never be proven if proof requires a whole meeting to be put into a brain scanner.
“Soul” is an old word, rich in spiritual connotations. Here, I will define “soul” as an individual human being’s perception of the Universal Spirit. Soul is the vessel of Light that is opened when body and mind are joined in worship. Whereas mind is incarnate in the brain, soul belongs to the heart – though anatomists would search in vain to find it there.
Some argue that the soul does not exist, that it is an illusion originating in the brain. I believe that the soul is a sense of perception like our other bodily senses. Any of our senses can create an illusion, convincing us that something exists when it does not. But one cannot argue that sensory illusions prove that everything one senses is unreal. Consider our bodily senses – organs to perceive light, sound, taste, touch, smell – and the illusions to which they are prone. We can paint visual scenes that don’t exist, hear voices in the leaves of trees blown by the wind, taste artificial sweeteners sweeter than honey. However, no illusion can be used to prove that light, sound, and honey don’t exist. On the contrary, the fact that we can perceive God in an illusion – say, a painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – is evidence that there is a God to be perceived, or in other words, we are provided with a soul-sense to be filled by the real Presence.
We humans evolved senses so that we may know the real world. When body, mind, and soul join in worship, we have in effect created a new sense – the sense of God’s presence – by which to know the real world.
Where is your soul? In recent decades, neuroscientists have been given new tools for examining how the normal, undamaged brain works. This is a good thing, because until now, the only way to study the seat of the mind was by examining the consequences of losing some part of the brain from stroke or trauma. Damage the occipital lobe, and vision is compromised. Damage the temporal lobe, and speech is affected. Lose the hippocampus, and you can’t remember anything new. By such observations, one can infer which part of the brain is essential to a specific function, but not what it does when it works right, nor what other, more subtle functions also occur in that same place.
The new tools for noninvasive scanning of the brain are known by abbreviations such as DTI, fMRI, and MEG. These tools reveal connections between various parts of the brain by measuring energy consumption as certain parts work harder than average or by measuring streams of ions flowing in and out of neurons. We can learn from these tools how networks within the brain are activated when we consciously engage in solving a problem – and also when we unconsciously decide what thoughts to bring to conscious attention. Despite how much we can learn about the physiology of meditation from these tools, they are inadequate to the task of identifying which parts of the brain contribute to our sense of the numinous, much less the location of the soul.
While it was once necessary to poke electrodes into the brain to stimulate a particular region, techniques abbreviated as TMS and fUS permit artificial manipulation of neuron firing that is anatomically imprecise, but which have the advantage of not damaging the brain being studied. Based on prior evidence that psychoactive drugs (“entheogens”) like psilocybin act on certain regions of the brain, neuroscientists have stimulated those regions to test the hypothesis that our sense of God’s presence can be artificially induced. The results are inconclusive. Experienced psilocybin users and meditators reported the effects of such brain stimulation were similar, but not exactly the same, as their previous experiences of God’s presence; inexperienced subjects said they only felt a kind of warmth.
These tools enable neuroscientists to study the yearning for God in ways that are similar to their studies of epilepsy – approaching both as transient malfunctions of otherwise rational brains. However, we need not resort to exotic electronics to study the sense of God’s presence, nor view it as a malfunction. Instead, we can simply observe the effects of stimuli common throughout human civilization: the Gothic arches, rose window, and waft of incense in a European cathedral; the eddies of the Ganges as it passes Varanasi; the snowy peak of Mt. Shasta glimpsed between the trunks of a redwood grove; the circle of Friends sitting in silence. Who can say whether the experience of God rising within us in these settings is artificial or real?
Putting it into words: “Who can say . . . ?” is the crux of the matter. Human memory and thought are so tightly bound to language that we literally cannot speak of God’s presence and say exactly what we mean. Not only do we run out of words when we try to describe what our souls sense, but we can’t string words together into sentences telling the whole, true story of the bond between the individual soul and the Universal Spirit.
Sentences in the English language tell stories: you, the subject, act through a verb to affect the object. Our memories are stored and retrieved the same way, recording sequences of events that happen to us and to people around us. We recite the story to ourselves in order to remember it, and evidence suggests that we put back into our memory the stories that we have just told, overwriting our original experiences.
