It is always useful for me to learn how other Quakers get themselves into the meditative state that we call "centering down." When Quakers gather during our Meetings for Worship, we are seeking to be in a calm, quiet, reflective, receptive state. In our rushed, complicated lives, achieving this state of "expectant waiting" is not always natural or easy. It takes practice.
Here's Pennsylvania Quaker Douglas Steere's detailed account of how he centers down:
still my body in order to get it as far out of the way as I can. Then I still
my mind and let it open to God in silent prayer, for the meeting, as we
understand it, is the meeting place of the worshipper with God. I thank God
inwardly for this occasion, for the week's happenings, for what I have learned
at God's hand, for my family, and the work there is to do. I often pause to
enjoy this presence…
Or here's another Friend from Newcastle talking about what he or she does:
hold that all the things I've been fretting about seem to have on me. I try
to clear them from my mind, but find it very difficult. I want to empty my
mind so that God can come in. I try to get in touch with Him and ask Him to
be with me. I try to listen to what He wants to communicate to me. I don't
feel that I want to ask Him for things specifically, but just entrust myself
to Him along with all those I care about.
For myself, I have experimented with a number of different practices and habits that help me to center down. Here's my own personal experience…
Quakers have no particular meditative sitting position, unlike other traditions. I guess you could say that our wooden benches foster a certain straight-backed posture. I try and avoid reclining backward, which tends to make me inattentive and sleepy, or leaning forward, which puts me into a more stressed mental state. I keep my feet at shoulder width apart.
If I am in a non-traditional setting (someone's home, in a park) I like to sit on the ground with my legs crossed. But never lying down or in a difficult-to-maintain lotus position.
I don't close my eyes during worship for the most part. I find that if I close my eyes, I soon lose focus or get sleepy. Instead, I will spend worship attending to some spot on the wall across from me, or keeping my eyes half-closed. At times, I scan the faces in the room when I am feeling ansy, which tends to calm me down seeing everyone else centering down.
The process of breathing is a very important part of centering down for me.
I've adapted a Tai Chi method of circular breathing that I find calms and energizes me at the same time. I concentrate on inhaling from my nose starting from deep in my diaphram and slowly filling my whole chest with air. Then I exhale slowly from my mouth, expending as much air as possible. After a minute of doing this intentionally, I find that my body adopts this rhythm unconsciously.
Sometimes, I use my left hand to help me be mindful of my breathing, by slowly raising it up with my palm upward as I inhale, and slowly lowering it with palm down as I exhale, in a continuous circular pattern. Or I simply rest my hands on my legs with palms slightly upward.
I don't have any intentional thought process or mantra that I go through to center down. Most of my focus is spent on allowing my mind to be at rest, listening to my heart, and waiting for the Spirit to arise from within.
If there is something practical that enters my mind (an email I need to send, something I need to pick up from the grocery, etc.) I try and jot a quick note to myself. Once that is done, I consciously let it go to keep it from distracting me from Worship.
Often I will replay in my mind a particular scene from a movie or television show that I saw recently, which used to really annoy me. Now I have accepted that I just have to let it play out in my head and then let it pass on by, like a cloud.
The same goes for sexual urges, hunger, sleepiness — I acknowledge the feelings, move through them, and then eventually move on.
Quite naturally, I end up going through the past week, particular highs and lows, successes and failures, doubts and anxieties. If there is a particularly difficult or painful experience, I don't try and force it away. I let it wash over me, feeling it as completely and deeply as I can. Then I let it go, exhale it, release it into the Light. This is an important part of Meeting for Worship for me.
Eventually, sometimes even for just a few precious minutes, I feel a loving presence that embraces me. My brain might still race with some thought or another, but I feel elevated above them. A reverent bliss comes over me.
As those who have been to Quaker Meeting know, our silent "unprogrammed" Meetings allow for anyone in the gathering to deliver "vocal ministry" to the congregants. For us, vocal ministry is not about delivering a prepared sermon but allowing yourself to be "spoken through" from something beyond you.
There is no firm rule to go by as to whether something in your head should be shared as vocal ministry with the rest of Meeting. It is not uncommon for some idea or story to enter my thoughts during Meeting that causes me to question whether or not this is "a message" for the Meeting. In my early days as a Quaker, I would rush to speak when I had even the tiniest suspicious that I was receiving a message.
Nowadays, the silence of Meeting is so precious to me that I am loath to speak unless very powerfully moved to do so. If something crosses my thoughts that I suspect might be a message, I rest on it for several minutes to see if it stays in my thoughts. Sometimes these are just fleeting notions that soon pass.
At other times, a particular idea or memory might stick with me. I ask myself if this is something that speaks to my own personal state, or something that might have resonance with others? Perhaps it is directly about something that happened in our community, or about an issue that we have been struggling with, or simply seems intended for someone besides just myself.
On rare occasions, it is something so profound and moving that I literally can not contain it.
It's during those times, after carefully testing the impetus, that I rise up and speak.
All of these are of course my own personal experiences and are not meant as a prescription for others to necessarily follow. The beauty and challenge of the Quaker way of worship is that you have to find your own way that works for you.
There are lots of resources out there that can help you develop your own centering down practices. A couple online guides that I have found helpful:
- A Practical How-To Guide to Unprogrammed Meeting for Worship
- Quaker Meeting for Worship by Douglas Steere
Of course the best guidance comes from the personal guidance and help of Quakers in your own community. Older, "more seasoned" Friends are great resources that I am sure would love to share with you how they practice centering down and achieving the "expectant waiting" state we all seek. Your Meeting might have special sessons for newcomers to ask questions and learn about who we are. Or just ask any member of Ministry and Counsel or Overseers in your Meeting for help.
Learning to center down can take years and years of effort. The important thing is to develop the habit of centering down, whether in Meeting for Worship, in your own personal prayers or meditations, as you sit on the train, whenever the occasion strikes you. Like anything worthwhile, it takes practice.
But over time, you will find yourself falling into it more naturally and easily. It's at the heart of what it means to be a Quaker.
[cc-licensed image by Iowa spirit walker]