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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.

The Princess and the Pea

I’m back from a 10-day meditation retreat, at Vajrasana in sunny Suffolk. That might seem a bit of a doss, but it’s also an investment – I really want to improve my meditation practice, for my benefit and others’, and it’s ten times easier to learn on retreat than at home.  It’s like trying to light a match indoors versus trying to light it on the top of a windy hill.

Retreats are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Let me give you a short history of my failures on retreat. The first was in 2006, when I went to Optina, the famous Orthodox monastery where Dostoevsky stayed. It’s a beautiful place, full of kindly monks and pneumatic cats. I went there in Lent, rose at dawn to go to the first service, followed the black-cowled figures through the snow, prayed with them by candlelight as the icons’ faces shimmered in the gloom. It was so romantic. And then, very quickly, it was just really hard and boring. The food was terrible, the services were long and incomprehensible, plus the archimandrite kept trying to convert me to the Orthodox faith. So, after two days, I left.

In 2015, while struggling to be a Christian, I went to a Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight. I intended to go there to meditate and do some writing. I was disgusted to discover there was no wi-fi or 3G connection. The come-down from all the stimuli of city life was unbearable. I felt so bored, sad, dead even. It was meant to be a silent retreat, but the man in the room next to me Skyped his son one evening. I shouted through the wall at him to shut up. Initially I found the church services somewhat moving, although one of the monks sang flat. But after a couple of days I just found them really boring and alienating. I began to accept that I wasn’t a Christian, I was kidding myself. So, after three days, I left.

In 2016, I went on a Vipassana retreat. It was extremely hardcore – no talking, no phones, no reading or writing, no leaving the perimeter, no contact with the other sex. Just ten hours of meditation a day. I found that I became furious with the people around me – with my room-mate, who crashed around and disturbed my sleep (one night I broke the silence to call him a wanker); or with the person who meditated behind me, who had a dry mouth and was constantly swallowing. Still, I stuck it out and made some progress.

In 2017, I went on a Zen retreat in the hills of south India. I was shown my room, and immediately asked to change room, to get a better view. I then had a lovely room overlooking the central zen garden. I meditated in the dojo, hearing only the tweeting of the birds. I began to feel a sense of inner serenity. And then music started blaring from a nearby village – tinny Tamil pop on the tannoy. It played all weekend, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night.

I could not believe it. How were we meant to meditate with that racket? I started to wonder if it was an act of sonic aggression by the village, to disturb the hippy westerners in the retreat below. How dare they ruin our Zen paradise! Eventually I went to the centre’s administrator and broke the silence to ask him: ‘what’s the deal with the music?’ I expected to hear a story about a long, bitter feud with the village. But he just shrugged. ‘Oh, they’re opening a new church. They’re always playing music, sometimes all week’. No big deal apparently.

This year, I went on a London Buddhist Centre retreat in April, and there were no major annoyances – however, I fell for one of the women on the retreat. I spent much of the retreat looking out for her, smiling at her, talking to her, thinking about her. I really thought we had something going. Then I discovered on the last day she had a boyfriend, who she lived with. The whole thing had been a story I’d concocted in my head. Another wasted opportunity.

So, this month, I went on an all-male retreat instead. The first night, the oom-pah band began. My room-mate snored like a smothered hippo. Every night I was woken up two or three times, and felt knackered in the morning. I considered my options. I considered asphyxiating the room-mate. I considered leaving the retreat. Why stay under such inauspicious conditions?

And then I came to accept that the problem, at least partly, was me. I have a very spiky ego, with sharp likes and dislikes, and one of my strongest aversions is people disturbing my sleep. That’s why I live on my own, on a top-floor flat in a quiet neighbourhood. My old room-mates will testify to the fact I’d often come down, at 12.05, and say ‘hi would you mind just keeping it down?’ They all eventually left. I will often change seats on the train because a person near me is annoying me with loud talk. I am easily irritated.

Maybe this was what I had to work with – learning to accept niggles and annoyances as part of the path, rather than reasons to leave. So I stayed, and the snoring stopped annoying me after a day. Yes, sometimes I was tired, but I still made progress, and took advantage of this incredible opportunity to practice the dharma.

While on the retreat, I read Pema Chodron’s book, Start Where You Are. She writes:

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You’d just like to have a little peace. But the more you think that way, you more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside the room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door.

What she and other Buddhists try to teach is a method for ‘ventilating your prejudices’ – learning to open your heart to what you find annoying, unpleasant, difficult or painful, so that you let some fresh air into the stale room of the ego. You let other beings into the room, even when they disturb you. And when you feel joy, you share that too. Gradually, with practice, you discover a softness, an openness, a flexibility in your mind. You discover that’s your deeper nature – that spacious heart-mind – rather than the constant reality-TV drama of your ego-talk. The obstacles become the teachers, pointing you to your prejudices and aversions, helping you work with them. The snoring room-mate is actually a helpful teacher.

I realized I was like the princess in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, the Princess and Pea. She can’t quite get comfortable, no matter how many mattresses she lies upon. There’s always something niggling her and ruining her serenity. In the fairy tale, the prince takes this ‘royal sensitivity’ as proof of the princess’ pedigree, and happily marries her. Good luck with that. Can you imagine how high maintenance she will be?

So you come face to face on retreat with your ego and its deep aversions and attachments. And that can be pretty disturbing. But you can’t kick down the walls of the ego, shake it off like a sticking plaster, or just bury your irritation. Your ego is always going to be there, and you actually need it to come with you on the journey. What we can do is not immediately believe the stories our ego comes up with, and instead see if we notice a pattern to our prejudices. We can begin to soften the thick walls of our ego, with calm and humorous loving-attention, so that eventually (hopefully!) they go from steel, to concrete, to cardboard, to paper, to thin air.