A couple of times in the last year I’ve been sitting at Quaker meeting and wanted to say something. (It’s often called ‘ministering’ – the idea being that everybody at the meeting has a direct relationship with ‘God’ or the light or the spirit or whatever description works for them, and therefore everybody can minister, not just one leader). I wouldn’t say I actually quaked with the idea of it(!), but I definitely felt strangely physically alert, like I should speak, like what I was thinking about might be useful for other people to hear. I couldn’t really tell the difference, though, between that sensation and the beginnings of a panic attack (which I’ve had to get used to in the last few years as I have them pretty much every time I want to say or ask something after a seminar presentation at university) so each time, after almost standing up, I kept quiet and just stayed in the silence.
On Sunday after meeting there was a discussion about how, why and when to minister, and how to listen to other people. One thing I really liked was when one of the discussion leaders said whenever somebody stands up to speak, he prays for them. I don’t really do prayer, as such, but I like that idea, of listening lovingly, wishing them well, hoping that they manage to express themselves, that their message can fall on open ears, minds, hearts. Holding them in the light, to use the lovely Quaker phrase. It’s not something we are encouraged to do in academia, where it feels, as often as not, the aim is to listen in order to criticize or judge. It’s not something we do often in difficult relationships, either, where it feels, as often as not, the listening is tinged with existing ideas or preconceptions or blame, and the message distorted. Dialogue, learning together, discussing ideas or emotions – it could all benefit from a little less judgement and a little more listening. I’ve been trying to teach myself to read and listen critically, but something about the word itself puts me off. It sounds, somehow, ill and unhealthy. Even though the idea of ‘finding fault’ is only one meaning, it seems to infect the others. I probably need to think of it as listening questioningly. Or even better, listening openly.
So that’s a start. Before speaking, I should probably learn to take part by doing that, first. I’ve thought quite a bit about the idea of taking part. Specifically in Quaker meetings, and more generally, in gatherings, families, communities. Participating. How to best do that, how to best let other people do that. How to create spaces in which people feel valued and seen, heard, accepted. Because I find speaking in public terrifying I rarely do it these days. I can teach a class of 40 without any stress, but sharing my own opinions or experiences or beliefs with other adults? Scary as fuck. I usually don’t even manage with a small group. It often feels easier to not even try. Taking part can be terrifying. You’re not really taking, you’re giving. A part of yourself and … what if you feel stupid? What if you mess it up? What if it doesn’t come out right? What if you can tell nobody understood what you said? What if nobody says anything afterwards? What if they do?
That’s the weird thing. That impossible to avoid idea that if you say something, the whole world will change. When actually, you’re just going through a gate into a field with another gate and another and another. It’s not enough to say one thing and feel proud of your great idea. It’s not enough to be compassionate to somebody once. Each idea is just a beginning, each hug is only a hug. Each individual standing up in meeting, saying something interesting (or controversial or weird or wonderful) is just making one little step in their attempt to live in love and light.
A number of people at the discussion on Sunday said something about having to leave your ego out of it when you speak in meeting. Don’t try to intellectualize it, don’t try to question too carefully the wording. Just feel it, physically, sit there with it, see if it seems like a message for everyone. And if it does, share it. Take part, give a part of you, share. And if it doesn’t, sit with it, think about it, continue to take part in the meeting as you were before, listening with love, giving attention to the silence, sharing the space.
It sounds so simple.