Settling into the Silence – A Survey

This text is in mixed languages as we decided to keep the replies to the survey in their original language – some English, some German. Depending on the feedback, we might offer a translation for our future surveys. 

Since I first got interested in Quakerism, there was one central question on my mind which was a very obvious one to me, but does not seem to be addressed that often amongst Quakers: what the heck do Quakers do in worship? Yes, “we listen and are expectant and all that”, but what do we DO when we listen?
I want to start a little series about “What Quakers do in Worship”. And because this is such a huge and central topic, we start light with a more approachable question:

How do Quakers settle into silence?

I find listening in worship not hard once I am “settled in the spirit”. However, it is not always easy to get there. I personally tried different methods which all had more or less to do with either clearing my mind or visualising certain images and locations which make me feel connected. Often, imagining different images also helps to tone down my Misophonia (being overly sensitive to noises such as sniffling and breathing and getting aggressive as a result), which is a plus.

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I tried things like holding my hands open and imagining a beam of light or sun rays streaming from my hands upwards or from above down in my hands and imagined receiving something like that. I often started my worship by holding people in the Light, however that actually “works”.
What I figured was that it would “work” if I would just think about the person surrounded by Light, or as if magically draped with rich golden fabrics and warmth. Another imagery which helped me to calm down and settle into the Spirit to get in tune for active listening without emptying my mind completely was imagining myself sitting in a lush rain forest with a bowl in my hand which I hold at a 90 degree angle so that whatever liquid would be in it would flow out of it over my feet away from me. I imagined that if I am still and expectant and worshipful, small little drops of water would form at the bottom of the bowl, like condensed water at the lid of a pot with water boiling softly in it softly boiling water. I would imagine how those water drops in my bowl would get larger and larger until they are too heavy to stick to the bowl and slowly but suddenly trickle down the walls of the bowl and collect themselves briefly before flowing out of the bowl onto the lush green moss of the forest floor. I tried to imagine this process as detailed and “realistic” as I could. Tried to imagine the scent of it and the feeling. And the more I would do that in expectant silence, the more water would trickle down and flow out of the bowl on the floor, forming a little stream which turns into a creek, nourishing the forest and the life within it around me.
This was a lot of detail, I know. But I wanted to show that for me it is easier to imagine a very detailed imaginative scene to settle than to try to push away any thoughts like clouds on the sky, as meditation techniques often suggest. Such vivid imagery has helped me in the past to settle into the state I want to be in when I am in meeting. However, I am sure that others use different methods and I want to learn from them!

That is why I started my little survey.

In order to hear from as many Quakers as I can, I developed three simple interview questions which I handed out to Quakers of all ages and from different meetings. I should have been prepared for this because we are Quakers but… I was still surprised about the diversity of answers which I got. What I found most interesting was, that some Friends go great efforts to stop their mind from wandering while for others that is the goal! Without any further a-do, let’s look at some of them!

Is it easy for you to settle into silence? – Fällt es dir leicht, dich in der Stille niederzulassen? 

“Yes, as I’ve been doing it for 50 years. But it doesn’t always happen the same way. If I’m too agitated, I have to either turn off that feeling or just sing to myself.” – Elaine

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It can depend on stress at home or work.” – Anonymous

“Mostly, it is. It just feels natural for me, I think. It does help that there is some background noise.” – Arne

“My experience tells me it’s pretty easy for me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’re usually not that many, and it’s fine if you’re late, or like to read a little. This acceptance and not-too-strict-ness makes me, at least, feel at home. I can chose to close my eyes, and though most of us do, it’s not compulsory. I don’t feel any force from other humans urging me to stand up (or sit) and share. All I feel, I think, is the quiet acceptance, need, wish, allowance, presence and awareness (ofter called friendliness! <3) of my fellow human beings. It’s the fact that I know that the others are also «in on it», also wanting to be silent for an hour, that makes it easy for me to settle. I think.” – Tommy

“Today, it is. In my first Quaker Meeting for Worship six years ago, I was amazed by how busy my mind was. By practicing outward silence, stillness within became easier. In fact, everything of value that I have received in my life, I have come to see, has come through relaxed repetitive practice of positive attitude and action.” – Dan

“When my heart and mind are prepared. I have to come with the right attitude.” – Andrew

“No! My thoughts wander – usually to practical, family etc. issues – problem-solving can dominate.” – Anonymous

