Waiting for sunrise on a desert morning this March, my focus came to the inward Truth only. I had walked in darkness with a quiet dog to a saddle between two hills in the middle of the Mojave Desert Preserve. In wild lands, especially in dry lands, I find less cumber between God and me. I can feel a presence in my middle. With Light arriving, I reflect on my feelings and what I’m led to do. Guidance from the Holy is clearer in these times of presence.
Somehow I need fewer items to worry about than what I find in my daily life in the damp winter of my western Oregon town. When I leave the house, it helps. Forsaking the shelter of my roof seems to strip some insulation away from my heart. When I focus on basic survival needs and the God who provides for them, less gets in the way of my relationship with Him. Instead of busying my attention with possible threats to myself or with enhancements to my comfort, my focus turns to what really matters and how I can respond:
Love – for me from God. “Thanks for all its forms.”
Love – for God from me. “Many praises.”
Love – between me and each other person. “Thanks. Forgive me, please. How can I do better?”
Love and prayer do not come to us only when we are outside. Leaving behind shelters and possessions can help us to understand, thankfully, how dependent we are on God for happiness and survival, but it isn’t the only way to focus.
Friends – and the Westmorland Seekers before them – have found focus in shared silence for nearly four hundred years. George Fox described this discovery in his instructive letter to Lady Claypool (hallvworthington.com/George_Fox_Selections/foxtroubled.html):
Be still awhile from your own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in you, that it may raise your mind up to God, and stay it upon God, and you will find strength from him, and find him to be a God at hand, a present help in the time of trouble and of need. And you being come to the principle of God, which has been transgressed, it will keep you humble; and the humble God will teach his way, which is peace, and such he does exalt. (1658)
In addition to these two practices that bring focus – engagement with God’s presence in the natural world and Friendly expectant silence – other activities can bring one’s focus to a single point as well. Rhythmic exertion such as cycling, running, and Hungarian dance have shown me that. In reflection on a career of games and playful activity, I see that the most profound times of unity and focus for me have come when game participants took simple physical risks and relied on each other for mutual support. “Flow” is a term used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe such experiences of focus and immersion. (psychologytoday.com/articles/199707/finding-flow).
[C]omplete immersion in an experience could occur while you are singing in a choir, dancing, playing bridge, or reading a good book. If you love your job, it could happen during a complicated surgical operation or a close business deal. It may occur in a social interaction, when talking with a good friend, or while playing with a baby. Moments such as these provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life.
These exceptional moments are what I have called “flow” experiences. The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as “aesthetic rapture.” (1997)
This description of the thorough immersion that engenders an experience of flow is similar to to George Fox’s advice to Lady Claypool to be still awhile from her own thoughts and to be stayed in the principle of God. When we know God is at hand, as a present help, we can leave our small worries behind. We can see that God’s presence is infused in daily actions like preparing food, washing dishes, or caring for another. This awareness enables us to turn away from ritual communion, baptism, and foot washing in favor of the more constant sacraments embedded into our lives.
Along the way to singleness of focus, the activities of play and rhythmic exertion offer endorphin-induced pleasure. Social relationships help, too. Participation in an exercise class, a play group, or a team can make our initial preparation and physical warm-ups easier to find the way through. Commitment to the group motivates me, as does the pleasant anticipation of encountering people I love. I find a comforting reassurance in knowing I’m not going to be the only one wearing lycra and looking ridiculous – perhaps even with a paunch! Playing in a group is one way to follow Jesus’ instruction to “change and become like little children” in order to “enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Focus leads us to find intensity in life, to come to the principle of God, and to learn to live in humble and peaceful ways. My experience is that heaven-bent focus does not come only from a gathered meeting. It also comes to me through the expectant stillness I can find in the desert on a quiet morning, while pedaling a bicycle through communities and farms, or during a rousing game of Capture the Flag.
The keys to flow and to encounter with Divine Mystery are personal. We can all find them as we focus. ~~~
Jay Thatcher is a member of Corvallis Friends Meeting (NPYM). Over the years, he has also participated in Eugene, Marin, and Santa Fe Meetings. He recently retired from teaching physical education. On odd occasions, he blogs at: jtblog.lindajohansen.com.
Photos are by participants in “Active and Joyful,” a spiritual play-shop that Jay organized for NPYM before its 2016 Annual Session.