By John Cowan
I had a marvelous time at Friends General Conference 2019 including the incident I am about to write about. In the midst of it, my most obvious feelings were feelings of interest. I may have had a little irritation, a little puzzlement, a bit of boredom.
At the beginning of the opening plenary the leader came to the microphone and announced that instead of Quaker Worship, we were going to hum together. I admit I was barely tuned in, expecting a more normal, semi-ritualistic beginning. A few selected people started harmonizing and we were off to the races. Some were quite adept at this. I tried. At about the fifteen minute mark I was waiting for this to stop. When it did not, I tuned out, tried a search for the inner voice which was definitely not talking. And then turned my screen to blank until a bit later when we came to a halt.
Short pause, and a man five benches ahead of me stood for the microphone. He addressed the front bench and requested that they never do anything like this again. I too thought that a good idea but figured others would not.
So to inform and at the same time smother a little any fires, I rose and said that I had recently heard of a study where an electrode put on a portion of the brain that does not respond to noise, lit up at silence.
The brain is listening to silence. Wow! What a breakthrough support for our listening to silence. It would also explain why I, a couple days after a very silent service, find an alteration in my approach to life. Was I shown this need in the silence?
I did tell the assembly that the scientist reporting this also reported he was at the very beginning of examining this phenomena and did not sound half as excited as I was.
When I sat down I heard the deepening in the quiet that indicates people are thinking through what this might mean. But in less than a minute we were in a flurry of people all defending this intrusion on my favorite condition. Lots of them liked humming. Much! The opposition melted. If it was there. Hardly the place or time for a fight.
Now I admit to thinking, “What do these people do during the silence that they find humming such a relief?” I realized that was unfair.
The Buddhists have things like this as standard forms of their meditation. It is called “sukha meditation.” ” Sweet meditation.” Because it feels good. The meditator focuses on a single thing and blots out everything else. All ugliness disappears as the person loses self in the candle flame, the statue, the sound.
In about a decade of hanging with Buddhists , (I even wrote a book, Taking Jesus Seriously: Buddhist Meditation for Christians, and taught from it several years.) I heard this described many times but never participated in it as a group exercise. I think some people did sukha meditation privately. But the vipassana (means “insight”) types were not drawn to it. Because it did not lead to insight. For insight they focused on the breath and paid attention to everything that came up to distract them from the breath. In the process one could not help but look at all the junk in one’s life until it faded from attention and existence. This was the hope. And it was called dukha meditation. “Dukha” is the sound of a squeaky oxcart wheel.
At the same time, and over time, the junk tended to fade from their lives. How’s that for a description of Quaker Worship? We have squeaky oxcart wheel meditation, and are the better for it. (Well not “meditation.” Since we listen to the Power, we worship as befits the small in the presence of the Awesome.)
Using the Buddhist paradigm, I can certainly see room in Quakerism for sweet moments together staring at a flame, (I light campfires,) repeating a sung mantra, or uniting as a humming group.
I would suggest that a more ample warning than we received, ample enough to allow for choice, would be useful. After the effort I have put into my sour note worship and the joy it has brought me I am not quick to discard it even momentarily for what is to me a tool intended to induce a state that I have little need for. And avoid a state I need very much. (A Hindu would say it is a non-state, but let’s leave this for next time.)