Oh, what a relief it is to get back to my journal! I know there are lots of things I want to write about – my family, the EU referendum and the City of Sanctuary event I went to recently, for some. But are these really what I want to explore right now? I don’t think I do. These are all ‘doings’ and what I really want to delve into are my feelings.
To be precise, this practice I’ve been following over the past two months of noticing how I am inside my body. You see, the ‘problem’ was that on the last Fooling course I was on, only a couple of months before, I recognised that I was still 90% inside my head, despite all the work I’ve done on myself. Words, words, words…all whizzing, fluttering, spiralling inside my head, exhausting.
Try as I might with my practices, and these include early morning breathing prayer, breathing exercises, journaling, walking, even playing bass guitar and singing and cooking, my head still determines my actions (or so it seems) and I am unaware of my deeper feelings. It was made worse realising that my ego had taken this moment to attack me. ‘Failure. Not good enough. Failure! Failure! Failure! You’re a failure! You’ll never be good enough at this’, it assailed me. My doughty, little friend, where have you been hiding?
I was at a low point in my life. My mum had just died and I was grieving for her. And old fears of ‘not fitting in’ with the others on the course re-emerged. My ego took full advantage. Or tried to. Thankfully, I am self-aware enough to know what it sounds like. I can set it aside, at least for a time. And I did so. I could see what it was trying to do, undermine me, so I put it in a boat and let it float away on the stream. It still gave me a scare.
At the end of the Fooling course, the tutor told us a story about a friend of hers who had just completed a daily practice spending five minutes each day for three months ‘being inside his body’. He practised it, noticing how the various parts of his body, including his head, were feeling. Be prepared for amazing results, if you persist, apparently, she told us. Oh, really? I didn’t give it much serious thought. I told myself I’d just see how long I would last, even surprised myself starting out. Just go for a few days without telling anyone… and see.
The first question was obvious. When would I find 5 minutes each day? It seems the old adage if you really want to do something, you will find the time is true (QF&P 2.32). For me, it means on waking up, often before the alarm goes off, to ask myself, well, how am I?
When, after ten days, I found I was still practising, I decided to let other people know. This matters, apparently, as also does paying a forfeit, if you miss a day, according to your means. I chose to give to unicef uk and so far owe £10 for one day’s forfeit.
So, what am I learning, as I write two months into the process? Well, I had already been practising thirty minutes of breathing prayer in the mornings (Mon-Fri, anyway) for a few years now. I was finding the alarm was going off just as I was reaching the still, calm centre and, hopefully, God. My mind immediately fills up with the daily tattle of tasks and conversations. Although I am using mantras and breathing techniques to centre down, they work as long as I stay focused on my breathing. The problem was that I all too easily lost focus. I think it is Curt Gardner, who observes In his book, God Just Is, how wonderful it is to have that first encounter with God, and how hard it is to repeat it.
I had had one insight. In centring down, I had understood I was trying to find God and let him/her in. What I discovered is that God is already here, waiting expectantly, patiently, endlessly patiently for me. What I needed to do was open up to God already present. It turns out it was me who was absent.
Would the new practice help make a difference? For five minutes each day, waking up, I ask how my various bits are feeling, starting with the head. Usually, the answer is ‘sleepy and fugged. Just waking up, what do you expect?’ An advantage, then, I thought, in quieting my little ego.
In sinking down, aiming to join head, heart and gut inside a single breathing chamber, I learn to hear my still small voice again. I call this my ‘teacher voice’. In the clatter, the ego was drowning it out. But there it was, clear, calming and wise. I’d first noticed it was there during a long distance walk over the Wolds Way in Yorkshire . I do feel this connection too during meeting for worship. While I often have this sense of togetherness, there are still enough times when I feel only shallowly present during meeting. And while this has improved as a result of my daily practices, it still comes as a surprise to learn I can still be 90% in my head and not know it! What’s so wrong about being ‘in your head’? Surely, it’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Oh, I know it’s not only my responsibility for what happens in meeting for worship. Everyone has a responsibility to be ‘present’ for us to become ‘gathered’. With time, I am learning to deal better with my ego, ‘Go to your room’! But I don’t claim to control it. It’s far too deeply buried inside feelings I cannot reach or understand.
So, what happened? I was still continuing my breathing prayer but decided to shorten it from thirty to twenty minutes to try to focus more quickly and clearly. This had an effect. I didn’t dawdle. As part of the five minute practice of waking up, I have come to see that the still small voice inside me and the chattering one are connected. Quite how or why I’m unsure but I feel one comes with the other, that you can’t have one without the other. This was insight number two for me.
Paradoxically, I wrote to a friend about my experiences of being on the Fooling course. She wrote back to me, expressing wonderment at how aware I was of my own feelings. Well, maybe I was by the end of the course but it was certainly not the case nearer the start. It feels like my regular morning breathing prayer, despite the frustrating chattering in my head, is leading to a more contemplative approach to problem solving. Two recent experiences illustrate this. On holiday this year, I volunteered along with another friend to coordinate an evening of storytelling and song. One of the ‘tellers’ came to me, saying it was impossible for her to tell both her story and perform her song in the time allotted. ‘You must feel stressed?’ she told me. I did a quick self-check. No, not really. Well, perhaps a bit but it was enjoyably hard work to organise the show. I split her two offers into first and second half and she was brilliant in both!
