This week I have been spending a few hours each evening working on a training resource to raise awareness and understanding of speech & language needs amongst school students - this is both part of my day-to-day role and my continued development of my other website. In turn, I found myself on the blog of inspirational educator Patrick Higgins Jr., stumbling across the following quote:
We learned that we needed to be present when we were home. We learned that the example we set in terms of our attention span and the gadgets that we have is of the utmost importance with our kids.
The same is true for the students we have. We wanted to make sure our students feel like they have all of us, all the time. There have been countless examples we remembered where a student wanted our attention and we just didn’t give it, or gave it with the most horrible body language.
We could see the message were sending when we were either plugged into our devices or too preoccupied with our own lives to be present in theirs, and we didn’t like it. We are consciously aware of how much they matter and that what they say has value."
(This appears to be taken from a live presentation - the video of which can be found here)
This blog post, namely the header 'be present', has stayed with me for the latter half of the week but I've not really done anything with it. I liken it to Rembrandt's philosopher - sat there patiently in the corner waiting to be heard, if only the recipient is ready and willing - and brave enough - to stop for a second and listen.
This in turn brings me to today's Quaker Meeting for Worship. I woke up early this morning, and before heading out, my wife and I decided to sit and watch another episode from the Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. At various points I found myself habitually switching attention to my mobile phone, looking up news etc., and in turn missing crucial clues from the plot. I ended up becoming quite frustrated with the story as a whole as I had lost the thread.
Having finished watching, I made my way up to the meeting house with every intention of keeping quiet and listening. Having arrived early to prepare the tea and coffee for afterwards, I had 5 minutes before the majority of Friends arrived to scan through the bookshelf, looking to see if there were any books on Quaker poetry. Instead I found a short book entitled 'Quaker Quotes' and began to read through it more or less one page at a time. There were of course many powerful quotes in there, but amongst them I came across the following which seemed to spark a light in me:
"A sudden concentration on a rainy August morning. Clusters of bright red berries, some wrinkled, some blemished, others perfect, hanging among green leaves. The experience could not have lasted more than a few seconds, but that was a moment out of time. I was caught up in what I saw: I became part of it; the berries, the leaves, the raindrops and I, were all of a piece. A moment of beauty and harmony and meaning. A moment of understanding."
The meeting by this point was only a few minutes in and I gently put the book down on the empty seat next to me, not wanting to cause a disturbance by placing it back on the bookshelf. I had come to meeting with no preconceived ideas about what it might throw up - indeed I had said to myself on the way there that I should prepare to be surprised. And in many ways this is what happened as these words took hold, and I in turn sat there becoming increasingly tuned in to the howling wind, the odd cough, the periodic discreet shuffling of Friends at either side.
During this moment, my body began to tremble rhythmically, in tune to the increasingly drum-like beat of my heart. This odd sensation occurs most meetings for me now and I have little explanation for it - maybe it genuinely is rapture, maybe it is simply a physical side-effect of sitting still and silent which could be explained away by medics, I don't know. As a side note, it is this trembling that resulted in early Friends being called Quakers, courtesy of Gervase Bennett - a Derby magistrate who prosecuted George Fox for blasphemy in 1650.
As the trembling grew more consuming, my thoughts flickered first to the experience of the last few weeks at home. My wife and I have been in lengthy, optimistic-yet-nervous discussions about our future - where we want to live, what directions we would like to take our careers to take etc. We have spent many evenings coming home and engaging in this topic. Added to many days in quiet thought, as we go about our duties in the workplace. Similarly, at work I have found myself in conversation with colleagues about career plans and organisational politics, often mainly made up of moans, doubts and fears. Today this prompted a realization that the past few weeks had not been spent in the present. Rather they have been spent in speculation and procrastination about the future, with an unhealthy measure of colluding, gossiping and griping.
