I have been attending Quaker meetings over the past few months. Although I still also attend a lively evangelical church as well, I am drawn to silent contemplation as a way of worship, self-discovery and discovery of God. Perhaps in modern churches there is insufficient time put aside for silence, or maybe that is simply an expression of my preference. Many seem to find spiritual fulfillment in the popular style of worship, with modern choruses and modern instruments, clapping hands, or raising them in the air in affirmation and worship. But for me, I have often found that it does not fulfil that feeling of "otherness" that one expects from the truly sacred. I have seen such things happening at rock concerts, for example. And while people can be transported to a different place at a rock concert, for me, I want the transport experienced in contemplating the sacred to be different again from the secular. But that, of course, is my own preference - my own best method for finding God is in silence. Many might find the Quaker style of worship, with its long, long periods of people sitting in utter silence, to be too austere, or perhaps too lacking in direction. Tastes and needs differ.
During the Meeting today, only two people spoke during the entire hour, and yet, at the end, when the meeting formally ends with handshakes from the people sitting either side of you, I was taken by surprise that the end had come of an hour unusually full and fulfilling, during which I was totally awake and aware, and at no time wondering how much of the hour had passed, or tempted to glance at my watch.
The second person to speak reflected on a current theme being discussed in Meetings; sustainable living. The Quaker movement is very "green" in nature, and there had recently been some special studies on sustainable energy, and so forth, where the normal silent worship was supplemented with a prepared talk. But this person wanted to reflect more on what sustained us. No dogmatic answers were given; it could perhaps be a spiritual belief, or a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature. However Nature's beauty, it was pointed out, could seem like a mockery if one is in a bleak place, for whatever reason. So what does sustain us?
I started thinking about this, in the silence that followed. I suppose the first question to ask in thinking about this is "what is Us?", or "what is Me?" I recalled a friend of mine who suffered a prolonged period of depression, often to the point of suicide. What was clear was that she had no inner peace, and furthermore, no sense of the inner self. Indeed she once told me "When I look inside myself, I see nothing." This seems to be a common experience of people who suffer from depression. The biologist Lewis Wolpert describes this in his book "Malignant Sadness", which is partly about his own depression. It is interesting that Wolpert, who is an atheist, still finds it useful to use spiritual terminology to describe the exeperience of depression. He writes:
If we had a soul - and as a hardline materialist I do not believe we do - a useful metaphor for depression could be 'soul-loss' due to extreme sadness. The body and mind emptied of the soul lose interest in almost everything except themselves. The idea of the wandering soul is widely accepted across numerous cultures and the adjective 'empty' is viewed across most cultures as negative. The metaphor captures the way in which we experience our own existence. Our 'soul' is our inner essence, something distinctly different from the hard material world in which we live. Lose it and we are depressed, cut off, alone.
I find the passage extraordinary, in that this morning, in the quiet of the Meeting, I experienced the exact opposite - the exact thing that Wolpert says is lost during depression. As I sank further into myself, I became more aware of a "me" that was inside all the time; that my body and mind were not empty, but were in fact very full of this inner essence, this "me", which indeed is distinctly different from the hard material world. While a scientist may be able to describe what is going on in terms of electrical signals inside one's brain, that is not how we perceive it. Moreover, Wolpert recognizes, albeit only as a metaphor, that the inner essence, or "soul" is a distinctively different thing from the mind.
It occurred to me that this inner self is something that perhaps we rarely experience to the full. Instead, robot-like, we spend most of our time, and our conscious thoughts, reacting to things. We feel excitement, anger, hunger, sadness, happiness, mirth, intoxication, or we think about what we shall do next, where the next meal is coming from, and so forth. But none of this is the "me" that is buried inside all of this. When that "me" is experienced fully; when one is aware of this thing that fills us, what we feel is peace.
For those of us with religious beliefs, that peace equates to the Peace of God which passes understanding. The reason it passes understanding is because it goes beyond thought, towards just being, and being aware of oneself, as a created being. The philosopher Descartes famously said "I think, therefore I am". But I would take it further than that. "I am therefore I am" might be a more appropriate (albeit maddeningly mystical) way of putting it. And in using the phrase "I am", one is also reminded of the biblical verse Exodus 3:14, where God describes Himself: "I am that I am". And as one of the tenets of Quaker worship is to find the light of God in oneself, this seems an appropriate place to end the development of the argument.
So what sustains "us"? I don't know if I have the fullest answer (can any question be said to be answered fully?) But I do think a big part of it is that Peace is what sustains us. Anyone, believer or not can experience that peace, perhaps just by becoming more aware of the self that lies often buried under the automaton-like existence that results from the Hurly-burly of everyday life.
Having known it for what it is, I can still feel that peace as I write these words. It does indeed sustain.