Problems arise when we retell stories to each other. The more often we hear a story, the more real it becomes to us. Our sense of reality grows to match the story, rather than the other way around. This is also how we become mature human beings. As children we learn the story of how to live in a particular culture, and as adults we know it to be true. And this is how bigotries are born. A story creates a culture that cannot accept any other reality, and we come to believe that women really are less than men, blacks less than whites, the “other” religion less than our religion. Pity the soul that has to overcome such beliefs in order to convince its conscious self of the reality of the Presence.
When I try to speak of my experience in Quaker worship, my ministry occasionally comes out in the form of a story. Not only does each sentence tell a story, but the whole message takes on characters, a plot, a beginning and an end. If the story is complete in my mind before the end of meeting for worship, I will rise and tell it. I know, and you know, that any such set of words is only a metaphor – an embellishment , an efflorescence, a rococo setting for a single bright jewel discovered in the sand. Like the Bible and every other holy book, nothing can be said about the soul’s encounter with God, though the soul does its best to translate it into language we can understand.
At the last quarterly meeting I attended, I met a young man who does not use standard subject-verb-object grammar. His speech – both in conversation and in ministry – is a series of single words and word clusters that evoke images, each image growing out of a previous word – not always the most recent word – like branches on a tree. The whole is coherent, but takes effort to assemble in one’s mind, especially as we are so accustomed to linguistic linearity. It is to Friends’ credit that his speech is valued, and we make the effort to climb his word tree.
My soul-sense tells me that the Presence can’t be contained within a story with a beginning and an end. God, when asked His name, answered “I am” – a sentence without an object, in which subject and verb are expressions of one being.
Doing it together: Friends are peculiar for their practice of collective silence. Where other meditators remain entirely within themselves, opening their own particular souls, Quakers do it together. Something in our practice affords a benefit not found in solitude, and it is not obvious what it is.
Quite likely, some of the benefit of group silence originates in the same social instincts as family loyalty and tribalism. Without intending to, when we come to meeting for worship, we join a family, move into a village, root for a team, we are inducted into the (pacifistic) army. Our individual lives are at least temporarily subsumed into the collective life. Also without intention, the newcomer to such a meeting community learns who the parents are, the team captains, and the generals. Such stratification happens even when we try to create a non-hierarchical organization because these structures are so inherent in human interactions.
I know of just one scientific study of Quaker worship, which shows that our collective silence is both like and unlike typical human social dynamics. Daniel Steinbock attended Palo Alto Friends Meeting while working toward his doctoral degree. After duly obtaining the meeting’s assent, he undertook to study us in small groups engaged in a worship-sharing activities. Analysis of videotapes of each participant produced examples of behavior seen in similar secular groups: when the silence was interrupted by somebody entering the room, shifting in their chair, or speaking, the rest of the group reacted with increased restlessness before settling back into stillness. But not always. Sometimes a spoken message was followed immediately by total stillness, as if the whole group realized as one body that what was said was significant. There is a region of the brain that marks events in our lives as having high significance – important enough to remember until the day we die. Without a brain scanner big enough to hold us all, we can only speculate that this region responds synchronously when another part – the soul – understands that the Spirit is speaking.
Friends give scant credit to what I think is the social skill most valuable in Quaker worship: helpfulness. Not in the form of spoken ministry offering good advice, not in the form of the expert helping the novice, but as mutual aid exchanged among us all. The help we share is not conscious, not willed, but is given by those who are so distracted as to be barely present as easily as by those whose silence is deep and sustained. No matter who we are, when we worship together, we help each other open our souls.
This task we set ourselves in Quaker worship – to open our souls – is either so difficult that it is nearly impossible for ordinary human beings to achieve, or it is so fundamental to all life that intellectual striving cannot approach it . . . or both. To expect the opening and filling of your soul to happen in an hour of silent sitting is an absurdly ambitious goal. We can come close to success if we live our daily lives so that the time between those hours of worship is but an interruption of our worship with each other, like the comings and goings of Friends to and from the meetinghouse. We are active helpers of each other in the opening of our souls, though the filling of our souls is done by Grace
Sources and further readings are cited in the online supplement: westernfriend.org/media/mind-body-soul-references. ~~~
Eric Sabelman is a bioengineer in the Neurosurgery Department at Kaiser Hospital in Redwood City, CA. He began attending Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena in 1969. He is now a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM).