Mindfulness and Quaker Worship

Department: 

In meeting for worship, we center down, listen to vocal ministry, discern authentic vocal ministry, and hold people in the Light. The practice of mindfulness helps me with all of these. Also, if it weren’t for my mindfulness practice, I probably would have had to abandon Quakerism decades ago.

In the past five years, mindfulness has become very popular. Time magazine published a cover story on “The Mindfulness Revolution.” Mindful magazine has over 100,000 readers. Mindfulness is taught in schools, businesses, universities, and health care settings.

But years before this recent surge of interest, Quakers showed a strong interest in mindfulness. Mindfulness workshops have been offered at Friends General Conference and the Pendle Hill retreat center for over ten years. The Pendle Hill pamphlet, “The Mindful Quaker,” was published in 2006. In 2009, Quaker teachers edited and published the first book on mindfulness in education, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness.

Quaker publications about mindfulness cover many aspects of the relationship between Quakerism and mindfulness, but I haven’t seen much specific information on mindfulness and meeting for worship. This surprised me because mindfulness is central to my own experience of meeting for worship in several ways: centering down and waiting upon the Spirit, listening to the vocal ministry of others, discerning authentic vocal ministry, and holding people in the Light.

Centering Down: Typically we begin meeting for worship by sitting in silence and “centering down,” which involves clearing your mind and settling “down during the initial stage of worship, becoming spiritually focused so as to be open to the leading of the Spirit,” according to the Faith and Practice of Pacific Yearly Meeting (PYM). To clear your mind and become “spiritually focused,” you have to learn to concentrate what George Fox called “thy wandering mind.” Unfortunately, many Quaker writings don’t specify a way to develop this concentration.

But concentration is a central part of mindfulness, and the literature on mindfulness contains a lot of advice about learning to concentrate. Most of it boils down to repeatedly focusing your attention on your breath or some other aspect of your experience. Whenever you notice that your mind is wandering, you return to your original focus—again and again. Each time you return your attention, it strengthens your ability to concentrate – like the way lifting weights strengthens your muscles. Because I don’t get distracted nearly so much, it’s easier to clear my mind and become “spiritually focused.” Other Quakers have told me that mindfulness helps them to center down, too.

Mindfulness practices develop equanimity as well as spiritual focus. This is important for our task in meeting for worship, in which “Each tries to still the inward clamor of personal anxieties and ambitions, listening for the voice of the Inner guide,” according to PYM’s Faith and Practice. Stilling “personal anxieties” is no easy task – just ask any psychotherapist. But it can be done and research shows that mindfulness practice is an effective way to reduce anxiety.

For example, suppose I am in meeting for worship and the thought arises, “I’m doing a bad job at work. I’m gonna get fired.” This anxious thought can easily lead to another one. “This is just like my last job, when I was the first to get laid off.” Then down I go – caught in a spiral of anxious thoughts and feelings.

Now suppose, instead, that I mindfully concentrate my attention on my breath. The same anxious thought about getting fired might appear. In this case, I remain in the present moment and become clearly aware of the thought and my resulting feeling of anxiety. The equanimity I’ve developed allows me to let the thought and the anxiety come up, and accept them. I don’t feed energy into them by grabbing onto them or resisting them, so they stick around for a bit, and then fade away.

In this way, mindful concentration and equanimity help me center down, which in turn helps produce a quiet, fertile state of mind. In that deep silence, I wait for the Spirit. This is the kind of practice that can lead to a gathered meeting. As George Gorman writes in The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship,

The meeting comes to be truly gathered when most, if not all, of those present have themselves been drawn in to the depths of themselves so that even their thoughts have been stilled and their minds, while by no means empty, are in near perfect rest.

Listening to Vocal Ministry: When Friends speak during meeting for worship, I use mindfulness practices to concentrate on what they’re saying. When I’m in the moment, I’m more open to their vocal ministry. When Friends speak during worship and I am not in the present moment, but instead I’m daydreaming – planning or remembering something – I may be so lost in thought that I miss what was said.

My reaction to a Friend’s vocal ministry can also prevent me from paying full attention to it. Sometimes I get caught up in a judgmental reaction. (“There he goes again. Delivering vocal ministry at exactly five minutes before the hour. Just like clockwork.”) Then I am no longer open to the message. Other times a positive reaction can distract me. (“I just love Stan’s vocal ministry. It comes from such a deep understanding of Quakerism. . . .”) I can become absorbed in thinking about my appreciation, and before I know it, the speaker has finished. Mindfulness helps me to notice reactions like these in the moment, regard them with equanimity, and then let go of them – letting me get back to actually hearing the vocal ministry.