“Sometimes it’s easy to center down. Normally that’s because I’ve spent some time before MfW preparing heart and mind. But sometimes it’s not easy no matter what I do. Our meeting room has old, creaky floors and people coming late or even shifting in their chairs sometimes make noise. Then there’s the coughing, sniffing, etc, and the traffic noise outside. I understand that when it’s not easy to settle it’s because of me, not because of outside influences, but sometimes it’s hard, nonetheless. It’s the internal stillness that matters, not the outside stillness.” – Kate

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I realise that’s an unhelpful answer, but it is true. Meeting for worship isn’t really separate from my life so it depends a lot on where my head is at in general. Sometimes my thoughts constantly wander to what I will do/need to do after MfW or in the coming week. Generally, it’s easier to settle if it’s with a group of people I know well, particularly at a Quaker event.” – George

“I like the word „stillness” not silence – There’s bird song, cows, breathing. Sometimes lots of thoughts from the past which interfere, often ideas float in. Ans sometimes I fight falling asleep!” – Jeremy

“It is easy for me to be in silence.” – Jan

“Ja, das ist mir von Anfang an leicht gefallen, weil ich immer so gespannt bin, was sich in der Stille ereignen wird.“ – Ursula

„Das ist sehr unterschiedlich. Manchmal beschäftigen mich Gedanken, die ich nicht abstellen kann, manchmal bin ich fast gleich in einer tiefen Stille – ein Geschenk“ – Sabine

„Ja, es fällt mir leicht. Manchmal verliere ich das Gesammelt-Sein im Laufe der Andacht, dann hilft mir…“ – Anonymous

„Ich liebe es!“ – Renate

„Meistens nicht, aber manchmal kreisen die Gedanken und die Gefühle, die mich gerade (stark) beschäftigen“ – Robin

„In Irland empfand ich es leichter bei meinen ersten Andachten, als ich niemanden in der Gruppe kannte. Wen ich nach der Andacht zu der gruppe was zu sagen hatte, dann schwirrte dies die ganze Stunde im Kopf rum.“ – Jens

„Manchmal ja. Manchmal nicht, wenn ich zu erregt bin“ – Anonymous

„Meist ja. Eine Stunde ist eine gute Zeit, um reinzufinden. Am Anfang läuft bei mir innerlich noch „Tagesgeschäft“ – Christoph

„In der Regel fällt es mir leicht. Wenn nicht, lag es zumeist an Problemen oder zu viel Aktivität im Vorfeld.“ – Anonymous

„Manchmal ja. Manchmal nicht, wenn ich zu erregt bin.“ – Anonymous

Is there a specific internal ritual or practice you do at the beginning of meeting which helps you to settle and connect with the spirit? – Gibt es ein bestimmtes Ritual oder eine bestimmte Praxis, die du zu Beginn der Andacht durchführst, und die dir hilft, dich niederzulassen und dich mit dem Geist zu verbinden? 

“No. These days, I come to the silence and stillness of Meeting for Worship or evening Epilogue at Quaker House Brussels or at Woodbrooke Study Centre without any plans or expectations. I simply seek to be fully present first to myself, then to the candle or table in the room center, and then to the others in the room.” – Dan

“Calming the body, breathing slowly, relaxing muscles.” – Anonymous

“I try to get into a comfortable position and concentrate on my breath. Long breath in, long breath out. There’s a point between breaths where there’s stillness. I’m not HOLDING my breath, but I’m not breathing either. It’s like that instant when you throw a ball up in the air and between rising and falling it’s suspended in the air, weightless. I look for that instant in my breathing. There I find stillness which can expand and fill my spirit until I feel suspended in time, upheld by the spirit.” – Kate

Usually breathing, and picturing something plain or simple of beautiful or empty in my mind. Sometimes I start with reading a bit, from a book at the table or my own, then try to settle in silence. A third thing is to listen to people in the room. A fourth thing is to listen to what’s outside or inside the room. Birds, people talking outside, someone coghing, swallowing, breathing out, sighing, correcting their posture, moving in any way… All small sounds become clearer, and kind of poetic, in near silence. Which can kind of make your mind’s language non-verbal, cause you’re paying attention to sounds which aren’t verbal. Just alive. – Tommy

“Not a specific one, but I have a few things I can do if nothing else leaps to mind. One is to think about the last week (or few weeks), what has happened that is significant for me, which I can reflect on, and maybe think about what I might have done better/differently, how it makes me feel etc. Another is that I might go around the room and think about each person upholding them each in turn. These two also fit with the below question.” – George

“Not really. Closing eyes or looking at the candle.” – Jeremy

“Not really”. – Anonymous

“Initially I focus on background noise, coming from the outside, after which my mind slides back in and I try to connect with some inner force, some will call the Inner Light.” – Arne