The second, on the same holiday, was sharing a room with four other men, sleeping in bunk beds. Over the five nights we stayed, everyone snored at one time or other but, on the last night, they all, to me, at least, snored together and in harmony. It felt peaceful. I noticed how these responses were different from previous behaviour.
Insight number three came soon after. Rather than rejecting my ego, it being no good for me, I suddenly saw it as someone or something needing love. I felt so sorry for it, I wanted to give it all my love and a big 20 second hug; the last thing my ego wanted! I began to sense the possibility of completeness with all my ‘gaps’.
The chatterbox is still here. I still have difficulties centring down, finding my attention all over the place. I have upped my breathing prayer a little to 21 or 24, 25 minutes, depending on time available. Just as I’m getting to a very deep place where God waits for me, the alarm goes. Oh, please, just one more minute!
Meanwhile, I notice something curious. The more I enquire within, the less I seem to know about what is happening inside my body. How strange! For example, how is my knee feeling? Well, how does a knee feel? At rest, tight, sore..? Do I have the words for this?
I began to wonder if it is difficult because my head is asking all the questions. Ironically, I realise I’m not in my body at all. I’m back in my head! How tricky this is! And phew, lucky for me, I spot this, else I might have got to the end of this 5 minute practice, believing it had not worked. My ego had tricked me again and I wasn’t doing the work at all.
After that, I started lower down the body rather than in my headspace during these early morning check-ins. How’s my stomach, my heart and so on, finishing with my head? I try to identify the feelings beneath the initial reply. Not just the first one. And it’s also been revealing to accept that a part of me can feel upset while another bit of me isn’t. It is difficult. I do struggle to find the words for the feelings. I’m not used to doing this, despite my headspace conga!
Sometimes, what works best is if I don’t try to find any words at all, just focus on a part of my body and breathe. Feel what happens there…I am improving with practice and trying to be honest with myself. Wait for your teacher voice to speak. That’s the one I trust. The one I can’t evade or elude.
So, with a month still to go, and who knows, maybe the rest of a lifetime’s practice ahead, I look forward with interest to noticing what’s happening in my body in the simplest way I can, by feeling, not asking. I wonder if this practice will deepen my awareness during the final month. I hope so. I feel my head needs a rest. So much energy, so many words are stuck here and whirl round and round inside with no channel towards God, who understands all things. It needs a rest so I can bring it back in, part of the whole of me.
Quite often at Woodbrooke, the Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, I walk the labyrinth. I usually wait for something to pop up for me to reflect on before entering. On my last visit, when I was on a singing course, I decided instead to wait for the question. And it wasn’t one I expected about centring down to hear my teacher voice. I know I can be self-conscious, aware of other people watching me, as I walk slowly round the path. I have watched others for a time and wonder what question they’re asking. I can flatter myself, thinking how wise I must look, how calm and how deeply spiritual. It seems to me that this is not a helpful way, if I really am trying to grow spiritually. As I walk, a still, calm voice speaks to me and tells me in reassuring tones that I really need to let go of such feelings. I become much more inwardly focused and the experience grows deepening.
For the time I spend walking, I forget about other people. It feels like I am becoming me; the ‘me’, whom God wants me to be, if only I can hear his or her voice. And time passes…I’m not sure how long I spend on the labyrinth. The usual time, I expect. Nearing the exit, I allow myself a glance across to see if anyone is watching me. No-one is. And I smiled.
Later on our course, I sang loudly, unselfconsciously, in tune and out of tune. We created wondrous melodies and horrifying screeches. I am capable of both I’m glad to say. And it was a life affirming experience, in which the negative aspect of my ego played no part. Maybe, that hug is starting to work? I need my ego.
Many of us do have spiritual practices, which we carry out during the week. Singing might be one of them! I wonder do we regard them as preparation for meeting for worship? And centring down towards a ‘gathered meeting’, how do we learn from our common and shared experience of how to practise in the manner of friends? Each generation rediscovers the way for itself, apparently. And that’s a good thing, yes? I think so. But it took me over 20 years of plugging away before I found the right path. I wouldn’t wish that for a new attender. Isn’t it all in Quaker Faith and Practice? And give David Johnson one more plug for his book, A Quaker Prayer Life. He does a very good job in bringing the practices of early friends together in a way we can use today.
Early friends learned from each other and shared their amazing experiences of gathering together in the stillness to worship, discovering how to do it. It also involved regular daily periods of prayer during the week. Perhaps, each of us needs to rediscover how to ‘pray’ before we gather in worship together on a Sunday, coming ready with heart and mind. Perhaps, like early friends, we need to share more of our experiences of ‘sinking down to the seed’. Then, we will know our strength and discover our voice.
Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.
Isaac Penington, 1661
A Quaker Prayer Life by David Johnson, Inner Light books (2013)
Quaker Voices, Volume 5 Number 6 (November 2014), p.33 for my review of David Johnson’s book
Into the Silent land by Martin Laird
Silence by Pierre Lacout
God Just is by Curt Gardner
The Worship Kit by John Lampen
With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen
Deepening the Life of the Spirit by Ginny Wall
Quaker Faith and Practice (QF&P), see prayer in index
Living Our Beliefs, An Exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers, Developed and edited by young Quakers with Graham Ralph
The Fool Story – http://www.thefoolstory.com/
Off the Map – https://weafish.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/off-the-map/
Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham, UK