Helen Gould, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Paul the apostle wrote, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose”. My own experience is somewhat similar. When I listen deeply and follow in every little decision, the springing Life: the chi or prana, which Early Friends called “the power of the Lord”(1), then indeed everything does work together for good.
John put in Jesus’ mouth the words, “I have come so that they might have Life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” I do find that paying minute-by-minute attention to what makes me more alive, reveals to me the Christ wisdom so abundantly present in Jesus, and, in a virtuous circle, this gives me more Life.
Since attending the Inward Bound: Quaker & Buddhist wisdom course at Silver Wattle, led by the Zen roshi and Quaker elder Arthur Wells, I have been able to sustain a practice of meditation/worship of at least 60 minutes a day. I say “meditation/worship” because I am using the meditation practice that Arthur Wells taught, and sometimes prayer arises spontaneously within that. My prayer may be any of the following: Thank you; sorry; lament; help me; help them; and most fundamentally, gratitude! Sometimes, reverence, and sometimes just wordlessly feeling held and nourished, or wordless delight, or something else deeper than words.
My practice is, at its simplest –
I sit in a comfortable position that I can sustain for the full time. I often use a meditation stool.
I commit to staying there for the full time. (I set the timer on my microwave).
I leave my eyes slightly open so that I am gazing in an unfocussed way through my eyelashes. (I often forget to do this and close my eyes).
I extend my spine.
I consciously relax each part of my face.
I count the breath cycles, one to ten: repeat several times.
Then observe my breathing (2); just paying attention to the breath of God within me (Genesis 2:7).
Of course, after a while I notice that I am thinking, and then I go back to – extend my spine, relax my face, observe my breathing. If something arises that gives me unease, I sit with it, spaciously, letting go of concepts as they arise, in waiting worship (3).
Sometimes I feel my awareness become more spacious and I notice the sounds around me: bird song, my neighbour swearing at her daughter (mentally I hold them both in the light which is all I am led to do at the present time), distant traffic, and I recall the koan that Arthur gave me: Who is hearing?
David Johnson (4) told me of his experience, that when you commit to at least an hour’s practice, the depth of the experience is qualitatively different. So a couple of weeks ago I committed to worshipping/meditating for an hour in the mornings, plus 30 minutes or more in the evenings. And yes, the experience is qualitatively different. There is a spaciousness and relaxed alertness in the longer meditation periods that fosters greater depth, and spontaneous prayer arises more often; gratitude, or praise, or lament, or “may such-and-such be so if it be for the best”. I also find that I am more aware of the life within me. Sometimes a shudder goes through my body, and something shifts or eases.
Then during the day it is easier to be aware of those small intimations of life which guide me.
This practice is sustaining me through a very difficult time. My eldest sister has diabetes and is overweight. She is a very intelligent woman, with a brain injury acquired as a baby, who tries to conceal or deny her difficulties and who is determined to live independently. When I heard that she had collapsed and been taken to hospital in a confused state, I was not surprised. For years I have avoided really close involvement with Nella as “too hard”, knowing that it would take a great deal of patience, a willingness to accept the chaos and squalor that she lives in, and sometimes being the butt of her anger.
Driving to the hospital, I found myself wailing. (Don’t worry, I’d have pulled over if I had thought it was dangerous to drive!) The breaths got deeper and longer, the grief more intense, and an image surfaced, of my hands at her throat, in love and despair, throttling her. I was horrified. It’s difficult to acknowledge this in writing not knowing who might read it: I am ashamed. But seeing the possibility of murder actually makes it less likely that I will ever hurt her. I reached rock bottom.
Somehow this shifted me: I received a grace beyond my capacity to respond to Nella. I feel like Jonah must have felt, or Jesus – not my will but yours, oh God. No I don’t believe the substitutionary atonement theology that God planned the murder of Jesus: the Roman empire and its Jewish collaborators were responsible for that. Rather, Jesus was committing to following his leading regardless of the consequences for himself.
Much as I would like to be free of it, I now accept I have a leading with respect to Nella; and that I must follow this leading until I am released from it. Now all that is not supernatural but I do think it’s a miracle.
Yesterday morning, I spent my usual hour in prayer and meditation, waiting upon the Living Reality that is God. Then the hospital phoned me to discharge her without that process of service provision being organised enough to meet Nella’s or my own needs. I drove to the hospital feeling confused and unhappy.
As I made my way into the labyrinthine buildings, I had to swerve to avoid being bumped by a man who suddenly emerged from a door. I knew him a little. “Hello Frank, I said, it’s good to see you. What brings you here?”
“I’m the chaplain here. How are you?”
“Rather distressed, actually.”
He offered to buy me a coffee. We talked and listened to each other. He said,
“Sometimes life’s a bitch”, and,
“It’s because you love her that you feel such grief”, and,
“You and her church friends need the services so that you can support her sustainably, so that you have hope.”
He rang the continuing care person who was organising the discharge, and the social worker, and then said, “Take your time, finish your coffee, I’ll go and talk to them”, and did. Now I do have hope: that we have a discharge plan that might provide most of the time, for services to ensure a basic level of nutrition, medication supervision, and a little cleaning. If it works it will free up me and her church friends to provide Nella with the social, emotional and spiritual support that she needs as much as the other.
I told Frank about my practice, and that I felt I was experiencing Paul’s statement about All things working together for good. He said, “When you do such a practice, it creates an opening for such things to happen.”
I said, “You know I feel such gratitude for life, for what is in my life, and also life’s a bitch, and both are true at the same time.” He smiled and nodded.
There was more divine guidance that day. We met significant people who I did not know before: her local hairdresser (she had collapsed in the hairdressing salon) and her pharmacist who gave me crucial information. As we walked out the back of the pharmacy, I had a light bulb moment – Ah, there’s the medical practice our mother attended, and Nella wants to change doctors. We called in and she is now on their books, she can walk there and they bulk bill. I feel such gratitude, such praise for the divine Life itself which guided my movements and my speech. I was able to contact all the services involved and still go away to Silver Wattle this morning. Alleluia.
Listening for and following Guidance like this is core Quaker practice. It is beautifully expressed in the first of our Advices and Queries – “Take heed, dear Friends to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God, whose light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”
(1) “The power of the Lord” and the chi : see “The Power: Quaking and the Rediscovery of Primitive Quakerism” by Scott Martin, Friends Journal May 2001: I’m happy to email readers a copy. See also….
(2) Robert Aitken Taking the Path of Zen 1982 North Point Press, San Francisco
(3) See http://www.experiment-with-light.org.uk/ and Rex Ambler’s books Light to Live By, Truth of the Heart: an anthology of George Fox and The Quaker Way Rediscovered all published by Quaker Books UK.
(4) I often use David Johnson A Quaker Prayer Life 2013 Inner Light Books, San Francisco. From reviews by two leading Friends: US teacher and author Doug Gwyn, and British author/outreach worker Harvey Gillman: Gwyn in Quaker History January 2014: “I commend David Johnson for his important contribution. A Quaker Prayer Life is the most complete collection of Quaker spiritual guidance available in print today.” Gillman in Friends Journal June/July 2014 compares Johnson’s work with that of Thomas Kelly, then writes: “the emphasis is a practical one: how do I learn patience; how do I cope with a sense of failure, or darkness; how do I wait when little seems to be happening? These questions really spoke to my condition… this small book elders me in the best sense.”