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Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Quakers on how to balance inner and outer work

Last week I visited Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat centre outside Philadelphia, nestled between the gorgeous Quaker liberal arts colleges of Haverford and Swarthmore. I made a sort of mini-pilgrimage there as part of my research into the ‘mystical expats’ – Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Alan Watts, four English writers who moved to California in the 1930s and helped invent the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ demographic (which is now 25% of the US population).

Gerald Heard is the least remembered of the four, but in many ways, he was their guiding light. In the early 30s, he was a BBC science journalist, the Brian Cox of his day, who became interested in the idea of man’s social and spiritual evolution. He thought the next stage of man’s evolution would involve an exodus beyond tribal authoritarian religion – people would learn to practice and study techniques for self-transformation from a variety of religions, testing them out with empirical psychology. He called for new institutions of education – somewhere between a monastery and a college – where adults could come to study and practice these psycho-spiritual techniques, thereby sparking man’s evolution to a higher level of group consciousness.

This marriage of psychology and contemplation was very influential for Huxley and Isherwood, for the founders of Esalen (the 60s adult development college in Big Sur), and for western spirituality in general. In fact, it’s only in the last decade that contemplative science has become mainstream, and contemplative education has begun to influence university curricula. Heard’s vision is still ahead of our time.

Gerald Heard (left) and Christopher Isherwood with Swami Prabhavananda in California

During World War Two, Heard and Isherwood both spent a lot of time at Pendle Hill. Heard wrote several pamphlets for the Pendle Hill press on Quaker topics, and helped set up a Quaker journal on contemplation, called Inner Light. For a while, he thought the Quakers could be the vanguard for the next stage in western culture’s spiritual evolution. Quakers didn’t claim a monopoly on salvation – they thought all humans have an ‘inner light’ connecting them to God. They rejected ritual and priestly hierarchy; and they still practiced a rudimentary form of meditation in their silent worship. He hoped there might be a contemplative revival in the Quakers, as they absorbed insights from ancient contemplative practices and modern depth psychology.

But how would this contemplative revival fit with the Protestant focus on good works, on mission and evangelism, on social action, bearing witness to injustice, and the burning question of what to do in response to Nazi aggression? Heard and Huxley had been prominent pacifists in the UK. But in the US, with the war in full swing, both seemed to withdraw from politics and go within. Heard declared that a peaceful politics was impossible with man at his present level of evolution – humans needed to evolve to a higher stage of consciousness. Until we did the inner work, all outer work would end badly.

This is an important question for our own time. I’m part of the culture that Heard et al helped usher in – ‘spiritual but not religious’, psychologically literate, trying to do inner work while not joining any particular religion. But this path risks becoming selfish, spiritually proud, consumerist and individualist. At the same time, I’ve seen too many people who dedicate their lives to charitable or development work burning out and doing damage to themselves because they’re not taking care of their own souls. So how do we balance care of our souls with the outer work of trying to build a fairer and kinder world?

Rufus Jones

One Quaker who thought a lot on this question was Rufus Jones, who Isherwood ironically dubbed ‘the Pope of Quakerism’. Jones taught philosophy at Haverford College and often visited nearby Pendle Hill. He was a great friend of an ancestor of mine, Yorkshire Quaker John Wilhelm Rowntree. The two met in the 30s and immediately felt a spiritual affinity.

Both of them were mystically-inclined – JW Rowntree had a spiritual experience in his 30s, after being told by a doctor that he was rapidly going blind. He left the clinic, walked out into the streets of York, and suddenly felt filled with the inner light of God’s love. Jones, meanwhile, travelled across the Atlantic to visit JW Rowntree, and on the journey he woke up in his cabin and felt a sense of anguish. That was succeeded by a deep sense of peace, love and divine support. On arriving in England, he discovered his beloved son had died that night.

Jones and Rowntree felt a shared sense of mission. They wanted to reframe Quakerism as a liberal, mystical religion, an empirical spirituality flexible enough to respond to scientific and historical criticism, which recognized the value of spiritual experiences in other religious traditions. But they also wanted to show, through historical research, that this mystical Qnuaker religion was not some flaky modern innovation, but a re-connection to a deep, central tradition in Christianity.

So they embarked on a project to re-position the Quakers within this mystical tradition, thereby uniting the warring liberal and traditionalist factions of the Quakers and re-animating the movement for the sceptical and scientific 20th century. Alas, JW Rowntree died aged 37, while visiting Jones in Philadelphia. I discovered on this trip that he’s buried next to Jones in the Quaker cemetery in Haverford, a few miles from Pendle Hill. I went there and found a corner of a foreign field that is forever Yorkshire.

Jones continued the project alone, and wrote Studies in Mystical Religion and many other books and essays on mysticism. He helped to reframe the idea of mysticism for American readers, who still had the traditional Protestant suspicions of the word: mysticism was considered introvert, solitary, morbid, sectarian, and completely opposite to the American cheery, practical, civic ethos.

