Unprogrammed Quaker worship is easy to mistake for meditation—an hour of silence where everyone has their eyes closed. But how are they different? We asked 5 Friends who have experience with both traditions.
Amy Ward Brimmer: So is Quaker meeting for worship the same as meditation? Is meditation practice the same as sitting in meeting for worship? The short answer is no, they’re not the same thing. Not at all. The other short answer is yes, there’s a lot of overlap. And I think both Quakers and Buddhists or meditations practitioners would appreciate that “yes and no” answer.
Is Quaker Worship Meditation?
Valerie Brown: The question about the difference and the common space between meditation and meeting for worship is a really important question and it’s something that I struggled with initially.
Doug Gwyn: The meeting for worship can be mistaken for meditation. If you bring a background or intention in meditation to it, that’s what it’ll be. But I think over time as you listen to messages coming out of the silence, you probably will begin to shift your understanding of what’s going on to something that maybe includes meditation but is also something larger than that.
Individual vs Group Experience
Amy Ward Brimmer: There’s a difference in intention between meditating and gathering for meeting for worship. While it’s true that I can meditate in a big hall with a hundred people, for the most part each of those hundred people is in their own experience of meditation.
Mark Helpmeet: I’ve seen for Zen Buddhism when you sit in meditation there, oftentimes they have you sit facing a wall. It’s explicitly not looking into the center of the group. But I find worship to be a central… it’s like there’s a prism of light that we’re all focusing together in our center. So it’s invaluable to have other people there.
Valerie Brown: This is not just disparate people that decided to show up on a Sunday morning or whatever. We’re here and we’re engaged in an act of being in the presence of something that is quite mysterious. Mystery. Sacred.
The “Point of Reference” of Quaker Worship
Doug Gwyn: The point of reference of worship is a transcendent God, the divine—or perhaps another non-theist understanding of what that transcendent reality is—but something we’re giving worth to in the basic meaning of worship, “worth-ship”.
Kevin-Douglas Olive: For me, the Spirit is my high priest, or my high priestess if you will. The Spirit is the one who guides the worship. The liturgy—the works—depend on what the Spirit wants me to do. So I come in with one intention (on a good day) and that intention is to be faithful.
Amy Ward Brimmer: We gather together as a faith community and as a faith community open our minds and hearts to receive whatever Spirit, God, the universe has for us in that intended hour of worship.
Mark Helpmeet: It’s kind of like I go through my individual experience, and I think we all do that to reach that common thing that’s in the center. A voice that we all can hear, and we’ll hear it differently and that’s fine. But in the worship, by clearing out our chatter I think what we find is a stillness that enlightens us.
Vocal Ministry in Quaker Worship
Amy Ward Brimmer: Sometimes it’s completely silent for an hour, but most of the time there is vocal ministry. And so it’s different in that way than meditation as well. So I’ll hear somebody give a message, or I’ll be moved to give a message myself.
Valerie Brown: When I first started, everytime somebody would stand up to speak I got irritated, like, “You’re interrupting my meditation here with words!” But over time I came to understand and got it a little bit that in meeting for worship, this is a practice of waiting and a receptivity as well.
So can you meditate in Quaker Worship?
Amy Ward Brimmer: I use actually a lot of my meditation skills—my mindfulness skills—to center down, to get prepared. I’ll follow my breath, I’ll feel my body, I’ll scan through my body and release where I’m holding tension as a way of saying I’m open to divine revelation.
Mark Helpmeet: Meditation can teach you—and there’s a lot of different forms of meditation—can teach you disciplines that allow you to remove your focus from where it normally sits. So there’s overlap in any case with meditation.
Kevin-Douglas Olive: Sometimes worship is work, you know? Turn. Feel. Sense. “Oh crap, there’s another thought in my head.” Turn my mind to God. Turn my mind to love. Turn my mind to that healing energy. Turn my mind to that small voice and feel the love, the growth, the creativity.
Valerie Brown: And so it does take a discipline. It’s takes a capacity to notice that the mind has wandered to Tahiti, or wherever I’m not. Here. And to, with a sense of awareness and compassion, to bring back that wandering mind, to refocus.
Amy Ward Brimmer: There are many ways to meditation but the basic Vipassana meditation is to do as little as possible, just meeting each moment, any object that arises moment-by-moment for your attention, you meet it with your attention and see what’s here. But the idea is not to connect to anything in particular, or be inspired by another being or a divine being. And so in Quaker expectant, waiting worship, there is this sense that altogether, here we are. What do you got for us today, God?