“Look at Friends around the circle and hold them in the light” – Andrew

“I think about time, the creation.” – Jan

“I use meditation techniques. Starting by feeling my bodies connection with the floor, the chair etc.” – Anonymous

“I look around the room at the architecture. The people. The aura of the people. Then I look outside to tune into nature. I breathe slower and sometimes sing in my mind. I go to places in nature or pull thoughts of wisdom into my mind.” – Elaine

“Ja, eine Kerze anzünden oder einen Straß Blumen in die Mitte des Andachtskreises stellen” – Anonymous

„Nur, indem ich dafür sorge, dass ich bequem und gesund sitze – kein krummer Rücken oder so, damit ich mich gut entspannt auf/in der Andacht konzentrieren kann” – Robin

„Kein Bestimmtes, sondern Verschiedenes, z.B. meine Nachbarn wahrzunehmen, die Gruppe in die Andacht einschließen in den lebendigen Strom einzutauchen. Mir hilfreich: die Gedanken zur Andacht in William Taber: 4 Türen zur Andacht” – Renate

„Ja, zuerst den Körper im Sitzen ausrichten und entspannen“ – Anonymous

„Alle Anwesenden im Kreise liebevoll und offen anzuschauen und ihre Anwesenheit wertzuschätzen, auf meine Haltung achten, atmen“ – Anonymous

„Wie-Su-Meditation, körperliche Entspannung und Gebet für gute Andacht, Meeting und andere Leute“ – Anonymous

„Auf meine Gedanken einfach zu achten hilft mir.“ – Christoph

„Gedanken loslassen und überrascht werden wie sie ankommen. Jedes Mal ein neues Experiment.“ – Jens

„Gedanken kurz zulassen und „von außen betrachten“ um sie dann loszulassen“ – Sabine

„Ich stelle mir einen kleinen See im Wald vor, dessen Oberfläche mit schwimmenden Blättern bedeckt ist. Dann versuche ich in Gedanken die Blätter wegzuschieben, damit sich die Sonne auf der Seeoberfläche spiegeln kann – wie das Licht Gottes in meiner Seele, wenn die Alltagsgedanken verschwinden.“ – Ursula

When you struggle to be still and listen in the silence, or when your thoughts go wild, what do you do? – Was tust du, wenn du Schwierigkeiten hast, still zu sein und in der Stille zuzuhören, oder wenn deine Gedanken wild werden? 

“Let my thoughts go wild! That’s what I want!” – Jeremy

“I don’t struggle. I accept whatever thoughts, emotional memories, or intuitions arise and observe them without judgment as if they were passing clouds scurrying across a blue sky on a sunny, breezy day. If an unpleasant memory arises, I am a little like Shakespeare’s Hamlet who, when discovering the skull of an old friend in a grave, picks the skull up and regards it, saying, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well.” I sit still, grateful to be alive, awake, and able to have bits and pieces of 80 years of emotional memory spontaneously surface when I least expect them.” – Dan

“I kind of like it when my brain goes auto-pilot and reminds me that I can’t control my thoughts to some extent. Usually I try to make it lead to «centering» meta-questions about the thoughts themselves, like «okay, why did I lose track of my breath now?» or «hmm, what’s the purpose of that sort of automatic thought?» and so on. The abstract advice is kind of to «empty» your head by just breathing and listening in/to silence (emptiness). I understand the purpose of this as finding content through that emptiness. Discovering richness through lack, in a way. Sounds super profound once you put words to this hour of wordlessness! :)” – Tommy

“Feel frustrated. Keep trying. Pray silently.” – Anonymous

“I attend a very small meeting which rents a shared room. We use some (not that good) chairs. Sometimes, these leads to loss of focus (not only by me ;)). By starting to read a passage of Quaker Faith and Practice, I try to refocus, sometimes with success, sometimes without.” – Arne

“I wait in the Light, and normally I reach stillness eventually, although it may take a while.” – Anonymous

“Normally I return to my breath and seek the stillness if they are running wild. However, when my thoughts wander, sometimes I let them go to see where they take me because they can take me to ministry – which needs to be tested, of course, but when it is truly ministry I know.” – Kate

“I picture a candle flame inside of me and try to focus on it. When I realise my mind has wandered again, I imagine coming back to the candle. I got this idea from BYM’s Faith and Practice 2.49, which uses rather different language than I would, but essentially the point was to be kind to yourself, and just keep bringing yourself back, when your thoughts wander. Other times I might flick through QF&P looking for something to ponder.” – George

“Say the Lord’s prayer repeatedly.” – Andrew

“Notice what is happening. Try to work out why – what is occupying my mind and what it means. Then I focus on my breathing for a while and try to steady myself.” – Anonymous