Jones rebranded mysticism by insisting it meant simply ‘direct first-hand fellowship with God, and the deepened life-results that emerge’. The true mystic feels a ‘marked increase in joy’ and an increase in productivity and effectiveness too: ‘Under the creative impact of their experience, they have become hundred-horse-power persons, with a unique striking force against gigantic forms of evil and with a remarkable quality of leadership’. Very American eh? The mystic as super-powered manager.

Jones is a pretty biased historian of mysticism. He rejects almost all medieval monasticism – except for the Franciscans – and prefers obscure Protestant dissenter movements like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Seekers (it’s thanks to Jones’ fascination with this 17th-century group that we got the modern term ‘seeker’ for restless spiritual searchers). He also barely discusses eastern mysticism and its attempt to overcome the illusion of this world. The true mystic, for Jones, doesn’t deny the world – they affirm it and work vigorously to improve it.

The Quakers have, of course, been incredibly effective at reforming the world. Although a tiny denomination with rarely more than a hundred thousand members, Quakers were at  the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery; they led humane reforms in asylums and prisons; they did important work in supporting the minimum wage and the introduction of the welfare state (particularly thanks to JW Rowntree’s brother, Seebohm); they have a central role in the history of adult education and adult literacy; and they’ve also played a key role in championing pacifism and non-violent resistance.

Jones found time, while teaching philosophy at Haverford College and writing histories of mysticism, to help set up the American Society of Friends Committee (ASFC), which re-settled thousands of Jewish refugees during the war – Christopher Isherwood volunteered for them and lived at Haverford for a year or so. The ASFC also helped feed a million German children after the war. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

I personally find Quaker contemplation a bit limited. To me, it’s too non-hierarchical, too non-structured. There is no sense of the structured journey through the psyche that one finds in Buddhism or medieval mysticism, nor any sense that we need guides and rituals on that journey. It’s like an orchestra where no one admits that some people play better than others, and sometimes you need teachers, a conductor and a score.

I’ve often criticized the tendency towards guru-worship in Buddhism and Hinduism. But perhaps the Quakers go too far the other way. People need help and guidance in tapping the deep well of consciousness within them. I’m not surprised that the Quaker renaissance that Heard called for didn’t happen, and that instead millions of westerners turned to Eastern practices like Vipassana, Zen, yoga, Daoism and Vajrayana Buddhism. We want to be taught by contemplative experts.

Nonetheless, the Quakers – and Rufus Jones – have an important message for us. What’s the point of all this inner work if it doesn’t make us kinder and less egocentric, if it doesn’t turn us outwards towards our fellow beings, including particularly those who are hungry, homeless, rejected, uneducated, locked up and abused? How can we combine eastern contemplative practices with Christianity’s emphasis on not accepting the world as it is, but rather trying to improve it? How do we avoid spiritual pride and the idolatry of priest-worship?

The Quakers also show us the importance of socializing your spirituality, connecting it to networks of friends and groups. It’s when our spirituality is knitted together with others into a quilt of community that we become much more effective at working to help others. As a chronic individualist, I need to remember this.

To philosophize is to learn how to die

Frank Ostaseski and Roshi Joan Halifax

Last weekend I went to a seminar on dying at the Garrison Institute. That might seem a rather Gothic weekend, but I don’t think it’s that weird. Socrates said: ‘To philosophize is to learn how to die.’ When we focus more on death, life comes into greater focus – its mystery, its poignancy, its brevity, and its purpose and value.  What things do I worry about that don’t really matter? What does matter? How should I prepare for my inevitable departure and does it matter where I go?

I’m sure you have your own theories – my working hypothesis is that the purpose of life is to realize our divine nature, over multiple lives, by learning to love more, and cling to the ego less. But am I really living according to that understanding? How often do I get lost in the ego-dream?

On a more mundane level, I also wanted to check out the Garrison Institute, because it’s the sort of neo-monastery I’d love to work for one day – a place, somewhere between a retreat and research institute, which teaches contemplative practices from several religions, and which combines practice with scientific research and critical discussion. It’s a beautiful old Catholic monastery on the banks of the Hudson river, an hour from Manhattan by train. It has a large shrine room which still feels pretty Catholic, if it wasn’t for the enormous golden Buddha at the front.

The weekend was led by Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, two well-known western Buddhists who have done a lot of work with the dying, and who are old friends. They are a funny pair – Frank is like a large, lumbering, loveable bear, Joan like a small, fierce fox.

Frank founded the Zen hospice in San Francisco, which started by helping AIDS victims in the 1990s  (sadly it just closed due to lack of donations). He now runs the Metta Institute in San Francisco, and recently released the bestseller, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully .

Joan, meanwhile, started her career as a medical anthropologist in the 1960s, studying shamanism and altered states in various indigenous communities. She then married Stanislaf Grof – the transpersonal psychologist – and conducted LSD trials with him, before becoming more interested in Buddhism and eventually becoming a Buddhist nun and founder of the Upaya Zen centre in Santa Fe. She now runs the Being with Dying project, which trains hospital and hospice staff to have a more mindful attitude to death.

She’s one of several western spiritual teachers whose interest in Eastern contemplation grew out of experimentation with psychedelics – others include Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield and Lama Tsultrim Allione. Perhaps her interest in the art of dying also grew out of her psychedelic research – she spoke of how psychedelics help prepare people for death by giving them a practice run at ego-dissolution.

