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Worship by Approximation

Maia Wolff Ostrom
On Secrets (July 2020)
Inward Light

Calm your mind. Breathe. Take a deep breath. Let it out. What’s on my shopping list? Breathe. Take a deep breath. What’s going on in the world? Is my family okay? Breathe. Take a deep breath.

In the silent moments that appear throughout the constant chatter of my mind, I can find Light. But I also want to quiet the chatter. After all, chatter is a behavior, and we can change behavior. And I want to find a better way to welcome new folks into these practices, to pass these skills on to others who are desperately seeking.

In my other life, I am a clicker trainer. I work with animals and humans, using positive reinforcement to communicate what I want through consequences. I can set up an environment to hopefully guide a learner toward a behavior that I would like to see, but it is up to the learner to make the behavior happen. I can provide a positive reinforcement consequence the learner enjoys when I see the behavior I am looking for, and the behavior will increase in frequency.

In clicker training, we often work hard to set up a training scenario where we look for one small, specific, muscle movement to reinforce during the session, which might last only one minute or even only thirty seconds. We do not train for a whole, huge task. We are looking for the paw twitching, not the dog running after the ball. We are looking for fingers moving on the pencil, not the full letter being written.

We are looking for the calm mind, for the briefest of moments, not for the full hour of calm stillness during a Meeting for Worship. For the past year, I have been attempting to find these brief moments of calm and stillness in my everyday life. Even for ten seconds! Ten seconds when you have two small children, a farm, sheep getting out to eat the squash and purple cabbage, horses, and all the rest, is a shining success! Celebrating these small successes has brought me closer to my Light within and closer to hearing the still small Voice in a chaotic world.

Once these short moments of connection began to come easily for me, I found the reinforcements to be present in myself. Spirit was waiting for me in those ten seconds, greeting me with a warm and welcoming feeling, one I am happy to settle into and attempt to listen for again.

Being an active person, I began looking for places in my normal, active life to practice my ten seconds of connection. Like when washing hands: Turn on the water. Breathe. Pump the soap. Breathe. Rub my hands together. Breathe. Rinse my hands. Breathe. Notice the children are screaming at each other; wonder how long that’s been happening . . .

Sometimes, I find myself struggling with unwanted thoughts, scary and disturbing and repetitive thoughts. Fortunately, such thoughts are behaviors, and behaviors can be trained, so I am not stuck. First, I need to choose something that I will want to think about instead of the fearful thoughts – like a memory of my daughter playing with large bubbles, a memory which brings joy and a smile to my face. Next, I walked around the house while actively reliving that memory in my mind, building it into something I can conjure easily and quickly. Finally, when a frightening thought comes into my mind, I let that thought became a bubble – a bubble for my daughter to chase and laugh at and pop. It brings me joy! Now I am in a moment with my daughter and Spirit and the bubbles, instead of the frightening dark place. And what if it doesn’t work? What if I can’t bring the bubbles? Then I breathe. And think of bubbles. And breathe. And think of bubbles. Just in these brief small moments, Spirit comes, if only for ten seconds. 

This is one way we could teach newcomers about connection to Spirit. We could teach that the small moments of success are the moments to celebrate.

As a young kid, going to Quaker Meeting, I was not asked to sit through an hour of Silence at first. I began by sitting in the meeting for just a few minutes, and then my mother would take me out. Then it was fifteen minutes with the rest of the Children’s Program. Later, it was longer periods, maybe during a committee meeting, drawing on the floor. Yet we ask newcomers to sit for a full hour of Silence the first time they join us. I wasn’t born with this hour-long-worshipping behavior. I developed this ability through small moments of success, celebrated, each one an approximation towards the goal.  ~~~

Maia Wolff Ostrom grew up in Orange Grove MM, (PYM). She is an occupational therapist, mother, and regenerative farmer. Following organic practices, she is letting her life speak to climate crisis and is providing nutrient-dense food to underserved persons. She attends Agate Passage Friends Meeting (NPYM).

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