From there my thoughts turned to this weekend. Yesterday, travelling from Manchester to see family in Sheffield, my wife and I's conversation had been interrupted by the sheer beauty of the wintry Derbyshire hills between these two cities. We stopped near a craft shop along the way and excitedly stepped out into the deep snow. What followed was a short-lived snowball fight turned playful wrestle. It struck me that at this moment we were fully present with one another and that this had become the standout memory of the past few days.
My thoughts then turned to the time I had spent with my family yesterday. As with all close-knit families, there are often trials and troubles that afflict one member, which in turn impacts on all members. I had been made aware just that morning that one member was having a particularly difficult time relating to their work. Yet I had been asked not to mention it on seeing them as they were wanting privacy. My natural inclination would have been to talk this through with them in an effort to help, but instead we spent a few hours simply being present with one another, chatting about trivial things, sharing something to eat and a joke or two. What struck me, as I sat there in deep contemplation today, is that this being present and fully attentive for someone - with no other distractions - was help enough.
Finally, my thoughts then briefly turned to Gautama Siddhartha, the man known as The Buddha - and how in Hermann Hesse's own retelling of his story, we see him travel from place to place in a strenuous search for Truth, only to wind up sat under a tree next to a river (which is described as smiling at him). I read this book around eight years ago and at the time felt this to be a somewhat anti-climatic, frustrating ending; Is that it? Staring at a river? I was perhaps naively looking for a more systematic, concrete explanation of Truth. However, over the years I have come to an understanding - at least to an extent - of the powerful symbolism of this scene. I just need to keep being reminded of it. Practicing being present had brought Gautama an inner peace.
The same could also be said of Jesus of Nazareth, the man known as The Messiah. It occurred to me that Jesus was someone who spent his life, or at least that which is documented by the Gospel writers, being fully present - he is said to have meditated up the mountain - being present before God, before returning to act presentfully with others. Practicing being present brought Jesus an inner peace, and crucially, enabled him to engage in 'outer peace' with those around him.
It strikes me that the common Unitarian saying, attributed originally to Thomas Jefferson, about seeking 'the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus' somehow relates to this idea of practicing being present, and of realizing God in the moment. It is a faith rested on a simple, yet nonetheless powerful, appreciation and concern for the now rather than becoming embroiled in an elaborate imagining of the past or future.
With these threads of thoughts being brought together within me, I was compelled to read the quote again - from there, the call came to rise and speak. As with other times, I tried to resist but I was eventually brought to my feet through a 'whooshing up' - the call to share the insight that had been given to me with the rest of the fellowship was too great to ignore.
From there, the ministry that followed enriched this idea of being present much further. A Friend rose to speak about a scene from The Railway Children, where one of the children becomes aware to something about to happen and runs to the station to meet her father, with her mother - fully in tune to her state - allowing her to do so. She then went on to quote Luke 4:21 in which Jesus says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” which, for me at least, points to the idea that by being in the present moment, we are thus opened and ready to receive Truth, rather than it passing us by due to our distraction. I found this related back to my experience of watching Sherlock earlier and missing the vital clues of the storyline.
After meeting, I deliberately offered to wash the cups and saucers - something Zen Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh has spoken eloquently about as being a good mindfulness practice in that rather than focusing on getting them done so we can get to dessert or a cup of tea or whatever else may come after, we instead can practice focusing on the wonder of water swirling in the wonderful things we call hands, and then use this experience to act similarly in other aspects of our lives.
"To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl.
Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.
If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment."
During washing up, a Friend approached to say she appreciated the ministry given, and that it had brought her back to Jesus's instruction to consider the lilies of the field in our worry - we must acknowledge our many blessings so far, and place trust in future blessings.
The question "What Truth do Quakers stand for? And what is Truth?" has struck me numerous times this past week. I have rolled it over in my mind (along with all the other marbles!) and even foolishly made a stop-start attempt to put my initial thoughts into words. It seems to me today offered an expansive response, though not necessarily a comprehensive answer.