There were 100 or so people there, most of whom worked in hospices in some capacity – as nurses, chaplains, volunteers or ‘death-doulas’. I gazed at them and thought ‘what beautiful, pure bodhisattvas, dedicating their lives to guiding people through death!’ What a noble sector to work in!

That was probably a bit romantic. There is always room for ego and samsara in any human activity, including hospices. The first time we paired off for an exercise, the lady I was paired with – a wonderful and very no-nonsense New York Sicilian-American nurse called Linda – launched into a long tirade about the demoralization of the sector.

It appears the hospice industry has grown very big, very fast – the number of hospices in the US grew 43% between 2006 and 2016. The sector was only launched in the 1960s, with a handful of tiny charity organisations run by highly dedicated staff. Now, it’s big business. Millions of dollars in charity funding have been poured into it, and billions of dollars in health insurance. Many new hospice providers are in the business to make money, rather than out of any spiritual or humanitarian mission, and insurance fraud is apparently a big problem.

For Linda, the main problem is the pressure to increase the number of in-patients, while keeping staff costs low. Her fellow nurses are under pressure to fill in ever more forms on a hated new IT system (ironically called EPIC). Rather than having intimate one-to-one conversations with patients about they want to die, they have to tap away furiously at their computers during and after patient meetings. Many of her colleagues have resigned because of stress and over-work. What began 60 years ago as an intimate and passionate charitable endeavour has ballooned into a large, uncaring and demoralized bureaucracy, because of its own success.

Anyway, what about the teachings? What useful ideas or practices can I share with you?

Both Frank and Roshi Joan spoke about how to face suffering without losing your mind.  Joan began by telling a story about a time she and other volunteers provided healthcare to Nepalese mountain villagers. A man walked two days to come to their clinic, carrying his four-year-old daughter, who had very serious, infected burns. The little girl was in terrible distress while her burns were being treated and Joan, while watching, almost passed out – she became so unbearably identified with the little girl. She had to recollect herself, to stop herself losing her mind in a way that was no use to anyone. She breathed, grounded herself in her body and feet, and remembered why she was there.

This reminds me of the practice one develops on psychedelics, in which one can also temporarily lose one’s mind – the antidote is also to breathe, ground oneself in your body, and remember why you’re there.

Joan talked about other ‘edge states’ where one can lose one’s mind – how empathy can tip over into empathic distress, how altruism can tip over into crazy selflessness, how integrity can tip over into moral outrage. She’s quite a fierce activist herself, so it was interesting to hear her talk about the risks of excessive moral outrage today.

She said: ‘Moral outrage is catching, like a nasty virus. It can bring down the world. When it becomes your narrative and filter, it’s degrading of the values of kindness, compassion and love…We’re being colonized by negativity through social media. We have to re-colonize ourselves, like probiotics.’ I agree – so why doesn’t she leave Twitter?

Frank, meanwhile, spoke about balancing wisdom with compassion – the two wings of spiritual practice. Compassion without wisdom can get mushy, while wisdom without compassion can be too detached. We need to balance absolute with relative compassion – relative compassion is when you really feel a person’s distress, the pain of separation and transience.

But that sort of ‘everyday compassion’ can get exhausting – ‘it needs to be sourced in absolute, boundless compassion’, and the sense that, at some level, everything is OK.  In other words, it’s helpful to be able to connect to the transcendent, to some spiritual dimension that can give you hope and courage and faith, whether that’s handing your suffering over to Jesus, or the Buddha, or whatever.

Can we use our meditation training to stay present to the other person and their needs, even when they’re feeling terror? Can we stay tuned to our own physical reactions, so we regulate and ground ourselves and don’t shut down or turn away?

The main thing I took from the weekend was that we can’t escape loss and death in this life. Our loved ones are going to die and it’s going to really, really hurt. I heard stories of how grief and bereavement tore families apart and made people so sad they got ill or even died. We can’t escape our own dying either – we’re all going down that dark tunnel, and we need to practice breathing and letting go.

At the end of the retreat, we sat in a circle and repeated four phrases to each other, over and over:

I am of the nature to grow old, I cannot escape growing old.

I am of the nature to get sick, I cannot escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die, I cannot escape death.

Everything I hold dear, and everyone that I love, are of the nature to change. I cannot escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequence of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

It was powerful to repeat these phrases over and over, and have them repeated to me, and to hear them repeated around me by others, often in tears. It was difficult, frightening. Sometimes during the weekend I found myself literally gasping for breath. I found it particularly challenging to say that I cannot escape being separated from the ones I love.

And yet I think my fear of suffering and loss has held me back in life. It’s stopped me trusting other people, it’s stopped me making commitments to others and building a life with them, because I’m frightened of losing people, failing them, or being let down by them.

We can’t escape loss and death, but we can try to bring an open and courageous heart and a clear mind to the losses and deaths that we will inevitably go through. I hope I can face life with greater courage – not the courage to become more detached, but the courage to let life batter my heart until it is tenderized.