Discerning Authentic Vocal Ministry: “The Meeting for Worship is at the core of Quaker practice. There, Friends gather together and in expectant silence, wait upon God” (Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice). Mindfulness practice helps me in meeting for worship when I use it to center down and sit “in expectant silence,” and something pops into my mind that might be suitable for vocal ministry. For instance, hearing another Friend’s deep and wonderful message triggers an impulse in me to comment. When I regard this impulse with equanimity, the urge to act on it weakens, which gives me sufficient emotional distance to apply some tests to my would-be vocal ministry: Is this message from my ego or the Spirit? Is this message meant for me alone or for the meeting as a whole? Is it coming through me and is spirit-led, or is it coming from me and is “merely emotionally compelling” (as PYM’s Faith and Practice puts it)?

Most of the messages that come to me are not true vocal ministry, but sometimes a message arises that is. These messages tend to come back again and again. I still question them, and the answers usually come as physical and emotional sensations in my body. With true vocal ministry, each time a message comes back, I feel a sense that it’s right, and this sense of rightness becomes stronger each time it returns. As it strengthens, I also get an intuitive sense of when it’s time for me to stand and speak.

When I am practicing mindfulness, I can more easily recognize a message that isn’t true vocal ministry and let go of it. Even if I still feel a desire to speak, instead of putting effort into actively suppressing that desire, I can regard it with equanimity, which helps me to simply let the message fade away.

Sometimes when a message does not quite reach the level of true vocal ministry, I still get a recurring sense of its rightness, but that sense weakens each time it returns. For example, before meeting one day, my wife showed me something that a noted Quaker poet had written about meeting for worship, and the beauty and truth of it moved me deeply. During meeting, I repeatedly felt motivated to share some lines from the poem, but my mindfulness practice helped me regard that impulse with equanimity, to hold off from speaking, and to administer tests of vocal ministry – which my message failed again and again. Without that mindful attention, I could have mistaken those “merely emotionally compelling” poetic lines for true vocal ministry.

Holding in the Light: When I began attending meeting for worship back in the 1990’s, I regularly heard a confusing request that we hold people in the Light. It seemed that I was being asked to lovingly visualize people with health or other problems and to silently express a desire that they be healed.

That sounded a lot like a mindfulness practice called “loving-kindness meditation,” so that is what I did when I heard a request to hold someone in the Light. In loving-kindness meditation, you imagine a person and silently repeat certain phrases that express your wish that the person be free from danger, be free from suffering, be happy, and live with ease.

After a while, though, I learned that loving-kindness meditation is not the same as holding someone in the Light. According to PYM’s Faith and Practice, an essential part of the holding someone in the light is “the desire that divine guidance and healing will be present to [an] individual.” So now when I hold someone in the Light, I still practice loving-kindness meditation, but I also wish for the person to experience “divine guidance and healing.” 

A personal story: In the early 1990’s, I had a serious obstacle to participation in meeting for worship – a neurological condition called Restless Legs Syndrome. Its main symptom is a deeply unpleasant sensation in the legs that’s briefly relieved by moving them. Restless Legs Syndrome interferes with sleep, so you’re tired during the day, which makes the symptoms worse. I used to come to meeting for worship fairly sleep-deprived, which led to waves of seemingly intolerable, awful sensations in my legs. Moving my legs made this stop for a bit, so I moved my legs all through meeting. You could see me in meeting for worship – sitting on an old, metal folding chair and lifting one of my legs until it stuck straight out. This stopped the sensations, and so I’d put my foot back on the ground, but then the sensations would come back, and the cycle would repeat again and again. It was so unpleasant, and I became so worried that I was embarrassing my family, that I was about to stop attending meeting.

A change in medication improved things, but so did practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness improves the quality of people’s lives by increasing their effectiveness, increasing their sense of fulfillment in life, and reducing their suffering – including the discomfort of Restless Legs Syndrome. My mindfulness teacher – Shinzen Young – also has Restless Legs Syndrome, and by working with him, I learned to concentrate my attention on the sensations in my legs and accept them with mindful equanimity, instead of resisting the sensations by moving my legs. If I was in meeting for worship and the sensations started, I could practice mindfulness by focusing my attention on the sensations and accepting them. When I did this, the sensations increased for only a few seconds and then stopped. Doing this allowed me to keep attending meeting for worship for the next twenty years.

Without mindfulness meditation, I would not be a Quaker today. ~~~

Don McCormick is the Director of Education for the Unified Mindfulness teacher training program. He is a member of Santa Monica Monthly Meeting (PYM).