Neither holding back nor holding on

Even if that's what I (or we) have been used to

Quaker Meetings have a way in which people are invited to be silent or to speak. If you go to Quaker Meetings, you might pick this up – you can read about it, of course, but it's hard to know what it really feels like, just from what people write. Experience is needed. In a different context, George Fox wrote “And this I knew experimentally”, and we understand his word ‘experimentally’ as meaning ‘from experience’. There is something that you need to experience, to know what it feels like, before really understanding the silence and the speech – called ‘ministry’ – in Quaker Meetings.

Where I've been experiencing this more than in Quaker Meetings in recent days is through Collective Presencing. (I'll call it ‘CP’ for short here.) The experience is similar enough for me to make the connection. People can hold back, or hold on, in similar ways.

This ‘hold on / hold back’ insight came to me in recent CP circles. In CP, particularly if you have no experience of circle practice, one can slip into the habits of ‘normal’ social conversation. Because this is easily done, it is good, when framing a CP session, to remind people of what we are seeking: to speak, not straight at another person, not answering directly to another person, and certainly not arguing, but to speak ‘to the middle’ and indeed, when it emerges, ‘from the middle.’ It's harder to slip into social conversation norms in Quaker Meetings, because the default is silence, and so it is easier to slip into daydreaming, individual meditation, or some other kind of being caught up in one's own thoughts. For Quakers, the idea is to speak specifically when moved to speak, not simply from one's own desire to say something, or to reply, or to add one's point of view. So, there, holding back – not speaking one's thoughts – is easy. So easy, in fact, that attenders sometimes need to be encouraged to minister, and not be held back by their own sense of unworthiness. We read in Advices and Queries № 13:

Do not assume that vocal ministry is never to be your part. Faithfulness and sincerity in speaking, even very briefly, may open the way to fuller ministry from others. When prompted to speak, wait patiently to know that the leading and the time are right, but do not let a sense of your own unworthiness hold you back.

Holding back in Collective Presencing seems rather different to me. Ria often encourages people to speak what is going on at a less superficial level. If you can say “I am triggered by this” without reacting in the way that the trigger would normally lead you to do, then you do a service for the circle. You bring something up into awareness without, say, shouting, and thus bringing up people's defences. But this is not easy, and it is easier in this sense to ‘hold back’ emotional material. It's part of our normal cultural rules of conversation: “I had better not say this, as it might upset or shock someone; or I might come across as foolish or inappropriate.” If people all hold back in that way, the conversation misses chances to get to another level – and maybe in normal life that is why so many conversations seem trivial, forgettable. No one learns anything much new, either about themselves or about others.

But if people are not holding back, won't the space become overcrowded with expression? A sense of too much speech can happen even in Quaker Meetings: occasionally someone attends Meeting with some kind of ‘mission’ or ‘message’. I've seen this happening, when someone has felt the need to ‘preach the Gospel’ to Quakers, who, in their eyes, have unfortunately fallen away from the true path. But it's uncommon. In CP it's much easier to overfill the space. If you speak from your own ego, your own reaction, in your own interests, to impress, to defend – all of those come up all too easily.

The other day, I came to see this as one kind of ‘holding on’. We ‘hold on’ to our own position, or own views, our own identity, our own interests. We ‘hold on’ to our status, so we cannot hear something spoken that is not aligned with our own position without needing to contradict, to argue the point. In CP, there is also the physical image of ‘holding on’ to the talking piece, giving myself time to think maybe of a more impressive or convincing way of saying what I've just said, or to say something that my ego says I need to squeeze in before giving up ‘my turn’. (It is a quite different, and much better thing to hold on to the talking piece that bit longer, to see if there is something else that one is still called to say, not from one's ego.)

I've experienced this for myself in Quaker Meeting, too. Maybe I've felt a genuine leading to minister, but I haven't said all that I thought I was going to say. The temptation is to keep standing, and to think how I can work that in as well, before sitting down. Helpfully against that, I have felt a distinct prompt to stop, and to sit down; and I have come to trust that prompt. ‘Quit while the going is good’ as the saying goes.

As well as the self-promoting thoughts, I also have self-effacing thoughts that relate to this matter. If I were not to hold back, then I imagine being anxious about taking up more than my fair share of the space; about not giving others a chance. If we are ‘holding on’ in a self-serving way, I'm sure that can be true – others don't get space to be heard, and may leave with frustration. This is very rarely a problem in Quaker Meetings, because there is usually so much silent, accepting, welcoming space. In the Collective Presencing session, someone asked, how can there not be space for whatever needs to be spoken from the heart, from love? That's when it came together for me: if we are not holding on, then there will be the space for us not to hold back.

Or, put it another way, the other way round. We are seeking that space, that connection, that presence, where we need neither to hold on, nor to hold back. There is work to do, sensing into that space in ourselves, and also supporting others into that space in themselves, so that we can live in that rich space, in that rich presence, connected together.

I was going to be content with that, but no. I feel this applying to journalling as well. If I don't hold on to planned ideas about what I'm going to write about, then I will have time to write what matters, from my heart, without needing to hold back. The difference is that in a good CP circle trust naturally builds, as people hold back deep things less, and that gradual disclosure is well understood to be a route towards emotional connection and presence. That's not the same in a public post. Peter Limberg of the Stoa has struggled with this as well, off an on. As I write, his most recent has him writing “I am still going to hold onto The Stoa lightly…” so there is something shared there, to do with moderation in holding on.

I am moved to make one more connection, to life in general. Just as, if one were to say everying that occurs to one to say, there would be no time to listen, similarly, life is too short to do everything that occurs to one that might be pleasant to do. Young people – including myself when I was young – seem to push this matter out of sight, perhaps on the grounds that decisions can be made later. As one ages, this is more and more obviously unrealistic. But if we see life as an opportunity to do just what is ours to do, no more – as many wise people are inclined to say – then there is the connection. The things we are called to say: say those things. The things we are called to write: write those things. The things we are called to do: do those things. Don't hold on to the image of things that we might have said, written, done. Make plans when called for, but don't hold on to plans that are no longer relevant. Let go of any defensive, self-serving identity through which you try to convince yourself that you are more worthy than others. And when that egoic identity is not tightly held, when there is no compulsion to react from the role and norms of that identity, then life becomes long enough to do those things that are called for – not called for by authority, not called for by tradition, but called for by love.

Ouch, though. How come it is so relatively easy to write these things and so difficult to practice? I (or we) have been used to holding back and holding on, not doing just what love calls for. Now, how do we get into that awareness, that consciousness, where we inwardly know what it is that we are called to say, to write, to do?

Topics: Collective Presencing; Personal development; Quaker practice

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