Thursday, January 6, 2011

Distractions during meeting for worship

Quaker meeting for worship may seem simple--and it is--but it can also be hard and require discipline. In the silence of meeting for worship, every minor sound can seem disruptive if we don't discipline ourselves to see distractions as opportunities for spiritual growth, as Douglas Steere suggests in his introduction to "Quaker Spirituality":

"[Some Friends] are troubled by all kinds of distractions that intrude into the silence. Some of these distractions are physical ones: noise of all kinds in this restless world we live in, a body that they find cannot still, or the entrance into meeting of some latecomer. These can often be dealt with by lifting the noises into an inward prayer: "O God, may I enter into Your Presence with all the swift movement that is in that airplane that I hear flying overhead" or "O God, I thank you that our friend who has come late has come at all, and may he be especially blessed.

"Others may suffer from far more difficult distractions: the internal ones that come from our own mental grappling with unsettled issues, with difficult decisions, with all kinds of irrelevant thoughts that tumble in. They learn in time how to deal with these by acknowledging them as parts of their own uncollected lives that of course float up to the surface of consciousness in such a moment of freedom and that demand their attention. The Jews have a suggestive hint about dealing with mental distractions by describing them as a part of ourselves that sense a blessing is about to come and appear because they want to be sure to be hallowed by it! In either of these types of distractions, Friends learn not to try to suppress them but to acknowledge their presence and abandon themselves to being open to the inward Christ, the Guide, the Renewer, even if the distractions continue to be there without."

This past week at my Meeting, an elderly woman named Dora was having trouble with her oxygen tank and the hissing sound made it difficult to focus or to hear another Friend's message.

It was an awkward moment, and it was tempting to become annoyed. Instead, I focused on my breath, and on cultivating compassion. I thought of how my mother suffered from emphysema and how painful it was for her to breathe and how I learned to feel empathy for her during this trying period. (My mother was a smoker who refused to give up cigarettes, and I had to learn how to let go of my judgmentalism and love my mother as she was, quirks and all.) Soon loving feelings arose in my heart, and I sent them in Dora's direction. Two Friends who were next to Dora began attending to the problem by calming her down and adjusting her oxygen tanks. I felt grateful for them and for another Friend's message acknowledging her appreciation of their solicitude.

As I centered down, reflecting on what had happened, and focusing on my breathing, as I often do, I began to realize in a visceral way the importance of the breath, how crucial it is for life---we can live for a month or more without food, a week without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen--so it is with the divine Spirit that the Hindus call prana, and the Hebrews called Ruah, the sacred breath of God, our true Life. We cannot live even for a second without the Divine Spirit sustaining us.

By means of these reflections, partly cultivated, partly inspired, a "distraction" became a blessing--a way to appreciate how the Divine works in every moment and in every situation, and through every person, if only we are willing to let go of our egos and be open to what our Inward Light reveals.

1 comment:

  1. I have led groups of children and groups of adults in silent prayer with these instructions: when you hear outside noises, don't try to ignore them. In fact, listen for as many sounds as you can, and see if you can incorporate some of them into your prayer.

    It is amazing how many sounds you can actually hear when you are quiet: electricity humming, cars on the street, the breathing of the person next to you, a distant airplane, etc. etc. Usually we don't even notice such sounds. It's nice to actually hear the world around you. And it's much easier to incorporate such things into your prayer than ignore them, especially if you are an easily distracted person like me. :-)