“I try to stop my thoughts.” – Jan

“Wiggle. Switch positions. Inhale. Look around. Look outside. Look inside (myself). I try to figure out why and then start letting go of thoughts and worries. Sometimes I will read Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” sometimes out loud.” – Elaine

“Ich etikettiere meine Gedanken und versuche mich wieder auf Bauch- oder Herzgegend zu konzentrieren.“ – Anonymous

„Mindfulness… Konzentration auf ein Thema, das mich gerade beschäftigt, Gebet“ – Anonymous

„Ein liebevoller Blick auf mich selbst hilft mir. Und die anderen, die auch da sind.“ – Christoph

„Atmen, atmen, atmen.“ – Renate

„Nichts besonders – ich warte geduldig bis die sich kreisenden Gedanken abebben.“ – Robin

„Manchmal erkenne ich an, dass ich die Zeit für genau diese Gedanken brauche.“ – Sabine

„In der Andacht sind meine Gedanken noch nie „wild geworden“; aber sie schweifen manchmal ab. Dann widerhole ich Schritt 2 („Waldsee-Bild“) oder kehre in Gedanken zu dem zurück, was vor dem Moment der Abschweifung in mir war („Reset-Methode“). Ohne mich zu ärgern!“ – Ursula

Anything you want to add that is related to the topic but was not asked about?  – Möchtest du etwas hinzufügen was sich auf das Thema bezieht aber nicht gefragt wurde? 

“Remembering the American railroad crossing sign helps: Stop, Look, and Listen.” – Kate

“I try to really listen to messages, both verbal and non-verbal. Sometimes I do light holding of people or concerns. And I’m patient.” – Elaine

“Remembering two slogans that have arisen in me lately also helps: Active silent listening coupled with silent wordless prayer.” – Dan

“Someone told me once that they try to begin MfW with the same sense of eager anticipation that they feel at a film or theater when the curtain is about to rise. I like that.” – Kate

“Just the fact that I think we gotta accept folks who don’t prefer «doing nothing» in the silence. For me, reading for the whole service is fine. Maybe I’m super-liberal or non-normative here. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up as Quaker, or cause I see the Quaker movement as a spirit of permissiveness compared to the churches I’m used to, or maybe just cause I think people are different and not all of us prefer or even can sit in silence for an hour, doing nothing! :)” – Tommy

“Basically that worship is a spiritual practice – it’s not easy, and sometimes it’s not pleasant, or doesn’t feel worthwhile, but I think it’s important to dedicate this time and space to communal reflection and worship. A particularly gathered meeting, where the ministry and the silence weave together is a lovely thing to experience. I have experienced some of the deepest worship with EMEYF – sharing a week together tends to bring a sense of being gathered to a meeting.” – George

“What’s special is when I feel that my “wild thoughts” and those of others are resonating – so that we are approaching thinking/feeling as one! It’s the collective which is special – a shared stillness.” – Jeremy

“Experience has shown me that practice helps but it is SO easy to slip back!” – Anonymous

“Stille ist schwierig und nicht schwierig. Oft beides zugleich. Mir ist sie enorm wertvoll geworden.“ – Christoph

„Stille bekommt man nicht serviert, man muss sie suchen und finden wollen.“ – Renate

„Es ist, wie es ist – es kommt, wie es kommt. Manche Andachten sind intensiver als andere.“ – Robin

„Lasst euch nicht entmutigen, wenn eine Andacht nicht das ergeben hat, was ihr hofftet. Andacht in der Stille ist eine Sache regelmäßiger Übung. Wenn ihr jemanden kennt für den die Stille absolut nicht das Richtige zu sein scheint, dann ist es wichtig auch das anzuerkennen und zu respektieren: Es gibt Menschen, die etwas anderes brauchen.“ – Ursula

Isn’t the diversity of these answers fascinating?

I would like to express a warm “Thank you!” to everyone who participated, who helped  me gather the responses and made this survey possible. If you have any ideas or wishes for future surveys like this, or if you would like us to reach out to you for our next one, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Lena


2 thoughts on “Settling into the Silence – A Survey

  1. Wow, that is a lot food for thought, experiment and conversation! Thank you to Lena and all the Friends who answered your questions!

    Like

  2. Thanks so much for this Lena, so interesting to read everyone’s perspectives on this! It is really valuable to be able to see the diversity of experience, though I still don’t really understand the people who always find the silence easy… at least I have a load of new techniques to try to help me settle for next time I’m in meeting 🙂

    Like

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