A Science of Quaker Practice


I have explored a lot of Quaker writings, and I also enjoy participating in Quaker practices such as silent worship, worship sharing, and business meetings (yes, those too). At the same time, as a person with a science background, I often find myself exploring books on neuroscience, evolution, and related topics, and I try to sort out how our Quaker ways relate to current findings by scientists in such fields. I see at least four human abilities under scientific research that relate to our Quaker practices:

Empathy – Quaker “listening beyond words”

Relaxation response – Centering into worship

Theory of mind – Worship, worship-sharing / -discussion

Cooperation – Discernment, sense of meeting, unity

Precious Empathy: As defined by Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Georgia and author of Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, we have a deep, innate capacity for perceiving the emotions, wants, needs, and intentions of others. Essentially, de Waal says, the human brain and nervous system, on observing the behavior of others, can simulate the internal dynamics of the other’s behavior within itself. The recently discovered “mirror neurons” in monkeys and similar neurons in humans might be part of the mechanism behind this “imitative resonance.”

Frans de Waal has concluded that empathy plays a key role in all social species, including elephants, some parrots, wolves, and most primates (including human beings). Empathy is foundational to the complex dynamic relationships within social groupings and is likely a precursor to language.

Early Quakers were very interested in empathy. In T. Vail Palmer’s wonderful Face to Face: Early Quaker Encounters With the Bible, Palmer makes the case that a deep valuing of empathy played a major role in early Quakers’ interpretation of the Bible.

Friends have developed explicit practices for fostering empathy, because even though humans have a capacity for empathy, that does not mean we necessarily pay attention to it. Quaker practices like “listening beyond words” combine with empathy to open the way for people to develop deep insights into each other. Empathetic interactions build connections between people at levels much deeper than rational judgments and accumulated information.

Relaxation and Centering: Our lives hammer us continually with alerts, stimulants, and hazards, which can trigger our fight-or-flight responses, raise our levels of tension and anxiety, and lead us to live in prolonged states of preoccupation and vigilance. Being in constant, sustained alert mode diminishes our ability to access our human abilities of deep thinking, intuition, empathy, feelings, and stored knowledge. Free-floating anxiety is also bad for your health.

While it is helpful to go into an alert, focused mode to deal with a problem, it is healthy to lay down that mode when the challenge has passed. Centering is a way to do so. Dr. Herbert Benson, in his book The Relaxation Response, explains that centering practices encourage our autonomic nervous systems to detach from any fight-or-flight responses we have going.

Many meditative religions include some kind of centering process in their worship. Personally, I have adopted a practice of sitting upright in a comfortable chair for ten minutes each day and focusing my attention on the number “one” each time I inhale, while releasing my preoccupations and tensions. Doing so each day (and before going into meeting for worship) has helped me think and feel more holistically, letting me integrate feelings, intuition, reason, and knowledge together.

Centering for me is not worship. Rather, it is preparation for truly open, tender, and accepting worship. I see it as sort of like cleaning up the living room before the arrival of expected guests.

Theory of Mind: Each of us lives isolated in our own body. Even so, we have a sense of the thinking of the people around us. Many fields, including sociology, neuroscience, and primatology are researching a concept called “theory of mind.” Wikipedia defines this as “the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. – to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.”

One exciting aspect of theory of mind is that it is not static. A person’s theory of mind can become more capable and nuanced throughout life, if the person tends to it. Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University explains this idea in a talk found at http://bit.ly/2cHvTdw.

Many common Quaker practices – listening beyond words, worship sharing, worship discussion, even silent worship itself – seem particularly suited for developing and expanding our “theories of mind” about each other. They do so by providing us with opportunities to learn how others are experiencing their lives and motions of the Spirit. For example, a Quaker book study group proceeds in a way that considers the content of the book and how the group’s participants are experiencing that content. This allows each participant to develop fuller pictures of the perspectives of other participants.

Cooperation: Defined as foregoing personal benefits in order to play a role that yields benefits shared with others, cooperation is inherent to all life at all levels, from the metabolism of bacteria to the interactions of our brain cells. In his book Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, Martin Nowak proposes that humans are super-cooperators, a condition based on the workings of many evolutionarily acquired abilities. Adding to those innate abilities are language and culture, which have helped humans create vast enterprises more complex than any on Earth (although ant empires come in a close second).

Our communities are not just built by simple “you help me and I will help you” cooperative relationships (simple reciprocity), although those are important. People rely on reputations of individuals (indirect reciprocity) to guide them in who should play particular roles in the community. Because any cooperative effort (and a Friends meeting is a cooperative effort) will tend to attract individuals willing to share the benefit but who are less willing to engage in the work (free riders), meetings sometimes lug down with too many watchers and not enough doers. The work of the nominating committee is fundamental to maintaining the viability and vitality of community cooperation by discerning what role is best for each person and which roles are not good fits.

In conclusion: As I have explored these ideas, I have grown increasingly impressed with the ways that Quaker practices are built on deep insights into how people work, both individually and in community.

My learnings are simple. To build community: 1) value empathy and use it as a foundation for learning about others, 2) develop your ability to center, setting aside your tensions and preoccupations, 3) engage others in interactions that allow you each to share your own deep experiences, and 4) carefully manage your community’s roles to nurture the growth of trust and caring. ~~~

Rick Ells worked thirty-five years at the University of Washington as a technical writer, web designer, accessible web design advocate, and senior webmaster. Recently retired, he is focusing on writing essays and poetry. He is a member of University Friends Meeting in Seattle, WA (NPYM).